The Strike Debt campaign had its fifth assembly today in a very warm Washington Square Park. Summer madness was affecting some of the transient population that use the park during daylight hours but the assembly was surprisingly focused and businesslike in the close to 100 degree heat.
I’ve learned some interesting things about organizing and about learning already. Debt is a very technical topic, full of complexity and difficult math. Seen another way, it’s not about that at all. It’s a set of stories, often about lives or projects begun in a flurry of optimism only to founder on the hidden reefs of compounding interest, credit ratings and wage garnishing. We’ve learned that to organize around debt, you must first allow people to tell their stories and to reclaim their personhood.
What we’re doing here is reclaiming the 99% as a set of individuals, all of whom made choices that were inspired by their hope of making a contribution in some way. Seen together, even in the relatively small groups that gather in hot New York parks, you get a vertiginous glimpse of what has been lost, not just in this crash but in the turn to finance capital as a whole.
So what we don’t yet know is the end(s) of the stories. Where we’re not going is to put our trust in a higher power, divine or human. A system that places so many people in servitude can only properly end in abolition. Before abolition, it can seem hard to envisage reconstruction but in the moment it’s not so complicated. Now I’m getting ahead of myself, except that part of this moment is to give people a sense of a different outcome, which the original OWS sketched in far broader terms. By being specific about debt, which is not exactly a small field, we can target real but very different futures.
In organizing this story telling and imagining, we’ve found that it works best either to allow the meeting to proceed as horizontally as possible or to have it tightly facilitated. There’s a glib one-liner about direct democracy that uses the title of Jo Freeman’s 1970s pamphlet “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman was discussing consciousness raising sessions in the (then) Women’s Liberation movement and how they could lead to a “star” system. There’s a long discussion to be had here but for the moment I want to suggest that these strategies are precisely directed towards avoiding what is less tyranny than muddling in the middle.
Self-facilitated peer-to-peer discussions also rely on the group making sure that individuals don’t dominate and that a due division of points of view is heard. Such discussions are great when you’re trying to get a sense of where to go and what the possibilities are in a given area. Facilitation allows you to make progress from that beginning and to not repeat the same discussions over and over. What we had to learn in the case of debt was that you could not separate the personal and the political, even in organizing. It’s a very old lesson now but one that needs to be relearned until absorbed or until things have actually changed sufficiently that we no longer need it. Which will not be soon.
We’ve learned not to target specific dates by which certain things must happen and to set low, achievable goals as part of creating a sense that things are happening, rather than shoot very high all the time. Some might say that political organizers have long known these tactics and that may well be right. On the other hand, it is my impression that sometimes such organizers take the content of the action too much for granted. Certainly we’ve heard that debt is a “weak” concept. Perhaps it lacks a one-liner so far. We’re working on that.