This is an attempt to reflect on the last few days of action. It might be a rather rambling blog – apologies.
Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern about it;
But I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul
Thomas Paine, The Crisis
Tom Paine’s words are used as the dedication for Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. I trained as a community organiser in the mode of Alinsky, who agitated his way across the US from the 1930s onwards, and began the spread of community organising ideas across the nation. For organisers, the value of these ‘rules’ is in how far you can make sense of them in your life, for your experience: how far you can tell a story about them, and use them to plan action or reflect with others. Personally, I think that’s a good perspective to have for any theory: how much can you make sense of it for you? How far does it affect what you do?
One of Alinsky’s lessons is, ‘any negative, if you push it far enough to its extreme, becomes a positive’. I’d puzzled on this for a while, but never really understood what it meant. I think I do now, after a conversation with a fellow student yesterday.
What we had wanted to do as a group was create a space for open discussion, conversation, sharing etc, which had the potential for organising. What we had was two weeks to do it in. Our initial conversations had centred around organising a general assembly. Unrulistas pointed out there wasn’t time to organise this properly, or to speak to everyone, and wouldn’t it be a bit boring? Why not something playful and fun, a referendum? So the very thing we were after – a democratic process, lots of conversations, openness – became the opposite – an exercise in messages appearing without consultation, announcements, suspicion. But in doing so we opened up that space where conversations about accountability, democracy, openness, the community and the collective could happen – and further organising towards that could be achieved. I’ve finally understood what it means to push a negative to the extreme, until it breaks through to be a positive.
The ultimate lesson from all this action, for me, is the power of the collective. This is one of the reasons, for me, that participation is so important – more heads, more ideas, more points of view, more understandings of the world: this means better ideas, more sensitive decisions, better outcomes. I’m not pretending we achieved that this week – lots of voices were excluded, accidentally, not least those of staff around the building. It’s something we’re keen to work on. But the lesson remains: we necessarily need to speak to more people when organising actions. Collegiality, if you will. The mix of our four temperaments, interests, language, how comfortable we were with tension, all these kept us in balance.
The specific collective organising strategy we used was, personally, one of the most interesting and valuable things about the action. We didn’t define a group, who’s in or out – we had meetings, shared documents and emails. To me it felt like if you came to meetings and started acting, you were involved. In the beginning there were many, by the end, four (although we’re still part of a broader unruly group, and I hope it opens out again). We didn’t allocate tasks to people – we took them on and did them as we saw fit. If someone suggested something to do, but they didn’t do it and no one thought it was crucial to do, it didn’t happen. We didn’t ‘sign off’ on statements, although we did check in with each other. We took responsibility for ourselves. Pragmatism, not process, drove us – with strong values that underpinned them. To me, the brilliant fluidity, flexibility (not to mention challenge and tension) came from this. None of this we planned – it emerged. I don’t even know if others share this point of view! I only noticed it in my reactions to people’s interventions in different ways, or expectations of different ways of organising in different groups (e.g. having tasks allocated to you). It did require lots of ‘checking in’ with each other, and at the height of action a couple of people, myself included, did send anxious messages checking we were stepping outside of the bounds of the group – when in reality, I think, we didn’t have bounds, aside from those we were constantly negotiating. Our face-to-face meetings were crucial for setting the tone of the action. We’re going to reflect on this more this afternoon, I hope, so I’ll leave it for now.
A final note: one tired reflection that had us in stitches for a while was, “the question really is, ‘is it better to do or not do’”. As silly as the framing is, there’s a point to it I think – a lesson about action. Many of us took such energy and joy from this action, it makes me more convinced there is intrinsic value in exercising your agency and doing something. And both despite and because of all the risk and all the tension, it is through ‘doing something’ that things change.
I know the following words are about suicide: but flip the verb and the meaning and they are an interesting reflection on action:
To do or not to do – that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them…
…Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1
Political moments are there to be seized.
– Posted by Candlelight
Ps. As I’m writing this a brilliant interaction is occurring on the train between an American woman asking about government fear-mongering, and an older British lady with a younger woman with her – they are now talking about this act of talking. It’s making me think about public spaces, what they mean to us and how we interact in them….. and also making me laugh in the (British?) way of having two different conversations at the same time: they are discussing how people are afraid of eccentrics talking on and on at you, both are agreeing with each other. I’m not sure the eccentric lady going on and on at her fellow passengers realises the subtext!