The Optics and Financing of F4S Will Undermine Its Political Aims

Statement by Kyle Scott
Position: Opposed

I’d like to begin with some words of praise for all of my comrades who have been involved with the F4S WG. The amount of time and labor all of you have devoted to this project is enormously impressive. I know I speak for many in the chapter when I say that I am really and truly grateful for all of the energy you have committed to this proposal, and, by extension, to the chapter at large. I also deeply admire the way you have engaged with the chapter membership about F4S, made yourself open to feedback and questions, and willingly amended the proposal when concerns were raised. You have set an extremely strong precedent in the chapter where previously there was none, presenting us all with an exemplary model for how we should bring complicated and ambitious projects forward in the future. Indeed, by bringing this proposal to the chapter in the way you have, you’ve already accomplished a whole lot: you have significantly raised the organizational maturity of the chapter by putting us all in a position where we have to think deeply about a complicated project and mode of organizing; and, intentionally or not, you have facilitated a form of chapter-wide political education by forcing those who wish to engage with the project to educate themselves and engage with ideas that many of us had not previously worked out. I don’t think I can overstate how important I think it is for an organization like DSA to go through this process.

Nonetheless, as you’ve likely gleaned from the title of this paper, I do stand wholeheartedly opposed to the Food 4 Solidarity program. And this is for 2 main reasons:

1. The political risks are untenable. DSA-LA’s expansion is incredible. The influx of new members, the press we’ve received, the continuing organizational energy and enthusiasm of the chapter, are all extraordinary and deeply inspiring. We should celebrate all of this. But we should not let it cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are still very much a growing, fledgling organization, with many of us new to organizing and/or leftist politics. Much of our membership (myself absolutely included) is made up of people who have not been deeply rooted in movements or organizing efforts around the city, and who perhaps have only really experience political movement-building within the confines of DSA. This is not in any way an indictment of those members (again, I am one of them). We absolutely need them; they are the primary reason DSA is currently the most relevant socialist organization in the country. And yet, that newfound relevance brings deep political risks and concerns. We have many eyes on us: potential comrades and allies from other organizations, unions—and of course, from working-class communities within LA where we currently have few or no members. We are in absolute agreement that we need extend our organizational capacity into all of these places if we want to have any hope of being at the forefront of building a mass, independent socialist movement. But it is of the absolutely utmost importance that our eagerness to extend our organization to these places—an eagerness which I think most if not all of us share—be coupled with an acknowledgment of the fact that we are still very much the new kids in town.

This means that we need to make very, very careful decisions about how we engage with and present ourselves in tight-knit communities where we do not have members.  Any project aimed at extending our organization into these communities needs to be guided by the crucial insight that many community-members (if they have heard of us at all) are understandably skeptical about the experience, objectives—and, yes, the demographic makeup of the org. As we approach the indispensable goal of base-building in these places we need to be continually asking ourselves: what are we doing to assuage these very legitimate concerns? To what extent will our mode of presentation, our tactics, and our messaging either exacerbate or undermine perceptions of us as outsiders or intruders—or even worse, gentrifiers, colonizers, and legitimate enemies. Here, it is possible—even likely—that the optics of the project may be more important than its programmatic aims.

And so with that in mind, let us set aside discussion about whether this project actually is or isn’t charity, mutual aid, etc. I should say that I myself am sympathetic to the argument that this project is, in fact, relevantly distinct from charity. But the point I want to make is that it should be at best a secondary concern what I or any DSA member—who has analyzed the details of proposal and reflected on different understandings of charity, mutual aid, etc.—thinks is the most accurate description of the project. What matters far, far more is how this program will be perceived by those it is meant to serve. And if I am unsure about where exactly I stand in the intra-DSA discussions about whether F4S is or isn’t charity, I am sure that it will largely be perceived as such by those it is meant to serve.

The crucial fact here is not whether there are important distinctions to be made between mutual aid, charity, etc., but that most people unreflectively associate food banks and nonprofits with charity (or worse, with condescending, means-tested government programs). I certainly know I did before spending a bunch of time thinking about these things. And those with whom we seek solidarity and allyship, who are already skeptical of the interests and aims of an organization made up people not rooted in their community, with relatively scant organizing experience, and who on the whole possess racial and class privileges they lack will—rightly or wrongly—see our efforts to set up a foodbank using a nonprofit as yet further confirmation that we are not serious about challenging capitalism or changing the status quo. Despite the laudable efforts of those in the F4S WG to distance the program from bourgeois-charity-perception, it is my deep belief that that perception will persist and current and future base-building efforts by the chapter will be set back as a result.

2. The fundraising efforts will either fail or deplete a large amount of political will and resources from the chapter. I have deep concerns about the claims that the program will be able to raise the necessary funds without relying on a huge amount of money from chapter members. The main claim seems to be that, since F4S will not be petitioning chapter members for funds, and will be directing fundraising towards the broader LA left, that the fundraising will therefore be DSA-LA independent. Of course, the first question many of us have is: what (or who) exactly is the “broader LA left” to whom F4S plans to direct its fundraising efforts? It seems to me that there are a few different sectors one might have in mind with this phrase:

(i) members of other non-DSA organizations (e.g., PSL, OurRev, ISO, etc.)
(ii) unorganized self-identified socialists/leftists
(iii) unorganized liberals, progressives, and centrists
(iv) some combination of (i-ii)

I think we can all agree that it is extremely unlikely that F4S will able to sustain itself off donations from (i). The idea that members of different organizations, with different political lines than ours, and their own fundraising needs, projects, etc., will send enough of their own money our way to sustain our most ambitious political project to date seems extremely far-fetched.

Group (ii) also seems to me a dead-end. There are simply not enough unaffiliated self-identified socialists and leftists in Los Angeles to make this a reliable pool of donors. Those who would be interested in a project like F4S are likely either in another organization or at least DSA-curious. And this touches on a second point I wish to make: that “to fundraise independent of DSA-LA” cannot and should not mean simply “to fundraise primarily or solely from DSA-curious folks.” I hope we are in agreement that soliciting funds from soon-to-be or potential would-be DSA members is not a form of fundraising independent of DSA-LA membership.  

Group (iii) presents perhaps the most promising case for finding a pool of willing donors. But the political risks here should be evident: surely it cannot be the view of the F4S organizers—who, again, have laudibly gone out of their way to distance F4S from the bourgeois-charity-perception—that a truly revolutionary base-building program can be financially sustained by those who fully embrace bourgeois charity, see it as form of good moral praxis, and actually have the explicit political aim of blunting the edges of the status quo.1

This leaves group (iv): a hodgepodge of groups (i-iii). And if this is the fundraising proposal, and what I have said so far is correct, then here we simply collapse into a slightly modified version of a proposal to solicit funds from group (iii). Groups (i) and (ii) simply do not constitute a large enough donor pool to sustain a program like F4S: I operate on the assumption that this is uncontroversial. So even if the fundraising relies on some assortment of members from all of (i-iii), with members from (i) and (ii) donating some minority of the funds, the primary—if not exclusive—donor base will still be from group (iii). And so I simply redirect my argument to the preceding paragraph: as I hope my comrades in the F4S WG will agree, one simply cannot finance a revolutionary base-building program with the money of liberals and centrists that have little or no interest in these programmatic aims.

1. Surely this folks would want to have some say in the program they are financing, no? Or, at minimum, will want to exert some pressure on the organizers to prioritize the more “charitable” aspects of the program over the more “socialist-aligned” ones? Won’t many drawn to donate to the program also want to get involved at some level, perhaps volunteer or help organize? Will you say no if they are not politically aligned, even if they—and not socialists or leftists—are the very ones keeping the program alive?