Progressive change sometimes seems like one step forward, two steps back, but People's Action leader James Mumm shows how over time power has been steadily, doggedly gained by organizing -- and with the help of three excellent books he discusses here, he further shows that activists today have these "how-to" tools for organizing more at their disposal than ever in history. Together these works show that, as one says, it IS possible "to scale grassroots participation to a height that could actually let us go toe to toe with the billionaires and win.”
/By James Mumm<>Progressive Breakfast/ As we enter a perilous period in American history, with Donald Trump’s bottomless insecurity fueling white supremacy and fascism on the one hand and environmental Armageddon on the other, there is an opening of historic proportions for mass revolutionary organizing. Will we break out of self-limiting orthodoxies, face oppressive structures head-on, and take risks that swing for the fences?
Over two centuries, the ambitions of people-powered organizing in this country have grown from stopping material suffering – as in the abolition of slavery – to winning freedoms such as women’s right to vote and the end to child labor, civil rights, and marriage equality. This has advanced to sharing abundance and the common good (Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and the right to organize). Today, the cutting-edge ambition of organizers is to step up and win governing power.
Three recent books by veteran organizers weave deeply reflective stories about breakthroughs in realizing their ambitions through scalable organizing. As we stand at the edge of a new era of the possible, these authors offer new rules for revolutionaries, roadmaps, and strategic conversations that point the way forward toward the realization of our own deepest ambitions. These are the hopes that we fear to speak aloud, tears of joy streaming down our cheeks, free at last in our lifetimes.
This opportunity is clear as day to Jonathan Smucker, the co-founder of Lancaster Stands Up in Pennsylvania. In Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, Smucker says that,
“Given our weak state of popular organization over the past few decades, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street was a beacon of hope for many in the United States, as it provided a powerful, popular counter-hegemonic narrative that aligned overnight a hitherto fragmented left and created a political opening to connect to far more popular audiences and broader social bases than we had had access to in decades.”
That is a rather long-winded way of saying that Occupy, the anti-Wall Street movement where Smucker cut his teeth, changed the debate and articulated a new sense of “we” among the 99 percent who don’t share our economy’s richest rewards.
In Stand Up! How to Get Involved, Speak Out, and Win in A World On Fire, Gordon Whitman, Deputy Director of the PICO National Network, faces the brutal facts:
“…when you combine all the social justice organizing taking place across different networks, issues and movements in the United States, it doesn’t match up against the forces we’re up against…To counterbalance their influence, we the people need to create a level of sustained mobilization, disruption, and grassroots political influence not seen on the side of social justice in the country since the 1960s.”
In Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Becky Bond and Zack Exley, veterans of the New Organizing Institute, CREDO and more, lay out the challenge succinctly: ”Is it really possible to scale grassroots participation to a height that could actually let us go toe to toe with the billionaires and win?”
These authors recount their formative experiences with Occupy, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the rise of multiracial, progressive faith-based organizing. They are both liberated by these experiences and ready to write new rules, even as they acknowledge the contours and filters that shape their lives.
There is no blueprint that we can follow toward the revolution, though there is a starting point. Whitman is blunt: “No one is coming to save us. There’ll be no hero on a white horse. There is no app, no high-tech solution. All we have to fall back on is one another, our human capacity to organize ourselves to create a better society.”
That said, Whitman agrees with Bond and Exley on how technology can amplify and scale up good organizing as they assert that “in some ways, big organizing is what populists used to simply call organizing but with the potential for much greater scale thanks to new and accessible technology for connecting people.”
The printing press, they point out, allowed organizers (the vast majority unpaid) to organize to end slavery, win women’s suffrage, build the populist movement, and create a labor movement – among many others wins. Electricity, the telegraph, telephones, fax machines, mimeo machines and copiers, computers, and the internet are all technologies that organizers have used over time to connect to people. But these authors are clear that at no point has technology done the work of organizing: it has simply changed the nature of how organizers communicate with people.
There are striking similarities in these three volumes. They share a commitment to sifting through organizing methodologies to double down on universals and jettison outdated orthodoxies. Each points to moments when they trusted people to lead their own revolution, taking risks that led to innovation and breakthroughs. They also highlight how the old-fashioned tools of organizing – like the telephone call and barnstorm meetings – are still the most effective, even in the digital age.
But the differences between these authors are perhaps the most illuminating, as they shine a bright light on the fault lines in our movements, and offer some very thoughtful ideas on how to bridge them.