I’m Jonathan Chenjeri and I’m running for the Oregon House of Representatives. I proudly consider myself a part of the American socialist tradition. I will discuss below what this means, how it shapes my policy perspective, and why it is relevant for rural politics and enables us to think about the changes necessary to resolve other political, social and ecological challenges.
Progressive politics are a means to an end. A job guarantee; housing, education and healthcare for all, and frameworks like a Green New Deal – these are necessary but not sufficient to confront our present. Rather than seeking purity among Democrats or Republicans, socialists aim to put workers in the driver’s seat. We seek a freer society, where Americans can have dignity inside and outside of work; with time to be the best parents, artists, or community leaders they can. We see the fulfillment and purpose of human life as more than labor and dollars – distinguishing labor for basic needs and ‘labors of love.’
The American socialist tradition is unique and built off many of the existing, admirable institutions we have. The tradition is pro-democracy, feminist, antiracist, antiwar, anti-imperialism, pro-free speech and press, and tolerant of religion. Socialists question both traditional business models and markets, and emphasize the role of class interest in politics and society (by ‘class’ we mean our relationship to capital, i.e. owner, employee, manager, gig worker, or those in extreme poverty). These positions create a ‘class consciousness’ that informs our political decision-making.
Class-conscious politics is common among the upper-middle and business class. If business activists aim at union-busting, keeping wages down and having the public subsidize basic needs, corporate subsidies, and supplying political lobbyists, this is organizing for power – class warfare. Socialists organize for the working- and middle-class, whose labor makes profits possible.
Rising income inequality is inherent in the capitalist structure – not the fault of bad public policy, immigration, or life choices. Wages are our means of subsidence and are ‘costs’ to be kept down to maximize profits, thus the property owner must exploit this to survive in the market. Wage labor is itself intended to reproduce groups subservient to capital, and our politics developed an ideology to reinforce and rationalize this.
We advocate for economic models where those who do the work have ownership and voice, and are not simply rented; and where monetary value is not placed on all aspects of life. These models include cooperatives, employee-ownership stocks, employee representation in corporations, trade unions, and state-planning boards for public utilities and natural resources. Within these models, it is possible to remove contradictions to confronting core issues like sustainability and inequality; we build from the voices of those who live and work in affected communities, and waste no time with political haggling or incentivizing business behavior.
Many of our values cross ideological lines. We value the individual as an end in themselves; freedom of expression; the family; unions; the voice of the historically marginalized; and, that we are obligated to be stewards of the earth. In this, we echo libertarians in believing future generations are entitled to a life ‘as good, if not better;’ and reach out to the liberal focus on representation. We too question some taxes, while supporting a strong social safety net; socialists understand that the core of these questions is the decision-making process in production and distribution.
Only the Left is asked, “how do you not repeat the mistakes of the past?” Capitalism is seen as ‘natural,’ the ‘last best hope.’ This is folly. No one owns the idea of markets and competition, capitalism is one variation. If the old adage is correct that “government is best which governs least,” to get there is certainly not in the standard capitalist mode.
Rural areas have a long socialist history. In the south, socialists developed some of the first African-American and cross-racial unions and cooperatives. Christian socialist networks made important gains in the early 20th century, and we see groups like Democratic Socialists of America revitalized in rural America. Rural areas have experienced a version of third-world exploitation. Coal and timber provided the raw materials for industrial cities, once inefficient, capital moved and with it the lifeline of the rural working-class. Today, it is justice to ameliorate the conditions of isolation and lack of resources, and in the long-term to reinvest and revitalize sustained and ‘green’ cooperative industry.
Socialists have always seen through the cynical ploy of dividing the working-class by race, religion, or geography. The modern GOP campaigns on non-reality and use social resentment as strategy, ie “CRT,” transphobia, or “at least we aren’t Portland.” These culture wars serve to mask Koch Brother donations or flights to Cancun. Our shared interests and humanity are much clearer. To quote Eugene Debs, “in every age it has been the tyrant who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both.”
Socialists reject the liberal conclusion of “just getting things done” within the status quo. To reject structural questions assumes that all questions are answered and that left are only adjustments. Wages and identity questions are examples. While the minimum wage should be raised, this doesn’t change workers’ positions, but increases purchasing power. In lifting up marginalized voices, we question the liberal tendency toward identity politics as the cure for systemic problems. Our lives are intersectional and complex in practice, though Democrats have tended to put diverse faces on the same policy solutions. Socialists are wary of ‘reductionism’ to identities without context, or the ‘extreme relativism’ of modern culture wars. Rather, we understand that material conditions bring about social access and political power. Our mindset envisions “the free development of each [as] the condition for the free development of all.”
Such changes embrace the uniqueness of work and life expressed in varying degrees of collective property relations. In this, we still have debates over intellectual, spiritual, artistic, familial, and even political matters, but we do so in a state without homelessness, hunger and a lack of access. This is a brighter future that recognizes the continuity of perennial questions.
We envision a future of hope and opportunity, not of gloomy tragedy. This is the only politics worth working toward.