Democracy on the Floor
By Shemon Salam
This article is not about names, academia, or famous people. This article is
simply about a dream that we had all agreed to fight for, but now that dream
is faltering. I have woken up from my sleep, away from fantasyland where I
thought solidarity and integrity were the glue between reality and fantasy.
This article is about a dream that once was and now is being slowly buried
in the shadows of academia, stardom, and activist personalities. Will this
small dream for a better world be lost in the hallways of America's
prestigious universities, will it be left in a bin of chads during election
season in November, or will it be forgotten in the lime light of our great
I have watched my fellow progressives listen with glossy eyes to PhDs and
noble diplomats, but shun working class people with the attention span of a
toddler when they raise their voice, only because they do not have the
correct political line, or the PhD tag at the end of their names.
I have watched working class Americans disrespected and my own peers in the
movement slighted for the voice of someone who is an authority. I have
watched the confidence of many young people shot down because the American
Left is so strife with arrogance and contempt for those who do not measure
up to prescribed activist standards. The Left talks of democracy but at the
conferences a few keynote speakers set the tone and dominate the discourse.
I have seen this time and time again and have heard similar stories from
other activists at other conferences.
The lack of accountability is impeding the growth of a healthy and vibrant
Left. The Left is structured in such a way right now that certain figureheads
command considerable influence. They have a way of affecting the
political landscape that is highly undemocratic. For all the applause of a
decentralized structure of the latest anti-war movement, I believe that it
was very structured, very authoritarian, and very centralized, but with an
anarchist/ decentralized friendly veneer. Academics in general held a sway
over the movement that affected the whole political landscape of the
movement. The latest examples can be seen in the electoral drama in the last
few months by the "anybody but bush" arguments that have effected the entire
Left, but originated from a precise set of locales.
To be more precise, it emanated from the pulpit of some of America's most
prestigious universities from people who are not involved in day-to-day
organizing. These people used their positions and the movement's ambiguity
to accountability and transparency, to manipulate the movement towards the
most conservative, establishment-oriented direction possible.
More and more I hear from activists that so-and-so came to speak at some
teach-in, yet they departed no new information-just another regurgitation of
a book they wrote in the past. Don't get me wrong, historical knowledge and
analysis is important, but to be buried by it is a trap. It is especially
dangerous when it creates the dynamics where activists will not pay
attention to working people.
The last thing I want folks to do is interpret my argument for less debates,
intellectual activism, and thinking-as if everyday Americans are not capable
of any one of those skills at the highest order. What I am arguing for is
that these skills need to be developed at the street level. This can only
happen when there is respect for activists and people who do not hold
degrees from universities, but have taken the time to do research themselves
or speak from life experiences. Most importantly historical analysis needs
to be applied to the problems people face today. History cannot be confined
to a conference or a classroom, but needs to be used to help us create a
This is as much of a personal letter to the Left as it is a critique of some
of the most serious flaws in the movement right now. I am not going to throw
away my life trying to organize America's intellectuals. I want to dedicate
my live organizing America's poor people, people of color, S. Asians,
Muslims, and LBGT communities. I do not want to get involved in the academic
world of prostituting my ideas.
It seems the Left is more interested in organizing the handful of radicals
into their sectarian groups instead of organizing the millions of Americans
that are crushed under capitalism. It seems the Left's strategy is entirely
aimed at organizing people who are in the know-a part of some cliquish
progressive community. Reality check-a few thousand radicals will not make
or break this country, especially ones that fawn over every word from
"activists" in Harvard, MIT, Berkeley; and in the meantime the working class
people who have something to say are told to get in line for the ten minute
Q&A.; Well here is another reality check, working class people, people of
color, women, and LBGT deserve a little more than ten minutes of pity time.
Instead of these conferences with undemocratic structures, why not setup
conferences that still allow for these professors, intellectuals, and
theoreticians to participate but us equals instead of Gods. Why can't they
raise their hand and share their ideas like everyone else? Why can't they
wait patiently to speak? Most importantly why can't they learn to listen and
respect the ideas of everyday Americans?
The defining difference between the struggle of the future and the struggles
of the past is the level of democracy and empowerment people will find. But
the Left has created a different world where holding a doctorate has become
a prerequisite to speak on the floor. The average working person has little
chance of being confident to the many degree-holders of this subject and that
subject. Conference after conference has keynote speakers with an audience
passively sitting and listening instead of thinking and communicating.
The Left does not value the voices of moms, dads, young people, workers, or
the unemployed. The Left has the rhetoric of being for all people, but in
reality is a clique for the elite and educated who have carved another world
At conferences, the sterility of academia dominates the environment.
Conferences must reflect the nightmares and horrors of the world and at the
same time the brightest and most beautiful dreams of humanity. They cannot
be the jargon and paintings of academia. Conferences need to draw in
horrible experiences that people have experienced and the few joyous moments
that people find in this world. Conferences need to reconcile the death of
mothers, the hunger of children, the poverty in our lives, with the
celebrations of birthdays, the joys of birth, and the happiness of our own
private moments. These moments cannot be provided from a classroom or a
book, but only from real people who have experienced them.
You do not need a doctorate to experience real human emotions and to
understand how capitalism has affected your life. You do not need to have a
PhD to organize a protest or figure out your means of liberation, nor do you
need someone who holds a title to tell you how to do what you already know.
Conferences need to be a place where people on the bottom can communicate
with one another, in structured environments, and in informal settings. Being
lectured at is something everyone experiences whether watching TV, being at
school, or being at work in front of the boss. But communicating and
participating in the creation of our future, in local and global
communities, is something that millions of people are left out of.
So far the Left has recreated the same capitalist dynamics that millions of
people experience at their workplaces, schools, on the street, and when they
watch TV. Will the Left accept some of its own weaknesses and be willing to
I don't know if this article will ever be printed any "leftist" journal.
Like the corporate media the Left has its own set of filters and its
institutions that it needs to protect. It has its own hierarchy based on
intellectual gigantism that needs to be sheltered from the harsh criticisms
from the street. Either way, if the Left never publishes this article, I
will know I was onto something, but if they do, many more people will be
introduced to some of the glaring contradictions of the Left.
I remember being told by a revolutionary not to voice my criticism of the
Left. I bit my tongue as this revolutionary told me that I am a little
person and that the world is a big stage for little people like me. Looking
back on that advice, I am filled with anger. Who is supposed to raise their
voice? What type of democracy are we trying to build? What are we trying to
build? It took me a while to figure it out. When I get my PhD, then it will
be acceptable to raise my voice, in effect drowning out the next generation'
s demands and opinions. Thanks but no thanks. No more!!
I chose not to name individuals in an effort to keep the focus on a method
of organizing and a status quo that maintains their influential position
behind a curtain of decentralization and democracy, which is a lie. More so,
the lie is a method of control, in effect a way to keep thinking to a
minimum, a tactic that the ruling classes use all the time. This critique is
an attack on a set of institutions, beliefs, structures, and practices that
no one individual is the summation of.
The movement has hidden behind a shroud of rhetoric such as decentralization
when in fact some of the most important ideas are set forth in a highly
centralized manner. As a revolutionary, I am highly critical of such
practices, not only for its authoritarianism and centralization, but its
dishonest practice of democracy and decentralization.
The current problems highlight the biggest problems anti-authoritarians face
today, which is accountability and transparency. "Leaders" are ambiguous in
decentralized structures which creates a problem of accountability. If we
are going to have leaders in the movement, lets recognize it, instead of
deceiving ourselves, lets have some accountability in the movement, or the
alternative; lets actually practice democracy not just on paper, but on the
street and in our interactions.
Shemon Salam, 22, attends Wayne State University, and is part of the League for Direct Democracy and a member of
Students Movement for Justice - Wayne State University. He can be reached here.