March 2011

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Click here to go to part 3.

I’m going to wrap up my writing about revolutionary congregations by discussing some of the potential pitfalls and criticisms that I would expect from this approach.

I also should state that, although I believe that this is a good idea that’s worth trying, I am not wedded to any one social change strategy or organizational form. I guess I kind of think of my mind and my imagination as kind of a nonviolent, radical left DARPA—I like thinking about all the different creative and wacky ways that we could do revolutionary struggle, but I know that most of them will go nowhere. Even though I’ve been quietly suggesting this idea for 6 years now, I’m prepared to be wrong. But I’m no longer interested in just being quiet about it because of that possibility.

Okay, then, what are the potential problems or push-back that I anticipate from this proposal?

The Master’s Tools/Christian Dominance Problem

I often fear that even mentioning Christian churches and anti-authoritarian revolutionary politics in the same breath is a non-starter. After all, the evangelical right is on the “enemy’s list,” and Christian cultural dominance is an historical part of this system that we’re trying to transform. Therefore, people have good reason to be skeptical of any lessons we might learn from church structures, and especially of any organizational forms that we might adopt that could potential replicate Christian cultural dominance.

Okay, that’s real. However, the model for revolutionary congregations that I’ve proposed is not actually very “churchy” at all, and I think it could be transformed even more to be even less churchy, while still retaining the important structural elements that make it what it is.

In case I didn’t make it clear elsewhere, I don’t actually want us to call these churches, and really I don’t think we should use the word congregations beyond this piece. In fact, I even played with the idea of not even mentioning churches anywhere near the proposal, but I think that’s pretty intellectually dishonest and silly. I believe that the left needs to get better at learning lessons from outside of the narrow revolutionary canon, so at least in this first proposal I want to be clear about its intellectual roots.

Nonetheless, it might be true that I’m arguing for a cultural form of organizing that somehow has inherently oppressive elements. But if that’s the case I need help identifying them. Weekly gatherings? Basic political agreement? Building infrastructure through offerings? I don’t see anything oppressive in these elements. Nor do I see anything particularly middle class, white, or otherwise culturally narrow—for those who might put forward that critique. But then again, I’m prepared to be wrong.

Magnifying Cultural Insularity

A criticism that one friend of mine has leveled against the revolutionary congregation idea is that it’ll just attract to same old faces from the social justice community, and wouldn’t actually reach non-political masses. A similar critique is that this model would allow communities to get comfortable in their numbers and just build and even celebrate their insularity.

This concerns me as well, but I don’t think there is anything about this model that makes it more culturally insular than any form. In fact, quite the opposite. Because the weekly gatherings have the potential for exploring all types of issues and programmatic styles each week, there’s a lot of room for a wide variety of experiences and ideas to be explored by a big group of people. Still, there would need to be deliberate work to maintain movement building relationships with other communities and organizations, and there’s no way around that.

But the fact that this structure is so open, and emphasizes recruitment also is a help in avoiding this problem.

Over-emphasizing the Personal, at the Price of the Structural

This organizational model is centered around weekly gatherings that, although political, are mostly about personally connecting and rejuvenating ourselves as radical people. That is, there is no minimum level of political action demanded of members.

The danger of this, as Andy Cornell discusses in Oppose and Propose and as we’ve seen in many other radical groups that make space for the politics of process, caring, and healing, is that revolutionary organizations can slowly lose their edge of political action. They become dominated by individualist or lifestylist attitudes and disengage from the deep (and hard) fighting and building that revolutionary change requires.

I think this danger is very real, but it’s a danger that any organization that makes any space for feelings is going to face. We are people, and we are complex, and we are believing in and fighting for things that create a deep disconnection from the society and people around us. It is a completely natural survival strategy to take whatever spaces we get to retreat and lick our wounds, or try to numb ourselves and avoid the fight altogether. There are no structural magic bullets for this problem. It has to be part of the basic founding statement of the organization, reinforced in the culture and messages of the weekly gatherings, and supported through a warm, inviting, yet militant culture of action among the more active members of the congregation. The group has to be aware of the danger of retreat and de-politicization, and guard against it with conscious action.

I think the opposite danger is far worse, however. The reason why I support trying this revolutionary congregation model is because I think most revolutionary groups heavily de-emphasize the caring, reflective work, to poisonous consequences. How many people do we lose every month, every year because they no longer feel like they can keep up, because they feel a need to balance their lives and have no space to do that and stay active, because they feel like they can’t measure up to the radical superstars in our midst? And how many of the great lights from previous radical generations had hidden problems of drug and alchol addiction, abusive relationships, and untreated trauma that ate away at them personally while we celebrate them publicly? By rooting our organizations in a shared, reflective space—the weekly gathering—we also shift the pace of our revolutionary work from a non-stop and unhealthy urgency to something slightly slower, more affective, but more sustainable.

It’s a Structure, But What’s the Strategy?

The revolutionary congregation proposal is about experimenting with a different organizational form for doing radical social change work. It’s not a strategy in itself. It’s not naming specific targets for action, specific counterinstitutions (beyond the congregations themselves), or specific elements of theory (for example stances on the centrality of race, or of class struggle). That’s deliberate.

My view is that revolutionary anti-authoritarian movements in the U.S. are far too undeveloped to be focusing our organizational forms solely around specific strategies. This is a big cause of the sectarianism and disorganization that makes us so perpetually weak. Despite the fact that probably millions of us agree on broad elements of vision and and analysis, we split and fracture into smaller and smaller little organizational universes on the basis of questions that none of us are even close to knowing the answers to.

The revolutionary congregation model is about grouping together and building community around larger points of agreement among radicals (but, once again, not as catch-alls…there should be some sharpness and clarity to the basic founding statement), while giving space to experiment and develop different strategies and theories from within the congregation. For instance, there are probably 8-10 radical groups in Seattle right now that have disagreements over specific tactical questions and especially questions of issue emphasis. We could maintain those disagreements even if we were all in a revolutionary congregation together, with room for all those people to experiment with those ideas…but with the regular community space of gatherings and study groups and infrastructure to keep us working together. This also allows for groups who recognize that their strategy isn’t working to be supported in swallowing their pride and quickly rejoining their fellow radicals, without the need for bitter splits, self-blame, and burn-out.

I think we’ve inherited way too much sectarianism from the Marxis left, and I think that has been punctuated by the internalized politics of brand loyalty that corporate culture has taught us since we were young. We pick sides around relatively minor questions, and then they become identities. And the price is that they keep us not only from coalition, but even from the basic relationship building and infrastructure building that could make the left, as a whole, much more powerful.

Indeed, I know that even this idea—regardless of its merits—will potentially go nowhere because of that sectarianism.

I think I’ll probably think of more over time, but I’m actually way behind on some work, so I think I’ve gotta just post this now. Probably expect a few more edits later.

Click here to go back to part 2.

Okay, time for my description of the revolutionary congregation, as I have imagined it up to now. Please keep in mind that this is my first time articulating this in writing with any depth, so I imagine it’ll be pretty rough.

Overview

The core purpose of the revolutionary congregation is to serve as a stable community for people who condemn the current organization of our society, who want to believe that a wholly different, participatory organization of society is possible, and who want to gather together and fight for that new society right now. The most fundamental goals of this particular formation are:

1) To provide a consistent, warm space for participants to reflect, internally and interpersonally, on revolutionary ideas as a comprehensive worldview, and the implications of those ideas not just for society but for our lives as whole people.

2) Build infrastructure for shared personal growth and study, shared action, and shared counterinstitution building, which is also then shared with broader movements.

3) Provide opportunities for a rich variety of programming that allow people to connect with revolutionary politics from a variety of different angles, education levels, and personal needs

Rooted in “The Idea”

Like the Spanish anarchists who talked about living and fighting for “the idea” and who let that basic, core aspiration fuel them for generations, the revolutionary congregation is rooted in a basic statement of beliefs and aspirations.

This statement wouldn’t be more than 2 pages long, and ideally it would be less than one page. It expresses, in as accessible of language as possible, the core principles, analysis, and vision of the congregation. This can be as general or specific as each formation wants, depending on what kind of base-level political agreements that they want from the beginning.

The critical thing about the document is that it honestly spells out what ideas people are seeking to congregate around; it expresses both analysis, vision, and strategy; and it articulates the need for both personal change (including a changing orientation to our power, privilege, and material relationships to the world) and institutional transformation.

This document forms sort of the essential compact of trust between members of the congregation. There is an understanding and trust that anyone who keeps coming, no matter what their level of education, level of time commitment or particular interests, believes in those core beliefs. There is a regular celebration and mutual recognition that all participants are fueled by these ideas and hopes, and that though we are each walking individual paths towards transformation, and at different speeds, we all broadly share the same destination. As the Zapatistas have said, “we walk at the pace of the slowest.”

I should emphasize that this is not a wishy-washy, catch-all document. Being simple does not have to mean being vague or simplistic. For example, the opening line of the IWW preamble is, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” It’s simple, it’s accessible, but it names the system honestly.

What’s important about this first point is that this organizational model is based on a belief that “the idea,” at root, is pretty simple, and that we can build large fighting organizations that allow people to build skills and take action at all levels of education and dedication, so long as they agree with those simple ideas. It holds that this is a sufficient foundation from which revolution minded people can build a rich and nourishing community. This differs from many cadre examples where revolutionaries seem to believe that they need to come to careful and detailed political agreement before they feel like they can settle into building a political home together.

The Weekly Gathering

The most basic building block of the revolutionary congregation is the weekly gathering. Different from a mass meeting or weekly workshop, this is a 1 ½ to 2 hour convening in which people share music, poetry, and art, but also hear opinions and reflections about current events and revolutionary ideas, and have opportunities for participatory dialogue as well. More than anything else, these gatherings are designed to refuel the soul and keep the mind energized after a week of having to survive in our absurd society.

Additionally, the congregation could have occasional “street gatherings,” in which instead of meeting at their usual location, participants gather and carry out their program in particular sites of struggle (like a picket line or in a squatted building, etc.). The gatherings could also offer a regular opportunity for guests to come and share about movement experiences elsewhere, but it’s always really important that it be more than just a news and announcement session.

After the gathering, there is a food and chatting period, as well as resource booths, action bulletin boards, and petition tables for people to check out (sort of like a weekly resource fair and potluck).

The gatherings would be planned thoughtfully, with a multi-issue emphasis, by member-run committees, not by any permanent leadership. That is, there would be no pastor or single congregational leader. I’ll discuss the leadership question in more detail shortly.

Opportunities to Go Deeper

In addition to the weekly gathering (and maybe duplicate gatherings at other times for people with different work schedules) the congregation offers groups, programs, and action projects throughout each week. Multiple levels of study groups, action committees, counterinstitution committees, solidarity committees with larger struggles, somatics practice groups, caucuses and personal change groups, childrens and seniors programs, art classes, etc. would be offered.

A lot of these opportunities would also be open to the broader public, and many congregation members would probably spend their weeks involved in other, non-affiliated movement projects, not just congregation projects.

The idea here is to offer opportunities for growth and action directly to members, but also to encourage building and actively participating in the larger movement.

Speaking personally as someone who is responsible for a huge family and who has a really hard job, this model is perfect for me. It allows me to be a full-fledged member of a revolutionary community, sharing space and art and life each week with both my other busy comrades and my comrades who are full-time, super intense organizers. At the same time, I can take on additional activities as I am able, and those who are more free can take on a whole lot more without feeling like my busy schedule is holding them back.

Here’s another thing that’s cool about this: it allows way more people to share in the comradeship that makes revolutionaries form cadre organizations in the first place. Think about it: cadre organizations usually exist to 1) give committed revolutionaries a space to feel safe and not alone in this harsh world, 2) do in-depth theoretical development together, 3) create finely honed strategic interventions in movement work. This congregation model allows 2 and 3 to happen in small mid-week groups, just the same as a cadre model, but it’s all grounded in a 1 that includes potentially hundreds more people (people who agree with the politics but don’t have time for the intense theory or strategizing). This overcomes the primary problem of cadre organizations: that they create insularity, and the lonely righteousness of being more “serious” than everyone else in the movement.

Building Revolutionary Infrastructure

At the weekly gatherings, financial offerings would always be requested and expected, and that money would first be used to build a space (I imagine that first congregations would start by meeting in existing schools and non-profit spaces, just like fledgling churches do), and then furnish that space with resources like a childcare area, a gym, a playground, a kitchen, a music setup, a stage, etc. even our own schools!

Along with building congregation-specific infrastructure, additional money would be put towards supporting counterinstitutions that serve the larger movement, as well as action campaigns that the congregation believes in.

This part is really exciting to me, because evangelical churches generate a lot of dollars, and they put a lot of those dollars toward international mission work. I’d really like to see what revolutionary congregations could support with that kind of money on a global level.

The Leadership Question

Leadership development is a big priority in the revolutionary congregation idea. The goal is to offer consistent, structured encouragement and opportunities that move people from their first curiosity about the group, to their attendance and agreement with the core beliefs, to their active membership in the congregation, to their committed action and organizing, to their conscious democratic participation in the core leadership of the organization.

Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church is really helpful here. He has a whole diagram that shows the flow from the larger community, to the curious crowd, to the congregation, to the committed, and then to the core.

Rick Warren Diagram

All self-identified congregation members would be welcome to participate in decision-making and in all committees. But what’s particularly cool about this model is that the hardcore people have lots of opportunities to delve deeply into analysis, theory work, experiments in strategies and actions, but in committees where they are bolstered and held accountable by the larger congregation that they belong to. Similar to the Zapatista idea of “governing obeying,” those who don’t have the time or interest to be full-time revolutionary organizers or theorists are able to be in weekly communication and have direct oversight over the work that their more intense comrades are doing. This is the reverse of the cadre model, where the professional revolutionaries concoct their revolutionary ideas first, and only then decide when and how the masses are prepared to see them.

Geography and Size

I imagine that revolutionary congregations would start as singular, geographically amorphous entities in all areas, but especially in big cities the idea would be to get them as local and neighborhood-based as possible. I think 200-300 people congregations would be ideal, but part of me would be really curious to see an experiment in a 30,000 person mega-organization like Rick Warren’s church is.

The Question of Power

The revolutionary congregation does not have the goal of becoming a mechanism of popular power in itself. Its goal is to provide what George Lakey has called a “base camp” for people to learn, grow, reflect, and take care of themselves between their interventions in the larger sites of struggle such as workplaces, community councils, etc.

In this way, they have a very similar role to the FAI and ateneos in Spain or even to the old IWW halls.

However—and I think this is cool too—because of its infrastructure and resource base, in moments of crisis, social collapse, or insurrection, this model does offer the flexibility for like-minded congregations and sister counterinstitutions to quickly federate and become sovereign communities…if that’s what the conditions demand. This is exactly the capacity that right-wing evangelicals are building. It’s a structure that allows us to be prepared at a moments notice for revolutionary opportunities like the Spanish anarchists had in 1936, like the Bolsheviks had in 1917, and like we’ve seen recently in Egypt and Tunisia.

Recruitment

Because the revolutionary congregation isn’t religious, and is advocating for a down-to-earth, democratic approach to the problems of daily life and the world, participants should have no qualms about spreading the word of their congregation. What’s more, because the center of the congregation’s life is the weekly gathering, it’s not as if entry-level activities are some afterthought that the group has to come up with–which then is dropped when intense organizing heats up, which is another common phenomenon with cadre organizations. Of course, because this is a model so similar to a church model, people would need to be careful about not copying the annoying tendencies of both Christian and Social evangelicals (that is, paper peddlers), but this, funny enough, another area where evangelicals have done a lot work, sort of understanding the nuances of their recruitment.

Now, of course there will be questions and issues of the demographic makeup of congregations, just as there are currently with both radical groups and churches. But I don’t think this model absolutely depends on the need for, for example, always multiracial groupings, or cross-class groups. I think it’s possible, though not ideal, to form even relatively homogenous congregations that are honest with themselves about that reality, and then seek to build relationships of trust, solidarity, and shared resources and action with other congregations and organizations. But like I said, that’s not the ideal.

Building a Revolutionary Movement to Scale

Because this model is both growth oriented and focused on building its activity around the whole lives of its participants, I think it could be uniquely capable of building revolutionary ideas and counterinstitutions to the scale that we need to be a threat to the system.

One thing that kind of irks me about us radicals is that we get so self-satisfied about all of the neat and special organizations and collectives we have across the country, yet we don’t think more intensely about how weak their diffusion makes them. I mean, it’s fantastic that we have a radical mental health collective in New York, and massive community gardens in Detroit, while we have bike projects in Tucson, and Seattle Solidarity Network fighting bosses and landlords in Seattle. But the the problem is that to actually be a serious force, we need all of those types of projects and campaigns in all localities, actually being accessed daily by stable populations of people! Sometimes I think we almost take it is a badge of pride that some regions and cities have their own little unique collectives, but as soon as we move from niche thinking to revolutionary thinking, this should be seen as a considerable problem and a challenge.

The evangelicals and other spiritual groups have been successful at building to scale, and almost entirely from their own grassroots fundraising, as opposed to making demands on the state or foundations in order to survive. This is because they have a mass base and they regularly receive offerings, but it’s also because they build outward from that core premise of building institutions that serve the spiritual and material needs of their congregants. It’s that fixed orbit around the central idea that’s so important, and it could give coherence to the current chaos of disparate projects–that are also usually unaccountable to a base–that the radical left faces now.

Closing

At least for now, these are my main points about the revolutionary congregation model. I’m hoping that after I get this all written and I share it around a little bit, then I can polish it into a more formal article. Hopefully then it will generate enough discussion and interest that some people (please be people in Seattle!) will be willing to try experimenting with it.

But before we get that far, and potentially waste resources on a model that could be disastrous, I have one more section to write: the pitfalls and criticisms that I anticipate from this proposal.

Click here for part 4.

I had a lot of fun writing Part 1 of this piece, in which I talked about 8 things that I thought we could learn from the U.S. evangelical movement (and I think it really does qualify as a movement). However I realized that if I really want to explain my thinking decently, this is going to have to be at least 4 parts. Here, in Part 2, I want to take a little bit of a detour to talk about the gap I see in revolutionary organizational models that are currently discussed amongst anti-authoritarians. In part 3, tomorrow, I’m going to propose an experiment in creating “revolutionary congregations” as a potential mass revolutionary model. Then, eventually, there will be a Part 4 where I will discuss pitfalls and critiques that I anticipate with such an experiment.

The Organizational Gap

One thing that I want to make clear right from the start is that I’m proposing a strategy of building revolutionary congregations not as some kind of lazy copycat maneuver, nor as some cynical ploy that I think could appeal to the masses although I actually dislike it, but rather because I personally thirst for an effective, long term revolutionary organization to put my energy into, and most current models on offer leave me unconvinced. That is, I think there’s a gap in our spectrum of revolutionary organizational options, and it’s one that I think my idea of revolutionary congregations could fill.

As I see it, the following list summarizes the organizational models that anti-authoritarians currently have on our menu. Of course, in practice many of these forms can be fluid and they overlap with each other, and there’s probably some that I’m missing, but I think this gives a pretty good picture of what’s out there:

-Collectives/Affinity Groups
-Study groups
-Non-profits or alternative institutions (including radical healing and therapy groups, collective houses and intentional communities)
-Online communities
-Lone-wolf/security culture phantom organizations (like the Earth Liberation or Animal Liberation front)
-Clandestine militant groups
-Spontaneous and specific groups like Black Blocs or other quickly forming and dissipating formations
-Direct action and campaign groups (including direct action casework groups like Ontario Coalition Against Poverty or Seattle Solidarity Network)
-Various lifestyle groups, craft groups, or practice clubs
-Political parties
-Labor/student/consumer unions
-Cadre organizations
-Revolutionary mass organizations
-Networks or federations of collectives
-Community assemblies or councils

I believe that, depending on the context, all of these forms are potentially useful and can serve specific functions in building a vibrant ecosystem of social movements. However, as anti-authoritarian revolutionaries, it is vitally important that at least some of our organizational forms can answer the question of building mass democratic power. Are our organizations building, in some way or another, the concrete mechanisms for millions of people across the country and the world to directly discuss and decide on the economic, political, and social organization of their own communities and of the society as a whole? If so, what are the sites where this power will reside and how will it be exercised? How will people be supported or prepared to participate dynamically and equally in the exercise of that power? How will that mass democratic power be defended from degeneration and hostile counter-revolution?

Advocates of all the above models have at least partial answers to these questions, but in my view the most interesting and promising debates are currently between the advocates of cadre organizations, advocates of revolutionary unions and community assemblies, and advocates of revolutionary mass organizations.

Those who favor cadre organizations tend to argue for the approach of social insertion, or of being a conscious minority within either existing mass spaces or within new spaces that the masses build out of their own self-activity. That is, they don’t believe its the place of conscious revolutionaries to build organizations for the masses to then “come to them,” but rather that they should work within the masses and argue for their positions within those spaces—while simultaneously maintaining their small, consciously revolutionary side groups.

Those who favor revolutionary unionism or community assemblies tend to argue for building mass organizations of workers–or consumers or the unemployed or community members–who will build enough power as a class/community to shut down or take over the workings of the system and then reorganize it along radical democratic lines…usually with a lot of counter-institution building in there as well.

Those who favor mass revolutionary organizations tend to argue for building explicitly revolutionary organizations that are designed to grow and support the energy and participation of large numbers of people of a wide variety of experience and commitment levels (unlike cadre organizations). They actively recruit and politicize even non political people. However rather than choosing just certain specific sites of mass power like unionists/syndicalists do (the workplace, the community, the schools, etc.) they often maintain a more flexible approach of trying to build and strengthen multiple movements, spaces, and forms of mass democracy, through both confrontational action and counterinstitution building.

Of course, these aren’t necessarily rigid positions and there is some mixing within current discussions—particularly with some recent interesting writings about “intermediate level” organizations by groups like Miami Autonomy and Solidarity.

Yet within these discussions I’m observing that the cadre organization tendency is winning the most adherents among people I know and trust (and I include class struggle “especifismo” or platformist strategies as cadre tendencies), with revolutionary unionism and communal council “unionism” (along the lines of either the Wobblies or libertarian municipalism) running a distant second, and with the mass revolutionary organization tendency somewhere in third.

This is disturbing to me, because I am skeptical of the cadre model as potentially elitist, self-important, and inaccessible to working revolutionaries trying to live balanced lives, and I am skeptical of revolutionary unionist tendencies because of their strategic rigidity in rooting themselves in specific sites of struggle that the current system is capable of rapidly transforming or shifting in response to movement gains (as it did to the labor movement and as it has done to many historically organized neighborhoods and communities). In short, I’m an advocate for mass revolutionary organizations, and I’m frustrated that the tendency is not more popular.

I believe one reason for this is that we are sorely lacking in workable proposals for how such organizations could look. We just don’t have many visions out there for organizations that:

-Are explicitly revolutionary, multi-issue, and multi-identity
-Are capable of supporting memberships of hundreds, or even thousands within an area
-Are capable of providing a democratic and nourishing political home to both hardcore activists and busy, tired working people, without making the hardcore people feel held back or “dumbed down,” or making the busy people feel tied to the vanguardism of a well-studied elite
-Are recruitment friendly, warm, and accessible to non-radicalized people
-Support approaches to movement building that see organizers as whole people with the need for balanced and healthy lives
-Are simultaneously building grassroots funds, infrastructure, and people power for confrontational action; personal growth and internal education; and counterinstitution building
-Are strategically spry and allow for the transience of populations and the quick shifting of social, political, and economic realities

I believe that the evangelicals have things to teach us on this front, and that the building of revolutionary congregations might be one organizational experiment that could help us hit all of those marks.

Tomorrow, finally, I’ll explain what I mean and propose how they might work.

Click here for part 3.

Since 2004, I have been insistent to the friends and comrades around me that the radical left needs to learn more from both the right wing and from evangelical churches. I think this started when I watched a PBS frontline special about George W. Bush called “The Jesus Factor.” Watching that, I realized the scope of the divide in this country; that there was a whole spectrum of millions of people who I had no daily contact with who had wildly different views about Bush, about the war, and about what even life and society are all about. I jumped into that, reading lots of stuff, and I came to see both the evangelicals and the right wing more broadly as a form of mass movement that had tons of elements that the left could learn from. At the time, this wasn’t a very common idea, and people around me thought I was a little weird…but now this is pretty much accepted as true.

When I went to Guatemala, my thoughts got even more complex about this. I saw a country that had experienced a 37 year civil war, in which revolutionary ideas, though suppressed, were spread throughout the population, and yet, after the peace was signed, in the areas where the guerrillas had been really active the only social force that was really growing was the evangelical church (one can read about this in Rethinking Protestantism in Latin America by Garrard-Burnett and Stoll). Especially since my wife herself calls herself an evangelical, I felt a need to understand this phenomenon and at least try to respect it.

Okay, so I think the left has a lot to learn. But what, specifically? What do I see the evangelicals and the right doing that I would like to see us doing more?

1) A Comprehensive Worldview

One point that I’ve often made is that both evangelicals–and the right more generally–offer a totalizing worldview that offers masses of people a way of processing the ups and downs of their daily realities and a way of participating in communities of people that share that worldview. At the same time, the left tends to only offer single issue or wishy-washy ways of interacting with left values, and doesn’t offer sufficient spaces to engage deeply with a comprehensive worldview–especially in ways that connect with our personal lives and contradictions. Sure, in small revolutionary collectives it happens, but these are often insular and elitist spaces…on a mass level, the left doesn’t trust non-activist people to engage with a left worldview…as if they aren’t prepared or can’t handle it or something.

2) Multi-Layered Infrastructure

Make no mistake, there are probably millions of U.S. evangelicals who have embraced what is more or less a duel-power strategy. They are building a Christian country parallel and under the surface of the larger U.S. society. Evangelicals have their own flag that they raise, they put that little jesus fish on their businesses to signal out which businesses to support, they have their own TV channels, toy lines, video games, publishers, therapists, food producers, summer camps, etc. And the very reality of everyday church buildings themselves is worth paying attention to. On almost every other corner in the U.S. there is a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue with comfortable meeting spaces, a kitchen, a childcare area, music equipment, and more (not to mention the stadium sized mega churches that serve more than 10,000 people at a time!) Contrast that to a handful of labor temples and the occasional super-uncomfortable info-shop.

One recent example: Glendi has a side job with a non-profit that sells fair trade Guatemalan goods at various festivals and sales throughout Seattle. Each weekend of November and December Glendi had me helping her at these different winter bazaars at different progressive evangelical/protestant churches. We went to 5 different churches, and all of them were multi-leveled, disability accessible, with playground equipment, a stage with sound system, meeting spaces and classrooms, childrens programs, and each one had current events bulletin boards and posters put up from their “social justice committees” about issues of LGBTQ rights, the war, poverty, etc. These are people who I would never expect to see at a protest. Yet they are utilizing these space and even talking about social issues each week.

3) Whole-Life Programming

Evangelicals don’t just do sermons. They don’t just do bible studies. They have music. They have socials. They have excursions. They have couples support and singles meetups. They have sports leagues. That is, they look at every facet of life and they have tried to create and support a response from within their own movement and values.


4) Grassroots Fundraising

One of the reasons they are able to support their intense levels of infrastructure isn’t just because they have the numbers, but because they have a culture of grassroots fundraising through tithing and weekly offerings. Though it can definitely be manipulative, fraudulently used, and competitive, the regular stream of money coming from ordinary people’s pockets and into church infrastructure is huge! Now the left has something analogous with non-profit infrastructure, but the crucial difference is that with churches people are paying for something that they participate in monthly, weekly, even daily. With non-profits we are usually just donating to a separate, professionalized group that isn’t intimately connected to our daily lives or even accountable to a social movement.

5) Clear and Unapologetic About Values and Purpose

One highly recommended read about evangelicals is Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. See, Christian bookstores have a whole section in them called Church Building (they also have another section on “Spiritual Warfare,” also worth checking out), and one day in 2005 I found that book. It’s pretty incredible and one of the big lessons of it is that churches shouldn’t pretend to be what they’re not. They shouldn’t hide their beliefs in order to grow. Instead, they should clearly state their purpose and doctrine, and then they should build a warm and inviting environment for those who choose to embrace that purpose as well.

See, evangelical churches don’t really care about alienating non-believers. They believe, by and large, that the bible is the inerrant word of God, and that there isn’t that much room for interpretation. Thus, if you don’t like it, tough. Now I don’t advocate the same arrogant attitude for the left (and I do think it is arrogant on the part of evangelicals and all fundamentalists), but I do think it offers important lessons about movement building.

The left can build mass organizations with clearly stated, radical politics, and still have them be warm, accessible spaces for people of all political levels and levels of commitment. We don’t need to do this thing of picking a single issue with a simple message, and then looking for the most promising elements within that single struggle and offering the deeper truth of our radicalism to those select few who can “take it.” We can be fully, openly radical from day one, and build from that position with all people, even the non-political.

6) Widespread Leadership Development and Small Group Democratic Practices

Because evangelicals in particular (except for maybe some pentecostals?) don’t believe that God speaks to only select elites, everyone is capable of leadership and active participation in the church. Sure, patriarchy is often heavily in play within churches, and a lot of churches have power tripping pastors, but at the same time churches are filled with all sorts of committees and study groups and charity societies that empower ordinary people–particularly women and young people–with real leadership roles. Once again, if you go to that Church Building section of the Christian bookstore, you will find literature on building “small group ministries” and other types of cell structures that teach evangelicals how to maintain, recruit, resolve conflicts, and evolve small groups of active members. That is, they have put serious thought into bottom-up leadership development and mentorship!

7) Mind-Bogglingly Huge

There are tens of millions of evangelicals involved in all of the above stuff. That means that they are participating daily in building and evolving their infrastructure and ideas. They are learning lessons about structure, small group dynamics, recruitment strategies, conflict resolution, leadership development at a pace and scale that significantly dwarfs anything we’re doing on the radical left. Sure, not all their lessons learned apply to us, but there are lots of things that are common to any social movement that we could learn from them so that we can grow faster and smarter. Which brings me to my last point for part one:

8 ) They have Spawned Their Own Radical Left Current

Ever heard of Shane Claiborne? I hadn’t either, but he’s a bestselling young evangelical author who’s basically a Christian crusty-punk type anarchist. He’s anti-imperialist, anti-consumerist, and he gets massive stadium mega-churches to chant along with him this catechism of radical Christianity he wrote. He is just one of thousands and thousands of a new generation of evangelical radicals who still believe in the bible (and thus retain some really messed up views about things like queerness) but who have interpreted the bible to be a total rejection of capitalism, the state, and the current system. These ideas are being discussed RIGHT NOW in hundreds of bible studies across the country, and they have very little overlap with the language or culture of the left. But the evangelical movement is such a huge force that it spawns its own internal movements to develop, especially with new generations of youth who have different interpretations of doctrine than their parents. Seriously, this stuff is worth checking out and seeing how we can ally with them!

These are just 8 points that I could think of this hour about why we should be learning from the evangelicals. Ironically, many of these points also apply to how we could learn from Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have very similar processes going on that are making them a scary force to reckon with in their countries.

These observations about churches and evangelicals have progressively made me more insistent in my view that revolutionary anti-authoritarians should try to experiment with creating similar structures but which are rooted in our visions and values.

In complete seriousness, I believe that we should consider a strategy of building revolutionary congregations.

When I say this some of my comrades end up agreeing with me, but most dismiss me pretty quickly. Fair enough, but since 2004 I have yet to be convinced otherwise. So I’m starting to think that I should be working hard to do some convincing of my own. So, in part 2 of this piece, I’m going to lay out a proposal for what I mean by revolutionary congregations.

Click here for part 2.

I’m getting more and more excited by some of the scholarship and discourse happening in anti-authoritarian radical circles lately. With Oppose and Propose in the mail, having seen Team Colors speak in Detroit, reading Upping the Anti, Left-Turn, Advance the Struggle, Gathering Forces, I see lots of people of roughly my same generation wrestling with the same questions that I’ve been wrestling with on this blog.

What’s particularly exciting to me is that as the debates and investigations simmer, the questions become more focused, more specific and, thankfully, more testable. What was once just sort of a general clamoring to “think strategically,” to “move from resistance to revolution,” to grow “from protest hopping to building local power,” has refined itself into wonderfully substantive questions of concrete organizational forms; approaches to conflict, healing, and care; stances in relation to electoral power, dual power, non-profits, and unions; strategic international alliances, etc. I think we are at a point where thoughtful, creative, and disciplined radical scholars could really do some good research and get us some really useful data.

In fact, the only reason we have gotten this far is because radical thinkers, both outside and inside the academy, have been persistent enough to form these questions…evolving research to the point where the qualitative sort of movement observations, interviews, syntheses can soon launch into more quantitative types of research. As critical of revolutionary academics as I am–partly out of my own envy for not going that route myself–I am so thankful that we’ve gotten to this point.

But now the challenge of these newer types of scholarship looms large.

See, what I’m now really interested in is numbers and measurements. It feels weird to say it, but I am. Like Andrea Smith from Incite! Women of Color Against Violence has talked about, I don’t think we’re honest enough about what’s working and what isn’t. Both to sustain our reputations, our self-images, and our funding, we radicals gloss over our work, and whether its truly effective. We are so vocal and frankly so self-satisfied that we’re even doing the work and articulating it–which does deserve real affirmation in this hard world, I should say–that we spend far too little time on meaningful evaluation. We say things like, “I’m really inspired doing youth work,” “I’ve been really focusing on anti-violence work for 10 years,” “I’ve really had a lot of experience running action campaigns,” but we rarely evaluate how successful this work is, beyond how it makes us feel. How many community accountability processes are actually successful? How many revolutionary organizations last more than five years? What is our organizations’ attrition rates, and rates of new leadership? I believe that the vast majority of radicals experiences are those of failure. I really do. Sure, we learn tons of lessons, but that’s exactly my point! Let’s get some scholarship on this, so that we can really quantify those lessons! And since I’m probably full of it and just haven’t done the research myself, someone point me to the scholarship that’s already out there!!

How many radical collectives are there in the US? What’s the breakdown by ideology? Is it different geographically? What’s the membership growth rate, the attrition rate, the average age and demographic breakdown? What victories have we seen, and what kinds of victories have they been? How many people are experimenting consciously with dual-power, and how many are doing campaign work focused on winning reforms from targets? What curriculums are proving effective? How do we measure the success of radical curriculum in the first place? What are people reading and how are they sharing it? What are the best practices for handling conflict? What are examples of actually radicalizing non-subcultural people? What is the effective meeting size for authentically practicing democracy? What kind of preparations do people need from a variety of educational levels to feel fully empowered to participate equally in democratic groups? What are the best practices for transformative justice and what’s the “recidivism rate” for aggressors who’ve participated in those processes?

Obviously, this is data that those in power might already have or really want, so trying to get it for ourselves could be a double-edged sword. But that’s how many movement scholarship goes, and in the end I think it would be ridiculously helpful.

As much as my alternative, free-school loving, anti-academic self hates to admit it, solid data is crucial to building power. We need to be learning what’s working and what’s not. What’s actually helping people build power and what’s not. And what, concretely, numerically, does the exercise of popular power look like? The gathering and use of that data is also something we could really learn from the electoral politics people, since they live and breathe all that demographic data, micro-targeting, district breakdowns and all that stuff.

This all reminds me of something my friend Erik Dreyer said to me once back in high school about the difference between skiing and snowboarding. Skiing, Erik argued was a sport to be taken seriously, whereas snowboarding was still just a hobby. He said that in ski races, the winners were determined by the measurement of micro-seconds, whereas in snowboarding the winners were still seconds apart. When snowboard races were down to the tenths or even hundredths place on the stopwatch, he said, then snowboarding could be considered a sport.

I don’t know if I agree with him, but I do think this carries over to us in radical politics. It is when we can know and speak to our successes and our failures in a refined way, with knowledge and data to back it up, that we will know that we have transcended the game and mere identity of revolutionaries into the serious and lasting building of power. I think we are getting there, at least a good couple hundred, maybe thousands of us across the country. But we’ve got to keep on pushing it.

—An important side point—

Within this is all is a big self-critique as well. I think one reason that I have avoided further academics and real scholarship is my lack of discipline in my own study. For some reason, despite always getting nearly flawless grades, I never picked up good organizational or study skills. I don’t take notes on my reading, almost ever. I don’t highlight or mark readings in any way. I read things–essays, books, etc–entirely, and then usually respond from memory. Which means that in spaces of writing, especially this blog, I don’t reference many people or really speak to their specific quotes or points, but instead just my general memories of their points. It’s sloppy, and it frustrates me.

This is something that I really want to improve about myself and my writing. I want to learn good study habits, good organizational skills, so that I can actually participate in these growing debates and studies with confidence. Because currently I feel like I’m running alongside a slowly accelerating train of radical thinking. I’ve been able to keep up from my casual little blog in my casual little radical lifestyle because the whole discourse has been moving so slowly…but now that the theory and the learning is speeding up, I fear that I’ll be left behind, alone with increasingly crackpot and outdated theories. In order to avoid that, to stay engaged, I want to really get some of these skills down!

Last night I went on a long walk by myself–one of those things that I’ve been doing a lot more of since I started playing my little game. It was just wonderful, my head just galloping through creative idea after creative idea, reflecting and expanding on dozens of thoughts and memories, all punctuated by loud and soulful music on my headphones. I made it through my neighborhood and all the way through the Seattle arboretum, where the plants and the mud and the blossoms gave tangibility to the coming spring. And on my way back, waiting there at a crosswalk for a light to change, I developed this big, childish grin. I had just this grand, warm smile, standing there all alone on the street.

And there was something revelatory about smiling like that. It felt so familiar, so comfortable, like something that had been aloof had finally settled into place. It felt like me. It felt like me putting on my own face again. And that’s when I started to cry, out there on the street. Huge, gasping sobs.

See, I had realized then how important the simple act of smiling is to me, to my relationships, to my history, and to my politics. And I realized also how rare it’s been to smile so naturally over the past 10+ years.

I was thinking about how many relationships I’ve built just starting with my smile, and how many awkward situations I’ve made more comfortable. I thought about the trust I’ve built with friends and family ever since childhood, and how many people I’ve made feel heard and recognized, just with my grin.

This is not about being boastful, or exaggerating my strengths, but I think I have enough experience in this world to know that my smile is a gift, and with it the ability to make people feel seen and validated, to be inspired with creative and wild dreams, to connect with a playfulness that they often feel unable to access in other spaces. And, honestly, I believe that it’s helped me win a fair share of people over to radical politics–it’s a powerful revolutionary tool. But it’s not just a gift. It feels more like a critical piece of who I am inside, my identity. If there is an archetypical form of me, a “platonic,” perfect form of me, it would have disheveled hair, bad posture, and that huge, silly smile with crooked teeth.

But that’s also what felt so wrong about the whole thing, how much I’d missed the feeling. Over the last 10 years or more, I’ve gone from project to project and group to group, even across the country in the process, and consistently the predominant memories, the most visceral lessons, have been negative. Scathing political critiques leading to dissolutions and splits. Entire groups of friends who no longer speak to each other. Actions and projects that blossom with tremendous progress, and end up condemned publicly and retold as cautionary tales. Those places in Anchorage, Bellingham, Seattle where it still stings to walk by. And lately, more personally, just the stone-heavy, dull, steady crushing of capitalism, xenophobia, corruption, and disease that is rolling over our family members one by one.

In all of this, my smile only surfaces briefly, and too often as a veneer for much more stormy thoughts beneath. And here is where I have learned to put in the self-criticism of my privilege and sense of entitlement–that really this negativity is how the majority of people are made to feel, so I should be careful about lamenting too much. And that is true enough, that’s a fair point. But it’s not my point. My point is that my disconnection from my own smile, my alienation from that deep and authentic pool of creativity and happiness that I have known since I was 4, has been a tremendous blow to my revolutionary potential. And any strategies that I may be trying to develop about being a better organizer had better have a priority on reuniting me with my smile!

If there is a role for radical scholars, skilled campaign planners, tireless fighters, fierce poets…then there is a role for making people feel happy and for encouraging them to imagine outlandish things. I think that’s a role I’d like to fit again. And I plan on doing just that.

Aint nothing going to break my stride
Nobody´s going to slow me down
Oh no, I have got to keep on moving

In my opinion, a critical starting point for any leftists in the U.S. who want to come up with a long-term change strategy is to take a long, hard look at the Right and why they win so often. I’ve been saying this for years, and when I first started saying it a lot of my friends didn’t take me very seriously, but they sure do now. Nowadays, I think it’s taken as a given that we have lessons to learn from the Right. And I think far more people on the left now are much better about recognizing the Right’s genuine mass-movement elements.

So, one strategy that I think the Right is quite good at is the broken record approach. They will take up a radical position, and with a long-term view they will just repeat it and repeat it and try it and try it and just drive through whatever scorn and doubt and whatever else until, maybe 10, 20, 30 years later they’ve basically created a hegemonic shift. Previously outlandish ideas become “common sense.” This is also something that social movements try to do, but the Right, especially with how well funded they are and how pro-capitalist they are, can afford to do it in a much, much more consistent and stable fashion. In public at least, you just don’t see them wavering the way the left does…or at least the way liberals do. they just keep repeating themselves ad nauseum.

So enter Wisconsin, and the long time national war against organized labor, and particularly public employees unions. What we saw there was a radical governor who staked a radical and unnecessary position and stuck to his talking points all the way through, even in the face of massive, historic protest. In the process, he’s become a right-wing hero. Thankfully, he’s also galvanized a huge new coalition of folks to oppose him and any similar attempts in other states, and this is critical…but we’ll get back to that later. The thing is, whether Scott Walker would have won or not, they are still going to keep trying this. Even if he’s recalled, they’ll keep trying. That’s what makes the Right so good at winning! They want to destroy public unions, and they will just keep throwing attempt after attempt out there until they win. They are willing even to wait a few years if the electoral climate shifts, but even 5-10 years from now they would try again with new offensives.

The Right doesn’t quit. They will just keep pushing and repeating and repeating their simplistic and terrible ideas over and over until they win them. And then when they have won, because their ideas are all about privatization and deregulation, it’s just a snowball effect of power that keeps their gains from being reversed. Like a harpoon, once they get it in, it’s hell to get back out.

So Wisconsin, and the current all-out assault on public unions is also related to another Right wing broken record: privatized education. The war against public schools and public school teachers is a deep part of this, and they aren’t about to give up. The schools represent both a vast market opportunity and a great culture-shaping opportunity, and they will use charter schools, merit pay, accountability tests, and lots and lots of talk about equity and racial justice to win what they want. They have already been highly successful in getting liberals on board with almost all of their educational ideas, and so really the only holdouts are the unions. If the unions go, I believe so do our schools. And I have plenty of problems with the teacher’s unions (especially from a youth rights perspective), but they are the last line of defense and the Right knows it.

I cannot begin to describe how terrible I think privatized education will be in this country as it spreads. They talk so much about accountability, but we already know that capitalism is brilliant at externalizing accountability. Once the corporations get in (and they already have through the charter movement), there will be no stopping them. The broken record strategy will also synergize wonderfully with mass school curriculum development.

And when I talk about the Right here, I don’t necessarily mean the cultural right–the evangelicals and tea-partiers–I mean the capitalist Right, who include the majority of Democrats as well. If they win these union battles, and then the subsequent privatization battles, there is even more at stake for future generations of political consciousness. And then, of course, with net neutrality undone as well, things get even uglier.

So back to my original point. The Right is good at using a broken record strategy. We have to recognize this and plan for it…not act surprised every time they try their some old stuff.

However, we don’t have the resources or unity to match them in that strategy, so what do we do? Like so many other issues, I think our best answer is the building of small, locally aware and present local grassroots power. We don’t win with a matching volume megaphone. Theirs is always bigger and has longer battery life. We win with familiar whispers; the whispers of neighbors and friends who aren’t buying it anymore. That was a big piece of the growing protest in Wisconsin, and it’ll need to be developed further across this country. Good old fashioned community building, and door to door community education. I’m trying to run the angles in my head and from my reading, but I just don’t see any other way that we win.

I’ve been doing really well since my last post. Lot’s social interaction, having a great time with Glendi, and making great progress on all of these crises have hit us since the New Year. Sure, there was hard week of depression in February, but then sort of a beautiful moment where I was able to channel that into a lot of creativity. It felt good.

One of the coolest ways that I’ve managed to feel so great lately is my secret little nerdy project: my real-life game!

Here’s an old Facebook post I originally wrote about it back in September:

For many years I’ve noticed two interlinked personal problems that get me down alot and make me feel like I’m not living up to my potential: consumerism (especially just constant internet window-shopping for items that I’m not even going to buy), and video games. These go back to like elementary school!

So the other evening I was playing a computer game in which I spent like 3 hours chopping wood and gathering bricks to like build a house, and I was like: “why did I just spend all this time essentially doing chores in this game when I could be doing real chores or even more, fulfilling, revolutionary stuff?” And without getting down on myself like usual, I just acknowledged it, because I want to gain a new level and have something that makes me feel safe and makes me feel definite progress.

So, thus was born the project: I decided to try an experiment to convert my life into sort of a real-life roleplaying game, in which I get experience points for doing things that help me live my bigger desires and values, and if I get points, I gain levels, and those levels give me little rewards.

Is this geeky and sad enough, yet? Potentially unhealthy? I hear ya, but it gets more embarrassing.

I worked out a whole structure of level progression based on 8 values (love, community, health, playfulness, responsibility, political action, curiosity, creativity), and then I created like 50 missions (along the lines of World of Warcraft, if you know that game) that give me points towards some or all of those 8 values (for example: if I read 100 pages of a book this week I get 3 curiosity points, and +1 point for political action if it’s political, or +1 for playfulness if it’s fun fiction, etc…or I get points for cooking Glendi or the housemates breakfast 3 times in a week, or for reading and responding to my friends’ blog posts, etc.). Getting even worse, right? There’s more!

THEN I actually inputted all of these missions into an excel file, and programmed macros and little buttons into the excel file, so that if I complete a mission I can actually just click one button and it automatically updates my point totals for my 8 different values. And then if the average of all my 8 values reaches 100 or more, I go up 1 level, and the excel program is actually programmed to change the color of the cell and the font to show what level I’m at! And if I get to a new level, I get to buy myself either a new game, or new clothing…thus also tying my consumerism to the reward system of the game.

So, it sounds freakish and weird and geeky, and I think it’ll probably end up not working at all and feeling really not right. However, on paper, in order to gain my first level I’ll have to be more community oriented, read more, pursue spontaneity and fun more, eat more healthy and exercise more, and be more politically active.

So, the idea is to use my nerdiness in the service of living a more balanced and community oriented life.”

Well, guess what! I got the game done in October, then had some major bugs in the excel formulas that had me put it aside for a number of months, but then I came back to it just a couple of weeks ago and got it all working for real.

Now, with one week down I’m halfway to achieving level one! So far, the game actually feels really effective. My scoring and leveling system actually provides me a really accurate-feeling sense of where I’m spending my time, and checking it every morning gives me a sense of a whole world of options for how I can spend my time.

So far, playing the game has helped me learn new recipes, spend more time with friends and political comrades, deal with outstanding financial issues, read more, and even write this post (I get creativity points for each post I write!).

I’ll be really curious to see where I’ll be in a week, then in a month. I’m still trying to figure out some of the systems for leveling and especially for rewarding myself when I reach a level…but the cool thing about my self-taught excel programming is that all this stuff can be changed on the fly while I’m playing the game.

When so much terrible stuff is happening–Japan, Libya, Wisconsin, and even Seattle schools–this is one thing that’s keeping me moving, and especially keeping me fighting. Finally, I’m using my video game problem for good!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi