Newsletter #71: Chicago's Working-Class Movement Turns to Governing, with Stacy Davis Gates, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, and Alex Han

by William Harris

When the socialist cultural theorist Raymond Williams coined the term “structure of feeling,” he argued that it was essentially a generational concept. The young cohort of adults in each period, the group who produces much of an era’s new culture, reacts to the dominant material and ideological order of the day by sharing something of a general mood, an ambient feeling-world that appears across emergent cultural forms.

Ever since April 4, the day of the mayoral run-off election, leftists in Chicago have shared a very particular structure of feeling. Listening to the latest Dig episode — an interview moderated by guest host and Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht with Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Stacy Davis Gates, democratic socialist alderperson Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, and In These Times Executive Director Alex Han — I finally felt as if I could name it.

Leftists and progressives are thrilled that longtime CTU organizer Brandon Johnson is now carrying Chicago’s working-class movement into the mayor’s office. But as Stacy Davis Gates says here, we’re also at risk of feeling a sort of collective imposter syndrome — shades of doubt and anxiety about what it means for our movement to wield power, and what the real possibilities and challenges of a Johnson administration will look like.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Left imposter syndrome isn’t just delusion. It’s rooted in the unprecedented nature of Johnson’s victory. US history offers few, if any, examples of militant union organizers winning executive office in major cities, and certainly none on as grand a scale as Chicago. The road ahead will be obstructed by the city’s mainstream and business media, its police institutions, capitalist class, and aldermanic opponents and intransigent municipal staffers. We’ll have to live with imperfect results and find a way to strike a balance between a militant mood and one willing to reach out and grow the coalition, to discover how to start building a new common sense across divergent, even opposed elements in the city.

To do this, we’ll have to get over imposter syndrome — not by inflating ourselves and growing content with having a taste of power, but by facing the challenges head on and learning how to work through them. The future of working-class politics in the United States depends on it.

Further Reading For the Chicago l eft, this is a moment for self-definition and organized dreaming. What transformative policies do we want to push? What might be possible for a working-class movement to achieve in one city? Jacobin has been running a great series of articles asking just these questions, from Saqib Bhatti’s “Brandon Johnson Should Establish a Public Bank in Chicago” to Thomas M. Hanna’s “Brandon Johnson Should Meet the Threat From Private Capital Head On.”

For related Dig listening, make sure to pair this interview with last week’s episode on the upcoming mayoral race in Philly (about which past Dig guest Dennis Hogan wrote a great piece on in The Baffler). Lastly, for more Dig episodes on Chicago, listen to this 2019 interview on the Socialist Caucus in the Chicago city council and the years of union movement building that led up to its formation.