Friday, April 21, 2017

planting a tree as metaphor for long term organizing

    I recently read a most likely apocryphal story about Hegel during the period of the French Revolution.  The story isn't terribly complicated; Hegel, Holderlin, and Schelling took the time from their studies to plant a tree of liberty.  Despite the very different directions the three thinkers took, the fictional act gestured towards a commitment to the radical possibilities embodied by the revolution.  The act of planting a tree doesn't strike me as the worst metaphor for a radical political project.  It gestures towards three substantial aspects of any political project committed to radical and systemic transformation, the fact that any such project will take time, the care that needs to be put into such  a project, and finally, the immense contingency implicit in such a project.

      Time:  The act of planting of tree implicitly has a fairly long period of time in mind.  It's going to take most trees at least twenty of thirty years to develop any significant growth, and even fast growing trees take a few years to take hold.   Most radical or progressive reformist groups work within a considerably shorter period of time, often only thinking about the next rally or, if the group is particularly ambitious, the next year long campaign.  Even NGOs tend to think within a shorter timeline, developing, at most, five year plans.  In this sense, we can think of the activities of most radical or reformist organizations as being profoundly opportunist in their organizational practices, if not their rhetoric, in the framework that is implicit in both the work of Paulo Virno and V.I. Lenin .  Within both thinkers' frameworks, opportunism operates on the premise of accepting the rules set of the existing system without challenging the rules and structures of that system.  By refusing to or perhaps more significantly being unable to create long term goals and projects, radical and reformist projects find themselves playing by the rules of the systems that they ostensibly oppose.  I think this opportunist framework is an effect, rather than a cause of the profound destruction of the counter-systemic movements of the second half of the twentieth century.  However, it's difficult to imagine escaping this situation without having the resources and foresight to begin the process of developing meaningfully long future projects.

      It's notable that the thirty year time period that it takes for a tree to grow is remarkably close the the medium time-frame that Immanuel Wallerstein posits as the length of the medium term project that is largely ignored by the counter-systemic movements of the present within the United States. Wallerstein opposes this medium time frame to a set of long term goals, which take the form of large, global projects that take the form of abstract concepts such as communism, the end of exploitation, etc.  Short term goals take the form of an organizing campaign such as organizing a workplace, a campaign to end a particular practice at an institution such as using sweat shop labor, or often in the case of subcultural activism, simply organizing a demonstration or an action.  This work involves immediate goals.  How do we get people to the rally?  Can we get media attention?  Can we disrupt the actions of decision makers in a way that causes them to change their behavior?  These are all important questions, but they don't lead to giving any meaningful thought to the larger goals that the movements ostensibly have.  Instead, their framework is largely negative.  How can we disrupt?  How can we translate that disruption into policy makers changing their actions?  I'm not saying that these are irrelevant questions, but they abandon the element of planning to the structures we ostensibly oppose.  They also abandon the question of how we form new forms of social structure and create new modes of governance within those forms of social structure, and what kinds of representation will define new forms of democratic practice.

Care:  To return to the metaphor of the tree, it takes quite a bit of care to get a tree to take root and adjust to the environment in which you have place it.  This is notably true for Southern California because of the lack of rain and its poor soil.  However, it's a metaphor that works elsewhere.  At the most obvious level, the creation of any social structure is dependent on formal and informal structures of social reproduction.  You need to not only bring new people into an organization or movement, but you need to create social spaces that cause those people to stay in those structures, to allow them a sense of meaning and participation in those organizations and movements, and to create structures of care.  These are questions that are taken quite seriously at the most immediate level by anarchists, particularly the focus on self care.  However, those same organizations have difficulty imagining how you might participate in these movements when you're thirty or forty, rather than twenty, or how to be a part of a movement when you have children or you have a disability.  I don't think these are problems that can be solved through a movement that continues to operate as a subculture, that is as a community largely produced through voluntary and informal labor.  It should be additionally noted that those informal structures tend to unduly burden women with the 'traditional' tasks of reproductive labor, leaving them unpaid and undervalued.  We need structures and institutions that we can plug into, and that is going to involve getting people money to do those jobs.  There's a real question of how we do this and continue to hold onto forms of democratic governance and representation, but refusing to pose those questions by refusing to create any kind of formal structure has clearly not translated into either sustainability or equality.

Contingency:  There is quite a bit of contingency implicit in the act of planting the tree.  The most obvious contingency is the fact that trees can die, even with all the care of the world that is put into the project.  Analogously, projects fail, even with the best intentions and plans.  However, at a more modest level, even when a tree lives and grows, it doesn't grow in precisely the way you plan it to grow.  That is to say, there is a need to recognize that as a plan develops and perhaps even progresses, the means and even the ends of that plan are going to change.  That doesn't mean that you don't plan, but that you recognize that your plans are going to change.  We're good at dealing with that kind of contingency at the level of the event, and even the campaign, but we don't spend a lot of time thinking beyond that. At the level of a lot of subcultural activism, we rarely even spend much time discussing what succeeded or failed within an individual event afterwards, often leaving events as isolated and unrelated events.  When criticism does occur, it often spirals out of control becoming a circle of mutual incrimination.  We lack the mechanisms for a form of collective and individual assessment that operates constructively, rather than disastrously destructively, a mechanism that would teach organizers better practices and encourage them to engage in those practices. At some level, we need forms of self-criticism primarily for organizations, but also for individuals, but in a manner that somehow escapes from the logic of the confessional within which that mode was initially created.  Just as significantly, we need forms of institutional knowledge that will preserve that knowledge to direct future campaigns and future actions, and we need to be able to think about what the successes and failures of those actions say about our longer term plans.

To draw off the example of an old friend, we might look at the anarchist project in Spain.  We think about the high point of anarchism in the mid to late 1930's, but in doing so, we miss out on the fact that it took decades of organizing, starting withing the middle part of the nineteenth century for this wave of militancy to occur.  It involved engaging in and creating institutional and educational structures, and involved creating forms of engagement that were not simply accessible to the young. When we simply look back nostalgically at the height of a moment of struggle without recognizing the conditions that produced that struggle, we're going to lack any ability of how to advance our own goals of creating similar or more successful movements.  We have to see those movements with the context of the long duree of time, and the day to day work that occurred in that time frame.  The question is how to return to that form of longer term thinking.

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