Organizing: Movement, Community, Pressure Group?

As a full time organizer, in the labor movement, an avocation I have pursued for more than 20 years, I read with interest the exchange between John Greer, Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins.

Greer begins with a serious confusion when he conflates “community”, “movement” and “pressure group”. He is talking about movement building, not community building, when he references the Grange or civil rights. While he is obviously right that organized group pressure affects our government’s direction, (or the direction of representative governments, generally) most pressure groups which are effective today are top down organizations, generated to pursue special interests, not grass roots initiatives.

Social/political movements arise in response to perceived threats to a broad section of the population, and often, as well, on the basis of raised expectations within a broad swath of society. They unite people from different and frequently disparate communities to a common goal. The Grange, the labor movement, and the Vietnam anti-war movement arose in response to threats; the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and to a lesser degree the labor movement took off primarily from raised expectations.

All drew on underlying communities to a greater or lesser extent, the all-purpose communities which are in such short supply today. The structure of those communities were varied; the small towns of the plains with a strong sense of interdependence and shared values; ethnic fraternal welfare organizations; the inherent solidarity of a factory workplace; churches, campuses, even the solidarity that arose in the locus of oppression in gay bars.

Community and movement building are both rooted in human nature. We are a tribal animal, incomplete unless we can identify as part of a group, even if, as in modern America, that identification is only in our mind, rather than in the material interdependence for our livelihoods which characterizes societies which do not have the energy surplus and/or technology which makes its members remote from the production of the necessities of life. Today energy surplus means fossil fuel subsidies. The other aspect of that nature which often comes into play is the easily made division of the world into “us” and “them”, with them meriting no consideration as human beings. (I am convinced that the ability to manipulate “patriotism” to such devastating ends comes in large part from the atrophy of real community participation and the exploitation of the us/them dichotomy, but that’s another story)

Sharon is right that the genius of social control of capitalism is that in the U.S.we work harder than any other people in history to meet our daily needs, and have the least time and personal energy left to do anything else with. Never mind that many of the “needs” we feel obligated to meet are manufactured and no good for us, they are perceived as obligations. The alienation, the sense that we are single actors, is pervasive, along with the view that we have to get money to pay for anything we need including the services of myriad experts to do things which in another society we did for ourselves, traded for or didn’t need to do. (e.g., growing and cooking our food, carpentry and home improvement/repair, educating our children, income tax preparation.)

Union organizing succeeds when three conditions are present – common grievances, expectation of improvement, and leadership. The primary roles of leadership are to coordinate a program to meet the expectations and resolve the grievances, and inspire by their personal credibility the willingness to take risk to change the status quo.

I happen to think this model works with any movement building effort, but clearly it is much harder when there is no substrate of organization already present, which is why community organizing in modern cities is typically so difficult. The other aspect of this organizing model which is a challenge to the climate change/peak oil movement is the difficulty of identifying the enemy. The pro-active nature of our movement, where there are no bosses or segregationist politicians to beat, no clear and simple government policy to change, is one of the characteristics that makes it more difficult than movement building in the past.

I’ve been wrestling with all this in my own work for some years now, and I have no prescriptions. I have been interested in the Transition Town movement because it seems to recognize the problems to traditional movement building which I identify in the above paragraph, and to have the humility to recognize, as John Greer and Sharon also do, that no one has “the answer” and that a variety of strategies must be pursued. When we discuss organizing and community, we need to be very clear what kind of organizing we are looking at, why and when it has worked or failed, and a clearer definition of community. Hope I have added some clarity to this discussion.