Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Review: Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change

[Staughton Lynd. Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2013.]

There have been a number of occasions over the years, both in conversation and in writing, where I have identified as being someone who exists in a state of perpetual low-level existential crisis. It is perhaps not quite as prominently true as it was the first time I used that line, but it still captures something about my journey through the world. And one of the areas where it continues to be true is in relation to the collective, community-based side of my political work. I don't think there's ever been a time when I haven't relentlessly second-guessed my choices and actions in that area, but in the last year or two it has had a distinct flavour -- it is a rare period in which I am very busy politically in a number of ways, yet little to none of that energy is going into what might traditionally be understood as organizing collective, potentially confrontational movement activity. This causes me all kinds of angst. Not long ago I had the chance to interview two amazing activists about their own decision to invest significant energy into the slow, hard process of building activist infrastructure with a long-term mindset. That was certainly useful in my own reflections given that a significant part of what I do now (though very different from the two people I interviewed) could be thought of in terms of supporting "infrastructure of dissent." I think the opportunity this book has provided to refamiliarize myself with Staughton Lynd's development of the idea of "accompaniment" further contributes to clarifying my thinking about my own activities.

Lynd has been a committed radical in the United States since the 1960s. I first ran into both him and the idea of accompaniment many years ago when a friend organized a visit by him to the city I lived in at the time. I had the chance to do a leisurely, hour-long radio interview with Lynd, and to hear him do a public talk or two. Enough of us were sufficiently taken with his idea of accompaniment that we set out and founded a group that we thought was an embodiment of it -- it wasn't at all, really, which we found out after this friend chatted with Lynd a few months later and told him about the work. But the point is that I was struck by the idea even then, even if I didn't quite understand it.

In this book, Lynd presents accompaniment as an approach to political work that is in contrast with "organizing," at least as that term is often understood. Organizing, as it most commonly plays out in the post-Second World War labour movement and in post-New Left social movements, often means work to move people into a predetermined political trajectory or organization. This, Lynd argues, results in either "a complex and restrictive institutional environment that stands in the way of creative and spontaneous action from below (as in the labor movement), or (in the heartbreaking case of the civil rights movement) a situation such that when the organizer leaves, some of the worst aspects of the way things were reassert themselves" (1).

Accompaniment, in contrast, is a commitment to a long-term being-with, to horizontalism, to equality, and to something that resembles (at least to my eye) the Zapatista ideal of figuring out where we're going democratically and collectively even as we are in the process of acting and moving down the path -- "Walking, we ask questions," in the words of their slogan. It is not a matter of swooping into a community for one action, for a short campaign, or even for a few years, and building something decided on outside of the community, but rather a matter of living there, building a life there, building relationships there, and participating as an equal in the struggles that arise in whatever ways it emerges from below. Though it is applicable in many other situations too, Lynd's own development of the idea is connected to his experience as a middle-class professional in it for the long haul in a working-class town. Originally trained as a historian, during the last few decades he has been a lawyer focused on working with workers and, more recently, prisoners. In that context, where you begin from outside the community and with privilege relative to it, he emphasizes the importance of having some sort of professional skill to offer, even while deploying that skill in a way that undermines the hierarchy that is imbued in the very notion of professionalism and that seeks egalitarian collaboration with the expertise that all of us have in the circumstances of our own lives.

The book by and large uses a story-based pedagogy rather than an analysis-based one. It walks through struggles that Lynd and his wife Alice have been involved in directly, including the US civil rights movement, the US labor movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, and supporting prisoners, as well as a long, rich chapter about assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was an important figure in the development of the idea of accompaniment. It includes attention to both the shortcomings of what he categorizes as "organizing" and the amazing things that have been accomplished in various contexts through what he categorizes as "accompaniment." The book is a very easy and engaging read. I wouldn't have minded perhaps a little more emphasis on analysis, but that may just be me.

The one aspect of the book that felt kind of off-key is the way it relates to Occupy. I certainly have no problem with the book attempting to relate accompaniment to the most recent large-scale politicization to occur in North America, and there is lots to be said about how the sensibilities of accompaniment and Occupy relate. However, it does feel a bit like it was written during a particular moment of Occupy-related euphoria that has not lasted -- which is not meant to disrespect that particular upsurge in activity, or to say that we shouldn't be drawing lessons from and of relevance to that work. The tone just isn't quite consistent with the more nuanced and critical understandings of Occupy that have become widspread since that moment.

Along with linking Lynd's political sensibility and the idea of accompaniment to the Zapatistas, another linkage that I think can productively be made is to John Holloway's idea of fostering cracks in capitalism -- there is something similar about the commitment to radical, horizontal openness to what a future produced from below might bring, and a similar wariness of imposing pre-determined visions. In saying that, I don't want to imply that accompaniment is anti-organizational or committed to a pie-in-the-sky version of spontaneity -- it is entirely consistent with building lasting organizations and infrastructure. It just approaches that in a completely different way than the party-building or campaign-based left, and it insists that we can't really see very far into how that might work so we must let it emerge from below as we act and discuss and act some more.

Anyway, as is always true on books about how to engage in change work, I don't take this as being any kind of final word. I can certainly anticipate more objections to the approach than Lynd directly addresses, at least some of which I would take very seriously. Though the book initially presents organizing vs. accompaniment as a sort of binary, the way the categories are actually deployed through the book makes it clear that they are not nearly that clearly demarcated and they often interweave in the same movement. It is more a matter of contrasting logics than of essentially polarized forms. And I'm not sure, for all that I see accompaniment as useful and important, that I'm entirely ready to renounce all of the things that this paradigm might call "organizing."

That said, as a privileged person with a commitment to movement-oriented politics and long-term goals of social transformation who is living in a non-metropolitan area and who has a particular specialized skillset that can be of use to movements, I think "accompaniment" can be of use in my ongoing ruminations about what I do and how I do it. It is, I think, relevant to both of my major collective political commitments at the moment, and I will continue to reflect on how it can focus my actions and give me better context to understand my choices.

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