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Procedural Overhead: On An Upcoming Debate at Sacramento DSA Local Convention 2023

Oct 26, 2023

For reference, see the 2023 SacDSA Local Convention packet -

By Benjamin Arriaga

My friend and comrade Jimbo Jackson, and fellow Socialist Majority caucus affiliate, submitted three proposed bylaw amendments for the upcoming local convention. Although my comrade and I affiliate with the same national caucus in DSA, I write this to share my disagreement with his proposals for our local chapter. However, I do make an exception of what I would like to see amended at least in his third bylaw amendment, as detailed below. In the interest of transparency: at this time, we are both expected to step in as Convention Chair and Convention Parliamentarian. I have taken steps to enlist other comrades and receive assurances from them that they will accept these roles when his proposals and my proposals reach the floor. I spoke directly with Comrade Jackson about my position on his proposals and that I would be submitting my position statement for publication with a copy provided to him before its online publication. This autumn season I also began my first annual term as a State Council Delegate to California DSA for our chapter. (FYI: We are allotted four delegates and our chapter has yet to hold an election for the fourth seat.)

First, a word about our process: According to our chapter bylaws, our chapter’s membership is required to hold a local convention annually. Despite the fact that we technically have the ability per these same bylaws to amend the bylaws at any of our general membership meetings, I think that specifically holding an annual local convention encourages us to highlight for this type of meeting a chance to address long-term timescale questions. In comparison with a labor union federation it can serve the same function as a “leadership summit” or in a capitalist enterprise, the “company retreat.” In other words, this type of meeting is intended for asking questions about our structure, our capacity, our strategy, and ultimately for affirming our vision as a democratic socialist organization.

On Comrade Jackson’s Bylaw Amendment #1: Pertaining to CA-DSA delegate role, I urge to vote Nay. I plan to vote Nay due to my observation that this would confine the imagination necessary for nonsectarian representative democracy as a principle in our organization. Allowing for our elected delegates (myself included) to exercise initiative, to communicate well with others, or to find ways to collaborate is naturally an extension of the basic practice of representative democracy. We elect a person to do things. If we don’t like what they are doing, then we let them know, and if they don’t compromise, then we choose someone else by majority rule. Additionally, the original language would also confine the expression of dissenting opinions and the “pledge not to act unilaterally” is so broad as that it might discourage our delegation from adding to the discussion or the work of building the very new California DSA State Council without seeking endless, additional approval. Effective, nonsectarian, representative democracy does not require stipulated language of this type.

By contrast, I urge to vote Yay on the California DSA Delegate Term Activity Resolution I authored and submitted. I agree with Comrade Jackson that California DSA would indeed benefit from collaboration but I argue that this does not need to be stipulated through a bylaw amendment. Instead, my resolution would prompt myself and my fellow State Council Delegates from our chapter to use our heads and take lead on action items to help create a political program for our communities and lead by example at California DSA State Council.

On Comrade Jackson’s Bylaw Amendment #2: Pertaining to political priorities of the local chapter, I also urge to vote Nay. Although one or more of the concerns motivating this amendment are valid, such as “a need to improve communication and coordination as a chapter,” I do not think restricting ourselves through our bylaws to a specific number of priorities would actually improve our chapter’s operations. We cannot legislate or formally deliberate a shortcut around the work of organizing.

The question of our priorities is an organizing question, just as much as it is also a political one that faces every member regardless of holding an official leadership role. It requires setting aside ample time to meet and discuss and develop plans with other comrades to choose what we shall focus on achieving and by when. To assist with that effort, which involves political education, I submitted the Standard Spoken Introductions Resolution to emphasize a new general practice. We may call this a form of popular discipline, perhaps, for our members to take up if they agree with me about its necessity. I think when we practice saying a consistent hard brief pitch of what democratic socialism means, popularizing that kind of message discipline internally can take us on a path to resolve ourselves to be consistent in our messaging overall and the criteria by which we adopt future priorities that can matter to our communities.

Finally, regarding Comrade Jackson’s Bylaw Amendment #3: Pertaining to clarifying committee operations and the organizer role, I urge that someone move to amend its original language when it is on the floor. My recommendation may be best laid out in the following points: • Strike out all language that raises the needed participation threshold to 5 dues-paying members to form a committee and keep our status quo requirement of 3. • Strike out all proposed changes to the Committee Operations subsection of our bylaws. • Accept the proposed change to the Organizer subsection that strikes out the stanza with the “ultimate responsibility” and “liaison” clauses. • Accept the proposed addition of a Committee Membership subsection (while changing to 3 signatories instead of 5 signatories). • Insert after the sentence starting with “Only SacDSA members in good standing” and ending with “committee members,” the following language: • “Committee meeting attendees who are not SacDSA members may call themselves fellow-travelers so long as a member or members in good standing sponsors or takes lead in helping them learn about DSA and assume(s) a responsibility to the chapter for their fellow-traveler’s actions when participating in public-facing political activity.”

At any future general membership meeting, we can make two motions: any dues-paying member could move to introduce a bylaw amendment to expand our Steering Committee to include our Committee Chairs; any dues-paying member can also move to dismantle a committee that the majority agrees with dismantling, howsoever it may be justified during any debate if and only after someone seconds that motion.

I grant that Comrade Jackson is well-intended with his proposals. This does not change my worry that his proposals seem like attempts to reshape our structure to more strictly mimic a democratic centralist model. Democratic centralism, in simple terms, involves a periphery that reports to a center and a center that is elected from a periphery, etc., but that tends to fix and concentrate authority at the center once questions of debate are considered settled. This model has gained a nostalgic following in some groupings outside of DSA but also within whole national caucuses in DSA. Their various attempts to transform our organization, especially now, may exacerbate current trends of “procedural overhead” or “second-job professionalism.” These can burn people out. Nonetheless, the renewed appeal of democratic centralism across different caucuses and chapters in DSA may be a result of real frustration with where DSA is at now. The actual problem of internal organizing deserves its own theorization as well as the construction of an alternative for this historic moment.

The need for this theorization demands collaboration with other comrades to continue this conversation with Sacramento DSA in mind as our material, organizational anchor.

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