Capitalism forces us to relate to each other in ways that are down right anti-socialist. The customer service system is one important example of that kind of relationship structure. As those with retail or customer service experience are familiar with, there are always those customers that come in with broken/ripped/faulty items and try to get personal justice by harassing the manager, the boss, the person in charge— with the self-interested goal of having their personal issue resolved. This applies to so many aspects of everyday life: insurance problems can result in “where is the manager?” A child being too loud in a restaurant can lead to “where is the manager?” Now, masks are a major source of conflict: “Are you asking ME to wear a mask? “WHERE-IS-THE-MANAGER?”
This type of behavior makes sense given that capitalist structures are not flexible. There is a lot of bureaucracy involved before making any meaningful changes especially changes that can be considered collective or that apply to all customers as a whole. It often takes ruining the public image of a company for it to make any moves. One example is the racist incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia where the manager called the cops on two Black men waiting customers because they had the audacity to wait to order until their business associate showed up. A significant public uproar and backlash followed and Starbucks responded by instituting racial sensitivity training for their front-of-the-house workers.
Here, we observe two things: a legitimate issue that drove customers to organizing themselves and the response of the company about it, deflecting fault and making their employees take on the labor of change. Is Starbucks as an institution any less racist after they trained their baristas (who probably lost their job during the pandemic) while their executives sit on their chairs? No, there is no material reason to think that. Executives apply these changes top-down because the incentive is monetary: a customer complains, it causes issues to the company, the company complies by forcing their employees to apply changes. These are the kinds of dynamics the revolutionary left must consider and fight against. Next, I make the argument that the revolutionary left has no “managers.”
Most radical political organizations are primarily volunteers i.e. none of us get paid. Depending on the political tendency, there is more or less some form of hierarchy or leadership structure, but this is not the same as a manager or a boss. There is no way I, as a leader, can go into one of our projects or working groups and be like “so y’all gonna do what I say and I wanna see this and that happening yesterday or y’all get fired.” If our leaders acted like that, we would have no organization! Since our relationships are not based on a monetary incentive, we rely on a democratic and consensus-building culture. This means building relationships, mentorship, training, and working side-by-side for weeks, months, and sometimes years.
I have witnessed cultural changes inside of Philly Socialists many times over the past six years, but they never happen because someone complained to a leader. They happen because we as a collective decide to tackle issues and work toward changes. Conflicts arise when these processes developed before some newer volunteers and members, who haven’t yet fully understood how to build consensus for organizing, became involved. What newer members and volunteers might see as an issue, the more veteran members either have not noticed or have and are actually in the process of fixing the problem. However, the response by some of these new volunteers or members is to find the “person-in-charge” and complain “where is the manager?” style.
As an elected leader of a large collective, I have been harassed, insulted, yelled at, publically humiliated, and much more for things that I can do nothing about. Often our answers are seen as deflecting or denying the issue. These newer members and volunteers who aren’t working through Philly Socialists’ tenets don’t want to hear that we have to build consensus and education and go through a democratic process before we see any results. I think this comes from applying a customer service mentality to what is supposed to be a socialists revolutionary organization.
In no way is this a suggestion to silence victims of microaggressions— we are all actors in this capitalist act and complaining to the manager is not the only baggage we bring in with us. It’s no secret sexual abuse and racism are present in leftist spaces (as they are in organizations of different political ideologies because white supremacy and misogyny are structural problems), so some organizations, like Philly Socialists, have arbiters, arbitration teams, or some form of arbitration process to directly deal with these serious issues. Unfortunately, even these procedures can be abused. Arbiters can be seen as the ones to seek out to enforce individual punishments on those we might have a grudge against. However, we must realize how this brings in a patriarchal, capitalist culture of punishment into spaces where we are trying to work against it and abolish it. If punishment was useful in achieving change, we would be living in a utopia now as it has been used by many over centuries.
My ask: when we think about joining a revolutionary leftist organization of any tendency, we must leave our “Karen” bags outside. This is not advocating nor saying revolutionary leftist organizations are inherently perfect. In fact, we are deeply and very much flawed, but as soon as you enter, think of what ways we can make collective changes. Think of the potential for the future, how we can achieve what the Black customers angry at Starbucks achieved (but when there is no money involved).
We must have conversations about issues with open minds, assuming good faith and good intentions, and in a manner that encourages relationship-building. Remember, you might have to interact with this person for a long time: do you want them to resent you for the way that long borderline-harassing Facebook message made them feel?
We grow up in a capitalist culture, and when we embrace socialist ideas, we often still view the world from the perspective of our old assumptions (for example, treating movement leaders as though they are managers). Inspired by these new socialist ideas and organizers, we join a revolutionary leftist organization, still with a “Karen” customer mentality. I’ve heard too many times leftists saying things like “hey I am looking into joining an organization, why should i join yours?” as if we were some kind of product to be consumed. We are creating collectives, and to do this we must reject the capitalist assumptions that this customer service mentality has power in our spaces: the people are power, and this applies to the most basic of functions of human relationships.