Harnessing popular energy, building popular power…Part 1

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.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi