New Article: “While you were watching” by Stevie Peace & Kevin Van Meter

While you are watching: Uses of a Whirlwind and Radical Research to Come

In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working.  It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally.  For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.  You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., […] and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to the poor drudges underground, blacked to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

–       George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

In the first three months of 1936, George Orwell was dispatched to the grey industrial towns of Northern England by the Left Book Club, a similar initiative to the subscription services currently offered by many radical publishers.  His task was to document the conditions of the working class, the content of their lives and contours of their struggles.  Wigan Pier had ceased to exist in fading memories and many people he encountered in the region seemed unable to remember precisely where it stood.  What they were clear about was their position within the capitalist system and their relation to ‘intellectuals’ and socialism, Orwell’s movement of the time; this comes across in the richness of the portrayal.

Orwell’s quote points us to the need to undertake exploratory and descriptive accounts of life under capitalism and the state currently, as well as question how one documents the content of our lives and contours of our struggles, broadly defined. Far too many recent accounts are little more then abstract academic white-papers, or irrelevant ideological duels, or worse, activist trysts that only see like-minded activity as valid and worthwhile.

Hence Team Colors, along with our contributors and comrades, began an inquiry with the purpose of mapping a number of radical currents that we hoped would assist organizers to move through contemporary movement stagnation. We sought to form a collection that would provide a set of arguments and positions rather than simply taking a pulse; something focused, readable, and challenging, but that would avoid being ideologically partisan or another ‘introduction’ to radical politics. We wanted something that would be used by radical social movements in a time of crisis.

Kate Khatib, our editor, and the rest of AK Press supported us in presenting this project in the form of Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States.  Our concern both initially and since the launch of the book last year was to provide a document that would be useful; our political purpose was to provide an opportunity to begin the arduous task of starting the motor of radical community organizing.  At this one-year anniversary of the book’s release, it seems worthwhile to discuss the importance of movement research, some of its limitations, and a few of the reviews the book has received.

Team Colors and many of our comrades wondered, and continue to wonder, what the contours of struggle are at the present moment.  It was in this spirit that we began to inquire into the current composition of struggles in the United States.  Of course, we only touched on a few organized initiatives.  The collective didn’t dispatch writers in the same sense that the Left Book Club dispatched Orwell, though such a notion seems to be both distant from and immanently possible for our politics today.  Instead we asked organizers, artists, activists, theorists, and historians to write from their own position and experience.  The results were a partial mapping of current organizational initiatives in the anarchist and anti-authoritarian sphere.

Whirlwinds captured movement developments in the United States at a particular juncture – the late summer and early fall of 2009, and prior – hence a number of important current struggles did not find their way into the collection.  Since this period, we have witnessed the emergence of student occupation movements and an ongoing fight around ethnic studies education in Tucson, Arizona; union resurgence in Wisconsin; the IWW organizing in the food service industry, expanding from a coffee chain to a fast food chain; strong anti-police marches on the West Coast and a historic prison strike in Georgia, which has just this week erupted in California; and important community organizing by Vietnamese fisherfolk and other Gulf Coast residents in the wake of both human-caused and natural disasters – just to point to a few.  It is important to see these neither as terrific mobilizations or crushing losses – as some have characterized them – but rather points in a larger trajectory of struggle where intervention by radical forces would mean different outcomes.

An admitted limitation of our project is that we only asked organizers in established initiatives to speak, while the voices that are emerging and just beginning to resonate with one another – here pointing toward organizing to come – were not included.  One must ask, while struggles may resonate with one another, what happens to their unarticulated precursors?  Or more importantly with a project such as this: do those who read the text see themselves reflected in it?  Whirlwinds provides the opportunity for other self-identified radicals and organizers to see themselves within projects described.

Taking the spirit of The Road to Wigan Pier, a popular title during its time, points us to other resonances – those that take place in everyday life, in the conditions and fabrics that construct it and give it meaning.  What would such interventions look like currently?  What mechanisms and initiatives can we create to bring this work into being?  How can we document these new winds from below so that they circulate beyond our current valleys and strongholds?

We should have doubts about our own intellectual quality and superiority as revolutionaries, when it seems that so often we are only chasing our own shadows.  Orwell speaks to a momentary opportunity to see a reflection in someone else that we didn’t know was there before – what Team Colors refers to as becoming-other – and this is the seed of a relationship, the precondition for solidarity and mutual aid, and of course a revolutionary movement.

When anarchists and other anti-authoritarians see themselves as part of a larger continuum of working-class intellectualism we avoid the pitfalls of superiority that Orwell is talking about.  Emma Goldman, Carlo Tresca and the IWW, Marty Glaberman,  League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Black and Grey Panthers, Jane, ACT UP (the list could be expanded tenfold) – all are part of this history.  We raise this history as a bulwark against the anti-intellectualism that seems to be pervasive in our current movements, as well as the idea that Whirlwinds is too difficult or too academic.

We take Karl Marx seriously when he said: “I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for [themself]”.  The complexities of life and struggle aren’t easy and cannot fit into simple slogans and explanations.  Part of the critique against academic work is certainly valid – the professionalization and enclosure of knowledge, reinforcement of class distinctions, and use of specialist language – but who are these readers that radicals are looking to defend against difficult material?  Is it some imaginary Other, the unconvinced and unenlightened?  Or is it simply themselves?  Regardless of the reason given, we believe this critique has more to do with the fear of organizing outside of our own circles then any actual trouble people may have with difficult reading.  Here, and in future endeavors, our goal is to create work and moments where the readership can see themselves reflected in it.

Anti-intellectual discourses within radical movements limit the intellectual development of its adherents as well as prevent those from outside the self-identified radical subculture from participating in what could be an opportunity for self-education and personal development.  Recently, during a talk for Oppose and Propose!, author Andy Cornell related an interview he had with a former participate in Movement for a New Society (MNS), the subject of his book.  This former member relayed how the organization was created by white, middle-class activists who were rebelling against the dominant culture and how this subcultural content defined the organization’s work.  But since people of color, working class and poor people, indigenous and immigrant people, and others all have a different relationship with – and hence rebellion against – the dominant culture, the work of MNS and its own organizational culture was immensely alienating to these populations.  We would argue this problem – and the off-putting nature of subcultural rebellion – is not only prevalent in current radical movements, but that it is far more damaging than difficult reading material.

This reflection by a former member of MNS raises another point that repeatedly arose in the Whirlwinds project, namely the quality and honesty in giving an account of one’s own activities.  While the account above is self-critical and speaks to the limitations of particular approaches, current radicals seem to be infected by the discourses that dominate the left, trade union movement and non-profit industry.  These approaches often provide a press-release version of their own organizing: they never discuss limitations and impasses, rarely admit defeat, or talk about how their organizing work functions within particular geographic, class, and other boundaries.  A number of individuals and organizations we spoke to stated that from beginning to end they have never made a misstep or strategic error.  Anyone that has been involved in actual organizing knows this has to be far from the truth.  We are certainly not calling for a generalized “shit talking” of others’ work, or our own, but rather the need to challenge how we research and present current organizing.  For instance, a survey created for and distributed by a local infoshop can illuminate who utilizes the space, who doesn’t, and why they don’t, which allows the project to connect with various communities and networks in our neighborhoods.  This research gives the infoshop organizers and the community it serves the opportunity for an honest portrayal, as well as the development of strategies to address impasses, limitations, and successes of the project.  A survey is just one simple way of moving toward more useful assessments of how our work functions.

This is one strategy for initiatives to produce knowledge while expanding the base and density of relationships.  Additional strategies include hosting ongoing community dialogs, community inventories and map making, interventionist and participatory art projects, local history events, regular cross-cultural potlucks, issue-specific speak-outs, oral history projects, and co-research endeavors, among various others.

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Team Colors takes the position that “struggle is never inevitable nor automatic”. Struggle requires an honest assessment of the current relations of power and of the composition of the working class; it requires research and feedback loops on the strengths and weakness of movement strategies; it requires radical community organizing that is grounded in our own everyday lives as they are rather than as we wish them to be; and it will require relationships that are built beyond the boundaries of our current movements.  The future of the revolution can be found, partially, in movement research that will include projects such as Whirlwinds and those in the spirit of Wigan Pier.

We offer Uses of a Whirlwind as a document to be used by and useful for those in radical movements. Its limitations and omissions are simply opportunities for future research.  Some years ago Harry Cleaver, autonomist Marxist and author, stated to us that “working people are too busy making history to document history”.  It is our task as revolutionaries to do both.

Stevie Peace & Kevin Van Meter for the Team Colors Collective

July 2011