The Pains of Labor

I’m a little embarassed/shy to put this up here, but here goes… this is an article about the organizer as a midwife (borrowed from plato’s dialogue in the theaetetus). I could split the second half and do two articles: the midwife article that’s all sappy, and then an article on how we should organize to transform social relations what that means, what it entails, how we should change our language, assessments, and goals.


In Plato’s dialogue, The Theaetetus, Plato has Socrates describe his philosophical method as midwifery. According to ancient Greek traditions midwives were only women who were no longer able to give birth. Socrates notes that though it is not normally their practice, it would have been considered unprofessional for midwives to get muddled up in the products of their labor, midwives are exceptional matchmakers. Just as someone who works with the soil knows how to match the proper seed with the right land, so the midwife has insight into the blossoming of love. Yet Socrates is concerned not with physical birth, but rather the birth of truths and goodness within people’s minds. As he is a midwife of truth, he cannot give the answers, but only spur on his pregnant mothers with the right questions.


Plato’s story is merely that, a story. It is a piece of literature which uses analogies to demonstrate philosophical ideas and methodology. For revolutionaries the concepts within the analogy are ripe.


Sometimes it can be difficult to explain or even wrap our heads around the role organizers play in an organization which is based around horizontal power. The concepts we have seem insufficient. Teacher, leader, representative, etc., are all loaded. Volunteer, fellow worker, and ‘we are all leaders’ are too unspecific and sometimes cloak the reality of the social relationships that do exist.


An organizer is a midwife. What the organizer helps bring into the world isn’t babies, but rather the birth of new social relationships. These new social relationships grow within us. We become pregnant with the struggles of work, in seeing how others must live, in helping our friends and being helped, and in trying to make sense of our world when everything is pushing us just to keep moving. Left to our own devices we often miscarry, or our child is silent and we don’t know how to take care of it.


The organizer is someone who has given birth to solidarity and struggle out of the pains of their life, and was shown by others the art of nurturing and developing life. We have to give birth ourselves, the midwife can’t take on our tasks even if she wanted to. The midwife knows when the labor will be painful or smooth, and she has medicine and exercises to prepare the mother for what lies ahead. Our struggle isn’t pedagogical, it’s reproductive.


Hierarchical power is most obviously shown through institutions and structures, but is built upon the perpetuation and reproduction of social relationships. Capitalism itself is fundamentally a social relation. Capitalism is imposed on us, but it is also something that we reproduce in our daily lives. Revolution can occur when we organize collectively and transform the social relations which hierarchical power depends on.


The transformation of social relations isn’t only relegated to that grand moment when power is overturned and people dance in the streets. Social relations are ruptured, shifted, reinvented, and improvised all around us. Workers reclaiming time at work through altering production in order to use it to their own ends is transforming social relations. Workers acting together in solidarity and breaking down the atomization that capital founds its hierarchy on is a transformation of social relations. It isn’t transforming capital’s fundamental social relation, but we can transform social relations through our collective solidarity that point to a new world beyond capitalism.


This is one thing that distinguishes us from business unions. Our goals are different. The business unions don’t need to transform social relations. You can get an increase in benefits without changing the social relations that hierarchy propagates and entails. They rely on that solidarity to get contracts and maintain their power, but stop at those agreements and go no further. In fact unions are often committed to the persistence of some pretty unsavory social relationships like hierarchies of skill, education, race, gender, nationality, etc. The struggle of the business unions in no way tries to confront the alienation or loneliness of our lives. Business unions don’t challenge, threaten, or attempt to shift the basic fact that we are compelled to live and work in a world where we have no say what we are working for, what we are trying to build with our lives, and how we spend our time.


We need to be clear about this to understand what we are fighting for, and to see how we are building it everyday in our work, in our community we’re building, and in our hearts. When we organize we’re not trying to get just one more dollar per hour, we’re taking steps together to reclaim a piece of our lives through direct action and solidarity, and taking one step down the road to running society together without bosses.




2 thoughts on “The Pains of Labor

  1. I like this. I’ve not read that dialog, I’ll have to get it out over xmas. That metaphor could totally work with the late Althusser stuff on encounters and moving away from assertions of predictive power. I think you could definitely make this into two pieces as you said, if you do I think it’d be interesting to work in the second aspect of the midwife, as a good matchmaker. That’s also in line with organizing.
    take it easy,

  2. Ah totally I think I was intending to but gotlost talking about social relations. I’ll read that post.

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