Thoughts on Organizing through the Lens of Culture

Recently an artist friend and I put together an event in San Francisco to look at the history of funding for arts jobs during the New Deal, through Depression-era programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and to talk about the relevance of a movement for public arts today as central to the idea of “national recovery” that the Obama administration is touting through the stimulus package. We invited speakers who could approach the subject of rescuing public culture from various angles: Gray Brechin, research fellow with the Living New Deal Project and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, an expert on the legacy of the WPA, Arlene Goldbard a long-time community arts activist who helped to organize a break-through briefing in May of this year at the White House attended by over 60 other arts activists from around the country, and the young(er) journalist Jeff Chang who attended the briefing and has written eloquently about the culture and politics of the hip-hop generation, a demographic whose cultural expressions are marked by verve and high style and revolutionary fervor, and whose date with historical destiny has made them primarily responsible not for social revolution but for electing a mildly conservative, young, multi-racial president. Who right now appears to be pretty thoroughly insulated from their streetwise voices…but more on that later.

I was enthusiastic about working on this event because for some years I have found myself unable to muster any sense, other than an intellectual sense, that the organizing going on around me had any connection to my own life, to its rhythms and routines, which remained weirdly but happily untouched by the wars, strife, oppression, environmental collapse, destruction of the public sector, and so on that have accompanied this whole historical period of capital triumphant in this society where its triumph was most absolute, right down to our collective consciousness.

It’s funny: bohemians have always been thought of as an edge class, starving in garrets, harassed by cops and so forth, but as a debt-free, non-addictive, childless, already down-scaled bohemian in a highly resourced city with rent control, I discovered the ironic luxury of being able to maintain a considerable level of stability and distance from the cataclysms that were crucifying the American working class and decimating the American middle class, whose core values of consumption and security as identity, which were used to hog-tie them so effectively, were never mine to begin with.

But of course that’s also largely because my back was never up against America’s deadly wall of bigotry based on color, class or sexual orientation… Ah, yes, the “chains of privilege,” a young white anarchist I met once remarked, with a kind of knowing condescension, when I neither proudly nor remorsefully described this scenario to her. As if she had escaped those “chains” merely by reading Derek Jensen. Yeah, well, whatever. I prefer to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: we are all in the net, but some of us are looking for the scissors…I don’t romanticize either relative privilege or the lack of it in this society. If the struggle wasn’t always for personal survival, it was, universally, about the meaning of living in the world.

Enter the arts. If there is one thing that redeems the highly compromised American experience for me, it is the fact that there continues to be fervid artistic expression here, at the grassroots: you can kill your TV and never listen to commercial radio, never read the bestseller list or go to any show that costs over $20 and you will still find it everywhere, in cities, suburbs and small towns, from bar bands to street theater, slam poets to storytellers, alley murals to raves and free festivals and much of it is more heartfelt than good, but a lot of it is really good. Or something or someone always emerges out of it that is really good.

And if that someone or something doesn’t get too sadly huge and self-parodying and then implode because of that gaseous mind-fuck that is American super-stardom (I’m sorry, but it’s impossible not to reference the death of Michael Jackson here) then it all serves to keep soul-death at bay. Not for the privileged who can’t necessarily buy freedom from soul-death even with box seats at the Met and record-setting auction buys at Christie’s, but for the hundred-fifty million plus Americans whose collective net worth is now worth less than the richest 400, and whose collective soul-death you might have long expected from the starvation diet that commercial mass culture gives them, but who still persist, when they experience it, in being touched and thrilled and awakened and moved by song, dance, image and word, happening live and in front of them. Which is precisely why, one thinks, art is so vilified and ghettoized and attacked as immoral by the relentless guardians of the status quo, and those millions are constantly slipped the mickey of high-gloss, soul-dead, remote-controlled entertainment instead, because art awakens people, because it enables them to see themselves differently when they experience it, and even more when they make it. And that’s when the uncomfortable questions can begin.

So, our optimistically titled Jobs for Artists! event attracted a good crowd even without any of the local media outlets, alternative or otherwise, plugging it, in fact many of those present seemed to have found out about it through my artist friend’s Facebook page; welcome to Organizing 2.0. We heard from Gray Brechin that over 8 million people were employed by the WPA at its height, and even though it only lasted seven years it left behind infrastructure, architecture and public art that were an expression of a belief that there is actually such a thing as a common good, a belief that in a country where manufactured polarization and hate-your-neighbor is what sells the most air time, seems increasingly hard to hold. We heard from Arlene Goldbard about a new manifesto calling for national “cultural recovery” and how to get it, being drafted by some of the arts activists who made it inside the White House doors in May. And we heard some gently nuanced head-scratching and bemusement from Jeff Chang about a generation at the crossroads, a generation of political latch key kids entirely abandoned by 30 years of Reaganomics and pushed to the corners by racism that had still managed to emerge as some sort of new American mainstream. Now what? Many of its members were entering their forties and might be reaching a point where they needed some kind of guidance from the past to show them how not to fall into the chasm that the future is opening before them. Even as they got a symbolic tip of the hat from the administration that is officiously trying to paper over that chasm with IOUs while still refusing to touch even the fretwork on the fundamental structures that created it. They’d been welcomed in, then told, in so many words: yes, well, we’re a little bit trapped by the chains of privilege here, so prove to us that you can bring some sort of movement to bear on (insert social issue here), and we’ll see what we can do…maybe…

We were moved by these speakers’ knowledge and insight to contemplate organizing a whole series of events locally to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the WPA next year, as a way to knit the past to the future and say: look, what up, if we’re talking about not just recovery but actually trying to turn this into a sustainable society BITL (before it’s too late), then artists at the community level are already playing a role in that process as fundamental as solar panel installers, transit planners and urban farmers. As fundamental as the schools in which many more of them would be working if the schools weren’t being starved to death. If enough people had the wisdom to see this when the country was on its knees, and in the teeth of exactly the same cobra-like animosity we get from today’s America First-ers, the neo-con punditry, maybe, well, maybe, if we push for it, we could too…

But the real revelation of the evening came during the Q&A at the end, when a man stood up and denounced these intelligent and passionate speakers as, in some not-too-subtle way, deluded sell-outs or actually dangerous for not using their time to vituperate the Obama Administration as the enemy. As if they had been wholly duped by the siren song of that supremely devious administration instead of taking a hard look at where any and every possible doorway for social progress might be right now and trying to figure out how to put a foot in it. Because their talks didn’t follow the correct line and thrust the flag of our oppression in our faces, they were therefore useless, possibly even pernicious.

He was an exemplar of the old (well, aging) sectarian left that still believes, in the absence of any supporting evidence, that you revolutionize people by standing up in a room and lecturing them in a way that implies just how ignorant you think they are and then urging the people whose intelligence you have insulted to leap up and take to the streets with you.

But beyond making me aware once again how our Bay Area niche shelters the politically marginal like limpets in a shrinking tide pool, his exercise in futility was the source of an unexpected revelation. When he chided the presenters for being “a-historical” (because they didn’t think they were living in 1933 or 1968 perhaps?) and lamented the “lack of support in the unions for the arts” and I thought about the last US manufacturing jobs flowing south and/or drying up altogether as the most recent consequence of capitalism’s periodic passing out the Kool-Aid, and the fact that 90% of US private sector workers under 40 will have had no experience of unionization in their lives anyway, and a super-majority will not have had it even in their parents’ lives, I realized that I was in the presence of something ghostly, fading, and unlikely ever to return in force to this country.

That something was not left radicalism, or social revolution, or mass organizations, or mass movements. Or even, theoretically at least, trade unions. It was the industrial model of organizing, which arose out of the industrial model of work, and was passing into history with it. Marx, that starry-eyed dreamer, thought that the very fact that workers were being thrown together in enormous numbers on the factory floors of Europe would give those workers a sense of themselves as a class and of their common interests as such—bringing them to full self-awareness and in fact, revolutionizing them. And left organizers have consciously or unconsciously hewed to that paradigm ever since. But Marx, the prescient and hard-eyed economist, also saw that capitalism survived its self-generated crises by constantly revolutionizing the means of production. What he didn’t anticipate, perhaps, was the degree to which the technological revolution which reduced the number of workers needed in any given operation would also revolutionize the mobility of capital. And the combination of those two factors, or what we’ve been calling corporate globalization for the last decade or so, enabled the second process to far outstrip the first. The factory floors dwindled and scattered around the globe, while imperial wars, bread and circuses were deployed effectively (with Europe perhaps focusing more on bread, the US on circuses) to defray class consciousness and social revolution in the global north and west, and starve it out in the south and east.

But now, in the final coup, the industrial model of mass production already on the ropes here has been revealed to be generative of a possible global ecocide, and not a place we can afford to go back to anyway. Whether the product is cars or cows, it is poisoning the bodies of both producers and consumers and denuding our planet of its vital resources. And in fact, another offshoot of industrialism, the industrial model of education, has worked largely to keep us uninformed, uninspired, and uncritical: that is, to poison our spirits as well. And yet the left, even the non-sectarian left, has internalized this obsolescent industrial model and kept on applying a factory-floor analysis to social conditions and articulating an assembly line view of what human beings are, generating diminishing returns and emptying rooms in droves as history spun out from under it.

Enter the arts again. What struck me most about the brief upsurge of mass organizing in the US that first took on globalization itself, beginning in Seattle, was the amount of creative expression that accompanied it. It was as if the medieval carnival, which the Russian critic Bakhtin identified as the wellspring of democratic and participatory culture, had melded with the march, the sit-in and the lock-down, as if somebody was finally trying to say: look, this is not just part of what we want, but of what we are. Not bread and circuses, but bread and roses. But what was even more inspiring was the realization that the conscious carnival was not just a kind of elite fin de siècle phosphorescence that cropped up at these ultimately quixotic but still necessary mass mobilizations. It was actually going on all the time, far below the myopic radar of the mass media or of much of the left itself. Beyond the intermittent demonstration, in the every day life of the street, public art, or community art, was at work in every corner of the country making our creative abilities collective and expressly putting them at the service of society.

This is by no means to imply that art itself was organizing people to struggle, or transforming society. Even revolutionary art movements do not a revolution make. The Surrealists and Dadaists found that out in the early 20th century, when in spite of all the wonderful paradigm-shifting that was going on in the arts, Europe went and annihilated a whole generation in a bloody bankers’ war. Others have been finding it out ever since; Chuck D already knows it and The Coup will figure it out sooner or later. We learned when the first decade of the 21st century launched a jet-propelled version of the Crusades that it’s not enough to put big puppets in protest marches. We actually have to start thinking of ourselves, collectively, in different ways. But (with a nod to Marx again) we will really only be able to do that in a profound and sustained way when our material conditions demand it. And that time may be coming, but evidently it is not yet.

What the arts can do, meantime, is give us ways to think about ourselves that aren’t based on internalizing some machine-model of human society or psychology. For example, human creativity has infiltrated modern communications technology, developed to spy and make war, and turned it into something like a natural structure called a rhizome, an underground root system through which chemical information is transmitted even over extensive distance, and life is sustained. And this is quite useful. But even more fundamentally, art can still happen if every system crashes, every plug is pulled, every ideology fails us and mass society shrinks to ten people around a fire. It doesn’t need technology, it just needs human beings.

Art is not really a hammer to shape reality, as Brecht declared. But neither is it a mirror, a glossy, dead, reflective surface. It’s a portal, by walking through it you find that it functions simultaneously to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. Like the natural systems we are barely literate in anymore, and desperately need to rediscover, its real purpose is to reduce entropy and waste, and to continually generate possibility. It’s more than a pretty but superfluous outgrowth of our evolution; if we are to continue to evolve, it will be our most crucial partner in that process. It will have to fulfill an ecological role, infiltrating all the mechanisms that are failing us now: commerce, science, politics, education—to turn them back into living things.

Thus what inspires me about cultural activism and some forms of green activism today is that, from their starting points in the arts and ecology, they envision ways of thinking about what human beings are and what our fundamental needs are that don’t rely on industrial paradigms. Global awareness is growing that these paradigms are racing on to our general destruction, even as we have tried and failed, since Marx, to use their own tenets to oppose their consequences in oppression and war.

It’s early days to know whether ecological and creative models of organizing will actually arise en masse out of the detritus of industrial society and rescue Marx’s dream from its rusty shackles, but the disorderly ferment that occurs at the local level (where all politics starts and finishes) when we start looking for ways to build creative, participatory and ecological economies is way more promising than the death-struggles of America’s mega-unions, as they eviscerate one another in pathetic turf battles like polar bears on a melting ice berg and continue to stuff cash into the pockets of the millionaire politicians who cluck their tongues and then, like the overpaid call girls they are, waltz off into the night with their big business patrons’ arms wrapped around their waists. Or than the non-profit corporation (that about says it all) left for that matter, just as much a machine model, trussed to the apron strings of private foundations and beginning to discover, since the financial crisis began, just how expendable it is to them. Both are mechanisms that in the era of globalization have proven successful only at organizing people to fight each other over crumbs, in a creepy battle royal. Neither currently offers us a way forward through collective consciousness-raising (remember when we used to use that term?), that is, through developing an integral understanding of our nature as creative, social and ecological beings.

The late Carol Tarlen, a San Francisco poet, organizer and clerical worker, expressed with a poet’s vision and concision the essence of the existential problem when she wrote a poem for Korean garment worker Jean Toer-Il, who immolated himself to protest working conditions:

   His clothes soak gasoline
   his face sweats gasoline
   his hair shines gasoline
   he flicks the lighter
   flames surge up his arms and back
   illuminate the dark alley
   of his labor.
   we are not machines he cries
   fire consumes his flesh
   we are not metal he screams […]

   I am flames
   I am not a machine
   I am not a machine
   I am spirit
   I am light
   I am love

We need these understandings, these expressions, that can take us in a lived instant from the deepest obscurity into the brightest illumination, we need them to infuse everything we do. How fortunate for us they continue to be out there, all around us every day.

Christy Rodgers is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in San Francisco. She blogs at What If? Transformations, tales, possibilities Read other articles by Christy, or visit Christy's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Richard Oxman said on July 16th, 2009 at 4:48pm #

    Thanks for this, Christy.

    Please let me know if you can get on board with Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Derrick Jensen et al. at http://oxtogrind.org/archive/336. I have more lyrical takes upon request. Blessings in solidarity, Richard

  2. Richard Oxman said on July 17th, 2009 at 8:42am #

    Dearest Christy:

    You can reach me at either 831-688-8038 in Aptos, CA or at moc.oohaynull@grubdaeh.

    Thanks, Richard

  3. Adam Cornford said on July 18th, 2009 at 11:23am #

    Outstanding essay, Christy–eloquent, incisive, poetic, and comprehensive. I have various minor disagreements–for example, I think more can be gained by pressuring the Dems than you seem to, at a moment when the system needs to reform itself internally–but overall I think it’s a terrific piece. I may write a response soon, if I can make time to do it and think I have enough to say to make it worthwhile.

    –Adam

  4. Adam Cornford said on July 18th, 2009 at 11:29am #

    Oh, and as Rachel Maddow would say–one more thing. I think you give too short shrift to CBO nonprofits. I’ve worked in several, my wife works for one now. Most people in them understand very well how precarious their situation is, and they’re working there, many for far less money than they’d make in the private sector, because they actually want to help people. Also, I can tell you as a subscriber to the Foundation Center (I write grants, among other things) that foundations whose endowments have shrunk are doing all-hands-on-deck redirection of their available funds to address holes in what remains of the social safety net around the country as state and local budgets crash. No, the nonprofit sector is in no way a solution to the underlying crisis of capitalist civilization. But it does save a lot of lives in the meantime.