To Show the Fire and the Tenderness

To Show the Fire and the Tenderness

Our experience is that social support is crucial to community organizing and movement building; hence support is a central piece of radical coemmunity organizing. Contemporary organizing in manye Left and radical currents does not adequately incorporate support or their own self-reproduction1 into their work. This piece examines support in context of neoliberalism and current crises. Here we argue that self-reproducing radical community organizing efforts, which directly incorporate social support at their foundations, are more likely to sustain and build power—particularly in the current crises.

 

The major points we discuss are as follows: In order to cut the strength of the working class, and to establish control and generate profitability, capital utilized a number of tactics—including gentrification, enclosure, the prison industry, and precarity, among others—which the working class has been unable to defeat. In the U.S., workers experience the current crisis at a low point of composition2, in addition to numerous organizational and community crises. Much of the radical Left has also entered the crisis at a low point of movement composition.

Both working class communities and the radical Left have experienced the post-Keynesian, neoliberal period as whirlwinds of struggle: many major compromises and successful processes of capitalist and State co-optation, coupled with many macro-scale defeats and some victories. Capital is a process of struggle, and the working class can be decomposed and lose power, just as in the struggle the class can recompose itself and gain substantial strength.

In our analysis, we reject the subtle vanguardism that places Left or radical Left activity at the center of autonomous “working class” struggle—a practice that conflates movements which are often, realistically, divorced. More often than not, the radical Left seeks to render autonomous class activity as invisible—from claims of “apathy” and a “brainwashed population,” to claims that describe sects of the radical Left as “the active minority” or those capable of “educating” the class into “action.” Sometimes the two claims intertwine. In what follows, we want to challenge these assumptions.

Capital, Movements, and Crisis

In response to the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, capital went on strike. As an early part of the gentrification process, companies fled from many American cities, taking with them core industries and possibilities for employment in many neighborhoods. City governments engaged in simultaneous, corroborating efforts, known in New York City as “planned shrinkage,” and elsewhere as the more euphemistic “spatial deconcentration.” The objective, achieved with devastating consequences, was to quell a rebellious population, through tactics of displacement, starvation, and cutbacks in basic services. Such processes were key parts of neoliberal development.

 

Capital thus gained substantial strength, largely through tactics targeting reproduction. The destructive re-organization of urban communities through gentrification fed a simultaneous capitulation of business unions and the growth of the prison industrial complex. In the U.S., capital was more successful in defining power relations than workers were. And much of the radical Left—faced with violence and co-optation by State and capital, and hamstrung by its own capitulation and a general condescension toward much of the working class—has often been impotent, if not an outright impediment to building working-class power.

 

In the development of neoliberalism, expectations of unpaid care labor have disproportionately fallen on women, who, due to the persistence of patriarchal gender relations, have been expected to provide care amidst the precarity of their own lives, their families, and their communities. The carving up of working-class neighborhoods, the displacement of families, the consequential disruption of social networks, and access to services have all drastically changed everyday life. These changes have largely been attacks on the reproduction and support that had served as major spaces of movement building.

As capital has torn apart communities in its search for control and profit nationally, it has also sought to do so internationally—through processes of enclosure, debt, and State violence. Interestingly, immigrant communities have been behind the strongest organizing for social change in the last decade, even from intensely precarious positions. At the base of these struggles are working-class communities organizing directly on the terrain of daily life. They utilize a multitude of tactics, engaging in radical community organizing projects that have very clearly built substantial power. The internationalism of such struggles during the past decade has been unprecedented. These efforts provide crucial lessons and a crucial foundation for future movement. Understanding past social struggles is crucial to understanding the struggles and movements we see now.  During the formation of neoliberalism in the U.S, there were important organizing efforts, like the struggles of ACT UP during the early years of the AIDS crisis, that achieved substantial power and prevented some rollbacks (like maintaining basic reproductive rights). 

We also want to focus on another key aspect: processes of co-optation, the most pervasive way that capital and State control the strategizing of our struggles. In particular, in the post-Keynesian period, the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC) has substantially limited our collective imaginations and strategies. Some struggles have carefully and intelligently utilized non-profits to increase their power, but more often than not, the NPIC has harmed radical movement building.

Simultaneously, the NPIC—often explicitly refusing to engage in radical organizing—has played a key role in parceling out fictitious scarcity, privatizing resources, and channeling struggle away from building power in cities—and suburbs—across the country. The radical Left has often worked to institutionalize through the NPIC before it has sought to support working-class struggles. The institutionalizing of radical intentions has resulted in substantially less-than-radical activities.

The impacts of capital’s recomposition on the emotional and physical health of working-class communities have been profound. The gentrification process, the utilization of police to terrorize communities, the prison industry, the slashes to welfare benefits, the decline in livable wages, the healthcare crises and the unbearable level of debt: all have impacted the daily life of the U.S. working class in ways that hamper efforts to organize and build power.

Overwhelmingly, the Left has been weak in fighting these developments (or even complicit in their formation).  Against this weakness, and the racial privilege that it represents, radical organizing efforts like, for instance, Critical Resistance, taking on the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), have rejected the terms of the debate and built substantial movement, here toward the abolition of prisons. The Left has also overwhelmingly capitulated to liberal—and sometimes neoliberal—rhetoric on the terms of debate and struggle regarding public welfare and healthcare. In contrast to the working class, the Left has barely touched the issue of debt.

We believe it is necessary to re-evaluate organizing and the question of power and support, since so much of capital’s recomposition has targeted reproduction, which was the base of substantial struggle in the past. The radical Left can play a role in supporting and building working class struggles—and sometimes, but less often, the two are the same—but we need to be honest about how reproduction and care have and have not figured into organizing.

Self-Reproducing Movements and a Return to Radical Community Organizing

Capital’s attack on reproduction was a strategic move. The Left overwhelmingly capitulated in this process, and came to support neoliberal processes of institutionalization, privatization and capture, while letting capital and the State define the terms of these terrains and that of the general discourse. Accordingly, the Left, including much of the self-identified radical Left, is less relevant to working class struggles than in the past.

For lessons on incorporating care into organizing, we can draw upon many historical and current precedents of struggles that directly incorporate reproduction, care, and support into the heart of their organizing. These include feminist initiatives such as Jane (an underground abortion service in the midwest during the 1960s and early 1970s), the free breakfast programs of the Black Panthers, the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement, welfare rights struggles, movements of the unemployed, the Grey Panthers and the organizing of ACT UP. These examples have been based in engaged radical community organizing practices, and they have moved beyond the sub-cultural confines of the radical Left. They teach substantial lessons on ways to combine radical organizing with care, while also going beyond the direct service/direct action divide.

 

Importantly, there are a number of on-going struggles in the U.S. that incorporate care into organizing, and play important roles in building radical working class struggles. Care-takers themselves have been at the forefront of this work, such as groups like Domestic Workers United. National organizations like Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence bring anti-violence work in line with the anti-prison and prison abolition movement. These are just a few of the exciting examples of a renewed radical Left that engages in working class organizing.

More generally, the terrain of ‘care’ serves as a lens to view and connect different experiences; it connects with existing organizations and initiatives, deepens our current movements, and holds the promise of opening new fronts for struggle. Struggles that incorporate care engage in social support on the various levels that this is often required. Working class communities are struggling in their own ways on the terrain of care (ways we only barely addressed here) and deserve substantial research as part of larger analyses of class composition; much of the radical Left, on the other hand, must immediately begin re-thinking care and organizing conceptually and organizationally, lest they end up in a position of functional irrelevance.

There are important community building and organizing tactics that can help build care-centric movements. These include community dialogs, beyond the self-identified Left; the provision of resources and essential services, such as child and elder care, in ways that coincide with confrontational tactics; the development of food struggles that seek sovereignty; eviction defense organizing; and the construction of community health clinics that incorporate diverse community needs and demographics. Crucial to these efforts are developing methods to support communities through emotional struggles and physical health difficulties—everyday realities that can easily be exacerbated on the long arc of sustained organizing.

In conclusion, we believe that movements which build from everyday life and incorporate reproduction into their work are particularly important in the current crisis. Such struggles include our own self-reproduction, providing a base from which to defend ourselves and struggle on a multitude of other terrains. They provide a foundation to launch further attacks on capital and the state apparatus. “Showing our fire and our tenderness” is precisely what this moment calls for; the question that remains for us is whether we can see such activity in our lives, support it, build from it, and most importantly, demand it of ourselves.