Friday, September 06, 2013

Review: Towards Collective Liberation

[Chris Crass. Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2013.]

I tend to resist generational explanations for things, but there does seem to be at least a partial correlation between the moment in which we are first politicized and the sensibility we carry with us ever after. There's lots more to it, and any given moment produces not one sensibility but many, often mutually contradictory. But moment matters. I think of people I've known who were politicized in the New Left moment, or of people I've organized with who came out of the Trot scene in Toronto in the '70s or the nonviolent direct action work of the '80s, and for all that their politics reflect social location and individual journey in major ways, and have significantly shifted over the years as conditions have shifted, they still carry with them some traces of that moment of politicization.

Though there are many differences between us in timing, detail, and journey, I think it's relevant to my reading of this book that the author and I are both products of (quite different) spaces that were left and anti-authoritarian, and that began before but were given generational coherence by the global justice movement moment -- that exciting window between the Seattle WTO protests and 9/11. I've never met the author but I first encountered his work in that period, and occasionally since, and I've found that it has always been wrestling with questions that have been on my mind as well, and usually in ways that I have found useful. It came as no surprise to me, then, that this book tackles questions that I also think are tremendously important -- especially around how to make anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-oppressive change, particularly when you are starting from a place of privilege -- and that it does so drawing on resources that feel useful (and often familiar) and employing approaches that feel promising.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that the "Introduction" to this book was written by someone who is a good friend of both Crass and myself, and that the person who wrote the "Foreword" and has been a mentor for Crass is someone I have met only once but who was generous enough to provide supportive words that appeared on the covers of my own books.)

There is a lot of book packed into the pages of Towards Collective Liberation. The first section consists of a short overview of aspects of anarchist politics and their significance for Crass and for US American social movements, and also a detailed critical retrospective of Food Not Bombs organizing in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s. This latter -- about the organization that was the author's political home in the '90s -- is a fascinating combination of movement history and critical strategic reflection, and it is an example I think many movements would benefit from emulating. The second section is three pieces around the development of the author's anti-oppression praxis, done with a willingness to be open that is rare among us middle-class white guys about the inevitably bumpy ride. The third section takes lessons from the African American civil rights movement and tackles general questions of leadership and strategy, and applies them to movement building more generally. Then there is a section with pieces, mostly interviews, from inspiring organizing projects around the US, and finally a conclusion.

There's lots to like here, I think. The commitment to making practical and real the often abstract-feeling analysis of the interlocking axes of power permeating the social relations that organize our lives is crucial. The lesson of the author's approach to assessing and navigating the workings of those axes of power in his everyday life and immediate political environment seems very useful to others of us struggling with the same questions. The demonstration of a thoughtful approach to combining that immediate-scale attention with broader, transformative politics is important too. And despite the author's origins in what I tend to think of as "big-A Anarchist" organizing -- something I've always shied away from, despite my own somewhat more loosely held identification with anarchism -- I definitely appreciate the book's commitment to extracting what's useful from that tradition and applying it to broader questions of organizing. I also appreciate its willingness to challenge things that amount to orthodoxies in certain anti-authoritarian circles, such as in the book's insistence on the importance of strategic thinking and of deliberately cultivating a particular kind of leadership, or its skepticism but not dogmatism about hierarchy. It's not in any sense a source of final answers in any of these areas, but in all of these ways and more, there is lots of fodder for reflection, experimentation, and inspiration that is very relevant not only to people operating in explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian spaces, and also to anyone active in broader movements.

I wonder a bit about choices made in the book about how to portray the messiness and contradictions that are, thanks to the social relations of domination that shape and surround us, inevitably within both us as individuals and in the movements we create. I don't mean this with respect to the obvious tightrope -- the dangers of teetering in one direction and so emphasizing the difficulty and pain of how power messes up our selves and our movements that it seems to readers to be ontological and inescapable rather than social and historical and subject to change, or of losing balance in the other direction and being so quick to claim answers and the cred of having transcended the mess that the depth and entrenched character of the problems gets glossed over. In that respect, it does a great job. It names messiness, it analyzes it, it talks about how to deal with it. It encourages organizers to be in and with the complexity and the contradictions that shape us and our movements.

No, my wondering is more about another axis. I have become increasingly convinced that the best way for texts to be of pedagogical value around these questions is not only to explicitly address the politics in question in propositional ways but also to work to get inside the bodies of the readers. It is related, I suppose, to the old writerly distinction between telling and showing, and more specifically to what I call "tell complexity" and "show complexity" in my review of Eli Clare's Exile and Pride, but also encompassing the intense visceral experience that is so central to this movement messiness and the challenges of navigating it. It's not easy to do writing like that, and goodness knows I don't claim to be able to do it. But I think the way that showing more of that level of complexity, mess, and experience and telling less would tap into readers at a more embodied level could only increase the pedagogical value of books of this sort.

I also wonder a bit about the way the book's politics are clearly grounded in spaces of relative leftist plenty. By which I mean this: The majority of left intellectual work, of the serious stuff that says this is how the world is and this is how we can change it, is a product of contexts (and writers shaped in contexts) that are, for lack of a better word, metropolitan -- urban, with a critical mass of rad folks around. The very fact of having that critical mass shapes priorities and possibilities, and adds a bit of distance from the experience of those of us not living in such circumstances. Now, I certainly don't blame this author for writing from his experience, and in fact I often like to read such things because along with all of the great insights that are applicable everywhere, there is also the encouraging reminder of possibility, that just because it isn't happening where I am doesn't mean it isn't happening anywhere. And, indeed, the way the book is put together clearly demonstrates some cognizance of this question, with its inclusion of the chapter on the wonderful anti-racist, intersectional queer organizing happening in a city in the US South, and the chapter on the rural organizing network in Oregon. But, still, those are the exceptions, and even the latter of those two focuses on the work from the perspective of the region-wide core where they do have that critical mass of folks with an anti-capitalist, anti-oppression, base-building politics in a way that I'm sure is not true at all in many of the individual groups in the the network. None of which is to say that I agree that important political work happens only in left-rich metropolitan spaces -- not at all. But the work is different out here, and there remains the norm against which we automatically compare. And the fact is, San Francisco Food Not Bombs and the Catalyst Project -- a fascinating formation devoted to working with white people to help build multi-racial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist movements in a diversity of contexts, and the author's political home in the '00s -- inform the core of the book. Which, as I said, I enjoyed and benefited from. But I also felt occasional pangs of sadness as I read, at the knowledge that I might never have the opportunity to be active in a political context with the same critical mass -- the same capacity of like-mind with which to do the experimenting, reflecting, and trying again that is at the heart of all movements, wherever they happen -- as the ones at the centre of this book. And from that sadness, knowing that it is not just about me but is based in real, socially organized divisions in how knowledge is produced and in how the production of movement capacity tends to be geographically distributed, I moved to wondering about what else could be done to speak more directly to the experience of the many people whom I'm sure read this book and others like it but do so from a place similar to me.

But even given those two bits of wondering on my part, it was still a book that resonated, and that brought together many useful insights and wonderful accounts of political experiments, successes, and failures. If you are trying to figure out how to build a movement, or an organization, or a group, or a campaign -- even if you weren't politicized in the global justice movement moment, even if you do your work in a town as different from the Bay Area as Sudbury is -- you will still learn lots and be challenged to think about your own choices in new ways.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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