Self-Critical Reflections on Community Organizing


As I have written in my most recent article, I have been organizing for quite some time. 14 years to be precise: six years with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a revolutionary labor union, and eight years with the Black Cat Collective, a mutual aid collective, more than two of which were spent organizing the People’s Arcane School, a peer instructed school of mysticism, science, and philosophy. To put things in perspective, between the IWW and Black Cat Collective, we had a General Assembly scheduled for every month, wherein we scheduled many other committee meetings to do more focused work, such as organizing events and community resources. 14 years times 12 months per year is 168 General Assemblies that were scheduled. Granted, a few of those were skipped due to holidays or member hardships, and I missed a smaller number of meetings more personally, but I attended an overwhelmingly large majority (I admit a few times I missed I felt it may be good for a meeting to occur without me there because I was always there) of the meetings that we had scheduled, including the committee meetings. Committee meetings could range from five in one month to none at all. Altogether, and with the two years of People’s Arcane School (where I think we averaged two meets a month) I feel safe claiming that I have attended more than 250 meets in those 14 years. However, that would put me at an average of a meeting and a half a month, and I feel that is quite conservative! I believe the actual numbers, when 168 General Assemblies are added to 48 Arcane School sessions, and with the likelihood of 168 committee functions (if we averaged one committee per month for 14 years), are much closer to 384, even when considering the times I was absent. I suppose if I wanted to go through hundreds of meeting minutes, I may be able to come closer to an exact answer, but I hope you can understand why I have not undergone such an undertaking. Regardless of the exact number, it is certainly fair to say that I am experienced in running a successful meeting and maintaining a lasting association of volunteers. With this in mind, I would like to share with you some of the things that I have learned in my time doing community organizing, as well as some philosophical anecdotes which you may find helpful.

A typical meeting would go like this: Members sat in a circle together, with one member running a white board with an agenda clearly visible to the participants. The participants could add to, rearrange, or even remove items from the agenda, and were called to do so by the facilitator of the meeting, who was generally the person running the board, but not always. Once the agenda was well-established, and no members had any other business to add, items would be addressed on a one-by-one basis. Items that were too intricate or which took up too much time would have a date set for further discussion or planning as a committee. If the item concerned general business, but was still too long to take on at a general meeting, the committee was established to create a proposal only, which would be addressed at the next General Assembly or at a special meeting decided at the previous one. A secretary would take minutes, and in larger or more lively meetings, a stack-taker would volunteer or be elected to take stack (keep track of whose turn it is to speak, according to raised hands). The first item on the agenda was group Traditions, which included statements from the committees and officers of the organization, wherein full transparency was practiced, from the money managed by the treasurer to the actions taken by the committees. After traditions, business was separated into Old Business, or matters which had been tabled or sent to committee to draft a proposal, and New Business, which included anything members wanted to bring to the table, from proposals for new projects and committees to changes of the governing documents.

Many of the meetings we had were business meetings, where we made group decisions about the nature, direction, and well-being of the collective. These meetings ran on a strict consensus, with any member being given the right to block a decision. General Assemblies acted as the executive bodies of the organizations, and from General Assemblies could be chartered individual projects, or committees of various kinds, to be officially associated with the collective. Some of the committees included temporary meetings to resolve proposals to GA for bylaws changes, t-shirt printing, selecting the office space we would use, etc. Others were intended to be more permanent, including a social committee which was responsible for setting up group feasts and gatherings of various sorts. Committees were always open to any member for participation, and usually included a smaller portion of the membership than General Assembly: those who took special interest in the topic. We never really had any problem running on consensus, or reaching quality decisions. Instead, I found that consensus did all it claimed to do, including making participants feel included and important as contributors to the meeting, and ensuring a good degree of compromise and give-and-take between participants, who remained flexible with others’ proposals, in order that others who do the same with them. Consensus, after all, really is different from complete unanimity (though unanimity is consistent with consensus), as it represents solutions which are acceptable or well-tolerated by the membership, rather than demanding absolute excitement from every member.[1] Of course, if any decision was found intolerable to a member, they had the right to block. This rarely occurred.

There was one instance where consensus did lead to some difficulty, but I think if I had been more prudent I could have resolved the issue. We had a van donated to the collective for a car-share program we were trying to put together. I had labored for some days to create a set of bylaws that I felt would fairly govern the use of the van, including user and membership fees, which were divided between mileage and time, as mileage imposed a physical cost on the van, and time a cost to the other users who could use it. A participant blocked the proposal, because they didn’t like the system I had come up with for the bylaws. I declined to modify the proposal, suggesting a new one should be brought to the table in its place, and it was agreed the individual who blocked the proposal would come up with a new one. They never did so, and didn’t maintain membership in the group long after that. This issue could be resolved in a number of ways, such as requiring principled objections for blocks, requiring an alternative to be presented, or by me simply bringing the item back to the table at a later date when the individual failed to present an alternative. I should have done this, so ultimately the fault is with me. You should also be aware that if the individual were to maintain their membership and continue to block necessary business that members could file a charge against him, in which case his membership itself could come into question. If the group felt his blocks were more expensive than the value of his contributions, it could remove him. So, it’s important not to blame consensus as a decision-making process for these issues, but to be aware that consensus does nothing to eliminate the shortcomings of individuals, such as those which I displayed in failing to see the car-share cooperative project through. Someone more prudent than myself, or an older version of myself, should have been more capable of seeing the project through. Even with prudent members, good structure and process is necessary, however.

At first, I involved people’s passions correctly. Rather than creating an Anarchist organization, I created an anarchist one. That is, I did not put ideology at the forefront, but instead used my ideology as a tool to facilitate the ends of others, in order to adapt them to the culture of anarchism in a non-threatening way. It worked well, and especially before I started to burn out. There were social events, literary journal releases, and numbers of other events and committees that the members themselves were impassioned enough to set up, being happy to be provided an audience and core of common support. They thought the collective was fairly well-organized, and began to appreciate the ideas behind it, after seeing it in operation. But alas, people’s passions wear thin, especially when the participants are burdened with an already-heavy workload (myself included), in school or in employment, and so participation begins to dwindle after time.[2]

I speak both of my own lack of prudence and the lack of others’ participation as being problematic, but I don’t really think this is really fair to place the blame either of us. In the end, I think I did a whole lot of great and important work, demonstrating to people alternatives both in idea and in practice, though imperfect it was. I also cannot expect others to be as impassioned as I am with the mechanics of society. More than my lack of prudence as an organizer— which I think is actually the wrong wording for all of the work I did as an unpaid volunteer and which others would have long abandoned—, if I am to be given the blame for the shortcomings of the collective, it should be for the organizational flaws which persisted for so long, and which were my responsibility as an entrepreneur of sorts to correct. I should have been able to account for the varying degrees of passions and interests that exist in a social organization such as the one I established; it’s only good social science. I want to be clear, however, that the organizational issues we faced—even in the biggest meetings we had with over 40 people— were not related to the manner in which we made decisions, but to the lack of spending power to afford necessary labor to be done. Had we a form of payment for secretaries, treasurers, stack-takers, facilitators, deacons, stewards, and other positions that would help the collective flow and stay on track, to officially welcome and inform newcomers, to carry out our goals, etc. we would have had a much more effective group, with much less burnout and volunteer exhaustion. The collective very well addressed the challenges put forward by social anarchists, to establish non-hierarchical and participatory forms of organization, but it failed on the grounds of individualism, in that it did not consider the variance and intensity of passions, which are ultimately needed to produce volunteer labor, and did not provide an alternative to these passions as a motivator, such as payment for socially-necessary labor.

Rather than having problems reaching good decisions, which everyone was contented with, we had a problem with managing labor. This included the labor of the officers, and this would become apparent in myself as time would go on as well. As I continued to carry on these hundreds of meetings without compensation or celebration, seeing members come and go, I began to burn out, and I admit that meetings did not always follow the structure outlined above, particularly when it came to Traditions. There were many meetings where reports were never made, and I take personal responsibility for not taking the effort to see that this was not the case. However, much of this responsibility is for the design of the organization, which did not take into consideration the little value that volunteers would really have, rather than for lack of effort. Aside from a few die-hards like myself, who I am so grateful to know, I have found that there really are few who want to do the hard work of organizing as volunteers, as few are as impassioned as myself and the others (members Cheryl and Dan especially put in hard work with me). When I designed the organization, I had intended on having much more volunteer participation, and not being stuck doing as much as I ultimately had to do to keep it afloat (I facilitated a majority of the time, got there early to set up chairs and the board and meet new people, scheduled speakers for the Arcane School, etc.), which ultimately led toward me burning out and running much looser meetings (with bursts of hopeful attempts to establish things back in order at times).

Ultimately, I believe that anarchist community organizations are lacking in their ability to direct labor toward anarchistic ends, and I feel much of this is due to assemblies being unable to pay labor or buy goods and services. Today, anarchists of all stripes are forced to work for corporations, to buy from corporations, and to rent from corporations. In the corporate supermarket, ancaps and ancoms who would otherwise have nothing to do with one another bump shoulders as they sweep by one another in the aisles. They are not motivated by ideology to do this, but by something much more powerful, the desire to live and experience life, which, under capitalism, takes certain inescapable forms. The duty of anarchists, then, is to wield this same kind of power, but towards the ends of anarchists; to create such a gravity from the density of the value behind anarchism and its associated projects that it begins to suck everything into its clutches, no matter its ideological leanings. This is done by mutual credit, and its ability to provide high wages and low prices. Everyone follows high wages and low prices, except employers, but they will have no other option when they run out of laborers to employ, and will soon enough be forced to sell their surplus and work for a living. If money were readily available, though, there would be less need to be anarchists. It is the scarcity of money that presents us the need to abolish capitalism, and also the inability to run successful organizations. We can’t simply charge more dues from our working class membership in federal dollars, because the facts are that they cannot afford it, and if they could they would have no reason to participate in anti-capitalist activity. The only options anarchists have, then, is to practice mutual credit.[3]

It is now undeniably true to me that volunteer-run organizations are unsustainable, and that paid organizers are absolutely crucial. The social anarchist outlook which decries paid organizers as hierarchical is correct to have concerns about hierarchy, but does their organizations a great deal of disservice when these concerns lead to a lack of structure, rather than clearly limited powers of officers. I think anarchists have to face the uncomfortable reality that there may be some who are more inclined to lead than others, and that these individuals need to be enabled to perform their social-biological function, not as rulers, but as leaders and organizers, who are compensated and celebrated by their communities for their contributions. Of course, it is best if we try to develop as many of these personalities as we can within our communities, and it is certainly ideal for everyone to be an organizer, but the reality I have seen is that opportunities can be presented, but will not be taken up by everyone in equal proportion, and so those who do more burn out.

It is, in part, for this reason that I think that my position on anarchist leadership and social organization has been too slanted toward the left, as my thinking about anarchist social organization developed largely from my participation in syndicalism and interest in leftist models such as ParEcon (Participatory Economics). It has only been since my mid-20s that I even entertained notions of “anarcho”-capitalism, and while I still do not feel that capitalism has any compatibility with anarchism, I have become increasingly aware that this is also true of communism, and the collectivist ideologies I once felt superior to capitalism, even though they were not ultimately mutualist (which I have pretty much always been, except for some skipping around in my mid teens). While the projects I found interesting were not of the anti-organizational bend of left anarchism, I have come to find that their anti-individualism leads to an unintended anti-organization anyway, particularly when it comes to executing decisions. It is when legislating the decisions that the groups are effective. For instance, the IWW could do a lot more if it was willing to raise more money in its treasury, pay more officers and organizers, and provide more benefits to members. The collectivist ideology of the membership prevents it from doing these things, and while the IWW has good reason to promote the participation of every member as an organizer, not rewarding organizing activity has resulted in a small, though fiery, organizing core, which frequently complains of others’ non-participation and suffers frequent organizer burnout.

Don’t go celebrating presidents and bosses just yet; when I am talking about anarchists becoming leaders, I am talking about something very specific. I am not talking about rulers or rule-makers. I am talking about people of confidence. This is something which cannot be addressed by structure, because confidence is a matter of personal development and inclination to growth. It is in regard to matters of confidence that right-wing anarchists levy an especially fair shot against the leftist varieties of anarchism, which remain especially afraid of making a mistake, and so do very little acting. From what I can tell, it is best if we understand left anarchist structure and decision-making processes as appropriate for upward motion, the creation of rules, while right anarchist structures and decision-making processes are likely best for the implementation of the upwardly-made decisions, downward. This hearkens back to Benjamin Tucker’s claim that meetings have to be run by autocrats to be functional. Of course, the rules the “autocrat” applies are best created and amendable by the group at large, and without interference by the empowered individual, and that is what I mean by participatory upward motion. For this reason, I have come to conclude that anarchists must be leaders and enforcers, as well as facilitators and comrades, and that leadership without rulership is the balance between the ochlocracy of the left and the tyranny of the right. What this balance looks like is an anarchist without hang ups about gaining an advantage and asserting that advantage; anarchists empowered through their associations, and empowered to perform tasks on behalf of their associations as trustees, providing benefits for rewards, and enforcing the values of the group. Perhaps a good example would be an early Lawspeaker or Gothi, who, while maintaining clear control of a meeting, ideally controlled only processes which led toward common agreement, being tasks with keeping track of those agreements. This represents a sort of fusion between monarchy and democracy. It is probably necessary for a new model of anarchist leadership to emerge which makes use of a Lawspeaker-like system, but which is open and meritocratic enough to allow anyone who does the work to gain the status of Lawspeaker (which would be the ideal, where everyone rotates facilitation duties and such, but which is hard to come by). Of course, the degree to which a membership allows a trustee to manage things on their behalf is the degree to which they are not self-responsible.

I think anarchist organizers should act in a similar manner to Lawspeakers, in that they should be willing to assert leadership, while understanding that their leadership provides the most benefit as consensus facilitation rather than bossing, and that there should be no monopoly on the position. I think that had I gone into things with this sort of attitude— that my leadership was to be retained (even if others joined my “ranks”)— that I would have been more capable and ready to confront the challenges presented by the group, as well as have felt more celebrated and possibly more pursuant of compensation. Instead, I allowed the leadership of the collective to fall way to the tragedy of the commons, and I now see the error in my ways: I have a unique contribution, and I undervalued its worth, and did not bargain with it. For this, not only myself, but the group at large suffered from disorganization. It was my meek leftist values that demotivated me to be the leader that I probably should have been, but which I did not expect to be, because I had a false expectation that others were capable of the same passions as me, or were motivated by the same kinds of values or concern for social well-being. This simply was not the case, and I should have expected to exert much more of an influence on the collective than others (like I ultimately did) through the consensus process. Leftism had removed a kind of confidence from me about my role as a leader that I now see kept me from doing better for my community and myself.  I was a leader in denial.

Anarchist philosophy, like metaphysics, often refuses to take an explicit form, and so remains an entirely negative philosophy, of which there are few positive lasting examples. Anarchists want to leave social decisions to “the free market” or “the assembly,” while never willing to act as participants in those settings, or provide a positive form to a firm in the free market or a proposal in the assembly, resulting in anarchism being mainly an ever-divergent family of complaints. This, of course, is not to say that anarchism is incorrect, but that it is limited, and perhaps best accompanied by other philosophies, or unabashedly given a positive form. The agents of anarchism must be willing to act, to assert their influence in the world, without fearing that doing so is authoritarian or hierarchical. Anarchism should not mean the passivity it is so often interpreted as, and which I demonstrated in my lack of leadership, but as open defiance through the positive assertion of one’s values, not over others, but for oneself. Anarchy happens not when the rich and powerful become passive and meek like the lowest among us, but when we, the poor and disempowered, rise up like lions and assert our share in positive existence. Anarchy results from the rough balance of these assertions, rather than the balance of passivity.

I can’t help but feel that it is the fear of taking a positive form which has kept anarchists from building successful institutions capable of dual power strategy and gradual revolution, and that this fear is somehow inherent to the delivery and reception of the philosophy of anarchism. Most anarchists have not attended a single assembly, but remain contented to complain on the internet about what others should not be doing. When someone else—hardly ever themselves—presents them an opportunity to meet with others, proposals for specific actions are readily seen as oppressive or restrictive for taking a positive form, rather than items for active group consideration and modification. The fear of positive form could not be any more serious than when it comes to the leadership influences required by anarchists to achieve the ends they desire. For many an anarchist, leadership is a dirty word, often equated with oppression, rather than a virtue to be pursued, and I fell victim to this as well. Had I known better, I would have better prepared for the necessity of my leadership by creating an official position for myself as a paid organizer or Lawspeaker of sorts, taking upon myself any responsibility that was not readily assumed by others, and drawing compensation from my efforts. This would have prevented me from burning out. Alas, I did not do this, and my flame is burning low, and my organizations have started to suffer from my lack of drive.

My achievements, which can never be taken from me and of which I am very proud, are not easily demonstrable. I simply do not have wealth to show for my behavior, or even a list of all of the people who I have influenced, though I know I have influenced many, some more seriously than others, and this was my aim. I have seen lives completely change after exposure to information I have presented. Some say that the hardest thing to do is change a human mind, and I have done it many times over. Though I am sure without reinforcement, the change was reversed in many of those cases by cultural norms and excuses, I am certain of cases in which that has not been true. Still, I am not one to claim the achievements of others, and I do not keep track of the names of those I influence as if they are my product. To many, then—and especially those who do not attend my meetings or read my works—, I seem quite the underachiever, a lazy, unmotivated, poor person. In reality, I am rich in spirit, though I admit it has been draining, as I have been giving it away freely without concern for myself, a result of my leftist “slave morality,” no doubt. I have put myself here, “made my bed,” so to speak, from false dreams about others’ ability to perceive the world in the way that I do, and my lack of confidence in my ability or the need to handle the situation more personally or assume lead before I burned out. This could have been solved if I had taken the leadership role seriously and demanded compensation for it, rather than rejecting it as an undesirable hierarchy, running the collective as a full-time trustee. Instead, my leftist values had convinced me that leadership (and not just bossing) isn’t so much of a virtue, and that I needed to cultivate more leadership in others instead. I do think it is important to involve others, but not at the expense of being passive and limiting one’s own virtues, like I have done. Had I a chance to do something different, I would have accounted for the lack of participation that the collective would have, and the amount of extra labor that I would ultimately be responsible for, by assigning myself (and others) a paid leadership position, facilitating consensus and directing events, with support from the members appreciated but not expected, except in the form of mutual credit and other forms of payments for services rendered. These services would be no different from the ones I already provided unless decided otherwise, but would be performed much more consistently, with less hesitation, and with fewer complaints that I was the primary one showing up to meetings and setting up chairs, scheduling events, facilitating meetings, etc. The only way a group of the sort I established could afford to pay officers and organizers is with the use of mutual credit, because the dollar is artificially scarce for working people, and that is why we are anarchists. This point, the need to pay labor, and the functionality of the consensus decision-making process cannot be stressed enough.

[1] It should be understood that voluntary association is the first statement of consent, and that one agrees to the rules of a group when one submits to it, giving their consent, by extension, to the outcomes of those rules. So, if one agrees to a group governed by representatives, one agrees to the decisions of those representatives before they even occur. Similarly, if one agrees to a group run by the majority. On some level, because of this, consensus is in operation wherever a group is composed of voluntary participants, but I think most who have interest in consensus—including myself— want to go further than that and toward the direction of explicit positive rights to participate in decisions within voluntary associations as an insider, not just to agree to their relationship to the association as an outside, exclude from a say in decisions. Such a demand strongly implies a governing document, such as a covenant, constitution, bylaws, articles of association, or some other document or agreement that illustrates the manner in which decisions are made and how everyone is included in those decisions. This document itself should depend on consensus for changes, without any requirements for blocks. Its contents can demand consensus in every decision of the group, or can detail in clear form which matters are of such a consequence that they demand consensus, principled objections needed for blocks, and matters which are less consequential, able to be dealt with by minority or majority rule. In the case of minority or majority rule, there may also be stated an option for recall of the decision, so that minority or majority rule is assumed only until an objection to the results is raised. There are many ways to organize things. As time goes on, I feel that fewer items demand consensus, and that more should be taken care of transparently by paid individuals or by majority rule, but this is for the sake of expediency, and due to my expectations that people find many matters inconsequential or overwhelming. In our own groups, consensus was always assumed, and that worked out fine considering the small membership numbers we toted (usually around 8-10, but sometimes as low as 5 or as high as 20). We did agree for some issues to go about different kinds of voting, or to empower a particular member to take a course of action on the collective’s behalf, but for the most part we worked on consensus. It’s mostly important that the governing document is itself governed by consensus, and outlines matters of consequence to be decided by consensus.

[2] I think the good mixture of the sexes, which I made an original goal in my selection of core participants, also contributed to a good deal of the collective’s early success. Unfortunately, and probably due to my conservative Christian upbringing, I do not have large numbers of female friends, and so the pool of participants from which I could draw began to become more masculine over time. Being the most motivated to bring in new members, this meant that the membership in general became more filled with men, and for that the collective began to suffer, both from the lack of interesting and fun social events that the women would set up, and the lack of diversity of potential mates which tends to make for exciting engagements for single young people.

[3] One of the most important things an anarchist assembly could do is get past the barriers of the ever-elusive dollar, which keep us from compensating and celebrating the contributions of our membership. I can’t imagine this discussion would go over well in left anarchist circles, which seem replete with “spooks” about capitalism. Mutual credit, maintaining a form as a medium of exchange, is too spooky for the meek leftists, who just want everyone to come to them for free, and without having to work. Still, it’s a necessity if we want practical results in the areas of self-management, because the world doesn’t operate on sentiment alone. This necessity could enable agorist market relations as a basis for value, syndicalist strikes with probability of victory used as collateral, and the staff of many dual power institutions.

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