Harnessing popular energy, building popular power…Part 2

Last week I wrote a piece to play with some ideas of how to build revolutionary change on a mass scale, with an emphasis on collecting and harnessing the activities of masses of people. I want to continue that thinking a little bit more here, with some other ideas that I’m playing with that I think tie together.

A Dual-Power Kind of Nationalism

One of the most powerful things about a dual-power revolutionary strategy is the way its ideas can capture people’s imaginations, and really help them think about what a totally different kind of society could look like. It’s very poetic, visionary, and hopeful. On the other hand, one of the strategy’s biggest weaknesses has been how decidedly small-scale, diffuse, narrow, and meager most actual dual-power style projects are.

It’s so common for a dual-power vision to inspire activists and artists to pour hours into community projects that they internally see as the seed for a transformative shift…but what the rest of the community sees is a cute, if somewhat uncomfortable bike space or community garden or food pantry. It’s neat, and it brings lots of character to the neighborhood, but it’s hardly the radical threat to institutionalized oppression that activists had hoped to embody. And after all their work, the founders often either move on, or they recognize this problem and they try to get their project to be even more serious, significant, accessible, and efficient…and this is usually the road to yet another professionalized non-profit organization. Even more sustainable, even less of a threat to the system.

But this isn’t an indictment of the whole strategy. I’m a big advocate for the strategy. The problem is scale: both the scale of the individual dual-power projects, but also–critically–the scale of the messaging of the project.

What if we had a new kind of nationalism in our revolutionary movements? A type of nationalism that is inspired less by the identity-based or geographically centered nationalism of past decades, and more inspired by ideas like the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, and other autonomist type projects.

I really hate to use pretentious-sounding language like “anti-nation,” but that’s kind of what I mean. What if a sizeable group of anti-authoritarian dual-power advocates got together and sort of put out a declaration, even a constitution, for a dual-power nation…a project of constructing a functioning parallel society right here and now, all over the place. This wouldn’t just be some insurrectionist style declaration that dissolves away so sweetly and so emptily, like cotton candy on the tongue. This would be a concrete project of identifying all of structures that an alternative society would need, and then actually supporting people to build pieces of those structures now, to whatever capacity they have. The lone bike project, for example, wouldn’t be a lone bike project, it would be the transporation or ecology arm of a much larger project; and it would actually be accountable to the needs that such a project entails, not just the sub-cultural proclivities of people who like bikes and hate cars. Same for the community accountability collectives…they would be understood as accountable to and prefigurative of the society’s needs for safety and defense.

This is a pretty large idea, and I’m not going to go deeply into it in this series of posts, but I want to at least get clear about why I’m mentioning it: if we can frame and structure our dual-power projects as the expansive, revolutionary threats that we intend them to be, then we also expand our ability to grow them more quickly and creatively through mass energy.

Let’s stick with the bike project for a little while. I want to stick with it because these projects are so common amongst my fellow radical type folks, but I personally feel like they are kind of a waste of a lot of revolutionary energy (as they are currently formulated). Yet I don’t think I’m going to convince people to stop working on them. Instead, I’m hoping that they’ll work them to a more revolutionary purpose.

If a more or less inactive but sympathetic person walks into a radical bike project, and it’s just framed as a bike project, what is the potential for inspiring and harnessing that person’s creative activity toward revolution? Beyond reducing their consumption and carbon footprint (which is at least something!), not much. They might be inspired to take a tire patching class, or even to become an occasional volunteer, but it kind of ends there.

Now imagine if that project–with the same enthusiastic bike activist volunteers putting in their creative work and hours–was branded as, wedded to, and accountable to a larger dual-power society-building project. On the wall there are explanations about the larger project, sign-ups and notices about other linked projects, invitations to mass assemblies, etc. When the inactive person walks in to get their bike fixed, they are also told (in a respectful and non-pushy kind of way) about how the bike project operates and how it’s rooted in this vision for a new society. There are clearly presented volunteer opportunities, event opportunities…and crowd-sourcing activities (I’ll get to this in another post). This person may say no to all of this stuff, but they came in to fix a tire and they leave having at least engaged with a transformative vision for society. And if it was done in a responsible and friendly way, it won’t push that person away in the future, either.

If that same stuff is happening at the food pantry, conflict mediation center, radical mental health center, with shared branding (like a little logo on all the fliers and brochures that says “member of the new society building project,”) each and every day that these projects are providing their alternative services, then there is a substantial opportunity for engaging thousands of people a month–in a big city like Seattle. And if these were all linked to a common volunteer management system, a common internal education system, and a shared dues or income-sharing system, there could be really effective harnessing of people’s activity. And if these projects were linked to, and accountable to mass-based decision-making assemblies…wow.

And since this project could be national or international, it could also allow people to continue and link their work as they travel or move.

What’s special about this approach is that it turns our small scale projects–and their distance from our large-scale vision–into an asset rather than a liability. When we have a clearly articulated vision for the structures our communities need, and we see the gaps from what we have and can communicate that openly and transparently, then people who are inactive will perceive a clear, concrete invitation to not only be active, but to be active creatively to solve meaningful, potentially revolutionary problems. This is something that I’ve learned from the non-profit world: there are way more people out there who are interested in being involved in radical projects than we think…we just haven’t invited them and motivated them with structures and activities that keep them in the movement. This dual-power nationalist idea could be an approach to this–even better in concert with the revolutionary congregation idea!

Another strength of this approach is that it doesn’t ask people to change their interests to suit a singular, linear Revolutionary Strategy. It doesn’t tell the bike activist, “hey, you’re wasting your time and you should study more Marx,” (which they won’t do anyway, they’ll just think you’re a jerk…trust me!). Instead, it actually takes people’s existing interests and even their hobbies and it invites them to connect with a more revolutionary edge–something they are often yearning for anyway. And it would even give existing alternative projects an opportunity to link in and affiliate themselves without too much muss and fuss. Once again, it’s all about expanding our capacity for collecting, irrigating, moving, recycling people’s human activity…not narrowing them.

In Part 3, I want to actually dig into the actual, concrete activities involved in dual-power work themselves. How do we create a wide variety of activities that can meaningfully collect a wide variety of people’s “rogue” activity? Stay tuned for that exploration.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi


I like this – especially “it’s all about expanding our capacity for collecting, irrigating, moving, recycling people’s human activity…not narrowing them.”

Too often people spend huge amounts of time trying to tell others they aren’t doing it right – which is maybe the best example of people not doing it right. 🙂 Though, I think the question shifts to – is it an effective use of your time (or your organization’s time/resources) to help them. To use the example of the DIY bike guy that maybe should read Marx. Denouncing them because they refuse to read Marx is definitely a waste of time. If you want to insert politics into their activity or otherwise connect it with a larger movement, you have to do it in a way that is clearly beneficial to *them* and their current interests. But that’s not trivial, so it gets into whether organizing this person helps to further the project you’re working on, which generally won’t be a simple yes/no but more of a prioritization.

Also, on the little toy projects. The problem is that when you start out small (and that’s the only place we *can* start from), the only thing you are capable is small projects. The trick, I guess, is finding a plan that parlays a toy project into something big and more real. If you have a credible plan and current small-scale (but scalable) real-world work, then you have a chance at convincing people it’s worthwhile. But I think to be credible, there needs to be a bridge between the small present and the big future.

Again, though, coming up with such a plan isn’t easy, and just telling someone that they need to come up with such a plan is about the same as telling them they need to read Marx. So then you’re back to if they’re a priority for you, then you need to approach then with “if you tie this into a bigger movement and have a credible plan, here’s how that helps you achieve what you hope to achieve”, and if they are not a priority, then it’s “wow, that sounds great. I hope it works out well for you”.

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