The End of Activism and the Renaissance of Organizing
By Al Giordano
Booman, thoughtful as usual, comments on my correction-critique of claims made by Open Left blogger Chris Bowers that Obama's "silence" had somehow been "deafening" regarding the Stimulus tug-of-war in Washington. Still, I thought Booman's title, Philosophical Differences in Activism, and its implicit presumption that we're all part of something called "activism" (or even all on the same side in politics) could use some punk-rock negation from me.
That's probably my fault, for not saying something explicitly which I will shout from the mountaintop right here, right now:
I am not an activist.
I don't believe in activism.
I think activism, as it is generally practiced in the United States, is more often than not a cop out and an excuse by some to avoid doing the heavy lifting of organizing.
What is the difference, you might ask, between activism and organizing?
To me, it's this:
Activism is the practice of preaching to the choir, rallying the already converted, and trying to convince other "activists" to do your work for you (say, call your Congressman, or write your Senator for or against a piece of legislation). Activists like to make declaratory "statements," hold "meetings," invite other activists (usually fairly hegemonic of the same socio-economic demographics as them), engage in group "process," make "decisions," veto (or attempt to do so) others from taking initiative outside of the groupthink that too often happens in activist projects, declare "party lines," enforce them, and claim that one is part of a "movement" even when there is no evidence that one really is.
Activism seeks media attention through protests and other means, errantly thinking it will draw others to its cause by doing so. This dominant tendency in "activism" becomes a circular, self-reinforcing, self-marginalizing, chest-thumping, bureaucratic and anally-retentive activity and a big waste of time with little impact on the issues or policies it seeks to change or defend.
Organizing is something completely different: It is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, "put a stop sign in the neighborhood," or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States). Here's a simple yardstick by which to measure: If it doesn't involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it's not organizing. If it doesn't involve face-to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it's not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that's not organizing either.
Clearly, both tendencies involve some similar activities. An organizer may call everybody in the neighborhood (or go door to door) to get something done, whereas an activist will call those he knows already agree to recruit them to make some kind of statement that he believes - usually futilely - is toward getting something done. And once an organizer or group of organizers has built an effective organization or base, some of the tools of activists (i.e. "call your Congressman") can then be deployed effectively. But that shouldn't cause activists to think that if they do that absent a locally based organizing campaign that it somehow rises to the level of organizing or is the same thing - or even on the same side of the barricades.
What's happening now is that, with the ringing in of 2009, the Community Organizing Renaissance is so clearly established that many dogmatic activists are in a kind of panic and some are even lashing out at the organizers (including the Community Organizer in Chief) to lecture us that we must do things their way. Some even go so far as to condescend to us, imply that we're Kool Aid drinkers, blind fanatics, or lockstep brownshirts, because we are calmer and more optimistic - although not less busy - than they are at this point in history. To which I can only say: Fuck them.
On some level, they must notice, if even unconsciously, that the organizers won, in 2008, so many of the battles that the activists paid lip service to for 30 years but had failed to achieve: constructing a multi-racial and multi-generational progressive movement in the United States, attracting millions of generally apolitical or apathetic people - regular folks that had rejected and shunned the activists and their ways for so many years - to take part in it, organizing neighborhoods and towns down to the precinct level, and changing American history in the process.
The current manifestation of this tension is, for activists, as always, the current "big conflict" in the media. Today it's the Stimulus Bill. Tomorrow it will be something else. Activists generally take the queues from the mass media and its conflicts-du-jour. Some seem to have grown addicted, in a way, to the adrenaline rush of the daily poutrage: the tantrum as aerobic exercise. They then go through the same routines over and over again: Insist that "this is the most important thing," that everybody else must recognize that and drop everything else to protest with them, and often with a recommendation for "action." Today it's to call members of Congress over a hodgepodge of concerns regarding the Stimulus Bill: Throw out the tax cuts! Keep this or that worthy program in it! Don't compromise not one inch with Republicans!
I just yawn.
And I laugh, since when Washington debates, in 2009, whether a Stimulus package should cost $900 billion or $600 billion, we've come a long way from when Congress rejected a $16 billion economic stimulus proposed by President Bill Clinton. If there are worthy things that don't make it into the final form of this Stimulus Bill, they're mostly things for which the votes exist in Congress to pass them in other legislation later on.
Often, activists demand that others who have done the organizing that they did not do must adopt their tactics and mission, oblivious to the reality that those tactics have not worked. (Often, they end up calling on us to do something we've already planned to do, but on a more carefully strategized timeline that requires laying other foundations first - and then they'll try to take credit for having "pressured" us into doing it, pat themselves on the back, and proclaim themselves "owners" of our labor, again. They also generally claim that it was a "movement" that somehow forced us - or the political leaders - to do it, but let's face it: they have not built an authentic movement or any significant base rooted in geography, and they delude themselves each time they insist that they do.)
There's been a lot of activity today on various "Netroots" blogs with such activist demands to call Congress on different aspects of the Stimulus Bill. But none have organized for any kind of accountability or measurement to find out just how many calls they have generated or even to whom. I figure that if you add up the entirety of all the Netroots pleas for people to call their legislator in Washington, that they generated, cumulatively, less than 1,000 calls today, and probably much, much less than that. But let's be generous and say it's 1,000: Divided among 535 members of Congress, that's an average of less than 1.9 per legislator, and even that smattering of calls ended up being with different and uncoordinated messages, sometimes conflicting, other times with talking points based on errant "facts" which only end up generating laughter and mockery by the staffers that answer those phones, and deservedly so, for their ineptness and lack of seriousness about the true facts of each issue.
On a certain level, they must be at least subconsciously aware of their own incompetence, which is why they call on Obama or others to do their work for them, often with macho posturing to infer that if he doesn't do as he's told he somehow lacks backbone. (Actually, the opposite is more true: backing down to pressure is precisely what reveals lack of a backbone!) And if we don't jump on their makeshift bandwagons, we're portrayed as somehow afraid to challenge the man, too. Well, fuck them twice, then.
So, back to Booman's post (I hope it's clear that I'm not saying fuck him): If I've so far left room for people to presume that I'm on the same side of the barricades as those I'm correcting, I hope I've now cleared that up.
Organizers don't play on the same field as activists, although many activists will insist otherwise.
Chess is chess and checkers is checkers, and while the boards look the same, they don't ever happen on the same set of squares at the same time. I consider myself 100 percent autonomous and independent from people of those purely activist tendencies, and don't find them to have shown themselves to be effective at changing much of anything - more often they screw things up for their own causes and for ours when we've allowed them near enough to do so.
I do think one question that Booman raises deserves a response. He writes, summarizing Bowers:
How are Obama's minions supposed to know what to advocate if they are not provided with better guidance?
Giordano glosses over this point as he explains how Organizing for America is proceeding and why they are proceeding in that way. Giordano's insights into organizing are incredibly valuable and accurate, but they don't address Bowers' concerns. And there are issues of concern that Bowers did not raise in this particular piece but which have been obviously disturbing the whole OpenLeft team since early on in the primaries.
Chief among them is what to do when activism and organizing goals are at odds or differ in priorities with the Obama administration and/or the Democratic Congress. Giordano, rightfully, emphasizes the feedback loop features of Organizing for America which allow members to influence policy and priorities. But Bowers is more concerned with what to do when that influence is ignored or rejected.
Left-wing activism isn't synonymous with the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, and it is not desirable that all left-wing activism be absorbed into the Organizing for America borg. Moreover, Organizing for America is just getting started and will always remain somewhat of a lumbering beast. The blogosphere is much more nimble and prepared to act and mobilize at a moment's notice. Rallying opposition to an unanticipated amendment or tactic is something that requires an alacrity Organizing for America is likely to lack.
Hmmm. I don't consider myself a part of anybody's "minions." Nor do I wait for orders from headquarters, and my experience is that most organizers view themselves as similarly autonomous. After all, once you know you can organize and win, you get to pick and choose your battles without waiting for others to choose them for you. Rather, we'll get fired up and busy when an action plan by anyone seems realistic enough to succeed at goals we share. That's why I'm impressed with Organizing for America: because I think its game plan can and will work much as it worked in 2008. Had the Obama organization proposed a different kind of project, one more "activist" and less "organizer," I probably wouldn't be writing or talking about it at all. The presumption that we organizers are "minions" is errant in that sense. It's not that OFA 2.0 comes from Obama that is attracting the organizers. It's that it's an organizing plan that has all the best ingredients to further our shared agendas.
If anything, there's a cognitive dissonance in pleading for Obama to "tell us what to do" especially when it comes from a website that contemptuously, again and again, accuses organizers and optimists of adhering to some cultish "Dear Leaderism." (Really, Bowers and Sirota ought to have that fight among themselves and get on the same page, since they're co-piloting the same plane on a currently erratic path, before lecturing other pilots of other airplanes how to steer. Short of that, could they please put a "black box" in the cockpit so we'll have a recording of the drama when it all blows up?)
As for when Organizing for America's priorities differ from mine or other organizers, it's pretty obvious what we'll do: We'll organize independently. Here's an example: One of Obama's campaign positions was not to rule out nuclear power. (There's even an effort in the Senate to put $50 billion for new nukes into the Stimulus Bill.) My longtime anti-nuclear colleague Harvey Wasserman wrote about it this week in the Huffington Post.
Now, that atomic company welfare provision might get taken out in the Senate, or knocked out in the House-Senate conference committee, or it might become law. But because we in the anti-nuclear power movement were so successful all those years ago and stopped a new generation of reactors from being built, we then went on, as individuals, to more current struggles, and today we're not organized sufficiently to flood the Capitol with sufficient phone calls or pressure to determine the outcome (although some of us - Ed Markey, John Hall - are members of Congress and may be able to kill that $50 billion before it is born anyway; that's another fruit of winning is that many of the winners then become bigger players).
But I don't worry myself about it. Why? Because I know from experience how to organize to stop a nuke from being built or fired up. I even know how to organize to shut an existing one down. These are things I've done in this life: by organizing, going door to door, reaching out and calling people who are apolitical or apathetic and even those that start out disagreeing to win them over, and then by organizing an authentic movement (one that we organized in an era before there was an Internet) at the grassroots, local, level. We did it under the presidencies of Carter and Reagan, and if need be we'll do it under Obama. It doesn't matter if the federal government is with us or not. It doesn't matter if Obama is with us or not: the people will be with us against nukes in their backyards, and we'll win again. So why would I scream hysterically over a piece of legislation when I and others like me are holding the real veto pen in our own pockets?
And the same goes for any other matter upon which we may not like what the Obama administration does: there's no use complaining unless one is willing to back it up with the perspiration of old school Community Organizing. Otherwise, we just end up scraping our fingernails on the blackboard, causing the masses and multitudes to run from the room.
I'm also not seeing much evidence that the 2009 version of the Netroots is able to, as Booman phrases, be "nimble and prepared to act and mobilize at a moment's notice. Rallying opposition to an unanticipated amendment or tactic." I think at present, too many of its denizens are caught up in the "what Obama must do" hysteria and with the exception of Markos Moulitsas - who when he sets out to get something done is tenacious and organized enough to often succeed (hint: he's studied Alinsky) - the rest of the Netroots doesn't have that kind of "alacrity." (And that's why you often see the activists trying to tell Kos what to do for them, and most of that advice, he smartly ignores.)
I think there's a realignment of forces going on right now in the progressive blogosphere and I think the differences will likely grow greater and clearer, and reasonably should. The organizer and the activist tendencies on the Netroots are increasingly oil and water. Any suggestion that some of its B-Listers and I, for example, would be able to collaborate on anything at present do not seem reality based to me, because we don't share even basic concepts of how things get done. And I'm not quite convinced that many of them care that much about winning anyway. It's easier to pout, to be perpetually hysterical and indignant, and to hook up the mass media adrenaline IV to their veins for one more fix.
I meant it when I publicly divorced the Chicken Littles back on September 8. And overall, it's the same tired crowd that lectured "what Obama must do" and was proved wrong throughout 2008 that is squawking, today, "what he must do NOW."
Some have grown since then and others will surely grow to embrace the concept of organizing as the cure for pointless activism. You know who you are and it's great that we're collaborating in the present, especially after rumbling in the past. But I see zero chance that we organizers are going to start walking backwards to embrace the forms of activism that we walked away from each time we stepped deeper into organizing.
For those who want to organize, I'm always ready to collaborate.
For those who want to merely do "activism" but somehow call it organizing... Nah.