Reflecting on the Democracy Convention
The Democracy Convention held in Madison this past weekend brought several hundred people to town to discuss a dizzying variety of topics from racial justice to election integrity. Lisa Mux, a self-described liberal blogger from the heart of rightwing extremism, Waukesha County, WI, observed, “It was less Kumbaya and, in some ways, more mortal combat.” Noting the tensions arising from strong personalities and activist pissing matches (“how many times have you been arrested?”), and the star-striking presence of “living legends” like Ray McGovern, Dr. Margaret Flowers and Jerome Scott, Mux nevertheless found value in the sessions she attended.
Together with Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative and Ole Olson of Isthmus Engineering and Madison Area Worker Cooperative Network, I presented at the panel, “The Cooperative Alternative to Corporate Capitalism” as the President of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. We largely set aside the disputable notion implicit in the title that present-day capitalism comes in a variety of flavors, “corporate” being one of them, in favor of fostering discussion around the historical trajectory of democratizing workplaces, and practical strategies for building working-class power within local and regional economies.
The small room was packed with 45 people from New Jersey to California and many points in between. Participants posed well-informed questions about financing worker cooperatives and the ways in which the organizational form could be used in different socio-economic contexts. All in all it was a lively, engaged session that has spawned several offshoot conversations. The most interesting one to me involves making sure the fledgling state banking initiatives are educated about the needs and potentials of worker cooperatives.
If the tensions Mux describes were subdued at the panel I attended, they emerged more fully in the plenary session on Friday night entitled, “Reform or Revolution?” All four panelists seemed to come down on the side of Revolution, but did so from different vantage points. Jerome Scott, founding member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, challenged the conference organizers and the audience of about 250 people, overwhelmingly white and over the age of 50 and mostly men, to reflect on our practice.
“Look around this room. Can we effect a revolution with the people who are here? Do we have everyone we need in this room?” He added, “I can say this because I consider the organizers comrades. We have got to do better than this.”
Scott’s point is well taken. However, revolution does not happen at conventions; it happens on the ground and in the streets. While living legends were holding forth in hotel conference rooms downtown, community activists Alex Gillis, Yvonne Geerts and Clarissa Pearson of the Union de Trabajadores Immigrantes and south Madison neighborhood members were gathering forces at the 3rd annual Black & Latino Unity Cookout in Penn Park. Breakout sessions at this cookout involved mostly women of color and resulted in concrete plans to build alliances and reclaim public spaces.
Back on the frontlines of rightwing fanaticism in Waukesha, Lisa Mux continues to write her blog, “Waukesha Wonk” with more determination. Gaining insight from a session on social media, Mux has taken to heart the message that “we should not be afraid to alienate others with our writing, even those who are on our side politically.”
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.
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