Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Organizing, Coalition Building, Education … as Self-Cooptation?
In the work of improving the world what could be wrong with organizing, coalition building, education, community building, and other networking and social strengthening activities?
I argue that as they are practiced in middleclass First World progressive activist and political circles these activities do more harm than good in terms of creating justice, no matter the extent to which the groups are gender and race unbiased and no matter the extent to which the decision-making is horizontal and consensus-based.
I’ve noted this in worker organizations and unionist groups, self-proclaimed anarchist groups, socialist groups, and left-progressive concerned citizen groups.
Hear me out.
If the activism – the action to improve society by reducing injustice – is the actual organizing, coalition building, education, community building, etc., itself, then it cannot be effective and it cannot be sustainable. If we add components of resistance such as letters to politicians, petitions, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and direct actions aimed at harming oppressive power structures in fighting for justice for any chosen cause, then it remains ineffective and unsustainable.
All of these forms of activism are deficient in the main ingredient: The ingredient with which we have lost touch; the ingredient that has been made invisible by the energetically managed and fabricated mental and physical environment of the modern First World middleclass.
The same artificial environment that separates us from ourselves in order that we function as expected in the mainstream, or that causes us to hide in secluded outposts or oases, also separates us from the main ingredient that would make our activism potent.
The missing element is the individual fighting her own oppression. The missing ingredient is the fighting spirit of the individual in authentic rebellion against her own oppression, in its deepest and most insidious forms.
All activism must be rooted in individuals who fight their own oppressions – who fight by kicking and pushing, knowing there will be a backlash. Every spontaneous act of self-defence is the start of a cycle of action, reaction, reflection, learning, outreach, more-action – a cycle of praxis – and each such cycle and the cycles within cycles are the steps to liberation.
Solidarity has no meaning outside of fighting a common oppressor at comparable levels of risk. Ineffectively agreeing to be of the opinion that such or such a cause is worthy of “support” is not solidarity. The only place of risk is in fighting one’s oppressor. Risk, like change, lives at home – not in the self but at home.
My oppressor is my boss at work, my teacher at school, the system that keeps me obedient and politically powerless. Since I cannot exert the free influence on my environment, on my community, that my nature craves, I am oppressed.
If you, like most slaves, do not see your oppression or refuse to legitimize it enough to fight it, then you are of use only to the slave master, the same master that runs the financial and corporate global exploitation and enforcement machine.
Citizens that liberate themselves are not easily manipulated and naturally practice their influence rather than allow themselves to be managed. These are the people that help make the world sane.
So many fallacies have been pushed into our heads in order to displace this basic truth; that against a hierarchical structure of dominance there is no gain without a fight – the fight against the structure at one’s point of attachment to it.
For example, we have the fallacy of the “critical mass”, as a model mechanism for social change. Let us examine this. The critical mass is a concept from nuclear physics. It is the limit mass of a radioactive isotope beyond which there will be a spontaneous nuclear chain reaction, a nuclear explosion. The well-meaning progressive activist postulates that with a sufficient mass of opinion on a given issue there will be a spontaneous change in government policy or law regarding the issue. One problem is that opinion is not action. One needs the right isotope before one can speak of a critical mass. The right isotope is one that is radioactive, that is throwing punches and thereby stirring others to throw punches. Without the right element, it’s just a mass. Another problem is that power does not care about public opinion, except when that opinion reflects a potential for rebellion.
This leads to a second example: The fallacy that big demonstrations cause change. In periods of change (workers rights, civil rights) there were both demonstrations and change but this does not imply that demonstrations cause change. These periods of change were characterized by oppressed people demonstrating that they were prepared to fight their oppression. The demonstrations were demonstrations of resolve and determination and daring and were accompanied by radical wings that were not insignificant. Modern organizers that just want the numbers out to show that they have voter leverage and that measure success in numbers of weekend protesters out in “solidarity” with some “cause” totally miss the point.
The First World middleclass individual is on Ritalin or some equivalent and is an accepting slave or an alternative lifestyle seeker. That is no basis for people power.
The job of the activist, at this low point in the struggle for the First World, is to be an authentic rebel, to fight the bastards from where you are at, at the point of your strongest connection to the economy, at the place where you have the most power – at work, at school.
Feel the backlash; then you will have something to organize about! Others will join you. Many will attempt to silence and normalize you. You can’t know who your friends are until you show yourself. You can’t know what power is like until it has acted against you. You can’t know freedom without liberation. You can’t be in solidarity without crossing that line.
Next, let us re-examine the organizing, coalition building, education … of the title. If we accept my proposal of a missing essential ingredient, then these activities are not even components of an effective activism because there is no activism without the missing essential ingredient. These activities are not in themselves activism (i.e., a fight for justice).
Worse, when actuated in the absence of the missing essential ingredient these activities mask that there is a missing ingredient and habituate the actor to acting outside of activism. These activities practiced without the essence provided by the missing ingredient re-enforce the false notion that they are activism in themselves; that they serve to help create more justice. They re-enforce zero-risk and low-risk self-worth-seeking and survivor-guilt-alleviation movements that serve only to accommodate one to one’s slavery, in the company of other well-adjusted slaves. Accommodating to a power structure of exploitation is not a sustainable activity, let alone sustainable activism. We need to be against the structure; we wish to flatten it, not climb it.
In addition, the practitioners of the organize-educate masquerade falsely identify individual or group expressions of authentic rebellion as “counter-productive”, “negative”, “miss-guided”, etc., and often go so far as to accuse the rebellious elements of sabotage with accusations such as “you will get them very angry and they will shut us down”, “you will give us bad media coverage”, “you will turn away potential supporters”, “you unnecessarily put us all at risk”, etc.
The practitioners of the masquerade correctly view the rebellious elements as threats against the masquerade. It is a fatal threat to one’s self-image to have to consider that one’s adopted mission is a lie, a waste, and part of the system’s resistance to change towards justice; that one’s community for good is based on self-preservation within the power structure not a fight against the power structure.
If you are not fighting the power structure and its keepers then you are not in solidarity with all those who are oppressed, displaced, starved, and murdered by the power structure. Expressing an opinion via petition or demonstration does not cut it on its own in circumstances where this expression is not an element of a real fight with significant likely consequences for both change and backlash.
Specialized First World organizers, coalition builders, and educators, like all such specialized components of First World civil society, can only be of use in the efforts towards justice to the extent that they (1) engage in fighting their own oppression in their own places of work and life; (2) recognize, support, and join the essential element, the rebel fighter fighting her own oppression in her family and community, at work, at school, and in societal organizations; and (3) are vehement in not tolerating the oppression of and attacks against authentic rebels fighting their own oppression.
The indoctrination of actors is so deep. How many times have we heard an authentic rebel being denigrated with “He is just fighting his own personal battle – He is not objectively fighting for the cause we have adopted – He does this for his own personal gain”? On the contrary, the rare fighting individuals being denigrated in this way are onto something: Liberation.
To sever the personal involvement of fighting one’s own oppression from campaigns in support of social justice causes is to sever the essential source of political motivation from the social actor. Individuals engaged in the process of their own liberation do not burn out and do not need workshops about the meaning of solidarity.
First World organizers, coalition builders, and educators, have transformed themselves into victims managing burnout, managers of slaves, and experts in putting the cart before the horse – in the hope that the horse will not be seen or needed. If we don’t have authentic rebels throwing punches then there is no movement. If we don’t understand Paulo Freire’s mantra that “you can only fight your own oppression,” then we are enablers of the power structure.
What is your oppression?
RELATED ARTICLES - LINKS
The Activist Wars
Activism and Risk - Life Beyond Altruism
Means and Freire
Need To Embrace Hatred
More Against Chomsky
Anarchism as Cooptation
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"The fallacy that big demonstrations cause change. In periods of change (workers rights, civil rights) there were both demonstrations and change but this does not imply that demonstrations cause change."
Point well taken. I will add that people sometimes focus too much on the "theatre" of activism, of replicating the "look" of actions from the past - mostly the 60s - dissociated from their original context. We need new actions based on our current context.
But here's another fallacy: We know that efficient activism will most certainly create a backlash, that people practicing will get some form of repression, including arrests. That DOESN'T mean, however, that every action that creates a backlash and leads to arrests is necessarily efficient activism. Again we would merely be replicating the "look" of succesful civil disobedience in the past, while forgetting the broader context and broader movement of which these actions were part.
This seems obvious to me: Murder causes death but death is not always the result of murder. Effective activism causes backlash but backlash can also result from any kind of action (accidental, vengeful, misguided, ineffective activism, etc.).
The point is that backlash is a necessary but not sufficient indicator that the action is perceived by power to be threatening (necessary not sufficient).
If there is no backlash (including covert backlash such as an internal change in organization, or adding the perpetrator to a blacklist) then the action is not threatening, does not harm the power structure, and is therefore ineffective at reducing the oppressive structure's power.
This of course does not mean that we plan activism to maximize backlash! This is obvious to anyone who fights power and must gauge the real personal risk.
I'm really only saying obvious things. That these things need to be said is an indication of the disconnect that is described in the essay.
The main point of the essay is that if movements are not ROOTED in the "essential element" then they are not anti-oppression movements. Further, they oppose anti-oppression efforts.
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