Aziz Choudry, McGill University, Canada
Perhaps Swedish-American labour organizer and singer Joe Hill’s century-old entreaty, as he faced a Utah firing squad: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organise!” – has taken on a renewed meaning and urgency for many people in recent times. Organising, activism and movements for social, political and environmental justice are vital forces to change the world. Yet both the mundane ‘grunt work’ of organising and the learning that takes place in these struggles tend to get pushed out of focus in most accounts of movements. This comes in the way of getting to grips with important ideas, insights and visions produced in the course of people collectively working for social, economic and political change and reflecting on their experiences; learning about systems of power and exploitation as people find themselves in confrontation with states and capital; and activist education (and the educative potential) of active engagement with knowledge and learning emerging from older struggles for change.
In 2017, in order to understand what it actually takes to organise for change, we must take seriously the learning and the production of knowledge that occurs in the intellectual work of daily struggles, as people come together to discuss problems and injustices, debate strategies, plan and act. When we overlook the fact that everyone has the capacity to learn and reflect in the course of struggles for change, we are left with simplistic “paint by numbers” accounts of movements and activism that focus on great individuals, charismatic leaders, clever slogans, and professional spokespeople, and that mistakenly attribute the rise of social struggles and movements to social media.
Canadian sociologist and activist Gary Kinsman, concerned about how the radical roots of movements and community resistance get replaced with more “respectable,” liberal versions of history, reminds us of the need to overcome the “social organization of forgetting.” Forgetting the militancy of earlier people’s struggles in favour of tamer, simplified versions is quite consistent with the kinds of neoliberal tellings of history that privilege individuals’ achievements in place of the rich, nuanced, and often dangerous and difficult stories of the struggles of many ordinary people. Or we are fed techno-utopian claims that the 2012 Quebec student strike happened because of social media, and that the Internet defeated the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in the late 1990s – however, both of these assertions overlook all of the organising that took place to build resistance from the ground up. The work of small groups of people battling away and gaining ground, usually in long-haul organising, are too often edited out of our collective memories.
We cannot afford the costs of historical and social amnesia for contemporary and future struggles, for risk of losing the thread and texture of what it takes to bring about social change, and being left with a version of history that glosses over or ignores the significance of behind-the-scenes organising. Such amnesia can paper over conflicts, tensions, and power dynamics that have been part of these organising efforts and from which we can also learn.
This means paying heed to the relationship between the informal, incidental learning that happens in the often mundane work of organising, as well as the more intentional internal education work done in communities in struggle and within activism, such as workshops and programs of political education. Australian adult educator Griff Foley explains that much learning in social action is informal and incidental: “it is tacit, embedded in action and is often not recognised as learning.” Moreover, learning in social movements which claim to be progressive is complicated and contradictory. It can both reproduce the status quo, dominant positions, and ideas, and also generate what Foley calls “recognitions which enable people to critique and challenge the existing order.” This makes such learning “difficult, ambiguous and contested”. Yet both forms of learning tend to get pushed out of focus in most descriptions of movements – so, in order to be able to retain and integrate the valuable lessons from this work, it requires that we be engaged in, and able to reflect on, action.
The organising, learning, or ideas produced in struggles for change shouldn’t be romanticized, but many of us underestimate or dismiss the capacity of ordinary people – not least, those who are socially and economically marginalised – to think and theorise in the course of, and in relation to, struggles for justice. Some of the ideas they share take us beyond the common sense horizons of possibility that many have accepted as the only way to think. As Black U.S. historian Robin Kelley writes, it is “in the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born.” A contemporary example of this can be seen in migrant and immigrant worker struggles to resist immigration and labour injustice, often organising outside of traditional union forms, which in turn also challenge us to rethink where and how working-class movements might be reinvented or rebuilt.
Without daily struggles, larger systemic change cannot come about. And it is in these daily, local struggles that people build analysis, skills, strategies, and a base needed for longer-term, broader change. Adult education scholar Paula Allman insists on the significance of these struggles for reform, “whether these pertain to issues emanating from the shop floor, the community, the environment or any other site where the ramifications of capitalism are experienced…. These struggles are some of the most important sites in which critical education can and must take place. Moreover, if this critical education takes place within changed relations, people will be transforming not only their consciousness but their subjectivity and sensibility as well.” It’s also important to think about how much change is propelled by tendencies or ideas that are seen as marginal to the dominant structures of movements (such as anti-racist currents within labour and feminist movements), and yet have helped form the foundations for future struggles of, for instance, migrant and other racialised workers.
Claims about the apparent newness of some contemporary challenges, more recent mobilisations and forms of activism can sometimes pull us away from thinking deeply about continuities in the social, political, and economic systems within which people struggle. The present day can often be disconnected from its histories, including concepts and lessons from earlier struggles, in ways that essentially see all collective struggles everywhere as failures and openly or implicitly accept that there is no real alternative to capitalism as we lurch from one crisis to another at a planetary level.
I am conscious of the significance of intergenerational learning and of personally straddling, on one hand, a critical period between politics, education, and organizing traditions forged in the Cold War era (not to mention insights from older forms of insurgent internationalisms, and anti-colonial resistance and liberation struggles), and, on the other hand, more recent kinds of communication and political engagement that sometimes seem a little too uncritical in their utopian claims about digital media producing and shaping apparently new, leaderless, horizontal movements (from Occupy to uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East). Moreover, we are surrounded by entrepreneurial, individualistic, professionalised approaches to social change, even as they invoke language and concepts about “community” or “the collective.” We cannot ignore that free-market capitalism has affected ideas about collective action, resulting in the atomisation of individuals, the promotion of a kind of social change and environmental entrepreneurialism, and fierce competition to brand and claim ownership over progressive ideas and issues.
Then there is the way in which people fall into thinking about experts, “movement intellectuals,” spokespeople, and representatives. Many movement and NGO networks and activist groups produce a kind of “high priesthood” layer of experts, people who speak and put forward ideas and positions, but who are not necessarily doing so in tandem with, or with accountability to, a community or social base. One consequence of this is that it can divert attention from the work of ordinary people in struggles who create knowledge and ideas: much of the intellectual labour of organising does not take place through panels of experts, media conferences, reports and statements; it is worked out in the course of action. Perhaps some of the most significant ideas arise from conflicts and tensions within larger organising efforts. For example, within and at the fringes of coalitions and alliances, sharp analysis and sophisticated understandings have emerged about the roles of many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in supporting capitalist interests. For example, although it is not a given, people often learn far more profoundly about the power and interests of the state through direct confrontation with its security/intelligence forces than a workshop, training or written account could convey.
Perhaps, then, these separations between roles are less about a division of labour between “ideas people” and “movement activists,” but rather reflect the alienation of many ordinary people from their intellectual labour, the ideas and visions produced in collective action. Is knowledge only valued if it is produced in certain institutional settings by people with particular qualifications or professional status? We might ask this question of social movements and other forms of activism just as we pose it to academia – we cannot just assume people don’t know anything and need an educational liberator or NGO/activist saviour to lead them.
There is often a tension between the professionalised actors who speak at the conferences, workshops or panel sessions and write the NGO, community organization or activist group statements, policy analysis documents and critiques, and those who do the often mundane work of organising people and trying to build and sustain what sociologist and activist Alan Sears terms the “infrastructures of dissent” – “the means through which activists develop political communities capable of learning, communicating, and mobilizing together.”
Even within many of these networks and organisations, the benefit of learning by doing is often undervalued and ignored. I get a strong sense of disjuncture when elite forms of knowledge are elevated as “expert” and “authoritative” by the same organisations and movements that claim to promote democracy, alternatives to the status quo and the equal valuing of different knowledge traditions and experiences. But it is precisely the kind of radical imagination glimpsed in moments of learning and action in organising spaces and activism, with all of their tensions, contradictions, mistakes and setbacks, and the opportunities to reflect on them, that keeps dreams and possibilities for a better and different world alive.