OK, so we’re gonna have few posts in reverse order here.
Last week I spoke at the Black Rose bookstore in Portland, Oregon. First of all, thanks to Kevin for setting it up and the crew at the bookstore for hosting, and for running a great space.
Ostensibly, the talk was about two projects I’ve worked on recently: the Clamor pamphlet, and the article I wrote on independent media for In The Middle of A Whirlwind. I chose to focus on two issues common to these pieces: money and power.
In both, I talk about how I feel that within activist culture, we focus on the evils of money and power, and often resist understanding them and using them to our advantage. I know that because our knowledge of financial matters was so limited, we made many mistakes at Clamor that hurt us later. This is perfectly illustrated by Stephen Duncombe, whom I quote in the Whirlwinds article: “Progressives worry about abuse of power before we have it, this is a sign of our reluctance to pursue it.” When I asked Duncombe to expand on this point, he replied:
Power is scary. With it comes responsibility. As with leadership, if you don’t acknowledge that power is necessary then you won’t do anything about re-imagining it. I think leftists have gotten very comfortable being critics of power. Criticism on the road to power may be useful, but criticism by itself, in our day and age, is actually an attendant to dominant power. “Look,” the powers that be argue, “we have critics, that means you have freedom and democracy, right?” Criticism, by itself, is just self-serving politics: it makes the critic feel better about their non-compliance but changes nothing. Therefore I’m interested in moving past criticism and really thinking about what is necessary to win power. For without power you can’t change things. And I’m in this game to change the world, not just comment about how bad it all is.
I argue that it is important for activists to understand money and power and know how to use them effectively so that we are not at a disadvantage. Indeed, the central points of the article are:
• Media is central to how power operates
• Media is integral to advancing the work of social justice movements
• Media is a tool to be used strategically by activists
• Activists need to prioritize and fund media
• Activists need to directly connect our activism and media to struggles and communities
• We need to meet the needs and appeal to the desires of individuals and communities
I put a lot of this out there during the talk. I was pleasantly surprised by how willing the audience was to participate, and the discussion was wide ranging. It begs the observation that these issues are not discussed enough in our communities, and there needs to be more opportunities to engage in debate (more on this later).
Some of the points that came up were:
- What is the definition of power? How is “power over” different than “power together.”
- What is the effect of non-profit organizations on social movements? The differences between paid and non paid staff?
- How can the tension between your organizations mission and the need to survive be mitigated?
- Instead of avoiding power or pretending it doesn’t exist, how can we share or provide knowledge-skills-experience so that others can gain more power?
As you can see, right now it’s all about asking questions.
Now, back to the more-opportunities-to-engage-in-debate thing. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking recently about the relationship between media and social movements. Recently, I have been focusing on how media can support radicals in my communities (particularly the anti-war and environmental movements) as well as other struggles?
During the Portland discussion, we identified that movement media does many things, from bringing in new people to the movement and providing alternative news to providing a place for internal discussion. I asked people if they felt that movement media which exists now provides a place for internal movement strategy, theory, and development.
The answer was a resounding “No,” and I found this fascinating. The feeling of the group was that current activist culture eschews theory and strategy, that there is a divide between academics and activists, and that individuals have been turned off by academic writing, even when it applies to them. Some individuals expressed a feeling of anti-intellectualism, and a backlash against academics and the elitism of theory and strategy. So when did discussing which way our movements should go, and how they should be more effective become the property of the academy? And what can we do to take it back? Or rather, to share it?
Part of this means a change in culture, to an understand that strategy and theory are integral to moving forward, and that everyone needs to participate in and understand these questions… a change in priorities. Why we do what we do, and how to do it better should be part of our daily discussions.
One of the reasons I wrote the Clamor pamphlet was to document what we tried, what worked and what didn’t, and how we struggled with common problems. The group in Portland talked about how this kind of documentation doesn’t happen enough, and sometimes when it IS done, it sits on a shelf, or suffers the problem of distribution – how to get it to people who want it.
So… what does this mean? Yes, it would be great if someone (or someones) was to start a new journal, or that people within every part of the social justice movement created journals that allowed their groups to strategize together. But this can happen just as easily among friends…. what about discussion groups? reading circles? documentation and discussion within affinity groups and organizations and actions? These small steps would begin to take back strategy and theory from the elite world where we imagine it resides.