Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Organizing is Ordinary

      Most narrative and film representations of organizing substantially misrepresent the labor of being an organizer.  Hell, most conversations that organizers have with each other engage in the same misrepresentations.  The reason for these misrepresentations is pretty simple.  They only engage with a very small percentage of the work that organizers are involved in, the spectacular moments, the moments of success or defeat, the dramatic conflicts and mass actions that produce spectacle.  If we were to draw from Ernest Hemingway's metaphor about story writing, these visible actions only represent the tip of the iceberg, the visible portion of the story that is translated into narrative, into spectacle.  The vast majority of the process of organizing, like the iceberg, remains submerged, hidden, and is largely left out of our narratives.  Those aspects of organizing remain outside of the public space of narrative, out of the public space of spectacle, except for those few moments of spectacular failure, where an organizer does something blindingly stupid to destroy a campaign or an organizing drive.

     Organizing is ordinary.  The vast majority of it involves small conversations, taking notes, and mapping the social relations in a workplace or a community.  Just as often, it involves the tedium of trying to find where people are during the day, or going to empty houses and offices, and leaving empty handed.  For those folks who do this professionally, it translates into long hours, bad food, and a strange combination of emotional obligation and loneliness.  My purpose isn't to create a lament for the poor toiling organizer, but to simply note that the work of organizing is defined by the forms of repetition, drudgery, and small interactions that define the vast majority of our lives.  This work produces the sorts of social bonds that allow for the kinds of spectacle that emerge into the public spheres of our lives.  In many ways, those moments make the long slog we went through worth it, but we need to recognize that those moments are the superstructure to the base of the everyday communicative labor that is submerged.  Activists frequently claim the need for talk, rather than action, but it's generally talk, a lot of little conversations with a lot of people that produce actions.

       I often remark that organizing is fundamentally about producing social relations, but that doesn't quite capture what really goes on in organizing.  What might be better said is that organizer both forms new social relations, and reshapes existing relationships to fit different purposes, generally as a form of counter-conduct to the institutional structures that first facilitated those social structures.  To put it another way, organizing engages with the networks of social reproduction to begin the process of resisting the small, and at times, large forms of social domination and exploitation that exist within them.  I want to make it clear that this is a long and laborious effort.  Folks who are on the sidelines rarely move from inaction to dramatic action quickly.  That inaction is inevitably produced through a powerful set of factors based on a complex mixture of fear and consent that regulate and preserve those institutional structures.  Perhaps to put it a little more simply, your goal is to get folks who are doing nothing to do a little bit, to translate mild hostility into neutrality, to translate neutrality into mild support, etc.  You're probably not going to get someone who's never been involved in politics to lock themselves to an office door, but you might get them to sign or even pass out a petition, or even come to a meeting.

       It's hard to avoid the comparisons to the conventional expectations put upon women in the conventional structures of heteronormativity if one has spent any time engaging with feminist politics.  Indeed when we look at the history of the new left, we see a history of a wide array of organizations that were held together by the unvalorized labor of women, who brought coffee, took notes, and all too often soothed the fragile egos and social relations of the men who took credit for the organizations that were held together by women.  Activists often make this argument by contrasting the figures of Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr., the behind the scenes organizer contrasted with the public face of the movement.  But even this is inadequate.  After all, people know who Ella Baker is, at least within activist circles, while the vast majority of the figures who built these networks are unnamed in any books, are probably unnameable for future histories except for a few notable exceptions.  Radical feminism is ultimately an intervention into this situation, a situation in which the ostensibly counter-systemic formations were replicating the gendered forms of social reproduction that drove the dominant structures that they were ostensibly opposing. 

     I don't want to pretend that the profound sexism that produced radical feminism doesn't exist.  I can see the same implicit expectations that women take the notes, do undervalorized forms of labor that allow for radical organizations to survive, and provide forms of emotional support that men are not expected to support.  In effect, radical feminism marked a set of concerns that need to be dealt with, but it did not resolve them.  But, I also want to bring up something that doesn't get explicitly get dealt with within that framework, we need to not just distribute these tasks, but radically reevaluate how we value that work.  We need to have moments that the people who spend day in and day out doing the tedious work of talking to people, taking the notes, and making things happen move from the sidelines of our narratives to the center of our narrative.  I say that not only out of concern for the psyches of the folks who do this work, but as a way of getting us to put more effort into this work, work that allows for everything else to happen.  All too often, I've been a part of groups that have neglected that work, leading to failed campaigns, poorly attended events, and unfulfilled potentials.  We need to both return to an understanding of the ordinariness of organizing, and to create ways of making that work valued and meaningful to those who participate in it.  At its heart, we find ourselves at a place where we need to learn how to narrate ourselves and our labor in profoundly different ways.

(Brecht's theoretical work may point a way forwards.)

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