We need movements that greatly expand our tactical toolbox, allowing all of us to help build disruptive and constructive power and capture popular imagination.
Think briefly about how many hours a day you are usually active and awake, then take a moment to estimate how many distinct actions you probably take during each of those hours of your life.
What proportion of those daily actions would you categorize as “political” or “activism” or “organizing?” Have you, like me, ever felt guilty about not doing enough to work for social change, wasting hours that could have been better spent making a political impact somewhere, somehow? Surely, I’m not the only one who’s ever skipped a meeting or protest to self-loathingly binge-watch a show on Netflix, right?
In the world of political activism and organizing, when we think about how active we’re being, or how committed to a cause we are, there is tendency to think in a kind of stodgy and linear fashion, with one end of the line starting at small actions like making a phone call or posting something in social media, progressing toward attending a rally, or writing a letter to the editor, to facilitating a meeting, or speaking in public, all the way to getting arrested for civil disobedience, getting rowdy in the streets, or joining an underground cell or something. Subculturally, it is undeniable that there is often even a feeling of accruing points—activist cred—as one moves up the ladder of involvement, which provides ever greater access to the more illustrious debates and social scenes. And when life circumstances, exhaustion, or wrenching interpersonal conflicts move us back down the ladder, we can feel low, like we’re “selling out,” and even end up losing treasured personal connections. I think this is a big part of where our movements lose people. I also think it’s a bullshit way of doing things.
I believe that there is ample room within our movements for vastly more diverse and creative militancy—and thus meaningful participation by way more people—but I think it might require straight-up exploding and then reworking what categories such as “activism,” “militancy,” or “organizing” even mean. I think a good start is to give extra attention to the time that we each have in our daily lives, every invaluable second, and then learn some lessons from quite the unlikely source: capitalism.
Cliché as it is to say, every moment in each of our lives really is precious. Regardless of how mundane or mind-blowing any moment might end up being after it has passed, every next moment is still filled with the potential for discovery, growth, deep emotion, and unprecedented creation. Every moment contains the possibility of some powerful interaction with the world, the possibility that we might actually help shape the world through our participation in it.
This beautiful, even poetic reality is actually one reason why capitalism has become so breathtakingly strong. The fascinating and twisted genius of capitalism is that it has taken the power and potential that lies in each moment of our lives, and it has built a dense and intricate system around co-opting that potential for its own purposes. Capitalism is completely dependent on the harvesting of grand swathes of our precious moments into its workdays, by rigidly guiding our daily potential for meaningful interactions with the world—what Karl Marx called our labor power—into regimented actions that create products or services for profit, usually for other people. This is called working a job. Under capitalism, a job is actually the daily harnessing of our nearly infinite personal creative capacities to the yoke of someone else’s designs, usually in exchange for a wage or salary. By harvesting enough of our daily time and labor like this, the capitalist system has managed to hoard, accumulate, and crystallize the colossal and brutal global industrial system that currently surrounds and enmeshes all of us.
Here’s the thing, though: if capitalism can harvest our time and energy in order to build its empires, then, if our movements get more creative, we can also harvest and accumulate our time and energy to build something entirely different. Every moment of our lives is filled with tremendous revolutionary potential; our movements just need to get better at harnessing it.
I believe that the wellspring of meaningful militancy is any decision, by anyone at any moment, to deny the dominant system even one minute of their creative power, and to instead freely siphon that precious power—that people power—toward a lasting revolutionary project. I believe that a key responsibility of revolutionary groups and structures, then, is to recognize all the ways that people’s creative power can be used, at all different levels of time, interest, capacity, and commitment, and to build a movement infrastructure that is integrated, coordinated, and strategic enough to make good use of whatever people are willing to give—be it 5 minutes on the toilet or 12 hours a day of door-knocking.
However, wherease capitalism’s infrastructure hands people pre-determined tools—the means of production—and steers people’s time and creative energy into pre-designed areas of work, with pre-categorized divisions of labor; and whereas even many traditional social movements often try to steer people towards set strategic priorities using a redundant toolbox of fetishized tactics and struggles—the correct line, the key issue that we should all be working on—I see an opportunity to foster infrastructure that works much differently, with a vastly expanded strategic and tactical toolbox.
Taking inspiration from the wide open crowdsourcing of online social networks and the open-source software movement (Wikipedia and Linux are just two well known examples), and leaning on the traditional grassroots networking roots of anti-authoritarian movements, I believe that we should be fostering an infrastructure based on a mutually responsive ecosystem of movements.
In the computer world, online crowdsourcing and open-source software work by starting with minimal—yet firm—foundational structures and principles and then offering wide open opportunities for free and creative contributions by anyone who wants to help. Like any other project, they start with a specific purpose and at least a basic sense of identity (like, “this site will be a community built encyclopedia,” or, “this app will let people become self-made taxi drivers”), and with that in mind they create a skeletal structure which serves as a container to accept and link people’s free contributions. They also provide guidelines for what helpful and unhelpful contributions might be. From there, they opens the floodgates for anyone to decide what kind of creative contributions—big or small, straight-laced or eccentric—they want to make into that structured space. Over time, and with dedicated care to protect against sabotage and trolling, these spaces become ever richer repositories of information and creative energy—far beyond what any founders or professional staffers could have imagined or accomplished by themselves. Wikipedia has pretty much put professionalized, for-profit encyclopedias out of business and, internationally, Linux is giving Microsoft’s Windows a good run for its money.
Our movements can—and in limited respects already do—work similarly. We can dismiss any old-fashioned need to form into some monolithic, rigidly united revolutionary force, but instead see ourselves forming an open ecosystem of issues, groups, identities, and social sectors. By deliberately linking together through skeletal structures of mutual solidarity and broadly shared vision, and by offering directly democratic guidance for the kinds of contributions our movements want and need, we can offer thousands of distinct opportunities for people to help grow our toolbox of tactics across all layers of society.
In Part Two I will propose some skeletal structures that could support a vibrant and effective ecosystem of movements, but here I first want to say something about the broad guidelines that should inform any growing menu of creatively militant action.
First, our movements should encourage militancy that captures people’s imagination beyond the subcultures of the Left, and which attract people to direct ever more of their people power our way. Since our numbers are still small and our time and energy are limited, our daily organizing should be guided not only by questions of short-term effectiveness or moral righteousness, but also by how well it demonstrates our beliefs, how welcoming and accessible it feels, and how much it inspires others with the courage to join in. This is a mistake that many of the radical movements—especially the white anti-imperialist movements—of the late-60’s and 70’s made: they successfully ended brutal wars and pushed numerous policy changes, but, at least in polls and surveys, the general public—especially older folks and people from white working class and middle class communities—saw the actual movements as less and less likable. This created a ripe opportunity for the New Right to exploit the identity-based privileges and prejudices of these people, creating a gigantic backlash that has dominated the U.S. landscape since the 80’s.
Second, our movements should step up our encouragement of actions that stretch and grow our constructive power. Constructive power is when we put our time and energy into building or sustaining new social institutions, relationships, or physical, material things that actively make people’s lives better and preview the world that we want to see. It can be anything from tending to a colleague who’s in pain, to volunteering in a radical child care collective, to reweaving neighborhood relationships in the middle of an uprising against police brutality, or taking over a workplace and running it outside the capitalist economy. Constructive power is what we use when we’re looking beyond what we don’t like, and working to build what we want in its place. It is the key ingredient for a successful counter-power at a mass scale, yet it is also where I fear that today’s movements are most underdeveloped. There’s a lot of work to do here.
Third, our movements should encourage the ongoing, intense, yet more strategic use of actions based on disruptive power. Disruptive power is when we choose to put our time and energy into somehow pushing back against the system, whether that’s slowing down capitalist productivity on the job, or mass chanting outside of an immigrant detention center, or blocking an intersection, or putting a sledgehammer to an Air Force bomber headed for war. Any time that we try to raise a fuss or make it harder for oppressive systems to do their business, we are using our disruptive power. Disruptive power is far and away the primary type of power that today’s activism and organizing rely on most. The tricky thing about disruptive power, though, is that since it’s so outwardly focused on disrupting what we don’t like, it tends to dissipate after it hits its target instead of accumulating into lasting infrastructure. Marches, protests, street fights, blockades, and even most occupations act almost like waves crashing against the walls of the powerful. We spend tremendous energy to make a forceful impact, but after it hits, our power just sort of recedes and drains away until the tides rise and we are ready to hit again. This kind of power is vital to defending ourselves against oppressive forces, rolling them back, and eventually overcoming them, but only if it is also growing the movement and working in tandem with efforts to build constructive power.
Ecosystem of movements. Capturing popular imagination. Constructive and disruptive popular power. At this point, I recognize that these ideas are still quite abstract. In Part Two, when we zoom in to the specifics of this proposal, I will offer more details and examples to help fill in the blanks.
But before we can talk any more about how we can blossom with new structures and creatively militant actions, we must slow down, look inward, and spend some time talking about how we should be treating each other within movement work.