Community Organizations Should Engage Electoral Politics

To the Editors:

Archon Fung’s review of books about community power-building movements was astute. He makes valuable observations about how the best community organizations mobilize existing social capital to leverage greater influence over government policies as well as about the self-limiting quality of the very same technique, namely that organizations such as IAF have difficulty expanding beyond their social base and dealing with other groups on anything like an equal basis to create new types of social capital. There is another point about these capable community movements that Fung almost makes and could very well have done so.

Fung urges movements to “look beyond the politics they know to effect” a “more fundamental democratic transformation” by mobilizing people to take advantage of participatory institutions, such as local school councils, community-police fora. Fung comments that “just as the shell of self-government—elections and representatives—becomes empty without an active and politically engaged society, these . . . participatory democratic forms can easily be subverted . . .” without widespread citizen participation. Fung might have said that social movements can be subverted, too, when they monopolize their social space and protect their turf. Community organizations can be unaccountable, “haughty” and “narrow” to outsiders. We might as well say that community organizations also subvert themselves when they eschew electoral politics. Fung points out that community organizations want to avoid the risk of “co-optation and dilution of power” that electoral politics seems to entail, but a way back to a more “fundamental democratic transformation” is to re-engage elections and representation. If community organizations can become proud parochials and wily interest group lobbyists, a return to elections would force them into a wider arena in which the gain of authority that comes with government office must be won by disciplined participation and accountability to a broad public.

For example, in San Antonio, Texas, IAF/COPS has achieved major material benefits for its core communities for over two decades and until recently seemed remarkably influential with a conservative state government. That seems to be over, now. State partisan trends have swung decisively toward right-wing Republicans; even in somewhat liberal San Antonio city politics, COPS was forced to back off its major initiative—several years in the planning—to place on the ballot a proposal for a tax-supported human development fund. This shift occurred even as over sixty thousand San Antonians signed petitions last year to request a referendum on a major resort project, as provided for in the city charter. Turning petition-signers into voters had the potential to win not only a ballot initiative, but also seats in government and decision-making authority. The number of individuals who signed the petitions is all the more significant when compared with typical turnout rates of 15 percent in local elections and 30 percent in off-year state elections. Yet when the Mayor sought to stymie the vote campaign, COPS cut a deal with the Mayor and the developers and “democratic transformation” was the poorer.

Stephen Amberg
Associate Professor of Poltical Science
University of Texas at San Antonio


Who Is to Blame for Algeria’s Failures?

To the Editors:

Reading Alan Stone’s review of The Battle of Algiers in the February/March issue, I was offended on personal, religious, and political fronts. The primary insult is his denial of the socialist influence in the 1963 Algerian Revolution, and through the first decade of independent Algerian government. Even a cursory examination of Algerian history reveals that the Arab/Islamic political system consisted of a single-party (the National Liberation Front, or FLN) socialist state. This postcolonial government was established on the heels of the French, and clearly mandated nationalization of private industry and land reform, the hallmarks of socialism.

Unfortunately, like many other socialist countries, Algeria evolved into a military dictatorship, followed by a devastating civil war (with over one million casualties, including at least 100,000 civilians) in the 1990s. However, even in the aborted elections won by the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1991, the Socialist Forces Front achieved twenty-five seats.

Stone presents an over-simplistic view that Islam and socialism are somehow mutually exclusive. He proposes that the socialist ideology embraced by the filmmaker, Pontecorvo, was mysteriously hijacked by terrorist Algerian Muslims, who subliminally promoted their message of Islamic principals throughout the film. His most insulting mistake is describing Muslims in the film as praying to “their God.” It’s well known that the God of the Muslims is the same God of the Christians and Jews. Making Muslims the other in the media only encourages group hatred. Such strategies are usually the work of right-wing warmongers, not supposed leftist thinkers.

Jamilah Ali Alexander
via e-mail

To the Editors:

Alan Stone’s re-review of The Battle of Algiers overlooks a key fact. Algeria, as a nation, has never recovered from the uncontrolled civilian-focused violence endemic to its birth. Stone finds the entire process of Islamic nation-building out of terrorism quite laudable. But he forgets that modern Algeria, the civil-war-torn scene of countless slaughters of innocent residents, is possibly the sickest, most blood-soaked literate nation on the face of the earth today. As Vitruvius put it, “When the results of a thing are bad, the thing itself is not good.” Forty years of sanguine, sorry history have confirmed this truth in Algeria.

Marc Haefele
Santa Monica, California