I’m working class, come from a very modest background and don’t have the same theoretical understanding of organising as some people, so first of all, excuse this article. What I’ve learned, however, I’ve learned through doing and action. It by no means makes me an expert, but I think that gives me a useful perspective on some trends that I’ve seen and what they reflect about our mode of organising at the moment. I don’t intend this article to be a ‘call-out’ of comrades in the movement, but I want it to provoke a debate that can advance ideas and grow our movement.
There is a key question that I think it would be well for comrades to remind themselves of: what are you doing to advance organising for your cause, at the moment?
Of course, we all have different capacities. We are parents. We are children. We are carers. We are spouses. We are humans. We are all drained by the incessant, gnawing demands of capitalism, power and profit. That means that we can all only offer ourselves if we have the strength to do so.
In my time organising for a union however, I’ve often seen those with the least capacity to organise contributing the most to the struggle, and I am always amazed by this. I know comrades who work 40 hour weeks and have families to support, still contributing 5 to 20 hours of work to union organising. How do they manage to find the time and energy to contribute whilst others, ostensibly more available and with the available capacity to do this, don’t?
I suppose one of the main questions I’ve found myself asking is, what is that makes someone label themselves an ‘-ist’ (eg. anarchist, socialist, communist etc.), but then fail to get involved in any kind of practical organising to promote that idea to the best of their abilities, leaving it to others to take the slack?
I don’t have any easy answers to these questions, but I believe they can be explained, in part at least, by an increasing complacency about what successful ‘organising’ actually is, a failure to see a future beyond present conditions and a lack of understanding of the realities of the task before us.
I define organising along the same lines as the American union organizer-turned-theorist, Jane McAlevey. In ‘No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the Gilded Age’, McAlevey argues that activism in any given movement can be split into two types: mobilizing and organising.
The New Syndicalist sums up McAlevey’s thinking succinctly in a recent article, stating that:
“[According to McAlevey] mobilising is based on a staff-intensive model of union organising, where goals are set with little or no input from members, and wins are declared after minimal progress is made towards an often overly ambitious goal. The strategy has little or no base of meaningful support and what she describes as “authentic messengers” are often used to represent a campaign who do not have any say over the way in which the campaign is run. Those members who are involved are the usual suspects, such as, already established political activists, and can often lead to burnout. The process of mobilising, run by staff or established activists is about using those pre-existing engaged members to build visibility and a campaign that ultimately concludes in a “backroom” deal with only limited enforceability.”
In short, mobilizing takes the form of highly-visible, top-down led campaigns, based on demands that are not reflective of what the majority of a group thinks and that, importantly, are led by experienced activists who are already committed to the cause and who are not truly representative of the people that they supposedly represent.
Organising, however, is:
“a process which changes power structures, leading to long term impact. It is part of a larger strategy, focused on building power. Members are involved throughout, specifically organic leaders (operating independently of staff), who help to construct a strategy, the goals, analysis and negotiation of any settlement. Action is built through regular individual face-to-face interactions and direct, inter-personal links of solidarity and support. The strategy is one of targeted recruitment of specific and large numbers, leading to the withdrawal of labour through coordinated “majority strikes.” McAlevey suggests that this does not mean mobilising should be ignored, and can in fact be useful in certain contexts as a tactic, but should never be the strategy.”
Of course, as McAlevey rightly points out, mobilising is still effective as a tactic, but when the tactic becomes the key strategy, problems occur.
I would argue that a lot of what we think of as organising presently is actually mobilizing. And often poor mobilizing at that, returning little in the way of wins. Filling out a petition and then forgetting about it. A sanitised A-to-B march with an obvious, non-offensive message, (‘No to racism!’, ‘Stop the Tories!’ etc.) that’s carefully overseen, and often stage-managed, by the police. A static protest that plays no obvious part in a wider strategy to achieve an aim. A vain activist dress-up evening, where a handful of would-be Robespierres light some red flares, take some photos and piss off home to watch the football when they get bored. Shitposting memes on social media, sharing them with a small group of converts. All of these are mobilizing, and all of these are not successfully building our class power in communities that we profess to be fighting for.
Organising is difficult and draining, but it is essential. It is going undercover in a workplace to agitate for positive change. It is leafleting workplaces in the freezing rain and baking sun to help workers understand their rights. It is talking individually to workers, and in groups, aiming to convince people of their own power. It is listening to demands and faithfully fighting for them as a group.
Unless you are engaging with non-activist people in your workplace and local communities, trying to convince them of their agency and capacity to change things, then I do not believe that you are organising for the cause. There is a fundamental difference between protesting and organising.
I fundamentally believe that organising is also something that everyone, regardless of perceived ability, knowledge or experience can contribute to.
I have seen real organising and watched workers empower themselves. I have seen vulnerable workers take control of their own agency and it is moving and inspiring. It can be done and is being done. But it can only be scaled to the level where we can build mass movements with the active involvement of everyone who considers themselves an ‘-ist’. Our various dreams of owning the means of production, whatever strand of leftism you subscribe to, can only be realised through organising. Every ‘-ist’ must be considered an organiser in their own right.
The world that “is growing larger every second” to quote Durruti, does not grow on its own. It grows through the individual actions of organisers. It takes effort – effort that the women and men of the international movements in the past seem to have appreciated but which we today seem to be in denial about.