Rip Open and Deprofessionalize the Apparatus

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

If Lenin said “every cook must learn to govern the state,” then surely every member of a group must know how to edit a newspaper, organize dues-collection, deal with tax issues, find meeting space, get a protest permit, publish a book, organize security, run the theoretical journal, and how to perform literally all behind-the-scenes work.  How could this be accomplished?  Training, “apprenticeship,” the buddy system, etc.

There is a total wall of even awareness of what the party professionals do.  Perhaps some decisions are too mundane and everyday to be submitted to the entire membership vote.  But to guarantee that this might not be the case, the leadership should at least provide a detailed report of all activity on a regular basis, so the membership can decide for itself which details are contentious and which aren’t.  It should cover every quantitative facet of the organization’s functioning, from treasury to membership figures.

Of course we could allow members to vote on a lot more actual specific details and policies than they currently do.  With the use of the Internet, and simple spreadsheets for tracking votes, this is increasingly possible.  Someone could make an app.  It seems non-objectionable, but is anyone pushing for this?

Groups keep their membership totally ignorant of the work of running the apparatus, then call rank-and-filers unappreciative when a criticism is raised.  No, we should want to know how to run the website, or the newspaper, or the carefully-constructed coalition of leftist groups that are the actual backbone of our demonstrations, because that knowledge is power, and in a socialist group power should be shared (and therefore knowledge should be shared too).

Of course this is madly undemocratic.  How are you supposed to vote on things you don’t even know are going on?  Or things you don’t know how to do – or things in which you will never be invited to participate in a hands-on way?

These skills need to be systematically shared through training, and organizations need completely transparent reports on everything.  Since the Edward Snowden/NSA leaks, there is no more excuse to keep members in the dark about organizational facts, figures, and statistics which the Feds already know, including every branch from the secret government death squads to the IRS.

Respect the Human Infrastructure

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

So maybe we’ve stopped asking people to dedicate themselves to the hilt.  We should still go further.  If overtaxing people goes hand-in-hand with authoritarianism, taking care of people goes hand-in-hand with democracy.

If we are going to drop the hyper-specific party line model as the basis for organizational membership (because it precludes democracy), we need something else to take its place.  It’s true that groups like Solidarity have no party line but still have members.  However their lack of clear, specific theory can give people little reason to stay in the group (in the same way, conversely, that too much specific theory can keep people from joining).

So what is the solution?  It is not to abandon specific ideas or theory entirely.  Rather instead we can begin basing membership not only on theory, but also on human relationships.  We can even tend to our “human infrastructure” rather than overtaxing it.

We need to turn Leftist organizations into, not only political networks, but friend networks and even economic networks.  Not as a side-effect, but consciously.  Not as a nicety, but as a political strategy.  Also these networks must not be exclusive based on current membership, amount of work done, or agreement with specific ideas.  Shunning and dropping people after they quit is for cults.  We believe in solidarity.

Social networks as political strategy?  Yes, intentional community-building is a political strategy, perhaps equally as or more effective than marching around with signs.  A study by Doug McAdam of the University of Arizona focused on the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement.  McAdam looked for different reasons why 75% of the participants stuck with it and 25% of them dropped out.  The most important factors turned out to not be their level of political sophistication or their emotional commitment.  The critical telling factor was, when participants were asked to write a list of all the people they personally knew in the movement, the dropouts had the shortest lists, and the holdouts had the longest.  People stayed because they had a larger amount of real relationships with other people.

Too many ideology-based organizations look like the figure on the left side of the below image.  We need to consciously create stronger networks.  We need to make it so people don’t only know oneor two other people in the group.  We need to intentionally socialize, and we can also break up the divisions of labor in our groups as to form new situations of exposure which lead to relationships.

It’s true that the Left can’t employ itself.  If everyone was paid staff and everyone paid dues, that would be a Ponzi scheme with no actual money being made.  So that’s not what is being proposed.

Once a Leftist helped me move into a city by finding me an apartment listing.  I then returned the favor by directing my landlady toward this Leftist’s freelance editing services.  A lot of us are religious deviants, often atheists, who don’t have the traditional network of a church as a social support system, but the fact is churches aren’t just about worship; they are also places where connections are made.  And there is nothing dirty or petit-bourgeois about this.  People need to find housing, jobs, childcare, who knows what else!  This is about having a supportive community that will help you out, not something corrupt like making graft arrangements in smoke-filled backrooms.  Movements and organizations are made of human material, and in order to sustain the movements and organizations, we must sustain the human material.  It’s like gardening.

Furthermore, having this focus on human material probably makes a group more sensitive to the actual realities and needs of oppressed groups, such as women’s need for an organization to provide childcare to make sure the women members can participate, or the difficulties which low-income people and people of color deal with when asked to meet at certain places, because they may take public transit instead of driving.

Overcommitment Destroys Democracy

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

The left stands for fighting exploitation but doesn’t seem to be above working its own membership to the bone.  Apparently it’s not just communes and cooperatives where workers manage themselves like capitalists, but socialist groups too.

During Occupy Philly, there were at least 30 people who quit their jobs to be full-time Occupiers and 5-10 people who dropped out of college.  This is ridiculous.  The Left does not have to be about disadvantaging yourself any further than capitalism already has; ideally it should be about fighting for a better life for yourself, too.

The real damage these people did was hard to measure.  Their sheer sacrifice did not assist the movement.  It destroyed it.  Their full-time participation led them to dominate the movement so hard that ordinary people who were not constantly at the encampment were dismissed, and had no real say in decision-making.

Obviously the super-campers, probably influenced by anarchism, are an extreme example.  However a more everyday example is the typical Leftist activist who puts so much time into building their organization that they start slipping up when it comes to practical things like work, school, career, money.  For many people the system is rigged to be sure, and any “shortcomings” are to be blamed on the system, not on the activist.  But a lot of activists are just entirely one-track-mind people who will talk endlessly about applying Marxist materialist pragmatism to politics but utterly forget to apply it to their own personal lives.

Is this good for the movement?  Sometimes.  But again – it’s often really bad.

It’s not just that these people end up as self-disadvantaged wrecks who start burning out or become ever-more hardline and sectarian in their need to justify their manic behavior to themselves.

It’s also that they scare away normal people with jobs/kids/lives, also known as The Actual Working Class, who are neither willing nor able to match that level of commitment.

(1)    People who are too committed come off as crazy and scare away the normal people.

(2)    People who are too committed destroy organizational democracy by creating a culture where only the opinion of The Most Dedicated ends up mattering in discussion and debate.

(3)    The level of fanatical emotional investment by The Most Dedicated makes it really difficult to have any kind of removed, objective assessment of activity in which someone might say something critical.  This is all the worse when someone suggests something critical which is not immediately obvious, or already half-suspected.  Criticism of current activities becomes seen as an egotistical, petty distraction.

Internal Democracy is First Priority

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

Internal debate in an organization is not a distraction.  There may be things going on in the greater political world which warrant attention.  However, democracy is actually more important than those.  Socialism should really be imagined as a massively-expanded form of democracy.  This means democracy is not a side issue, but the first issue, actually taking priority over everything else.  This includes internal democracy in your own organization – this too deserves priority as the first issue, because ourselves having a working knowledge of democratic process is key to being able to spread it.

Sometimes “prefiguring” or practicing a better form of social organization is not possible without a transition of power.  For example, communes might not work very well until everything is turned into a commune, ie until socialism is established at least nationally if not regionally or globally.

However, though socialism cannot be practiced by a socialist group, democracy can.  In fact it’s necessary that we practice it.  If we seek to democratize the other groups we work with, we actually need to know democratic process so we can teach it and spread it.  If we don’t know how to raise proposals from the floor with a chance of them actually being heard and carrying the floor, then how can we expect anyone else to behave similarly?  How can we tell them to do something we don’t even know how to do?  How do we tell people to establish democracy in their workplaces if our own is clumsy and we don’t have a very good grasp on procedure for actually bringing issues to a clear, crisp, and fair vote?  Of course the best education in something is to learn it by attempting it.

Everyone Must Be Replaceable; Everyone Should Be Replaced!

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

One of the most tremendous problems of the British SWP crisis was that the paid staff of the organization, through long years of sharing the same life conditions, became a social clique.  This is natural and inevitable.  It cannot be prevented.  It can only be disrupted, by rotating the leadership using term limits.

One terrible problem of placing no term limits on organizational staff is that the youth are often locked out of the highest positions of leadership.  They should be its majority, especially since in a healthy organization, they are the majority anyway.  To assume that age equates to superior theory or strategy is ageism.  Skills may be accumulated but those need to be democratized and shared anyway.

Some may have anxiety that an organization would collapse without its current set of leaders, but I am confident that any healthy organization has the strength to survive such a transition.  Besides, if other rank-and-file members cannot be trusted with leadership, there are deeper issues going on.  Perhaps those members have not been properly educated and should not actually be members yet in the first place.  Perhaps the party has too much attachment to every facet of its party line in order to feel safe and stable.  Maybe it should get over itself in that respect.

Of course some may object that this is disruptive to the lives and careers of people who take paid leadership positions, creating gaps in their resume that make the job market difficult.  Here I must remind everyone that being the paid staff of a leftist organization is a prestige and a privilege, which everyone is free to turn down.  Besides, many party staff keep at least part-time jobs anyway.  I suspect that really what is going on here is not any personal economic crisis that losing leadership status would create, but the mere psychological attachment of the leaders to positions they have held for possibly decades and were assuming they would keep for life.  What was once assumed is now under question.

Discouraging Joint Leadership Statements

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

We need to get rid of joint leadership statements, documents, and proposals.  Some people think that joint leadership statements are an extension of democratic centralism – the leadership must move and speak as one.  However, just because an entire organization is democratic-central does not mean that all of its sub-units must be.  Instead, they should reflect the disagreements across the organization.

When a leadership issues joint statements, whether it intends to or not, it has effectively begun to act as a faction within the organization who campaigns for its specific position on most questions.  Many organizations consciously reject that model, but unconsciously practice it because they make joint leadership statements as a regular, not exceptional, practice.  Of course this is entirely rigged and unfair because the leadership is tightly-organized; in fact it is often paid to organize itself as its full-time job.  It already effectively exists as a faction, often in environments where other factions are discouraged or disallowed.

When the leadership makes joint statements it precludes democracy from the start, because the leadership also administrates the debate it is now taking a side in.  If you can’t understand why that’s a problem, spend more time on the Left.

The culture that follows is predictable.  The leadership makes a statement or issues a document.  Pretty much everyone after that is divided into good supporters/intelligent comrades, who agree with the statement, while those who disagree are problems/threats to stability, or even worse, thought of as not even understanding the leadership perspective, when possibly they understand it even better than the leadership does – understand it all too well.

What’s horrible, though, is not the fact that this categorization happens, but that this categorization is imposed mainly by the rank-and-file.  Yes, the leaders may argue hard.  Of course people will stand up for their own opinions, including the leaders!  But when the leaders all march lock-step with an internal party line of the leadership, imposed collectively on the leadership by its own small majority, the rest of the room seems to pretty much always follow suit.  The leaders both essentially own the room, as well as say the same things (or disagree but engage in complicit silence, for fear of rocking the boat/losing their position/violating this absurd interpretation of democratic centralism).  Anyone articulate, dissenting, and brave enough to put forward an alternative perspective that is complete and intelligent, not rudimentary and easily-dismissed, has probably either been pressured out or moved on of their own accord by this point.

Democratic Structures, Undemocratic Culture

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

If an organization formally allows dissent, but the culture is so hostile to dissent that nobody feels comfortable doing it, then it’s not actually democratic.

Signs You Might Be a Party Hack

  • You get immediately defensive about your group when it’s not even clear a criticism was being made.
  • When someone makes a balanced assessment of your group giving both compliments and criticisms, you immediately start arguing with the criticisms.
  • You start arguing with people before actually really knowing what their position is.
  • You wait to hear what the leadership says before forming an opinion.  Or after hearing theirs, you bury the reasons for your original opinion.
  • You don’t really think about your own opinion anymore, and you act as a conduit for either other people’s opinions, or the list of group stances.

An Unwritten “Correct” Position on Everything

In many organizations it becomes difficult to have a say because there are unwritten rules and an unwritten party line.  Supposedly the group follows a list of a few stances that is clearly written somewhere for everyone to see.  In reality most groups have a stance on almost everything.  The stance-taking can become so absurdly specific that it becomes literally impossible to have the type of conversations the organization hosts internally with anyone outside the group.  It is so esoteric that you would not even think to bring it up to someone on the sidewalk or at your dinner table.  This makes newcomers showing up at meetings very awkward indeed.  The members and ordinary people might as well be speaking two different languages.

Arguments outside the hyper-specific realm of commonality of the group are typically treated with dismissal or even a horribly awkward non-acknowledgment/non-response made possible by the super-formal style of moderating conversation.  It’s like any attempt at a new conversation simply doesn’t happen, and gets absorbed into the black hole of the party regulars who aren’t even interested in discussing things outside their ideology (ie their comfort zone).  I am sure that many socialists have some kind of super-nuanced reason for rejecting the Zeitgeist series – but how many have actually watched it?  I admit that I have not, either.

There are reasons why socialists turn into rabid dogs this way.  It can sometimes feel like Us vs. the World, because of the wide dismissal of socialism, and the constant stupid sectarian criticisms within the Left.  So it’s easy to get defensive, and to judge an argument before even really hearing it, because you’ve probably heard it before.  But what if you haven’t, and you just shot it down anyway?

Inability to Think New Thoughts Outside the Ideology

People get so invested in their ideology that their entire minds are consumed with unfolding that ideology into every facet of every possible issue, and assuming the theory into the details.  Sometimes this makes sense – everything is interconnected.  What this can also mean is that people become incapable of even having new thoughts.  The mental grooves become very strong.  By embracing an ideology which required an open mind to begin with, it is very easy to become only a different type of dogmatist without realizing it.

But what turf are we defending?  A few hundred people?  We have to stop living this way.  What someone is saying to me may at any time be the new revelation that totally blows my whole model of reality, and I have to be willing to drop everything and readjust my whole life accordingly.  It takes courage.  The truth is not something I have anymore.  It is something beyond me I am always re-encountering in unexpected ways that are strange, but exciting.  There are no final authorities; there is continual discovery.  We have to live as though our minds could be blown at any time.

We must remember that many people in the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs’ time were racist, so it’s possible for socialists to be extremely wrong and completely miss a critical point.  We must be always on the lookout for new truths.

What if it’s not so much that we are doing things wrong, but that we could find an improvement which allows us to do even better than we already are?  Let’s be creative and experiment.  Let’s be open-minded.