Intel: a DSA fantasy

Practice makes perfect.

I’m a partially-lapsed member of Democratic Socialists of America. Partially-lapsed because the nearest actual chapter is an hour away by car and a world away by culture . . . then there’s that pandemic thing. That chapter is in Ann Arbor, and I live in the outback of agricultural Lenawee County on Michigan’s border with Ohio. A couple of years ago, we tried to form a chapter down here, but the handful of us who were willing to go out on the limb never really grew enough to form a chapter of twenty. Then I had some health problems, mental and physical, the Sanders campaign collapsed, and the ground shifted with COVID-19.

Meanwhile, however, DSA had another little growth spurt. The organization now has, on paper at least, around 66,000 members (5/21/20). The end of the Sanders campaign, the pandemic, and a generalizing disgust with both parties were factors in that growth. A little perspective: More people have died from COVID-19 than are currently members of DSA. The average attendance in 2019 for an NFL game was 66,151.

There was a saying back when I was in what is called the “light infantry,” ground combat soldiers who didn’t operate from armored vehicles and fought on foot. We carried our gear on our backs, but over time planners added more and more gadgets to our loads until it was not uncommon for light infantry (and special operations) soldiers to head into an operation carrying 60–100 pounds over their own body weight, and, once engaged, light infantry can face very heavy weapons. The aforementioned saying was, “Too heavy to move and too light to fight.”

DSA is in that boundary-phase. We are too small to exercise much actual power and too big to exercise much tactical agility.

Trapped in this no-man’s-land, DSA struggles with an identity crisis. What are we? What ought we to do?

There’s been no answer to these two critical questions; and these are precisely the questions around which revolve most of the internal disputes of DSA. I’m reminded of the old Talking Heads song . . . “same as it ever was.” These two questions were also at the center of the left’s sectarianism for a century; and the more marginalized and impotent left organizations have become, the more brutal their sectarian splits have been. Crises generate a great deal of frustration and malice. So far, DSA has managed to contain the various sectarian impulses, but this plurality of approaches cannot be sustained indefinitely.

DSA’s identity crisis is, I’ll argue, a consequence of putting ideology ahead of practice. This is a reversal of Marx’s counter-Hegelian materialism that has plagued the left ever since “the left” migrated from unions into universities. That is to say, Marx emphasized how ideas are formed out of practices, a reversal of Hegel’s notion that practices were the pure products of ideas.

If I’m a baker, I tend to think like a baker. I become a baker by baking; and when I then deal with other bakers, our common practice is what conforms and disciplines us. We can test our ideas by baking, and the efficacy of that practice can be measured by practical results.

DSA has no common practice, so it is forced to contend with something far less grounded — the plurality and inconsistency of 66,000 sets of ideas that will eventually self-organize into factions. Our house is built on the shifting sand of ideas and not the rock of common practice.

“Same as it ever was.”

What does unite DSA and much of the American left is magical thinking, specifically the fantasy that small formations can catalyze The Revolution, “take power,” then engineer a just society. The question again, of course, and the stumbling block, is HOW? And my answer is, you can’t. We can’t. Not now, not ever. You are too heavy to move and too light to fight.

My suggestion? Stop trying to move, and stop trying to fight. Find your natural niche. DSA is not an army. It can’t even fill a football stadium, much less organize and lead a struggle against capital. It could have an important place, though.

Who are we? Who are we not?

In 2013, the average age of a DSA member was 68 years old . . . like me. Now, after the Sanders insurgency began in 2016, the average age is 33. Based on my own local experience — I have to guess, because I have no access to membership records — that membership is somewhat more male than non-male, and substantially more white than non-white. In particular, there are comparatively very few African Americans in DSA. At the last meeting I attended in Ann Arbor, there were nearly fifty members present and not a black face in the room. There was, however, a tremendous over-representation of graduate degrees. University town, yes, but again — and this bothers me a great deal — not one single African American?! Why? I believe it’s because everyone understands how leftist formations want to “assume leadership” of movements, and black folk have more reason than most to be suspicious of outside “leaders” who lack real cultural competency.

Again, I argue that the primacy of ideological conformity over practical conformity (bakers improving their craft by seeking excellence within their own practice) is among the several causative factors for this. “You are what you do” has been replaced by “You are what you think.”

Based on “You are what you do” (certainly a more Marxian concept), DSA is a hodge-podge of small, local efforts — arrived at through painful negotiation — performed by people who have no common practice. There is no DSA common practice, therefore DSA has no real identity beyond some vague ideological commitment to a fetish called socialism. Which people delusionally think that “we” can “build.” Like a shed or a bicycle. If only it were so easy. At least, building bicycles is a practice with clear internal standards that can be objectively validated.

What DSA does have is a surfeit of very bright people, many of whom are quite good at one particular practice — research and study. Unfortunately, what many of them research and study in the service of “socialism” is high theory; which is good as far as it goes, but it flies at too high an altitude to read the actual ground. What our researchers and students are spending less time doing — far less time — is researching and studying the practical, granular details of their own environments. And this is where intelligence happens.

We are not, and never will be, an army . . . or even (God forbid!) a party. We are, potentially, however, a huge and effective intelligence operation.

Operations and intelligence

Some readers know I’m ex-military. There’s not much about the military that I liked — apart from regular paychecks and free medical care — but there were a few things I learned. One thing in particular. All operational failures are intelligence failures. In every failure, there was some form of information or analysis that was flawed.

Let’s transfer that truism to the left. Every failure of the left has been a failure of intelligence.

By intelligence here, we are using the military definition. Intelligence is organized information that relates to an adversary, which includes not only specific information about an adversary, but detailed knowledge of the conflict environment that increases the predictability of an adversary’s course of action and the efficacy of one’s own actions with regard to that adversary.

Now, let me kick over another chair by saying that “the left” is also a fetish. The struggle against capital is not one effort, but a multiverse of thousands of small, medium, and occasionally large struggles that center on one depredation or another in one place or another. We are involved in many “wars of movement,” and not one centralized “war of positions.” The struggle against capital shifts and slides. We cannot rely on strategy — as in large, centralized plans — but primarily on the tactical agility of many and variegated contra-capital struggles.

That said, let’s revise our military truism again: Every failure of every contra-capital focus is a failure of intelligence.

Capital has a vast, well-funded intelligence apparatus. They run the entire government. They collect and analyze intelligence constantly. Struggles against capital have none. We fly by the seats of our pants. And we lose. A lot.

The Sanders campaign provided a temporary but important strategic focus, and in retrospect a pretty good demographic snapshot of where voters are in the US and why. DSA at its current size was a beneficiary of that focus; but absent a national campaign with nationwide mobilization around a singular practice — voting — what’s left, as far as DSA, are 66,000 (-) unpaid, part-time organizers — mostly people under 40 with degrees, many with graduate degrees, in search of something to organize (among some, as a manipulative tool for recruitment into our vague organization).

In the kind of merger between intelligence and operations we used in the army, intelligence collection efforts were always determined by missions. Not strategies, missions. Missions are individual operations. They have a clear objective; and around that objective, intelligence considerations are pretty standard: What is our status — position, terrain, equipment, strength, capabilities, disposition? And what is the adversary’s status: position, terrain, equipment, strength, capabilities, disposition, and likely courses of action? Not what we speculate they will do based on past actions or our own theories, but what they are likely to do based on timely, detailed information. Every time you have to guess, there is a fairly good chance you will get it wrong. This is not about who has a better crystal ball. That’s egocentric bullshit. Timely, solid, detailed and contextualized information!

And intelligence is protean. It is a constant effort to standardize, aggregate, integrate, and update.

The movement’s G2

Academics — and I say this with respect to academics, many of whom are friends — are the most ill-suited organizers in the world. To start with, they are rooted by practice in academic pursuits. People who are confronting capital on the front lines (along capital frontiers) are not academics. They are generally born with skin in the game somewhere, somehow. Now, if we’re talking about graduate student unions . . . hell yeah! You have that standing. In most other things, however — no matter how well-intentioned — you are parachutists dropping in from the outside to offer “help.” And here is the crucial thing: those on the ground have already forgotten more than you’ll ever know about their own struggle. You do not have any answers for them! None! Your theories are not what they lack. You are not smarter than they are, and you have little to no standing in most cases to assume any guidance of their struggles. Their problems are not based on lack of theory (a class-biased notion of superiority).

Their struggles, however, are hampered by something with which DSA could help. They lack timely, sound, detailed intelligence. They need intelligence SUPPORT from people who know how to conduct research, gather information, and organize that information so it’s accessible and available to the real combatants.

In military organizations above the battalion level, staff components are identified by numbers. G is for “general.” G1 means personnel and administration. G2 means intelligence. G3 means operations. G4 means logistical support. G5 means public relations. To quote Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

DSA is organized into 100 chapters (as this is written). I want to propose that DSA is uniquely and fortuitously positioned to become the Movement G2. In this, as opposed to a formation that is “too heavy to move and too light to fight,” DSA could make a stunning difference in the same move that would dissolve those ceaseless sectarian squabbles about which fantasy-strategy is the best.

DSA could serve actual combatants by supporting them with high-quality intelligence delivered in an accessible way. And DSA could re-establish itself through a shared, common practice for which there are clear standards and built-in self-correction from the objective environment. The accuracy of information can be confirmed or denied, something the validity of competing theories can never accomplish.

Central bodies can function as institutional carriers of the practice, establishing and updating practice standards with an eye to developing “best practices,” and doing quality-control. Local bodies can deliberate on which struggle to support; but rather than trying to control the actions of “ground combatants,” they restrict and redirect their efforts toward the constant refinement of appropriate intelligence. This is perfectly suited to smart, politically-motivated people who have real expertise in research and study. And it is a practice — like all practices — that can be apprenticed by new members. The other thing central bodies can do is develop a degree of standardization necessary to merge all research and data and make it user-friendly available.

What might be the baseline standards for intelligence? To start with, straight vanilla data and facts. No speculation. No interpretation beyond what is present in data and facts (data and facts can be merged to examine interplay, but conclusions that cannot be established beyond a shadow of a doubt have to be prohibited). Plain language.

I’d add one from an intel unit I worked with in the army: every “intel product” (reports, etc.) has to be editorially perfect. Why do I add that? Because eventually, if such a project were to develop, the perception has to be that this is a high-quality product, a professional product, one that is unassailable and utterly reliable. The mistakes people make with that intelligence can never be traced back to the intelligence itself. When people say, I got my information from DSA, they have to know before they receive it that they are going to get the best there is.

What’s in store?

I know I’ll get push-back on this, but there it is.

Who the hell knows what’s in store? The worst cases seem more likely right now than the best. That’s why I’ll reinforce my argument, as well as I can, by noting that when struggles are forced to move from legal and open to extra-legal and increasingly covert, intelligence becomes even more crucial. The development of a real People’s G2 is an advantage for both, and a matter of life and death in the worst cases.

No matter what struggles people have engaged, they all need intelligence. It’s a constant, and a constant lack that translates into serial failures . . . right now, intelligence is a yawning void into which people pour theories from on high like aerial flame retardants on a wildfire.

If not us, then who? And when.

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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”