It’s been 30 years since I went through the Special Forces Qualification Course at the age of 38–9, but it’s a pretty durable memory. Mine lasted about 63 months, and the final phase was a four-week exercise called Robin Sage. That may have changed, no idea now, but the Robin Sage scenario was that we were to train a foreign civilian force to conduct guerrilla operations. In Army-speak this type of mission — in real life — was categorized as Unconventional Warfare, or UW. The idea was that we were to train people — and training foreigners turned out to be a big part of my Special Forces period — who had little to no experience of weapons and tactics. One of the concepts we employed for UW was called “the confidence target.”
A confidence target is a relatively easy first target taken down with a relatively simple plan, under supervision, but which hopefully starts the new guerrillas’ careers with a win that bolsters their confidence for more challenging targets. Then the force can improve and grow, even with a few setbacks. With a good foundation and a success, they are less likely to break up in the face of challenges later. Like training wheels. We’ll remove them soon after. When they have a sense of their own strength and competence.
In the United States right now, with the world careening through this dangerous epoch, there is an emergent millennial left. No, not everyone on this new left are millennials — I’m certainly not — but the energy and thrust of the movement is coming from those who are under 40. This new movement is fueled by the energy (and the justified anxieties) of the young.
This brings me to the 2020 elections.
First, let’s remind ourselves that an election is not going to fix what’s wrong right now. We are on the cusp of (1) an unimaginable climate catastrophe, which backgrounds (2) an inevitable financial catastrophe, which backgrounds (3) our current political crisis wherein we are battling a neofascist thrust with most of its political force concentrated among people my age (old).
We can’t untangle these, because they are part of the same reality. An election can’t fix it; but by the same token, there is no chance of doing the things that need doing at the scale that is necessary without state power . . . and given that there is no possibility of an Olde Tyme revolution conducted by plucky rebels with some guns, the only path to state power now is through elections (not as a goal, but a gate). The geriatric sectarian left can’t grasp this, because they still believe Trotsky or some other dead revolutionary from a hundred years ago has the blueprint that fits all situations.
Second, let’s recall that elections are scheduled. Obvious, no? But the point is, a different kind of tactics is necessary for a race to the finish line . . . than in a game like Go, where one patiently moves, then sees her opponent move, then responds to that with another move . . . no timeline necessary. The larger strategic orientation of any movement of resistance right now has to be based on the latter form of flexibility and intellectual agility, with no clear end in sight . . . until it is.
We could fight this election down to the finish for the social democrats, and we could win. Even then, enormous tasks will remain in the face of this existential crisis. Reality is messy. The social democrats are barely adequate; yet they are radical in this period; and they’re the best option we have within our grasp right now. We’ll have to fight on . . . and evolve.
We could lose, even after we fight our hearts out. There are tremendous forces arrayed against us. Then we wouldn’t be pushing friendly forces further — as we are through the Sanderistias — but finding ways to defeat either a neoliberal, or worse.
We may have to take great risks . . . throwing sand in the gears of another four-year stint with the clown fascist government. It could get even worse than that, so we need to be ready. (Study tradecraft, especially non-technical means of communication!)
The election is important for electing people, but it is also valuable for shaking down and tweaking this millennial left as a fighting force. We are practicing and gathering allies for the future. The 2016 election was somewhat like that confidence target. We were doing and learning at the same time. When this began in 2016, it looked like a race to the finish line phenomenon. I didn’t and don’t see it that way.
The election is one move in the game of Go. Others didn’t see it as a football game either, where when the clock runs out, everybody packs up and leaves. They saw this as a key tactic to conquer key terrain in a larger movement, one that includes colonizing the moribund Democratic Party (understood as the conquest of terrain en route to more primary objectives).
When Sanders came within striking distance of the pre-coronated Clinton in 2016, the movement — to its credit — did not pack up and go home. They left that field and blasted into local elections, and they started making more and more connections to various on-the-ground initiatives. The Sanderistas did not lose the 2016 election, their forces advanced significantly into the Democratic Party — which has to be seen not merely as an institution, but as hostile terrain which we have to cross to arrive at primary objectives.
The millennial left gained a sense of its own power, and to its credit, it hasn’t been shaken from its sense of mission. Given that we could see the world start to cook down in less than two decades, I can’t blame them. We need that intransigent mission-focus, and the key thing this movement has accomplished — organization.
This could flip into something far more dangerous, whereupon our pre-organization for elections will have to bob, weave, and adapt to other forms of praxis. At least now, with elections as a practice that has developed experience and organization, we might pull ahead of the curve. As long as we don’t do other forms of work like we do elections.
Elections lift up public personae, people who are good at talking and writing and organizing, even cheerleading. Other forms of resistance require low visibility, subtlety, tradecraft, and tight discipline. Other forms of resistance have to thread the needle between the risks of bodily harm on the one hand and the risks of losing support out of adventurist recklessness on the other. Much higher bar than casting a vote. Far deeper set of duties and obligations. Elections wear out digital communications; other forms of struggle need to find ways to work outside the electronic Pantopticon.
Meanwhile, however, we have the 2020 elections. 2016 was a confidence target. Thank God the hardest of the hard core of the first Sanderistas didn’t listen to the patronizingly hostile media or the bitter old Trots who whined and taunted from the sidelines because “they aren’t doing it the right way . . . our way” (which hasn’t worked). Thank God they understood the 2016 elections not as the Final Game, but as the conquest of more ground along the rough terrain that is the doddering, diseased Democratic Party. Yeah, I mixed metaphors. Glass half empty, glass half full. There’s another one. The Empty crowd saw the election like a ball game. Buzzer sounds. The end. The Full crowd knew . . . we have won — not an election. We have won this new ground (and we’d be idiots to abandon that ground). And here we are again, 2019 marching into 2020. We are still gaining ground. That’s why the carpers and grousers, no offense to carp and grouse, who are tooooo revolutionary to get their hands dirty or who are tooooo afraid to let go of the pantlegs of capital, are standing along the roadside, shrinking in our rearview mirrors. (Oh, I am a metaphor machine this morning!)
The millennial left is getting stronger. As this is written — December 18, 2019 — Sanders has surged in the polls, and even the mainstream media have been forced to acknowledge the existence of the campaign.
The left is getting stronger, and if resistance makes us stronger — like weightlifting — we’ll get a hell of a lot stronger, because as we advance, capital and its allies are taking us more seriously. They will spare no expense, avoid no skullduggery, and obey no rules to stop this emergent left from contesting for political power.
The election process is our battlefield, and we will see tangible evidence at each step along the way of our strengths and deficiencies without becoming demoralized. We’ll have to fight propaganda. We’ll have to debate others with an eye to conversion. We’ll have to overcome voter suppression. We’ll have to grunt work for every vote to scratch our way forward. We’ll have to scale great walls of wealth, and we’ll have to find and infiltrate every fissure. And we’ll have to learn to deal with each other in principled ways, even the most difficult of us.
The emergent millennial left has to see this as a long game, one where the movement gains wisdom and experience along the way. One where we get stronger and more confident. The training wheels are off.
Don’t quit. Capital won’t, and it’s trying to take us all into the abyss with it.