The success of failure

This is an article N. wanted me to write. It is a revision of something I wrote in India though it’s really rough. Again comments would be super ausgezeichnet!

There have been deep changes in the way society organizes communities, cities, and workplaces from the years of old when many of the political models we work off where hashed out. Our jobs are different, production is different, products are different, and the relationship between capital, the state, and workers has been fundamentally transformed. We are spread out across the land, our families smaller, communities broken up and atomized, and with shrinking “free” time our interactions grow more and more mediated and restrained. Today there is a lack of, and a corresponding desire for, real community. There is a deep yearning to break out of the loneliness and alienation of a life of work and deprivation.


It is my belief that the real vitality and strength of the Portland IWW has been community and mutual growth in a real and socially rooted sense. What seems to make the community grow is ongoing support, discussion, frameworks, and bonds to deal with the alienation, conflict, and problems in our lives under capitalism. I’ve noticed that this happens outside of meetings mostly, outside of publications always. It isn’t standardized or procedural in trainings or official functions.


It’s worth considering that the lifeblood of the organization falls outside of our normal definition of success and failure. We tend to think (or at least talk) of success and failure in terms of winning campaigns, achieving demands, membership numbers, building members out of struggles, etc. Despite this language of success, many of our most active members are from campaigns that didn’t achieve their goals, and few active members are from campaigns that did. Betrayals, false starts, firings, attacks, and the like seem to have gotten us some of the best people, whereas gains often led to slow deaths (contracts leading to passive satellite shops uninterested in organizing and interaction, direct unionism campaigns that the workers drop out of after gains are achieved, etc). There is obviously a clash between our thinking and our practice.


The normal way of understanding our goals and drives should be redirected towards having a community for understanding, struggling, and supporting each other in a world of capital. What moves me and what I see drawing others is how we transform social relations both organizing on the job and as we grow together. When you organize, especially at a job that is really oppressive, something is ruptured. You are able to reshape your life in ways that are deeply moving for many people, so moving that people are willing to risk their livelihoods to be a part of it. When I was on strike at a home for children with acute behavioral problems almost none of the workers planned to stick around for the end of the next contract period. People were striking for something bigger than that (unfortunately they were betrayed by the SEIU, and their own short sightedness). 


Noting this, I wonder how our organizational framework gets in the way of that community and social relationships, and how it has fostered it.


There has been study, discussion and a drive towards both utilizing community in our struggles, utilizing informal social networks in organizing, and building real community in the organization. We have critiques of capital and the fragmentation it produces, and seek to have a connected participatory world.


Yet it seems to me our work is failing to utilize these insights, and even treats community as a means to an end implicitly. Organizing around and with community to me should involve having community be the primary vehicle of organization and struggle. The social networks that exist in the workplace and our lives are, no matter how we may pretend otherwise, where organizing happens. There is a tendency to play tug of war between trying to formalize everything into a meeting, which drives people away and work fails to happen, and to be too loose where individuals act undemocratically and harm others with their actions. The solution lies in being organized around how people are organized, rather than trying to impose an artificial organization form (remember our meeting structure comes from the bourgeois parliaments of long ago) onto workers. The question is not whether we have meetings or not. The question is when do we have meetings, and what do they look like. That also doesn’t necessarily mean that all of our work becomes informal.


Accountability without leadership- One place where this tension manifests is our struggles to find a dynamic and democratic practice of accountability. We’ve been experimenting with finding a balance between outright leadership and guidance of workers’ struggles and encouraging workers’ self-directed activity. We don’t have paid staff, refuse to act for workers, but also want to keep workers’ autonomous struggles accountable to the broader organization. This raises some questions in our practices. First, does the pace of the social reality of workplace struggles and passions correspond to democratic accountable process (as we’ve seen it)? It may be that the rate at which a shop heats up is faster to rise and fall than accountability demands. How can we accommodate the time frame of organizing if we expect workers to become organizers out of their experiences in struggle, and also are not willing to do the work for workers?


The IWW in Portland learned some hard lessons about what happens when individuals can act against the wishes of the broader group. Consequently there has been a push to create some means of making individuals accountable to the organization more widely. There have been real positives and some negatives in these attempts. One thing I’ve observed is that in multiple instances when we’ve been approached by workers/shops with energy and agitation we put the brakes on, and try to incorporate that into a committee structure, planning sessions, etc., that can take months if not years. The reasoning (which seems right to me) is that some level of planning, assistance, experience, is needed before moving forward strategically, energy or not.


Still we do not have the resources or the ideology that allows member-organizers to layout a campaign for workers seeking to organize. Campaigns have sometimes stagnated, and workers been discouraged by a catch 22 of not being able to move forward on their inclinations (to take action, to build confrontations, etc), while also not getting leadership from the IWW. Partly this is a pragmatic question of how much time and resources we have, but it also brings up some deeper issues. I see it moving one of two ways, either we move down the path of providing services to workers or we find a way to have solidarity and accountability with workers driving the initiative.


The first I think would be too resource heavy without evolving into an organization that is funded and also more committed to leading workers (which we are opposed too). This I think would be a mistake on a number of levels (ideologically, and practically), and would deepen the impression workers get of us being a service organization that will act for them.


The second possibility would require some shifts in our practices. It requires sometimes accepting workers’ mistakes and false starts, finding a balance between putting the brakes on and keeping the heat on, and perhaps even allowing for a multiplicity of means and forms of struggle outside our own. Broadly speaking I think we may have swung too far towards bureaucracy and accountability in a way that tends to stifle campaigns, push workers away, and burns out active members. I don’t see the need to dispose of accountability altogether, but find a framework that makes sense and fits our lives, rather than impeding our struggles.




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