How do we organize a campaign to democratize the entirety of Maine’s energy grid? Engage with local debates about national flashpoints like teaching racism in schools? Unite renters at risk of eviction at a time when neighbors talk less and less? And how does the state-wide socialist organization taking on these challenges stay connected during a pandemic and come together to make collective decisions?
These are some of the fundamental questions that faced Maine Democratic Socialists of America (MDSA) as they held their third annual convention last weekend. As DSA’s national membership approaches 100,000, and more of its members win elected office around the country, the doings and debates of each chapter become more and more relevant to local and national politics.
Perhaps sensing the important questions facing DSA in 2022, out-going Finance Co-Chair Wes P. acknowledged in his Saturday morning speech that, “for a lot of us the reasons for being socialist, or an anti-capitalist leftist at all, are self-evident, and getting more so each day at a terrifying pace. But it can be harder to pin down why we are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and for me that answer changes week to week, month to month.”
Held online, the convention featured workshops open to DSA members and non-members alike. The Political Education Committee previewed its next Study Group reading, Hadas Thier’s A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics, which is open to all and begins February 16th (see the syllabus for details). MDSA’s Tenant Committee offered a history of Maine Renter’s United and prompted participants to brainstorm how to talk to their neighbors. Another workshop proposed a new reading group in the Lewiston-Auburn area discussing the 1619 Project in the context of local debates about teaching racism in schools. A fourth workshop asked “Who watches the watchers?” about the problematic Maine Information and Analysis Center, an intelligence center run by the state police that met with harsh criticisms and questions of legality after a 2020 hack exposed the kinds and amounts of information they were gathering. And your very own Pine & Roses presented a brief history of socialist and working-class publications, encouraging participants who may not think of themselves as writers to contribute their perspectives on issues affecting working-class Mainers.
Two workshops featured the chapter’s priority campaign Maine Public Power (MPP), which partners with the Our Power coalition fighting to give Mainers a referendum on whether to replace unpopular for-profit corporations CMP and Versant with consumer-owned electricity. MPP reviewed the campaign’s history, structure, and strategy, including testimonials from folks who had stepped up to take part. Several remarked that Mainers whose doors they’ve knocked on have been overwhelmingly receptive to signing the petition. MPP also held an interactive workshop where attendees brainstormed strategies for how to continue the campaign into 2022; those interested in plugging in can sign up here.
In member-only business meetings, there were five proposals to consider over the weekend. One uncontentious proposal formalized the process for running an online merchandise store. Others proposed major changes for the chapter, galvanizing debate around the proposals themselves and various amendments that members offered to fine-tune or substantively alter the proposed changes. These four proposals centered on the following issues: the role of MDSA’s internal communications platforms, the power and structure of MDSA’s Steering Committee, reforming the organization’s General Meetings, and a radical change in how it organizes committees and campaigns.
The proposal to overhaul the chapter’s internal communication platforms met with notable resistance and debate. In short, the proposal aimed to shutter the chapter’s Discord server, an online platform where members have had text and audio interactions with little moderation. The proposal’s author argued that “Discord is meant to foster online social communities, and our work is very much based in meetings and on the ground, and our membership benefits when they are able to focus on a single project rather than a half-dozen possible tangents.” In Discord’s stead, a more heavily moderated Slack server would be established with less room for online socializing outside of chapter work. Two amendments to the proposal, which would have retained some semblance of an online social channel, were narrowly defeated and the proposal to scrap MDSA’s Discord and its social spaces in favor of a Slack server more focused on chapter work prevailed. The contentious debate highlighted the vexing question of what role social media technologies should play in connecting members of a state-wide organizing body.
Major changes to the Steering Committee passed with little controversy, enabling the Steering Committee to expel or suspend members for cause and staggering elections of Steering Committee members to facilitate transfer of institutional knowledge. Another major proposal sought to reduce MDSA’s required General Meetings from monthly to every two months with optional non-business meetings, but an amendment was approved to instead require ten meetings per year with up to four of them non-business meetings. The amendment’s authors expressed hope that these non-business meetings become forums for more open political discussion and debate organized by any of the chapter’s committees, working groups, or general members.
In contrast, the proposal to restructure committees and campaigns triggered a doozy of a debate. In short, the proposal called for curbing the open membership structure of committees and campaigns in favor of more closed bodies where voting members are elected by general membership. While these bodies can create subcommittees open to unelected members, overall these bodies would be subject to more oversight from the Steering Committee and general membership than before. A spirited debate ensued about how to apply principles of inclusion, democracy, accountability, and leadership to the internal structure of the organization, especially when that internal structure forms public-facing campaigns that bring multitudes of new organizers and activists into the chapter’s mission-driven work. In the end, the proposal passed, the opposition falling one vote short.
At the end of the day, no matter how many votes had gone their way, all attendees acted in good faith and helped spirit through a successful democratic process. Despite contentious debates, members seemed unanimous in appreciating the hard work of the convention’s organizers and facilitators, and in celebrating the conclusion of an eventful annual convention. The chapter continues on into 2022 united behind ambitions to expand the campaign to democratize energy, deepen political education, hold the police state accountable, and lift up the voices of the diverse working class. And, as Wes P acknowledged the often shifting and sometimes hard to explain reasons for why one decides to be in DSA and remain there, he summed up the answer nicely:
“I am in DSA because it shows how powerful a small, organized group of working people can be. […] And so we’re here today on a frigid January morning, on the internet with other like-minded people from across Maine, to take the lessons that we’ve learned and use them to shape our path forward into an uncertain future. To make sure that we can bring people in and give them the skills and the sense of collective ownership of something bigger than themselves, an organization that takes all of our ideas, tendencies and idiosyncrasies and focuses them into a shared articulating vehicle for the change we so desperately need.”