Big Ideas

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Of pretty much all political perspectives, radical anti-authoritarianism is one of the most optimistic about humans’ individual and collective potential for self-government, and it sets some of the highest expectations and demands on individuals to make that self-government work. Anti-authoritarians really want a hell of a lot from people: cooperate to run your own workplaces, cooperate to run your own neighborhoods, and even cooperate to have a say about your whole region, continent, planet. It implies participating in meetings, closely following current events, staying up-to-date about nuanced policy debates–all while constantly avoiding being too much of an asshole. Now, the benefits that anti-authoritarians promise for this mass deliberation and collaboration is unprecedented freedom and equality, but the slope that humanity must climb to get there is kind of cartoonishly steep. That’s why so many people, though they might admire our ideals, dismiss our ideas so breezily.

A unique burden for anti-authoritarians, then, is to convince people not only that they, as individuals, are capable of this high-level democratic empowerment across pretty much all areas of their lives, but also that their neighbors, co-workers, and those other people across town or across the country are equally capable and deserving of that empowerment. In my experience, the first part can be tricky in spots, but it’s overall quite doable. It’s the second part, convincing people to trust in the empowerment and liberation of ‘the other,’ that’s really damn hard.

Today’s reality of informational war makes it so much harder.

If informational warfare were just about conflicting forces competing to overpower each others’ messages(“We’re right.” “No, we’re right!”), that would be difficult enough, and that would mesh with the reality of counter-revolutionary propaganda that anti-authoritarians have always had to contend with. But informational warfare–especially like Russia, the right wing trolls, and even COINTELPRO have fought it–isn’t about competing messages. It’s about pumping out so many contradictory, yet plausible enough, messages that targets become so confused and fatigued that they deactivate themselves altogether. In this form of informational warfare, repressive forces don’t need to convince people that the change we want is bad and that they are better; they just need to confuse, distract, and exhaust us enough that we don’t even really try. This was the Trump campaign’s explicit final round campaign strategy in the fall of 2016: voter depression. Get the other side so confused and demoralized that they just don’t vote. It happened again with the Mueller probe. The majority KNOWS that Trump committed real crimes, but people are too numb and tired to do anything. In our case, it’s about getting people so overwhelmed by the idea of controlling their own lives and having to share that control and those resources with others that they just don’t even consider that it’s worth the effort.

For the electoral left, the democrats and democratic socialists, the challenges of this informational warfare environment are very tough, but they can funnel their efforts into concrete, on-the-ground campaigns toward clear-cut voting choices. They can make it about clear, binary votes in established districts and zones of conflict. In the 2018 midterm elections, a simple focus on protecting health-care helped them make some gains. It’s hard for them, but they have possibilities to chalk up at least small victories within the spaces of the informational war. However, that clarity and simplicity would evaporate in any real policy push for something like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. If the electoral left actually got to that place, we’d see informational warfare shock and awe like we’ve never seen before, and the ability to prevail would require unprecedented popular mobilization–basically you would need a political revolution, just as Bernie Sanders says. And, well…if it takes a full political revolution just get to medicare for all, why not just go for a full anti-capitalist, anti-oppression revolution while we’re at it?

For anti-authoritarians, we just don’t have any luxury of binary voting choices like the electoral left has. We actually have to cut through the noise of the information war in order to help people establish their full political agency and democratic faculties, so that they can grapple deeply with complex issues, tied to complex emotions, and then work together to move on those issues, often in novel and risky ways. This requires a form of political communication, mobilization, education that the more traditional left just doesn’t have much practice with–precisely because the traditional left has an instrumentalist view of people power and thus rarely has had a practical need for deeper development of their base. And it’s not something that anti-authoritarians ourselves invest in nearly enough, because we are too busy copy-catting other left tendencies without realizing that this is what makes us unique.

Being anti-authoritarian means helping people step into political wholeness and complexity. It’s about cultivating nuanced, deeply personal politics of practical solidarity and daily mutuality It’s not about ultra-left positions. It’s not about sub-cultural fringes. It’s about deep human development. All the other stuff is extra. This is the core.

The unique needs and positions of anti-authoritarians within an informational war, then means that we need unique strategies and methods. We need ways of talking and writing about our ideas that can break through, subvert, expose the tactics of informational war against us. For me, I think this means a political style that is patient, deliberate, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It means a style that is humble, considered, empathetic, personalized. It means a style that definitively breaks from the Leninist polemics and aggressiveness of the traditional left, as well as the flashy, self-righteous, and simplistic sloganeering of many of our own punk-rock or street activist (or social media!) roots. Within the storm of the informational war, when truth itself is meant to not be knowable or even much worth thinking about, anti-authoritarians should have unique reputations as honest and vulnerable, as asking more questions than giving answers, as people who will discuss all possible options, even if they make our own anti-authoritarian options feel less favorable sometimes. The local neighborhood anti-authoritarians really should have a certain community trust and gravity to them, to the way they treat people and talk about problems. This is how Communists have sometimes talked about cadre, but have often (but admittedly not always) failed to follow through–once again because of their instrumentalist tendencies.

I’m still trying to get my head around what this would actually mean practically. I mean, how would it actually look different in real political communication?

I want to try some things out. Specifically, I want to look at three interesting sets of ideas within the radical/anti-authoritarian milieu, and I want to try to explore those ideas with a style that feels different from the styles that I think are more typical of the left. I want to explore the ideas of Black Rose/Rosa Negra, Left Roots, and of Symbiosis. I’m curious what I’ll learn!

A constant self-doubt that I have is whether I have any business writing about political topics that I’m not engaging with as a day-to-day activist or organizer. Armchair radicalism. This self-doubt has only grown as I’ve gotten older and made life decisions that have increasingly distanced me from daily political organizing. These days, I find it harder than ever to rationalize why I should be anywhere near a pen or a keyboard, typing words like “revolution” or “movement building.”

After Trump won, and I dove into the reporting and literature about the informational landscape that created and continues to strengthen his victory–the state-sponsored disinformation campaigns; polarized cultural bubbles; the White supremacist->Fox News content ecosystem and the conflict-addicted cable news cycle; the barrages of shitty liberal/leftist hot takes that erode unity around any issue, coalition, possibility–I became even more sensitive about putting my own ideas into the world.

We are living in times of intensified, unprecedentedly accelerated informational warfare. We are under daily threat from a tsunami of untrue, semi-true, and true-but-superficially-analyzed presentations of reality. The threat comes from multiple forces, including whole nation states, corporations, frightening fascist coalitions, and a whole slew of unwitting ‘content creators’ from Instagram and Twitter, to YouTube and Twitch. In this kind of environment, just throwing around a bunch of ‘I mean, I guess, maybe I’m right?’ pontifications about topics as big as global oppression or systemic social transformation feels like it might not just be a waste of time, but actually irresponsible. Why does the world need more contributions to the noise, if those contributions have no empirical backing, no lived track record in actually forwarding social change or movement building?

The answer I came to was that the world doesn’t need more noise, and so I stopped my political writing (okay, ALL writing) until I could back that writing up with at least some real experiences. But as those experiences haven’t come–perhaps in part because writing actually is my way to work through anxiety in order to act in the world (a chicken/egg dilemma there!)–I just haven’t been writing, I haven’t been organizing. I haven’t been reading much either. I just haven’t been doing anything political all. Okay…I’ll admit that I have been listening to a bunch of liberal/progressive podcasts, but that shouldn’t count.

Since doing nothing really isn’t a helpful option, I have to do something different, and I think I want to start by thinking about my writing itself.

You see, a key, silly, mistake I’ve made is to think that political writing is only valuable if it’s connected to real, physical terrain–like, real campaigns in the real world. But in a context of informational warfare, ideas themselves, every patch of reality, of philosophy, of values, identity, culture, emotion, is all contested terrain, and anyone who self-silences out of self-doubt is not just making a personal, individual choice. We are making ourselves casualties of the information war. Instead, we must find a different position between ceding the terrain of ideas with silence, and accommodating the informational war with unhelpful noise. We must use our own ideas, learning skills, listening and reasoning skills, curiosity, humility to establish whatever small guerrilla base camps we can to process reality, to feel–individually, in pairs, in small groups, however possible–less crazy and less hopeless. We can offer ourselves as intellectual companions and accomplices to our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, saying, “I know everything is overwhelming and confusing and feels too far gone. But let’s sit with it together and figure some of this out.”

That’s the place I think I’ve found for my own political writing, back here at this blog, for now. It’s my one little guerrilla base camp in a very scary, very real war that not only targets our politics, but our complete understandings of reality. It’s not a place to make the noise worse with loud, unfounded, dogmatic proclamations or quick click-bait critiques of potential comrades. It’s a place for questions and doubts, for “does this make sense or doesn’t it?” and “what can we make of these contradictions?” Importantly, I hope it could become a place again to indeed reflect on the on-the-ground organizing that I still think is central to any lasting change, and that I still hope to get back to.

I have come to understand myself as having roughly two “specializations” or focuses when it comes to the radical thinking that I most enjoy: popular education/political development and structures for political organization. The reasons why I have these focuses are 1) I believe that the left heavily—almost pathologically—overemphasizes social analysis and so I prefer to keep my head tilted toward vision and strategy, 2) my visions and strategies continuously tell me that revolutionary work is fundamentally educational in nature, and 3) I believe that building dynamic, healthy, high-capacity organizations is perhaps the most critical factor in the success of that revolutionary work. I adore thinking about education so much that it has become my day job. I am so gaga for all things organization that organizational daydreaming is one of my favorite free time hobbies.

You can imagine, then, how baffling and tantalizing a puzzle it is for me that the U.S. left has such a spotty history with building revolutionary organizations. I’ve been writing about this a lot lately, and I just wanted to share some notes about different aspects that I’ve been thinking about.

When I was 12, in Oak Harbor, Washington, I was playing ball tag with my best friend when I witnessed his neighbor charge out of his house yelling, and then brutally kick his dog in the ribs with steel-toed boots. I cried almost instantly. I didn’t care that my friend might see me and think I was weird. This was wrong, and I cried. I then called my mom to tell her and get advice. She gave me the number for some animal control and welfare organizations on Whidbey Island, which I later called, and then she paused and praised me for how sensitive a person I was. This was a defining moment in my identity development. I was a sensitive person. I defended an animal and I wasn’t afraid to cry when things weren’t right.

In Guatemala, in the present day, our family has two dogs that no one pets or plays with, which serve simply as night guards. There are four or five other dogs who come to hang out and socialize, steal some food, kill a duckling, or go to the bathroom. Along with all the rest of my family, I yell for them to leave. I curse and complain with the chorus. When one of the men in the family came charging out with a leather belt to scatter them yelping, I said nothing. In fact, I think I was happy that he was taking care of a problem. When one of their dogs got in a fight and its tail got infected, I don’t remember feeling anything. I merely nodded in the affirmative as the family predicted how many days it would have left.

What happened to me? If I am still a sensitive person, and supposedly still a dog lover, how is it that I let myself become so desensitized?

A surface analysis might just attribute this to individual personality changes, growing up, getting jaded—that something changed in me on an individual level. But I believe this has far more to do with the overwhelming power that human culture has to both submerge and unearth our best selves. In this case, I didn’t just magically become less sensitive, I changed to conform with a culture that expected a far less sensitive—and more violent—relationship with animals. For the most part, I have prioritized my family’s smooth (read: with minimal conflicts or controversies) acceptance of me over my love of animals. It’s just one example of the situational moral and emotional shifts we make all the time to fit in with our surrounding cultures.

I think these dynamics are important, perhaps even key, to building a winning revolutionary politics. People rarely change, for better or worse, as isolated individuals. We change as cultural participants. Prison guards may or may not enter their jobs with previous violent or sadistic conditioning, but you can bet that almost all of them retire as worse human beings. Insurrectionist and individualist anarchists might wax poetic about the liberation of individual desires and the destruction of a barcode based existence, but they sure do tend to talk and dress and party all the same as each other. John Brown wasn’t just individually moved as a white person to violently resist slavery, he came from an intense American masculinity that melded with an intense church tradition that told him slavery was a sin. We are social beings, cultural beings. Our best and worst human potentials, our heroism and our villainy, unfold out of our common cultural pools. This doesn’t have to be seen as a problem. It’s just a feature of our common humanity. If we want a revolution, we must revolutionize our cultures. Revolution is cultural change.

But here is where many radical people get into a sort of chicken-and-egg debate cycle. How can you change a culture without transforming the material conditions within institutions? But how can you change institutions without changing the cultures of those within them? Round and round we go, and so many of our movements harden into positions that are either mechanically focused on institutional organizing at one end of the spectrum, or exclusively spiritual, counter-cultural, navel-gazing at the other end. Our way through these debates is the synthesis of the opposing positions. Yes, revolutionary work, at any level, is cultural—even spiritual—change. But institutions, through their accretion and solidification of social traditions and relationships, are the engines that generate culture. In fact, what makes any institution viable is its ability to create and sustain a specific pattern of social behavior—a culture. To try to change culture outside of institutional change is like continuously mopping the floor of a flooded house without ever thinking to turn the faucet off. Thus, revolutionary work is counter-cultural, even spiritual, work, but it should be grounded in the concrete realities of both existing and alternative institutions, not just diffuse culture building that lacks institutional ties.

This is why I’m so passionate about the organizational questions facing revolutionaries, and why I’m so baffled by how awkward the left is about handling them. I believe that explicitly revolutionary organizations are crucial vehicles for changing culture. They are the missing link between external organizing and internal process. However I see too many people who see them as either unnecessary, or as something for the far-off future, or as some kind of necessary evil.

I imagine the totalitarian and bureaucratic legacy of Marxism-Leninism is a major culprit in this, but I observe that leftists are hyper-wary of organizational projects—especially anything beyond single issue or campaign work. It’s like we go into the work holding our nose, or dipping our toes in, not wanting to get too close or too deep. I imagine, like my dog example, that we are worried about creating a culture which dehumanizes us, which, in the name of efficiency, strips us of what we love most about our radical selves. Certainly, building any organization carries this danger. We can become organizational robots, puppets to the mass line that so many party-builders of the past have become. But guess what: avoiding organizational questions doesn’t change that danger, it just makes the acculturation process more chaotic, informal, and implicit. Anti-organizational milieus can be just as conformist and dehumanizing. In fact, I would argue that our lack of organizations makes radicals far more vulnerable to the acculturating tendencies of the dominant culture. We just get good at hiding it when we go to parties, meetings, and fundraisers.

When we try to avoid organizational experimentation, we do avoid some dangers, but we also miss out on huge transformative opportunities. See, the institutional nature of organizations can be just as much of an asset as a liability. By institutionalizing practices that are liberatory, reflective, compassionate, inspiring, and rooted in ethics of solidarity, we have the potential to accelerate the process of cultural change way beyond what any informal scene or milieu can offer. People change faster, and more profoundly, when they are changing within a group that they are committed to, and that is committed to them.

I know this, because I’ve experienced it in quite an unlikely place: the small high school where I teach. Officially, I work for the State, in an institution that is unquestionably part of a large and problematic bureaucracy. But, damn, the intensity and quality of the collaboration that our school has been able to generate is thrilling. It’s some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done, I relish it every day, working face to face, building a culture with people who don’t even share my politics or interests. The cohesiveness of the institution, our collective commitment to its mission, and the humanizing work structures that we’ve built allow us to build a culture that makes us better teachers, and better people. Why is it so hard for leftists to build organizations with that same dynamic?

I am optimistic about our ability to create organizations that hold radical values and visions at their core, and which institutionalize practices of both mutual aid and mutual inspiration. In fact, I don’t think it even has to be as hard as we make it. Like I said earlier, I think the left’s overemphasis on social analysis—a process of breaking society and people apart with our sharp radical scalpels—actually also makes it harder for us to come together. By relaxing a little, softening our edges a little, and just getting together to do some pretty good work around some pretty good ideas, I think we could get so far. I want to see us experimenting so much more with new organizational forms!

Robert Frost, Meet Karl Marx…

All well-worn trails radiate calmness,
where so many boots, and shoes, and sandals,
paws, galoshes, and fleshy summer toes,
have worked the earth down into rounded edges,
like the dulling of a knife.
The line is almost fuzzy, out of focus,
between the smooth and clean undulations
of brown clay
and the unkempt edges of grass, forest, jungle.
It suggests an unspoken collective contract
between thousands,
that by asynchronously walking this same ground,
–you earlier, and me right now–
all those messy things might be held back,
kept in their place.

These are the properties that trails have.
They are social relationships, set in slow motion.

And just as the same path
can hold its rough, yet unmistakable integrity
as it grazes green fields,
then cuts deserts,
dips into seasonal creeks,
or polishes down the jagged rocks from other years’ avalanches,
it can bring the same familiarity
to fashion and fad,
to rituals of control.
To horror. To loss.
Just as the disparaging dinner table remark,
the offhand comment about your body,
is easier to take when it’s not the first,
so is each bloody sidewalk,
diabetic death,
wad of safety money rolled into newspapers,
made so much softer, even soothing,
by the rhythm of its repetition alone.

“It’s okay, my friend,”
the trail always whispers,
“you are not the first to see this thing.
Just keep going.
I need your lone, humble tread,
to make it easier for there to be a next time.”

Top-level play and throwaway play

I want to draw attention to two genres of competitive video games that demonstrate a huge spectrum of player behavior, from silly and casual, to embarrassingly, nerdily intricate: fighting games and real-time strategy games (including the sub-genre known as multiplayer online battle arenas—MOBAs). I’ll break them down really quickly here:

Fighting Games: Usually 1-on-1 battles between a diverse array of characters who fight each other in martial arts or street-fighting type competitions. Each player selects a single character or a small team of characters. The characters usually have a certain amount of health, and they fight each other until one player or the other’s health is depleted. What makes these games strategic is that each character has a very specific set of attacks, ranging from simple weak punches, kicks, and slashes, to highly powerful special moves (often with magical or supernatural effects like fireballs or huge explosions), and massive chains of combination attacks. Good players need to master the ins and outs, the strengths and weaknesses of not only their characters, but also all the other characters they might match up against. Example video games, for those who care: Street fighter, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom, Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Bros.

Real-Time Strategy Games: Can be 1-on-1, 3-on-3, or 5-on-5 battles between larger forces of units who are fighting on a battlefield. Each side has a base which provides safety or defense, and which sometimes generates resources to buy improvements for the players’ forces. One side wins when the other side’s base is destroyed. The strategy comes from knowing how to make quick decisions to manage the resources that are coming in while also mastering the nuances and subtleties of each individual fighting unit. Like fighting games, these units often have options between basic attacks and more flashy and specialized abilities—and even sometimes highly powerful “ultimate” abilities—but the more powerful abilities usually have big limits to how often they can be used. Good players know how to manage these factors of resources and unit composition, while also paying additional attention to the specific terrain of the map or battlefield. Example games: League of Legends, DOTA, Starcraft, Warcraft, Command and Conquer.

Before I go any deeper into game land here, I have to make a critical disclaimer. Although I will be using some of the language and concepts from the competitive communities that play these games, I have no interest in endorsing these games or their communities in any way at all. I’m not suggesting that people go out and play these games, and I am not saying that we should be like these communities. The games—though I sometimes guiltily enjoy them—can often be violent and filled with stereotypes or exaggerated and objectified portrayals, especially of women. The competitive communities themselves would likely even be hostile to us and our politics. Unfortunately, a big chunk of competitive gaming scenes are dominated by proudly elitist attitudes, misogynist and heterosexist bro cultures, and regressive positions around ideas like anti-imperialism, anti-racism, or any of the other values that we want to uphold. My goal here is merely to see some of what they say about winning, and about unhelpful elements that disrupt winning strategies, and leave things at that.

Even though these games are all focused around silly street fights and fantastical battle scenes, what makes them applicable to anti-authoritarian movements (beyond the startling preponderance of masked dudes with dark clothes and menacing gazes) is that core element of strategic games that I spoke of earlier: the judicious use of limited resources and options. The top-tier players of these games—some of whom play as full time jobs, living off sponsorships and tournament winnings—intimately know the minutiae of what is and is not possible in any given situation. They know the wild powers and huge offensives that they are capable of, but they also know the drawbacks and weaknesses that are constantly pushing back against them. They know what pacing is appropriate for what kinds of match-up with their opponents. In team games, these players know the unique roles that they are able to play in supporting the overall team strategy, and they also know when they are capable of flexibly changing roles in the face of what’s happening from moment to moment. If you read their articles or watch their online videos, these players have vocabularies and theories about their games that casual players of the very same games can’t really access at all. Why? Because they have broken down their games to the very basic systems level—often to the point where they are paying attention to things as mundane and technical as individual frames of character animation or specific pixel glitches on a map or battlefield.

If we’re going to win, our movements need similarly sophisticated levels of strategic understanding, with a granularity of detail about what we’re facing and what we’re capable of. We need to understand the array of tactics and strategies that are available to us, and in what situations each is most useful—not just most spectacular. Further, we need to better recognize and manage our limitations—what our activities cost us, in terms of time, resources, and positioning in relation to the systems of oppression that we’re fighting.

I think our movements are a long way from achieving a high level of strategic mastery, and current global developments suggest that we’d better hurry up. However, in contrast to competitive gaming, I don’t think this requires all revolutionary-minded people to become full-time, elite strategy experts or anything. I think the mass and grassroots character of movements makes the strategic work that we need to do potentially far more accessible and horizontally distributable—a form of radical crowdsourcing—if we are willing to set up the kinds of participatory organizing structures that would help us do it efficiently. To make this happen, though, requires some very judicious, focused, and coordinated use of our precious few resources.

The troubling thing is, it’s quite hard to be judicious, focused, and coordinated when we’re stuck in the anarchist clown car that is the Pacific Northwest scene. Insurrectionist, anti-civ, nihilist, and other similar tendencies are distracting, disorienting, and they sap many of the few options and resources that we have. They practice patterns of discourse and behavior that aren’t just bothersome for their own scenes, but they tend to throw all of us off our game.

Competitive gamers have generalized some archetypes that can help me explain what I’m talking about.


Many people who are familiar with the toxicity of online political debates are probably already versed in this one. Trolls are players who enter into a game—especially team games—with the explicit intention of screwing around with everyone else and trying to get them angry and riled up, all for their own amusement. They use in-game chat channels to spit slurs and insults, all while sabotaging the actual game play. They join a game and pretend to be committed and then, when things get tough, they disconnect from the game and throw off the whole balance of a match. They especially love to call out serious-minded players for hurting a team, when they are the ones actually being least helpful.

The most obvious examples of trolls in our movements are informants, snitches, and agent provocateurs. I certainly don’t believe that all insurrectionist types are agents of the state, and I’m not about to throw out that accusation. However, we know that our movements are full of these professional destabilizers, and there should be no doubt that they are going to be concentrating their energy on the most outspoken, explicitly militant segments of our movement—the insurrectionists. No surprise then, that insurrectionist heavy discussions are absolutely painful to participate in—especially online. They are filled with classic trolling behavior: name-calling, circular logic, more-radical-than-thou accusations, straw arguments, and chest-puffing, all flitting anonymously this way and that. It seems the favorite targets are any anti-authoritarian radicals who dare suggest more tempered positions in a struggle or who in any way seem more “liberal” than their self-proclaimed anarchist standard. For just one example, read the discussions on Puget Sound Anarchists about those anarchists who wanted to raise money for some broken small business windows after the 2013 May Day—troll feeding frenzy. You would think that if only the cops and informants were doing the trolling, they would easily stand out so that we could shine light on them, but the fact that the general tone and manner of insurrectionist discourse—at least in writing—so closely matches troll-type styles, it’s hard to tell one’s enemies from one’s friends.

What’s unhelpful about this? Well, it contributes to a climate of distrust and disorientation, and it makes more sensitive folks—like me—doubt ourselves whenever we posit something different than whatever the most blustery, judgmental voices are saying. And because those loudest voices tend to be goading us on toward more polarized, militant, and mean-spirited positions, it also creates a snowball effect that can have even more serious consequences…even including entrapment.

Button Mashers

When people don’t have experience with complex strategic games, or they are uninterested in getting better, they tend to do something very predictable: they just quickly, randomly hit buttons and throw out whatever flashy attacks they can muster, with little regard to the strategic value or consequences of what they are doing. They will repeatedly mash on the same single attacks for game after game, becoming painfully predictable to even novice opponents. They will use their most powerful super abilities as soon as they have accumulated the resources to do so, without thinking about appropriate timing—for example, focusing on only one target when the ability was designed to take out four. They will never hold back to block in a fighting game, or they will only use the one row of punch buttons without ever even noticing the three kick buttons that are right there. Because their game play is so fast and random, they actually do win some times, and can thus create an image that they are better than they actually are. Because these kinds of players are really usually just looking for some quick fun, they are fine with superficial understandings of the way the game works—they just want to see all the bangs and crashes and colored lights that shine when they mash those buttons.

I think insurrectionists provide a picture-perfect model of button mashing. They are friggin’ everywhere, mashing out wheatpasted posters, flyers, and newspapers; smashing in ATMs and bank windows; mashing up newspaper boxes at marches; mashing, mashing, mashing. They are prolific, they are fast, they occasionally hit really effectively in a way that impresses everyone, but mostly they just seem to be flailing around at every possible target…usually with the same flashy attacks each time. Reading their writing, even by their more influential intellectuals, is like watching a brand-new strategy game player who just keeps shooting off the same huge ultimate attacks in the middle of an empty battlefield, waiting for their resources to charge up, and then doing the same thing again. Why? Well, you know, total liberation now! Flames this, flames that, everything in flames! No subtlety, no pacing, no base-building. Just rupture, rupture, rupture. The volume is always at maximum. Fundamentally, insurrectionist seem to have forgotten that the anti-authoritarian game controller doesn’t just have a row of “disruptive attack” buttons—we also have 3 or 4 additional “building constructive power” buttons. Who knew?

What’s unhelpful about this? A number of things. Because they are so fast and so prolific, they confuse people—even longtime anarchists like me—into thinking that they are playing the game correctly. When they occasionally do something cool with their militancy and spectacle, they fool us into thinking their path might actually bear fruit. It won’t. While the militant tactics and the powerful rhetoric that these folks employ really are useful in the context of a powerful, massive movement, insurrectionists are usually using them way outside of a strategic context. With the limited time, resources, and options that we have, and our small numbers, every time we hit the attack button when we should be hitting our build buttons is a huge strategic waste. Huge. Moreover, when the fun and spectacle wears off, when things get dirtier, harder, less anonymous, when the amorphous “some @narchists” settle back into being very real parents, coworkers, partners, bill-payers, we will end up losing a ton of the people who got caught up in rush of the button-mashing, because they will have burnt out without having ever seen how much deeper, how much more enriching, diverse, and powerful the movement could have been. It’s a one-note kind of radicalism, it’s a one-riot stand, and it doesn’t make very many people stick around for the long-haul—especially since part of that button mashing includes moving and traveling from place to place all the time!


It’s one thing when people’s actions just set themselves back or just disorient us, but it’s something entirely worse when their actions directly strengthen the opponent. In the sub-genre of strategy games called Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs), there is a phenomenon called feeding. When a player rushes in too hot too quickly, or when they make lazy mistakes, they end up getting themselves killed by the other team, which then makes the other team significantly stronger. When the same players keep doing this over and over, their teammates will likely scold them as feeders. Whether intentional or not, they are serving more to feed and nourish the opponent than they are helping their own side. Because they are so busy dying and feeding, dying and feeding, they not only neglect their own in-game evolution, they force everyone else on the team to step in and defend them and carry them through the game.

Folks can deny it all they want, they can denounce my opinion as sectarian, they can trot out whatever pre-fab justifications about the state that they’d like, but I will argue that insurrectionists are feeders. Through hyper-militance and adventurism, they absolutely feed the state and other opposing forces. Of course, the state will seek to disrupt any movement that it deems a threat, so we should always blame it before blaming comrades for whatever repression it causes. However, before we’ve even reached the point of actually being a threat, insurrectionist antics give the state the pretext to pre-emptively marshal huge numbers of resources to repress us. When that repression comes down, it doesn’t just come down on the loudest, it comes down on all anti-authoritarians, creating a chilling effect on our activities, sowing paranoia, and siphoning off time and money into legal defense for actions that do not actually move us any closer to our goals. At this stage of the game, how are black bloc smash-fests building the movement we need, in proportion to the heat they bring down on us, the public fear they generate (and they do generate fear if you actually talk to non-anarchists), and the legal defense fundraisers they require—which could have been fundraisers for actual, sustainable anarchist counter-institutions? I love considering strategic arguments to the contrary, but watching the difference between the systemic responses to the 2012 and 2013 May Days, for example, all I saw was a state that has become nicely fed, while the constructive anti-authoritarian impact in the Pacific Northwest has drastically declined. Stop feeding, please.

What do we do with this?

I have no illusions about this piece changing the outlooks or behavior of insurrectionist types. I am not a sectarian and I can understand that they will keep doing what they are doing. Apparently they think they have good reasons. I don’t want to spend my own precious resources and options trying to stop them; I don’t want to be the movement police. But I don’t have to be quiet about how unhelpful I think they are, and I don’t have to hide the fact that I would love to outnumber them so much that their ideas become as marginal as I think they should be.

But the way to get closer to a winning direction is not to stomp and whine and ask these folks to stop. The only way is for more strategically oriented anti-authoritarians to come forward—boldly, publicly, militantly—with a different kind of politics. We need to show new ways of pressing anarchism’s buttons, in fresh, innovative, and coordinated ways. We need to delve deeper into how revolutionary conflict actually works, and what winning actually looks like, and we need to share this with each other using increasing levels of detail, sophistication, and accessibility. Once again, we win by judiciously using those few, precious resources and options that we have in order to build dynamic, flexible mass movements. So let’s do just that.

In practice, I think this looks like slowing down for awhile, while building strength to really speed things up in the future. I think this looks like a big increase in strategically oriented local writing and discussion events. It looks like a flourishing of popular education projects to evenly disperse valuable skills across our communities. It looks like developing our abilities for healthy communication and debate, so that we can isolate and expose the trolls. It looks like putting down long-term roots in neighborhoods and communities where we will experiment with anti-authoritarian possibilities for the long-haul. It looks like honoring the courage and creativity that militant anarchists do show to all of us, while pushing that militancy to be more visionary, more diversified, more sustainable, and more rooted in large-scale grassroots power than the current tendency toward clandestine, lone-wolf attacks. It looks like a lot of things that folks, even some of the people I complain about, are already doing—but doing it with more strategic focus and coordination.

For those anti-authoritarians who agree, who are also interested in building revolutionary movements that can win: we should get together and play.

Note: Reading this again, it looks like I was in the mood for a polemical tone. If you happen to be a new reader here, please note that I’m not trying to hate. I think disagreement, even polemic, can be healthy. If you think I’m being too mean or sectarian here, go ahead let me know. No use talking about the unhelpfulness of something by doing so in an unhelpful way.

I feel like anti-authoritarian revolutionaries in the Pacific Northwest just can’t get a break. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, we had the anarcho-primitivists running around spitting nonsense and flashing their arrogance, strutting as if they owned the movement—even while they shouted everyone else down by saying that we didn’t own the movement. Now, thanks, it seems, to some Californian winds that have blown north—which themselves seem to have blown in from entirely different European climates—we have new currents of nonsensery causing anti-authoritarians like me to stare at the ground, saying nothing, for fear of the denunciations that will surely come. Insurrectionism, anti-civilization anarchism, and even nihilism seem to be ruling the day around here—at least in terms of public expressions and articulations of revolutionary ideas. If you aren’t down with those politics, it can feel mighty lonely sometimes.

But I feel too old for this. I want to win, and I believe that anti-authoritarian politics, that anarchism, has powerful tools to offer toward that purpose. The problem is, all these bad ideas keep hogging anarchism for themselves. I’ve grown tired of sitting quietly and waiting for each self-righteous and noisy fad to wind down, so that anarchism might have some space to breathe and blossom in the positive directions that I think it might go. The fads just keep coming, they keep anarchism stuck in the same ruts year after year, all the while hoarding and suffocating so much of our best language, history, tactics. I’ve had enough of that.

I want to win, and it is this sentiment that I keep circling back to when I get all into a huff like this. I want to win, and I think these tendencies are mostly unhelpful, and often actually harmful to our chances of winning. This owes in large part to the fact that many of these tendencies have very different ideas about what winning even means, or they eschew the idea or possibility of winning altogether. Fine, fine. They should believe what they want, but let’s at least be real about the ways this screws things up for the rest of us.

In this piece, I want to help explain why I think current insurrectionist-heavy tendencies are unhelpful to those of us who actually want to win a social revolution. To do this, I’m going to make an analogy to something that is almost as strange, subcultural, and insular as anarchism itself—competitive video games. I recognize that this analogy might not feel fitting or useful for all readers, but it’s been exceptionally helpful for understanding my own approach to radical strategy, so I’m going to indulge it here. Let’s see what it can show us.

What is the game and what is winning?

As so many of us self-serious, fist-clenched revolutionists have told ourselves so many times, social revolution is not a game. As playful as it can sometimes be, as much dancing as our revolution might need, it is also certainly ugly, painful, real. People go to prison. People burn out and lose all hope in life. People die. There are incredibly important things at stake here; I know this well, with my own emotional scars to show, and I’m not about to be dismissive about it.

Nonetheless, there are definite, instructive parallels between strategic games and the conflicts that anti-authoritarian revolutionaries are engaged with against systems of global oppression. Those who are charged with maintaining those systems of oppression know this, and that’s why military and intelligence forces regularly run war-game scenarios, why economists run all sorts of simulations using game theory, and corporate strategic literature is rife with references to sports or board games like chess or go. Games have things to teach us. In imaginary play situations, they can give us practice at the kind of strategic thinking that can actually make a difference in real people’s lives.

At their core, here’s what strategic games—be they sports, board games, or video games—are: they are specific scenarios of conflict, between forces with opposing aims, who must judiciously utilize their limited resources and options to outmaneuver, overpower, subvert, or outlast their opponent(s). This is a pretty good match for what revolutionary anti-authoritarians are trying to do. We have our forces, those of us who want a world built around solidarity, freedom, and ecological justice. There are the myriad opposing forces, who, either out of indoctrination, coercion, or malice, are in the business of defending current oppressive social systems—capitalism and imperialism, the state, patriarchy and heterosexism, white supremacy, ableism, religious oppression, etc. The conflict takes place in concrete times and places: our workplaces, schools, government institutions, neighborhoods, homes, forests and oceans, bodies, and even our minds. Thus we have our conflict, we have our forces (or teams, or players), and we have our scenario (or board or playfield). I think we can agree that the game analogy holds so far.

But I think the fact that there is a conflict (or conflicts) between different forces is beyond debate. I think the really sticky question is whether we can accurately carry over that all-important game concept of victory conditions; that is, games are usually designed to have winners and losers, but is a revolutionary conflict something that can actually be said to be winnable? When I say that I want to win, what in the hell does that mean, and how might my understanding differ from other anti-authoritarian tendencies?

I’m just going to come out and say what I think winning means. I believe that we win when a majority of the billions of people, on this planet are immersed in social systems where they can live and work in dignity, where they can participate equally in the decisions that affect them, where they have access to their proportional share of social and natural wealth, and where surrounding species and ecosystems are respected as well. This means ecological, democratic socialist or communist economies; free and open cultural and gender structures; and deeply participatory, community-based decision-making systems. It could—and probably should—mean thousands of different variations on these themes across the globe, but all of them guided by those key, participatory and liberatory characteristics.

I should emphasize that winning doesn’t have to mean achieving a perfect functioning of all these new systems. Winning doesn’t have to mean perfect lives for 100% of all people. For me, winning means getting at least to the point where the current systems—based on hierarchy, exploitation, and oppression—no longer hold sway, where the powerful have been pushed to lose or disperse their power, and where our fledgling liberated social systems are sufficiently established that they are spending more time evolving and improving themselves than simply defending themselves from threats. In short, I believe we win when the “game” changes from being primarily a competitive conflict against forces that want to uphold oppression, into a cooperative challenge where the majority of social forces are working together to face the trials of building new, far-from-perfect systems. Winning doesn’t mean an end of challenges, it means the creation of a dynamic, cooperative new context in which our society faces those challenges—with limited danger from the oppressors.

So, yeah, I want to win this. Moreover, I believe that this kind of winning is possible. In fact, I actually believe that, as bad as things are right now in the world, we still have a fair shot of achieving this. But if we’re gonna make it happen, we have to speed up our learning curve. We’ve gotta sharpen up our strategies. We need a good, solid “team” of highly diverse and flexible mass movements. And, well, the current crop of insurrectionist, anti-civ, and nihilist tendencies that are so loud and proud right now are just so unhelpful in this regard.

Of course, if folks disagree with my idea of winning, then they have no reason to care about being helpful or unhelpful. Why should they? But that is the biggest issue here. If anti-civilization people don’t even want complex social systems to exist after the fall of the current system, then they certainly have a different idea of winning and they don’t want to help design better social systems. If insurrectionists think that mass movements and long-term revolutionary strategies are the presumptuous territory of an obsolete old Left, then their ideas of victory will tend to be very individualized, spontaneous, or even non-existent. And, nihilists…well…I guess they don’t believe in winning by definition. I get it if they aren’t thrilled about helping to build a massive anti-authoritarian movement that they don’t even believe in.

All these different ideas about winning are fine, and non-sectarianism should be a watchword every day, but the problem is this: even though we might have radically different ideas about victory or its possibility—or even the right to desire victory in the first place—we are still here in the same game. We are struggling within the same context of conflicts, forces, and scenarios. Not only that, but we’re actually all essentially claiming to be on the same team, with the same colors, flags, mascots, etc.

Now, have you ever played on a team with people who have totally contradictory hopes and intentions for what winning or losing looks like? Those two teammates chasing each other in circles in the corner? That one person who keeps stepping away to check text messages? The kid who got frustrated about a missed opportunity so just threw the rest of the game so the other team could win? How fun was it, for how long?

And this brings me to competitive video games. See, video games are designed for a whole range of interests and intentions. There are what are called casual players, who are just occasionally messing around to purely have fun at a superficial level, there are more serious players, who would like to win in their local circles, and there are competitive players—who are committed to spending huge amounts of time to learning the nuances and contradictions of the game so that they can definitively win. What’s interesting is that all these different types of people can be playing the same game, but they have totally different approaches to it, approaches which totally don’t mix in actual play. Playing for a quick fun time, playing to screw around with people after a few drinks, and playing to win a tournament or something brings out totally different decisions…totally different uses of the limited resources and options that each player or team has. That is exactly what we see in the anti-authoritarian movement. A completely messy mix of all sorts of intentions and tendencies, dominated—in my view—by folks who are either uninterested in or unprepared to think about winning.

Competitive video game players, players who want to win, have come to notice and understand some patterns of players who are less strategic or who have explicitly anti-strategic intentions, and they have names for some of those patterns. I think these apply to insurrectionist-heavy ideas and behaviors that we see in the Pacific Northwest today.

I’ll be exploring these soon enough in the conclusion of this piece.

So, like 2 years ago I wrote part 1 of a series of reflections about my time in revolutionary groups. I had part 2 almost done, and I had part 3 outlined…and then I just stopped.

I just found part 2 in my drafts folder. It’s got some interesting stuff that shouldn’t just be forgotten. Here it is.Part 1 focused on lessons around handling conflict. Part 2 is focused on addressing oppression, and then the final part is about improving revolutionary praxis. Like I said in the first part of this series, these are my thoughts as I got them down on the page, and I reserve the right to change them, add to them, and delete them as I feel more clarity.

ADDRESSING OPPRESSION (this is focused on how revolutionary organizations address oppressive dynamics and try to build a liberated culture internally…questions of addressing oppression on the larger scale will be taken up in the next part)

Have a holistic, intersectional perspective. My own political trajectory has taken me all over the map about how I theorize oppression, and whether I think there are core oppressions or linchpin systems or anything. And although I feel fewer and fewer comrades at my side about this, as so many of them move toward more materialist perspectives, I still remain unconvinced that oppression has only one source, one foundation, or one weak point (such as class struggle, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.).

People are complex, our relationships are complex, and that means our social systems–and the dynamics of hierarchy and oppression underlying them–are complex. It makes perfect sense for radicals to seek out powerful, and efficient means of understanding these systems in order to identify priority areas, and I do think there are priority areas, but in the end I believe that revolutionary organizations are best served by a perspective that acknowledges and seeks to address–at least at the personal level–the ways that power and oppression manifest across all differences of identity and experience. That is, I think organizations should work from a holistic perspective that believes that all forms of oppression need to be addressed simultaneously–even if there are sometimes strategic priorities within that work.

I don’t say this because I believe all struggles are equal in their revolutionary potential, but rather because all forms of oppression actively live, grow, and do their damage within each of us, and we need to build organizations and a revolutionary culture that can hold us and help us heal and grow from where we’re at and what we’re feeling. We need organizations that can see us as whole people, which means we need organizations that can deeply understand the complexity of what keeps us boxed in.

Be clear about how huge and insidious oppressive systems are, in the world and within each of us. This one is pretty straightforward. Oppressions run deep, and the infrastructure that sustains them is ridiculously large and resourceful. We have to be honest with ourselves: this is a long struggle, and there are no magical shortcuts. Even those with an insurrectionist perspective need to recognize this. We will not experience total liberation in our lifetimes, and probably neither will the next few generations. Instead, we will have periods of progress and setbacks, and we will consistently push up against the limits of how fast society can move, and how much personal change is possible over the course of our lives. Within our organizations this means…

It’s important to expect and offer personal accompaniment, but it’s a trap to expect and offer personal liberation. There can be a real cheerleading element to revolutionary work, where, in an effort to stave off feelings of desperation and futility in the face of an overwhelming enemy, we rah rah about will, and transformation, and living completely new lives. This hopefulness is essential–because I do believe that social transformation is possible if we’re able to hold it as a vision–but it can also shoot us in the foot.

Revolutionary organizations–and larger social movements–cannot deliver total personal liberation, and often our cheerleading to the contrary causes us big problems. I would bet that thousands of potential organizers pass by the radical left each year because of the disconnect they see between our lofty promises and ideals and our less-than-stellar, very human realities. People get frustrated when we can’t solve their problems in timely ways, and especially when they see that our organizations and movements can’t alleviate the pain of living in this society.

What we can and should do as organizations is be present with people, and accompany them in their struggles. If a person is abused, downsized, evicted we can’t always win the fight, but we can be there fighting with them, and then–and this is critically important–we can still be there the next day as their comrades and community members. That presence, that essential solidarity is less fancy than the poetry of “build total liberation now,” but it’s far more lasting when things get hard in the movement.

Also, as people within a thoroughly messed up society, we are individually thoroughly messed up. We have weird hangups, prejudices, triggers, desires and compulsions that have evolved out of our daily practices while trying to get by in this world. These are deep within us, and we have to be patient with ourselves and each other as our perfectly clean and clear radical ideals crush up against our dirty and weird realities. That contradiction, and our presence and growth within in it, are the struggle.

Our lives don’t fit in their boxes, so our organizations shouldn’t be boxy. Okay, so our society is constructed around systems of oppression and exploitation that create social dichotomies and then box us into identities based on those dichotomies. At the same time, we know that society’s identity boxes don’t match who we actually are. They are social constructions, which often have been imposed on us through force.

So, if we are seeking to create something new, our organizations are not served by structuring ourselves around those same boxy identity forms that never fit us in the first place. Separatist groups, people of color or white only groups, women only spaces, or other identity based formations that key off of identities that the system made for us are not lasting formations. Sure, they are potentially very important for specific functions and caucus type spaces in order to make space to build skills and consciousness without the disruptive presence of privileged people’s defensiveness or entitlement. That makes sense. But in the end, the movement has to be multiracial–race being a social invention after all–intergenerational, multi-gender, accessible, and even cross class in the sense of multiple layers and cultures within all the non-owning classes.

I believe that building a winning movement means working with each other across identity, seeing and feeling commonality, and even holding each other’s pain–even if we feel that it’s coming from a more “privileged” place than our own.

We are who shows up, and we work from there. There are times when groups have a majority of one or another identity, and if that identity is more on the privileged side of things, then groups can sort of freeze up into this, “if we don’t get more diverse than we can’t do anything.” This is garbage, and it often only leads to either navel-gazing or awkward “diversity recruiting” drives. No thanks.

Instead, when groups gather, they should acknowledge who’s there, honor who’s there, and then have honest conversations about how best to move the group’s work forward. If the group happens to be majority white, for example, that doesn’t mean that the group doesn’t have legitimacy until it meets some quota or something…it still has the potential to do fantastic work. However, the group does need to recognize the dynamics of being majority white, understand why that might be, recognize what unique responsibilities and perspectives such a formation might have, and realize that in the end the group will probably have to dissolve into a larger multiracial organizational form rather than ever having the possibility of recruiting people of color into its existing form. Sure, sometimes groups do need to just dissolve and start from scratch if they are incapable of authentically and respectfully participating in community struggles because of their makeup…but I think the pattern of groups just stopping and starting around purely demographic issues is often a waste of time.

Avoid formulaic and linear conceptions of leadership. This is where my original draft stopped, and I can’t remember what I wanted to say here. Knowing what I think about this topic, I imagine that I wanted to talk about how organizations have many vital tasks to do, some of which are more celebrated than others. Within a group, members have a wide variety of strengths, skills, and interests. These all offer different forms of leadership, many of which are unacknowledged because they aren’t public. This is a classic feminist argument and I don’t need to go deeply into it, but…

The multiple forms and strands that leadership can take in groups can really help a group explode in creative directions if it is nurtured in the right way. Now, if only I remembered all my original thinking about this point!

All the other great reflections I forgot to write down. I can’t remember the specifics, but I know that I wanted to talk more about some of the specifics of personal improvement work vs. public political work. I wanted to talk about specific ways that oppression and superiority get internalized and play out in groups. I wanted to specifically talk about addressing oppressive dynamics in groups. I didn’t get any of that written down. That’s a shame. Right now it’s a school night so I certainly don’t have the energy to remember all this stuff…but here’s hoping that I come back and add more reflections in time.

Hooray for another round of backwards planning, this time for my own political work! I tried to make the scale reasonable, so I’m giving myself a year to figure things out as I move toward my final outcomes. That kind of makes this a new years resolution. Kind of cute that way.

One thing I noticed from last time is that I missed a whole category: pre-assessment. That is where you acknowledge where things currently stand, so that your planning actually starts in a grounded way. I added that section into the plan. So, let’s go.

1) Final Outcome: What do I want to be contributing to the movement by the end of 2013?

    -I am a proud and excited member of some kind of organized political formation—ideally a mass-based organization. This organization is energetically building movement infrastructure and is capable of efficiently utilizing people’s contributions at varied levels of intensity.

    -I am involved in at least one organized group or campaign that leverages my position as a teacher to support youth, family, and community base-building in South King County.

    -I am helping to build a cultural dual power by contributing my ideas in workshops, published writing, and some forms of electronic media. I have at least playtested one of my revolutionary board game designs.

    -In writing, workshops, or some other media, I have collaborated with others to distill and share lessons we’ve learned from years of organizing problems. I am able to propose and advocate for practical solutions to various problems that political groups face.

    -Glendi and I have expanded our Guatemalan holistic school project into a full non-profit fundraising project, so that we can raise money at the scale we need to make it happen.

    -While there are natural ebbs and flows, my activity is more or less stable throughout the year, and is balanced with my commitments to family, friends, work, and self-care.

2) Pre-Assessment: What are my current contributions, capacities, and challenges related to these outcomes?

    -I’ve been re-reading this past blog and…man! Although I tend to be really insecure, I think I can safely say I’m a pretty good writer. I have a ton of rough, partial, sometimes really cool ideas that could probably be helpful if published and shared in the world.

    -But, I really do tend to be insecure. I’m ridiculously sensitive to people reading and criticizing my stuff. This will be a big challenge if I actually want to try writing or speaking for an audience. (Quick aside: Why am I not insecure at all about teaching? My principal watches me all the time, and 120 students have all sorts of mixed opinions about me every day! Yet I actually get a thrill from all that.)

    -I am also ridiculously hot and cold with my political engagement. I get hot streaks like this week, then I go months without checking emails, returning phone calls, or reading anything. Like I’ve said before, underneath that is a lot of anxiety and self-medication through escapism.

    -With my current new teacher work schedule and child care responsibilities, I have from 4pm-6pm free each evening, with weekends being a lot more free. From 6pm-8pm, I tend to be doing baby-care while Glendi works, so if I found child friendly spaces for organizing, that could give me more time. As for weekends, I fiercely guard them for Glendi, Amanecer, and I. But I think I need to flex this more.

    -Right now, with this free time, I’m spending about 2-4 hours a night either playing video games, internet window shopping, or watching TV with Glendi.

    -Our Guatemalan school project has land, and our Secret Cafe fundraisers are making enough each year to at least pay a few scholarships. The ground has been laid for more ambitious planning, fundraising, and building.

    -I know parts of South King County communities relatively well, because I’ve worked there for cumulatively almost 6 years. If I am patient and dedicated, I think I could be a true asset to grassroots base-building there.

    -I feel almost completely out of touch with current anti-authoritarian organizing in Seattle. I know folks in the Black Orchid Collective and a few in Seattle Solidarity Network, but if I don’t want to be a lone wolf type—and I don’t—then I have my relationship-building work cut out for me.

    -Because I am so out of touch with the local scene, I don’t even know if meeting my goals involves joining existing groups, or the much more exhausting work of collaborating to form new groups.

    -Further, because of my life-long tendency to want to feel distinct and special, I will have a dangerous temptation to assume that existing groups aren’t the right fit. I might be right, but I must be careful.

3) Evidence of Success: How will I quantitatively and qualitatively know if I’ve accomplished my outcomes?

I think my final outcomes above mostly do the trick. In backwards planning for teaching, this is where we think of what specific test questions or assignments will let us know that a student has learned what we want them to. But in planning for just myself, it’s challenging to think of evidence beyond just straight-up meeting my goals.

Still, maybe a few things could be more specific…

    -I am a member of no more than 2-3 groups: 1) an explicitly revolutionary group, 2) a group that leverages my teaching work for South King County base-building, and 3) maybe some group related to radical parenting, mutual support, or radical gaming.

    -My email inbox is cleared out by the end of each week, with responses to all who I need to respond to. Same for my phone voicemail and snail-mail inbox. Being personally organized is critical to meeting my outcomes.

    -When I ask my family members, friends, comrades, and coworkers, their responses are relatively similar that I seem to be balancing my commitments well, and they are satisfied with my efforts.

    -In collaboration or on my own, I have published at least 3 pieces or facilitated multiple workshops that I’m proud of. After soliciting feedback, people express that my contributions are helpful.

    -Any strategic or tactical contributions I suggest are taken seriously by at least a handful of other radicals, who are able to share with me how they concretely benefited from my help.

4) Key Milemarkers: What are key moments, accomplishments, or stages on the way to success?

    -At least privately, I am able to roughly map the political constellation of radical Seattle, and I am able to clearly identify spaces where I am excited to work, instead of feeling like I 100% need to do or start my own thing.

    -I find a group for myself!

    -I revise and publish my first piece, and then follow through by engaging with any comments or critiques without hiding in a hole for 6 months.

    -I have made it through 6 months of slow but steady political presence without dropping away too badly…which means that I’ve made it to the end of the school year as well!

    -The group related to my teacher role has its first event—hopefully by spring/summer.

    -I have my first play-date with other radical parents.

    -I have created a playable prototype of my revolutionary board game.

    -Our Guatemalan school project has a Board of Directors and we have completed our 501(c)(3) application!

    -I have political friends who I share meals with at least a couple of times a month.

5) Daily Projects and Activities: How will I move toward my final outcomes on the day-to-day level?

    -I want to coordinate with Glendi to have guests over for meals 3 or 4 times a month. I want to really put some effort into relationship building and maintenance. Oh, how many friendships I’ve lost and squandered from simple lack of presence and care!

    -I reserve about 4 hours a week for political work outside of the house. This is meetings or hang outs. I need to push to make sure my time here is compatible with my baby-care.

    -At first, my out-of-the house time should be focused on a little political tour of spaces and groups, to get a feel for what’s happening. Additionally, I’ll want to keep a calender of events so I can prioritize events that 1) are most interesting, and 2) where I can be more useful than just another body in a room.

    -I reserve another 4-5 hours a week for writing, reading, and creative work in the house. I’d like to be reading at least one blog entry or article a day, and responding in comments 2-3 times a week.

    -I already have some prospects for some cool teaching related work, so I want to follow-up on that and see where it goes.

    -I want to create a personal wants/needs/non-negotiables list for what a political home should look like for me. Then I want to slowly and thoughtfully look for a group in Seattle. If I really don’t find one, then I need to identify individuals who I want to build a new group with.

    -Using my “Lessons Learned From…” as a starting point, I want to reach out to some other people I have in mind to create a deeper synthesis of lessons that we could share as a zine and electronic resource…maybe even a short video project?

    -I need to purge my email, mail, and voicemail. Make a list of outstanding correspondence, and then work through 2-3 of these a day until I’m caught up. From there, I should be clearing these out every couple of nights.

    -To make sure I’m doing all this stuff, I need some explicit mentor or motivator relationships. I need 1 or 2 people who will agree to support me and push me when my downs hit me. I have a list of a handful of people in mind already.

    -I keep writing in my blog. About 1 entry a week or 4 a month feels good.

    -I need to avoid feelings of perfectionism, and be prepared to scale back 1 or 2 projects if I’m getting too overwhelmed. The trick is to scale back smartly, rather than just dropping completely off the planet like I usually do. For now, I feel like really pushing my writing forward is my biggest priority, and so meetings would be the thing to scale back if I had to. I have never invested enough into my writing, and I really want that to change in 2013.

Damn, that was fun, too. My, oh my, how good I feel to have taken the slow, deliberate, and wordy road to move myself from political stagnation and crabbiness to this inspiring plan for my work in Seattle. I am mighty excited. Now, it’s all about the implementation. I think one of my first orders of business, maybe even while I’m still in Guatemala, is to get my mentors/motivators lined up.

As a teacher in today’s public schools, I’m tasked with supporting 100% of my students to meet certain learning goals, and then proving that learning with evidence from student work and activity. There are plenty of political reasons to critique how this plays out in schools, but that’s for another time. A positive that comes from this is that it forces us teachers to think about overwhelming and seemingly impossible educational expectations, and then creatively plan how to accomplish those expectations for our entire, diverse population of students.

This need for planning in the face of seemingly impossible odds is exactly where anti-authoritarians find ourselves, and so I think the teacher practice of backwards planning can be quite useful for revolutionary folks.

Here, I’m going to try an initial draft of backwards planning, by creating a plan for the big-picture revolution. It’s what I personally imagine for a winning anti-authoritarian movement. This draft is mostly just to have fun and get the hang of this, so that my second draft can be a more intimate, individual, and concrete backwards plan for my personal political work.

Here’s what I’m trying: I’m going to sketch a rough backwards plan of what I think the anti-authoritarian movement needs to accomplish to be at the point where it could pull off a successful revolution in the U.S. It’s not a plan for the post-revolutionary society, nor is it a plan for the specific tipping point of transformation (general strike, insurrection, a magically transformational electoral victory, ecological crisis, or defense against an enemy attack that then becomes a revolutionary moment, etc.). It’s a plan for the prerequisites that we need to have so that we can win when a tipping point opportunity shows up.

1) Final Outcome: What do we want the movement to be able to do?

    -At least 1/3 of the U.S. population (about 100 million people) supports and participates in the anti-authoritarian movement; another 1/3 is neutral or sympathetic but skeptical; the other 1/3 may be hostile.

    -We have built a cultural dual-power that provides diverse, rich, and daily whole-life programming at a mass level. This dual-power has made special effort to reach and engage with armed forces personnel stationed across the globe.

    -We have built sustainable, practiced organs for directly-democratic decision-making and the accountable execution of those decisions at workplace, neighborhood, and school levels.

    -We have built an active network of millions of people (let’s say 10,000,000) who can mobilize and use a wide variety of direct action tactics (read: not protest, but direct action) to defend the movement or push the movement forward.

    -Our sources of strength are sufficiently balanced across rural and urban areas and key industries that we could generate the resources to sustain ourselves even if the rest of the world and the country boycotted us post-revolution.

2) Evidence of Success: How will we quantitatively and qualitatively know when the movement has achieved our outcome?

    -In polls and surveys, at least 1/3 show support or sympathy with the anti-authoritarian movement…not just our values, but the movement itself.

    -At least, say, 30 million people have actually signed on to some kind of 1-2 page statement of revolutionary vision or purpose.

    -When asked, 100 million people have at least 1 daily contact point with the anti-authoritarian movement, be it participation in an assembly, accessing anti-authoritarian media, utilizing anti-authoritarian consumer options, or having daily contact with an organizer who they respect.

    -The movement has at least 20-30 highly successful examples of workplace, neighborhood, and school direct democracy, with at least 1,000 more that are at least in embryonic form. If we have at least those good examples, their model can spread fast in a more heated revolutionary situation.

    -On any given week, at least 1-2 million people are engaging in some kind of direct action across the country…and on following weeks, we see a different 1-2 million mobilizing. At least 1/3 of these mobilizations are in rural areas.

    -At least 30,000,000 people have participated in a strike, boycott, or walkout within, say, a year-long period of time.

    -There are GI coffeeshops and alternative institutions established near almost all military bases. If you can’t tell, I think the distinct nature and cultural hegemony of the U.S. military is a unique challenge for U.S. revolutionaries.

3) Key Milemarkers: What are some of important stages or accomplishments on the road to our outcomes?

    -A majority of the most serious, dedicated, and principled anti-authoritarian forces (I don’t give a shit about the adventurists and wing-nuts) have signed on to a 1-2 page statement of unity, which is a foundation for their organizing and outreach. The number of signers goes from 500, to 1,000, to 10,000, to 1,000,000…and rising.

    -We have established our first examples of successful mass-based cultural organizations in both urban and rural contexts. These organizations have weathered the storms of conflict, internal power dynamics, repression, and apathy and have gone on to survive and thrive.

    -Anti-authoritarians have been key, even majority participants in at least a few large-scale direct action campaigns that directly threaten a major corporation or state apparatus…and we win a significant number of our demands. These victories solidify our credibility with non anti-authoritarians.

    -In at least a few urban and rural contexts, we have established our first successful, lasting examples of large-scale workplace, neighborhood, and school direct democracy.

    -We have established our first anti-authoritarian equivalents to schools and universities, and child and youth participation rises from hundreds, to thousands, to millions.

    -We have established our first 24-hour outlets for news, entertainment, and educational programming…whether these are networks of local initiatives or a national electronic media.

4) Day-To-Day Activities: What specific actions, projects, or other contributions will help make this stuff happen?

    -A 1-2 page statement that is clear and accessible, but also captures all the important non-negotiables that make serious anti-authoritarians who we are…this statement should be the back-page of our leaflets, a sidebar on our websites, and a brief aside in all of our public speaking. Agreement or disagreement with the statement is an empowering and clear decision point for all newcomers to a movement.

    -Experienced organizers should continue to collaborate extensively to synthesize and share lessons for how to problem solve around movement killing dynamics: internal movement violence and failed accountability; repression and infiltration; wars of personality; hyper-identity politics and the opposite, hyper-defensiveness about identity; super-star worship and jealousy; overwork and burnout; and navel-gazing and drowning in process. Actual solutions and models should be proposed, tested, and then energetically advocated for. Let’s figure this shit out and move on, please.

    -Cultural projects, and lots of them. More workshops, trainings, music, theatre, movies, video games. More cultural meeting spaces. You know I’m all about revolutionary congregations!

    -Experimentation, and lots of it. Immediate and constant attempts at mass-based organization building. Experiment, reflect, revise, and repeat again. If an attempt fails, try a different one. Our ideas are already good enough to have mass organizations now; we don’t need to wait for some cadre period first…I’m increasingly convinced that cadres are a strategic error.

    -Do the same experimentation process in direct action work and with attempts at direct democracy at workplace, neighborhood, and school levels. With all of this, we don’t know what is a prerequisite for what, so we kind of need to throw a lot of things at a wall and see what sticks.

    -A constant background context of small victories…a la Seattle Solidarity Network. While we are working and tinkering with bigger-picture stuff, we should be choosing and fighting little fights that we can win.

    -Documentation, and lots of it. Anti-authoritarians should evolve a dedicated, energetic research and polling network—designed to collect ongoing data for movement use about what works and doesn’t for achieving our goals.

    -Hella relationship-building. The greatest way to sustain a movement is for the movement to be infested with positive and healthy relationships. Even though we don’t have the theory and the structures down and we’re not even close, there is nothing keeping us from a friendly and warm vibe with a spirit of openness and experimentation. Lots of potlucks, one-on-one lunches, intermural sports, socials, etc…but boo to always having alcohol involved in social stuff.

    -A patient, multi-generational timeline. It is absolutely true that, given special conditions, all of our final outcomes could ramp up and be accomplished in a matter of years or a decade. However, anti-authoritarian revolution is by far the hardest revolution to actually win—hence our track record of zero. We should be flexible and lithe, ready to pounce on opportunities, but we also need to treat each other with a lot of patience…this will probably take a long time and we are small enough now that the stakes of our individual and small-group failures are actually really low. Let’s take advantage of that by really stretching, playing, and slowly trying to get things right as we grow and evolve.

Wow, that was fun. I love thinking about this stuff. Finally, after this and the last piece, I think I’m grounded enough for the harder work: backwards planning for my own political work, which I can jump right into in the new year.

Note to the reader: this piece is me processing a bunch of stuff. I thought about not posting it, but something I’ve found about this page is that I tend to be more useful to others when I am more open and vulnerable. In this case, I tried to be as clear as possible about the steps of my processing so that maybe it could be helpful to others when they are trying to think through political negativity.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I felt like I’ve become more grumpy and conservative about politics lately, often complaining to myself about the state of organizing, while contributing less than ever. The feeling has been bothering me since I wrote about it, to the point that it’s affecting my sleep.

I don’t want to be that person, that cliché who snipes at other radicals—mostly younger folks—while never knowing or admitting whether it’s because of genuine disagreement, or just bitterness about how my own life choices have distanced me from the struggle. Here, while I have some time in Guatemala, I want to work through some of these feelings, and see if I can come out the other side with a healthier orientation to politics—and especially to the local organizing that I tend to react most strongly to.

Step 1: Breathe, Ground Myself, and Notice My Feelings

When I pause, close my eyes, and just feel, it’s amazing what my body tells me that I don’t want to tell myself. The tension I feel in my back and chest when I think about what’s happening in Seattle, the signs of anxiety that I detect as I catch up on reading political blogs, they show me that there is certainly more going on for me than political disagreement—though I’ll get to that part soon enough. Underneath all my rationalizations, the most visceral feelings I have are more personal—and more petty—than political.

I am jealous, and I am scared. I am jealous that people are out there taking risks, writing things, building groups and countercultures, and growing a movement that seems even more large and significant than anything I’ve done…while I work, play video games, and numb myself in a consumerist domesticity. At the same time, I’m scared that other people will build a winning movement without me, that someone else will write the great books that I want to write, and that I will just be a has-been, sellout teenage-anarchist-turned-professional. I am scared of being left behind, especially as I age.

This part is very telling: I am far more threatened by other radicals’ potential success than I am by the possibility that our movements might be losing. Pretty sad, Jeremy.

This is what happens when your identity, since you were 14 or 15, has been based on not only a vision of a revolutionary movement, but especially on a belief—even a sense of entitlement—that you will be a special and celebrated contributor to that movement. When your context and your choices start increasingly contradicting that identity, you either grow and reassess who you are, or you start frothing up and lashing out. I’d rather do some growing.

So, what do I do with my not-so-healthy feelings? Where do I go next?

Step 2: Own the Unhealthy Feelings, Identify Positive and Healthy Goals, and Refocus There

Even further below my jealousy and fear, there is a guilt and a dissatisfaction. I am not quite happy with who I am politically. While I don’t think I’m currently self-hating or depressed or anything, I do know that there are ways I want to grow.

I want to better appreciate the ways in which my teaching work, fatherhood & partnership, and our commitment to our family in Guatemala uphold, rather than contradict, my political values. And where these things do contradict or excessively strain my politics, I want to do something about it. I want to better use community resources, friendships, and movement opportunities so that my personal life and teaching work can evolve within a movement, not alienated from it—which is mostly the case now.

I have the perennial goal of working through the pain and self-doubt that have festered from many past organizing and interpersonal experiences. This includes finding constructive alternatives to the self-medicating I do with consumerism, video games, and obsessive internet use.

Given the realities of my life, work, and personal commitments, I want to renew my confidence in who I am as a political person. Instead of subconsciously judging my political success or failure based on my teenage self’s dreams of full-time revolutionary activity—not to mention hubris and fame-seeking—I want to continue developing a more balanced, humanist, and feminist sense of what my own political contributions can be. I want to be confident and comfortable with who I am as a revolutionary, even if I can only contribute a few hours of explicitly revolutionary work in a week.

This means that I also desperately want to reflect and decide on how to use my precious few free political hours each week to make the best possible contribution to revolutionary movement building—with minimal interference from unhealthy jealousy, fear, ego-centrism, or attention-seeking.

So, after this internal emo-fest, exploring these personal things that are making me crabby and cold toward current political work, what will my healthier orientation to that work be? How do I want to participate? Is all my grumpiness just personal and unjustified, or do I have also have legitimate concerns to air about local politics?

Step 3: Having Recognized the Internal Stuff, Explore the Critiques and Disagreements That Remain

Acknowledging my jealousy, fear, and other personal issues and putting those on the table, there are still a handful of things that are making me uncomfortable about the current political context, at least here in Seattle. I want to at least mention them here, for potentially more discussion or even public intervention later.

An escalation of militant rhetoric and tactics, while the mass base shrinks

At the height of the Occupy movement in Seattle, I would say that there was a genuine mass attraction to what was happening. The language and populist angle of the movement spread far into popular culture and is still referenced by some non-active people today. However, as radicals dug in and fought valiantly for their positions, the masses have not stuck around. Anti-capitalists have not created sufficiently attractive “containers” for the aspirations and activities of non hardcore people to grow and blossom, yet at the same time the rhetoric of revolution, insurrection, and class struggle seems to be heightened. Anti-authoritarian revolutionary strategies can only work with millions of people involved, and our ability to build a mass base should be our most important barometer of success—of course, while maintaining our principles.

The movement is not growing fast enough, especially given the potential that Occupy had. We can blame the historical moment. We can blame the powerful. We can blame the identities or class compositions of the participants. We can critique people for being liberals and reformists all day and night. However, I believe that those critiques, in the end, often fog over radicals’ own failures to attract people to our positions. I think radicals, from the beginning of Occupy on, have been speaking a language that is unnecessarily at odds with mass culture.

One quick example: the black bloc. I can recognize the bravery and efficiency of the black bloc. I recognize that there is a huge difference between property destruction and actual violence. I understand that they are going to do their thing, even though it’s not my thing. However, I also think they scare the shit out of people. What’s the good in that? Black bloc: take a look and reflect on tactics like the European Ya Basta! (white overalls) folks during the anti-globalization movement—there are ways to be militant while also effusing color, hope, and opening spaces instead of closing or trashing them.

An uncomfortable political dialect

This connects with the point above, but it’s more personal to me. When I read a lot of today’s political blogs, including the writing of people who I really like and respect, I just kind of feel…off. If I need to let this go, I will, but I least want to air it out a little bit.

First, I’m seeing very little positive vision or strategy in people’s work these days. What are we building? What’s the point? What I see is a lot of issue-specific fights, which often get really intense—mostly because a small minority of people make them intense in pre-determined ways—but which don’t tell us what we’re fighting for. I know I’ve always been a kind of posi- kid, but I also know that most people don’t like to spend all of their time fighting, fighting, fighting without a deep connection to the vision underneath.

Second, I’m both intimidated and worried about the reliance of some of today’s most thoughtful and committed anti-capitalists to materialist, class reductionist, or otherwise Marxist language. I’m not anti-Marxist. I think Marx and Marxists have been very useful for a lot of things—particularly for understanding capitalism. However, I think they suck at communicating with ordinary people and at practicing anti-authoritarian revolutionary strategy. To reference Marx himself, I think way too often some really great people are talking with the corpses of past Marxist moments in their mouths. Anything more I have to say about this, I think I’ll say in direct response to the things I read or hear.

Third, this struggle is going to take a long time, and that means that radicals can’t always have our volume on at full
blast. There is way too much epic language in people’s writing, way too much bombastic rhetoric. The insurrectionist anarchists are the worst on this point—and Crimethinc before them—but it’s spread to a lot of the things I read in Seattle. I’m sorry, but most of the time, we revolutionaries have to be just people living our lives—and even our revolutionary writing has to reflect this. We can’t expend every breath as if we were on the barricades. It’s exhausting and it’s insincere.

A subculture that seems increasingly closed and paranoid

I don’t have much to say about this because it’s mostly anecdotal, but the impression that I get is that as repression has heated up in Seattle, radicals have become more subcultural and more closed than they were a year ago. This is unfortunate, because, despite police repression, the actual state of the movement is way too weak to justify this closed type of attitude. A movement has to be huge—or the repression has to be much more significant—before it starts acting all underground like.

From what I can tell, Seattle organizers are really on the defensive. Repression, sexual violence, and immigration attacks are dominant issues. I just hope that radicals can figure out ways to flip these defensive issues into potentially offensive issues so that it becomes real work that builds power instead of distracting from other, so-called “real work.” I’m excited by how “Who Are You Callin’ Illegal?” is trying to make that strategic flip from defense to offense, for example.

It’s amazing how much the Seattle radical scene has changed in the last year and a half. At the same time, I’ve felt tremendously unwelcome in a number of spaces—particularly anarchist spaces, and that feeling has gotten worse lately. That’s a big problem, because I’ve been doing this for a long time. What about newcomers?

There. When I really get down to it, these are the things that have been legitimately bothering me. I’ve gotten them off my chest, now what?

Step 4: Figure Out What the Hell You’re Going to Do, Jeremy!

Here’s the outcome I need from this lengthy processing session: a new orientation toward actually working in community with other Seattle revolutionaries. What am I going to do?

This is where my teacher training kicks in. It’s time for some backwards planning! When teachers need to plan a big, intimidating unit that could last months and months, we are taught to plan backwards…starting with the vision we have for what our students will know at the end of the unit, then planning how our students will be able practice that knowledge in the world, how we will confirm that knowledge through assessments, and then, finally what day-to-day activities will help us achieve these educational goals. This is what I need to do for my own organizing activity.

And that is going to have to be another post : Backwards Planning For the Revolution!

All the personal struggles and surprises aside, I’ve spent the bulk of the last year focused on learning how to be teacher. Now, with the first, tiniest amount of free time, I’ve noticed my mind pedaling around the same question: how far have my grad school stint and my career choice pushed me away from my revolutionary ideals?

If we look for the answer in my participation in organized and explicit social movement activities, then the response that reflects back is dazzlingly clear: I’ve been almost completely M.I.A. I’ve missed basically all of the major political events and initiatives in Seattle for the last year. I missed Occupy, I’ve missed all of the major Seattle Solidarity Network fights, I’ve missed the port workers and transit organizing, I’ve missed organizing against the new youth jail, and I haven’t been to a single radical educational or discussion event. Given that pretty much my entire identity has been wrapped up in radical politics since I was 14, this is a drastic change. It’s a stark absence from the world I know best, and I’ve certainly felt the void.

But the question cannot end there. If it did, then not only should I be depressed and disappointed in myself, but my integrity should also demand that I rethink my decision to be a teacher. Yet that’s not at all how I feel. The truth is that I’ve felt largely satisfied over the last year. I feel well-grounded in my politics and strategic vision, and I’m optimistic about my ability to integrate a teacher’s approach to social change with the more traditional social movement work that I’ve been missing lately. In fact, as I’ve been thinking, I’ve realized that my original question might be inappropriate.

Perhaps a better question is: how has my time focused on teacher education contributed to my revolutionary ideals? Yeah, with that question, things get a lot more interesting.

In many ways, my year in teacher-education-land has been a useful retreat from the often insular world of radical organizing. First, it’s given me personal space to build new relationships outside of the radical subculture, and that has been healthy and rewarding. More importantly, though, it’s given me the opportunity to think about movement dilemmas using a variety of new lenses. More than ever, I believe that education is central to revolutionary movement building, and getting intensive, formal training in educational theories and techniques has really expanded my political toolbox.

I’d like to elaborate on some of this here.

Let’s start with some basics. Revolutionary organizing, at its root, is about facilitating people’s personal transformation. It’s about transforming people’s relationships to their own sense of power and potential, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to larger social institutions. Some can disagree with this and frame it differently. They might say, for example, that it’s not so much about changing people, as about changing the structures that hold people’s true natures back, but that’s a mistake. The “structures” are almost never actually structures—we’re not fighting against giant concrete slabs, after all—but rather very human social relationships that need to change, which means individual people, values, and decisions that need to be transformed. I will gladly debate radicals all day long about this: revolutionaries are in the business of helping people to change. I think that’s our necessary starting point.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? Teachers are pretty much in the same business. Teaching is all about organizing a social environment, and facilitating experiences, that allow people to grow deeper and more sophisticated connections with themselves, each other, and the world. That is, teaching is about helping people to grow and change toward their higher potential. Teaching and learning are both intensely personal while also being highly social—much like radical organizing. And, at its best, teaching is a process of supporting people to realize their full potential as historical agents.

That said, revolutionary organizing and teaching are also markedly different. Public school teaching begins in a context of coercion, and it does involve state-mandated content. It is riven with elements of social control and indoctrination. I don’t need to go that far into all this, because I think we can just take it as a given. I’m not under any illusion that just by being a school teacher I’m doing radical work. I’m not. Teaching is not enough to make more than a small dent in the armor of this system.

The point, though, is that there are some tips and techniques in teaching that are almost directly transferable to revolutionary organizing.

I think at this point it’s probably most useful to just list some examples off.

Know Your Students, Know Yourself. This one is kind of a gimme, but teachers are taught to know their students well, and to use a wide variety of techniques to do this—icebreakers, interest surveys, one-on-one conferences, pre-assessments, open houses, field trips, etc. Teachers are also taught to be grounded in their own identity, style, and preconceived notions about students—including being aware of our institutional privileges. As radicals, this seems like all obvious stuff, but how well do we actually implement trying to know our people? How do we use data? How do we use internal movement surveys? Do we do one-on-one conferencing between new folks and movement veterans—I know they do in some cities—or use other forms of relationship building beyond parties or go-arounds at workshops?
The political parties are absolutely obsessed with data-mining, microtargeting, and knowing everything they can about their constituencies. If I walk into a radical info-shop or social center, on the other hand, people often won’t even look at me or acknowledge me. Seriously, I’m 31 and I’ve been an anarchist for 16 years, and I’m still scared to enter radical spaces because so few people make a friendly effort to know me!

Metacognition and Learning Strategies. A big thing in teaching these days is this idea of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. The idea is that helping students to explicitly think about and articulate how they think will help them think better. For example, it’s not enough to know the answer to a math problem, it’s potentially more important to be able to describe how one found the answer, and why the method worked. Teachers are also encouraged to identify the tricks that skilled readers/writers/quantitative thinkers use and to explicitly teach those to students as learning strategies. Students learn how to infer meaning in texts, make predictions in stories, visualize numbers in a wide variety of ways, or break unknown words into their component parts.
We need this in a big way in revolutionary work. Everything is so mystified and loaded with jargon, that especially new organizers feel like they have to read dozens of books before they can hold their own with veterans. This is a mistake. There are very real tricks to thinking systematically and strategically about political realities, and those tricks can be taught. Similarly, manipulative and abusive politics are rife in our movements because people are using techniques and tactics that most of us aren’t metacognitively aware of. We need more awareness of when we are creating straw positions, when we are using anecdotal evidence, when we are creating false dichotomies, imagining zero-sum situations, etc.

Students Need Regular, Specific Positive Feedback. Current thinking about classroom management and “discipline” in schools is that students respond best to warm classrooms that offer a ratio of 4 specific, positive pieces of feedback for every 1 piece of constructive criticism. However, the positive feedback can’t be hollow or like “everyone gets a trophy because we’re all equal.” It should actually be relevant to the student and their actual participation. Both positive and critical feedback should be framed with an understanding of the student as being in a process of learning, without an imposition of artificial deadlines. Further, feedback should be pretty much constant, so that students have a regularly updated sense of their progress toward their various learning goals.
In revolutionary work, criticism is one of those things that we’re particularly bad at. From the group-think of criticism/self-criticism, to passive aggressive notes and open letters—which usually means humiliating people publicly because we’re too scared of a one-on-one discussion—to just straight-up name calling—can’t we just ban attack words like “liberal,” “bourgeois,” “reformist,”–we are mired in terrible ways of handling difference. We also are pretty terrible about giving new people information about how they can learn and grow from mistakes. In fact, do we even learn from most of our mistakes on the radical left? Not so sure.
In the context of a caring and stable political community, the teaching tips of 4-to-1 positive feedback and consistent delivery of specific feedback could do some amazing things.

Zone of Proximal Development. So, there was this soviet-era educational theorist named Vygotsky, who current teaching theorists love. Vygotsky was all about social learning, the idea that we learn less from a teacher depositing knowledge in us, and more from working in a group with our peers. People who like Paolo Freire would find things to like in Vygotsky’s thinking. Well, one of Vygotsky’s ideas was that all of us have our current ability levels, but we have also this whole extended level of potential which is what we are capable of with the support or presence of a more capable peer. This is the zone of proximal development. The idea, then, is that with strategic cooperative grouping, students can develop their learning even faster because the support and modeling of their peers expands their potential.
This is a very simplified gloss of the idea, but it’s useful for thinking about mentoring and division of labor in revolutionary circles. We don’t need a rigid system of step-up/step-back all the time. We also don’t need individual role-rotations, where veteran organizers swap out of a role and new people swap in. If we have mixed ability working groups that share tasks cooperatively, people actually can show remarkable abilities to grow rapidly, without having to throw new people to the wolves, and without having to shut down veterans’ experiences entirely.

Scaffolding. Another very popular Vygotsky related idea is the idea of scaffolding. The theory here is that human beings build their learning as a web of relationships to prior experiences and knowledge. So, knowing this, teachers should use students’ prior experiences as a foundation, and then build supportive scaffolding up so that students can move higher and higher toward whatever the learning goal is. Scaffolds can take many forms. They can include visuals to aid texts, or blocks and manipulatives for students to physically work with in a math class, or just helping students have pre-requisite knowledge before taking on advanced concepts.
I think this idea of scaffolding is especially salient for revolutionary organizing. Most people do not have a lot of prior experience with radical ideas, with collective self-management, or with confronting systemic oppression. However, they do have many, many experiences with surviving and navigating said oppression. Organizers should consciously think about how their tactics and initiatives help scaffold different experiences for people to learn new, relevant revolutionary skills. We should explicitly ask ourselves what future ideas and skills our various events and actions are scaffolding. Are we building only militant confrontational skills, or only academic skills, or only meeting and discussion skills? How do we scaffold for a future society if we don’t know what that society will look like?
One group that I think is an excellent example of revolutionary scaffolding in action is the Seattle Solidarity Network. By taking on small, winnable fights against bosses and landlords, and organizing hundreds of people in collective action in these fights, they are scaffolding many critical skills and attitudes that will be useful for whenever a time for larger, more protracted radical campaigns are necessary.

One More For Now: Inquiry-Based Learning. In teaching, there are many different philosophies about how to actually present new content. One strategy is inquiry-based learning. This is closely connected with Freire’s problem-posing education. The idea is that a teacher presents a dilemma or situation, and provides access to a variety of pieces of authentic information (texts, resources, tools, etc), and students are tasked with building their own understanding by trying to create an approach to the problem. Once again, this is a gloss, but that’s the big idea.
This should be really common in revolutionary educational work, but it’s not. Rarely do we have workshops in which people are actually using authentic data sources (newspapers, statistics, past activist experiences) to develop realistic approaches to scenarios. Instead, most of our workshops use highly abstracted games or veiled scenarios that often inspire only shallow thinking about solutions. We learn big concepts from these activities, like how to select a target, or how to make a fun chant, but we don’t develop high-level strategic and tactical thinking skills. The nuance is usually not there, and I believe the ability to handle the nuances of radical politics is one of those metacognitive tricks that keeps some people in radical work, while others burn out and quit.
I think our revolutionary workshops and education projects need to—as they say in the teaching world—develop higher expectations.

Okay, I’m still getting back into the groove of blog writing, so I think I’ll cut this off here.

The point should be clear by now, though. Although I’ve been away from revolutionary work for a long time now, I’ve been learning a whole bunch as I prepare to become a teacher. I’m excited about applying some of that learning to social movement work in the Seattle area in the near future.

Finishing grad school. New writings added…

Well, this is my last week of grad school, then just a few more loose ends and I will be a real, live teacher! To “celebrate” I’ve added two pieces of writing that I did in the Master in Teaching program, just so that I can remember them later.

Being a dad is awesome, and I should write about it more soon, but first, I just need to get through this school thing.

Much love to whoever is out there.

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.

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.

In part 1 of this piece–which I wrote more than two years ago–I complained that the way popular education has been, well, popularized in our current movements tends to satisfy itself with a critique of the “banking method” of education and with a desire for “dialogical,” “problem posing,” and participatory education, and how in that self-satisfaction it loses a lot of its richness and useful complexity. I then briefly suggested the concepts of presence and power as potential helpers in deepening grassroots education at the social movement level.

While I don’t want to spend this article writing about Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed alone, I do think getting back to that book is a good first step to seeing the untapped potential of the popular education approach. See, in most movement discussions of popular education in which Freire is referenced (and this is actually less of a problem when Myles Horton, Highlander, and the civil rights movement are the reference points, since they were less academic and more rooted in a movement context that is popularly understood), we get really stuck in chapter 2 of that book.

While chapter 2 is great in its discussion of the banking method, student-teacher relationships, and the alternative of dialogical and problem-posing education, there are two other chapters that come after it! In chapter 3 the concepts of minimum thematic universes–systematically mapping out the underlying themes and categories of students-teachers’ experiences and worldviews, and using a team of investigators to develop an in-depth and contextually relevant curriculum–and limit situations–those opportunities when the student-teacher’s own worldview confronts its contradiction with reality and with its own unrealized potential, and thus is pushed to grow and expand the thematic universe–are introduced and, though the elaboration is unnecessarily academic, the ideas are fascinating. Except for AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot, I don’t think I have seen even a reference to the idea of limit situations in many years. In chapter 4, dialogue is explicitly politicized in a very useful proposal for a change in the way revolutionaries relate and communicate with the masses, going beyond the classroom setting to the movement setting at large.

Like I said, I don’t want to get stuck on Freire, but my point is that, even using this one book as an example, most social movement approaches to popular education are stuck at what I’d consider the tactical level. We are concerned with how participatory the content is in the individual instance of education–almost inevitably the 1 1/2 hour to 2-day workshop–but we spend much less time talking about the long-term strategy of popular education as praxis: as a process of reflection, action, and then more reflection that, over time, transforms ourselves and the world.

This is where I want to go now with this piece. I would like to explore how grassroots educators can deepen popular education at the level of strategic, long-term praxis. I think the concepts of presence and power can aid us here.

Presence: Weaving Revolutionary Curriculum Into the School of Life

I think the best thing that grassroots radical educators can do for ourselves is to de-emphasize the thinking of ourselves as short-term workshop facilitators or classroom instructors and, instead, to more intentionally understand ourselves as long-term (that is, multi-year, multi-decade) accompaniment to both our students and to the movement. That is rather than rooting our understanding of ourselves in these singular (and often repetitive) educational interventions like the workshop, we think about ourselves with a long-view, as organic intellectuals who are present and engaged in praxis with the people around us for a number of years. We see ourselves consciously, systematically weaving educational dialogues and problem posing questions into the years long struggles and changes of our localities, making community life itself our priority area–with classrooms and workshops as tactical tools, but not the core of the thing.

A story to help give this texture:

I worked at Tyee High School for 5 years, alongside my friend Briana Herman-Brand. In that first year we started using political education curriculum with youth as young as 8th grade, usually in 1-4 hour workshop style sessions. At the time, I went through a process that I think many radical educators go through. As the sessions progressed I judged our success based on how much energy and participation I saw, and how dynamically and creatively youth worked with the concepts. I assumed that because it was participatory and that youth engaged so well, that the specific intervention was transformational and revolutionary, and I went home each of those evenings really excited. Then, I’d run into those youth weeks later, and they would still be using oppressive language, fighting, sexually harassing other youth, etc. This was the moment of self doubt in which I started questioning both their abilities to learn and my workshops’ abilities to teach. I would end the year not knowing how successful any of my work had been, especially with the youngest youth, who were particularly all over the place in their reactions.

Well, Facebook can be a beautiful thing! Because now, 7-8 years later, I can reconnect with many of those youth, and a good number of them have explained to me the power of even some of our most unforgettable programs–one of which I had actually completely forgotten!–and it even shows in some of their career choices. One particular young woman, who I had a really hard time working with, just straight up disappeared from my life after her 9th grade year, and then I saw her again back at Tyee 5 years later and she was doing a similar Americorps position to my old job, citing our time with her as an inspiration. As most educators know, the feeling that news like this gives you is priceless.

Education takes time. Building knowledge takes time. That’s why the concept of praxis is so crucial. The workshop, the lecture, even the book are not the fulcrum of education, as I think we know. Life is. Experience is. Our conscious, curricular interventions are just that: interventions into the daily actions and reflections of the people we’re working with. The implications of this, then, is that our interventions can be much more powerful if we can approach them with a long view.

We already know that a weekend long workshop is more effective than a 2 hour workshop. We already know that a 10 week program is better than a weekend workshop. And we know, implicitly, that long-term organizing relationships are the most effective of all. So I think we should put more of our focus and attention there. If we, as radical educators, know that we are committed to a place for at least, say 4 years (even better if it’s more like 10-20), then I think we should work with other similar committed people and really map out a curricular approach that is based on our movement presence over that long period of time.

By movement presence I mean the traditional writings, weekend workshops, guest speakers, 10-week programs, etc., but I also think about long-term mentoring relationships (something I hear a lot about from my friends in the Bay), yearly reflection and commitment-setting events, programs of organizers writing letters to future selves and actually delivering those letters, and the study, mapping, and articulation of the trends that we are observing over the years. How are the winds changing? Where does movement energy seem to be going? Most of us are left guessing on these questions, relying on anecdotal evidence, but this is an area where grassroots educators, along with researchers, could really be helpful!

This is also where inter-generational relationships are so powerful! By maintaining their presence in our communities and our movements, by sticking through all the past dramas and dissolutions, victories and failures, movement elders can offer essential insights to all of us. Though I’m still young, my own 15 years of experience can often be really helpful to younger or less experienced organizers, often in sort of unexpected ways. For example, when younger activists complain about the state of the left and how right wing our culture is, I give them an example of the current events section of Barnes and Noble. When I first starting looking for books at Barnes and Noble in the mid-nineties, I jumped for joy when I could find even a single Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky book. Now, walk into a Barnes and Noble current events section and you can see Naomi Klein, Vijay Prashad, Amy Goodman, the Zapatistas, etc. Not ideal, but a huge shift! (funny/sad sidenote: the New Age section has also grown to overtake the philosophy section) This is just one trend that can be useful to talk about to give context to the growth of the left/progressive forces, but it requires a long term presence to see it.

Presence is also important for radical educators to model because of how hard organizing is, how thankless it can feel. Simply the act of staying in the struggle, still being there after so much hardship, can be inspirational and can give much needed depth to people’s sense of movement commitment. After 9/11 pushed the global justice movement into a sad sort of hibernation, the moments when activists simply came out of their homes to see each other and to see long-standing organizers still doing work was really pivotal in rebuilding and strengthening the anti-war movement.

As a small town person, I’ve always had a deep love for the small town regulars. The old man in Oak Harbor who would wave to passing traffic near the Roller Barn. The Bellingham bus driver who would always start his route with a Simpsons trivia contest. I believe that is a conscious role that radical educators (and really by that I mean all revolution-minded organizers and artists!) should take up. We should be movement regulars; humble, helpful presences who can listen attentively, ask questions, and provide solid educational content that is attuned to the current local context, the key questions that the local movement is facing from year to year.

This can help us to go beyond the repetitive cycle of 101 workshops, and really engage with popular education as the praxis that it’s supposed to be.

I have a lot more that I can say about presence, but these ideas are still feeling pretty raw, pretty first draft. I think I’ll leave it here for now, talk about power next time, and then refine the ideas further in a future pass.

I’m excited. Today I hit level 3 in my real-life video game, and all signs point to me only increasing my commitment to this project until at least the “beta” phase is over at level 10. From there I’m going to re-draft my missions, improve my reward system and point structure, and try and see if I can make it a multi-player game by recruiting a couple other people to play it with me!

But here I want to talk more about why I’m doing this in the first place, and how I’m conceiving of the eventual end of this game.

The purpose of this game is to leverage both my playfulness and my propensity toward game addiction to become a better friend, partner, comrade, organizer, and thinker. It’s about using fun and games as a means of actually helping myself to mature and get more “serious” about the way I want to contribute to the world in my lifetime.

The roots of this are many: I’m getting older (30 on Sunday) and working with youth all day increasingly makes me feel old; I’m responsible for a huge family and will hopefully be a father in the coming year or so; I’m professionally adrift; family finances are a constant hell; I’ve been struggling with politically-rooted depression for a good decade now; and yet I’m still deeply, thoroughly, gut-level committed to building a just and democratic world.

Though there’s always more to learn, of course, I feel like my 15 years of radical struggle now have given me a pretty good idea of the work that I want to be doing, and the kind of social movement participant that I want to be. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I don’t want to be a famous movement superstar (though I do want to write a book or two). I know that I don’t care about professional advancement (except to bring Glendi’s family stability and to fund the movement) and I know that no matter what job I have, I’ll always hate working. I know that I want to be rooted in one geographic region and to slowly foster long-term revolutionary movement building from there. But all this time the sticking point has been the follow-through.

So many years of insecure fumbling. So many hard experiences of failure, followed by months of despondency. So many repeated conversations, promises, proposals. As the stakes have gotten higher and higher (now with lives depending on me being present and responsible), I’ve come to realize that it’s time to really get growing. It’s time to really apply what I’ve learned over the years in a meaningful, consistent way.

Thus, the game. The game is a way of motivating myself–really its more of a manipulation–to do the kind of personal work that I know I need to do to be the organizer and person I want to be. By getting points for participating in social spaces, attending political events, reading, playing, walking, and appreciating the work of friends and comrades, I am building new practices for myself that key off of my already developed triggers of, “just one more game,” and “I’ll quit as soon as I level up.”

The idea was actually inspired by what I’ve seen from people doing Somatics and Trauma work. Their idea, in a nutshell, is that we are sort of made up of our practices, and that those practices are based on years of responses to the world that we live in, so the things that we do that are unhealthy are usually rooted in survival strategies that once worked for us, but which are no longer serving us so well. The trick to growing and changing, then, is to be engaging with our mind-body-spirit (soma…somatics) to develop new, centered practices that can take us toward our values and our commitments. Right on. The problem is there are a whole bunch of reasons why the straightforward somatics practices and groups won’t work for me right now, so I chose to come up with something that could meet me right where I’m at and support me from there.

It’s working. My god it’s working so beautifully.

It’s my hope that in 6 months, 9 months, a year I will have developed and internalized enough new practices that the framing of the game can go away, and I can engage in more social ways of doing this work. Somatics groups? Maybe. Revolutionary organizations? I hope. Revolutionary congregation building? If only!

Of course, if the game does pan out for me, I’ll try to share about it, maybe with a special website, or a small book, or a youtube video or something. I do think it’s fun and creative and could be a help to a lot of other gamer types. But that’s not the point for me.

The point, for me, is entirely personal.

I want to end this game considerably more practiced in the skills and habits that I want to carry with me into fatherhood and old age. Because I know that my ideas and habits will continue to get more ossified with age, I want to make a big offensive right now toward getting myself on a better track. Of course, there is no endgame in trying to be a better person, but I believe there will be a point where I can do it without these wonderful training wheels that the game provides.

Onward to level 4, then level 10, and then version 2.0 of the game!

This past Sunday, I got to have a really nice–though too brief–phone conversation with a good friend of mine, in which my friend gave me warming praise for my revolutionary congregation writing, as well as a lovably packaged critique. The critique went something like this: “I like your writing and I’d love to read what you think about ablism. Its absence seems pretty stark in your posts.” Now, in my opinion, that is a skillful critique. Positive, engaging someone with an interest in their opinion, while also pushing them to grow further into their values. Magnificently done.

And my friend was absolutely right. I had actually been triggered to a similar thought in Part 1 of the congregations piece, when I mentioned churches having disability accessible spaces–I began thinking about how lonely that one little mention of ablism is in this whole blog of mine. And with my friend’s push on Sunday, I’ve decided to do something about that. I’ve started re-reading Eli Clare’s work, and my co-worker Sunny just let me borrow their Disability Studies reader from college. I do think the absence is stark, and I can bodily feel that it’s deliberate. Similar to my absence of deep discussion around transphobia and trans liberation, ablism is one of those areas where I get physically uncomfortable talking about it, both because of the trickiness of language and the fear of speaking wrongly, as well as the lack of time and energy that I’ve put into studying it.

The absence is particularly jarring for me because I really agree with an important theoretical observation that I believe my friend Bruin (was it you, Bruin?) made to me: that ablism is the canary in the social movement coalmine. The idea is that if a social movement or a movement organization fails to make good space for people with disabilities, that is a strong negative sign for the long-term sustainability or liberatory quality of said movement. I think this observation is brilliant, just totally right on. Because the same skills and structures that it takes an organization to be less ablist are much the same skills and structures that make it responsive to issues of abuse and sexual violence, to issues of self-care and burnout, and to issues of power hoarding and space sharing. They are the skills of patience, consideration, listening, and caring. Particularly because of the vast diversity of disabilities that exist in our current society, the flexibility that our movements require to meet the anti-ablism challenge is powerful preparation for the flexibility that our movements need for thousands of other issues and tactical challenges as well.

Okay, so if I really totally believe this, then why such a low prioritization of study and work on ablism? Hypocrisy, of course! While I believe it theoretically, I think that I’m embodying the contrary, ablist reaction of thinking that addressing ablism is too hard, that it’s not worth prioritizing, that it’s not a core issue…and even that god-awful default defense of the status quo: that talking too much about ablism is divisive. Additionally, in my secondary reaction to my friends critique I found myself thinking, “but that’s not an issue I know about or have experience with, that’s something that other people are blogging about.”

It’s this last thought that I want to talk about today, with the other stuff coming later as I read more.

It’s incredible how, in the areas where we are privileged or where a deeper critique frightens us, we can ignore constantly lived realities that are staring us in the face. That’s the case with ablism. I seriously can’t believe that I think ablism is not an issue that I’m dealing with, when actually it’s all around me!

First of all, my own chemical sensitivities, and the fact that almost all perfumes and chemical smells give me an instant headache…and thus that I have headaches weekly.

Then, there’s the youth organization where I work, and the deeply challenging politics of unspoken and unseen learning disabilities and how youth hide them, but then are lightly teased about their behavior…but it’s never politicized beyond calling out the teasing, and we adults don’t know what to do because we don’t want to put a youth on blast by naming it as ablism, but then it also never gets talked about. This has been an issue for years, and I think about it every time certain youth are in the office, but our inaction and our lack of strategizing around it is actually pretty terrible!

There is my last post about being put into gifted programs at a young age…and the whole flipside of that of people who I’ve loved who were put into remedial programs, medicated, sent to tutors, etc. Their experience also made me hate the system that separated us…yet I never considered it ablism??

There is Glendi’s hospitalization, the months of healing afterwards, and the patience I occasionally lost as the weeks of taking care of her went on. And there’s that question that Glendi hoarsely voiced the day after the emergency, about whether she was broken.

There is Glendi’s friend and college classmate in Guatemala who, after a bus accident 6 years ago, is paraplegic and who lives in this tight, winding little cobblestone alley and almost never leaves her house…and has been systematically shut out of the teaching profession that she was previously in.

There are my friends who write and talk and think brilliantly about disability and ablism, but who are also living much deeper realities ablism than I am. I think about them, and I think about supporting them, but it’s sadly typical that I haven’t take the step of really applying the politics beyond it being something that’s sort of “their thing.”

Then, there is the really, really big reality. The daily family issue. The unspoken tension underneath much of the suffering in our Guatemala family. There is Glendi’s dad’s condition. As a man with type-2 diabetes who now also faces kidney failure, he has been unable to work for 3 years now, and the pain and shame of him not being able to contribute financially to his family has been a defining frame this whole time. In the mix of poverty and manhood and rural pride, the ablism piece has been there this whole time, but I’ve been missing it! All of the embarrassment that gets expressed, the exasperation with life and the questioning of what living really means. The softly spoken question, so wrapped up in ablism, of when is the time to give up, stop operating, pull the plug. And for us, with the economic power in the situation, to miss this piece is profound. Man, this is big.

This is bringing up a lot of questions for me, and a lot of feelings. But I think this is the point where I need to quiet down, do more work, and do more reading. This was sort of just a first clearing of the lot lot before building the foundation. The additional building will come slowly.

I am so thankful to my friend for the push to be thinking about this, and I’m excited for Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride to arrive in the mail. As hard as it can be sometimes to overcome the initial hump of defensiveness, I love realizing the places where I need to stretch myself and grow.

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.


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.


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.


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!

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are in a political storm season. Or maybe a storm generation. The spiraling out of control of speculative capitalism, growing sex trafficking and commodification of bodies, the coming collapse of the US dollar’s dominance, radical global climate change, the depletion of water resources and coming wars for water control, out-of-control militarization of communities of color and prison expansion, peak oil and the crisis of a new energy configuration, massive language and species extinction…the list of major, systemic shifts and dangerous crises is long, and its real. Even if we take only half of these topics, and halve the estimates of their scale and potential implications, we are still looking at a massive confluence of global crises.

The systems in which we live are going haywire. The mainstream political culture of this country is so off the mark, so dumbed down that it’s seemingly incapable of even talking about these issues for more than 15 minutes, not to mention actually proposing timely solutions. Just watch the Sherrod debacle. Barack Obama, the great moderate hope to bring some neoliberal stability to a system in crisis, has proven that he is also trapped in the undertow, and cannot swim out of it.

If there will be a transformative solution to these dire, mounting problems, that solution will come from mass social movements. I feel confident of this.

But where I have doubts is in the how, and in the if. Because I don’t believe in destiny, or God, or any certainty to social change, that means it feels entirely possible that it’s too late, or that the system is too far along. We could be charging at windmills. Those of us working so hard for change could be certain to lose. There is no guarantee of victory or liberation. Not for me.

But I don’t actually think we will lose, though, nor do I think it’s particularly useful to dwell there. So, for me the “if” question isn’t particularly interesting.

But the “how.” The “how” is endlessly interesting to me!

And today, what’s particularly interesting is this part: how to win by fighting ethically, against a system that is entirely built from dirty tricks?

See, systems of oppression stay alive because they don’t fight fair. They lie, they cheat, they attack and they steal. That is why they are oppressive. This is bad enough if you look at these systems instance by instance: colonization, slavery, holocaust, bracero programs, imperialist wars, sexual divisions of labor, etc. But if you expand your analysis to the historical, systemic level, then you see the real problem with their dirty tricks:

They accumulate.

We are struggling against systems that are still working from wealth and power accumulated during slavery, during the enclosure movement, during the East India Company, during the witch burnings. We are working against systems that grow like rings on a tree, on top of all of the garbage they did in the generations before. How do we beat them in the big fights if they win so many of the little fights, and accumulate and compound their winnings each time?

Well see, this is where I, and many of us, can fall in the trap…the mystique of the immortal enemy, the unconquerable ruler. It’s important to not get stuck here.

One way to avoid getting stuck is to choose to fight dirty as well. Hierarchical movements, cults of personality, unchecked internal oppression, lying propaganda, most forms of armed struggle and electoral politics…all chosen for their perceived pragmatic value…all potential poison to social movements. I don’t want to dwell here either. There are other times and places for discussing the strategic viability of the master’s tools.

There is another way to avoid the trap of hopelessness in the face of the colossus that is global oppression, and it’s also the most simple, and seemingly weak: to look inward. To look at our own strengths as “the little guys” and see those as key to revolutionary change.

A huge number of the most progressive changes in history have been won by those who are most marginalized, using tools and tactics that their enemies thought were too rudimentary or too weak to make a difference. Just look backwards and you’ll see that it’s true. And the way they have done that is they have claimed and fought in spaces in which the accumulated wealth and power of the enemy suddenly became not very useful. You know, because it doesn’t matter how many zeroes you have in your online bank account, no matter how many years those zeroes have been building, if the terrain of a struggle has been shifted to a place without internet!

So if we look at all the modern crises that I’ve mentioned, really look at them closely, things get a lot more interesting. What we see is not just a bunch of all-powerful, monolithic systems that can throw money or force at all opposition and instantly win. We see a multiplicity of human systems, built on human relationships, operating across wide swathes of culture and human experience. They are really big, with lots of joists and struts to hold themselves up…but they are holding themselves up on top of us, the little people, and we are not stable ground!

Look at homophobia, for example. The powerful had a plan to keep it going, and they have put millions into making that happen. They are winning on many fronts, and it will be a long time before homophobia disappears, but there’s something they didn’t count on: their kids aren’t mindless drones. If we see the fight against homophobia as a generational fight, we are definitely winning. The newest generations, even of evangelical kids, just doesn’t care as much about maintaining homophobia as much as the older folks. That is, the human ground that homophobia has stood upon is shifting in time.

Look at something like wal-mart, sort of a symbol of modern capitalist hegemony. The stores might look all the same across the entire planet, but the communities in which they are built are not the same. And so the way to beat these things is to really look inward…what are the particularities, the cultural traditions, the unique values of the community that are being threatened by the corporate monoculture? Those are ripe contradictions for organizing!

It’s our small little individuality, it is our humanity that is the best tool for crafting a winning revolutionary strategy. I believe that it is human relationships, human feelings, and culture that are the most fertile spaces for forging winning movements. We won’t beat capitalism on economics. We won’t. Their numbers will always grow faster than ours because of their dirty tricks. We won’t beat militarism through combat. Their weapons reload faster than we can pick up stones. I think that if we are going to win, if things are going to transform, we will win on the basis of human relationships, and their fierce ability to stick and spread. Not even organizations or marches or strikes or insurrections…not structurally shutting down anything, per se. We will win on relationships, how well we keep them, how well we maintain them…all the other tactics are really just tools for that purpose. There is, of course, much, much more complexity to this, but I think this is a foundational piece for building that complexity up.

For revolutionaries and activists who don’t have time for feelings, for relationships, for some kind of spirituality…who don’t think it’s systematic enough or strategic enough, I think I’m at the point of drawing a soft theoretical line between myself and them. I see a movement without affect and human connection as a dead-end road. I see it as a strategic travesty.

It’s just kind of spewing out now, and so far I’m not saying anything new. But I am kind of building toward something, I promise!

Although it makes me feel a little weird to claim it, it’s fair to say that I’m a grassroots intellectual. That is, I do a lot of thinking and theorizing about the world, and particularly about social movements, social analysis, and revolutionary strategy, but almost all of it is rooted in either on-the-ground experience, interpersonal communication, or just the rattlings of my own head. I have a very rocky relationship with institutionalized education, and like I said in a previous post, I actually read very little in the way of books or any kind of scholarly literature.

This is all fine, and frankly I have a wee bit of stubborn pride about it. I feel like I’ve come to the views I have through years now of tough experience, and especially in these last few years my feet have really been held to the fire and my more radical views and aspirations have been tested. I’m happy about how I’ve been able to hold onto those politics by actually sharpening them, rather than letting them get dulled out. On the flip-side, this has made me ever more impatient with really, really abstract thinking about politics unless it has real implications for practical work. “So, how do we actually use this in the movement?” is an increasingly common refrain for me.

But I’ve got a problem, and that’s the fact that I’m insecure about how non-academic I am. Even though I usually understand academic folks quite well (though sometimes with a little more work in the case of Antonio Negri or Foucault type writing), I feel intimidated by their language, and by their positions within movement discourse. It’s actually a strong disincentive for me, and a big reason why my writing almost never goes beyond this blog…my little intellectual sandbox of a blog.

Fact is, I harbor a deeply internalized belief that my ideas aren’t valid beyond this space. For awhile this was about overshooting my identity guilt–that as a white middle-class sex-gendered man I didn’t have a right to take up theoretical space. That’s mostly gone now. Instead, it’s a much longer-standing feeling that I’m just not good enough as a thinker and especially as a researcher to make valid points. I feel like I’m just playing with the toys of revolution while my more academic comrades are getting to work with the real thing. I know that this isn’t true, intellectually, but this is what I feel regularly.

So, for example, when my friend asked me to help write a piece for a book project about the politics of radicals traveling, I so wanted to do it, but I froze. When I read a piece in Upping the Anti that makes me want to respond or push the thinking further, I immediately write myself off that I’m not a good enough anarchist thinker to be published there. And oh, how many times have I visited the page for the Institute of Anarchist Studies with an exciting idea that I want to apply for a grant for…only to wither away a few clicks into the pages.

It’s a chilling effect, and I know that I’m not alone. I know lots of great radical, grassroots workers who are brilliant but who wouldn’t dare put things out for publication. It’s not our place, we think, we feel. We’re not intellectually disciplined, articulate, or well-read enough to share those spaces with other thinkers. This is sad, because these folks have a lot to contribute. I think I have a lot to contribute, as well.

There is another piece to this discussion, too, and that’s the feeling that I’m outside of the discourse…not just insecure, but just plain not participating in the conversation. So I read less, and thus benefit less from all of the lessons that other people are learning on the ground. This shows in that I rarely link or reference other people’s blogs. I rarely talk about other people’s writing or even organizing. This blog is like the me-show, and that’s partly intentional–I need a space to reflect on what’s going on for me, right?–but it’s also a consequence of this intimidation, this feeling of being outside the conversation. In fact, I’m writing this post now because immediately after I wrote my little post about Joel Olson’s article, I wanted to delete it. I doubted my ability or right to comment on such a clearly smart person’s thinking. I thought that clearly if I’m disagreeing with him I’m just not understanding him well enough…which always is a potential, but it’s still really chilling. How can I blog as part of a discourse, and not as a lone thinker in my bedroom, when that discourse scares the shit out of me and makes me feel dumb?

How do we break through all of this? I know it was discussed at the US Social Forum, and I was excited about that, but what I heard was mostly from the perspective of radical grad students. What I’m curious about is less how we keep the academy connected to the grassroots, but rather how do we make the grassroots more intellectually robust? How do we break down the many actually useful tools of scholarship and democratize them so they can be used in the daily practices of working people within the struggle?

I love the proliferation of study groups in other parts of the country, and I see it starting to take seed in Seattle. That’s exciting. I think the new accessibility of media is allowing for a lot of neat stuff with oral histories, storytelling, and participatory research. That’s really neat. But I’m even more curious about tools for democratic theory-building, and of the popularization of theoretical tools for mass use. This is popular education at its core, right? Sure, it really has been transfigured into this other, grotesque sort of thing which is just like a long list of “pop-ed” workshops, but there is still a lot of potential for going back to a richer form of popular education.

And for individual political writing and sharing? I’d love to be in a radical writing group with folks, maybe with the goal of putting out an online publication every 3 months or something. That could be cool.

I know personally that I want to confront the intimidation head-on, because really there is a lot more that I want to write, to extend a lot of strategic questions further, but once again I already feel myself freezing up like I usually do on this blog. Come on, Jeremy, not this time!

Update: The more I think about this, the more neat ideas I’m imagining about ways to get grassroots, mass-based spaces involved in theory generation and authentic praxis. There are so many great lessons from past and current movements about this, and with modern technology it could be so cool, and so, so fast compared to the old days!

Common Action’s Seattle branch just finished reading and discussing this interesting piece by Joel Olson, “Between Infoshops and Insurrection: U.S. Anarchism, Movement Building, and the Racial Order.” For such a short piece, it really gives a lot to talk about, and it was fun sharing perspectives with my comrades.

The main point of the article is that if U.S. anarchism is serious about being relevant and revolutionary, then it needs to do things: 1) take white supremacy seriously as a strategic bulwark of capitalism and oppression, and 2) go beyond the short-sighted tactics of either insurrectionary acts or small-scale subcultural infoshop politics, toward more long-range, strategic movement building. Of course, I highly recommend reading the article to get into the details and arguments behind those two points.

I don’t deeply disagree with the article, and I felt happily challenged by it (especially Olson’s contention about the long history of the US Black freedom struggle being more useful for US anarchists as a revolutionary tradition than the typical European anarchist histories of Spain, Bakunin, Goldman, etc.), and appreciative of its critique of anarchism’s weakness on racism. But at the same time, I’m not quite buying his point about the current racial order and anarchist strategy.

Sure, it’s true that modern anarchists need to both avoid reductionism and avoid this sort of vague, happy catch-all of “all oppressions are equal so we just fight them all at the same time.” We need strategies, and that means strategically chosen fights and political programs. It makes sense. And it also makes sense that struggling against white supremacy is strategically vital.

But that’s the thing, if we are going to really talk about strategy we’ve got to do better than this. While vague “hierarchy” or “anti-oppression” language can be strategically weak in the service of moral strength, the answer to its weaknesses is not a return back to “priority” oppressions. We are struggling against historically complex and highly dynamic social systems, that interact across all lines of collective and individual experience every day. To beat these systems, to transform them, we must understand how fast and hegemonic they are. They defend themselves on multiple fronts. Whiteness is just one of those fronts, even in the US context. Sure, the psychological wages of whiteness do create cross-class alliances that help support capitalism. Sure. But these systems also create hundreds of other strands of dependency, buy-in, and “common sense” across our culture…and if the wages of whiteness ever stopped paying off, you’d better believe that these systems will find other ways to stabilize themselves (and that has actually happened unevenly since at least the civil rights movement). Think about the Red Scare. Think about the patriarchal archetype of the breadwinner. And currently, think about the deep existential disconnect that imperialism creates between almost all folks in the US and those who extract and produce our lifestyle in other countries…the way that imperialism creates capitalist buy-in even among US people of color (even migrant folks in the US!). To be strategic, then, is to be flexible in the face of this dynamism, not to hunker down into any one structural focus that seems to be super clear, for the moment (it’s interesting because so many of the references that Olson makes date back at least 30 years or more, so it doesn’t even quite feel in the moment to me). Of course, it also doesn’t mean to do everything all at the same time with no attention to realities on the ground. Flexibility. Presence. Sharpness, sure, but sharpness that bends.

What I said tonight in the meeting is that I vastly prefer intersectionality, and particularly the contributions of woman of color feminism, as a way toward a strategic analysis. Intersectionality, when done right, doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of a tuned-in, robust understanding of race…but it also doesn’t allow us to be simplistic with that understanding. It trusts our intellects to hold the multiple structural realities that people live in their real lives…just like women of color must hold those realities every day! What keeps this from being strategically vague, then? Well, because it is based on looking at the actual experiences of those who are affected by these structures, rather than us fighting abstract categories of oppression and then trying to find structural symbols to manifest those fights (like fighting police or racist school testing to undo racism, for example). That is, we build the frame out of the intersections on the ground, rather than picking fights on the ground to fit the predetermined frame.

Still, even this doesn’t get us to the level of a winning strategy. Whether talking about anti-racism or intersectionality, there is still the same challenge of picking fights and building programs that have the greatest ability to overturn the system and build a new one…with the limited time, people, and resources that we have. This is where I agree with Olson that movement building is vital…and this is also where I think the strategic questions get really interesting and potentially innovative. If the system is as dynamic as I say, and as complex, what are the sites of struggle, the organizational forms, the demands and long-term methods of building people power that can break through that dynamism? Intersectionality (or anti-racism if one still insists) is just the analytical tool…it still isn’t the actual strategy…not even close. So what more do we need?

This is the number one political question that has been on my mind for years. And I’m glad that this and other articles are giving us room in Seattle to get to this. Maybe I’ll find an opportunity in all the difficulties of my life to share more of my theoretical ideas after all.

No time like the present…

For years now, I’ve been in orbit around a cluster of ideas that I think are really significant, but which I still haven’t been able to really explore to the depth that they deserve. These are the ideas that I tried to go into in my series of 21st century anarchism posts, as well as my barely-begun series on presence, power, and popular education, but in both cases I got stalled before things could get really interesting These are also the ideas that most make me come back to this blog…because I know that there is something important here that I want to articulate, but that I need more time and experimentation to get it out.

Basically, I’m talking about ideas that relate to being a better organizer, building a better revolutionary movement in the U.S., balancing life and activism, and meaningful popular education. At the core of these ideas, there are a couple of key words that I’ve been playing around with for a long time: mutual inspiration, personal cycles, and presence. These are words that just keep coming up for me over and over in my life and my work, and there is something there that I want to unlock. There is new theory there. There is really strong organizing potential. But how to get at it?

The answer to this question, I think, lies in the concept of presence itself. It is a tremendous challenge to both hold long-term revolutionary vision for our world, and to be daily present within that world. Even more, it is so, so difficult to see the needs we have for the people around us, and their potential, but to be present with the people they are right now–especially with their own personal dramas–and to really work with them from there. Never mind the constant struggle to be present with our own pain, loss, and senses of inadequacy when we feel like we should be so much more. And in my own case, it’s really hard for me to present with myself for long enough to really develop these ideas that I want to contribute to the world.

And so I return to this blog, specifically as a reminder that there is a space where I can be present with myself; where I can give myself that careful mix of patience, challenge, and attention that make the concept of presence so powerful to me.

In my daily life, things have gone back to feeling so heavy, with the burden of a non-profit and its legacy on my back, with intense internal activist dramas burning around me, and with what seems like less and less time to both take care of myself and meet people’s expectations of me. With that heaviness, it’s even more important to assert what I think is most important for myself, and what I want to be contributing with the youth, the resources, the experience, and the time that I currently have. Because as I get older and as I say yes to more and more of other people’s requests of me, I feel the danger of losing myself and why I became an organizer in the first place.

So, with that said, I’ve cleared some space again to give this another try. To work on articulating these ideas that I think are so important…not only to the social movements around me, but to myself as I’m grasping for meaning and for air.

In my time in Guatemala, I had the opportunity to tour Glendi’s sister’s high school in the city of Coatepeque. In the Guatemalan education system, youth spend a couple of years studying general secondary studies in what’s called Basico (basically junior high through freshmen year), and then they spend 1-3 years studying specialized studies in a Carrera. At Vicky’s school, the major Carrera is primary education, and it focuses on training certified primary school teachers.

The school was located on a city block, wedged between other businesses on either side, all in a one-story cinder block row. Walking through the narrow entrance was the main office, which was just a single desk, with an old manual typewriter, an aged hole-punch, and stacks of papers. On the walls were little hand drawn cartoon faces and cartoon suns and clouds, the kinds of decorations you’d expect to see in a place teaching primary school teachers. Past the main office was an open air courtyard, and all of the classrooms themselves. Maybe 8-10 cinder block square spaces the size of maybe a small U.S. classroom, with rows of very old, chipped wooden desks. The ceilings were that foam paneling stuff you see in office buildings, but browned in many spots by leaks. On the floor were rusty electric fans, and the only thing on the wall (especially since it was still “summer” break time), was a half-chalkboard/half-whiteboard panel.

I didn’t see a single book anywhere in the whole school. I didn’t see any technology either, except for the manual typewriter at the front desk. The registration system was made up of students’ names in a single notebook.

This is a private school. It costs us more than a month’s worth of an average Guatemalan’s salary to pay for this school each year. Imagine paying for this level of schooling for 5-10 children.

I was shocked and deeply saddened by this experience. To know that even private high schools like this are not even comparable to the access to education and resources that a public high school offers here in Seattle. The difference is night and day.

And this really got me thinking. What does it mean to think about youth empowerment–which is my paid work–in an anti-imperialist way? What does it mean to support youth empowerment for marginalized young people in the U.S., which respects and validates their experiences of oppression and their demands for equity…but in a way that also encourages solidarity with the very different realities and needs of fellow youth across the globe?

Truth is, I actually think that we’ve been bad at this in our own organization. When young people come in with complaints about their day, about their school, about their lives, the almost automatic response is to take their side, nod our heads, and universally respond, “man, that’s so messed up.” And it is…but I also think it’s important to be aware of the relative privilege that U.S. youth have compared to youth in other parts of the world. Building a global revolutionary youth empowerment movement demands this. What is the role for context and broader thinking when talking about injustice and organizing in U.S. youth’s lives?

What I want to avoid doing in thinking about this is playing oppression olympics. I don’t want to discount any youth’s experiences of injustice, be it racial profiling in the hallways, or lack of access to quality textbooks, or whatever. However, doesn’t real youth empowerment for U.S. youth also mean education about their incredible level of privilege and access in the bigger global picture, and the need for them to flex those muscles for justice as well? How can youth organizers in the U.S. work on their own issues and fight for changes, while also recognizing the other issues that youth are facing in other places, even within the U.S.?

For example, Glendi. When she was ten, her family pulled her out of primary school completely. She was set to work on the coffee plantations, spreading fertilizer and doing other tasks…for 4 years. She began 4th grade at 14 years old (the age that U.S. youth are usually high school freshmen). This is not uncommon. She was lucky, in fact, to get the option to return to school at all…her sister never did return after 6th grade. Her mom has a 3rd grade education, and still regrets the lost opportunity. Vicky’s school was described above, but what about the fact that in addition to school, she also gets up at nearly 4am every morning to grind the maiz for tortillas, handwash the clothes for 12 people in the communal tank, handwash the dishes for 12 people in the communal tank, sweep and mop the floor, and cook breakfast before and after going to school? At the same time, facing similar problems that young people face here, such as sexual harassment on the bus and by teachers, inaccurate and racist education, and structural racism against her and her peers as indigenous youth.

This is a fundamentally different structural reality for young people–and Glendi’s family is actually relatively well off within the village!–than what the majority of even marginalized and poor youth face in the U.S. Indoor plumbing, library access, public transportation, mail systems, etc…are basic infrastructural elements that even the U.S. poor mostly have access too…at least in Seattle. Even undocumented latino immigrant youth have a relative privilege compared to many of their peers in Latin America…because they made it across the border…that is a big, big deal! I think these different realities should be really taken into account when we talk about organizing, and what youth empowerment looks like.

Really, what I’m trying to say is that in the U.S., youth empowerment must not just be about empowering young people to face their own oppression in their communities, but also to build up a radical, movement-based sense of themselves and organizing in solidarity with youth who are fighting their own oppression on a global scale. This means that within our moments of “that’s so messed up” we also have moments of recognition of how many options youth here actually have–like my organization, which pays youth up to a 3-month Guatemalan salary to organize for change–and how they can use that structural privilege to fight against imperialism.

What I’m also trying to say is that when I eventually move to Guatemala for a short or long period of time, I want to think about how to do youth empowerment work there…and I really want to think about how it could look different from what we do up here in Seattle.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about this stuff over time.

So there is a cool little idea that I’ve had for a couple of years that I don’t really do anything with, but my friend Bruin prompted me to write about: Revolutionary Sundays.

See, one common frustration within activist and organizing circles is event overlap. This group plans their big rally for this day, and then two days before discover that this other group planned their reportback for this same day. Not to mention that on the same night this non-profit has their auction, but it’s also the day that so-and-so will be in town giving a great talk. Everyone throws up their hands, and curses themselves and each other for not being more in coordination. It feels like amateur hour.

But what if we converted this frustrating occurrence into a strength? What if we avoided the accidental event overlap with purposeful event overlap? What if we liberals, progressives, radicals, scheduled all of our public events, open meetings, and cultural gatherings on the same day…say Sundays? I think it could actually have really powerful effects on us as a movement.

Think about a really good conference, or something bigger like a big music event or the World Social Forum. In those events, there is no possible way that a person can go to all of the things they want to. And that is one of the most exciting things about it! You know that there is so much cool stuff going on, that you can’t make it to all of it…but you are also happy because you know that there are other people who did make it to that other event. There’s a critical mass.

What if that happened every Sunday? A whole slew of events to pick from, and maybe a little program that you can read to pick from. When you are at one event, people give a brief summary of what else is happening that same day, and you fill enriched to know there are so many people who care, so many groups doing good work.

Mobilizations for petitions or door-knocking would be so easy. New people in town would find it so easy to make friends and get the lay of the land.

Sure, it would mean that groups couldn’t depend on the usual suspects to make it to all their events, and it would force growing out to new people…

…but I think this would be so cool. It would give such a great meaning to the question, “what are you doing this Sunday?” Like a political code word. Neat.

Class politics, family style…

Let me share a little bit about the economic reality in which Glendi and I live, because it’s really intense, and I want to start talking more about it on this blog. I really need to talk about it more, reflect on it more…feel it more.

Here’s the short version: Glendi and I are more or less the sole breadwinners for our family of 11 people in Guatemala (and occassional supports of 4 or 5 others). This means at least one monthly payment to cover all food and utilities expenses (which are constantly rising in this economic climate), but it also needs to cover school fees, clothes, transportation, medical expenses, and so much more. This is something that we, of course, have built into our budget, but every month, when we send our payment (and especially when we have to send our frequent emergency payments), I am just struck by this reality. We are responsible for the health, nutrition, safety, and economic stability of a huge family who we barely even get to see every year. Coming from my own very stable U.S., white, managerial middle-class family, there really is no straightforward way to assimilate the full implications of this. It takes time, and it is a daily struggle (and one which I am privileged and honored to be a part of).

Truth is, it’s something that I find hard to talk about with my friends, and especially with my family. Sure the numbers and broad politics of it, fine. But the deeper emotions that I live with, and which have been stirring in me for these two years that Glendi and I have been living together…this is something else. I mean, I’m still me. I still like movies. I still play video games. I still like new gadgets and toys and all of that shit. And at the same time I don’t just have some distant family that I married into because I love their daughter…her and I are their core economic (and often emotional) support. I am involved. I have been grabbed by a context and pulled into the center of a family that is so different from me in every way…and it’s so real and so immediate that often there isn’t a lot of time to pause and analyze it.

I mean think about it as like some pop-ed workshop scenario exercise about power and privilege: Twenty-something middle class white guy marries spanish-speaking immigrant campesina and becomes a primary breadwinner for her 11-person family. What are the intersections of oppression? What does allyship mean? Just how problematic is this social relationship? I’ll tell you! It’s extremely problematic, and it’s also our daily life. With an economy in rural Guatemala in which there is almost no legal work, where health problems are mounting within the family, and in which the majority of children are still focusing on their education, what other options does Glendi’s family have but to depend on what their family in the U.S. can send them? And in a context where we make 4-8 times what they make in a month for doing much easier work, what moral option do we have but to send part of our check to them every month?

Having friends who are mostly white, anti-racist activist types, this is something that I like to talk about, but which leaves me feeling lonely. It’s a situation where I feel so much more comfortable talking with immigrant folks, because they know what it’s like to send the moneygram or money order, and to know that it’s never enough.

It’s never even close to enough.

And it’s so, so much harder, and so much deeper, when this beloved family calls and needs to ask for more. To think about their dignity, and the fierce injustice of needing to depend on this white guy and his wife (who only got here because of marrying the white guy) to be able to fucking pay for their pre-school for the twins, or the diabetes medicine, or little cotton balls for a school diarama…and even more complicated when we are stretched, and we don’t know if we can pay…but we also know that we do have a subscription to netflix that we could cancel or cut back…

This is just the beginning of me talking about this and working it out. It really goes so deep, and touches so many layers that I am going to need time to get at it. But I really want to. Because I feel like my inability to express myself about this to my friends and family is really cutting them off from understanding what my life and emotional state are really like…

…and also why I sometimes think that a lot of current U.S. activist preoccupations and analyses are kind of bullshit…much more than I used to, anyway. I mean, when people who you love are fucking screaming from malaria, or locked up in fucking Texas deportation prison, or they are eating beans and rice for the 7th straight meal of the week, because they can’t afford even carrots…then yeah, one’s sense of what is most important politically really changes. And you kind of do start thinking about some “oppression olympics” and some “class reductionism” sometimes. It’s hard not to. But it’s also important to keep the bigger picture in mind…but it does change you.

And I have been really changing. Not toward the sell-out side of the spectrum, not by a long-shot. More toward the, I am so pissed at this society that I need to do more side of the spectrum. My anger is a lot more visceral, and a lot less academic than it used to be.

As you’ll see as I eventually write about this more.

A funny thing happened on the way to Part 4 of my 21st Century Anarchism post…I realized that there is some other theoretical groundwork that I needed to lay out for myself before getting into all of the revolutionary strategery and anarchistyness that I want to explore. Since so much of my understanding of anarchist work relates to education-as-organizing, I need to go deeper into my own ideas of popular education, and how I think they differ from what I see practiced, and practice myself, in Seattle. Thus, this series of posts.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is one of my favorite books. I think it’s the only book I’ve read more than 3 times. Sure, I think it can be simplistic, and I think it’s kind of pretentious, especially with all the untranslated quotes and references (what’s up with that, anyway?). However, I think the core of the book is really important and still relevant to organizers and grassroots educators today. In fact, it’s still a core piece of my own theoretical framework and my own ideas of what revolutionary organizing should look like. I think that’s why I get so frustrated by how much I see “popular education” advocates (including myself even) misunderstanding and inadequately utilizing the book’s ideas. Maybe if we better applied and experimented with some of those ideas, we’d have more success as educators and organizers.

Here’s my problem: I think a lot of what is currently talked about as “popular education” these days is really nothing more than doing political education workshops with maybe a heightened level of participatory activities included. I think this is linked with a superficial reading of Freire’s ideas that boils them down to just his critique of the “banking method” of education. That is, we see Freire’s primary contribution as his critique of teachers who deposit knowledge into learners and practice top-down methods, as well as his proposal for more dialogical, participatory methods of education to replace the “banking method.” From there, we think popular education is all about organizing educational activities (workshops) in which people are allowed to share their own experiences and participate in games and brainstorms and small-group activities where they can use their personal experiences as a base to engage the content that is being presented/proposed by the facilitator. I think this is super-common. There are tons of curricula out there that are based around this understanding and application of Freire’s ideas. And I think they make for great, fun, dynamic workshops. It’s useful stuff. However, I think it’s only a shallow understanding of popular education, if it really can even be called popular education at all [I know that the School of Unity and Liberation in Oakland is clear in calling their stuff “political education” instead of popular education for similar reasons as to what I’m saying].

In my view, the ideas of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in particular and popular education in general contain entire levels of richness that cannot be captured in workshops or even in entire series of workshops. What about Freire’s ideas of confronting limit situations, of thematic universes, etc.? Getting specific, and getting beyond Freire’s own counterproductive jargon, I think that the elements of presence and power in popular education require a much larger space and community to achieve their full meaning. Dialogical popular education cannot be restrained to a workshop or classroom setting.

In this series of posts, I want to talk about these elements of presence and power and their relationship to popular education. And I want to do this with an eye toward making this stuff relevant to grassroots educators on the ground, as opposed to academics or classroom teachers (who probably have explored much of this stuff in their own forms). My concern is with how grassroots educators–folks who are already skilled and passionate about political education in study group and workshop settings–can deepen their work and their understandings of themselves as cultural workers and revolutionary organizers. Even more, I want to work this stuff out for myself, so that I personally have a better sense of the kind of organizer and educator that I want to be.

One last point before going further. I’ve gotta recognize that I haven’t read or studied up on this stuff in years, and so I know that there is probably tons of work and ideas about this stuff circulating around (maybe, probably even in Seattle) that I’m not even touching. And I KNOW that in places like the Bay Area of California, there is a lot of fascinating grassroots education work going on that goes beyond workshops and stuff. No doubt.

So, that said, this is my blog and I need to explore this stuff in my way. So that’s what I’m going to do. Feel free to read along and contribute as you’d like.

Just a quick observation to keep me writing.

I was taking a walk the other day and I was thinking about the individualist bent of U.S. culture, and I was thinking specifically about libertarians and Ayn Rand types, and the more I thought about it, the more baffled I got.

I mean, it’s really just silly. It’s one thing if someone is literally living on a piece of land, growing their own local food, bartering fair prices for everything, and thus they think any kind of social program, or taxes, or whatever is taking from their own hard work. This could be a passable excuse for individualism.

But that’s not our modern society! The global capitalism that individualists themselves celebrate is one of the most socially integrating forces in world history! It is based on complex and minute connections and relationships between people all over the globe. The idea that almost any product, or any piece of infrastructure comes from the “sweat” of any one person’s “brow” is just ridiculous.

We are social beings. And advanced societies are incredibly intricate engines of social relationships. Ever piece of food, every road, every piece of media is not only produced by multiple people, but it is rooted in the historical legacy and accumulated productivity of millions. Right now, every single thing surrounding me was built and shaped by thousands of human hands and minds (and probably lives lost). Any philosophy that doesn’t take that into account–and that stay’s with simplistic Locke-style references to “fruits of a man’s labor”–is simply intellectually bankrupt.

Take the idea of privatization. The very idea of privatization is based on the individual human being, in that the creativity and passion and innovation of an individual person is much more powerful than groupthink and collectivism. Hmmmmm. Interesting. Because in practice privatization has nothing to do with anything private. It’s the turning over of one kind of collective property (belonging to the public or State) to a different kind of collective property that is shared less equally, but nonetheless collectively (among shareholders). What is going on here?! What is more collectivist and groupthink than the kinds of brand identification and bureaucratic structures that exist in corporate America? How foolish.

Seriously, next time I get in a discussion/argument with an individualist I think I’m just going to have to go off about how absolutely nonsensical this supposed bedrock American value actually is.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the power of individual human beings. I think we are incredible! But I will never forget the social context from which our individual beauty and power come from. Language itself is a fluid social construction that is maintained across generations ONLY because of human interaction and connection. An individual can write incredible, heartshaking poetry, can make me cry and yearn and scream…and that writer owes their words to the thousands of people who have nurtured her/him with conversation for years! And even more, the beauty and relevance of that poem to me is precisely because of our shared social context, language, and life experiences that gave us a similar artistic sensibility. When we start talking about land and labor and economies, the social argument becomes even more clear.

We are beautiful alone precisely insofar as we are beautiful together. Anyone who thinks they’ve found their uniqueness or their specialness only because of their distance from the “mediocrity of the crowd” has to be careful…not only do they owe that crowd their lives, but also their words.

We should be present with what has made us, and celebratory of what we in turn can make. But when we start separating ourselves from our roots…that’s when hubris and corruption form…and to me pure individualism is nothing but hubris and corruption.

Please, if any of you few who read this are individualists, comment so we can keep talking about this.

Here’s my second piece. I almost thought about taking these down off the blog, but I feel like sharing.

The night that I became an atheist was one of the most powerful nights that I’ve had so far in my life. It was also the night that I came closest to killing myself. Thankfully, atheism saved me.

I was seventeen years old and it was a clear and brutally cold night in the middle of Alaskan winter. While my family slept, and wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, I headed out to ride my unicycle—I had recently taught myself the skill and it had become almost meditative for me—across the snow and ice of my small town of Eagle River. I was not planning to return.

My teenage years so far had been really intense for me. Having abandoned past quests for conformity after moving to Alaska from Washington at fourteen, I was enmeshed in a process of self-discovery and self-expression in which I was redefining my beliefs and my identity on a constant basis. It was hard for me to keep up with who I was from one week to the next. I was a self-proclaimed revolutionary anarchist; an ex-Catholic aspiring to understand Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism; a fledgling poet and short-story writer; a voracious reader of critical educational literature and philosophy; and an iconoclastic dresser, with my black and white wingtips, my homemade t-shirts, my black suspenders, and my briefcase covered with political and philosophical stickers and quotes. In all honesty, I was just plain weird, and I was fiercely proud of that fact.

I was fiercely battling with my body as well, and carrying a deep shame about it that kept me from looking anyone in the eye for nearly two years. I had chronic acne that covered not only my face, but also my chest and back. I had to sleep with a towel wrapped around me, because every night all of the pimples on my back would burst and I didn’t want my sheets to get bloody. Skin and pus would wash off along with the soap bubbles in the shower, and my tears often drained away with them. I would wear layers of sweaters or even turtlenecks to cover up as much as possible at school. After I read Moby Dick I wrote a poem likening myself to the whales in the book, full of rich, thick oil that could be used to light lamps or fuel homes. Unfortunately what I had within me wasn’t so prized. When I finally got up the nerve to talk with my mom and go to a dermatologist, the doctor told me that it was level four acne, apparently the worst kind, as it also formed cysts underneath my skin. She put me on a drug called Accutane, at double the normal dose. Apparently, I was a special case.

It turned out later that Accutane was closely linked to teenage depression and some cases of suicide, but we didn’t know that then. And I didn’t actually feel depressed or suicidal. On the contrary, I was actually a very happy person, with nearly boundless enthusiasm about life. I did feel something, though, a certain sharp quality to my emotions, a certain clarity and force to them, and I now wonder whether that was the drug doing its work on me.

Regardless of my reasons, be they chemical, developmental, or even purely cerebral, my emotions about the world weighed heavily on me, and they often expressed themselves in relation to deep spiritual questions that I was exploring at that time. Was there a God? What was the meaning of life? What do life and death mean, and are we reborn in a cycle? Is the world all an illusion or even a dream? I would often go on walks or unicycling trips to think about these questions, to try and puzzle out who I was, who I could possibly be in the shadow of such massive confusions. I read books, and lots of them. The Bhagivad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, David Bohm and J. Krishnamurti, Frtizjoff Capra, the poet Rumi, Descartes, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut, and especially the philosopher Martin Buber, and his book, I and Thou. In all of this reading the essential question remained: What could I possibly amount to in a universe so large, and so what did my life signify?

On my bedroom ceiling, directly above my bed, I placed a strip of masking tape that said, “Mysticism or Activism?” This was another definitive question for me. Did I want to focus myself on the inner life, on trying to reconcile and harmonize myself with the deeper rhythms of the world in some kind of search for enlightenment or the dissolution of self into something greater, or did I want to maintain my sense of self and my grounding in the world in order try to change the world and make people’s lives better? Was the choice so stark, or could I do both? I pondered all of this daily, I fretted about it, I wrote about it. While I had friends, and had crushes, and played video games and ate junk food like other teenagers, these were the parts of myself that felt most real to me.

Perhaps it was not only because of the Accutane, but because of my overall skin condition that the inner life meant so much to me. I’m not sure. I do know that I broke up with both of my high school girlfriends as soon as we got to a point of intimacy in which we are on the verge of taking off our shirts. Perhaps this is why I found so much comfort in thinking about living a hermitic or monastic life. In such a life I wouldn’t have had to think about the painful contradictions between my desires and the condition of my body.


This was me at seventeen, and this was me on that night. Earlier in the day I had just read something by Sartre, in which he said that life has no meaning, that there is no God to watch us or care for us, and the universe doesn’t know or care about us either. This was a alarming to me. As a boy raised Catholic, I had always had a feeling of a presence watching me over my shoulder. I felt the buoyancy of that presence. Even as I began to doubt the Christian God, I still felt like life itself had some kind of conscious, guiding, loving quality, and this comforted me. But on that day Sartre had messed all of that up. For him, life was meaningless, unless we alone chose to infuse it with meaning. This disturbed me greatly, mostly because I had a hunch that he was right.

So I took my unicycle out that night, thinking seriously about dying. I wasn’t sad, really. I was just exhausted. For me at that time, it felt like I had spent my most recent, most conscious and lively years completely wasting my time. I had put so much of my energy and creativity into searching for some kind of deeper connection with life, with myself, with something greater than myself, and now it seemed pointless. I had spent years struggling with my body, searching for ways to transcend it, to overcome it, to completely deny its existence as pure worldly illusion, and yet, ultimately, it was all I really had. The futility of all my efforts absorbed me that night. With these tired thoughts, with this world-weariness, I headed into the Alaskan cold.

I pedaled slowly toward a nearby creek bridge, looking up at the clear, dark starry sky. If life was meaningless, then it seemed fittingly dramatic and poetic to punctuate my death with the sharp, pure pain of freezing water. All it would take was a leap from the bridge. As I pedaled closer, I sobbed.

It was the sobbing that was the turning point, as I arrived and stood on the bridge. I looked at the water, I gripped the railing, and I imagined the fall, but my crying got more intense. I started to think about that fact, and it started to crowd out my thoughts of death.

If I was crying about life, then this clearly showed that I cared about life, I thought. I didn’t just care, I was actually deeply passionate about life. I looked through my teary, blurry eyes at the snow around me, with its millions of crystals reflecting the light of the streetlamp back at me, and I started crying more forcefully because of its beauty. I looked up at the moon and I lunged at it with both arms as if to try at embracing it, and I let myself fall to my knees in the attempt. The things all around me we were so beautiful. Life was so beautiful. Death would erase all of these things for me. But life, life alone contained all of these colors and sensations. Life alone was so full and complex, while death was a monotone, a flat line, a complete void.

That was the moment when I embraced atheism. Facing a choice between the constant blackness of death and the endless variety of experiences of life, I chose life. For the first time, I chose life, consciously and ecstatically, for what life was in itself, not for what was promised in some afterlife, not for the sake of some outside force that I thought was watching, and not for the idea of transcending to some supposedly more enlightened kind of living. I chose life as it was, and thus I also chose myself as I was, as a humble, lucky participant in life. Even as an accident of the universe, even with a body that seemed at war with itself, I was lucky to be alive, I realized. Even more, I was lucky to have all of the privileges of family, economic security, education, and peace to be able to appreciate life so consciously and abstractly, and so the question of social justice became even more forceful in my mind at that moment. There, on my knees in the snow, on the verge of choosing death, I finally really connected with my own authentic spirituality, and it gave me the force to choose life instead.

I am still a proud and happy atheist. I also love life, and my body’s participation in it, as passionately as I did that night.

However, I have grown up in many ways, and I’m often so embarrassed of this story, of the heavy teenage angst that it portrays, that I rarely tell it to anyone. I’m especially embarrassed, even ashamed, because two years after that night happened, one of my good friends, Stephen, committed suicide. There was nothing poetic, romantic, or philosophically pure about it. There was just sadness and confusion. There were just tears and snot and constant questioning about why he left us. There were just scores of people who wondered why he didn’t love us enough to stay and share this life with us. I’m so thankful that I didn’t make the same mistake that he made, and I wish that I had told him my own story.

For me, ever since that winter night on the bridge, life has been a choice that I make daily. I choose to give meaning to my thoughts and my actions. I choose to love and care about the people I love. I choose to work for a world where more people can choose life passionately, rather than just struggling to scrape through it. I choose to appreciate the blades of grass, the old trees, the tumultuous cloudy skies, because they simply make me feel blessed to be here.

And I also choose to love myself, with each scar that I still carry on my chest and shoulders, and with each memory that I still hold of that younger boy who didn’t yet have the force to choose. Now I do have that force, and I try to carry enough passion and love within me for both of us.

Pieces of Memoir… Part 1

When I was studying for my Master’s in Teaching, I had to write two autobiographical essays. I dreaded the assignment, and waited until the due date to write both of them. But now, just having re-read them, I think there is a lot there that I almost never share with anyone…so, why not post them here.

Bear in mind, that I wrote these a year ago. Also bear in mind that I wrote them both in about an hour or two. With that in mind, I hope you like them. (Oh, and Christina isn’t her real name.)


I had to search through my seventh grade yearbook to learn that her name was Christina. Thirteen years ago I didn’t ask or care. She was merely a prop for me, a comic foil that allowed me to fit in exactly in proportion to how left-out I made her feel; and for these purposes she served me well. I made the whole playground laugh, so easily and instantly, and all I had to do was make her cry. I didn’t then know the full price, for her or for me. Even at night, sobbing and hating myself, I didn’t know what would come from my choices. I didn’t know that Christina would transform my life.

Christina was one of a handful of developmentally disabled students at Oak Harbor Middle School in Whidbey Island, Washington, and she was not the first of them who we surrounded and terrorized. She was just the latest in what was more or less a rotation. As we got bored with stealing one kid’s football or aggressively imitating the slurred speech of another, we would eventually come around to her. And she was mine. I picked her out in the playground, I motioned for my friends to follow me, and I chose those soft spots that I wanted to prod and irritate until I got my desired response. It was a calculated process of emotional brutality, targeted less at our victims and more at each other, a bunch of scrawny white middle class kids who’d learned from our movies, our sports, our dads, and especially our older brothers that this is what one does to be cool: you focus so intently, so callously on the strangeness, the weakness, the frailty of The Other that no one would dare suspect that you carry those things in yourself.

Without the ability to articulate it, and with no one to articulate it to, this was exactly what was going on for me. In my head, in my heart, things felt terribly wrong in the world, and I didn’t know where I belonged. I saw homeless men arguing with lampposts in the streets and I wondered how I was different, why I deserved friends and comfort while these men deserved ridicule. I saw National Geographic specials about poached gorillas and elephants and I rose up screaming at the television, at the unjust absurdity of the world. I even watched Corky struggle with Down’s syndrome on ABC’s “Life Goes On” and TV movies about Special Olympics superstars overcoming their obstacles and I remember feeling so much love and respect for them in their dramatized struggles. But I had my friends, and my brother’s older, cooler friends were always hanging around, as well. None of them talked about these things. They talked about cars and video games and the way women’s bodies were supposed to look. The message was clear: Talking about those other things made you gay. Mama’s boys talked about those other things. Pussies talked about those other things. I didn’t want to be called those names, and so I didn’t say anything about what was going on for me. I just focused on being cool instead, and that meant going after Christina.

Most of the time, I just sort of walked circles around her, tagging her and getting her to chase me, pretending to play with her while everyone laughed along from a distance. The last time was different, though. We all thought she had a crush on me, the way she giggled and tagged me back, and so I thought I was brilliant when the week of the spring dance arrived and I formed my little plan. On the Thursday before the dance, I came up to her really nicely, really slowly. I smiled at her and she smiled at me, and I faked nervousness, pretending to search for words.

“I was just, you know, wondering if, you know, maybe you’d go to the dance with me?”

She blushed brightly, her eyes widened, and she stepped back and turned around. I spun around her to see her face and she was smiling, nervous, clearly surprised. She ran off, laughing, probably not knowing how to respond, then she ran back to me, with a huge smile. She was going to say yes, I could tell, and that was just too much for me. I acted quickly.

“Not! I was just joking, retard!” I ran away to my group, and we walked, chuckling and jostling, back to our classes.

When school ended that afternoon, I ran home by myself, crashed into my bed, and cried. The person who I was inside, the person who I wanted to be, was nothing like the person who I was presenting in public. The gap was so great, and it felt so unbridgeable, that I started thinking about suicide.

I was lucky though. That summer, my parents had to move us from Washington to Alaska, and for me that move was a lifesaver. I remember consciously thinking that I would have the opportunity to start from scratch, to finally redefine myself in my own way. And I was.

In eighth grade, I was unashamed of getting good grades, of having multiracial friendships in a racist town, in being drug free among stoners, and in making friends with the so-called nerds of my school. In ninth grade, I got accepted into an alternative school, where nearly everyone had rejected the conformity of traditional schools, and where, for the first time, my confusions about the world were not only validated, but also reflected back in new and challenging ways. At 14 years old, teachers and students were introducing me to Socrates, Buddhism, anarchism, and the writings of Karl Marx. In that new, open environment, my mind exploded open. I felt like I was identifying with a new worldview every week, debating publicly and privately about questions of materialism, freedom, desire, meaning, and equality.

I’ve only recently realized that all of my intellectual and emotional processes in that exciting time, and up to the present, had their roots in the contradictions of my experience with Christina. Inside, I had long felt a deep love and sensitivity for the world, for other creatures and people, and even for her. But outside there were all of these forces pushing and pulling me away from who I was. They were not just pushing me away from basic decency and respect for people like Christina. They were also pushing me toward more and more consumerism at the expense of my childhood imagination; toward the objectification of women at the expense of authentic desire; toward classroom docility at the expense of intellectual curiosity; toward some vague college track at the expense of my genuine passions and interests. I came to see that modern social forces were far from benign. They were often deeply irrational and oppressive, even murderous. With Christina I had fallen into a myriad of society’s traps, and the move to Alaska freed me just in time to breathe, reflect, and decide that I didn’t want to go down that road ever again.

By 17, I was a committed radical social justice activist, in love with books, and especially steeped in economic justice and de-schooling literature. Even in an incredible alternative high school, I felt stifled and I decided to drop out. I tried college for a few months, but decided to drop out again. The struggle was calling. I decided to focus on full-time radical activism, fighting for farm workers’ rights in Skagit Valley, against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, for anarchist revolution in Los Angeles, and for community control of public space in Bellingham.

All my experiences eventually brought me back to college, by choice this time, rather than by obligation, and they even landed me a job back in the public school system, doing youth-empowerment work in a diverse urban high school near Seattle. I still work at the school, and it feels like such a privilege to work with young people and to provide them support for the kinds of vulnerable, challenging reflection that I wasn’t encouraged to engage with until many years too late. In that job, I discovered my passion for education, and my desire to be a teacher.

For me, every part of who I am is related to the story above. I love life tremendously, and I love sharing it with so many people, animals, and other living and non-living things. Sometimes the beauty is simple overwhelming. At the same time, ever since seventh grade, I just can’t ignore the ridiculous, inhumane, and sometimes unspeakable social systems and relationships that thousands of years of human history have built around us like a cage. I can’t pretend that racism ended with Martin Luther King Jr. or something. I can’t pretend that sexism faded in the 1970’s. I can’t pretend that poverty is on the downswing because the news is optimistic about the Dow or Nasdaq. I can’t ignore the realities of Iraq, Burma, Guatemala, Haiti. What I only viscerally felt in seventh grade, that something is terribly wrong in the world, I now know from experience and from research. Something is terribly wrong. Many things are terribly wrong, and they need to change. I want to be a force for that change, and for almost 11 years now I have tried. For me, that has meant participating in social movements that seek systemic transformation, that strive for the creation of new social institutions built on human cooperation, equality, and dignity. I’m not dogmatic, though. I recognize the possibility that I might not be on the exactly right path.

Every day, I try to find that difficult balance between my deep appreciation for the beauty of this life and my deep outrage at the injustices of this society. For me, this is a kind of amazing dance between my heart and my mind. I know that I need both perspectives, that without one or the other, I would be hollow. I owe Christina for pushing me to the deep introspection that has brought me here.

13 years ago, I didn’t know Christina’s name, but she did change my life. I will always carry shame inside me, knowing that her experience of me was probably not similarly beneficial. Whatever lessons I might have learned do not excuse how I treated her. I hope that somewhere she has forgiven me, but I would support her fully if she never does. All I can do is what any of us should do in the face of those inexcusable choices that we sometimes make when we try to solidify our status or our privilege: recognize my humanity, face forward toward my potential, and try once again to act vigorously for justice.

Embracing the Historical Moment

I believe that right now we are living in an historical moment in the United States where anarchists and other like minded radical folks can have a tremendous impact on the future of our society. Conditions in the U.S. are such that we can feel the desire for social change in the air, and it goes far beyond the rise of Obama and the explosion of green marketing (though both of these are highly significant). Within activist circles we have accumulated a wealth of tools and historical lessons that allow us to engage in revolutionary politics in ways that are both effective and sustainable. Further, communications technology has evolved to such a point of speed and ease (with anarchist linux-masters at the helm of so many innovations!) that new actions, new experiments, new structures, and new models can spread within minutes across the world. If we are willing to step forward together, humbly yet confidently, unafraid of our politics and of their value to the people around us, we anarchists have the potential to do some incredible things in the 21st century.

And when I say incredible things, I am not talking at all about advancing the anarchist “brand,” but instead about advancing anarchist politics. To be honest, I don’t care much at all about having more black flags at marches, or more anarchist bookfairs, or more media coverage of anarchists. I don’t care about people self-identifying more as anarchists, either. What I care about is that the politics that have made anarchism so special to me can be pushed to their limits, and that they can make their rightful contributions to the political struggles of the coming years. I don’t care who gets the credit, I don’t care what colors or symbols our groups have…I just want to participate in an ecosystem of social movements that practice the three values I discussed in part two. And I want it really, really bad!

So, what should anarchism look like in the 21st century? What do I actually mean when I talk about pushing our politics to the edge?

This is where I get overwhelmed with all that I want to say, and I’m not sure how to structure it. All the pieces are very interlocking, and I don’t think more of my standard numbered lists will do the trick. Perhaps I should go into a little speculative fiction to get us started…working backwards from just one possible future…

Imagine a future U.S. (or former U.S.) in which massive social changes have already taken place. Multinational corporations no longer exist, and community/worker’s cooperatives control the vast majority of productive wealth. Political power is rooted strongly in well-organized local communities, and then filters from the bottom up as the scale of decisions gets more complex. Cultural and gender categories have been exploded to the point that one can’t speak about a dominant culture or gender or sexuality, so much as a multiplicity of inherited and chosen cultures, genders, and sexualities that are fluid, well represented in art and media and education, and celebrated across the society. The society has had discussions about disability and age as important parts of human existence and human diversity, and institutions have been restructured to maximize not only access but actual participation and influence in social institutions by young people, elderly people, and people with a wide range of disabilities. There are no longer one or two imperial nations, but instead we really live in a multi-polar patchwork of liberated nations, bioregional federations, free territories, plus maybe a few old school nation-state hold-outs. Most of all, imagine that this isn’t just one singular revolutionary reality that is equal across all communities. It is, as the Zapatistas say, a world where many worlds fit, and any block you visit, any town, city, bioregion could have wildly different cultures, food systems, work days, architectures, forms of resource distribution, public spending priorities. So much human potential that was trapped in sadistic, iron-spiked cells of oppression has now freed itself, and its vibrant colors flow across the landscape.

This could be. This kind of society is possible. But how did our imaginary revolutionaries get from here to there?

Whereas some Latin American, African, and Asian revolutionaries may have stories about long marches from the underground to the streets to the ballot boxes, and from there using the resources and machinery of state power to effect a slow transition to 21st century participatory socialism, I think U.S. revolutionaries, if they succeeded, would have a different story to tell:

In the 21st century, with growing political, military, economic, and ecological crises, U.S. society finds itself fracturing. The power elite see their imperial hold on the world crumbling as previously subservient nations get defiant, as their multinational financial shell-games start falling apart, and as strategic resources get in shorter supply. Faced with this situation, they do what they do best, squeeze harder to keep their grip, lashing out like furious hydra at all possible threats to their dominance. About 25%-35% of the population of non-elites support this course, out of patriotism, fear for the safety and well-being of their families, or just an outright desire for their side to stay on top. But a huge number of people are feeling the strain, and they are looking for alternatives. They are tired of losing people in war, rising prices, lies and scandals from politicians, of seeing only straight white men in power, and are dead tired of so much violence, division and alienation around them. Changes in the climate are obvious and people are increasingly willing to make sacrifices and investments in order to stave off more natural disasters. A savvy bunch of power elites and politicians see this sentiment in the air, and they cater to this desire for change, with new green products and change-based campaign strategies. But their roots are the same as ever, and as long as actual political, cultural, and economic power fails to flow to ordinary people, a sizable number of those people aren’t buying what’s being sold to them. They had been fooled by false promises too many times before.

Enter the anarchists, and other like-minded radicals. Reading the historical moment, we engage, en masse, in two forms of struggle, always in coalition with non-anarchists and often non-radicals: ongoing resistance to the policies and practices of the elite, and local neighborhood, school, church, and workplace organizing to build community, tackle tough issues, and, most importantly, to build a popular consciousness that the local is the root of people’s power, and that through local organization another world truly is possible. Since praxis makes perfect, in both poles of struggle anarchists focus their energy on inspiring people to experiment with participatory, interactive, and sustainable forms of organizing, forms of organizing that build concrete skills and bring concrete benefits to the community even when larger campaigns lose or blocs of people bail out. Anarchists also are always trying to link issues and connect the dots of power in our work, speaking to people’s moral sensibilities about how privilege and oppression keep us from doing all that we could be doing. In time, we come to be known and trusted as skilled, humble, conscientious, ever optimistic, and even pushy without being too annoying. Over time, people trust themselves more and more, and begin to exercise power in more and more different areas of their lives.

We anarchists aren’t sneaky or manipulative in this work. We let people know who we are and what we believe. We don’t act like an anti-gentrification campaign or a community garden will bring a revolution, but we instead talk about local struggles as stepping stones in a movement…a movement whose endpoint is the building of lasting structures of community power. To this end, we talk regularly about the need for democratic communities to form, federate, and exercise power parallel to the state (or sometimes swallow up local government institutions entirely). Here we are explicit as well, supporting and proposing forms of organizing that have the potential to crystallize into these longer-lasting alliances and intentional community federations. There is no shadow-puppetry or cadre nonsense. We are, as some anarchist-communists say, a conscious minority. We say what we want, as fellow community members, and we engage and compromise with our fellow community members as we see fit.

In time, the state and the elites see the threats and opportunities that our democratic communities represent, and they both repress and court them. We resist the repression of course, and use it as a rallying point for more communities to democratize and federate. As for the courting, this all depends on strategic decisions and compromises, and our communities work to negotiate from positions of strength. Eventually, there are politicians who have risen out of these communities to try to win state power, Chavez style, and our federations have to decide whether to support them or not. But regardless, our work as anarchists remains: let other people negotiate with the powerful, our role is to support people’s own sense of power and to encourage power-building at the grassroots…anything else is doing liberals, progressives, and socialists jobs for them.

Through a combination of state power and local organizing, corporations are slowly limited and then dissolved. The military is democratized and the police are radically restructured and localized. The prison system is abolished and replaced with forms of transformative justice. At all points, we anarchists focus on the grassroots, encouraging our communities to keep the pressure on the state while never forgetting the local roots of power. We are always looking at the next visionary step, always looking for how to help people maximize their own skills and potential, rather than looking up at those with power. Our people are always down here, with us.

And slowly, not easily, we start to have something that looks like the society we had dreamed about.

This is, of course, just one fantastical speculation…but I think the core elements of a 21st century anarchism are contained within, regardless of how the actual process of struggle plays out. I think many of these elements are things that anarchists (and even more so, other radicals) are already doing, and I think others are things that we still have yet synthesized into our work. In coming blog entries, I want to pull out and discuss these elements, and definitely go deeper than this little sci-fi story goes.

But overall, I believe that there are certain things that we can and should be doing to embrace the historical moment that we still aren’t quite doing…at least outside of certain pockets of the country.

(To be continued…)

[Note: Something happened to me when I wrote part one of this little series. So many ideas, many of them long suppressed, rushed back to me, demanding to be elaborated here. I’ve become overwhelmed by all of the things I want to say, and my original outline kind of stopped making sense. What this means is that I might take an even more episodic approach, with little self-contained sections rather than an essay style that has one section that transitions into the next. We’ll see. One great thing about blogging is that I don’t need to fret too much about my writing style…I just have to share my ideas however works best for me!]

Overcoming Our Reluctance

In my now almost 13 (!) years as an anarchist, I have noticed a pattern in anarchist circles that is both completely understandable and really unfortunate. I’ve noticed that anarchists broadly fall into two categories: the loud & proud anarchists, and the reluctant anarchists. Loud & proud anarchists are clear in their self-identification as anarchists, they tend to embrace the historic anarchist tradition, they often use historic anarchist symbols like the black flag and circle-A, and they are usually not afraid to talk about fighting a revolution, smashing the state, fucking capitalism, etc. They are also often open to bold and militant action, often without thinking too deeply about the consequences. Reluctant anarchists, on the other hand, tend to be ex-loud & proud anarchists who have since lost their desire to claim their “anarchisticity.” They have often been humbled by the amazing work of non-anarchist traditions, and/or have been embarrassed by the overall whiteness, straightness, punkness and unflinching militance of loud & proud anarchists, all to the point where self-identifying as an anarchist ceases to make sense or even brings up shame. Reluctant anarchists thus tend to spend more time among non-anarchists than other anarchists, they often eschew militant Anarchist action to engage in “progressive” work that loud & prouds might call reformist, many of them embrace anti-oppression and identity politics in ways that have strained their relationships with the mostly white, straight anarchist subculture, and they tend to only share their anarchism with the soft whisper of a closely guarded secret, or through code-words like anti-authoritarianism, or libertarian socialist.

If the highly biased descriptions above didn’t make it clear, I fit squarely in the reluctant anarchist camp. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I tend to not like loud & proud anarchists, and I would generally choose to hang out with radicals of many other tendencies (revolutionary nationalists, women of color and white feminists, queer & trans liberationists, some types of marxists, green party folks, old new lefties) rather than hang out at the loud & proud anarchist infoshop. I think my reasons are pretty clear: I don’t feel comfortable in the loud & proud subculture; I don’t agree with the dusty, turgid politics of class war anarchists and I think primitivist green anarchism is just silly; I think that loud & prouds’ sense of intersections and anti-oppression analysis are really lacking; I don’t like the sectarian and alienating ways that many loud & prouds talk about non-anarchists; I think the militance-for-militance sake attitude is often not only strategically bankrupt but dangerous to our movement; when I am around them I feel judged for the way I dress and the way I approach process; and, more deeply, I feel embarrassed, on almost a bodily level, to be associated with them because they remind me of who I used to be and of so many of the mistakes I have made.

But I don’t want to get hung up talking about loud & proud anarchists. I know I am over-generalizing, yet I also know that my sentiments are usually confirmed at every explicitly anarchist function I attend in the United States (maybe other countries are different?). Regardless, I am much more interested in talking about my folk, the reluctant anarchists. Because while there are definite reasons why well-meaning, critically thinking folks might choose to back away from the anarchist label, I think it can be costly to our politics. I think many of us reluctant anarchists lose some important things in the transition, which I think we might want to reclaim.

In many cases (I think the Bay Area might be different, bless their cutting-edge radical souls), when we step back from anarchist politics, we reluctant anarchists enter into new political spaces that take away our edge. We enter into the non-profit sector and learn important skills that we might not have even thought about before; we enter into coalition-based campaign work and realize that demanding a vague revolution is way, way different than fighting for specific, winnable demands (although groups like the Northeast Federation of Anarchist Communists seem to have learned that lesson while maintaining their anarchism, good for them!); we go to school and conferences and study groups and learn about analyses of the system that traditional anarchist sources don’t even touch. Sooner or later we have learned so much more from other places and traditions that it feels silly to still call ourselves anarchists…

…yet for many of us that loyalty still remains. We still feel something there bonding us to “the idea” (as the Spanish anarchists used to call it), but we often chalk it up to nostalgia, nothing more. Yet I think our instincts are right. There is something in anarchism that most of our new non-anarchist spaces aren’t quite matching, and the blurrier that something gets, the more we stand to lose. I think that in far too many cases, we slowly begin lose the revolutionary, utopian, deeply democratic values and ideals that originally drew us to anarchism, that make anarchism so special, and we end up settling into the goals and values of the new spaces we occupy, at the price of our revolutionary edge.

For me, there are three sort of basic things about anarchism that make it important to me:

1) Its deep faith in individual human beings, and its utopian belief in the kind of society that human beings can construct by working together. This is what gives anarchism its profound and beautiful interplay between the social and the individual, between individual human desire and expression and collective solidarity. This is what makes Crimethinc stuff so appealing to so many, I think, and it is also what makes anarchists generally the life of the party. Unlike so many others, we actually have a sense of entitlement to a much better world, and we aren’t afraid to say that. Many people have never even been asked what kind of better world they could have, yet anarchism takes pride in its utopianism. It urges us to dream in ways that even revolutionary socialists can’t often match. That dreaminess is contagious. And it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

2) Its profound rejection of all forms of illegitimate authority and oppression. Anarchism has, within the very roots of the word itself, a strong foundation for a holistic, anti-oppression analysis. While anarchism has historically been the tradition of certain, sometimes privileged groups, and while it has historically focused on capitalism and the state at the expense of other systems of oppression, there is no lack of powerful stories of anarchists in queer and trans liberation struggles, animal rights struggles, anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles, abolitionist struggles, disability right struggles, and more. Some of the founders of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence are anarchists…and I don’t think that’s just a coincidence for how radically grassroots and revolutionary some of their ideas are. Same for Critical Resistance. Anarchism has always had an anti-oppression streak to it, and potentially now in 21st century more than ever.

3) Its commitment to actually practicing the values we share as we fight for the society that we want.
Anarchism doesn’t hold pragmatism above all else, unlike so many other political tendencies and spaces. Instead anarchism holds its values above all, and it urges us to practice our ethics in the here and now rather than waiting for a revolution or a winning of state power. We are called to build the new world in the shell of the old, to experiment here and now with grassroots democracy, with socialist resource sharing, with gender-norm fucking, with new communal arrangements. This is where anarchism gets its militance from, because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for…if not us, who? If not now, when? Anarchism pushes us to avoid rock-stars, demagogues, and experts. It demands that we listen for the quietest and we look to the smallest. It is also why anarchists can feed the homeless for free from dumpsters, why anarchists knew how to fix bikes better than anyone when everyone else was still driving, why they have lovely gardens…the DIY ethic is a deeply anarchist ethic, and it is shame when reluctant anarchists get re-tied to consumerist, wasteful, ultra-pragmatic spaces when we leave anarchism behind.

These three things are what make me continue on as an anarchist. It doesn’t matter whether we use the anarchist label or not, but I think building a 21st century anarchism is all about reclaiming these three basic values and principles, and then building off of them using all of the vast resources we’ve acquired in non-anarchist spaces. Through innovation and exploration and synthesis, I believe we are capable of new levels of revolutionary work in the U.S., and that is what I want to get into next time. Leaving behind our reluctance, there is some work to do.

During the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez helped put socialism back on the geopolitical menu by declaring himself in favor of “socialism for the 21st century.” He claimed that his previous belief in a “third way” between capitalism and socialism was mistaken, and he envisioned a new path toward socialism that would not repeat the mistakes of failed past experiments. In a climate of deep and accelerating disillusionment with neoliberal capitalism, a major world leader made the “S-word” a little bit safer to say, and he fired up the imagination of millions who saw the possibility of a new direction for Latin America and the world.

Chávez’ words fired me up, too, along with so many of his speeches and declarations since. As I have gushed about many times on this blog, the Venezuelan/Latin American process toward socialism is no joke; there is something real happening there, and it fills me with a deep, warm hope. There is no question that they are doing it their own way, with all of the questions, and blunders, and contradictions that it entails. Indeed, all over Venezuela, South America, the global south, and the world, people are carrying out experiments in participatory democracy, and in community and worker control of resources. As the long winter of U.S. imperialism gives way to a multi-polar spring, these experiments are poised to bloom like thousands of beautiful flowers. Chávez’ words were a powerful recognition of this visionary reality, and a vital endorsement (many would say co-optation) of its revolutionary potential. For me personally, they made me feel like I wasn’t crazy for being a radical.

But this brings up a simple but very dangerous problem that I want to confront here. It’s the problem of–to use Tom Cruise’s fluid and profound Scientology vocabulary–Spectatorism. It does very little good to simple watch and romanticize and ooh and aah about the struggles and victories of folks across the world. One should not only maintain a critical eye for the differences between rhetoric and reality, but more importantly, one should use the inspiring examples of others to push against one’s own edges (what that wonderful man Paulo Freire called one’s “limit situations”) and grow to new levels of revolutionary work. I don’t want to be only a spectator of the beautiful work of the Venezuelan revolution, or of the Zapatistas, or of the militant South Korean trade unions, or of U.S. groups like INCITE! or Critical Resistance. I don’t want to be just a revolutionary consumerist, reading my Left Turn and listening to my Blue Scholars while I rent eye-opening documentaries on Netflix.

While I am still here sharing this life with you, while my mind still feels clear and my hands, feet and body still serve me, while my bank account is healthy and while I feel so much love and support from so many directions, I want to be of use. I want to make as big as contribution as I can. And when or if all of those things go, I want to still contribute just as much, if not more.

If Chávez’ speech is just greeted with a spectator’s excitement (or boredom or cynicism), then it is guaranteed to become what some fear: another example of revolutionary work being co-opted by top-down leaders at the expense of authentic grassroots democracy. But if Chávez’ speech is greeted as a challenge, as an invitation (whether intended by Hugo or not) to make our mark and give our 2 cents to the revolutionary project, then we can really get somewhere. I choose the latter. And here I want to confront my Spectatorism a little bit by talking about how we can build (in fact, are building!!!) a 21st century anarchism in the U.S. that can parallel the Bolivarians’ 21st century socialism.

(To be continued…)

I just recently finished reading the memoir of a relatively prominent leftist by the name of Michael Albert, called “Remembering Tomorrow.” Albert is one of the founders of South End Press, as well as Z Magazine and Z-net. He’s written or co-written many books about revolutionary theory and post-capitalist vision, such as “ParEcon,” “Looking Forward,” and “Liberating Theory.” His memoir is not great, and in some places it downright pissed me off (mostly regarding his treatment of the Black Panthers, women’s liberation, and really many parts of the sixties in general…if you ask me to explain myself, I will, but otherwise, I’ll save it), but still it was well worth reading and it inspired me.

The truth is, I have read I think almost every book that Michael Albert has written, some a couple of times (his earliest work with Robin Hahnel, “Unorthodox Marxism,” is actually my favorite). I first discovered his writing when I was 16, and his thinking has been pivotal in my own development as a radical. In many ways still, I’m kind of an “Albertist” in my radical worldview. At the same time, he’s definitely a sixties white, male leftist, with many of those trapping and contradictions, plus I’ve had friends tell me that’s he’s kind of a jerk, etc, and that all probably holds too. But all of this together, I’m glad that he has lived and done the work he has, because he has helped me to become a better thinker, a better, radical, and frankly a better person. His writing frankly helped me transition from standard white male anarchism toward listening to the ideas of my anti-racist and feminist friends. If I hadn’t had that role-modeling from an older white male radical intellectual, I don’t know if I would have listened as intently to my friends’ demands for me to change my ways…even still it took me years.

I’m writing about all of this because, in the book, Albert mentions numerous times that actually, among his prominent radical friends, his thinking is actually met with silence. He seems genuinely frustrated by the lack of critical response he gets even from his friends about his work. I was wondering why this might be…maybe he’s hard to be honest to, maybe, personally, he’s an asshole (as I’ve heard from some, but not all), maybe he’s such an obnoxious debater that no one wants to get into it with him….or maybe they actually just don’t care very much to help push his ideas forward. Maybe engaging in his theorizing and vision doesn’t seem worthwhile to them, which I think is just kind of crazy. I know that almost all of my friends have had almost no interest in reading the theorizing of an old white male leftist. I’ve let them have that opinion, but that hasn’t stopped me from keeping up with his work, and I don’t regret it. Frankly, I’ve met very few other contemporary US radicals of different identities who talk about revolution and actually winning as much as he does (other inspirations that come to mind are the women of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence…they are on the cutting edge, way far ahead of Albert in many ways on many things…but I don’t think all).

But his discussion about the great silences that surround his work really shook me, because honestly it is kind of how I feel about my work. For a really long time, I’ve felt that while overall I’m liked (mostly, I think, because I’m nice, a good listener, and very non-threatening…and a perpetual optimist, which I think people sponge off of, because they aren’t…it can actually be very draining for me), I don’t think I’m recognized as actually very useful as a radical thinker, or as the kind of asset for social change that I have worked hard to try to be for years. Usually, this doesn’t bother me much at all, I’ve gotten used to it, being within a political context of non-white males who really don’t trust people like me very much for doing much more than staying quiet and nodding along, as “allies”…because of such a long past of broken trust by white male radicals. I get this, and I have just sort of been patient, because I know that someday someone will ask my opinion, and someday that will be able to make a difference…like it did for awhile at the school. But that is precisely it. I have realized that now that I’m feeling un-valued and thrown away at the school, a key source of my intellectual and radical self-esteem has shriveled, and I’m realizing that outside of the school, in this radical “community” that I am more or less a part of, I actually have almost no developed base of trust, where I am known or appreciated as anything other than a smiling, humble background character.

Like I said in my ego post, all of us have egos, and all of us want to be validated and valued, like we’re contributing. That goes for me, too. Not because I want to be a big leader or have fame. I simply want to feel useful. We have a revolution to build, and I think I’m pretty young, smart, energetic, and frankly ethical, and so I want to have a place where I feel like I can make a difference. But the problem is that nobody really wants me……but it’s not just me they don’t want. Nobody really seems to want anybody. Because nobody really thinks that way on the radical left. People on the left mostly just seem to be thinking of themselves, of their pet projects, and on getting everyone else to just be spectators, or marchers, or readers, or donors to them. People signing up to be equal, active participants in creatively building grassroots organizations? No, there is almost no interest there.

This is what capitalism has done to the radicals. It has sucked us dry and turned us way too far inward. And not inward in a healing way (that would be great, and is necessary), but in an unhealthy, cannibalistic way. Let me explain:

On one level, capitalism has captured many of our really energetic intellectuals, influencing them to go to universities and become academics, where they will be totally isolated from the movement outside of books and, worse, where they will be so pressured to come up with original theses and ideas etc….more books and cutting edge analyses, even though we really have many good ideas already, we just don’t practice them, and so we have radicals who just end up making old ideas more inaccessible, then they don’t engage with each other, they find cozy positions in society and…suddenly…where did they go? Off the streets, out of the neighborhoods, and into the ivory tower.

On another level, capitalism takes some of its cash and it doles it out to foundations, who dole it out to non-profits (read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, by INCITE! must-read book), who then suck up our most accomplished and efficient organizers, having them organize stale campaigns and, worse, fundraisers, when they should be doing grassroots base-building outside of the non-profit system. They become professionals, who have traded efficiency in making narrow gains (and then exaggerating their victories for their donors and boards of directors) for effectiveness in building a mass-based visionary politics. Suddenly, where did all of the dynamic organizers who were willing to work for free go?

And the rest of us? With professional intellectuals making our ideas less user-friendly, not more, and with professional organizers making our work less ordinary-person friendly, not more, those of us who don’t join have to find normal jobs, where we are tired, and then we do activism on the side, in more or less unfunded and unstable groups, where we have a constant brain and ability drain into the academy and the non-profits, and we are left with sad little radical groups…which really just become the equivalent of farm teams in baseball…just a way for the big leagues to recruit our best and brightest, leaving us hanging.

Do I sound bitter? I am. I’m also furious. I have been a radical activist for more than 11 years. I still don’t have a radical group to belong to. Almost no one around me even seems very interested in the idea. My inspirations have all gone on to grad school. Maybe I will too. This makes me so sad.

Everything we know about global warming, water, and oil tells us that we are the generation that must take swift, decisive action. Us. Everything we know about the system tells us that it will not make these changes fast enough, or good enough. We must get organized and act for fundamental systemic change. We have the knowledge, the creativity, the generations of experience, the kick-ass intersectional revolutionary ideas and the ability to popularize them. We could win. We really could. But why aren’t we organizing more?

Because capitalism has bought too many of us off, and it has us cozying up. It had me for four years, at the high school, and I’m just now realizing how many other great things I could have and should have been doing. I still don’t regret it…at all. But now that I’m on my way out, I’m antsy to really find something effective to do now.

We can’t let this system beat us. We just can’t allow it. We are the generation to begin turning the tide. I want to rejoin that effort. Fuck getting paid for it (although, of course, I understand that some people have survival needs much bigger than my own…I’m speaking for myself)…fuck getting a book published out of it…I just want to make the world better….and yes to have my close people see my worth. This isn’t too much to ask.

I’ve posted four of my most substantial pieces of writing from the last 5 years. Check them out (they are Word documents).

Two of them are works of revolutionary theory. The other two are attempts to express that theory in more creative, visionary ways (that is, they are fiction). I’m proud of all of them, with their flaws and gaps and all that.

To be honest, I’m thinking about maybe trying to do something more with some of these pieces. Not like a book, but at least trying to publish these as articles or zines…with some modifications, of course. I’d be interested to know what people think about that.

But seriously…the last two pieces are actually pretty fun reads, in my opinion, so I suggest checking them out.

Love you…and please be kind with any constructive criticism…because I am SUPER-INSECURE about my writing. Not defensive, but insecure.

P.S. If you do like any of the pieces, please tell other people about the blog!

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for awhile, because in my writing over the last couple of weeks (and, for me, especially brought home by the “ego-trip” post I wrote last night), I’ve noticed a seeming contradiction between my stated values and my choice of topics, and I want to address it here.

So, I’m an anarchist. What that means is that I believe in nice things like grassroots participatory/direct democracy, cooperation, freedom, social justice, community-based sustainable living, and equality. Being for these things means that I’m also against the different forms of injustice and oppression that exist in this society of ours…things like sexism, racism, homophobia/heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, imperialism, ageism/adultism, religious oppression, and certainly also authoritarianism and capitalism…because–for my family members out there who might be reading this–in my view capitalism isn’t just a benign, freedom-loving economic system, it is system that doesn’t work for the majority of people, it corrupts all of us with anti-social consumerist and competitive values, and it is a leading force in the dismantling of our planet. Bueno, so far so good. So, yeah, I’m an anarchist (which to me could also be considered a mixture of feminist, socialist, libertarian, radical democrat, anti-racist, environmentalist…what-have you)…

…yet, for all my supposed anarchism, and for how much I talk up grassroots social movements and communities organizing to change things from the bottom-up, I have noticed (as have many friends) that I spend an awful lot of time talking about, writing about, and paying attention to “revolutionary” governments, elections, politicians like Chavez, Morales, Correa, now Menchu, etc. and not a lot of time talking about more bottom-up movements and projects.

So, this seems to be a contradiction. Could it be a rekindling of my old teenage obsession with old radical “heroes” like Mao and Ho Chi Minh and Lenin? Is it just more ego stuff playing out across my blog?

That would be the simple answer. But I don’t think it’s the correct one, and I want to explain why.

I spend A LOT of time thinking about the idea of revolution. Like, a lot of time. Like morning, noon, and night. And for me, what revolution means is a massive reordering of things…of ideas, of attitudes, of relationships, of social structures, sometimes even of physical space. This is what I want for our society, because I think our society is due for a massive restructuring. The old structures suck.

That said, I spend a lot of time thinking about how revolutionary folks like us are actually going to make a revolution…and as I see it, we have three basic strategies:

1) We can fight the power. We can protest, organize, sabotage, confront, rebel against the existing system and do what we can to destabilize it so that it comes crumbling down and then…and then…and then this is where this strategy gets us in trouble. Because once a system, a way of life, a certain ordering of things has collapsed, what do people do then? Who’s to say that things will be better after the system falls? Sweet, the power is off, the sewers are backed up, there are people looting in the streets, rape is rampant…no thanks. There is clearly a limit to this strategy. Certainly, if the powers that be are too strong we can’t win anything, and so trying to weaken them through resistance (of different forms, and I really, really hope that those forms can be peaceful…) is important…but this strategy only takes us so far, which brings us to…

2) We can become the power. We can work to get elected or we could even work to gather strength and take over power forcefully. We would then have control of the existing infrastructure more-or-less intact, and then we could begin to dismantle or reconstruct it without the chaos and destruction and possible violence of strategy #1. That is, with this strategy, especially in electoral form, a slow, peaceful revolution is possible, and it could even be voted along, as is happening in Venezuela. The problem, of course, is that power corrupts. Even more, the system is designed to sustain itself, and that means the rules of the system are designed to make real, meaningful change almost impossible, and so trying to change things within the system almost never works…because the system changes you first. This has been shown to be true with coups just as much as elections. Good thing there is a third option:

3) We can build the power. That is, from the bottom-up, we can try to build an alternative structure of communities and relationships right alongside the old structures, and we can feed those structures and help them grow, hopefully to a point where they are so well-organized, lively, beautiful, and influential that the old ways just don’t make sense anymore, and people jump ship to the new system we built. An analogy would be the development of the internet, and how it has influenced more and more people to watch less tv and read less traditional corporate media in favor of blogs, etc…

As for me, I’m a gung-ho #3 guy. For me, #3 is the backbone of the revolution. Like I explained above, I believe that #1 is necessary to keep the system in check and to fight against injustices on a day to day basis, but #3 remains the prize that I want to keep my eye on.  My heart is in building new kinds of power and social relationships, it’s just so compelling to me as a process and a project.
However–and this is where I am different from many other anarchists–I know that within any process where significant numbers of people are doing #1 or doing #3, there will always emerge people who want to take a shot at #2, people who think there is a shortcut to power, either through direct force or through the electoral path. (Chavez is a great example of this. He is an ex military man. He became radicalized in the military, in a context in which he was fighting guerrillas, and working in rural communities…and over time he decided to organize to take power. First, in 1992, he tried the forceful route, with a failed coup that made him into a popular hero. Then, in 1998 he tried again through the electoral route…and he won an astounding victory. Now we get to watch his journey through strategy #2 unfold, and we get to see whether change really comes from it or not…) These #2 people are inevitable, and whereas most #1 and #3 people write them off as sell-outs or would-be tyrants, I think that since they are inevitable, we ought to look at them as a necessary part of any strategic equation and, on a case by case basis, see whether they can help us or not. I don’t think it’s totally black/white.

So, right now, what I see happening in Latin America these days is that #1 and #3 social movements have gotten to such positions of strength (and on the other side of equation, the existing power structures have lost so much credibility) that #2 people have managed to step up and actually win power…in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile (kind of), Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua…almost in Mexico, and possibly this year in Guatemala. Most of these #2’s are opportunists, some are more genuine than that. In all cases, their power is built on the legacies and sacrifices of decades of #1 and #3 people. I don’t deny this and I don’t lose sight of this, at least in my head, when I write about them…

But having both seen the utter shit situation of Guatemala, as well as the immense oil-wealth and power of Venezuela, I believe that there is something very unique about the role that #2 people who manage to win power can play. With traditional state power come tremendous political compromises and contradictions, but at the same time, there come massive budgets (compared to just the average social movement), there is infrastructure, there is the logistical power of the military and the civil services…These are nothing to sneeze at.

Let’s make up one example: access to reproductive health services for young women. #1 people would go a protest route, and maybe they’d win some more funding for some clinics or a change in consciousness about how intersecting oppressions are limiting access. #3 people might start a neighborhood group or a non-profit clinic and they can make a difference in scores of womens’ lives. But, and I saw evidence of this in Venezuela, if Chavez just reads a book about young womens’ lives and decides that something needs to be done, he can throw his oil money down…and in 6 months there could be 500 neighborhood clinics with creative programs all over Venezuela…the resources at the disposal of radical governments (especially those awash in oil money!) are exponentially greater than the resources of us #1 and #3 people…

And that is essentially why these #2 folks like Chavez and Morales and Correa intrigue me so…Because they are getting shit done SO FAST…stuff that my friends and I could write or dream about, and maybe do in our own communities, but nothing at the scale of a radicalized state.

Does this mean that I’m now a #2 person? Not a chance. I believe that, in the end, #3 is still the backbone, and that is why I’m intrigued that Chavez seems to recognize this with his communal council and socialist party strategies. He’s trying to build bottom-up power through a top-down process…and that woefully backwards, but it is riveting to me as an experiment.

Frankly, though, Chavez is still alive and in power precisely because he has the support of the #1 and #3 people of his country, and there are masses of them. They united to bring him to power, they united to get him back after the 2002 coup, and he owes them everything. That is why he is such a unique phenomenon.

As for me and us in the United States, I don’t think the lesson that Venezuela has for us is that we should go the #2 electoral route, too. No, I think our game is way too rigged for that. Rather, I think it is far more important to look at what Morales and Correa and Chavez are doing and see how we can convert those into #3 lessons and strategies here…slower, but still effective, and preserving their moral center.

This is also where the lessons of Mexico’s Zapatista and Oaxacan rebels, Brazil’s landless workers movement and Argentina’s horizontalist movements are so, so important. They have doggedly pursued #3 strategies, and their movements are going a whole lot slower, but they still have their souls almost fully intact, and they have loads of lessons for us.

So, this is where I’m at. I write so much about Venezuela and stuff, honestly, because they are doing so much…they have the resources to generate change so fast, and so that generates news really fast, too. The movements in South Africa, Oaxaca, Chiapas, San Francisco, Canada, Georgia, and Seattle don’t have those resources, so the news cycle is, frankly, much slower. And so I write less about them. But believe me, when something catches my eye, I’ll write about it.

Also, just to think about, the Christian Right has definitely been pursuing a strong #3 strategy as well (once again, watch Jesus Camp), and they are hoping that pays off (and it is) in #2 victories for them. So let’s watch them closely, because they know what they are doing.

Hope this post makes sense to you…just wanted to explain some things.

I want to talk a little bit about growing as a political person, and the significance of that for me.

When I was a little kid, like 6 years old, I used to watch the TV show “Family Ties” with my mom. I don’t have many concrete memories from the show, but I do remember that I looked up to Michael J. Fox’s character, Alex P. Keaton, and I remember that he loved Ronald Reagan, and so I loved Ronald Reagan, too. I also remember the youngest child on the show, a cute little blond-haired kid, and I remember that I was entranced by him. I was entranced by the idea that there was actually somebody my age on TV. More importantly, I remember that I was very concerned with whether he was younger than me or older than me, because if he was younger than me, then somehow that reflected on me and my self-worth…that I was actually older than someone on television. That maybe I could even be on television.

The same thing happened years later with Macaulay Culkin, right after Home Alone came out. I remember reading a magazine and I found out that he was 3 months older than me and I was devastated.

When I was 16, I heard something about how the old philosopher David Hume wrote one of his most famous works before the age of 21 or something, and I told myself that I was going to beat him, and publish my first book before the age of 20. It didn’t happen, and I remember having a tinge of sadness on that birthday, although I didn’t tell anyone.

Also, when I was between the ages of 14 and 20, I was very interested in historical figures like Mao and Lenin and Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, and read biographies of all of them. I was particularly interested in their beginnings as leaders, in their school years, in their twenties, and I took mental notes of how I was stacking up. Was I going to make history like them? Was I going to be a famous leader?

I sure wanted to be a leader like them. Clearly, I would be a leader who would NOT be a butcher or a sellout or a hypocrite, I would be the one who broke the historical legacy of faulty leaders. Who truly WAS a liberator. I would be different, and that would be my particular claim to fame. The anarchist version of the Mao, of the Lenin (complete contradiction in terms, though it is)…and the biographies would highlight my distinctions boldly.

For a good number of years, I lived my life and grew as a political activist and organizer with a very real kind of double-consciousness going on. I genuinely wanted equality, social justice, liberation for all people, and I could imagine many details of that dream. But at the same time, I wanted that global liberation to come FROM ME, from my innovations, and leadership, and legacy. As if the revolution were Arthurian legend, I wanted to be the ONE to pull the sword from the stone (actually…thinking about it…that too was an old cartoon that really spoke to me growing up…interesting). I was a revolutionary optimist partly because I knew that it was my own destiny to usher in the revolution.

The problem was that, of course, there was a fundamental contradiction between my supposed beliefs in direct democracy, massive grassroots social movements and non-hierarchical social structures and my own ego. And over a number of years, as I began to rise in the “activist ranks” and began to find myself being offered opportunities to assert myself as a leader, as a spokesperson or whatever, that contradiction became a lived reality that really started to affect my choices. Especially in the climate of post-WTO radical organizing in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself faced with questions of integrity that held many of my friendships in the balance.

Thankfully, though, I met some feminists.

And, as so many feminists do for wayward young activist dudes, they introduced me to a way of thinking that, for them–and I would imagine most marginalized people–was just second nature, but to me was earth-shattering: they introduced me to the reality that I am not the center of the world.

From those first rocky interactions with feminism (I very nearly lost most of those friendships, too…in fact I pretty much did), I was eventually pushed and guided toward critiques of white racism, and then even more deeply into women of color’s thinking and organizing around ideas of multiple, intersecting oppressions…and each time, each day, each conference, each book just shook me further and further away from notions of myself, of who I am, and of why I’m here.

The realization, so obscenely simple: that there are actually billions of people on this planet, all of whom hope to be good people, to do good, to be recognized in their work, to be loved and cared for and admired. And that for me to want to claim all of that, to hoard that all for myself and for my posterity…how brutally greedy and foul it is…and how typical.

This shit simply just shook me to my core. Not like in one night of epiphany, but much more slowly, over time, in a process of realization that really just doesn’t stop.

Egos. Of all the questions that surround us when we think of social change, I think this question of ego often gets missed or, more often, misunderstood. It is sooooo deep, and it goes so far beyond just me and my particular story, and it goes so far beyond just white dudes, or white people, or middle class people, or educated people. It is much, much deeper, and I think much more crucial than the particular experiences of one or a handful of identity groups.

This is about who we are, about our places in the world, and about, like I said, a very real desire to be loved and to BE RECOGNIZED in this life. It is so simple but there is so much there, and if we look at social movements (or really any grouping of people) it is amazing to see how far egos and their misplaced desires and insecurities take us. The hierarchical, competitive nature of our society and of all oppressive societies fundamentally warps our senses of our selves — certainly some more than others, and probably proportionate to how close we are to the centers of power — and it warps our ability to hold our own value and desire for recognition alongside that of those around us. We sabotage even those we love because we see and feel threats to our egos all around us.

For me, this question of ego has required me to examine and redefine pretty much every aspect of who I want to be, of how I define success for myself. I cannot deny that it is still fun to think about being able to give speeches that draw crowds, to write a book and maybe get on c-span bookTV, to maybe be somewhere in a history book…and I think a lot about the implications of those lingering fantasies. But more commonly these days, these years, I feel like what I want for myself has shifted towards things much more simple. I dream much more often now of participating in revolutionary processes so big and complex that my own head couldn’t possibly hold onto them, of revolutions that would make me feel like a constant tourist, watching in awe as the people all around me create new things and we really learn from each other. I think about my personal success as the building and sustaining of even just a small community…of shared food and reinvented holidays and kids running around and looking up to us maybe for a few years, but then discovering our foibles, rebelling, and then maybe then reconciling with us years later…I think about plants, and simple music, and simple writings that maybe only my friends read, like these blog entries. I think about designing and playing games. I think about doing good work at a local level, like in the high school where I work, and fighting so hard for the people around me…with the people around me. Knowing them. Crying with them…and just weeping and embracing in sharing our losses and our triumphs.

What I think about is the significance of being just one among many, and rather than thinking that means something boring, conformist, robotic, I think about the magic of it: that we live in a world that is so richly filled with beautiful, brilliant, creative people, and that if unleashed we could share in so much joy and discovery every day, on every block, in every nook and cranny of our lives. In this life it is a privilege to be one among so many who are so fantastic.

Over time, and through the struggle of many patient people who love me and believe in me, I have come to see that there is something far, far more beautiful than the sight of a billion posters with one great liberator’s face: billions of faces making billions of unique posters about their own mutual inspiration and liberation.

So suck on that, Macaulay Culkin.

I Love You, Venezuela…

When I was 14, I kind of decided that I wanted to be a revolutionary.

That decision transformed my life.

Being who I am, with all of the privileges associated with a white, male, middle-class identity, I have always just been sure that I will see global revolution in my lifetime…just like other kids of my identity were sure that they could become doctors and politicians and businessmen. The mythology of our culture is, after all, that we can do anything we put our minds to…I just applied that to global social transformation. And that has always made me one of the most optimistic radicals that I know.

Well recently I’ve been talking with old radical friends and we get to talking about we’ve grown and changed and settled and compromised…and we get to talking about hope, and I say, “yeah, I feel like I have more hope for revolution now than I’ve ever had before.”

…and they just kind of stare at me. Or can’t believe it.

And really, to respond, I only need one word: Venezuela.

There is something magical happening in Venezuela. It is the magic that happens when the energies and aspirations and minds of millions of ordinary people are awakened into social movements. There is a genuine revolution happening there. And it is speeding up so fast that I don’t think the English translators have caught up yet.

It’s not all about Hugo Chavez. Yes, he is the leader, the icon, the figurehead…yes he has tons of power (and now more with the “enabling law” which allows him to fast-track new laws without approval from congress)…and yes there is a gross cult of personality around him (seriously, it’s really gross). But it really isn’t all about him. What he symbolizes, what he talks about, and what he is trying to create is not all about him…it is literally about giving power to the people. I know that sounds weird…especially coming from an anarchist. But it’s the truth.

From the beginning, Chavez has said that to end poverty power must be given to the poor, and since the beginning he and his people have been transforming Venezuelan infrastructure to open up more spaces for popular participation and organization.

Down there, the discourse is very lively around democracy. WAY more lively than here. Unlike supporting Hillary or Obama or McCain or whatever, down there supporting Chavez implies wanted to actually be A PART of the process. They are very critical of representative democracy down there. They talk a lot more about participatory and DIRECT democracy.

And institutionally, these new forms of democracy are blossoming. The Venezuelan state is massively funding new Communal Councils…which are directly elected and recallable councils that represent 200-400 families only…and they are being given state funds to improve their own communities…also there is more and more talk about workers councils…about democracy in schools…about participatory budgets. The discussion of economic democracy and Socialism is now mainstream in Venezuela. The movement toward democratic socialism is now a mainstream debate…and it is a fiery one.

What I see in Venezuela is millions of people engaged in a very messy process that a lot of people outside of Venezuela don’t really understand (and I KNOW that I don’t fully understand it…but I’m reading about it, in Spanish, every day). It is a process that my radical friends and I have only been dreaming about…but down there they are building it. And soon, too, in Ecuador, in Bolivia…maybe in Cuba someday. Maybe in Nicaragua…maybe even in Guatemala.

So yeah…I still consider myself a revolutionary. And I still believe that we can do it. Venezuela can’t show us the way…because the US is much too different. But it should definitely be lighting a fire under our asses.

Okay, first…for those few who may be reading this who didn’t know: I am an anarchist. Now, there is no reason to be alarmed, because being an anarchist does not mean I believe in chaos and destruction, or that I am a bomb-wielding terrorist or anything…anarchism is a political philosophy just like any other. To be really simple about it, it’s a philosophy that people deserve the maximum amount of freedom possible and thus that we deserve a society that is free from all forms of oppression: sexism, racism, homophobia and heterosexism, ecological destruction, poverty and economic exploitation, and government oppression and war, etc…it is a philosophy that believes in grassroots, participatory democracy…it IS radical, it COULD be called naive or utopian, but it IS NOT mean-spirited, cynical, or destructive…and if anyone has any more questions about it, I would love to talk with you about it…for hours and hours and hours.

Now, with that said, I really want to write about something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile now: my spirituality.

Somewhere in the last few years, especially as I’ve become more and more fascinated with the growth and organization of right-wing christian movements in the US, I’ve started to become really bothered by the fact that I, as an anarchist atheist, am so often considered non-spiritual…and so I’ve been thinking, writing, and talking with Briana about this, trying to get a grasp on just what my beliefs are…what my spirituality is…so here I’d like to chat a little bit about it.

“If You Don’t Believe In God, Then What Do You Believe In?”

I believe that we are here, right now, and this is it. This is our life…and it will only last for a short time, and then we will be gone. Because what we are, as human beings, are beautiful, complex, and fragile patterns of matter…nothing more, yet nothing less, which have risen like a wave out of deep and rich process of evolution…but which will ultimately crest and crash back into the ocean of particles and elements that we were born from…and with our deaths, our memories, our consciousnessess will scatter in all directions…circulating back into the stew.

There is no higher consciousness guiding us, there is no grand plan…there is simply energy and matter and time…and the dancing, dancing relationships between them…

“Boy, That Sounds Depressing”

Now, I know so many people who hear this and think it’s so depressing…but I’ve never understood that…I think it’s just the opposite…I think it is an immense and almost unthinkable blessing that out of a gigantic mess of natural processes and chemical reactions…we have actually come to be, with our eyes and ears and our languages and cultures…that out of completely lifeless and soulless universe life actually DID happen, and that these impersonal processes have actually led to the evolution of PERSONALITIES…our personalities…and so we are lucky enough to be here…alive…and we are here together right now…sharing this thing, this experience of life…and really we are all we’ve got…

And this is another thing that is so depressing to so many people…this idea that without God we are alone in the universe…but when I hear THAT perspective I get depressed…because it feels to me like it’s missing the whole point: WE ARE NOT ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE. We are surrounded by life…we are surrounded by personalities and emotions and consciousnesses…more than we will ever be able to comprehend. People, bird, fishes, three-toed slothes, amoebas, viruses, chimpanzees, mushrooms, forests…what I don’t understand about people who believe in God is…why isn’t this enough…Why isn’t it enough that we have eachother? Why do we need something above us, watching over us? What extra comfort does that give…because for me that idea is far more scary…(that there is a boss in the sky that has a plan for me and that He doesn’t have enough respect for me to actually treat me like an equal, to introduce himself…and to level with me about what the point of this world is…but that’s just me. I don’t think it shows any real kind of love to leave your children in the dark, suffering and dying so you can watch and judge…that seems pretty abusive actually…sorry, I went a little too far into the negative there…apologies).

So this is the foundation for my spirituality…a spirituality of us…a spirituality without a hierarchy or a need for a leader or for a top-down plan…it is a spirituality that says: we are here, in this beautiful world, and we are here together…now we have a choice…we can work together to learn and grow and celebrate all of the beauties together…or we can fight and exploit each other and waste our lives…or we can tell ourselves that this world is actually just some kind of test or fake world, and that real life begins after we die…as for me, I choose the first. And by choosing that first, I have my moral code and I have my politics…and I don’t need any ten commandments or other scriptures to tell me not to kill or hate or steal…because I know that we’re sharing this life…so I don’t have any reason to do any of that bad stuff.

“But What Happens When We Die?”

Now there is one other part…and that is the whole death piece. I know that alot of religious people find it really important this question of what happens after we die…and there is all this fear of that after death piece…and for those people who feel like they need to know that they will live forever somewhere…there is no comfort I can give…because that sounds boring to me. I find it far more fascinating and powerful and neat that really I just have this tiny window…that I need to make this as powerful an excursion as possible…and…

…and I need to make sure that I am doing what I can to help my fellow people and creatures get the most out of their lives as well…because that’s the point for me, that we get to live TOGETHER…so this is why justice is essential for me…and also I believe that it is only in each other that we find our meaning and where we can become bigger than ourselves…by carrying the stories of those who came before us, and having our children carry our stories…we become a part of a larger project, something that, while not immortal and absolutely eternal…will continue for more than just one or two generations. We find meaning in our lives in how we live with each other…and for ourselves.

And so my spiritual practice is in sharing my life with my family, my friends, my neighbors…my spirituality is rooted in the struggle for justice…my mass is those times when we sit around to tell our stories, and where we bring forward the stories of the past…of those people who had their time and then passed…for us to learn from, for us to be nurtured by, for us to be inspired by (and for us to acknowledge those billions who have been wronged)…

This works for me…this fulfills me and enriches me…this gives me meaning…and this makes sense to me…

And I’d love to hear what you think about it…

“But Atheists Don’t Have The Communities That Churches Offer”

And this is absolutely true…I think one of the strongest and most positive things about religions are the social elements…the congregations, the discussion and study groups…the buildings that you can go to at least once a week to find people who connect with you about a deep part of your life…they connect with your most basic worldview…

And this is why I keep saying…not even joking…that anarchists and other social justice activists need to start building churches…or something similar…I would love to have a place to go once a week where I knew I could find people who shared my beliefs…where we could celebrate together and tell stories and histories together…share donuts and tea…in fact, strategically, I think it’s going to be essential for building commmunities that can actually change this world.

Ooh, this was a fun post to write!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi