In Something’s Gone Missing Part 1, I took you on a personal journey through a portion of the Resistance to the Trumpian agenda in Rhode Island as I learned that many social change organizers today approach their work in ways fundamentally different than the decades ago. This new way I believe, leaves out an essential ingredient of the kind of revolutionary positive change we and the world so need.
Today, in simple terms, organizers often contact people to find those that care about a particular campaign to win a specific piece of legislation or an election. These people are then mobilized as a power-base to win that issue or campaign through rallies, phone calls, public hearing testimony, or the ballot box. It seems reasonable. People are networked and mobilized. But something important is missing. People are not organized into organizations that they can run for themselves, where they can decide, and where they can learn to develop strategy for even bigger changes.
In the Resistance in Rhode Island after the election of Donald Trump, we experienced quick and sizable networks. The contact information of Resist Hate, the group I participated with, quickly grew to over 5000 persons. Rallies and demonstrations could be called by a single unaffiliated individual on Facebook, and if the moment was right, might draw thousands of people. We could mobilize and demonstrate and call our elected representatives. We acted, however, mostly as individuals in a crowd. We shared the same mind in the moment, like people in a stadium cheering on their team, but when the event was over, we went away as individuals, sharing only the identity of fans.
Real power shifts and revolutions depend on organized people making decisions of what to do, and when and how to do it. The democracy we must seek rests on real freedom (power) for people to act humanely in their own collective interest in concert with the needs of others and with the earth itself. This change cannot come without the collective power to re-structure and change the institutions and economics of the world. Without participatory democratic organizations of power built among the marginalized at the base of society, (people like ourselves), we are at the mercy of those who run the institutions of the world for the benefit primarily of the wealthy few.
That is a hard truth, but one necessary to accept if we seek change.
Social media provides quick and massive assistance to organizers for mobilizing a crowd. Facebook “friends” can be real, but FB relationships are by themselves shallow. FB is not an effective tool for deciding things. It can increase broad communication and networking, but at the end, it cannot build or sustain strong relationships, or complete the process of social change. It cannot be relied on at all in a crisis. Governments can shut it down. Vast digital networks can go dark.
To win big changes, communities of humans must be built who can sustain a struggle over time, and who can think, discuss, and make decisions together. Building such communities that are committed to change is a revolutionary act.
“A deeper understanding of what’s involved in the process of organizing is essential to win the fundamental changes”
that society so desperately needs for human survival. In the first days of The Resistance to Trump in Rhode Island, I and many others were contacted as individuals in Facebook posts and emails, to come to meetings and rallies. Many of us did so. There in our sudden numbers, we felt our great potential power. We were given many advertisements for actions we could participate in if we choose. But we were not generally invited to prioritize which of the issues was important for the group as a whole to act on. We did not debate as a group, strategize as a group, or decide as a group. We were not organized as such. We were individuals in a group who were invited to participate in a kind of social change free market. Our only real power was the power to choose as individuals. We seemed strong when we were together anyplace as a crowd. But when the crowd was gone, so was our power. We were not an organization. As such, power has little continuity and cannot be sustained over time.
Thus I discovered that this “Resistance organizing” meant something much different than the organizing I had experienced and practiced decades earlier. Something had changed in the way we thought and acted for change.
Of course it is true that mobilizations are needed for social change. But a mobilized crowd is just that, a crowd, (or worse a mob). Revolutions require the thinking and planning of groups of people in organizations. Not doing so is simply not organizing that shifts much real power.
Forty years ago a different form of organizing was everywhere in Rhode Island. It built new local unions, and it built neighborhood and statewide organizations. Then, “organizing” meant connecting people on the margins of power in actual organizations in which they could themselves wrestle for changes in society.
Discovering that the meaning of “organizing” had changed in the Resistance was like an epiphany. Seeing what was missing meant I could trace the thing over time, and perhaps see where and how the ideas about these things became so different. I could compare notes with young organizers, all of whom were by the way, sincerely seeking big changes. I needed to understand how the understanding of such a fundamental thing had shifted. I believe the powers-that-be are more secure today, because of this change.
To understand what the older understanding of organizing actually means in practice, it may be helpful to flashback in time to examine what the practice of organizing meant and what it produced toward the end of last period of revolutionary upsurge in Rhode Island in the early seventies.
The period of revolutionary upsurge, however, was followed by extended decades of counter-revolution. This period came in layers, one upon the other. In it, I believe, the way we imagine the world, the way we think about change, and the assumptions most make about the meaning of “organizing” changed.
I will close with some thoughts about getting our vibe back, and about what the practice of more revolutionary organization might look like in this fight of our lives that must now be waged again in America.
2 ORGANIZING IN RHODE ISLAND IN THE 1970s & 1980s
The early 1970s in Rhode Island were times of upsurge. People were dissatisfied with the way things were, and they were thinking in new ways. People were on the move, making demands and challenging injustice.
When I began training as a young organizer in Rhode Island in those days, I found that there were still instincts among the working class that went back to the the battles of a former revolutionary period in the 1930s. There was a kind of solidarity for mutual support that still hung in the air. Those of us new to the struggle could still find a few older radical labor leaders, priests, and activists with experience in battles beyond ours with which to teach and caution us. Phrases like “for the common good,” and “injury to one is injury to all,” seemed to carry real meaning among people. They seem largely missing from most political discussion today.
By the 1970s in R.I. the sparks that had ignited over a decade earlier in civil rights struggles had spread over the nation. In had grown into the second revolutionary upsurge of the century, as the fight for rights moved north, inspiring other oppressed groups, and those trying to end the War in Vietnam. Struggle was everywhere. It was not just against white racism, and war. It was also merging with the struggle of workers generally, into working class neighborhoods struggles, against sexism and gender oppression, and into fights against environmental destruction. In it developed a “new left” revolutionary movement fighting in all these struggles for a whole re-working of American history into one of struggle for full human liberation.
I and my peers at that time were big on hope and little on experience. But we could see, feel, and learn. Working class neighborhoods of color were plagued with the effects of racist red-lining by banks. Workplaces still separated men’s and women’s work in status and pay. Few men would be invited to work on a sewing machine in a textile shop in Central Falls. Few women would be permitted to drive a fork lift in a steel mill in Providence. All young men, would face being drafted to fight in Vietnam. All young woman would still face blatant sexism in virtually all settings. All persons of color would face a daily grind of constant discrimination and deadly racism.
In all these struggles many were profoundly radicalized. It was like a veil was taken off. We saw the ways in which democracy was spoken of at election time, but how, in ordinary day to day time hierarchy, and threat was the rule. We chaffed under it and wanted change.
In Rhode Island, as elsewhere, activist organizers coalesced around the idea of “participatory democracy” that pushed democracy into day to day economics and life. For a just society we knew there had to be real power for all people, especially people at the bottom.
The organizers of those days were not smarter than those of today. Absolutely not. We lived in different times and we were participating in a different conversation, one that has gone largely missing today. We were being trained by the practice of organizing learned in minority and immigrant and other working class communities of urban and rural America.
Here, on the South Side of Providence, People Acting through Community Effort, (PACE), a staff of seven or more organizers, built dozens of block by block neighborhood organizations to demand accountability from banks, absentee landlords, and the city government. Banks were exposed, slumlords visited in their own affluent neighborhoods by the poor they were trying to exploit. Abandoned lots were cleaned. Swimming pools were reconditioned.
PACE was not alone. Similar groups were organized and funded in all of the working class neighborhoods of the city. Each year, these groups would meet in “congresses” where all the local block clubs and organizations would review success, debate, decide what issues to tackle next, make demands on power holders, and elect their officers for the next year.
A grassroots direct-action R.I. Workers Association (RIWA) built itself on the model of Cesar Chavez’s “community union,” and created a grassroots organization for both unemployed and employed English, Spanish and Portuguese speaking workers in multiple local chapters on a statewide basis. They won back the jobs of workers who had been unfairly fired, won checks from bosses who had stolen money, won safety improvements in unorganized workplaces, won increases in unemployment benefits, and some legislative improvements, and even led an occasional strike, all based on membership decision making. In annual conventions their members, similar to the neighborhood organizations, would meet, argue, make demands on the powerful, and make organizational decisions for the next year. RIWA’s members eventually voted to transition into a full-fledged independent workers union especially for marginalized workers working beyond the pale of most mainstream unions.
Rank and file movements broke out among workers already in unions too. Organizing drives won new locals, reform leaders were elected, and strong new contracts demanded. The first bilingual job protections were introduced. Bus drivers even won the right to donate their time to drive a free RIPTA bus to transport community people to meetings and actions.
R.I. Working Women began to publish materials in RI to be distributed at offices and factories for other women, and organized around both workplace and health issues. Workers in health care expanded the fights to include not just wages, but better quality of care for their patients.
Mothers on welfare met in homes and in housing projects, and formed RI Fair Welfare where they voted to move aggressively to demand more assistance for their children. They marched unannounced through the welfare offices, and more. And they won.
Seniors organized in various groups, and became a part of a statewide coalition, the Seniors Health Affordability Council, where they also met annually and voted on the campaigns they most needed. Sometimes they showed up at the offices of power by the busloads in direct action.
Even ordinary consumers of public utilities and other “services” organized in a strong state-wide Coalition for Consumer Justice where members also decided on campaigns and strategy themselves and elected their own leaders. The George Wiley Center was formed to organize among the poor generally.
Environmentalists organized too. Many in RI participated in the Clamshell Alliance campaign around nuclear power and attempts to build a nuclear power plant in South County, built community campaigns to stop dangerous chemical plants from operating in urban neighborhoods. A corporate plan to truck toxic waste into Olneyville for treatment was stopped cold.
As the 1970‘s moved into the 1980s, the first wave of union busting was militantly resisted. A participatory organization of injured workers fought back against attacks on workers compensation and for workplace health and safety improvements. A membership based community-labor coalition (CLOC), formed and was seen in almost every struggle, from state house elections, to mass protests, trainings, and forums for almost a decade. In the early eighties, the watershed strike of machinists at Brown & Sharpe was lost, but only after its becoming one of the most hard fought and longest strikes in American history.
“The dominant, near universal pattern of this organizing, was its central task of building participatory organizations which ordinary working class people in all their diversity, owned for themselves.”
The central task in all of this organizing was the building of participatory organizations which ordinary working class people in all their diversity, could control and from which they could build their power, in their communities and workplaces. Those organizations were places where people could speak from their own hearts, and think, work, and elect their own leaders.
This methodology became like a well-worn path for us that we came to just follow naturally. It was just what it meant to “organize.” We measured power in the counting of ordinary people at the base of the society that would consistently show up, participate in decision-making and strategy, and hold the powerful accountable.
This organizing involved intentional one-on-one conversations where we got to know each another at more than a superficial level. People learned to share their stories in groups and to speak from their own experiences of injustice and pain. We taught people how to take “problems” that were big, diffuse, and too complex to solve as such, and slice off an “issue” that was specific, and even winnable. We taught people to evaluate issues based in part on which ones would build the group’s strength for the next larger fight. We did “power analysis” to determine together who was the real decision-maker in the issue they had selected, and who could likely be united in a fight against them.
This was not “sales.” We weren’t finding a “market” for our ideas. We were helping people to surface what was beneath their experiences of suffering, so that it could be changed. We were explicitly building power among member-based organizations with whom the powers-that-be would have to negotiate directly and to whom they would be held accountable.
This was organizing as experienced in the 1970s and a bit beyond. We flipped the script on the powerful, the monied owners, and bureaucratic decision-makers that were used to their own unchallenged authority. We were there with people who once considered themselves powerless, as they walked into the rooms of the powerful and challenged them for the first time. And very often we were there when those people learned what it meant to win.
And when that happened, it was pure joy.
We were witnesses.
3 ORGANIZING TOWARD REVOLUTION
Those were times of great social unrest. Year by year, and then month by month during the period of the late sixties, society here and around the world seemed to be coming apart. Protest was breaking out everywhere, and around a multitude of issues. Change was in the air.
People were starting to think about things; refusing to accept things that just a few years before were unchallenged. What was coming over the horizon was incredibly a kind of diverse coming together among oppressed people in the USA (not to mention the world). What was coming into view was revolutionary change, and growing numbers were connecting the dots.
There was a lot of diversity among the organizers thinking. Some were (small ‘d’), radical democrats, some were socialist, some marxist, a few anarchist, and many who would just see themselves as “militant” workers, or even just good neighbors. But explicitly revolutionary organizations working among the poor and working class were also being formed, in the schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, on reservations and agribusiness farms across the land. These rooted themselves in community and in concrete struggles of real life. The Black Panther Party was struggling against police abuse of persons of color, organizing free breakfast programs and health clinics in poor communities, and demanding a revolutionary restructuring of society. The Young Lords in NYC, with similar long-range goals, began in their neighborhood with street clean-ups of litter, and went on to seize a largely unused church building to provide free community child care. In industrial areas with high concentrations of whites, white working class youth organized in the Black Panther model, in groups like Rising Up Angry in Chicago, White Lightening in NYC, and in Michigan, the White Panthers. In working class Boston, the People First was winning a public campaign to remove a notorious classist and racist Judge. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers struggled against speedups and discrimination in the auto plants of Michigan. The American Indian Movement, challenged government dominated tribal leaderships, and demanded that long violated treaty rights be restored.
The waves of social change in America in that period made some amazing gains in society. Along the way, many of us hungered for a revolutionary “sea change” in history, here and around the world. We wanted that time spoken of by the poet Seamus Heaney as a “longed for tidal wave of justice,” which, happening once in a lifetime, causes “hope and history to rhyme.”
And then things changed. The sea change for which we hoped never came. The waves of progress weakened and then reversed. A counter-revolution that began in earnest in the late sixties would, by the middle of the 1970s and beyond, reverse the momentum of revolution, and then develop its own momentum sweeping society into a rawer form of capitalist hell, which (temporarily), changed even how we imagine change.
4 THE COUNTER-REVOLUTION COMES IN DECADES
To understand how and why ideas about organizing changed we need to understand that there was a time in the recent past when, here and around the world, revolutionary movements were rising and threatened the status quo with big change. The concerted counter-revolution that crushed those initiatives lasted decades and came in waves. To understand what is missing now, in our organizing and in our imagining, we must see that history for what it was (and is), because it distorted the way we think, speak, and envision what is possible. The changes were dramatic. Persons who were of age in those “long sixties” experienced and learned to think in one world. Those who came of age from perhaps the mid-seventies on experienced and learned to think in another far different reality.
To understand this, consider the enormity of the layers of counter-revolution that came rolling across the land.
In that last time of revolution of the sixties many significant victories were being won. Voting rights, an Environmental Protection Agency, open housing laws, minority historical studies in universities, and more, with many local victories too. Yet we were just getting started; trying to find our way. Now however, it seems that the powers-that-be were more convinced than most of us that revolution was not only possible but was potentially close at hand. The powers-that-be saw the danger they were in and they acted to stop the momentum. This wasn’t some centralized grand conspiracy. But from each of the nodes of power, in the system as a whole; in each center of the system’s integrated working, from government, to education, to police systems, to the agencies of culture and funding, and more, came actions that produced a multi-dimensional counter-revolution for which we were not prepared.
At the time, most of us I think, didn’t even recognize this for the kind of systemic across the board attack by the powers that it was. Looking back, the multidimensional layers of the reaction begins to come into focus.
Two aspects or stages of the counter-revolution emerged around different but complimentary goals. Stage One centered on violence and repression in order to stop, confuse, and obstruct the the unity and momentum of the emerging revolutionary movements. Stage Two, really starting I think, almost a decade later, pushes back to create sustained counter momentum to both reestablish and deepen social conditions which will lead to a time of greater profits in a deregulated, and emerging globalized capitalist system (referred to sometimes as “neoliberalism’). That re-energized capitalism on steroids, works to saturate the remnants of society with a belief system that acknowledges no alternative or better way to construct human life, than one based on consumption and motivated by material greed.
When the layers of attacks came down, most of us did not see the whole. We saw them as only individual battles on different fronts. But they unfolded to reveal, as we look back on those fifty years or so, something much bigger in its effect.
This is not the place to tell the history in any detail. But to understand something of how significant, comprehensive, and far-reaching these thing came to be, we must consider how they worked together and how, bit by bit, they have changed the way we think.
Stage One: Stopping the revolutionary momentum
Assassinations and Violence
Intensifying in the late 60s and early 70s, assassinations of movement leaders, (which had always been a factor in the civil rights struggle), intensified, and expanded. By whatever means and by various actors, key reform and revolutionary leaders were simply murdered. Among the many killed were Malcom X in 1965 as he turned toward more inclusive revolutionary work, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one year to the day after he advocated opposition to the draft and imperial war, and then began organizing the poor generally for a campaign of civil disobedience in Washington DC, Robert Kennedy Jr. campaigning for President on an anti-poverty, anti-war platform, murdered just hours after he became the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee, and Fred Hampton, young emerging Black Panther leader who was making connections with revolutionary parties and groups of other races and ethnicities in common cause, along with many others, lesser known. By the early 1970s the murders generally ceased.
“Dog Whistle Racism” and the War on Crime
With Robert Kennedy Jr. dead, war supporter Hubert Humphrey was given the Democratic Presidential nomination. Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, used coded racial language and appealed to the “silent majority” to win election. Once elected, he announced a War on Crime, replacing Johnson’s “War on Poverty” with support for repression in the streets by the police, and longer times in jail for those convicted.
Expanded War, migration and exile
Although he promised a “secret plan” to end the War, once elected Nixon continued it for another six years, expanding it into Cambodia. An additional 21,202 Americans soldiers died, along with millions dead and displaced Indochinese in Southeast Asia. Waves of new immigrants were forced to migrate from Southeast Asia, when the war was finally abandoned by the US.
At home, many Americans refused the draft. Some went to jail in resistance, such as boxer Mohammed Ali, and as many as 30,000 young men emigrated to Canada. As many as 60,000 dodged the draft by one means or another.
Spies, Provocateurs; Divisions
To push back progressive and revolutionary organizing, the FBI ran well-documented program of wiretaps, disinformation, and agent provocateurs. Agents worked to set-up radicals for arrest, provoked violence, fomented internal splits within organizations, and more,
causing countless splits, jailing, and divisions among those struggling for change.
By the mid seventies, revolutionary momentum building since the mid-sixties crested and then reversed. But the counter-revolution was only beginning. It continued in layers year by year.
Stage 2: Redistributing Wealth and Consolidating the Ideology of Capital
Stopping the revolution was not enough. With profits falling, corporate America wanted more. It wanted a kind of aggressive freedom and privilege for private wealth that could restore security for the capitalist system and redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top.
Breaking the Unions, Deindustrialization; Globalization
In the mid-seventies, leading corporate bodies quietly tore up a kind of “social contract” that had governed labor/management relations since the thirties when labor had agreed to laws that narrowed its power and management agreed to not attempt to utterly destroy unions once they were established. Now management consultants traversed the country with just such designs. Even strong unions began to fall in bitter strikes and plant closings. The political and organizational power of unions plummeted .
As union busting continued, corporate America searched for higher profits by closing manufacturing plants in the US. Some production was moved to lower wage countries. But many viable businesses were purchased only to be sold for their assets, in order to re-invest wealth in the more profitable financial sector, destroying millions of jobs in the process. The industrial heartland of American became “the rust belt,” as the economies of large cities and small towns were gutted out. Wall Street speculators ruled the day.
Tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor
Corporate political power was also unleashed on the social programs from the New Deal and War on Poverty days, particularly by Republican President Ronald Reagan. Ordinary workers of all types, as well as the poor generally and persons of color specifically were pushed even harder. Cuts in housing, and the de-institutionalization of mental health without providing adequate alternative systems created permanent homelessness on the streets of America. Finally, Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, “ended welfare as we know it,” with devastating effect on poor children and families. Meanwhile, “defense” spending poured money into the military industrial complex, as taxes of the very wealthy were repeatedly cut by presidents of both parties.
Monopolistic Growth, Deregulation, and Rage
The Reagan administration promised a new “morning in America” by expanding the freedom of large corporations. Airlines, media outlets, and finally Wall Street banks were deregulated under multiple presidents, of both parties. New forms of monopolization and concentrations of corporate power continued to be followed by more small business closings. Wal-Mart, Dollar Stores, and payday loans chains became the only source for everything from groceries, to medicine, an other necessities of life in many small towns and neighborhoods. Under Clinton bank regulations in place since the 1930s were repealed. Cheap rage radio and “reality” TV changed the culture and expanded the media’s more or less non-stop promotion of capitalism and shopping. Tuition for college skyrocketed. Young adult children began to move back in with their parents in large numbers.
More War on the Poor; More Racism; More People in Prison
The “War on Drugs” and the unnamed war on the poor, continued for decades. Drugs flooded centers of poverty and desperation. Racist cultural forms were used to focus police on drugs used by the poor as the “war on crime” was used, along with severe penalties like “three strikes and you’re out,” to demonize and arrest vast numbers of men of color in poor neighborhoods. The jail population of the USA became the largest in both percentage of population and head count in the world. Privatized prisons became a new corporate investment opportunity. In the small towns suffering economic collapse, new prisons sometimes became the main employer. “Felons” were removed from voter roles for life. Conditions worsened for persons of color and the poor and working class generally.
Foreign Wars to Stabilize and Expand the Freedom of Empire Capitalism
More wars followed Vietnam (both proxy and very real for the US), especially in Central America, the Mideast, and Africa. Resistance to expanding globalized capital by any government, whether progressive or reactionary, dictatorial or seemingly democratic, was resisted and usually destroyed by the US supported coups, civil war or invasion. Around the globe, the numbers dying, or dislocated and migrating as a result of US supported warfare and trade policies in the decades of counter-revolution were in the uncounted millions.
Blowback Shock on 9/11 Creates a Vast Security State
As the century begins, US interventions in the Middle East blows back in the horrendous attacks of 9/11 in NYC. Under the threat of more attacks, an expansive, security state is established in the US, with hidden prisons, torture, digital surveillance of all Americans, and secret budgets.
Money limits for the wealthy in elections are ended
Early in the new century, the Supreme Court tilts the scales even more in favor of corporate super wealth, as most restrictions are taken off money in politics. Now, billionaires openly fund election campaigns as the political stockbrokers they are.
Promising change, Barack Obama is elected the first African-American President. There is hope, but Obama quickly keeps in place many of the same Wall St. players involved in the economic collapse before his election. Trillions are spent by taxpayers, not to rebuild America, but to bail out the banks and investment firms that caused the deepest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Health care reform is passed, helping some, but eliminating a public option and forcing all to participate in a “marketplace” dominated by now subsidized for profit insurance and health care institutions.
Meanwhile, More people are quietly deported. The jails continue to fill. US wars and interventions continue. Under Obama the counter-revolution moderates its tone, but largely continues, causing great disappointment across the land. Despite the flashing of sparks of resistance in Black Lives Matter and in the Bernie Campaign that dares to utter the word “socialism,” when the deals are done and the tricks are played, in the most bizarre election campaign in US history, Donald J. Trump is elected President, while losing the popular vote. He wins by also promising change, but this time – similar to Nixon in 1968, in even more clamp down, and in coded images of the restoration of a whiter America, and a stronger fascist type worship of the nation, the flag, and even greater wealth and freedom for corporate power.
Against all odds, sheer necessity presents us now with the need of rediscovering revolutionary options.
But to imagine that, we must understand something basic, largely ignored in these layers of counter-revolution. It is something that informed and integrated all the other layers of reaction that were laid down and that now must be confronted and undone.
5 THE DEEPEST CUT OF ALL: COUNTER-REVOLUTION OF THE MIND
For the wealthy and powerful to go from the mere repression of a new participatory, justice revolution, to a full and sustained counter-revolution that continuously worsened the lives of the majority of the nation for multiple decades, is quite a twisted accomplishment. It required, along with repression, the acceptance by the broad majority of the people of a world view that could justify this sort of a thing. A new tacit kind of white racism that would permit the imprisonment of huge numbers of black males would be a large part of it. But the upward redistribution of wealth from the broad middle class would require more than that. It required the urgent need for the general public at large, in all its diversity, to more fully accept the underpinnings of a capitalist world view that was unquestioning in its support for the right of the privileged to skim off the wealth of society as their individualized exclusive private property. And it required the individualization of social thought.
It is at this, the level of ideas and ideology, that the deepest and most lasting act of the counter-revolution unfolded. It has changed the way we imagine and think about social change.
Before the mid-seventies most of the earlier ideologies of America were steeped in racism and conquest of the land, but were also filled with idealized talk of popular democracy as such, and development “for the common good,” not to mention human rights as, well, actual rights for all. In the sixties, even conservatives affirmed the desire for equal opportunity for all in the economic system. Both “conservatives” and “liberals” defended their ideas based on forms of capitalism that would produce the greatest good for the largest number. But the powerful could not reap the kind of profits they wanted, nor stave off the rise of economic democracy with criteria like that. They wanted an ideological defense for a rawer, less restrained form of capitalism, that could convince the majority that such was really the only way possible. They wanted people to believe against all evidence, that greed would always work for good when passed through a so-called free market, and that no other, better way was really possible.
Once the revolutionary upsurge of the late sixties was stopped and its best leadership out of the way, the battle of the minds began in earnest as the various forms of specific social cuts, deregulation, and globalization picked up speed. The counter-revolution weaponized raw capitalist ideology in the war of ideas and politics.
To develop the ideology it wanted to popularize as a belief-system for the many,
corporate money began to flow to the funding of new university chairs and schools of economics and other scholarship that would speak openly in support and defend the more extreme forms of systems of capitalist economics, and politics. American history also needed a reframe to hide, if possible, the roots of radical struggle it contained.
Private money launched a series of new think-tanks to popularize the principles of a more unrestrained right wing capitalism including, the Heritage Foundation (1973), the Cato Institute (1974), the Claremont Institute (1979) to join the older American Enterprise Institute (formed to counteract the earlier upsurge of the 1930s).
These institutions and others began to appear as expert voices in the deregulated and monopolized media, where their ideas replaced the more ancient common wisdom of the common good, and community value. In the new worldview, everything was open for private ownership, including not just land, but now water and even patents for pre-existing forms of biological life.
No misery seemed beyond the pale of defense by the new ideology that blamed people for their inability to find decent work, when decent work was disappearing, or to get a higher education, when prices for colleges skyrocketed along with loans. Millions were killed in wars to find non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” or for the sake of “freedom” as dictators insufficiently friendly to corporate rule were replaced by new tyrannies that destroyed ancient civilizations in the process. While diversity was often glamorized as an ideal at the top of society, systematic incarcerations of the poor was the reality at the street level.
Greed itself was declared “good,” when it was mediated by the magic of the unregulated market place where everything had a price. Nothing seemed sacred (except perhaps a flag and the boast of the powerful). As I write this, a hurricane has ravaged the American coastline, and devastated an island territory of the US, while a “scholar” for the Cato Institute publishes a call and justifications for the legalization of price gouging by businesses supplying survival supplies.
Meanwhile, we experience advertisements everywhere in our lives. A thousand times a day, from every electronic device the describe the joys and necessity of various items for sale that most of us cannot afford, our souls are sucked dry. In the end it is we, who become in the eyes of the profit system nothing but “human resources.” We are ourselves turned in to commodities in a profit or loss statement.
At the end, the final knife thrust of this greed-ology of counter-revolution, was the denial of the existence of anything but the individual and their privatized property.
That old rebel Marx once wrote about similar (but lesser) forms of counter-revolution in his day that tried to “turn society into a sack of potatoes, just individuals, an amorphous mass [that] can’t act together.”
In the 1980s the hyper-conservative ideologue and Prime Minister of Britain, and ally of President Ronald Reagan, turned Marx’s warning inside out when she revealed the inner core of this brave new world order that the powerful were seeking. She declared the worldview of the kind of capitalism that was coming, and the ideology that would defend it when she said,
“There is really no such thing as society, only individuals.”
Let the implications of that sink in. There, in one single sentence, the whole project is revealed, and millennia of human wisdom is reversed.
In this world to which we are still being herded, ultimately no (legitimate) social organizations exist beyond the market, and the militarized government that defends that market. “Body publics,” communities as such, do not exist, or merely represent misplaced energy, or worse yet, are obstructions to the true freedom of the wealthy.
Organized groups that remain representing ordinary majorities of the population are most often spoken of as selfish “special interests” in the newspeak. We are warned that “collective action for the common good” to solve needs like, say health care, or education, will hurt us in the end because it violates the wisdom of the “free market.” “Organizing” now means turning out a crowd, not helping that crowd of individuals to form as a participatory, stable, democratic organization. That method is also known as “sales.”
In the new world, there are crowds, but they are not organized as such. They are instead seen as, and often see themselves as only aggregates of individuals. There is no collective thought or decision making at their core. There is no “body” that is “public” or “political” as a collective, living thing, because really, “there is no such thing as society.”
We live now in this unrecognized counter-revolution that encloses our thinking like an invisible box. In our personal lives it offers us only individualized ways of escape that involve our competition with others, always discouraging collective solutions to common needs . We are trapped like those in Plato’s cave who live their life in chains only facing a stone wall that is illuminated dimly by the two dimensional shadows of reality, but who are unable to turn into the light itself, and imagining a reality of real depth and beauty.
Society really exists. We see it destroyed in natural disasters, and slowly put back together again by people who turn against the rock wall of the crumbling cave with its flickering images and who walk out and discover the power of working together. But without a crisis, we stay on the treadmill, dreaming dreams of individualized paths that might make it better. We keep heads down, at work or on our phones that give us only the flickering shadow of communal experience. We have learned to think of politics and emotion as entertainment, not fundamental connections with power to change things. We have been taught to limit our hopes to the “possible.” And, we have learned our lessons well. And no matter who we have elected, it seems that nothing much changes except the technology that glitters and fades; glitters and fades.
Forty years of neoliberal counter-revolution and unrestrained capitalist push back against our real needs and “common-good” solutions carried us into 2016 and, at the end, yet another cynical electoral “choice.” On each side, aged with vast differences of culture and tone, but both supporters of systems that support big individualized wealth. But Trump’s crazy nationalist and coded racist rhetoric too, matched better with the manic practice of rage and “politics” as entertainment that has saturated the airwaves for the last three decades. This in this Trumpian moment he waves the flag of old lies and loyalty to (white) American identity, coupled with re-framed history and culture-as-holy religion. He tells us that America was built by its “citizens” but neglects to remember the millions of workers chained in the fields or of the original nations stripped from their lands. And even as he waves the flag, the belief system to which it demands we pledge our allegiance, continues to tell us that ultra freedom and privilege for extreme wealth will enable us to get ahead ourselves if somehow our greed will only match that of Wall Street’s own. But most of us, to our credit, fail that test. And the billionaires cannot or will not solve the contradictions that eat at us, or give us the democratic common wealth we need, and the balanced hearts and sustainable earth we must have to survive.
For now, although our resistance is and has been critical in slowing the process, and in sustaining the spark of hope and vision, the oceans continue to rise in the meltdown. Police answer Black Lives Matter and other rebellion with the militarized weapons of war, privatized prisons ready for a new expansion. Crowds of people mass in resistance. But only an organized crowd can break the path out of this.
Together all across American, in our great diversity of age, gender, origin and culture, we mostly live now hunkered down with small watered-down hopes. We are immersed in a culture and media that tells us wherever we go and a thousand times a day of what we really need to buy, to wear, to look like, or to take to be on the cutting edge. (Although we are dutifully told, “some restrictions apply,” and “side effects may occur”). We must meet all expectations on the job, in the school, in the welfare line if it still exists, or else be deemed a failure. The fear haunts.
We are submerged in a society in which there is no other outcome of history than that which benefits individualized wealth. We have almost become Marx’s great sack of potatoes. Linguist Noam Chomsky once observed that it is easier for the average person to imagine the literal end of the world, than to even imagine a future other than capitalism.
These imaginings of what is not possible are not facts. They are nothing more than a belief system, and belief systems may be true or false. The false ideology of unrestrained capitalism today has changed our language and changed what we notice and what we ignore. It restricts our vision and limits our healthy desire.
It binds us, and we must break free.
7 WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
When catalytic events momentarily break the strangle hold of the counter-revolution and its fear, and a thousand people come to a meeting or tens of thousands appear in the streets, it is a time of momentous opportunity. But it will be best now not to wait for that thousand, but to instead meet with perhaps a dozen you can find or join. If at all possible, and with intentionality, try to assemble or join a group that is as diverse as possible, and with a center of gravity among those who are put upon, over run, exploited, trying against all odds to hold things together; those who desire a different world.
The social glue of the kind of organizations we must build are relationships. We start there, not so much with the head as with the heart. Not many will, at first be ready for such a thing. It runs counter to what we have been told is powerful. It requires a different kind of currency, and most especially a different kind of hunger.
How do we surface such things? Around kitchen tables. In living rooms. In small and intimate rooms out of public hearing sometimes. From the beginning plan to grow and gather more. Commit to that. A mentor from the revolutionary upsurge in the 1930s told me, “Build slow. . . but build well.”
There are two words to remember in starting. “Grief & Desire.” The root word for “grief” is “anger.” They go together. So when you meet with friends, dare to ask “What hurts you about what’s happening in the world? What angers you?” “Share something about the an important time you saw oppression in your life?” And, speak of “desire” too. Desire is a word that we have to recover because it is now usually used to speak only of surface lust for things to consume. Explore the deeper needs, speak them aloud in community. “What do you really need for a good life for you; for the children?” “What do you really desire for the nation? For the world?” These are not easy questions. Find the hard questions.
Start there. Literally. Meetings to share feelings and perspectives. And then, start to peel back the layers of it, in personal history and more. “What do you think has been the hardest thing for your family to wrestle with in life?” “So far as you know it, how has your family earned its living through the generations?” “What is the greatest wrong your family has experienced over the generations? What caused it?”
Take weeks to reflect on these things. Constantly question; discuss; find answers together. Support each other in this. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. There is no book of history that needs to be used at first. You will find the traces of whole system in your stories if you peel back the layers far enough.
There is no academic learning required in these critical first steps. There is only honesty, and human flesh and mind. Listen, don’t interrupt each other’s stories. Learn to tell the stories. The whole story of what we need together will be there in this if you have gathered the right people. Listen each other into speech.
Listen to the strength and the hunger.
Read the ancient wisdom of Leslie Marmon Silko in the book Ceremony.
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t’ just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have stories.
Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then. . .
It’s different method I know. It is a human one; an ancient one. It builds deep and well. Quietly it springs up. It may not sound like “organizing” as it is practiced today under the counter-revolution in which organizing has been confused with sales.
As the discoveries are made, as the fire begins to burn, plan a larger house party with new people to share the excitement of what you are learning and doing. Invite them to the conversation. Start new groups if you can. Grow.
Next, begin to use the energy of the “big things” of grief and anger and desire to choose and hammer at a vulnerable piece of the way-things-are. Pick out something to attack together that aggravates many people, and break off a piece of it that is manageable and if possible symbolic of something bigger. Street clean-up? Mini-flash mob at a public hearing? Attending a rally together? Pick it. Do it! Demand justice in one specific abuse somewhere. Decide about it together, strategize together, and then act.
Taking action like this as a group (that actually begun to form itself as an informal organization), is a big moment because lots of risk is involved. It is a first stumbling step. The seed pokes through the ground cover. And when that first action is over, don’t just move on, take time to discuss it. Go over every detail. What went’ right? What went wrong? What have you learned? What’s required next? Discuss what happened. Squeeze that experience like a lemon. Get every drop of experience out of it that you can learn from.
Learn this basic rhythm of a consciously revolutionary life. Share, reflect, act together, and repeat. Then, have a party and decide to grow again, or start a new “cell.”
About now is the time for reading. As you build these relationships, and gain this experience working/acting/thinking together, learn to learn. Read everything, including the other side of things. Watch documentaries. Dive into history for perspectives you haven’t been taught in school. Find radical reading lists. Aways ask what’s here about oppression and liberation that I am not seeing? What’s not being said? What’s left out of this history or that analysis? See. Listen. It will hurt sometimes. Do it anyway. You may find you are not alone.
And if you can, – I speak now from experience and use this term broadly – pray. But don’t violate your integrity. If you do pray, don’t ask for things, ask to be able to serve. If you do pray, ask for wisdom. Ask to be able to listen, and to see. In any case, learn humility. A true revolution cannot be made without humility and love it.
Bathe in the awe and wonder of life. Root yourself in militant love. We will learn how to connect groups in time. The fruit does not appear overnight from the seed.
A dozen such groups of a dozen have ten times more power in their hands than a thousand strangers in a group because planted seeds, watered and nourished, grow. A thousand will arrive, and 10,000, and having much more power than before.
We do need the 10,000 in the streets right now under almost any terms. That part of the Resistance must continue as long as possible. But to win we have to re-learn organizing at the base of society. We must create a new body public with its center of gravity, and its decision making power, rooted among common, ordinary, diverse working class people.
The first wave of dystopian nightmare has been harsh indeed, but we are surviving. New revolutionary waves will rise. A new revolutionary moment will come.
Its sparks are already seen. It arises in public squares in cities around the world to protest the empire’s globalized austerity economics, in the risings of Seattle almost two decades ago, in the watershed of Occupy world wide in this century, in the opening resistance of Black Lives Matter, and momentarily in Bernie’s campaign, the new breaks through. In all of these, and in much more to come, a new energy and need discovers itself.
Last week I was at a demonstration at the RI State House with perhaps 700 others to defend the DACA Dreamers that the American “nationalists” want deported. Almost all the attenders were young. Many speakers were speaking for the first time in a crowd.
One young person, identified as “they or them” had been chosen by their group to speak. They were a student and a member of an organization of high school students. They were vulnerable and possessed of great presence and courage. And they were on fire. After the short witness to justice was made and they stepped back from the mic, screams went up, as the real relationship based participatory organization from which the speaker had emerged crowded around, hugging and embracing in the excitement of that first powerful statement of truth.
That is what I am talking about. First steps. Organizing that builds relationships into a participatory decision-making organized groups, rooted among those who are outside the “normal” political channels of power, that think and act for themselves, and discover joy in the resistance and challenge. That is what I mean. Organizing that is at its root and center based on the practice of radical, inclusive love and mutual respect – the kind that both protests and celebrates; that both hugs and fights fiercely; that dares to look at both history and the present, and then dares to imagine a different future.
We must seek to organize the “body public,” united and powerful and diverse and we seek to weld it into a new “body politic.”
We seek the common good, and common wealth for all on earth.
At the end of that young student’s speech on the State House steps, we were taught the words of revolutionary Assata Shakur:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Then, we shouted those words back to the young speaker in unison, like a statement of faith. . . which I guess they are.
And here, if you wish, is another, one you can sing:
In these two parts, “Something’s Gone Missing in the Struggle for Social Change,” and “Revolution, Counter Revolution, & Resistance,” I have critiqued the change in which many organizers now think of the process of change; of how it has been individualized, and how it has turned into a parody almost of corporate sales.
But what I have reviewed is not everything and all that has to be discovered and re-discovered about how to do this work is not hidden somewhere in the past or in fantasy about the future.
What I have reviewed here in the present in RI is not everything that is happening in this or any other state. Organizing as organization-building among the dispossessed and marginalized, (ordinary folks), does exist even here in RI, out of the sight of most media, and out of site of most of the thousands most recently awakened by the Trumpian threat. It existed in the practice of multiple grassroots organizations rooted among persons of color in recent victorious campaign to win controls on policing. It exists on the Southside of Providence. It exists among a remarkable immigrant youth organization. It exists in multiple rooms of multiple roots. It lives and breathes and has power. It even exists sometimes in a church or a synagogue or mosque or humanist organization or still militant union, or even in some workplaces.
It still exists, but its wisdom and ways must be discovered by the Resistance at large. And, new formations must arise.
We must be much more than a tool of any of the existing parties, or unions or religious institutions – even the progressive ones. They have good in them. But now, I think we need to color between those lines and create some new strength and a deeper, bigger vision. We need to participate in them where we can, learn from them, and unlearn from them all as well.
I may be reached for questions, critical feedback, or discussion at: firstname.lastname@example.org