December 2010

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My job just had its really big fundraiser (very successful, thank you very much), and what I’ve discovered is that when an obligation forces me out of procrastination and into high capacity, I get a high off it and my creativity really ramps up. I want to write blog posts, I want to respond to blog posts, I want to read, I want to create. For example, out of nowhere yesterday, after a 12-hour workday, I spent another 3 hours making a punk-rock mix CD for two youth.

Eventually the energy dies back down, but right now there are just so many things I want to write about. Unfortunately, I leave for Guatemala tomorrow night, so I probably won’t have time for more than one post…which will either be about churches and revolution, or my thoughts about location-centered organizing. We’ll see.

However, I have a thought about one intellectual project for while I’m in Guatemala. I want to read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed again, take good notes, and then respond to it chapter by chapter. Hope I’ll find the time to do it. Usually I have a couple hours each day with nothing to do but read and think.

I mentioned in my previous post that I want to talk about the tendency amongst radical leftists in the U.S. (or in the places I’ve lived, at least) to commit, split, then quit–a pattern of constant fluctuation between intense and creative activity, then bitter conflict and decline, and then dissolution and burnout. In short, nearly the polar opposite of what I’d consider healthy radical praxis. This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for years now, but it really hit me sharply with the recent dissolution of my own organization. So, let’s get into it a little bit, the revolutionary politics of staying with and leaving organizations.

This last Saturday I got pretty majorly schooled on something regarding local Seattle politics, and I feel deeply grateful for it. See, it was the 10th anniversary event of a group I used to be involved with, the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (soon to change their name), and it was a stellar event! Hundreds of people showed up, it was lively and positive, filled with young organizers who I’ve never met, as well as older folks who I’ve know as long as I’ve been in Seattle. The speeches and music were solid, the reflections were poignant, and on top of it, they probably raised about $6-10,000 for the Duwamish Tribe in their struggle to reclaim their tribal recognition from the federal government. It was powerful.

Yet, when I left CARW in 2004-2005, I insisted to people close to me that I thought CARW is a walking-dead organization, lifeless and too overcome with navel-gazing and awkward white guilt to accomplish anything. I was convinced that the group was a waste of time, and I probably convinced other people around me as well. I was wrong.

Because of the persistence of handful of people–and also with some potentially sketchy backroom stuff seeming to happen at some points–the group confronted a number of its deepest barriers to solid activity, and it has become a thriving place for mostly young white people, mostly newcomers to organizing to build their skills and practice through accountable work in multiracial movement building. I didn’t think this was going to happen. I was sure that Seattle would need a new type of group to be able to accomplish that. But by sticking with the group as it was, by working with that model, that stupid name, and then by restructuring it and growing through praxis–through constructive action and reflection–the group has accomplished far more in its tenth year than in any year before it.

So, I got schooled. But the lesson goes far beyond this example.

I now believe that persistence–or I’d prefer the more politically deep terms of presence and praxis–is a far more crucial element to building a revolutionary movement than good theory or good structure. If you have sustained presence and praxis, if you have people who are committed to each other and to a project for the long-haul, then all the other political elements can evolve with time. But if you lack that stability, that slow-burning commitment, then having fantastic politics and cutting edge structures won’t matter much. The groups won’t survive their first rashes of serious conflict.

I am increasingly disappointed by the kind of radical politics that I practice because of their lack of a track record around these values. I see my generation of anti-oppression anarchists and anti-authoritarians as being really sharp at critique, and increasingly good at the warm fuzzy vision and healing talk, but I see us really bad at staying put: staying put in contradictory or even mainstream spaces–including the spaces we come from, staying put in our own projects and organizations that we found…even staying put in a single city long enough to build a cultural presence there.

This is a damning reality. It is especially damning because our politics are rooted in a vision of community and dual-power. But you don’t build either by moving every 3-5 years, by following jobs to new cities, or by splitting an organization over specific definitions of class struggle, stances on anti-imperialism or whatever. You build those things through engaged presence, through years of just humbly, reliably being there; just doing simple, good work for real changes in people lives while communicating how it connects to a larger transformational vision. You build those things by watching people’s kids grow up, and being there when they are in need. You build those things by building spaces, homes, offices that can accrue archives and art and years of stories on their walls…by building a long-term cultural presence in which revolutionary ideas have marinated long enough that they are simultaneously futuristic, timely, and nostalgic. And within all that, you must build a culture of flexibility, reflection, and mutual growth…praxis.

This is what makes the 1930’s Communist Party so interesting, especially in how it influenced the New Left, filled with so many red diaper babies. This is also what makes the Spanish revolution so downright amazing: a culture of engaged revolutionary presence that spanned generations, which was institutionally rooted in community learning centers. The 1936 generation of Spanish anarchists were partly the children and even grandchildren of anarchists. That is beautiful.

So back the point I started with: revolutionaries in the United States need to put more concentrated energy on the simple question of staying and leaving, and when either is appropriate. The specific theory work, the specific organizing skills and analysis is all crucial, of course, but we need to really be grappling with our tendency to want to quit things when they are hard, or to declare things dead, counter-revolutionary, problematic, etc. before we’ve truly let them run their course.

In my own case, while I voted along with the membership to dissolve my anarchist organization, I did so because I personally lacked the energy to convince folks to stay. But I actually probably do think it was a mistake. If things had gone a different direction at just a couple of meetings, and if we had stuck together 2 or 3 more years…wow, the things we might have been able to do within that particular name and organizational form.

Now, I don’t believe that we should just buckle down and wed ourselves to whatever organizations are around us without ever initiating new things or putting old things to rest. There is a place for dissolution, splits, and always new formations. But those are just that: formations. They are structures for handling communication, decision-making, learning, and coordinated action. They are not relationships! What matters is how much relationship infrastructure gets sustained or lost when we split or quit or build something new.

Oh, how much of what we do and don’t accomplish in politics is really about relationships, wrapped in relatively transparent political costumes! So often, we really quit groups or have splits because we don’t like each other, we don’t know each other, we feel slighted, we feel unappreciated, we feel like we’re better than other people, etc. We may call it political disagreement, but that’s rarely the deeper reason. It’s rarely the disagreement that keeps the work from really moving forward, it’s the communication foibles…the weird psychological projections and defensiveness. And it’s the culture of “I need to be more theoretically special than you so I have to invent something I disagree with you about.”

And how much of these relationship conflicts really have to do with a basic lack of trust that we will be in each other’s lives a year from now? How would they change if we knew, with certainty, that we’d still be organizing together in 10 years? How would our debates change? How would the pace of our conflicts shift, or the language of our disagreements? Would we shit-talk the same way? Would we go home from meetings questioning whether people even heard us or even like us? I think a huge factor in what makes us quit and split so easily is that we are scared of investing in each other and of being rejected.

So here’s where I’m at: I’m not ready to commit to any new or existing organizational projects right now, but I feel oh, so ready to commit to a city and its people. I love to imagine myself as committed to Seattle, or at least to the Puget Sound I-5 corridor. I want the people in my community to know that…to know that as long as they are here and not actively sold out, then I am here with them…in the same organization or not, I know that I will see them and embrace them at events, at marches, in the funerals and in the secret cafes. I know that we will share our eventual free health care clinics together, and our radical free schools. I know that we will see our fair share of internal violence flare up, and we will respond to it together as a community. I love thinking this way, as committed to being present in a revolutionary community rather than as only wed to a specific organization. I also love thinking about being an elder in 30 years.

Okay, it’s 1am, and I think I’ve made my main point…to be developed or not as I go into my current ideas more. Because next I want to talk about what I actually am thinking about for a new organizing project, as well as another explanation of why the left needs to learn more from churches.

A number of weeks ago, the anarchist project that I had put two years into, Common Action, decided to dissolve. I don’t actually want to write too much about the organization itself, especially because we are going to put out a more thorough history and analysis within the next year. But I do want to write here about the dissolution of groups in general, and the pros and cons of radicals and our tendency to commit, split, then quit.

Building up to that post, I thought it would make sense to post my responses to the discussion questions that we had before our final General Assembly in November. This was something that all remaining members had to write before coming to the General Assembly, and it generated some really good thinking from the group. Perhaps some pieces of this won’t make sense, but for the most part, I think it’s a pretty accurate description of what I’m hoping for, organization-wise, right now. Other members had some fantastic stuff to say in there responses, and hopefully those will be published in some form for other people to see, but I can only share what I wrote.

There are some points in here that I don’t think I got to explain fully to Common Action members before we dissolved, and maybe I’ll feel motivated to develop them out further…for example, my proposal to focus on building skill sets within specialized groups, rather than on trying to build a larger mass organization right now. This idea felt weird when I articulated it, but it nonetheless seems correct to me, and I want to play with it more.

Common Action General Assembly Discussion Questions
Jeremy Louzao, 11/05/2010

1) What do people need from an organization in order to be part of it?

Okay, so there are lots of types of organizations, and lots of types of people, so I’ll keep this to what I think people generally need from a “primary” political organization that expects a good chunk of their time:

-A sense that the organization validates their overall world view, and is in line with their ethics
-A sense that the organization has the potential to have a concrete impact on people’s lives or society…and ideally has a history to back that up
-A sense that the organization’s work fits coherently into a winning strategy for systemic change, even if the organization is just a tiny part of that strategy
-Feeling known and acknowledged by a good portion of the people in the organization, and being recognized for one’s unique skills, interests, quirks, and aspirations
-A proven climate of open and healthy communication, in which members can feel comfortable to raise concerns to the group without fear of being shut down or accused of screwing up
-The organization is flexible enough to reflect, learn from its mistakes and successes, and change to match changed realities
-A culture of self-evaluation and humility in which members regularly model taking responsibility for their own mistakes or personality difficulties without needing to be told
-Structures and practices of decision-making that are transparent and democratic, but which are also efficient and don’t waste everyone’s time with nit-picking over details…which means that committees are formed wherever details and nit-picking are necessary
-Meetings that feel nourishing, efficient, and productive: the beliefs and politics that draw people together are acknowledged and present in all meeting spaces, but goals and agendas are clear, and people leave having accomplished at least 2/3 of what they set out to accomplish in the meeting
-Transparent, accountable, and motivated leadership. Ideally, everyone demonstrates leadership, but if that’s not the case, then the leaders consciously work to inspire leadership in others. Organizations in which everyone’s a follower are some of the most disempowering, navel-gazing experiences I’ve ever had. Also, organizations shouldn’t pretend like we’re all equally leaders if some members are doing nothing and others are doing almost everything. That is unfair to all.
-Conscious, explicit discussion of members’ growing edges, and the sharing of roles and training to help all members push those growing edges as far as capacity allows
-A sense of support and respite from the brutality and crazymaking of the “outside world.” Structures and spaces made for members to share about their personal lives and struggles, and people feel listened to and supported; but within this the organization’s political, systemic work is not lost. Members who are in crisis or who can’t sustain work beyond their personal lives are actively supported to get the help they need (without guilt or shame), but the work of the organization does not become completely centered on these individual needs
-A social climate that allows all members to feel like they are on equal footing as comrades, without the need for jealousies of those whose friendships are stronger, or sexual competition, or feelings of isolation for those who prefer to “stick to business” and not become friends with their comrades
-A mutual acknowledgement that we are all imperfect people who are working on becoming better people, and of the hard work that this is

2) What type of organization do you want to be part of?

[I also pretty much answered question #4 here]

Here I need to articulate both my ideal—which I believe is achievable but is still a number of years off here in the Pacific Northwest—and what I want to be a part of right now, in order to build towards my ideal.

My ideal organization is a mass revolutionary organization, analogous in many ways to both the 1930’s U.S. Communist Party and to many modern day mega-churches. This organization would have explicitly revolutionary politics, which means that membership would be based on a shared belief that the current social structure is broken and needs to be transformed by bottom-up, mass action toward:
-worker/community control of the economy
-equality and justice across a wide gender and sexuality spectrum (beyond traditional dichotomous views of both man/woman and gay/straight)
-equality across communities, ethnicities, cultures, and generations…and a dismantling of the myth of race
-ecological justice and a sustainable industrial system
-community based participatory democracy, with major decisions coming directly from the neighborhood and workplace level and then nesting upward
-international solidarity and the dismantling of the myth of nationhood
-many other pieces that are related to universal justice and equality (animal rights, undoing ablism, religious freedom, etc.)

This organization would focus on four main areas of work:
1) Internal education and sustained support for personal healing and growth
2) Cultural work and external education to build a counter-hegemony against the right, liberals, and Marxist-Leninists
3) Support and funding for large-scale experiments in alternative institutions
4) Mobilization and organizing to resist the agenda of oppressive institutions and the ruling classes, and to defend the gains of the revolutionary movement

However, unlike the old Communist Party (and similar to the mega-church movement), this organization would see itself as just one part of a much larger movement, with other small and mass organizations doing parallel work…the shared goal across these organizations would never be to be “the one big party or organization.” Instead, they would focus on the building of alternative institutions across the movement that can link, align, share resources, and slowly converge toward a counter-power that can rival and overtake the existing power structure. I think the open source software movement and much of the rise of the internet shows us the power of this sort of “viral” revolutionary approach.
A core piece of this organization would be its mass revolutionary character. That is, it upholds sophisticated, radical politics, but also sustains multiple levels of involvement and membership, from periphery members who agree with the politics but who can’t make any commitments to action, to core members who want to work full-time for revolution. All of these members stay together in one organization, with mutual accountability and oversight across the group.
Another core piece of this organization is that it would be multi-racial and intergenerational and generally “multi-sectoral.”

I don’t believe that any organization that exists right now locally, or which we might form, will become that ideal organization. I imagine that this organization would form down the road when our local movement context is strong enough that a number of like-minded groups and individuals can come together, dissolve and merge their current organizations, and consciously form something bigger. This, I believe, is the best hope for a multi-racial, intergenerational organization in the Pacific Northwest.

So, in order for a mass revolutionary organization to emerge and be viable, there are a variety of core practices that are going to first need to be refined by smaller, more specialized groups that could eventually merge together and share their practices:
-Groups that focus on theory-building, research, and hardcore social analysis
-Groups that focus on popularizing that knowledge and applying it to multiple levels of internal and external education
-Groups that focus on whole-body healing and personal work
-Groups that focus on on-the-ground tactics and campaign organizing
-Groups that focus on community specific problems and realities (identity-based groups, youth and elders groups, neighborhood based groups, churches)
-Groups that focus on community accountability and alternatives to the criminal justice system
-Groups that focus on other alternative institution building
-Probably a ton of other things that I couldn’t think of
While a common way to imagine the formation of a revolutionary organization is to imagine one group forming that tries to focus on all of these (an error which I think we made in Common Action), I think it makes much more sense for groups to focus on getting really good at just one or two of these things, with the goal of merging together later.

So, with that said, which specialized group do I want to be a part of? Well, because of my own past focuses and skill-set, I think I’m most interested in being in a group that focuses on both popularizing knowledge and personal transformation work from a revolutionary perspective. To be more specific, I would like to be part of a close-knit, revolutionary organization that focuses on studying revolutionary ideas and history and popularizing those across our local community and across local progressive/radical movements. At the same time, the group would focus on how to integrate people’s personal experiences and aspirations into a revolutionary worldview, so they can see themselves as nourishing and being nourished by the movement.
While a number of CA members have mentioned wanting to slow down and focus on studying, I find myself agreeing but also asking, “to what end?” If it’s toward the end of then popularizing the ideas we are learning through external education, propaganda, creative actions, etc…then I’m in. But if it’s toward trying to focus on campaign-organizing or on trying to form a full-on mass revolutionary organization from scratch, then I’m more skeptical.
As far as analysis, I believe that studying and talking about class and capitalism is crucial, and I think talking about gender, sexuality, and race are also crucial. And, of course, I think all of these should be discussed in a way that sees their intersecting, systemic natures. In practice, if the organization continues to be majority white, then I think developing and then popularizing deep race politics should be a priority.

3) What level of commitment does it take to be part of such an organization

At this stage, members would be expected to be active for maybe 5 hours a week? This wouldn’t be all meetings, but would include study groups, committee meetings, work parties, and participation in other groups’ events. Over time, as the group hones its practice, it would hopefully make room for lighter levels of commitment, with members who just want to be trained to do occasional trainings or project support on specific educational projects.
In general, I think all revolutionary organizations should make it a priority to evolve towards having multiple levels of involvement. This practice of balance and work-sharing are crucial to eventually sustaining a mass revolutionary organization.

4) What ideas (vision and strategy) do you have for moving forward towards this type of organization, for the short and long term?

I covered this above.

5) What is the need that we think Common Action is there to fulfill?

I think Common Action has attempted to fill a couple of needs: a need for work on transformative justice in movements (a decidedly mixed experiment, but with a lot of strong lessons); a need for popularizing revolutionary ideas (I think we have a lot of potential here); a need for participation in mass organizing (pretty bad track record on this); a need for theory-building and strong research and social analysis (pretty bad track record here as well); a need to articulate and model revolutionary ideas and structures (an okay attempt); etc.

Right now, I would argue that if we are going to continue with Common Action, that we focus on internal education and then popularizing revolutionary ideas across the local mainstream and across the left, with an emphasis on integrating the need for personal transformation work into that.

6) What does an organization need in order to function?

In addition to what I stated in question #1, mainly just follow-through, a culture that motivates and supports members, and clear structures that are actually followed…and if not followed, then refined or dumped until they are practiced efficiently.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi