Thursday, November 17, 2011

“An Art of War for Organizers Around the World”

If the most urgent question in the world today is “What is to be done?” then the answer could not be clearer: “Organize! Organize! Organize!”

Vladimir Lenin asked that question in the early 1900s, quoting Nikolai Chernyshevsky who posed it a generation earlier. In the 1930s, in his novel The Jungle, Upton Sinclair gave the most concise answer possible, and wrote it three times to make sure we got the message.

But things are complicated in the 21st century. There is no doubt that mass movements are necessary both for human rights and for the survival of ecosystems. Yet building a mass movement is a science and an art which is not well understood. This art and science is called organizing, but to quote an old proverb, “there is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.” How, where, who, when, and what must we organize?

For about a decade, I've been looking for answers to these questions. I've read ancient history and modern history looking for the clues to understand our current economic and ecological crisis and for possible ways to overcome them. From Sun Tzu to Lenin to Gandhi to Che to Martin Luther King to Saul Alinsky, I've read everything I could get my hands on about how to organize. I've also sought out living knowledge, and learned from a great number of teachers, seeking answers to this simple and yet neverendingly complex question. I've been trained in how to organize by a large number of organizations and individuals -- in student groups, the anti-war movement, in international solidarity organizations, by anti-globalization activists, in labor unions and in worker centers. I've put this knowledge to the test, organizing with all these groups, developing my own ideas and techniques to fill in the gaps, as every organizer has to.

While there is an immense amount to be learned about how to organize, this vital information is scattered. It's not easy to find. To make matters worse, a lot of what I've come across is a mix of outdated, too basic, too complex, too dry, or sometimes, in my opinion, downright wrong.

Luckily, and not a moment too soon, Eric Mann has put the pieces together for the 21st century. “Playbook for Progressives” will not be the last word on organizing. But it is the word of our time. Distilled from four decades of organizing on the front lines of the civil rights, anti-war, student and labor movements, Mann outlines the most important elements of successful organizing and advocates for “transformative organizing” (through which organizers seek to transform themselves) and “the social justice revolution.” Mike Davis calls this book “An Art of War for organizers around the world.”

Somehow, this book manages to capture most of what I've come across in a decade of learning how to organize, holds it together with a style that is both accessible and sophisticated, and never loses its foundation in radical, transformative, anti-imperialist politics. For experienced organizers, this book will to provide clarity, creativity, and courage to take on the system in these times of accelerating crisis. For those new to organizing, this book will jump-start your consciousness and catapult you onto the front lines of struggle to build a new world from the crumbling shell of the old.

There is one critique of this book I've heard which deserves addressing, because answering it will highlight one aspect of what I think is so good about it. Some experienced organizers I know have argued that the book is too basic. At first glance, the book is not theoretical. It is constructed around a list of “qualities”, and each of these qualities is illustrated with a story about a particular organizer who excels in that quality. Those who have been organizing for a long time may be familiar with most of the ideas that the book puts forward, and some might be frustrated that there isn't something more theoretically insightful for them to bite into.

At second glance, I would argue that the book is more theoretical than meets the eye. It is theoretical in the way that it is conceived and written, and not in any vague, wishy-washy sense. It is very much a historical materialist text, proceeding not from theory to practice, but the other way around. It derives ideas based off of the experiences of organizers, and then applies these ideas back into practice, from which new ideas and practices in turn emerge. The book is thus dialectical in both form and content. In this sense, it is a valuable lesson for critical theorists in how to walk the walk, both in their theory and in their practice. It is written by someone who has walked this walk of praxis for decades, who is well versed in Marxist theory, but who knows how to demonstrate dialectics without using the word. “Can dialectics break bricks?” a Situationist film asked in the late 1960s... Perhaps if more theorists read this book we might be closer to an affirmative answer.

Lenin famously wrote that there can be no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory. But there cannot be either without organizers, who know how to forge them together into a life's work. In these times of upheaval, of economic chaos and climate catastrophe, more than anything we need organizers, people ready to hit the ground running with the know-how to do what must be done. “The skills of organizing that Eric Mann shares in Playbook for Progressives,” writes Vandana Shiva, “are the life blood of democracy, human rights, social and economic justice, and planetary survival.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

What is Wall Street?

[The following text has been distributed in pamphlet form at Occupy Wall Street, among other places.]

The question is both simple and complex. On every continent, in every city, even in the most remote rural villages, the power and influence of Wall Street are known and felt. But what is it exactly? Wall Street is a symbol and a system. But to fully understand what it is and what it represents, we have to learn its history...

Wall Street was originally a wall, built by the first colony of European settlers on the island of Manhattan. 3040 feet long and 12 feet high, it was one of the first enclosures of the commons on this continent, and the beginning of the conquest of North America. Built in 1653 to keep the Lenape people of the Algonquin civilization out, the wall defined a frontier and a fortress of settler colonialism. It was the cutting edge of a genocide which in the next 300 years would exterminate millions of native Americans.

Wall Street was also the beginning of the slave trade in North America. The wall was built by Africans enslaved by the colonists. Later, Wall Street became the first major slave market in North America. The genocide of millions of Africans, both through enslavement and the horrors of the middle passage in slave ships, has its origins here as well.

This double genocide, forged on Wall Street, was pioneered by the Dutch West India Company, which used the colony on Manhattan as its headquarters to oversee its pillaging of Asia. Thus Wall Street was also the beginning of transnational corporate rule.

From this corporate crucible was born the United States of America. George Washington, freedom fighter for colonists, master for slaves, and town destroyer for native Americans, was inaugurated as the first US president on Wall Street in 1789. The Bill of Rights was also ratified on Wall Street. This country's freedoms and atrocities thus share this birthplace. Wall Street embodies the central paradox of US culture and economy, the original sin we have yet to understand or overcome.

The enclosure of the commons, the conquest, expanded to new frontiers. The wall came down, was paved over, and became Wall Street. But Wall Street has always remained on the front lines. In
1792, the New York Stock Exchange was founded on Wall Street. It was the birth of what was to become finance capital, which in short time would rise to rule the world. Wall Street is the capital of capitalism. It is a symbol and a system of money. The same money that funded and facilitated genocide, slavery, and corporate rule in the 17th century is still at large today, running wild all over the globe. The history of Wall Street stretches in an unbroken line from the Dutch West India Company to the Bank of America, BP and Halliburton.

As the roads of empire are paved in money, they all lead to banks. The war machine and Wall Street are one. The bloody footprints of every US military action, from the Indian Removal Policy to the War on Terror, can be tracked to Wall Street, where bankers devised a thousand and one ways to turn blood into money, and that money into more money, to be invested into the spilling of more blood...

Wall Street is at the center of everything that threatens our lives and our planet. Those who profit from economic crisis, war, and environmental destruction all have a common headquarters here. We cannot fight them each in separate trenches. All of these crises converge around the capitalist system, for which Wall Street was and remains Ground Zero.

One of the busiest places in the world on days when there's money to be made, when the stock exchanges close, Wall Street is suddenly deserted. For hundreds of years, it has been a capital without community. Capitalism cannot hide that underneath all its wealth there is profound emptiness. See for yourself. The old order is dying and the new is struggling to be born.

“Now one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you... Then something severe, something unusual must be done. What!
-Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Wall Street is a symbol of everything that is wrong with our world, and it is the headquarters of a system which will continue to destroy everything in its cancerous need for limitless profit and endless growth. Capitalism cannot be reformed any more than the leopard can change its spots. We need a path and a destination which can guide us out of this system that is suicide for humanity and for the environment. We need the shared goal of a post-capitalist society freed from exploitation, and in harmony with nature. One name for such a society is ecosocialism.

Ecosocialism is more a path than a destination, though it is a destination as well, which is prefigured in the walking of the path. Both path and destination reject the false comfort that by merely mentioning capitalism as the problem, and airbrushing it with warm and fuzzy words like sharing and cooperation, we have embarked upon a transformative and radical journey. Capitalism must be uprooted – torn from its points of invasion, from the soil under our feet and from the soul inside of us.

For this reason the ecosocialist alternative must be socialist, which entails a radical and final departure from capitalism. There are many definitions of socialism, and any magic in this name has been rather beaten up by history. Ecosocialism is a transformation of the original socialist project. It is the next evolutionary stage of socialism, reflecting the unprecedented ecological crisis, alongside the equally unprecedented economic crisis. Ecosocialism is a world-wide movement that calls for a socialism fully realized in society and nature, together.

Ecosocialism is a revolutionary response to a new turning point in history, though one with ancient roots. Ecosocialists honor the life-ways of the indigenous peoples of every continent, whose economies and cultures are guided by an understanding and practice of fundamental unity with nature. We draw upon the wisdom of the ages as well as the latest science. Ecosocialism is not a new kind of economy, but a new mode of production, and a new way of being. It is a visionary turn that calls for a spiritual as well as a material transformation, proceeding through prefiguration.

The praxis – a word bringing together the unity of theory and practice – of prefiguration is the capacity to think and act through the veil of our desperate times: to understand the present in terms of the possible future as well as the inescapable past. For while the future can only be imagined and the past can never be reclaimed, yet the past can be learned from, in both its errors and glories, so that a worthy future can be built now, in the light of possibility that this future casts on the horizon of today.

The general formula for this is simple enough in principle; it consists of a twofold movement: first, organize freely associated and ecocentric labor, and second, extend and interconnect the sites of ecosocialist transformation into larger wholes. Ecosocialism therefore encompasses the practical organizing of basic reforms such as free health care and public transportation, renewable energy, etc. It also requires that we organize worldwide networks, unifying the global South and North in great campaigns for economic and environmental justice, and in struggle against transnational corporations and the capitalist state. Wall Street is the cancer. Ecosocialism is the cure.

An inter-generational and multinational group is working as you read to build an ecosocialist organization and movement here in New York and internationally. It calls itself Ecosocialist Horizons. If you would like to get involved, send us an email at