Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United StatesSeptember 29th, 2010
Uses of a Whirlwind is not your father's book on social movements, harping back to another time and another world, as so many works on radicalism are inclined to do. This essay collection offers valuable accounts and analyses of how contemporary movements are responding to the dizzying era of neoliberalism so many of us are continually trying to understand better. The Team Colors Collective declare up front that “our personal radicalizations came about through participation in strands of the alter-globalization movement at the tail end of the twentieth century.” Accordingly, the struggles and ideas in these writings reference such world-changing touchstones as the Zapatista rebellions in Mexico in 1994, the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, the anti-war movement, and the recovery efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans. This is very much a book about the here and now.
The book's title and organizing metaphor comes from a distinction drawn between radical social movements of the past and those of today. Team Colors (TC) characterizes the period of the late 60s and 70s as one of “fires,” when one movement would spark another into existence, growing and spreading quickly. Since then, capital and state apparatuses have responded in ways that organizers and intellectuals are still grappling with: the curtailing of freedoms because of “too much democracy,” massive privatization and de-regulation, major setbacks for organized labor, the rise of the non-profit industrial complex, and the greater penetration of finance capital into all areas of life. In this climate, radical movements no longer have the character of fires, but “whirlwinds.” They are composed of multiple currents that are “fluid, open, and constantly shifting across the terrain.”
The whirlwinds metaphor is a highly nuanced way of assessing the contemporary terrain. TC is not pessimistic about the fragmentation of movements. They carefully avoid the trap of nostalgia for a unified working class or a revolutionary proletariat, instead recognizing that the many disparate movements existing today are multiple sites of struggle, each with their own unique relationships to neoliberal hegemony along lines of race, gender, sexuality, environmentalism, urban justice, etc. The main challenge today, the collective suggests in an optimistic tone, is that of creating forms of solidarity that amplify different struggles across a highly varied political landscape into powerful bursts of allied rebellion.
A great strength of this volume is that theory and practice are absolutely inseparable. Evident throughout is the collective's editorial devotion to militant research, “research by invested militant activists for the purpose of clarifying and amplifying struggle.” To that end, each selection uniquely teases out a different aspect of the complex dynamics of whirlwinds, helping organizers and intellectuals to better understand what it means to struggle under and against neoliberalism.
The section “Organization Case Studies” offers studies of the organizational forms that have emerged as alternatives to traditional labor unions, non-profit institutions, and state-sanctioned protest rallies. To cite a few examples, the collectivist structure of Bluestockings Bookstore in NYC, the radical tactics of Direct Action to Stop the War in San Francisco, and the organizing of precarious labor by the Starbucks Workers Union all reflect important efforts to find efficacious new forms for organizing.
Amidst the organization case studies, there can be found a refreshing honesty and self-reflective tone which gives voice to some genuinely thoughtful writing and opens a dialogue with those whose minds are worn weary and raw from the grinding ubiquity of the standard, non-profit organization, press release-style essays which clutter listserves, and all too often, the pages of radical newspapers and books. In “A Conversation on Organizing Models for Social Justice in the City,” for example, tensions are permitted to rise to the surface about levels of engagement with the government, as Take Back the Land Organizer Max Rameau states, “We don't think about power in the sense of how to meet with elected officials or get elected officials to concede to certain demands. We think about the capacity of our community and how we can maximize and then expand that capacity.”
“Movement Strategies” takes a broader perspective, examining the contexts of struggles and the way they have formed alliances and connections to bring whirlwinds into convergence as powerful gusts. One essay makes the case for food sovereignty as an integral part of the global justice movement. Another piece surveys the history of Independent Media Centers (IMCs), not only in terms of their challenge to the state repression of information and corporate media conglomeration, but also with respect to the new challenges of autonomous media in the face of new social media.
A brilliant, innovative and intimate essay by TC collective member Stevie Peace titled “The Desire to Heal” demonstrates both a new method of questioning as well as what it means to write about social movements seriously and passionately. The placement of himself in the essay is necessary, useful and shows a reflective self-awareness that many professional writers are only able to caricature. Peace takes two movements—Critical Resistance and Restorative Justice Community Action—and places them on a new plane of assessment—harm—as opposed to the standard measures of success such as money raised, protest attendance, number of campaigns, and so on. By introducing harm as a concept in a very deliberate, cautious, and attentive way, Peace not only compels us to think about how movements address harm in their work as well as in our daily lives, but also displays a possibility of what the critical, personal and radical essay can look like. Might there be a multitude of frames people can use to explain, narrate, analyze and make sense of the many currents of whirlwinds? Might we be able to realign our focus forward, “walking while asking questions,” that are as imaginative as they are generative like Peace's question, “what would it mean to heal?”
The essays in the section, “Theoretical Analyses,” contribute new conceptual tools in a variety of directions. One piece constructs a map of relationships among the food, energy, and labor crises of 2008-09 and analyzes the possibilities for working class recomposition. Another essay uses a strong class analysis to explain the Wall St crisis, as a corrective to the more prevalent emphasis usually given to the predatory workings of global financial capital.
The last section, “Interviews,” comes full circle by situating the neoliberal present within the past in insightful ways. In these dialogues, there is a strong commitment to “revolution” even as this term is reconceptualized away from its grand utopian connotations toward concrete projects of creating new worlds which sustain thoughtful considerations of what “justice” can mean within them.
Some of the pieces in Uses appear to stand stronger than others in relation to TC's overall framework. Some of the pieces were more reflective than others. One or two were noticeably less critical in their approach to writing about social movements. However, their very presence highlights just how much of a breakthrough TC has made with this collection; it is truly a unique accomplishment for a collection of this size to avoid the over-self-congratulatory tone of so much organizer and activist writing. What seems to be aspired to and obtained in brief, sublime, flashes in some of the more gripping essays is a synthesis of the critical, the theoretical and the intellectual, on one hand, and the pragmatic, the strategic and the passionate on the other.
TC is quick to acknowledge that Uses does have limitations, mostly coming from the rush to release the book which they compiled on short notice. But the book is overwhelmingly successful in its proposal for a method, its push for critical action and inquiry, and its articulation of a desire for a return to radical community organizing.
Released in May of this year, Uses of a Whirlwind appears at just the right moment to help us understand why there is a widespread sense of potential and paralysis at the same time. The book shows us how the work we do as organizers, activists, and participants falls in danger of dissipating like a weak breeze, or how it can whip together into tornadoes of change. The metaphor of “whirlwinds” is as much a useful diagnostic as it is a call to specific forms of action crucial to struggles against neoliberalism.
Some questions I asked TC which I want to use maybe a little bit from:
1. What are the kinds of organizing/activist groups that most interest Team Colors? Are there any primary concerns that you have when you look at the work different organizations and organizers are doing? What do you focus on? What questions do you ask yourselves? I half-asked this question specifically referring to the book at your talk and later realized that I was interested not only in knowing why groups were included in the book (which was answered) but also what kinds of groups, activities and people do you consider to be a part of the Whirlwinds and what kinds you do not.
It’s difficult to answer the first of these questions because, while we are interested in a wide range of organizing happening on the ground right now, we know that our knowledge of this organizing is limited; we also have an ongoing interest in forms of everyday resistance and ‘hidden’ struggles that people engage in, in their everyday lives, although we have neither the time nor resources nor savvy to inquire into these areas in depth, right now (this echoes some things we discussed at the talk). Still, we can say that generally, we are excited by groups, programs, and processes that articulate a return to radical community organizing in the United States. They’re marked by characteristics such as the creative use of confrontational direct action (Earth First!, Direct Action to Stop the War, queer activism), dialogue, encounter, and inquiry (AREA Chicago, El Kilombo Intergalactico, a wide range of mapping and research activities), building relationships across struggles (climate justice organizing linking with strands of food sovereignty and environmental justice struggles, student organizing linking with migrant worker struggles, sex worker organizing linking with prison abolition and queer struggles). We’re excited by attempts to directly challenge the deployment of the crisis (Take Back the Land, education upheavals in California) and move towards recomposition of the class by organizing around new worksites and areas of work (sex workers, migrant workers and day laborers, domestic workers, precarious workers). Most of the things I mentioned here have space in the book, or are discussed to some extent in out pamphlet Winds From Below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible.
To answer your second question, we’re also interested in very problematic developments in the current crisis of the Left, the working class, and in organizing in general in the contemporary period. So when we ask people to describe how their work functions, what it looks like, what challenges they face and what potentials emerge in their organizing, we uncover a lot of themes (usually challenges and political problems) that you usually wouldn’t find in most discourse, as organizers frequently operate on a sunny-side “press release” discourse that only emphasizes successes. We’re interested in how organizers grapple with a lot of questions: funding regimes and the nonprofit industrial complex, increased professionalization within organizing, challenging common (and problematic) forms such as advocacy organizing and Alinsky-model organizing, how to organize the working class for itself rather than solely in itself, how to avoid traps such as academia and other knowledge enclosures, how to centralize reproductive work, how to fight for and protect commons and common activity, how to go beyond the urban-centrism that riddles so much movement work today. This is just a sample of many concerns we have and look for.
Key to all of this is a deliberate focus (which grounds all militant research and political thought) on what is happening right now rather than what we feel should happen. By looking first and foremost at how we got here and where we are at, rather than prescribing particular answers or ignoring activity we find very problematic (such as investment in party politics), we try and embody the openness and humility that we feel is necessary for returning to radical community organizing.
2. In drawing out a tension between prefiguritive politics, on the one hand, and people changing in struggle, on the other, you seem to find a useful way for talking about the work people are doing and how people are doing this kind of work. In doing so, however, it seems would require you to disagree with people who might argue that how work is done is as important as what work is done. Is this a fair way of looking at your position in relation to those who see prefiguritive politics as a necessary consideration in social movements? Also, if it is, how might you respond to those who would argue that prefiguring an ideal society is indistinguishable or at least inseperable from social change?
Yes, this is where we’re coming from in relation to prefigurative politics, and you’re right, it often leads to disagreements with those who see prefigurative political projects as the way of building movements and making a revolution possible, which, as you say, leads into nuts & bolts questions and who is doing the more “correct” kind of anarchism/prefigurative politics. But we think this distinction is important, because we want to open up a discussion that acknowledges that people do change through struggle, and that these changes are crucial to how we approach radical community organizing and openness and dialogue, all of which runs counter to the massive eruption of insular, inward-looking prefigurative political projects that dominate the organizing terrain (and explicitly the anarchist and Activist terrain) right now. We feel it is dangerous to assume that the sum total of these projects can topple the current economic and political order; we need massive organizing to bring these potential political projects into a more substantive realm. Additionally, we are concerned that prefigurative politics are a vast oversimplification of what is and should be an immensely complex and open process of revolutionary change. A passionate person and their fifteen friends and their project(s) does not equate to social change, nor will they bring about revolution or are the revolution; change and revolution come about through all of our struggles and everyday resistances.
3. I know this is a much broader question but do you see capitalism's instabilities as being explained sufficiently by social movements, whether contemporary or historical, or does capitalism have problems inherent in its logic and structure which can also account for crisis, collapse or disaster? If social movements are not the sole factor in capitalist crisis, then how does one sort out the connection between social movements and crisis, on the one hand, and the failure of market principles and crisis, on the other?
This is a broad question, and of course there are many people and organizations that are contributing to this dialogue. Our work seeks to contribute ideas to the discourse that are not as visible or oft discussed, namely, 1) we need to account for people’s agency at all times when we look at the history and developments of capitalism - to not do so is to diminish important changes in the working class, as its composition has changed through struggle and resistance in incredibly significant ways; 2) that changes in the technical composition of capital and its protective state happen in response to working class struggle, which we think is a significant factor worthy of even further inquiry (that is, for example, how exactly did people engage in strategic uses of credit and debt? how did this form of struggle–constrained as it may have been–lead to a severe blow against capital in 2008?); and 3) the better we understand how struggle and organizing functions, the stronger we are in the streets, and the more successful we are at slowing down or staving off the deployment of the crisis. This is not to insinuate that this approach explains everything about capitalism’s instabilities, but it does remind us that we cannot solely talk about capitalism as if it can be parsed out in our heads, we need to bring these conversations to the ground and see what is actually happening, within both business and “the people’s business,” in the words of Peter Linebaugh.
4. You gave some (very appropriate) examples of activities anarchists should not be engaging in, and you also provided a general principle of a return to radical community organizing that identifies, amplifies and ruptures; three ways in which anarchists (among many others) can contribute to wider social struggles. I couldn't help but notice that you might implicitly be tying this second general principle to the first general principle in which you address how people and movements sustain themselves. Is there a unique role that anarchists (among others) might offer in terms of self-reproduction of/in social movements? Is this one way anarchists can fit into wider social struggles? What might this look like? Any examples?
Yes, we see both a return to radical community organizing and creating self-reproducing movements as two activities that are bound up in each other. Anarchists can certainly contribute to these activities; we don’t think that the role of anarchists is any more special than any other group of people or any individual, but we do recognize that many anarchist organizers have made important forays into both radical community organizing and questions of reproduction, including emphases on direct action, an explosion in projects and zines that explore issues of mental health, accountability, burnout, trauma, loss, and chronic illness, and consistent support and activity around political prisoners. This is all useful in circulating struggles and has led to exciting efforts, such as students working in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, radical media efforts that amplify a wide range of struggles, anarchists working with rural communities to Indiana to block the building of the NAFTA Superhighway, and many other examples. But we want to emphasize that communicating with other struggles and engaging in substantive community organizing isn’t happening anywhere near enough in anarchist circles, and while anarchists have a place in struggle, they are not the struggle. We need to move with these understandings as we walk with others.
With that said, one strength anarchists often do bring, is a willingness to work outside of the system and question bureaucracies (whatever their form may be, and it’s often seemingly benign or progressive) and bring tension between forms of authority (which even in seemingly progressive ways often have limited or no legitimacy) and struggles for equity, or more broadly, liberation in general. But it’s also important to remember that anarchists are not the only people to do this -- we do think it is a strength that anarchists often bring to the table that has very substantial benefits; sometimes, however, as mentioned above, it can also be seriously misguided.
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