Lessons From the U.S. Left on Taking Power Vs. Organizing on the Outside

As social movements move beyond the default anarchist sensibility that prevailed through Occupy, they must still reckon with hard questions about bureaucracy and cooptation.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In 2002, in the midst of a wave of global resistance to corporate globalization that would produce major protests at trade meetings from Seattle to Genoa to Hong Kong, a book appeared that captured much of the spirit of the period’s activism. Written by John Holloway, an Irish-born political theorist who had long made his home in Mexico, it was entitled Change the World Without Taking Power. The volume, which argued that the radical change that is so urgent cannot be brought about through the state,” made Holloway a prominent voice on the international Left. A decade later, U.S.-born anthropologist David Graeber gained a wide hearing while championing the anarchist elements of Occupy Wall Street and defending the movement’s suspicion of engaging with established political institutions. “[T]he refusal to make demands,” he wrote, was, quite self-consciously, a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the existing political order of which such demands would have to be made.”

In staking out such ground, these two thinkers took firm positions on a question of perennial concern to social movements: Should we maintain independence and function as a critical force outside of mainstream politics, or should we attempt to take hold of the levers of institutional power in order to create change?

In the period between the end of the Cold War and Occupy’s emergence in the Obama years, a pronounced anarchist disposition held sway on the Left, both in the U.S. and internationally. This was particularly true in the mass protest movements that produced some of the era’s defining confrontations. This sensibility was profoundly distrustful of the American two-party system and wary of mainstream politicians who might attempt to co-opt movement issues and energies. For thinkers such as Holloway and Graeber, the price of playing the game of insider politics was simply too high. Movements, they believed, did better to work from the outside.

Recently, however, the prevailing mood on the Left has changed — especially since the unexpectedly successful 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, who presented a vigorous challenge to Hillary Clinton while running as an open socialist in the Democratic primaries. Subsequently, interest in mounting radical drives from within the electoral system has greatly increased. In recent years, organizations ranging from Justice Democrats and People’s Action to the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America have entered electoral politics with new vigor. The dividends of this changed approach are already becoming evident with the rise of The Squad” in Congress and with a variety of high-profile wins in city and state politics throughout the country. Veteran activists who have lived through earlier periods when the Left’s political marginalization was taken for granted have noted the altered strategic orientation, as well as the reanimating spirit that has come with it.

There is certainly cause to celebrate this shift. And yet, a move toward insider politics cannot be undertaken lightly. While writers with anarchist or autonomist leanings such as Graeber and Holloway may have been unduly fearful of cooptation and overly pessimistic about the possibilities of creating change through entering the system, they also voiced some valid concerns. In fact, their critique of bureaucratic institutionalization presents a critical challenge to progressives looking to chart a path forward in the coming decade that involves entering mainstream politics. Their central warning: As much as activists may seek to transform the state, the state may succeed in transforming them instead.

Breaking out of anarchist self-isolation

The anti-statist mood that long prevailed on the Left was a logical outgrowth of the end of the Cold War. As Leo Panitch, a Canadian political scientist and prominent socialist thinker, observed in 2020, Following the demise of the communist regimes, and the collaboration of so many social-democratic parties in neoliberal, capitalist globalization, a strong anarchist sensibility emerged, quite understandably, on the radical Left, and remained influential for a considerable period of time.” This predominant mood, Panitch remarked, reflected a widespread suspicion, if not disdain, for any political strategy that involved going into the state.”

Panitch pointed to Holloway’s work as the key text that gave theoretical backing to this position. Change the World Without Taking Power expressed profound disappointment with a century of socialist failures to implement a truly transformative program through attempts to win state control. In it, Holloway argues that radicals who took up arms and established governments in the name of the people — in the Soviet bloc and beyond — may have increased levels of material security and decreased social inequities in the territories of the states they controlled, but they did little to create a self-determining society or to promote the reign of freedom[.]”

Meanwhile, reformers who pursued change through electoral avenues gradually accustomed themselves to becoming part of the political establishment. By the 1990s, many center-left parties around the world ceased pursuing socialist aims at all, instead turning towards neoliberalism and becoming partners in deregulating the market and whittling away the welfare state. As Holloway explains, most social-democratic parties have long since abandoned any pretension to be the bearers of radical social reform.”

In the end, the result has been the same: For over a hundred years,” Holloway writes, the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channeled into building the party or learning to shoot guns; for over a hundred years, the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratized and militarized, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of betraying’ the movement that put it there.”

In the U.S. context, Bill Clinton’s implementation of welfare reform,” his pursuit of corporate deregulation, and his championing of neoliberal trade deals dispelled any notion that, in the wake of the Cold War, the Democrats would reverse the advances of Reaganism. For David Graeber, Barack Obama’s subsequent failure to push radical policies was perhaps even more galling. After all, Obama was elected on a platform of change,” came to power with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and possessed a sweeping mandate to address the failures of capitalism that were laid bare by the financial crisis of 2008.

And yet, under his watch, Wall Street emerged unscathed, with its too big to fail” institutions bailed out and its political power left intact. As Graeber put it in The Democracy Project, his book about Occupy, Clearly, if progressive change was not possible through electoral means in 2008, it simply isn’t going to be possible at all. And that is exactly what very large numbers of young Americans appear to have concluded.”

To break from what they identified as this history of failure, the likes of Graeber and Holloway venerated uprisings that were playful and inventive, but not necessarily oriented toward winning control of the state. As Holloway quipped, they were more about having a party” — creating celebrations of resistance that could create cracks in the system — than about building a Party” in the organizational sense. The theorists found beacons of hope in the Zapatistas in southern Mexico and the Kurds in Rojava; they celebrated communities in El Alto, Bolivia that used popular assemblies to run the city’s water system, and workers in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who at least temporarily took over factories and other enterprises in the wake of the country’s financial crisis in 2001. Graeber identified their approach as a form of dual power” strategy, oriented toward creating liberated territories outside of the existing political, legal and economic order” and developing directly democratic alternative[s] completely separate from the government.”

Citing a similar set of examples, scholar and activist Marina Sitrin, a leading advocate of the decentralized organizing model known as horizontalism, wrote that since the 1990s, many popular movements around the world have been animated by something that I would call an anarchist spirit — a way of organizing and relating that opposes hierarchy and embraces direct democracy.” For her, this was a spirit that we should applaud and help to flourish.”

Others, however, were more skeptical. In a probing 2001 essay on Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement,” Barbara Epstein, a professor in the history of consciousness department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, acknowledged that anarchism regularly served as a too-often ignored moral compass for the Left,” bringing a focus on democracy and egalitarianism, while also integrating art and creativity into movement practice, insisting that radical politics did not have to consist of dull and repetitive marches. Yet, at the same time, she contended, its absolute hostility to the state, and its tendency to adopt a stance of moral purity, limit its usefulness as a basis for a broad movement for egalitarian social change, let alone for a transition to socialism.”

While the anarchist sensibility retained influence into the Obama era, a shift away from it became pronounced by 2016. As journalist and popular podcaster Daniel Denvir writes, Occupy, immigrant rights protests, and Black Lives Matter had energized the Left in the years prior. And yet, the idea that we might and must win state power didn’t become clear until Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic primary challenge. That run shattered the decades-long presumption that the Left would be a protest movement and not a governing force, and with it, our self-righteousness, the belief that our very marginality signaled our correctness.”

Panitch noted the international context for the change: “[R]ather suddenly,” he wrote, there seemed to be a widespread realization that you can protest until hell freezes over, but you won’t change the world that way.” Mass mobilizations in city squares in Madrid and Athens gave rise to new parties that reshaped politics in Spain and Greece. This momentum, in turn, influenced electoral insurgencies inside the U.K.’s Labor Party and the Democrats in the United States. In short order, the prospect of taking institutional power was back on the table for the Left.

In truth, in other parts of the world — notably in Latin America — this shift had begun years before. Mass protests in places such as Bolivia and Uruguay against neoliberal trade policies, austerity and privatization were much more quickly linked with rising progressive parties and electoral campaigns. Many of them emerged victorious. By 2009, left-of-center presidents had won election not only in those countries, but in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay and El Salvador as well.

Even Holloway granted that The rise of the pink’ governments in Latin America had the effect, both in the countries directly concerned and internationally, of giving a new legitimacy to state-centered attempts to bring about radical change.” For him, this was an unfortunate development. But as progressives in office pushed forward redistributionist social policies, and as they offered a plethora of rich examples to examine, many protesters were ready to take a closer look at what upstart parties might do in government — and how social movements might respond, whether collaboratively or critically.

The activist Left had experienced a taste of power, and a new generation would no longer be satisfied with romantic evocations of the Zapatistas that failed to acknowledge this changing reality.

The danger of losing radical critique and alternative vision

Left organizers may now be more enthusiastic than their predecessors of a decade or two ago about pursuing an approach to creating change that marries outside protest with inside maneuvering. But this shift does not come without its own difficulties. Even as today’s more electorally-minded activists may disagree with the strategic choices of dissidents averse to engaging in party politics or brokering compromises with policymakers, they would do well to acknowledge that thinkers like Graeber and Holloway raised problems that must still be tackled if radicals are to maintain the integrity of their movements.

Specifically, these thinkers raise three challenging points about the costs of cooperating with the system: that movements aspiring to inside influence have a track record of muting their radical vision and critique; that they over-rely on the power of official players; and that they fail to grapple with the challenge of bureaucratic cooptation.

First, Graeber and Holloway charge that by attempting to win control of mainstream institutions, movements risk losing their ability to uphold a radical vision for change.

Those who agree to engage with the system on its own terms have trouble giving full voice to the pain and disenchantment of the oppressed. For Holloway, radical politics starts with what he calls the scream” — a cry of anguish and revulsion at the injustices of dominant systems. Our scream is a refusal to accept,” he writes. A refusal to accept the inevitability of increasing inequality, misery, exploitation and violence” presented by global capitalism.

Holloway explains that the scream involves opening ourselves to profound questioning: We ask, Why is there so much inequality in the world? Why are there so many people unemployed when there are so many others who are overworked? Why is there so much hunger in a world where there is such abundance? Why are there so many children living on the streets? We attack the world with all the stubborn curiosity of a three-year-old, with the difference perhaps that our why’s are informed by rage.”

The call to be realistic and work within the constraints of status quo institutions stands in tension with the scream’s disgusted rejection of our current predicament. For hard-headed realists who follow Machiavelli in concerning themselves only with what is, not with things as we might wish them to be,” the urgent questions raised by the scream quickly become regarded as naive and utopian. When running candidates, building a political party, or working with insiders to craft winnable compromises, it becomes more difficult for movements to simply denounce the system as illegitimate. And yet, as Graeber argues, there are times when just such a rejection is warranted — when, in his words, we must declare the entire political system to be absolutely corrupt, idiotic and irrelevant to people’s actual lives, a clown show that fails even as a form of entertainment, and try to render politicians a pariah class.”

Outside dissidents — especially those of an anarchist bent — often charge that, in seeking to take control of an institution for the purposes of making it better, reformers end up legitimizing a structure that should be dismantled. For example, some prison abolitionists argue that, in seeking to run progressive district attorneys who will promote criminal justice reforms, activists end up justifying the existence of an office that is inherently repressive and ultimately part of the problem. Likewise, candidates trying to win electoral office have a difficult time convincing the public that the system itself is fundamentally corrupt. In order to compete for votes, they must accommodate themselves to unjust rules, and this acceptance — however hesitant — comes to resemble complicity. The very act of attempting to play the inside game gives credibility to the existing political establishment.

With reference to Occupy, Graeber contends that the movement’s rejection of politics as usual sent a powerful message: It is true that anarchists did … refuse to enter the political system itself, but this was on the grounds that the system itself was undemocratic — having been reduced to a system of open institutionalized bribery, backed up by coercive force,” he writes. We wanted to make that fact evident to everyone, in the United States and elsewhere. And that is what [Occupy Wall Street] did — in a way that no amount of waving policy statements could have ever done.”

The scream is not merely one of rejection and delegitimization. In giving a full-throated denunciation of injustice, it creates space for imagining something better. As Holloway writes, Our scream, then, is two-dimensional: the scream of rage that arises from present experience carries within itself a hope, a projection of possible otherness.”

In contrast, Holloway believes that those who have embraced the practicalities of insider politics and focus on controlling the mechanisms of the state end up becoming apologists for the way things are. In the name of pragmatic action, they inevitably mute their calls for true alternatives.

Overestimating the power of inside players

A second problem with engaging in party politics and focusing on gaining insider credibility is that it causes movements to overestimate the power of elected officials. The mainstream media, and consequently the American public, overwhelmingly looks at politics through a monolithic lens. It sees actors such as mayors, presidents and senators as the drivers of social change, attributing political progress to the convictions and cunning of such individuals.

In fact, elected officials are profoundly constrained by the political and economic systems that structure American democracy. Graeber argues that, at this point, bribery has become the very basis of our system of government.” While giving money to politicians as a means of controlling their votes was once illegal, Now soliciting bribes has been relabeled fundraising’ and bribery itself, lobbying,’” he writes. Banks rarely need to ask specific favors if politicians, dependent on the flow of bank money to finance their campaigns, are already allowing bank lobbyists to shape or even write the legislation that is supposed to regulate’ their banks.”

It doesn’t take an anarchist to see the validity of such criticism. No less a conservative than John McCain, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, characterized U.S. politics as a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.” Furthering the point, former Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) explained in a 60 Minutes interview, Both parties have told newly elected members of the Congress that they should spend 30 hours a week in the Republican and Democratic call centers across the street from the Congress, dialing for dollars.” Another representative, Florida Republican David Jolley, reported that incumbents were told that the only way they could retain their seats was if, in the six months before each Congressional election (held every two years), they made soliciting big-money donors a primary daily concern. Your first responsibility is to make sure you hit $18,000 a day,” Jolley said.

For his part, Holloway points out that the threat of capital flight is sufficient to discipline any politicians and parties brave enough to step out of line. “[T]he existence of the state as an institution, and also the political success of its leaders, depends on its ability to attract or retain capital within its frontiers,” he writes. That requires the state to provide the most favorable conditions possible for the profitable accumulation of capital, and this leaves no room for radical change, certainly no room for anti-capitalism.” Any government that refuses to play along faces the prospect of immediate economic crisis, spurred by fleeing investors.

From a movement perspective, the only hope of overcoming these structural impediments to change is to build up massive pressure from outside the system. In contrast to the monolithic myth, movement-building is fundamentally based on a social view of power, which highlights how collective action can shape public opinion, set the terms of public debate, and turn disenfranchised groups into organized blocs that, with luck and perseverance, can sometimes prevail against monied elites.

Of course, actions such as putting movement champions into office or working with elected officials to push forward needed policies can be part of such drives. But by shifting their focus to building up political party infrastructure, promoting campaigns by individual candidates, and working with insiders to broker compromises, movements can reinforce mainstream narratives about how electing the right public servants is the key to creating change. As dissidents gain greater access to policymakers and the trappings of officialdom, it is easy to mistake this access for genuine influence.

The more that people trying to create change focus on working through established channels, the more they tend to devalue outside agitation, the very force that allows movements to gain leverage in the first place. The more they are concerned with cultivating political relationships and accumulating insider respectability, the less likely they are to launch disruptive revolts like Occupy — which may annoy politicians and burn bridges. The more organizers encourage their base to invest faith in elected officials, the more they risk demobilization.

Critics who are wary of entering the state rightly defend the power and purpose of disruptive mobilization. Holloway acknowledges that the idea of working from both the inside and the outside might sound appealing. However, he offers a wry take on the idea that the conflicting strategies can be reconciled. He writes, In Latin America and elsewhere the argument is often heard that we need a combination of struggle from below and struggle from above, autonomist struggle and struggle through the state — as though contradictions could just be removed with good intentions.” Clearly, the theorist is doubtful.

Failing to grapple with bureaucratic cooptation

A third risk raised by critics of movements engaging with the state is that programs of social reform become ossified and degraded when co-opted into official bureaucracies — structures that inevitably seek to perpetuate themselves rather than to promote genuine liberation.

This skeptical take on dangers of bureaucratic cooptation draws from a critique famously voiced in the early 1900s by sociologist Robert Michels, who proposed that political parties and other complex institutions inevitably succumb to an Iron Law of Oligarchy.” In the words of social movement theorist Sidney Tarrow, this law holds that, over time, organizations displace their original goals, becoming wedded to routine, and ultimately accept the rules of the game of the existing system.”

Graeber expands on this point, arguing that social movements are better off nurturing vibrant, decentralized networks of mutual aid than allowing them to be incorporated into official structures. Citing precedents from as far back as the Germany of Otto von Bismarck, Graeber contends that state initiatives are often merely diluted versions of programs initially created by movements themselves, replicated in order to quell radicalism and prevent widespread unrest. Historians note that Bismarck was honest about his Machiavellian intentions to essentially purchase the sympathy of German workers by creating a state-administered system of education and social welfare benefits, much of it watered-down versions of policies that had been a part of the Socialist platform, but in every case, carefully purged of any democratic, participatory elements.” Yet Graeber observes that this move had long-lasting ramifications: When left-wing regimes did later take power,” he writes, the template had already been established, and almost invariably, they took the same top-down approach[.]”

While the modern welfare state provides needed services for many people, it too often becomes the domain of petty rules, endless paperwork and arbitrary abuses of power. Welfare offices envisioned by liberals to provide a dignified safety net for all people instead become means of regulating the poor,” in the words of scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Things get even worse when neoliberals invite for-profit businesses to wholly or partially manage the distribution of benefits — as, for example, with America’s horrifically unjust and bureaucratic healthcare system.

Why do movements challenging [the structural blindness and stupidity of bureaucratic procedures] so often end up creating bureaucracies instead?” Graeber asks. Normally, they do so as a kind of compromise. One must be realistic and not demand too much. Welfare state reforms seem more realistic than demanding a broad distribution of property; a transitional’ stage of state socialism seems more realistic than jumping immediately to giving power to democratically organized workers’ councils, and so forth.” Bureaucracies, he contends, become forms of institutionalized laziness.”

For Holloway, the state represents a form of power-over,” in which the true recognition of human dignity embodied in community networks is erased. While it might offer some material benefits to those who cooperate with its structures, the state imposes upon them a stagnant form of social relationships. For this reason, social movements should be wary indeed before giving up an oppositional stance toward state authority. Engagement with the state is never innocent of consequences: It always involves the pulling of action or organization into certain forms (leadership, representation, bureaucracy) that move against the drive to self-determination,” Holloway argues. The crushing force of institutionalization should never be underestimated, as experience in all the world has shown, time and time and time again.” 

Unfortunately, in the United States today, the Left is put in a difficult position. With the welfare state under fierce attack by the Right, at least since the time of Ronald Reagan, progressives are forced to defend government bureaucracy, while conservatives can rail against it, thereby capitalizing on populist anger at the system. As Graeber explains, The social movements of the 60s were, on the whole, left-wing inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy” — protests against the soul-sucking conformism imposed by technocrats in gray flannel suits. Today, however, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state,” even as Democrats in the mold of Bill Clinton have been complicit in privatizing public services and bringing market principles” into government.

The result,” he concludes, is a political catastrophe.”

As conservatives gut the welfare state — creating staffing shortages, insecurity among harried public workers and ever-more-strained public services — they create a tidy self-fulfilling prophecy. Even as progressives fight to hold on to crumbs, the Right’s critique of government dysfunction becomes continually more relevant.

Vying for power while channeling the scream

The exaggerated fear of co-optation evidenced in Occupy may not represent a viable solution to such problems, but today’s progressive movements, which seek to move beyond knee-jerk aversion to state power, cannot afford to dismiss these concerns altogether.

Anarchism is not the only lineage to recognize the dangers of bureaucratic co-optation. Within the socialist tradition, Austrian-French theorist André Gorz warned that even radical demands can be accommodated and sterilized by the capitalist state if given enough time. There are no anticapitalist institutions or conquests that cannot in the long run be whittled down, denatured, absorbed, and emptied of all or part of their content if the imbalance created by their initiation is not exploited by new offensives as soon as it manifests itself,” he wrote in 1967. Gorz’s solution to this was the use of transitional demands that he called non-reformist reforms” — partial wins that would not serve as ends in themselves, but as steps toward larger gains and inspiration for continued struggle.

The deployment of such reforms constitutes one form of inside-outside politics — that is, attempts to engage with the system and place movement champions in positions of institutional power, even as activists insistently maintain pressure on the system itself. While Holloway remains doubtful that such a combined offensive can be viable, Graeber is more ambivalent. Even as, in proper anarchist fashion, he advises movements to focus on creating their own alternative institutions outside of the formal mechanisms of the state, he allows that the pressure of protest may often compel government officials to step up. Speaking of the strategy of delegitimization, he writes, It’s important to stress that this does not mean abandoning hope of ameliorating conditions through the apparatus of the state. To the contrary: It serves as a challenge to the political class to demonstrate their relevance, and is often successful in inspiring them to make radical measures to ameliorate conditions they would never have otherwise considered.”

As an example, Graeber again points to movements in Argentina, which in the early 2000s emboldened the cautiously reformist government of Néstor Kirchner to take decisive action in declaring independence from the regressive policies of the International Monetary Fund and defaulting on a substantial portion of his country’s foreign debt. The ultimate effects were of untold benefit to billions of the world’s poor, and led to the strong rebound of the Argentine economy,” he explains. “[B]ut none of it would have happened were it not for the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of Argentina’s political class.”

Can movements take this process further? Can they vie for power while still channeling the scream and insistently calling out the failures of the status quo? A variety of possible means for doing so have been proposed — ranging from Gorz’s non-reformist reforms, to the model of contentious co-governance advanced by Brazil’s landless workers’ movement, to innumerable other efforts to hold politicians accountable to their grassroots bases. Today’s movements will be putting such ideas to the test, attempting to tread the narrow path between cooptation and self-imposed isolation. As they do so, the extent to which they take seriously the dangers raised by critics of the state may determine how firm they find their footing.

Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.

A version of this story first appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Momentum Training. They are co-authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books), and they can be reached via the website www​.democ​ra​cyupris​ing​.com.

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