Social Democrat to Democratic Socialist

2018 Counter Protest to the “Unite the Right” Rally in Boston, Mass

Like all good millennials, I was all about Obama. After all, the George W. Bush years were literally a coming of age experience for me. By necessity, those years were also my time growing political and economic awareness.

Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart made it abundantly clear Obama was not George W. Bush and crony Republicans – and if that was enough for them then well damn that was enough for me. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if there isn’t something I love more it’s a good rivalry! I was on the other team, I was the opposition, I was a loud and proud Young Democrat!

In addition to the historical identity politics at play, Obama made some ambitious promises: some that were achieved, many that were watered down, and some that were never achieved. To this day, I wrestle with the idea that perhaps Obama was more progressive than the position and the party would allow him to be, and he was ultimately molded by the machine once he secured the seat. It was easy to get swept up into the “Hope”. Maybe he did deliver hope, but substantial meaningful change?

The years dragged on learning and living in the real world, no longer a bright eyed and bushy tailed college freshman. The hard truths of our system compounded with month after month of disappointment with my liberal hero and the team he was batting for began to reveal patterns to me. Ramped up deportations, growing the military industrial complex, growing income inequality, and inexcusable missed opportunities coupled with watered down legislation influenced by the extreme right and monied interests.

As I observed, became a part of, and struggled to understand the gross inequity of our national and global environment it became more and more clear that underserved, the underrepresented wasn’t best served by a party so beholden to all of the status quos. Life is never going to be quite easy, but I understood that it doesn’t have to be so hard.

I took macroeconomics, I took microeconomics, and more and more there was clarity to the common thread, the bedrock of all those status quos: Capitalism.

In my courses, we didn’t talk about alternatives to how this economic system was organized, and we didn’t talk about any sort of social implications that were caused by the system that we were learning about. This is how it was, this is how it works, and this is how it will be. Your quiz is on Thursday.

Thinking back to all that “Hope”, the Democrats didn’t seem to ever really address this fundamental flaw for all of the ails they identified.

I picked up things here and there. I learned about profit sharing, I saw the Market Basket strikes rock my local community – I saw the passion people had when they felt connected with a meaningful employment and its place within their community. I learned more about the power of organizing with unions and the equity of worker cooperatives. Those were now, but what could be in the future? Socialism.

Something that scares people when you talk about socialism, this idea that it has to be one way. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Like a good American, one of my vices is that I really enjoy the process that goes into making a purchase – I really like a well-made product. The research that goes into picking up a meaningful item in your life is something that I’m drawn to. There’s this idea that socialism eliminates choice and market economies – which simply isn’t true, or at least it doesn’t have to be.

With this knowledge, I think about what could be for the future, I officially joined the DSA. I dived into learning about libertarian socialist theories of mutualism and syndicalism. I joined the libertarian socialist caucus.

And while it was all fun to think about, I came back to reality with the last election cycle.

Passive disgust with a failed political and economic system isn’t enough.
Armchair social media slacktivism isn’t enough.
Paying dues isn’t enough.

We need observable, measurable actions.

History shows us that we have to be active in meaningful ways if there is to be the change. We have to be organized, we have to be equitable, and we have to show up – and that is what socialism means to me. I don’t know what the socialism we are building will look like at some hypothetical endpoint, I am just one voice.

But there’s so much work to be done between here and there. Turn on the news, you’ll see – the Democratic Socialists of America are doing the work- and I’m proud as hell to say that I am a part of it.

Corey Butler

2018 Executive Committee, At-Large

Every month, we ask a member to share their story of what Democratic Socialism means to them. If you’re interested in telling yours, please email the chair.

This is a Rescue Mission

by Todd Blanchette

What is democratic socialism to me? I could go a number of directions with this. I could explain that democratic socialism is my blue-collar, pro-union Pépère who struggled as a train station worker his whole life. Or that it seeped into my consciousness from my mom, an educator whose union fought so her family could enjoy health and dental benefits. But the clearest meaning of what socialism means to me comes from my father.

My dad worked as a photographer for the Bangor Daily News starting in 1977. He was a good employee and didn’t complain that he got Sundays and Tuesdays off, instead of a normal weekend, which meant he only got one actual full day per week with us, his sons, during the school year, and rarely, if ever, got two days off in a row.

In 1992, my father joined the movement to unionize Bangor Daily News employees under the Newspaper Guild, part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). He got involved in the organizing efforts and did his best to convince people of the benefits that would come from the collective strength of a union. It came to a vote and, though close, the vote failed. In 1995 he took part in a second ill-fated attempt to unionize the paper. This attempt didn’t even get to a vote before falling apart. One year and one day later management let my father go. They could do this without cause, because there was no contract protecting BDN employees.

I witnessed my father, once a solid Democrat, suddenly come face-to-face with the reality that he might not be able to provide for his wife and three sons as well as he wished. He was, and remains, a man instilled with a strong sense of paternal duty. Being without a job caused him a great deal of shame and insecurity. But he swallowed his pride and took a late night job at a call center.

Over the next year or so his anger, and our debt, started to grow. His anger was mostly expressed through verbal outbursts over the smallest perceived infractions, with the rare slap upside the head for whatever annoyance might catch his eye. Then, in 1998, fumbling to regain a sense of control over his life again, he started a  small business fashioning Windsor chairs in our basement and selling them on the burgeoning new internet. He slowly turned from Democrat to avowed Republican, listening to Rush Limbaugh while, covered in sawdust, he toiled in his dim workshop, becoming more vehement in his hatred of Bill Clinton and the terrible liberals for perceived infringements upon his rights and dreams as a business owner.

His income hovered between the red and black, and our family’s economic security could rarely be predicted for more than a couple months at a time.We could never play hockey because the equipment was too much money. If we wanted to learn music, we had to settle for sharing one trumpet between the three of us, with no budget for us to choose a different instrument. We all had to forego the popular name-brand clothes our friends had. All three of us attended state university because of the tuition deal my mother received as an educator in the system. If not for that, I don’t know how, or if, we could have afforded the decent college education we were lucky to receive.

I began to resent my father. His anger disturbed me, his close-mindedness bothered me, and his income insecurity led my brothers and I to feel like we missed out on opportunities our friends were getting. And, all along, I felt like our struggles were my parents’ fault. In my immaturity I took all of this to mean that they were out of touch with what I wanted.

It was in high school, and again in college, that I started reading Marx, then Gramsci, then Marcuse and Lukacs. I started to see the injustices of the capitalist system reflected in my father’s trajectory. I had always been upset at my dad. A quick-tempered conservative filled with subtle racism and homophobia; a man who made sexist jokes at dinner and had taken up a false class consciousness, identifying with the capitalist class, unable to see how he was its casualty. It became easy for me to dislike him.

It has only been in the last ten years or so that my understanding of socialism and socialist theories has evolved, and with that evolution my dad has stopped appearing to me as the cold, angry, uncaring man I had seen him as since I was a teen. When I actually tried to understand his choices, I saw him for who he was: a person who had been lied to and manipulated. A person who had devoted his career to a private system that would betray him simply because he had dared ask that he and his coworkers be treated better. A man who wrapped himself in the myth of the nuclear family and chauvinism, not consciously, but because that’s what American media and education had taught him to believe. Underneath all the bursts of anger, what drove my father all along was a desperate concern for his family. Underneath this union supporter-turned ultra-conservative lay a fragile human doing what he thought was necessary to see a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, oil in our furnace, and healthcare when we ailed.

I see my father in lots of struggling, working people today. People who harbor angry or racist or sexist thoughts not because they’re inherently bad people, but because they’re afraid. Afraid for the social standing and stability of their families and themselves. Afraid because they live under a sprawling economic system that encourages a dog-eat-dog mentality and says that if you’re not rich, it’s your fault and you’re the failure.

Todd Blanchette with his family.

I don’t dislike my father anymore; and every day I try to remind myself that I don’t dislike these other misled people, either. I love them. I love my dad. And I’m involved with DSA in the hope that some day, working together toward a more just, classless society, we can help people shed their false consciousness, their economic insecurity and hate, so they can reclaim their lives. This is a rescue mission motivated by love and understanding.

That’s what democratic socialism means to me.

Every month, we ask a member to share their story of what Democratic Socialism means to them. If you’re interested in telling yours, please email the chair.

My Socialist Roots

By Ken Bailey

My parents were children of the Great Depression, living on government cheese and powdered eggs. Dad was a WWII vet who worked in the Post Office. Mom was a nurse who started as a Nurse’s Aide and went to night school at Bellevue Hospital in New York City to complete her R.N. degree. Dad was a rank and file member of the fledgling U.S. Postal Workers Union, and Mom worked with the Hospital Workers Union in the early 1960’s. In my neighborhood, the Pullman Porters Union had three members within a block of my house. They voted for Democrats, except when they voted for Eisenhower in 1952.

It was the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War which made me see the necessity of an alternative to the Democratic Party. People like W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the NAACP, and A. Philip Randolph, President of the Pullman Porters Union, were Socialist. And I read about Eugene Debs in college. They convinced me that the Democrats were too compromised to advance the country.

Ken Baily speaks at an anti-war demonstration in Columbus Ohio, 1970

I learned about the Veteran Bonus Marchers of the 1930’s and how they were beaten by soldiers and trampled by mounted police. The Republic Steel Strike Massacre of 1937: 10 dead, 30 wounded by police gunfire, all white. The Civil Rights workers, killed in the 1960’s: black and white comrades, martyrs for a better America. It became clear to me that the working class, white and black, had the same class enemy.

We have to unite – whether it’s at the border in Texas, at the Keystone Pipeline, around women’s choice, gay rights, or Black Lives Matter. It is the same corporate forces aligned against our interests.

I want to leave you with a quote from a fallen comrade named Fred Hampton, Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who was murdered by the Chicago police:

“You don’t fight fire with fire. You fight fire with water…We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We’re gonna fight capitalism with socialism. Socialism is the people. If you’re afraid of socialism, you’re afraid of yourself.”

Every month, we ask a member to share their story of what Democratic Socialism means to them. If you’re interested in telling yours, please email the chair.

 

Democratic Socialism is Love

By Jon Torsch

My name is Jon, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I’m an engineer, atheist, millennial, cat-dad, and democratic socialist. There, the labels are out there.

Every month, when the Southern Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America meets, we reserve a few minutes for a member to speak on what democratic socialism is to them. This may not be expected from an engineer, but at the risk of rolling eyes, the short answer for me is that democratic socialism is love. For the longer answer, I’ll give you some backstory on who I am and how I came to that conclusion. I’m from central Maine, which is both relatively conservative and very working class.

My father was a mechanic and my mother worked in customer service. Neither are well-paying jobs, and so my family struggled economically. In addition, in my family I’ve borne witness to struggles with addiction, sectarian evangelism, and a misdiagnosis that led to untreated cancer. As a child in primary school, I was both an advanced learner and vehemently (and actively) anti-authority, neither of which my public schools were prepared to handle. This led to truancy, suspensions, and almost failing out. When I applied to the University of Maine in my senior year of high school, I was rejected.

I dove fully into working multiple part-time jobs. I bounced back and forth between them, cumulatively working sixty hours a week, all on low wages with no benefits to fall back on. I eventually landed a management position with Blockbuster, but then a few years later they went bankrupt and I found myself laid off in my early twenties.

That’s a cliff-notes version, but these experiences all have direct ties to the issues that we discuss and assemble action around in our chapter and in our organization: unlivable wages, poor medical treatment, a lack of acceptance and treatment around addiction, under-funded and archaically structured public education, inherited poverty on a mass scale, and a lack of true labor protections. There a lot of parallels, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my chapter, my city, or my state in having lived through them.

Now I can’t earnestly insist that it was all bad. I started taking college classes a few weeks after the layoff and went on to get my A.A.S. in Electrical and Automation Technology at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and my B.S. in Electrical Engineering Technology at the University of Maine in Orono. I volunteer at my alma maters and at public STEM events, and I’ll tell anyone who will listen that my proudest accomplishment to date is having completed all of that with a 4.0 GPA.

But in telling that story, I make it clear that I don’t point to that as validation of self. To me, that success represents that even kids from homes with addiction, poverty, medical calamity, and other struggles have invaluable potential, the obstacles to which are primarily set by a society that allows capitalism to take root.

Capitalism retrenches funding for public education, rerouting it to privatized education. Capitalism spikes health care costs so that affordable care isn’t quality and quality care isn’t affordable. Capitalism diminishes the quality of life of the working class by stagnating wages down to unlivable swarf. Capitalism fights unions, guaranteed benefits, and other worker protections with no concern for humanity. The do all of these things for one reason and one reason only: Profit.

I realized that in life, these weren’t hardships that I was facing by chance, luck, or omen. These are all features of a capitalist economy that seeks to infinitely increase profit with finite resources, and they’re exacerbated by a government that at worst props that system up and at best thinks it can be “reformed.”

It’s just self-preservation to identify the blockades put in one’s own path. It’s something else entirely to break those blockades down.

That’s what Democratic Socialism is. Breaking down those barriers and replacing these capitalist “features” in with equitable, shared solutions that provide for all members of society. What do you call investing yourself in ensuring that others reach their fullest potential and happiness? I cannot honestly think of a better word than love.

Every month, we ask a member to share their story of what Democratic Socialism means to them. If you’re interested in telling yours, please email the chair.

The Roots of the Labor Movement Run Deep in Maine

By Mike Desjardins

Note: This post is reblogged from https://medium.com/@mdesjardins/what-democratic-socialism-means-to-me-f361ea98138b

In the late 1800’s, a young man named Adolphe was looking for work in his hometown of Lévis, across the river from Québec City. The economy in that area in that time wasn’t particularly favorable. To find work, he resorted to what many of his fellow French Canadians did, and followed the railroad tracks into New England to work in the burgeoning manufacturing industries.

                       Adolphe Desjardins 

Adolphe ended up working in several different factories and mills, and eventually ended up at a paper mill owned by 19th century industrialist, Hugh Chisolm. Chisolm had built a small army of paper mills in the northeastern United States, and would eventually go on to co-found International Paper Co.

In the summer of 1942, at 60 years old, Adolphe was scheduled to take his very first vacation. At that point, he was working as an assistant to the mill manager — in those days, this was called a “retirement job” because the back-breaking work of papermaking gets to be pretty difficult after forty years. He went down to the basement of the mill where trucks would unload materials for the mill. While he was there, Adolphe was accidentally hit by one of the trucks.

Things did not look good for Adolphe, so they called the local priest to administer last rights (it was, after all, a Catholic town). The priest couldn’t drive, so one of the priest’s young assistants drove him down to the mill for the somber ritual. When they arrived, to his horror, the assistant said “this man is my father.”

That assistant was my grandfather, Clement Desjardins. After serving our country stateside in World War II (his two older brothers were already overseas), he came home and married his sweetheart, Lucille. During those days in Jay, the Irish worked in the shoe shops, the Italians worked in the quarry, so my grandfather fulfilled his fate and did what all the French Canadians in Jay did; he went to work in the mill — the same mill that killed his father.

Clement worked at the paper mill until he retired in his sixties. He and Lucille had six children, and today Clement lives at a nursing home in Lewiston. His oldest son, Dennis, is my father. Dennis graduated from Jay High School, and went to CMVTI to get his master electricians’ license. He worked as an electrician for several years before International Paper built a newer, larger mill a few miles up the river from the old one. They were hiring. The great pay of those union jobs was alluring, and my father ended up working in the paper mill a few years after I was born — the same mill that killed his grandfather.

My dad, Dennis, with his father Clement Desjardins

While my dad worked shift-work and the occasional sixteen hour shift, my mother attended night school at the University of Maine at Farmington, and eventually became a public school teacher. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them, especially given that I wasn’t the easiest kid to raise. Today I’d probably get treatment for ADHD, but back then I was just a pain in the ass.

In 1987, I was 12 years old. Ronald Reagan was President. The prevailing wisdom was that labor unions were an anachronistic weight on our economy, and President Reagan demonstrated how to deal with them when he summarily fired the all of the nation’s air traffic controllers five years prior. The union’s contract at International Paper’s Androscoggin Mill was up for renegotiation. After boasting literally record profits, the company demanded eye-popping concessions from the union. There was never any intention to negotiate, it was a bald-faced attempt to break the union.

The strike started in June. Every night our town was featured on the six o’clock news, interrupted by public relations commercials from International Paper, telling “their side of the story,” and how great the greedy union workers had things.

Often the news was an update on the farcical negotiations, but sometimes it got more interesting; one time a “scab” claimed his house was shot at (if I remember correctly, it was later determined that he shot at his own home). Another story was about a high school protest and walk-out by the union kids, upset that they couldn’t wear strike-related clothing while their scab-kid counterparts wore clothes with International Paper logos. One of the biggest stories was when Jesse Jackson came to town to give a presidential campaign speech in the municipal building — Mr. Jackson was the first presidential candidate I heard speak while the crowd chanted “scabs out, union in!”

(For those who are unfamiliar with strike parlance — a “scab” is someone who crosses the picket line and returns to work. A “super scab” is a former union member who goes back to work)

Let me tell you, you don’t grow up in your formative years in that environment, and come out of it a capitalist.

Picketers from UPIU Local 14 during the Androscoggin Mill strike

The strike technically ended, a little over a year later. The union had effectively lost. The United Paperworkers International Union’s support for the locals who were fighting International Paper became tepid. But after the strike, the town of Jay wasn’t quite the same. Union members were hired back by attrition, and it took many years for them to be called back — many reached retirement age before getting their call. International Paper sold the mill to a private equity firm about ten years ago, and the machines that have not been shuttered are run by non-union workers.

I went to an engineering college in Massachusetts, but settled back in Maine to raise a family. My job today is cushy. I work in at home, in my pajamas, writing software. I am paid well, probably more than I deserve. My job doesn’t make me sweat, or make my muscles sore in the morning, or require me to work weird shifts. I don’t worry about my safety. A lot of that is because my parents made damned sure I stayed the hell away from that paper mill.

I think there are two things that have drawn me to democratic socialism. The first is a steadfast refusal to accept economic injustice and inequality. This is a personal passion that was ignited I grew up during the strike. I had a front row seat to watching corporate greed hollow out the working class. I saw International Paper spend millions of dollars on phony security systems, television ads, and public relations firms, all money that could’ve gone to their dedicated employees instead. It was all to prove a point: Capital controls labor — Know your place. I saw that the wealthy’s appetite for more wealth knows no boundaries.

The second thing that draws me to democratic socialism is a strange, almost spiritual connection with the generations who came before me — at the risk of sounding corny, these meetings are my church and the “beer caucuses” afterward my communion.

In a sense, I’ve made it. I am of the bourgeoisie. But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve done relatively little to earn that. My parents helped save and prepare me for college so that I’d have a better life. My grandfather raised a family of six in the house that he built himself with his mill salary, and my great grandfather literally gave his life to the paper making industry. My maternal family line also contributed to my progressive worldview—in fact, my mother’s grandfather was also killed in a papermill.

I owe it to those generations before me to help the disadvantaged, and take direct action toward a world that is more equitable and just. There are lots of ways to taxonomize what “kind” of socialist you are, and there will always be some people who will pass judgement on who is or is not a “real” socialist. But in the end I feel like we, in this meeting, are all really seeking fairness . Regardless of whether you’re a “tankie”, Trotskyist, or a mere shell-shocked Social Democrat with nowhere else to go, it doesn’t matter how or why you want to seize the means of production. What matters is preventing the greediest among us from hoarding the means of production, and using it as a cudgel to dominate and control the rest of us.

I’m thrilled that since joining the DSA I’ve been able to march in a Pride parade, phone bank for Ranked Choice Voting, drop literature for a rent stabilization initiative, and gain a sense of solidarity with other like-minded people. Without the DSA, I probably wouldn’t have done any of those things. Without the DSA, my so-called “activism” probably would’ve been confined to reposting memes on social media. Democratic Socialism gives me a sense of purpose, and helps me identify ways to help on my “justice mission.” And for that, I’m thankful.

Every month, we ask a member to share their story of what Democratic Socialism means to them. If you’re interested in telling yours, please email the chair.