Another Politics is out!

Some good news: Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements, the book that I have been working on for the past several years, is out from the University of California Press! You can look for Another Politics at your local independent bookstore or order it through the UC Press website. I invite you to get a copy, read it, share it, and, if you appreciate it, “like” it on Facebook and/or write a customer review on Amazon.com.

Over the coming year, I’ll be touring with this book on the U.S./Canadian West Coast (in October/November), across the Canadian context (in the winter), on the U.S. East Coast (in the spring), and in other regions as well. My aim is to use book events to lift up inspiring and effective organizing work that is happening all over North America, and to help catalyze discussions to strengthen our movements. I hope to see you during my travels! And in the meantime, I welcome your feedback on the book!

Media for Movement Self-Reflection

In fall 2012, I was asked to speak at a Media Democracy conference in Ottawa. At first, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. While I’ve had a long-time appreciation for activist media, I’d never actually considered myself a media maker. This is interesting, considering my work with Left Turn magazine (RIP), Upping the Anti, and publishing projects of the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

On reflection, I realized I’ve been involved with very specific kind of media-making, what I think of it as media for movement self-reflection. By this, I mean media that help us, as activists, to discuss collectively what we’re doing, what we want to achieve, what challenges we’re facing, and how we can strengthen our efforts.

My investment in creating and sustaining media for movement self-reflection is pretty simple. Based on my understanding of social movement histories, I’m convinced that successful movements require lively, serious, and widely-used media to facilitate self-reflection – to discuss strategy and vision, and to catalyze new forms of action.

The big question for me is: What forms of media for movement self-reflection can we develop that are adequate to this moment and to our movements? I honestly don’t know the answer. But growing out of my experiences, I have some ideas about what features media for movement self-reflection should have. I’ll mention three here.

1. Build radical intellectual culture

Have you ever looked at an academic journal or book? Across disciplines, they tend to be fairly consistent in form: specialized vocabulary, agonistic argumentative style, ample citations, and prominently displayed author credentials. This form communicates that only a select, “in the know” few can participate.

In the absence of a vibrant and broad-based left today, these sorts of academic conventions have unfortunately come to stand in for genuine radical intellectual culture, even in a lot of activist media. They make it seem like the only way to discuss ideas is to speak and write like an academic.

But our movements need a much wider and more deeply engaged intellectual culture – a culture that invites and welcomes people rather than telling them that they’re stupid and not part of the club. One important task, then, for movement media is to generate positive collective spaces for people to develop ideas and discuss them. As part of this, it’s particularly crucial to facilitate contributions from those who are conventionally excluded from officially-recognized intellectual culture through systems of ableism, hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.

To be clear, I’m not calling for banning big words and abstract discussions, or being less rigorous. But I do believe that building sophisticated radical intellectual culture requires intentional and sustained movement educational work, such as writing workshops, critical literacy programs, and study groups.

One small example of this is the simple and straightforward writing suggestions featured in every issue of The Abolitionist. Also, check out the detailed study groups guide recently developed by Mamos of the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle.

2. Bridge conversations and movement sectors

Have you participated in a comment thread on Facebook in which you’ve offered your opinion about an activist effort? That’s a kind of movement self-reflection that many of us do regularly. The tragedy is that Facebook keeps us separated into friend silos that limit our discussions and reflective capacities. So, while there is a tremendous amount of reflective work happening on Facebook, most of it isn’t connected very widely or playing the catalyzing role that it could. In various ways, this manifests in other forms of web-based media and in print publications too.

To build broad and smart movements, we need media that help us climb out of our silos and engage with other sectors. In part, this involves bringing together contributions coming from different political perspectives and movement experiences. The point is to facilitate conversations that can enable new kinds of alliances and strategies.

Left Turn magazine, over its more than ten-year life, offered one good example of this kind of cross-movement media effort. Online, Organizing Upgrade has pointed in this direction as well.

3. Grapple with difficult questions in ways that open up possibilities

There are two common forms of how we, as activists, tend to write or talk about movement efforts. One is cheerleading, highlighting how totally amazing an initiative is, and the other is tearing down, emphasizing how completely messed up something is. What’s more rare – but what I think we desperately need – is a third form: grappling with situations in which things aren’t 100% awesome or horrible. This means embracing complexity and acknowledging that we can constantly learn from what we’re doing.

For this, we need movement media that aren’t about cheerleading or tearing down, but instead push us to discuss difficult questions: What mistakes have we made? What limitations do our efforts currently have? What have we actually achieved? What should we do differently next time? The point in grappling with these kinds of questions is to learn lessons and improve our efforts, understanding that everything we do is an experiment worthy of evaluation.

Organized well, roundtables featuring several activists reflecting on their work can dig into difficult questions and distill lessons. Many of the roundtables featured in Upping the Anti have succeeded at this. The “Waves of Resistance” roundtable in Harsha Walia’s book Undoing Border Imperialism offers another great example, as does the roundtable on working-class power in last November’s issue of Briarpatch magazine.

How do you think about media for movement self-reflection? What features do you think are important? What examples do you learn from?

Evaluating Success

Earlier this month in Ottawa, I helped to organize an event called “We Win Every Day” with longtime organizer and writer Chris Crass as part of his speaking tour through Quebec and Ontario. This event opened up some great discussions about victories that local organizations have achieved in recent years (check out some lovely posters generated from these victory stories here). Afterward, many people present talked about how unusual it is to acknowledge victories in this intentional way.

My experience at the event definitely got me thinking about how to bring a regular practice of celebrating victories into my work. More generally, it also provoked me to think about how we, as activists and organizers, tend to evaluate success, individually and collectively, in our political efforts. On reflection, I don’t think we do this so well.

For one thing, we often don’t stop for even a basic evaluation before moving on to another activity. Here, I’m thinking of a collective discussion about what we hoped to achieve, what we did achieve, what was challenging, and what we can learn from our experiences. Even when we do evaluate our efforts, though, it’s tempting to gauge the effectiveness of our activities with metrics that are easy to see but actually not very useful:

  • Frenzy and exhaustion: Perhaps the most readily available mode of evaluation we have for judging our success is how busy we are. Indeed, many activist communities have elaborate status hierarchies based on who is able to take on the most responsibilities, sleep the least, and appear the most stressed. The problem here is that doing more doesn’t necessarily mean that we are getting any closer to achieving our goals. Sometimes it does, for sure. But other times, it just means that we’re succeeding in creating a small frenzied core of very stressed-out, exhausted activists.
  • Social recognition: Within relatively small and interconnected activist scenes, popularity can function as a powerful metric. The more other activists notice what we’re doing, the more we can feel that we’re succeeding in our efforts. Social media definitely amplifies this dynamic. And of course, there are many worthwhile initiatives that get a lot of attention among activists. However, gaining social recognition within activist scenes doesn’t necessarily translate into having relevance or impact beyond them. At worst, social recognition can prevent us from frankly evaluating the limitations of our efforts.
  • State repression: When the state pushes back against us with surveillance, arrests, or outright violence, it’s tempting to use this as evidence that we’re succeeding. In some cases, we are. The trouble is that this mode of evaluation mainly focuses on moments of confrontation rather than all of what we’re trying to build and achieve in the long-term. And perhaps more troubling, it gauges our success through state logics – with all of their internal contradictions – rather than through our self-determined goals and priorities.

So, what sorts of modes of evaluation can we develop that would be better? There are some wonderful initiatives that have developed helpful metrics, but here I just want to contribute some brief, general ideas to get us thinking. I offer them as five questions:

  1. How are our activities winning tangible gains that demonstrate the power of collective action by ordinary, non-activist people?
  2. How are our activities bringing more people together, creating new kinds of connections, and widening the circle of participation?
  3. How are our activities building new confidence and capacities in people, particularly those who are structurally excluded and oppressed in our society?
  4. How are our activities communicating a transformative vision, not just rhetorically but also through how they are organized and what they create?
  5. How are our activities laying the basis for future successful struggles, in terms of moving ruling institutions, shifting consciousness, and building movement infrastructure?

In my view, these kinds of questions begin to move us toward the more fine-tuned, self-determined evaluation routines that we need. What kinds of metrics do you use? How do you articulate them?

Sharing Movement History

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we, as activists and organizers, can better work to recover, preserve, and share movement history. This concern partly comes out of my longtime interest in learning about stories of struggle left out of dominant history-telling in the U.S. and Canada. I’m fascinated by how activists in previous eras reckoned with their circumstances and tried to push beyond them, and how their efforts shaped the present in which we currently live.

Mostly, though, I’m committed to movement history because I think it’s so valuable for helping us to struggle more effectively right now. In the pace of movements and mobilizations, years can sometimes feel like decades and, with frequent activist turnover, we all too easily end up repeating similar mistakes and debates over and over again. Coming to know our history, I’m convinced, can help us to learn from our mistakes, build on our strengths, and have new discussions that propel us forward.

I don’t have any ready-made formulas to offer here. My sense is that building a significantly greater understanding of history – even history from the previous few decades – into our movements today is going to require a lot of work and a lot of experimentation. Some very good work along these lines happens in classrooms and through books and journals. In recent years, though, I’ve developed a particular appreciation for other kinds of movement history initiatives that, it seems to me, indicate useful directions for broadening this work.

For one, I have a special place in my heart for movement archives – physical spaces that collect activist materials and make them available for others to access. In the U.S. and Canada, the more long-lived movement archives tend to be housed in university libraries. Three good examples are the Anarchist Archive at the University of Victoria, the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, and the Tamiment Library at New York University. In the last several years, I have been heartened to encounter lively non-university-based movement archives, such as the Freedom Archives in San Francisco and Interference Archive in Brooklyn. In addition to making available a wealth of materials, both of those institutions run amazing community programming which is well worth checking out.

Meanwhile, the Internet has enabled a proliferation of digital movement archives. Those that I have encountered include the ACT UP Oral History Project, African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project, AIDS Activist History Project, Farm Workers in Washington State History Project, Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project, SLAM! Herstory Project, Socialist History Project, Sojourner Truth Organization Digital Archive, and WTO History Project. I especially appreciate how many of these online archives produce oral histories – in-depth interviews with activists – and make them widely accessible. There is so much to gain from reading and listening to people as they recount their organizing experiences in their own words.

In the last few years, I’ve also been heartened to see more experimental movement history projects with a strong orientation toward sharing knowledge across generations. Members of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories have been conducting video interviews with movement elders in their city as part of a series called Inheriting Resistance: A Community History Project. Last fall, Solidarity Halifax held a community conference called A People’s History of Nova Scotia featuring stories of struggle from their region. And Aid & Abet has been running the San Francisco Bay Area Radical History Project, a series of public talks in radical spaces about local activist history from the 1980s to the present. Some of my favorite high-quality left radio programs and podcasts – such as Against the Grain, Black Sheep Radio, and Talking Radical Radio – also regularly feature people discussing movement history.

What kinds of institutions and projects for recovering, preserving, and sharing movement history have you encountered? How do you think we can build deeper knowledge of history into our movements today?

Movement-Building Outside Metropolis

Last week, at a solidarity rally with Elsipogtog on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, I was struck once again by how incredibly unique radical activism and organizing is in big cities. After living for five years in Sudbury, a small and largely working-class mining city in northern Ontario, I’m still stunned to go to activist events in Ottawa and see lots of people I’ve never encountered before. And this, I’ve come to realize, is just one of many unique aspects of metropolitan activism.

My time in Sudbury, along with earlier stints living in small cities and towns in Alaska and Oregon, has made me much more sensitive to the specificities of place for movement-building. Over the last several years, I’ve started to notice how much the ideas and models that circulate on the Left tend to assume metropolitan contexts, and how little attention radicals tend to devote to the world outside big cities, which includes suburbs, smaller cities, towns, reservations and reserves, and rural areas. This nearly exclusive focus on big cities, it seems to me, creates a bunch of problems for our movements in the U.S. and Canadian contexts. I’ll mention two here.

First, when we solely pay attention to big cities, we ignore the huge numbers of people who don’t live in urban centers. We don’t see how crucial they are for building powerful movements to transform our society. Significant sections of the Right don’t make the same mistake; they understand that people living in nonmetropolitan areas can be foundational participants in broad-based movements. Amy Dudley, a former organizer with the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in Oregon, sums this up in an excellent interview in Towards Collective Liberation: “The Right has targeted rural white communities as their base and we must counter that.”

Second, when we focus only on major urban centers, we end up developing and using city-centric organizing models. For instance, we assume that people have regular access to the internet, can easily transport themselves to and from meetings, or are comfortable moving at the particular pace of big city life. Perhaps most significantly, we assume that we can rely on a geographically concentrated community of like-minded activists to make things happen. InA View from the Plains,” R. Spourgitis insightfully describes this:

There is something different going on in big cities, something in the way of an aggregate population with greater numbers of militants, radicals and the like-minded who can push already existing organizations, or build new ones more radically. Some form of leftist framework may be in place, such as a living history of political organizing from past struggles, community centers with a social justice purpose, sympathetic religious congregations, and so forth. These are potential spaces and resources where many come together in the form of liberal or radical community organizations or groups, and often it seems combinations thereof, even within one grouping or organization. As marginal and problematic as such spaces and projects may be, the degree to which they act as staging grounds and support networks for militants is perhaps overlooked. In my experiences in smaller areas, the severe lack of such a framework changes what is possible with a given project model, a model which may implicitly presuppose such supports.

These sorts of metropolitan assumptions mostly aren’t practical or realistic outside of big cities. As Scott Neigh has pointed out, they can be very limiting even in urban centers, where they put real limits on who feels welcome and able to participate in movement work and who gets noticed by self-identified radical groups.

It’s also important to mention that there is a crucial, if complicated, class dimension to what Dudley calls “the Left’s urban-centric tendency.” While cities are full of poor and working-class people, nonmetropolitan areas – especially rural areas but also increasingly suburbs – tend to be overwhelmingly poor and working-class. And the poverty in these areas often takes a very different shape than in big cities. We should bear in mind that class and geography are related even as we also understand that nonmetropolitan areas are by no means homogenous racially, culturally, or otherwise.

With these kinds of problems in mind, I’ve been trying to follow and learn from organizing work outside the metropoles. Just to mention a handful of examples, I’m encouraged by ROP’s work in Oregon, Indigenous land struggles linked through initiatives such as Defenders of the Land, the regional multi-racial queer organizing of Southerners on New Ground, the economic justice work of the Vermont Workers’ Center, and community-based fights against resource extraction and transportation happening all over North America right now. I’m also excited about efforts such as the Building Resistance Tour that Rising Tide – Vancouver Coast Salish Territories organized to learn from and support organizing in rural communities throughout British Columbia last spring. I suspect too that there is still much to learn from the recent experiences of the occupy movement outside the major cities.

What kinds of non-metropolitan movement-building efforts are you excited about? I want to know!

Writing with Movements

Welcome! Thanks especially to the support of Angus Maguire, this website is now live and looking gorgeous. I’m excited to share it with you!

I want to kick things off here by saying a little something about the title of this site. “Writing with movements” is a phrase that I use in order to talk about written reflection as part of – and accountable to – transformative social movements.

My approach to writing with movements grows out of two kinds of experiences I’ve had as an activist who also spent some time in academia. The first comes out of my participation in movements, where I regularly see the promise of collective reflection and also experience how challenging it is to generate this in grounded and useful ways. Harsha Walia lays this out wonderfully in her new book Undoing Border Imperialism:

Movement building requires reflexivity. And yet it is rare to find open spaces of debate and discussion, outside of insular networks, where movement practices can be rigorously analyzed. I attribute this rarity to a variety of factors: the crisis-oriented nature of community organizing, skepticism about intellectualism stemming from a misplaced conflation with the elitism and inaccessibility of academic institutions, and our own personal fears and defensiveness about unsettling existing movement practices in which we are invested or implicated. Rather than shying away from debate and dialogue, transformative and effective movement organizing requires us to kindle a consciousness within the Left that fosters deliberate thought aimed at effectively challenging exploitation and oppression beyond ritualized “petition to workshop to rally” activism.

The lack of spaces for movement reflection that Walia identifies, as well as her analysis of why this occurs, strongly resonates with my experience. Coming out of this, I think the challenge is to intentionally develop spaces for collective reflection while also generating positive radical intellectual culture not circumscribed by academia, moving away from crisis-oriented organizing, and allowing for frank and compassionate conversations about our hopes and fears. I’m convinced that writing with movements can be a part of this.

The other experience that has shaped my approach to writing with movements comes out of my time in university contexts. When I went to graduate school, I was surprised to discover a whole world populated by left academics largely (but not completely or uniformly) disconnected from movements and day-to-day organizing work. This particularly struck me when I encountered the work of social scientists in the area of “social movement studies.” With some important exceptions, most of that work is astonishingly irrelevant to activists, even though many of those engaged in it are broadly sympathetic to the movements they study.

George Katsiaficas, in his classic book The Subversion of Politics, puts words to my experience:

Seldom in the world of theories of social movements, a world with hundreds of researchers (or perhaps a few thousand) employed full-time, does the idea of changing society get discussed. For most social researchers, social movements are not something they are part of, but merely an object of study. Some of their theories immobilize us, others make us less attuned to dimensions of our lives we know to be significant.

This tendency toward treating movements as objects of study, significantly removed from the goal of changing society, is something I’ve witnessed again and again in academic scholarship. It disappoints me every time. Against this tendency, the challenge I see is to develop a shared practice of reflection and writing not about or even for but with movements. I see writing with movements, at its best, as helping to document movement-generated knowledge, distill lessons, evaluate mistakes, develop liberatory vision, open up difficult questions, and strengthen collective struggles against ruling institutions and relations. That is the kind of writing that I try to support and do, and that is what motivates this blog.