May 2011

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Ever since I first became a radical, I’ve had this recurring thought process that is really troubling and sobering for me. Maybe I’ve mentioned it before here? It usually happens when I’m moving around a city’s center, or in a crowded place like a mall or a stadium. I scan intently around me, watching into every skyscraper window, watching every stadium seat, every passerby with their shopping bags, children, and hurried expressions, and then each time I ask myself: do you really believe that all these people are going to actively change their lives and not only participate in a revolutionary movement, but then afterwards in the difficult business of helping to democratically run society? Honestly, all or most of these people? All of these windows, all of these seats, with all of these people and all of their lives and stories and priorities? They’re all, or almost all, going to be talking about people’s power and community/worker control and collective liberation? Who are you kidding?

This gets me for a half-hour or so. It always does. I get upset, tumble through the briefest stint of depression, and then I find the threads that give me hope in the mass nature of change. If technological revolutions like the telephone, the TV, Facebook can enter into all of these people’s lives, why can’t revolutionary ideas and practices, properly organized? And if social shifts like universal (or not quite universal) suffrage, women’s liberation (at least at the 2nd wave level), recycling, the minimum wage, and voting for a black man can spread through masses of people, then why can’t more radical ideas and practices? And if our language is constantly shifting at a mass level, with new words and phrases like “bourgie” or “couch potato,” shooting across the culture, then why can’t the same happen with more powerful words?

That usually settles me down, but then it begs the question: how do revolutionary ideas and practices get to that level of mass impact, and become integrated into the core practices of millions of people’s daily lives?

I’d like to play with some ideas here, probably over multiple parts.

Fluid Dynamics and Popular Energy

Imagine that each of us human beings is a faucet of water or even a sprinkler–it helps to actually imagine people’s heads as big faucets, or their hands as big firehoses–and that whenever we are active and doing anything–which is pretty much always except when we are sleeping–our actions, our practices are manifested as the water flowing out of us. It might flow out at different volumes and velocities, it might pour and it might spray depending on the day or the time, but all of our actions flow out of us like water. And, just like our actions which always are happening in real time, once the water flows out, it’s in the world, it has passed through us and it’s on its way somewhere else. You with me so far?

Now imagine that if you take a bunch of people and their faucets of activity, and you focus them in a steady flow, all standing over a huge concrete hole, and you have them all stand there and just flow their energy, their activity into that hole. At first it may seem like it’s an impossible task to fill a huge whole like that, but with enough people standing there for enough time, that hole will fill right up.

That is precisely how capitalism and other systems of oppression and exploitation (but capitalism in some uniquely dynamic ways) have survived, evolved, and built the tremendous, overwhelming infrastructure that they have today. That’s where the skyscrapers, the malls, the stadiums, the highways, the war machines, have come from. The powerful have created a system of hoarding, corralling, focusing, and collecting our human activity, our constant flow of water, so that it is leaving us and our control, and then it’s flowing into someone else’s pools, bottles, tanks, and reservoirs, to be used as the new owners see fit. Usually–but not always–that process happens to us in the form of a job, rent, or shopping, right?

This is something that is so useful about Marx, actually. In his discussions of human activity as labor, his understanding of the exploitation of labor, his crucial idea of alienated labor in which the products of our activity leave our control, and in his understanding of the mode of production–or, in this case, the organization of the faucets and the plumbing.

See, this is all really critical to my first point. What makes these horrible social systems so big, powerful, and effective is not the systems themselves, it’s us. It’s actually the fact of how many of us human beings there are in the world, and how amazing and dynamic we are…and how these systems have found a way to harness and exploit that at a mass level. But, as is old news to most socialists and syndicalists, when the masses shift and turn their faucets elsewhere, the system dries up and can even die. These systems depend on the steady flow of our human activity.

So, if this is a cursory understanding of the fluid dynamics of exploitation and capitalism, what are the fluid dynamics of revolutionary change?

Well, the first thing to realize is that even when we’re not on the job, we are always flowing with activity. In rest, in eating, in socializing, in intimacy, in play, in hobbies…we are still working, producing, flowing out into the world.

What activism is for most of us–except those who are full-time activists–is the attempt to redirect just a tiny portion of the faucet in another direction, even if it’s a slow drip…so that at least for a moment our activity can go toward something different, more promising.

But here’s the trouble: after we have defiantly redirected the flow of our activity, after the water of our rebellion has left us and entered into the world, where does it go? What lasting impact does it have? Think about a huge protest march, for example. Sometimes I think about it as like a flash flood of rebellious human activity. It flows roiling down the street–essentially a canal organized and controlled by the powerful–it makes a lot of noise and it showcases a forceful and hopeful energy…but then it flows to a stop, and then just drains away. Some drops of water may linger on the streets, but the for the most part, all of that human energy just flows and then dissipates. It’s not captured, it doesn’t enter into any movement reservoir, it can’t be recycled or irrigated out to other radical projects. It just comes, and it goes.

If the system exists as it does because of its ability to capture, direct, and capitalize on the flow of human activity, and if our radical movements depend on siphoning off a mere drip, drip, drip of that exploited energy, then we’d better be damned good at harnessing every last drop of that activity! But we’re not.

What are the capturing devices of our revolutionary movements? What is our plumbing and infrastructure? Do we have the means in place to make use of not only the intense flow of activity of full-time activists, but also the occasional, rambling trickles of busy and overworked people who don’t have much time for activism?

Sometimes I imagine the state of the left like a powerful hose shooting a jet of water into a ceramic bowl. A handful of really smart, intense people just throwing their energy out there, but most of it just bounces away, and very little of it ends up being collected. No wonder our attrition rate is so high.

What, then, is a revolutionary plumbing and collection strategy in this analogy?

Well, the insurrectionist or general strike perspective would involve singular, massive turning of the faucets, alongside an occupation or smashing of the plumbing around us. That’s all fine but I think that’s less useful for the purposes of this analogy. In that perspective, what matters is taking or destroying control of all the infrastructure that’s already built…which I agree with, but for this analogy I’m more interested in the process of capturing the flow of energy that we’re missing every day that there isn’t a revolution.

Instead, I want to talk about the dual-power, or pre-figurative revolutionary strategy with this faucet analogy. Dual-power is the idea of our movements building the new world now, in the shell of the old, with the hope that eventually the alternative we are building is a sufficient counter-power to the old system, and then we can wrest final control from that old system or it just withers and dies. See, here is where the faucet and water analogy can be really helpful!

What this strategy essentially says is that we want to create new capturing devices, right now, so that we can harness the slow trickle of wayward, rebellious energy and turn that energy in a lasting, sustainable way against the system. If the system can exploit mass energy to build skyscrapers and highways, then we can harness more and more rebellious activity to build clinics, neighborhood councils, mutual aid structures. Right on!

However, in practice, what this usually ends up looking like is a handful of very subcultural people who have found the means to completely redirect their energy to flow into a handful of very subcultural projects, and there’s sort of a culture of, “if you haven’t completely turned away from the system, then you don’t really fit here”…we don’t want the drip, drip of mainstream people’s extra after work energy…we only want the full-time energy of people who are “dedicated” to revolution. This is a crime.

Working in the non-profit world, and seeing how grassroots fundraising and volunteer management work, I can’t overstate how angry it makes me the way that dual-power practitioners are wasting opportunities to capture and collect massive amounts of human activity. It’s so upsetting. It is possible to build a dual-power strategy that isn’t subcultural, and that truly is a threat to the system. It is possible that dual-power, pre-figurative strategies are a meaningful, peaceful alternative–or compliment–to insurrectionist or general strike revolutionary strategies. But we’ve got to be more clever about how we think about people’s precious time and energy.

I’ll explore more about this in part 2.

As I’m thinking about working with others to form a new study group, and as I’m preparing part 5 of my revolutionary congregations piece, I am reminded of this piece, “Roots in the Movement,” that I wrote back in 2005. I wrote it as a final paper for college, and then completely abandoned it. But every once in awhile I rediscover it and I get excited.

If I wrote it again, it would be different…it really shows me what I was prioritizing back then. But nonetheless, I think it’s a fun piece of imagination, and it fuels me to think creatively about current organizing possibilities.

For those who read my last post, I’m feeling much better now, and I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about some real progress for some of the people in my life.

In general, I’m feeling optimistic about almost everything right now. Life is moving forward in interesting ways for me, and so I want to give a quick update about some things right here.

-Just 5 more weeks at my job of 3 1/2 years, and I last weekend I completed the hardest part of it! We had our annual spring fundraiser and for the first time in more than a decade, we decided to not do an auction (for anti-capitalist value reasons, not money reasons). This was really scary for us, and we were prepared to make way less money. But, in fact, we made almost double what I expected, and actually surpassed the donations from past auctions. It feels like such a positive way to transition out of my job.

-After long agonizing, I did decide to go to grad school to get my Master In Teaching. I begin in early July, and I’ll be in school for a year. That means that I’m going to be trying to chill during this last month or so of work. I am so eager to actually feel rested and calm for at least the next couple of weeks.

-Glendi’s family is still struggling so much. We’re sending all the money we can, and that’s still not enough, but at least they seem to be holding on for now. For now, what else can we do?

-Some old organizing friends and I are starting to talk about forming a new, open study group in the fall. We just had a meeting yesterday, which I came to thoroughly ambivalent, yet which I left feeling inspired. I think, after the hardship of the breakup of Common Action, I’m now ready for a new political project, and this one is feeling pretty good. Right now, we’re discussing it as a study group that will center around questions of revolutionary intersectional politics…that is, understanding how systems work in an intersectional way, and trying to ask what revolution actually looks like for those systems. Yes!

-I’m starting to work on game design again. This is part of my own real-life game (which I’m still rocking through, though I’m scoring myself less frequently than before as I’ve internalized a lot of the habits)…to be more creative again.

The board game I’m working on is a cooperative game, in which the players must work together to build a post-revolutionary economy. The game will have multiple phases in which players have different roles. For example, in one phase each player represents a different industry’s workers council, and in another phase each player represent a different region’s consumer council. The idea is that players need to discuss and negotiate where to invest the economy’s limited resources and labor to produce a better life for all. Of course there would mechanics representing reactionary opposition, which players would have to cooperatively deal with. This is so fun to design, but the trickiest thing is boiling the concept down to its most essential parts, so that it still fits the them but without being too complex or fiddly.

-I think I’m going to get a haircut. Like a serious haircut. Like maybe even a buzzcut. I think I’m just about tired of having longer hair.

It Crushes Me To Keep Watching This…

It’s so hard to be in the world, in community, in family with people you love and to watch them continuously make destructive emotional decisions. I’m not going to offer any specifics here, and I’m certainly not interested in increasing any drama, but I’ve gotta say something about this feeling, because it’s got me so wound up. As I watch people in my life repeatedly fall into patterns in their conflicts with other people, repeatedly wrap themselves in denial and anger to protect themselves from what really are self-inflicted, insecure fantasies, I feel like I’ve run out of things to do. I start to shake quietly as a crawl into bed, I feel helpless and childlike…sometimes I just wish I could step out of this life completely and play carefree like when I was little. But I can’t, and so I try to act, to state my case, to share my advice for best courses of action…to set boundaries and ultimatums in order to influence behavior…and sometimes I think it works…and then it all just falls apart again.

I’m tired of watching this same car crash into the same wall dozens and dozens of times. I’m tired of seeing people I love hurt themselves like this, and so often so pointlessly. But when you love them, and you want to accompany them, what do you do? I’m not a tough love person, or a cold shoulder person. I have zero interest in losing more people from my life. But what are the other strategies? What do you when the survival strategies, the coping strategies, the defenses of people who you love go in strong contradiction to your own beliefs and values?

I feel like the answer from so many people in the activist community is distance. Space. Boundaries. Self-care. Because that’s my own cultural context, I tend to jump to these ideas first, too. But they are so wrapped up in individualism, detachment, entitlement, privilege, isolation…those solutions feel so incomplete to me. I’ve responded to so many issues in my life with detachment and distance, and lately I’ve found so much more hope and happiness with presence and engagement…but what do I do when my engagement get’s met with hostility one minute and warmth the next? What is the line between presence and accommodation or enabling?

I think I’ve said enough. I don’t know if this is even a useful post or just venting…but I think enough people have similar struggles that I hope you at least feel a little less alone with your own problems when you read it.

P.S. Don’t worry…I’ll be okay. Just frustrated right now.

Reflections to come…

My lovely little blog, I haven’t forgotten you, nor am I avoiding you for some emotional reason. I’m just far too busy as I’ve said goodbye to some wonderful out-of-town guests, as we wrap up two grant applications and prepare for our spring fundraiser this Saturday at work, and as I get things organized for grad school (yes, I am going to study to be a teacher!).

So probably not much writing here until at least Sunday. However, I have so much I want to talk about! Here’s just a preview of what I’m thinking about:

-A new series of pieces I’m thinking of calling, “Transformation Is A Spiral,” or something like that. These are pieces that acknowledge the cyclical and spiral like nature of radical politics, and how, after experience, we often come back to previously rejected positions, but with new insights. For example, how my ideas about dropping out and abolishing the school system have changed…or my recent troubles with approaches to community accountability that are based solely on the wishes of the survivor. Tough changes in my thinking that I want to make time for.

-Reflections on this last weekend visiting with my old friend Chris Dixon, and my new friends Andy Cornell and Harjit Singh Gill, who were on tour for the book, “Oppose and Propose.” There were plenty of moments that caught me off guard with exciting thoughts and I’d like to capture them.

-A fifth part to my Revolutionary Congregations piece, focused on ideas for how such formations could be started from the ground up…since that’s the biggest criticism of the idea I’ve heard expressed to me so far.

-Thinking through all of the exhilarating ways that I’m feeling challenged by Marxist and insurrectionist positions on political questions, and the positive effects that it’s having on my thinking.

-Some fun and interesting pieces on fluid dynamics and revolutionary strategy, as well as the power of crowd-sourcing for building accessible mass movements.

-Some writing about love, loneliness, and trust…because these are feelings that I’m feeling and thinking about a lot lately.

As always, there’s the caveat that I might write more than this or none of it, but at least I’ve got something in writing to keep me honest.

With all my heart to the few (but growing few, for sure!) who read this thing.

Pain is a gas, not a liquid…

Right now there are people crowded into shipping containers, into the floorboards of trucks, on top of freight trains, naked in rivers with their clothes in plastic bags tied to their bodies…all trying to get to my country.

They have signed themselves up for years of debt with monthly 10%+ interest accruing, offering whatever possessions, or even family members, they have as collateral…so that they can come here to do exploitative, under-the-table work.

Right now there are people, perhaps millions or even hundreds of millions of people, who would trade torturous pain for the possibility of even half the opportunities and comfort that I have. And there are hundreds of thousands who are actively trying to make that trade…right now.

This is an indisputable reality of this world. These are the raw facts of daily life within global economic apartheid. Over here we can go days or lifetimes without thinking about it, but those millions of people remain whether we acknowledge them for a moment or not. This is real.

But here is the thing that confuses me (beyond the sheer injustice of it all, of course): if I know how unbelievably fortunate I am, and how many people–including my own family members–would suffer so much to experience a fraction of what my life offers, why is it that my own stress and pain feel so strong, so all-consuming? Why is it that the worries that I have this morning, all the anxieties about my never ending to-do list, always feel like they are near the top of the 1-10 scale, even though I’ve actually experienced far worse moments in my life in the past…even in this same year?

I think this is how pain and stress work, and I think it’s why empathy and lasting solidarity are so hard to maintain for so many. Pain and stress have a way of filling up whatever spaces they are given, whether those spaces are substantial and complex, or small and trivial. The way they fill the body, the alerts they send out to the mind and gut, they often ring out in the same tone, regardless of their urgency. Rather than being a substance like a liquid that you can measure and see how close it is to filling up your capacity to handle it, pain and stress are gases that fill up all measuring devices; so hard to quantify, so confusing in the way they haze over your perspective.

By any intellectual calculation, I have so many hundreds of reasons to be happy on this Monday morning, and to be excited about the privilege of doing the kinds of tasks that I get to do this week. The things that I will get paid for, and the amount that I will get paid for them, would feel like both a dream and a cruel joke to so many millions of people. Yet I am here in bed at 8:30am right now (once again, a privilege to not work until 10am) and my stomach is churning with so much acid, I feel so uncomfortable in my body, so uncomfortable in my being. I feel like I’m screwing everything up, like things can’t possibly go right even though my last 30 years show me that, for me, so much ends up going right.

The pain of insecurity, the fear of failure, and then the self-hatred for feeling these things despite my privilege…
How is it that these feelings can be so strong while having so little basis? It’s gotta be physiological, right? It’s gotta be the brain and body chemistry, no? The simple fact that our evolutionary toolbox only contains so many gradations of stress and alarm chemicals, and that we were never meant to use them for things like event planning and campaign organizing?

If we pull back and just look at ourselves and each other across this planet, it’s really pretty sick and fascinating. While one person can’t handle the stress of figuring out which new car to buy, another is struggling to figure out how to keep the electricity on…yet the actual physical sensations and cerebral signals they are both experiencing actually give them a lot in common.

While I fret and groan and come close to crying about how I’m going to possibly finish this week of work productively, I know on so many levels how I should have more perspective and a much more tranquil response…but I’m still a mess anyways.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi