Friday, May 13, 2016

How should we think?---Part 9---Joining In

We're going to wrap up this series on thinking by looking at next steps.

Ahjamu Umi hits a homerun when he talks about the need for people to join an organization and get active. Whether your politics exactly match the organization that you join and get active in or not is really a secondary question. What seems more important is committing to people at some basic level and loving people and serving the people enough to follow through. We need engagement with one another in order for the possibilities of forward movement to emerge. And since not all motion is forward motion or creates forward motion, we need to be deliberate, or fully conscious of ourselves and others, as we engage with the people around us.

Capitalism is very deliberate in finding the means to distract and demobilize people. The system rests on the fundamental alienation which comes into being with commodity production and wage labor, This is a fancy way of saying that the goods and services we create and purchase seem to exist as something beyond us when they are really just the products of human labor and design; we do not always understand that we sell our labor power, that our labor power is in fact a special kind of commodity, and that this system divides society along certain lines. All that we produce and consume acquires an identity beyond what they really are once they have been planned and produced for profit and given price tags. We come to look at one another much as we look at these commodities and services because production and distribution are carried out by a working class in ways which tie production, distribution and consumption to class, race, gender, age, ability, ethnicity and so on. Socialists and communists say that what has been done in the name of profit and capitalist order can be undone and that something better can be birthed by the people.

Ahjamu Umi also hits it when he emphasizes the need for study alongside of active engagement with others. He correctly urges people to read and study, which is a radical proposition. As with joining an organization, it is perhaps less important where you begin studying and more important that you simply begin with a serious book. The more systematic your study, the better, but commit to reading just 20 pages a day. It will be better if you can do this with a group then if you try on your own; like weight loss or working out, accountability and cooperation and support are necessary. You will quickly see positive changes in your self-awareness and consciousness, your actions and your thinking.

There are many organizations in the Salem-Keizer area to engage with which will get you out of your chair and away from your computer. Mano a Mano partners English speakers with people who do not speak English as their first language. Our neighborhood associations are forums where important decisions are being made about our community. Union members have the opportunity to participate in their unions or can invent ways. The Salem-Keizer NAACP is growing, the Pacific Islander community is organizing, the Muslim community needs help building a mosque and the Salem No-Ivy Coalition needs help with ivy removal. The Salem Social Justice Collective, CAUSA and the Racial Justice Organizing Committee are all engaged in community organizing and study and will welcome you in. Our group welcomes in people on the left and the merely curious. These are some important points of entry into a bigger world of meaningful social engagement.

Membership in an organization and engagement come with some strings attached. We have assumed that anyone willing to join an organization is committed to the values of community-building, work and participation, but this is not always the case. As Ahjamu Umi says, it would be great if the people who join something without the intention of sticking around stood up and announced that they're present to burn resources and waste every one's time and then moved on. If you approach joining and participating in something as transactional then you're wasting your time and everyone else's. If you show up with an I'll-take-my-toys-and-go-home-if attitude then you will certainly end up back at home. Joining and participating in any meaningful activity comes with a dialectic---there is a built-in contradiction for most of us between the individual and society, between laziness and action, between individualism and cooperation. It will work for you if you're prepared to give up time and deal with your ego, and it won't work for you if you're not. Social involvement teaches us the difficult and necessary lessons of cooperation.

Many years ago I participated in the Denominational Ministry Strategy (DMS) group in Pittsburgh. DMS was extremely confrontational and demanded a lot; it was not always a good place for a person new to social activism to start. Our focus was on the skyrocketing unemployment and the resulting social crises then underway in the Pittsburgh region and on directly confronting the people and institutions responsible for the crises. The high levels of confrontation which we engaged in and the lack of a mass base helped marginalize DMS, and people at the core of the group paid a heavy price for their work.

The best and hardest part of working with DMS was the on-going struggle to clarify our values and break down our fear barriers. We constantly challenged ourselves to reach higher, do more and put more on the line. I was mentored through this by two outstanding local union leaders, one being Ron Weisen, then president of the Steel Workers local union at Homestead. Ron was a conservative Irish-American Democrat who came almost unwillingly to DMS, but once in he fought with bare knuckles for his union and his community on the basis of shared values. We asked ourselves in those days what we really wanted out of life, if this was consistent with our faith or not and what we were willing to do in order to see things through. Good values, a willingness to act and then to critically examine ourselves were at the basis of everything we did.

As my own community and union organizing expanded I tried to be values-driven. Ron made the point many times that we live in a country where we can talk to a total stranger about the most intimate details of our lives at a bar but that we violate the rules when we talk to the people closest to us about things which really matter. I learned that there is an art and science to having these conversations and that this takes real work. In Oregon I have learned that these conversations need to be more about listening and feeling than talking. I would never have gotten to this point had it not been for DMS, Ron Weisen and scores of union members who challenged me, but the first step was just joining in.

I'm not a role model, and this talking and acting and examining paradigm may be a heavy lift for you, but you will never develop as a full human being without social engagement, without being challenged and joining the effort to change the world. We have often used Mao's words that "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience." The hard fact is that if you're not "eating the pear" then someone else is. If you're not engaging in an effort to change things, then someone else is changing things. It will be a great coincidence if that person has your best interests at heart.

My primary self-criticism is that I have often made it difficult for people to find safe entry points into our movements. I have put up barriers and have demanded too much from the people around me, thus demonstrating an elitist, sectarian and ultimately petty-bourgeois mindset. The way forward from those mistakes is to locate safe places to start from.

One of the best starting points has been given to us by Zhou Enlai in his "Guidelines for Myself." In this piece he says:

1. Study diligently, grasp essentials, concentrate on one subject rather than seeking superficial knowledge of many.

2. Work hard and have a plan, a focus and a method.

3. Combine study with work and keep them in proper balance according to time, place and circumstances; take care to review and systematize; discover and create.

4. On the basis of principles, resolutely combat all incorrect ideology in others as well as in myself.

5. Insofar as possible, make the most of my strengths and take concrete steps to overcome my weaknesses.

6. Never become alienated from the masses; learn from them and help them. Lead a collective life, inquire into the concerns of the people around you, study their problems and abide by the rules of discipline.

7. Keep fit and lead a reasonable regular life. This is the material basis for self-improvement.

No comments:

Post a Comment