Mourning becomes the Left

Earlier this week I came across a couple of pieces on Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb that I can’t get out of my head.  A long, meditative piece on “The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump,” and a much shorter piece on the suicide of the blogger’s friend, Mark Fisher. Both pieces dealt with mourning, melancholia, depression and the Left.

For the last few years, I have had a really hard time engaging politically, even in the last two months, with the “all hands on deck” imperative of the looming Trump presidency. Most distressingly, it is precisely the aspects of political engagement that used to fire me up the most – gathering with comrades at local or branch meetings, taking collective action in the streets – that are most likely now to sour my mood.

In fact, I have shorthanded it sometimes as “political depression” — but haven’t really taken that diagnosis seriously. I have developed certain strategies and habits that help me function when my depression is triggered by events in my personal life — thankfully, my depression is mild and infrequent enough that I haven’t required medication. But in our society, where political engagement is not only not mandated but actively discouraged, it is far easier to simply disengage when this “political depression” looms.

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Fitness, Practice, and Social Change

A central component of any change process – personal change or organizational change – is the concept of practice.
— Ng’ethe Maina and Staci Haines, The Transformative Power of Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot about practice recently. My current practice is pretty good: on weekdays, I get up, exercise almost every day, work at a job that is fulfilling and that I generally enjoy, eat good and reasonably healthy food, drink good beer, go to bed. I generally take enough down time on the weekends to recharge and keep in house in order, and I spend enough time with my spouse and kids to maintain good relationships with them. Over the years I’ve learned how to respond to most difficult situations with patience, humility and compassion instead of anger, frustration and insecurity. In Maina and Haines’s terminology, I’ve been intentional enough about changing my practice that my default practice now aligns pretty well with my “present-day values, politics, [and what I] care most about” (I should also note that I have been lucky/privileged enough not to have experienced the kind of trauma that can lead people, for reasons of immediate survival, to develop practices that in the long run are not healthy/aligned with their values/etc.)

Still, there are things that I would like to do more of: writing (beyond what I do at my job), composing and playing music, and being more involved in local political work. To some degree, these are limited by the number of hours in the day, but I recognize that if I want to find the time to spend even a few hours more on these activities, I need to change my daily practice.

I’ve also been thinking about practice a lot because I recently, largely by accident, became part of a fascinating and compelling online community of people who attended one of the institutions of higher education that made up my somewhat checkered higher-ed career. Over the past six months, this community — originally devoted almost entirely to witty banter mocking the seriousness of official alumni publications — has become equal parts comedy improv troupe, free-ranging discussion forum, and on-demand support group for any number of issues, with a good dash of exhibitionism, flirtatiousness and hedonism (“drink threads” are de rigeur on weekends, and common during the week) thrown in.

One of the things that I find especially fascinating about this community is how people have started using it as a sort of accountability mechanism to change their practice. As in, literally, people will post about something that they intend to do (but might be worried they won’t actually follow through on), in order to be “held accountable” by the group.

This is most noticable in a spinoff group devoted to fitness. And, even without having had a conscious desire to improve my own fitness practice, I have noticed that the ritual of posting my daily workout to the fitness group, reading other’s workouts (at all levels — from starting to get off the couch to qualifying for national triathalons), and us all encouraging each other with comments and “likes,” has increased the length of my runs, the intensity of my gym workouts, and my curiousity about other forms of exercise (I’ve even flirted with the idea of re-learning how to swim).

The world of fitness, of course, as both a social phenomenon and a capitalist industry, has done an exceptional job figuring out how to create this kind of culture of accountability and encouragement. The kind of camraderie formed at races, in zumba and spin and yoga classes, etc., is crucial to the industry’s profitability and growth — and this has naturally spread to social media.

Now, I have fitness goals (it would be great to lose the noticable beer belly I’ve had for the last 5 years or so), but I’ve got other goals as well, as mentioned above. Many of these not-fitness goals, especially writing about politics and culture, are essentially social (I want to change society), even if the mechanism (writing) is a solitary activity. So I find it kind of ironic that I am currently, in essence, pursuing my personal goals in a social manner, while I think of the work to pursue my social goals as something that I just need to “find more time for” in my personal life. (To be fair, this is probably exacerbated by the fact that my spouse and I are both doing essentially social and political work at our jobs for 8-10 hours per day; it’s just the “extracurricular” social goals, as it were, the ones I don’t get paid for, that I’m talking about here).

I don’t think this is totally uncommon. We know (from opinion polls, surveys, our own door-to-door work) that people want the world to be a better place. Yet even our most popular actions are dwarfed by the number of people who turn out for 5Ks every weekend. Our job, as a movement, is to help more people — if we want to succeed, millions of people — feel supported and accountable in being part of changing the world, in ways that are effective and also doable. To grow to scale, we can’t just “organize” people as we currently understand it — getting them to participate in social-change organizations through repeated reminders and turn-out calls and so forth, and if we’re lucky recruiting a few more volunteers to help us with the turn-out calls — we need to bring people to a place where “showing up” for justice (in whatever way) becomes part of their default practice.

I think part of the appeal of the fitness world is precisely the kind of casual camraderie of racing or taking a class together, or being part of an online fitness community. It is precisely that kind of community that capitalism has hollowed out, especially in recent decades as the massive disruption of globalization has forced people to move and the casualization of work has made it difficult to even maintain regular social practice within families, let alone the (generally) less intense social interactions of friendships, reading groups, bowling leagues, etc.

In this environment, most of us struggle to maintain two really intense relationships: one with our job (or jobs), and another with our partner and/or immediate family (or spending energy trying to find or establish one). These relationships, even when not fraught with oppressive power dynamics, are extremely high-stakes, and thus I think are actually particularly ill-suited places to think about changing our practice. In these intense and high-stakes 1:1 relationships which structure the vast majority of our waking hours, we dig more deeply into our default practices, and we’re also less likely to hold the other person/institution accountable, even in the smallest of ways.

And, the problem with so much movement organizing is that we expect people’s relationships to our organizations to mirror the same kind of intense relationships we have with our employers (especially if we, ourselves, are professional organizers or staff of social-justice organizations) and our families. Perhaps not consciously, but subconsciously — we always talk about wanting to provide “easy asks,” low-intensity ways for people to participate (such as signing petitions), but at some level we’re just scanning the petition signers for potential “leaders,” people who could be brought to having the same intense commitment to the organization as we do. We rarely think seriously about how people could particpate in and be accountable to the organization in the way that they are part of and accountable to their spin class.

So, I have a couple of questions I think we should be thinking about (and I welcome thoughts in the comments):

First, how do we (not just people who currently identify as movement organizers, but anyone who wants to see a better world), provide ourselves and others with a structure that allows us to pursue our social-change goals with a similar flexibility, accountability and scalability as, say, the world of running (while recognizing that it’s much harder to do something when it’s (a) not generating profit and (b) actually threatening people with power).

Second, since I sort of work in the intersection of technology and social change, are there existing platforms, apps, etc. that include similar social-accountability mechanisms as the fitness-based ones yet are flexible enough to be used for social-change goals? Is there something already developed for social-change purposes that organizations could use and experiment with? If not, is there a need for one?

Care/Work

This week, the internet — at least the tiny section of it where I hang out — has been consumed with a conversation about care and the movement. Building off an article written last summer by my awesome co-worker Yashna, my colleague B. wrote a piece called An End to Self Care, which was published at the beginning of the week and prompted a slew of responses. In response, the good folks at Organizing Upgrade started a Community Care channel on their website, to further the discussion.

If you haven’t read those pieces yet, you should go do so. Now. Especially Yashna’s original piece. They are incredibly thoughtful, brilliant and heartfelt pieces — way above the standard of writing here at Domestic Left — and I can’t really do them justice in a quick summary. But speaking most broadly, as Yashna puts it in her introduction to the new community care channel, it is a “conversation about our capacity to survive and thrive, individually and collectively,” as part of social movements that often demand, or seem to demand, insane amounts of work.

* * *

The most interesting thing I found about this conversation, as I read the pieces, was that of all of them, I had the most visceral (in a positive way) reaction to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s piece, “For Badass Disability Justice, Working-Class and Poor-Led Models of Sustainable Hustling for Liberation.” Which was odd, because I am none of those things (demographically I’m pretty much a Republican’s dream American, middle-class, home-owning white guy with a wife and two kids), and, when I’m honest about it, not particularly good at connecting with people from widely different backgrounds.

Thinking more on this, though, brought me back to the fact that my foundational politicization was in the labor movement — specifically, for most of my adult life I’ve been a rank and file member of UE. For many years I served in various leadership capacities, and for eleven years, my wife worked for the union. And, while we certainly worked too hard, occasionally to the level of taking a toll on our relationship, we were constantly surrounded by a culture of struggle over work hours, and over time (something that my shop, in particular, was pretty militant about). While I would frequently bust my ass going to meetings outside of “work time,” I certainly wasn’t going to let my boss schedule me outside of my union-contract-enforced availability, or even make me work too hard when I was on the clock.

This is, of course, not a suggestion that we should bring that attitude to work when we’re employed by movement organizations (in fact, I do think it is problematic when organizers, who often expect members to spend hours every week doing work for the union or movement on top of their regular job, insist on working a strict 40 hour week). But I do think we should ask ourselves the question, do our movements really have a political program around work?

The labor movement was arguably founded, not even so much on struggles for higher wages, as on the struggle for the eight hour day — and one of the slogans for the eight hour day was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” For what we will. Workers in the nineteenth century demanded a right to leisure, as a whole, as a class. Are any of our movements today that audacious?

Certainly the labor movement has given up any serious attempt to shorten the workday or workweek on a political level — although the best parts of it still struggle on the shop-floor level against mandatory overtime, against speedup and for rights to do union business (including educational activities) during the workday. And, as Piepzna-Samarasinha writes so eloquently, working-class and poor people, people with disabilities, women, and other oppressed classes have both individual and community strategies to resist encroachments on their time and liberty by bosses and the state (and, though they don’t mention this explicitly, husbands/partners, parents, etc.). What movements do, at their best, is raise up the resistance strategies of the oppressed and not only transform them into collective demands, but into visions of a better society that can capture the imaginations of huge numbers of people and move them to action.

* * *

A piece of B.’s article that came in for a lot of critique was the invocation of “a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly.” This is, on the face of it, quite terrifying. But I also want to interrogate it from a different angle — do our movements really value all work?

I don’t mean to generalize from my own experience, but I actually find straight-up leisure kind of boring. If I’m reasonably well-rested, then I’m going to be puttering around the kitchen doing food prep, or reading Organizing Upgrade, or talking with my kids — and I’m going to make the claim that, just as you can’t have an awesome rally without doing the unglamorous work of phone-banking, you can’t have productive organizers without good food, intellectual stimulation and healthy “family” relationships (however we define our family). Everything that Piepzna-Samarasinha describes — even laying in bed — strikes me as work (in that context), and it seems to me that if we truly value all work (not just the official “organizer” work), then many of our hearts are already ignited with a fuel to work endlessly.

I was asked by a friend a few weeks ago what it would feel like if we had the movement that we need, and I blurted out “it would feel like doing yoga.” I’m still not sure what I meant by that — I think it was the songwriter part of my brain that I’ve trained to make random associations taking over — but part of it is being intentional about using all of our different muscles. If we’re just using our “organizer” muscles all the time, and not our core muscles — the things we do as human beings to maintain ourselves and our communities — then our movement is going to be unbalanced and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

* * *

The flip side to self-determined care is self-determined work (or, to go back to the old Marxist phrase, “unalienated” work). I don’t mean we all get to do whatever we want — clearly, movements and more importantly the organizations that are part of them need discipline, collectivity, and accountability (and those of us with more privilege need to pay special attention to being accountable). And, any just society also needs to have some kind of collective discipline and accountability. But maximizing how much individuals, together with their communities, get to determine the scope, pace and nature of their work seems to be a worthy goal.

This is a conversation about care, but also a conversation about work — about what work we value (or even see), and about what our vision for work is. This is our challenge: to envision a liberatory transformation of all work, and to figure out how, in whatever ways we can, we can begin to live that vision in our own lives and work.