Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The United State of the movement

From June to September I traveled across the USA, visiting activist groups, co-ops, social enterprises and farmers. It was a rare opportunity for reflection on the ‘state of the movement’. I soon learned that the US has the best and worst of everything. In contrast to extreme social injustice, environmental degradation and corporate capitalism, the US is also home to some of the most inspiring progressive initiatives and the most well organised, passionate and radical social movements that I’ve ever encountered.

The literary backdrop to my journey was “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, which provides a context for the rich fabric of social movements that exist today. It is a truly inspiring take on US history that is written from the perspective of American Indians, slaves, women, and working people - who are usually written out of history altogether. It charts the history of people resisting oppression – from the first invasion of Columbus, through hundreds of years of strikes and workers uprisings, the anti-slavery struggle and the civil rights movement. It is difficult to convey this profound history of struggle and resistance, suffice to say that the rise of corporate capitalism has been confronted by organised resistance at every step of the way – often with bloody and brutal consequences.

Today the mechanisms by which power is maintained and concentrated by an elite minority have become ever more sophisticated, subtle, and in many ways more difficult to combat. Take for example the Presidential election. Most progressive organisations (spanning environmental and social justice issues) have spent a large part of the past year organising around the election – either through voter registration drives or through direct campaigns to support the Democrat vote. Even some prominent anarchists who normally eschew voting were advocating that people get out and vote for Kerry! This is despite the fact that Kerry was talking about increasing military spending (even further) and basically wasn’t proposing to change any of the key policies or institutions that are the source of the social and environmental problems facing the US. The point is that most of these people didn’t want to vote for Kerry. They just wanted to vote against Bush.

As Zinn notes, the two party political system in the US (and here in Australia) is possibly one of the most ingenious schemes ever devised to ensure that popular dissent is directed in a way that leaves the fundamental power relationships in society in tact. It provides a formal channel for political expression but both parties effectively represent the interests of corporations and the ruling class – so the underlying system remains unchallenged regardless of who is elected.

The fact that in a single term of office George W. Bush managed to roll back a range of social and environmental policies that took years (sometimes decades) to win, has meant that many progressive groups suspended their other activities to focus on the election. They key question facing many groups was how to organise around the election in a way that would help to build community power in the longer term so that they would be in a better position regardless of who gets elected.

As I traveled across the country, I was trying to get a sense of where activists thought the movement was heading. I asked everyone that I met: “What is the most interesting and effective social change organising that is going on in the US at the moment?” Most responses fell into one of two categories. People either said “ and mass internet based organising” or they said “It is grassroots, face to face organising – door to door conversations in local communities.” started in response to the Republican attempts to impeach Bill Clinton and in a few short years have grown to have over a million members and are the acknowledged leaders of internet based campaigning. During a workshop I did with one of their campaign strategists, he said that they had increased their membership list by 300,000 through a single cyber action. They are now figuring out how to move beyond email lists and cyber actions down to real grassroots organising – and have been experimenting with ‘house parties’ and other tactics which involve real people building real grassroots political power.

This new model of organising is starting to connect with a much older tradition of community organising that has grown out of the civil rights movement and the labour movement. This tradition has a clear language framework and clear concepts of how change happens and how power operates – and there are a number of training organisations that teach community organising.

When they talk about grassroots community organising, it generally means helping communities to organise themselves so that they can build and express their own political power. It generally includes tactics that involve pressing the flesh :– door-knocking, neighbourhood meetings, street stalls, house parties and the like, but it also includes a focus on consciously building power. This means training community leaders, building institutions, and building the capacity of the community to win not only the current campaign, but also future campaigns.

The assumption behind this community organising approach is an analysis of power relationships that is most eloquently captured by Fredrick Douglass, one of the first black lawyers in the US and a prominent anti-slavery activist. It is well worth remembering as we face a 4th term of the Howard government.

"Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” - Frederick Douglass (letter to an abolitionist associate, 1849).