Excerpt from Uses of a Whirlwind – Section Summaries

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Excerpt from Uses of a Whirlwind – Section Summaries:

Organization Case Studies

Winds and inquiries, in their most basic forms, begin with small moments and initiatives that arise out of everyday life. Organizational forms come into being as expressions and amplifications of the daily struggles and desires of their participants. We want to understand how a set of projects function and seek to recompose the political environs in which they find themselves. These sample case studies cycle through the political landscape, covering many areas, themes, and movements that are sometimes interrelated but seemingly disconnected. These struggles reflect the desire to confront neoliberal capital and the state apparatus, as well as the need for substantive radical community organizing efforts.

As we discussed in the introduction to this volume, capital’s response to the 1960s and 1970s movements of “fire” was brutal in its discipline of the working class through what equated to structural adjustment of the United States. Waged work and unwaged reproductive work have become increasingly precarious in the subsequent decades. In response, precarious workers have created organizational forms to reconstruct their working and everyday lives. The following chapters describe some of these developments, including the Starbucks Workers Union, Student/Farmworker Alliance, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Confronting capitalist planning has become more important as neoliberal capital seeks to expand its reach. Direct Action to Stop the War, Roadblock Earth First!, Right to the City Alliance, City Life/Vida Urbana, Take Back the Land, and Picture the Homeless have engaged in struggles that address, respectively, wars of discipline and resource extraction, the construction of a massive neoliberal highway system in the United States, processes of gentrification and privatization, and crisis-induced waves of foreclosure, evictions, wage declines, and homelessness.

Throughout the history of working-class struggle, the circulation of knowledges and of struggles themselves in sites of “encounter” has amplified, strengthened, and coordinated movements. Recent developments include the proliferation of infoshops, such as Bluestockings in New York City, and the creation of a U.S.-based counterpart to the World Social Forum, where the circulation of struggles finds important expression. It is in these areas, where case studies have begun to be mapped and situated within the winds, that the possibilities of magnifying and expanding current struggles can be found.

In “Bluestockings Bookstore and New Institutions of Self-Organized Work: The Space between Common Notions and Common Institutions” [1], Bluestockings co-owner and collective member Malav Kanuga discusses the importance and difficulties of a radical space in the context of post-fiscal crisis New York City. Kanuga addresses the challenges of a radical space in a gentrifying city, the complexities of intersecting politics, the benefits and pitfalls of collective ownership, and the role space can potentially have in increasing class composition.

Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) is one of the few prominent anti-war groups to use direct action. In “Anti-Authoritarian Organizing in Practice” [2], DASW organizers in the San Francisco Bay Area track the development and implementation of a series of actions in 2008 marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. The authors examine the predicaments that many struggles face currently including questions of sustainability, larger movement strategy, and engagement with the Left.

At a point when Earth First! was waning nationally, the organizing efforts of Roadblock Earth First!—based in Bloomington, Indiana and focused on stopping construction of Interstate-69, part of the NAFTA superhighway—helped to spur new energy. Rather than continue increasingly futile summit hopping, Roadblock aims to directly target capitalist infrastructure, as explained in their contribution “A Look at Resistance to Interstate 69: Past, Present, and Future” [3]. The addendum written by one Roadblock organizer discusses some of the weaknesses and strengths encountered in their work, as well as the benefits of using direct action.

The Starbucks Workers Union formed out of difficult circumstances: a deflated and tightly managed labor movement, a boom in corporate chains, and an immense growth in the “precarious class” of workers—easily disposable, seemingly unorganizable. “The Precarious Economy and its Discontents: Struggling Against the Corporate Chains Through Workplace Organizing”[4] discusses the extent of the precarious conditions from which their organizing emerged, campaigns they have launched, and new challenges in light of the economic crisis.

In the wake of the 1990s victories of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an alter- globalization organization known for waging high-level campaigns against fast food industry giants such as Taco Bell, a loose network of Florida students formed the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), which has provided strategic support and solidarity for the CIW. In “Harvesting Solidarity: Farmworkers, Allies, and the Fight for Fair Food” [5], SFA enumerates on the function and composition of their work, consistently emphasizing the importance of popular education as a tool in struggle.

In 2009, organizations and activists convened in Baltimore for the City From Below Conference, intended as a site of encounter among struggles in the cities. “A Conversation on Organizing Models for Social Justice Struggles in the City” [6] was one conversation that resulted. Moderated by veteran organizer Betty Robinson, this roundtable of the organizations Take Back the Land, City Life/Vida Urbana, Picture the Homeless, and United Workers explores a variety of approaches and strategies deployed in current poor people’s organizing, particularly focused on the effects of the economic crisis.

The U.S. Social Forum serves as a site of encounter, discussion, and the sharing of knowledges and struggles. Marina Karides of the U.S. Social Forum Documentation Committee lays bare the skeleton of the U.S. Social Forum process as well as the issues, concerns, and experiences that connect with it in her chapter, “What’s Going On? The United States Social Forum, Grassroots Activism, and Situated Knowledge” [7]. Karides demonstrates that the “U.S. Yet to Come” begins to take shape from a myriad of struggles, organizations, experiences, and realities circulating across the country.

The Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have emerged as new urban-centered struggles against neoliberalism. In “Building Power in the City: Reflections on the Emergence of the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance” [8], Harmony Goldberg analyzes these movements’ form and function, their challenges on both local and national levels, and their potential as oppressed-people’s organizing that learns how to navigate nonprofits and political campaigns without being trapped by them.

This closing chapter reminds us of the interconnected elements of neoliberal capital and the organizational responses needed to address these elements. From these case studies and other countless initiatives on the social field, we turn to movement strategies, where we find connections and relations among these initiatives.

Movement Strategies

As we move from locally-based organizations to regional and national formations in the previous section, we see how specific and separate struggles uncovered complex relationships between local struggles, regional contexts, and planetary configurations of neoliberal capital. By exploring a selection of current movements in the abstract—how they move, where they meet, where they are located, and what strategies they use—we find areas of resonance among whirlwinds that can assist us in our organizing endeavors.

The points of contact among movements in this section are not easily discernible; in some cases, these points don’t exist at all. This is due to the multiplicity of forms struggle has taken in the current period, and we would be remiss to impose artificial links between them in the hope that such struggles can effortlessly translate. Rather, we wish to inquire into the composition of movements, as we contextualize, amplify, and describe them as they are, not how they should be. What results is a partial map, as these movement strategies provide lessons without trying to copy their respective landscapes.

Alter-globalization strategies peaked at the turn of the century before giving way to a period of decomposition; they are now undergoing significant shifts, as the climate justice and food sovereignty movements have connected planetary struggles to local contexts. The now-defunct organization Mobilization for Global Justice was at the forefront of such strategies, particularly in its later years when it sought to create linkages between planetary neoliberal phenomena and gentrification processes taking place in Washington, DC.

Looking across the social field, we find another key area for political recomposition and strategic thinking over the past decade, situated in movements around harm reduction, prison abolition, and restorative justice. These relatively new formulations draw from deeper movement histories that engage with harm and healing, but they also intersect with a myriad of projects and areas of life.

Radical queer organizing has also been resurgent as activists reorient around powerful intersections with struggles concerning gentrification, public space, policing and prison, sex work, and immigration. This organizing draws from community-based initiatives as well as creative action infused with play. Here we see attempts to revolt against the imposition of gender binaries and heteronormativity, while simultaneously connecting queerness with the multifaceted and diverse lives, bodies, and affects of queers themselves.

Concluding this section are chapters on radical art, autonomous media, and mapping. Radical artists have sought to engage their environs, create new social relationships, and challenge power dynamics with creative and communicative responses that build movements by moving minds and bodies. Independent and autonomous media have decomposed as radical approaches have been increasingly infused into capitalist practices, but autonomous media forms have continually composed, even through intense corporate efforts to co-opt them, to circulate struggles and provide important encounters. We’ve also seen the rise of radical mapping projects that research and inquire into radical movements and their locales. Uses of a Whirlwind echoes this development, partially mapping current struggles so that they can be “read” and used.

“Local Struggles, Global Contexts: Building Movements in North America in the Age of Globalized Capital” [9] summarizes Basav Sen’s reflections on the alter-globalization cycle of struggle and the unsustainability of mass mobilization movements without strong local bases. Sen discusses attempts to clearly attack local manifestations of neoliberalism in cooperation with grassroots community organizing groups. He calls for continued movement building with an international perspective that seriously engages community struggles in the United States.

Rural America has long been a site of rich organizing campaigns as well as violent repression and decomposition; these struggles flow into national and international food systems. John Peck of the Family Farm Defenders argues for food sovereignty—not just food security—in his chapter, “You Are What You Eat: The Food Sovereignty Struggle within the Global Justice Movement [10]. Peck illustrates linkages between global justice movements and national developments in the era of globalized food systems, pointing to areas of organizing and movement expansion.

As the planet’s climate changes, so turn the American weather systems, in the form of desertification in the Southwest or massive flooding in the Gulf Coast. Brian Tokar explores the rise of the global climate justice movement in “Toward a Movement for Climate Justice” [11]. Tokar explores both statist and radical approaches to a problem that disproportionately impacts the world’s poor and the Global South, noting that the recent failure of the Copenhagen UN Summit indicates the need for a climate justice movement that challenges both capital and the state apparatus.

Stevie Peace looks critically at the political terrain of harm in “The Desire to Heal: Harm Intervention in a Landscape of Restorative Justice and Critical Resistance” [12], currently dominated by the prison-industrial complex, yet also a landscape of developing forms of harm engagement in struggle. He brings the harm intervention projects Restorative Justice Community Action and Critical Resistance into encounter, exposing their potentials as well as dangers, such as the non-profit industry and academia. He suggests that the memory of harm and trauma may lead to emergent “desires to heal.”

In “DIY Politics and Queer Activism” [13], Ben Shepard contrasts the queer organizing of groups like Radical Homosexual Agenda and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project with the assimilationist work of Human Rights Campaign. Shepard emphasizes the passion and creativity of DIY approaches to radical community building and resistance. He sees the creation and development of queer commons, harm reduction, direct action, and zines as important counters to the limits and dangers of assimilationist approaches to organizing.

In “Art as Intervention: A Guide to Today’s Radical Art Practices” [14], Julie Perini begins to map current radical and interventionist art practices as a way of building new social relations. Advocates for social change such as The Yes Men flow into interventionist practices like Critical Art Ensemble, connecting further with projects that specifically coordinate resources and dialog. The democratization of radical art practices demonstrates that new social relations and organizing approaches are possible.

The launch of the Independent Media Center in 1999 at the WTO protests in Seattle shook up the media world. Dorothy Kidd assesses the developments and challenges since this eruption in “Whistling into the Typhoon: A Radical Inquiry into Autonomous Media” [15], where she explores autonomous forms of media, efforts at corporate co-optation thereof, and continued efforts by activists for self-determined media that function for the purpose of social justice.

In “Getting to Know Your City and the Social Movements That Call it Home: The Hybrid Networking and Documentary Work of AREA Chicago” [16], Daniel Tucker discusses the development of AREA Chicago, a publication that examines social relations and struggles using a strategy of locally grounded analysis. AREA seeks to understand capital’s manifestations and developments in order to clarify how a community responses to this imposition. Tucker calls for local re-engagement in radical organizing and community building.

The more we understand movement strategies on the social field, the more codes, lessons, and motivations we can use in our own locales to create movements and winds. In the next section, we explore the points where winds meet, intersect, and strengthen into whirlwinds, transcending metaphor and moving into political concepts and theories.

Theoretical Analyses

Harry Cleaver, whose article “Uses of an Earthquake” influenced the politics and title of this collection, once stated to us that political theory and political concepts are simply abstractions from concrete reality. He suggested that the test of such theorization is not the act of abstraction per se, but rather the accuracy and usefulness of the concept to explain, amplify, communicate, and create encounters. The explorations of the previous sections suggest concepts that complicate and expand our understanding of the composition of radical movements. Here we find questions of power: power of the working class in relation to and against the technical composition of capital, as well as the neoliberal state’s processes of enclosure and a burgeoning society of control.

One way to begin assessing these theoretical questions is through knowledge, communication, and encounter. Two of our contributors explore these areas here. The first looks at categories of understanding and how they translate struggles taking place in particular locales, in a general circulation of knowledges. The second examines means by which knowledges are shared. These different forms and uses of knowledge-sharing enrich and complicate our understanding of the struggle against capital and empire.

As part of this understanding, this section includes a pair of contributions that explore the current economic crisis. By describing three elements of the crisis—food, energy, and work—and exploring the financialization of capital and the university, these contributions look at the crisis in terms of its effect on working class composition.

Couched in the current crisis is the continued process of capitalist enclosures, necessitating a political project of recreating the commons. One of our contributors argues that any discussion of the common must include a reorganization of gendered work, as well as centralizing the question of our own reproduction in organizing.

Another contributor approaches the commons through the act of communing in creating popular sovereignty, identifying historical structures conceived as weapons against tyranny.

Our final chapter in this section seeks to address many of the themes contained throughout this collection, calling for “radical patience and the need to construct meaningful communities, rather than just spectacular actions, self-referential identities, and creating more ‘activists.’”

Maribel Casas-Cortes and Sebastian Cobarrubias offer a translation of struggles across the Atlantic in “Transatlantic Translations: Detectives and Researchers for the Revolution(s)” [17]. From the university triangle of Durham, North Carolina to the squatter neighborhoods of Madrid, Spain, they begin mapping circulating knowledges. They offer a trilogy of translations, where concepts, theories, ideas, and ways of acting politically are challenged and interrogated with the purpose of improving practice on the ground.

In a cooperative format of co-interviewing entitled “Organizing Encounters and Generating Events” [18], theorist Michael Hardt and “community center” El Kilombo Intergaláctico explore Hardt’s theoretical work with Antiono Negri—particularly, their concept of ‘empire’—and move into the current constructions of capitalism. They offer insights into new forms of political organizing that conclude with a dual theory of encounter: event-encounter and community-encounter. Returning to this notion in 2009, they examine new challenges and moments of rupture for movements in the Obama era.

Brian Marks describes some of the paths that have brought us into the current economic crisis in his chapter “Living in a Whirlwind: The Food/Work/Energy Crisis” [19]. Marks argues that this crisis, and crisis in general, is a form of planning or strategy for capital in its fictitious (securities, bonds, stocks, debts, futures, and derivatives) and primitive (accumulation) forms. He describes how wealth is transferred from billions of workers into the sectors of energy and food, locating refusals of the working class that are disrupting the deployment of the food/work/energy crisis.

In his chapter “Notes on the Financial Crisis: From Meltdown to Deep Freeze” [20], George Caffentzis discusses the recent financial crisis as a development arising from international class struggles. He analyzes capitalist strategies of financialization as mechanisms to protect sectors of capital while undermining and attacking workers’ struggles. Caffentzis ties this context of financialization into the growth of the Chinese economy, the victories of Chinese proletarian struggles, the crisis of neoliberalism, and the implications of multi-billion dollar corporate bailouts.

In response to capital’s insistent need to subjugate all life to the market, the concept of the commons has gained new importance. Reflecting on what is common, Silvia Federici draws our attention to the continued gendered nature of reproductive labor. In “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons In an Era of Primitive Accumulation” [21], she argues that any meaningful revolutionary movement and engagement with the politics of the common needs to centralize self-reproduction, which in turn requires a re-centering of reproductive labor, social reproduction, and care work.

The power of common people prior to political constitution is an area rich in historical and theoretical exploration. In “Pallas and ‘The People’s Business’” [22], historian Peter Linebaugh examines the commons and the act of communing in current and historical forms. Linebaugh describes the jury as a weapon against terror, a crucial communing practice at a time when popular sovereignty was resurgent. Today, when the market endlessly surges into our everyday lives and the state shores up against resistance, we may find tools from this history to inform our struggles.

Chris Carlsson addresses the difficulties of contemporary activism in “Radical Patience: Feeling Effective Over the Long Haul” [23]. Through a contextualization of the mass mobilizations of recent years, Carlsson calls for checking the Activist-identity and living a life based in pleasure, fulfillment, and resistance. He suggests that a healthier take on activism—one that takes our personal desires and needs for community into account—will be more successful in building movements and avoiding burn-out.

These final reflections lend grist to Uses of a Whirlwind; our project seeks to prod further in this direction, raising questions as to what is necessary for building and sustaining movements in the United States at the present moment. To aid us, we move into our final section, as we listen to the lessons of past movements through the voices of its elders.

Interviews

The winds that circulate through the United States and across the planet often need reminders of the ground they are blowing over; this also holds true for Team Colors, as we attempt to situate this collection amongst current struggles. We thus conclude this collection with three interviews of movement elders. As historians, organizers, and theorists in their own right, Robin D.G. Kelley, Ashanti Alston, and Grace Lee Boggs have been engaged in decades of cumulative struggle; in their words we seek both history and lessons.

Historian and scholar Robin D.G. Kelley brings forward an analysis that develops from the urgent questions faced in contemporary struggles for social justice. In “Challenging Power and Creating New Spaces of Possibility: A Discussion with Robin D.G. Kelley” [24], he discusses the political trajectories that challenged and clarified his understandings of change, noting the importance of everyday resistance, political education, and historical memory within movements. Kelley argues for a renewed emphasis on reflection, projection, and imagination in struggle, sustained with practices of integrity and daily politics of desire.

Ashanti Omowali Alston draws from his experiences in the Black Power movement and the challenges posed by a wide range of struggles and methodologies, as he illustrates his becoming-revolutionary process in “‘We Can Begin to Take Back Our Lives’: A Discussion with Ashanti Omowali Alston” [25]. Ashanti delineates the contributions of many movements, noting the importance of community work and confronting histories of privilege and oppression. He suggests that we will have to do whatever is necessary to resist oppressive forces if we are to create new worlds and lives.

Philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs has been instrumental in evolving our understandings of revolution in the United States. In “The Power Within Us to Begin Anew: A Discussion with Grace Lee Boggs” [26], Grace reflects on her early involvement in political organizing, the connections she sees across the history of struggle, and the necessity of transformation, divisions, and complexities. She sees new questions and ‘answers’ emerging in places as wide-ranging as Copenhagen and Montgomery, and in projects as disparate as urban agriculture and healing work.

Thus this collection ends with an appropriate reminder: that the myriad organizations, strategies, theories, and histories circulating within today’s whirlwinds illustrate our capacity for ushering in new worlds and ways of living, fueled by “the power within us to begin anew.” It is up to readers to discern the uses of these whirlwinds in amplifying, improving, and furthering the struggles of our everyday lives.