Antar Lumumba, Mayor of Jackson, Mississipi. Wikicommons/ NatalieMaynor. Some rights reserved.In June last year, the young black attorney Antar Lumumba was elected the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Securing more than 90% of the vote, Lumumba’s platform was based on making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet”, something one might not expect from the capitol of a former slave state. Yet this wasn’t the first time a committed black radical had won the mayoral contest of Jackson. Antar’s father – a veteran of the New Afrikan Peoples Organisation (NAPO) and co-founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) – was elected as mayor in 2013, prior to his untimely death at the beginning of 2014.
It’s familiar to report on electoral successes as if they’re the end-point of politics, yet, ‘the new municipalism isn’t about winning elections; it’s about building, transforming and distributing power’. To interpret what’s happening in Jackson through the lens of electoral politics is to be blind to the much broader political strategy that’s been taking shape. Behind the media-grabbing headlines of the election of a ‘radical Mayor’ lies the tireless work of educational programmes, the building of cooperatives, the buying-up of land, and the development of alternative democratic structures. This isn’t just the usual ‘movement building’ work we’re all used to talking of. Jackson is a city with a plan. Jackson is a city with a plan.
The Jackson-Kush Plan
The Jackson-Kush Plan is a strategy for building an unapologetically revolutionary movement that doesn’t just make promises about the future, but has a method for delivering in the present. Developed by the MXGM from the early 2000’s and made public in 2012, the Plan draws on centuries of political organising, reaching back to the National Negro Convention Movement (between 1831-1864), the establishment of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969, and the efforts in local self-governance driven by NAPO and the Republic of New Afrika (RNA).
The Plan is built around three fundamental pillars ‘designed to build a mass base with the political clarity, organizational capacity, and material self-sufficiency to advance the objective of building an autonomous power’ in Jackson and the broader Kush region. These pillars include the ‘Building of a Broad-based Solidarity Economy; the Building of People’s Assemblies; and the Building of an Independent Black Political Party.’ Although the landslide elections of both Lumumba and Lumumba Jr. are important, they have to be understood in the context of this broader plan.
Building a Broad-based Solidarity Economy
As the Jackson-based activist Kali Akuno writes, ‘we have to be clear, crystal clear, that self-determination is unattainable without an economic base. And not just your standard economic base, meaning a capitalist oriented one, but a democratic one’. Taking inspiration from the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque country, the intention is to build a series of interconnected cooperatives across Jackson and the Kush region, and to foster the development of broader solidarity-economic practices such as time-banks, alternative currencies, resource libraries, and cooperative credit unions.
Following the establishment of Cooperation Jackson in 2014, they have a vehicle for coordinating a community land-trust (which has included the purchasing of entire streets as part of a territorial strategy against gentrification), developing a ‘fab-lab’ for skilling-up workers in 3D printing and tech-development, reinvigorating the Peoples Grocery Initiative, expanding the sustainable agriculture initiatives and community kitchens, and establishing a cultural-arts cooperative. It begins by addressing concrete issues in the here-and-now… rather than just a ‘fight for ideas’.
The purpose of building the solidarity economy is two-fold. Firstly, it begins by addressing concrete issues in the here-and-now, with a focus on immediate improvements to people’s lives rather than just a ‘fight for ideas’. Secondly, it is hoped that organising and reproducing one’self and one’s communities as part of a solidarity economy will aid in ‘developing the capacities of the members or cooperators to shape the world in their image and interest’. Participation in solidarity economic initiatives can help us become the sort of humans we want to be, and change the limits of what we believe can be achieved.
Kali Akuno, Cooperation Jackson. Labor Notes. All rights reserved.Yet as the Jackson-Kush Plan recognises, the Solidarity Economy, if developed to its logical conclusions, lies at the limit of economic reform possible within a ‘capitalist framework of social production governed by a bourgeois social order’. The building of a Solidarity Economy is not a political project in itself, but one step – a means – and ends in the wider revolutionary strategy. It’s about moving us in the direction of a post-capitalist society.
Building People’s Assemblies
The People’s Assembly in Jackson developed as a popular response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and follows in the tradition of the Black Liberation Movement’s efforts of self-determination. The MXGM define a mass peoples’ assembly as the bringing together of at least one fifth of the population of a given territory (such as a neighbourhood, district, or city) to address essential social issues. This means orientating towards ‘developing solutions, strategies, action plans and timelines to change various socio-economic conditions in a desired manner, not just hearing and/or giving voice to the people assembled’. Participation in solidarity economic initiatives can help us become the sort of humans we want to be.
Currently gathering on a quarterly basis, with the will of the assembly acted on by a series of committees that collectively form the “People’s Taskforce”, the Assembly has two broad functions. Firstly, it’s a vehicle for initiating ‘self-organized’ social projects, which range from forming people’s self-defence campaigns to organising housing occupations. Secondly, it operates to exert pressure on existing government structures, ranging from coordinating direct action campaigns through to boycotts or non-compliance campaigns.
Whilst the Peoples’ Assembly is a direct organising tool, it’s also another component of the ‘consciousness raising’ that it is hoped can be achieved through the practices of the solidarity economy. The Peoples’ Assembly – and any other participatory democratic process for that matter – is seen as embryonic of new forms of collective self-governance. The Assembly is both an experiment in exercising leverage over existing conditions, and a process of learning new ways to govern.
Building a Black Independent Political Party
The third pillar of the project demands ‘engaging electoral politics on a limited scale with the express intent of building radical voting blocs and electing candidates drawn from the ranks of the Assemblies themselves’. Where the majority Black population has been routinely exploited, beaten and oppressed by the state apparatus, the decision to occupy established state institutions is contentious. Yet as the Plan cautiously outlines, ‘we have learned through our own struggles – and through our analysis of the experiences of many other revolutionary or liberation movements – we ignore the power of the state at our own peril’. ‘We ignore the power of the state at our own peril’.
Crucially, the role of the municipal institutions is not to ‘deliver socialism’ on behalf of its citizens: there is no belief that revolutionary change will be delivered through the electoral system. Rather, the municipal institutions are engaged initially as a defensive effort ‘to negate its repressive powers and to contain the dictatorial power and ideological influence of monopoly capital in Mississippi’. On the other hand, it is hoped that through rejecting established political parties and running candidates selected from the movement, it will prove possible to ‘create political openings that provide a broader platform for future struggles to be waged to restore the “commons”, to create more public utilities (i.e. universal health care and comprehensive public transport), and for the democratic transformation of the economy’.
Most immediately – in practice – this looks like promotion of a procurement policy that prioritises the solidarity economy, the development of a “cooperative incubator” that provides a range of start-up services for cooperative enterprises, supporting the establishment of a legally recognized ‘human rights charter’ that must be adhered to in future council policy, the roll-out of participatory budgeting, formally recognising and responding to the Peoples’ Assembly processes, and re-municipalising services from water management to energy production.
Learning from Jackson
To return to the words of Kali Akuno, the fundamental ‘objective of running these candidates and winning these offices is to create the political space and advance policies that will provide manoeuverable space for the autonomous initiatives of the Jackson Plan to develop and grow’. The fundamental point of reference is not the institutions of the state – which are riddled with contradictions and limits – but efforts to establish process of economic and political self-governance.
At the same time, ‘the initiative to create a solidarity economy in Jackson cannot divorce itself from social movement activism and class struggle’. Simply promoting ethical procurement policies, remunicipalising services, or building cooperatives does not equate to a revolutionary political project. Without adopting a political expression, such initiatives can never shift the horizon beyond trying to create ‘nicer’ ways of doing capitalism – something that faces inherent structural limits.
At a point when a Left government in the UK seems more likely than it has done in many of our lifetimes, we would be wise to learn quickly from the experiences of cities such as Jackson. We need to build municipal strategies that start to deliver immediately, rapidly expanding our cooperative and solidarity economic sectors as part of a conscious political strategy, whilst developing institutions of self-governance that can offer a counter-power to the state.
Crucially, we need to go much further than simply devolving decision-making down to ‘smaller’ administrative units such as our cities and regions – we need to develop a politics that transforms them. Rather than asking what can the local state do, social movements need to form around the question of what can we do to the local state? There is no single answer to this question, but the activists in Jackson are demonstrating how a transformational scalar politics is an essential part of any popular socialist movement.
To find out more about Cooperation Jackson and the J-K Plan, and to find many of the quotes in this article, get a copy of the recent book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi by Ajamu Nangwaya and Kali Akuno.