A quote on organizing

Noticed this at Dmitry Orlov’s website

In all of my experience, communities — of people and animals — form instantaneously and rather effortlessly, based on a commonality of interests and needs. What takes a lot of work is not organizing communities, but preventing them from organizing — through the use of truncheons and tear gas, or evictions and mass imprisonment, or, more recently, more subtle and ultimately more successful techniques of the consumerist political economy… How representative a democracy the US ever was is rather beside the point; the point is, it was once a country where people could successfully and openly self-organize, and now it isn’t. Once there were strong, cohesive communities in the US, which could organize and bring pressure to bear on their elected officials. And now… there are no such strong, cohesive communities in the US, and so… they can’t organize, because, I would think, there is nothing for them to organize. Existence of communities allows communities to organize; lack of community prevents communities from organizing.


11 thoughts on “A quote on organizing

  1. Phil

    Ummm . . . no. Orlov seems to believe that only political organizing is organizing. There are amazing amounts of organizing going on out in the world–left and right. There are even people out in the world whose job title is organizer (!) Churches, PTA’s, home-schoolers, Free Mumia, 12-step groups, ACT-UP, PETA, book clubs: all are forms of organizing, all take place mostly off-line, aided and abetted by internet connections.

    Bowling Alone is widely blown out of proportion. New means of acting together have replaced the older forms–it doesn’t mean organizing has disappeared. Orlov doesn’t see people organizing to do what he sees as important–challenging what he calls “totalitarian consumerism”–but given half an hour and a decent internet connection, i could find him 20 groups to whose meetings he could start attending.

    I also think Orlov is prone to one of the most widespread problems facing left activists–we’re not winning, so all hope is lost. We are drops of water wearing away the stone–that will eventually and totally dissolve. Progress is slow and sometimes almost invisible. That’s the faith a true organizer needs–that our feeble fits and starts will eventually lead to great and meaningful change.

    Don’t like this guy’s attitude. Strikes me as elitist and unconnected to everyday folks. Small sample size of his work though.

  2. Ellen

    But isn’t an organizer’s job also about getting people around the barriers to organizing that have already been put up (as he describes)? You’re not creating a community, you’re helping a community deal with various kinds of barriers.

    Orlov is a native Russian, which probably explains his weird attitude toward women, but I enjoyed his 2008 book “Reinventing Collapse.” I think that book was his high point as a public voice, however. Sometimes one says all that one has to say, and should not necessarily keep talking (a concept I try to keep in mind with this blog…)

  3. Phil

    Like I said, the barriers to organizing in the US are relatively porous–organizing is everywhere, in many different formats, in many different contexts. I think Orlov’s view is colored by the experiences in Russia where people get shot dead and poisoned by radiation by the remains of the police state that has transferred into the hands of the wealthy oligarchs.

    You’ve commented in the past that Americans, particularly the young, are quite uneducated about organizing and don’t know how to organize themselves because of that lack of knowledge. I don’t believe it. Maybe its just because of my profession, but I see efforts all over the country on wide varieties of issues. Youths, especially Latino youth, are all over the immigration issue. Remember the huge demonstrations in favor of liberalized immigration policies a few years ago? High school students shut down schools and staged walk-outs to join protests.

    Again, I might be biased, but I see organizing blooming all over the country–across the entire political spectrum . . . and transcending politics.

  4. Phil

    Orlov would do well to listen to Gandhi (who faced down much greater odds than we face today): “The goal ever recedes from us. Salvation lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”

    Lots of folks, all down for the cause (as they define it), working their hearts out across this land. This is a golden age for organizing.

  5. Josh S

    Gandhi was certainly a sage, but without any measuring stick, there can be no definition or sense of progress, or much else for that matter.

    Salvation does inhere in the effort, but solely so. Victory is more than the effort itself. An example? With hydrofracking, I will measure success in ten years by drinking water that doesn’t have benzene in it, not whether we mounted the most robust and powerful advocacy campaign the world’s ever seen.

  6. Ellen Post author

    Actually Phil, come to think of it, I would have thought you’d be more irked by Orlov’s contention that communities organize themselves (i.e., the real effort is to KEEP them from organizing) What do you think about that part of his statement?

  7. Phil

    1. Josh S. : Yea, stopping hydrofracking is an important issue that we must win. But while you’re measuring benzene levels in your drinking water ten years from now, many other issues in the struggle for people to live in an ecologically sane way will have sprung up. In order for individuals to work towards the ultimate goal, it is necessary to come to peace with the notion that individuals can never win–their only victory is to be presented with another goal. Gandhi attempted this by showing how the act of giving your all is what is ennobling–and the only thing you can control.

    2. Ellen: If I understand him correctly, Orlov believed that societies inherently sense their commonalities and the need to work together to achieve them. No argument from me on that. Even the supoposed “rugged individualsm” of the frontier pioneers was helped along by things such as barn raisings and other common efforts. A modern day equivalent are the outpourings of assistance when tsunamis and earthquakes strike–or, when people organize benefits for families facing catastrophic illnesses to defray some of the costs and give people a sense of not going it alone. Yeah, things might go a little faster if you hire a professional organizer (and I highly suggest it!) but the basics are ingrained.

  8. Josh S

    Phil: Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Paul Hawken described the self-assembled global emergence of the environmental community, all of the nonprofits, community groups, and individuals fighting specific ecological and cultural issues, as a sort of a planetary immune system. Decentralized and diffuse, self-organized yet loosely interconnected but collectively a force that mitigates the uncountable corporate bio-cultural abuses.

    My point, though, isn’t that hydrofracking is the ultimate issue, or only one against which to organize. On larger scales of time and geography, there are emerging planetary boundaries that truly threaten survival, and which have already compromised our health, integrity, and sovereignty as communities of individuals.

    One last thought…Wade Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, writes about how modernity’s achievement of elevating the individual as the most important unit is the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. He also discusses how shamans, in those rapidly-diminishing “indigenous” cultures that still survive, essentially are healers of community, that any individual disease is more a product of a broken community than an individual flaw. Yet even the shaman, even more so than the cultural relativism that has afflicted modern socieity, knows that there must be a vision, a narrative, or cosmology that fixes moral rules and standards. That while a paradox does exist between the truth of Gandhi that you cite and the necessity of having a moral ruler to make any definition of progress a meaningful one…I’d leave it as, in specific issues, there is clearly defined failure or successs. There must be, because in a relativistic world, nothing is right, or wrong, unless one believes so.

    So the ultimate fight falls within that frustratingly (or peacefully) unknowable nature of this world and the future. But one should not make the mistake, that specific battles have winners and losers, with painfully clear moral and biological consequences.

  9. Robinia

    Well, just got around to reading this….. because I was in Albany, with several hundred others from around the state, organizing (and lobbying) against hydrofracking. Concur with Phil that hiring professionals is useful (we really needed a sound system…), but, given a present threat, people rise to the occasion.

    To me, the biggest obstacles to organizing (which I agree is more or less natural) are the passivity acquired from too much television, and the obesity acquired by the force-feeding of a hog-fattening diet by the Food Monolith. Unfortunately, these two together really slow down the innate response of the community.

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