Not Our Own: Demystifying Goals & Methods of "Progressive" Work

Analytical Tale of Toil by Steven Colatrella

Submitted by ludd on August 1, 2010

"Transform the world by labor! But the world is being transformed by labor, which is why it is being transformed so badly."
--Raoul Vaneigem

"Anything built on sacrifice and self-renunciation only demands more sacrifice and renunciation."

I 'm 30 years old and I have an MA degree in political science, which is not enough to get any kind of good job, but enough to exclude you from any unskilled or semi-skilled jobs because employers know you'll never last. I've worked a lot of jobs--cab driver, landscaper, even ad clerk at The New York Times, but I quickly left them out of boredom, frustration, or low pay.

What I learned from all of them is that the only thing that makes them bearable for five minutes is the social interaction. What made them all eventually unbearable was the utter uselessness and meaninglessness of the work itself. I usually found myself growing despondent, listless, and suicidal after just a few days. So for the past several years I've made a living trying to do something useful, fun and that I do well--political organizing. For the average leftist, who chants whatever the Workers World thugs tell him to and dutifully ponders this week's media issue, it can be a great solution. If you fit this description, stop reading and look in the help wanted section of Community Jobs, In These Times or The Nation. But if your faculty for critical thinking and communal and libertarian vision lingers despite your best efforts to drown it in careerism, it can be a bumpy ride. That's especially true if you refuse to believe any single organization is worth dedicating your whole life to.

I've worked for a spectrum of U.S. leftist groups. I was campaign coordinator for a Citizens' Party State Senate race, I raised funds for the New National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and the New Jersey ACLU (no pay, commission only, zero money), I canvassed for New Jersey Citizen Action, sorted mail at the Guardian, and stacked groceries at Texas' biggest food co-op. By early '88, I had just about given up on this method of making a living when a strange experience led to slightly improved working conditions and a bit more "status."

A friend told me that the National Lawyers Guild was hiring. (Incidentally, I got most of these political jobs by knowing people who knew people at the group in question. I'm not sure whether this is a leftist version of "it's who you know" or a sign of "community" winning out over abstract "merit" in the hiring game.) I called the Guild, and the person on the other end of the line insisted I come in immediately for an interview despite my protests that I was in blue jeans and sneakers and unprepared. I didn't even know what the job was.

I was hired immediately to recruit students at law schools and form new chapters of the Guild across the country. I had done Civil Liberties work--which involved very little actual knowledge, ability, or organizing experience--and had dropped out of law school after one year. Also, as a student I had been a member of the Guild. They figured, probably correctly, that I'd be able to relate to left-wing law students. For reasons I will describe below, I left after a year.

Most left-wing groups pay very poorly: My National Civil Liberties pay started at $5 an hour, and was $7 when I left; the Guardian pay was unmentionably low. But the Guild paid $20,000 a year, which seemed like a lot to me, and for the first time in my life offered health benefits and overtime pay.

Also, with the Guild on my resume, I could apply for union jobs, which usually pay in the mid-'20s with benefits and often a car. But when I eventually looked into working for a union, the only one interested in hiring me was the white collar division of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), PACE, which offered me a job at their one-person Vermont state office. They paid slightly less than the Guild, but did provide me with a car and expenses.

My most recent sojourn into employment was a temporary organizing position with the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), which I took after being transferred back to New York with PACE at my own request. CIR is a NY-based union of medical residents, people who regularly work 80-130 hours per week right out of medical school. The job paid $15,000 for six months, more than I had ever made before. This enabled me to get a larger unemployment check when I left.

For the past six years, I've been part of the Midnight Notes publishing collective. This journal gives me something that no job ever has--the chance to be part of a genuine collective based on a common project and a common understanding of the world. It's a place where I can express my own "maximum" views instead those of the lowest common denominator coalition politics that predominate at most leftist organizations.

I started with this long, detailed list of jobs and wages, because such factors shape the world views and political analyses of even the most abstract radical thinkers. Also, it makes it clear that the analysis that follows is based on extensive experience.

Institutional Ambivalence

I don't think any single organization can represent a whole movement or class. The experience of collective and individual self-transformation, which is the basis of all genuine radical social struggles and what attracts people to them in the first place, can never be totally encompassed by the work of the organizations that partially represent that movement.

At best, institutions mobilize people at a crucial moment in history, or champion the needs of some of the exploited. At worst, institutions project the interests of those social sectors from which they recruit onto a whole class or movement. This process accounts for the bureaucratization of unions, parties and other groups, and explains how they become detached from and hostile to criticisms, suggestions, and initiatives from below.

At the lowest level of "degeneration," these institutions can consciously play a crucial role in siphoning off political energies by providing an alternative job market for people who hate capitalist institutions and refuse to work for corporate profits. We get to work on political issues, but not the issues that we would work on, or in the way we would work if it weren't a job. The possibilities for creating communal places to live, produce, consume, and create close off to you when you're stuffing envelopes to save a rain forest, or lobbying some legislators. Meanwhile, even if you would prefer the former course, members of your potential alternative network are also working either at straight jobs or for the left.

Only reasonably well-funded organizations can provide a living wage, but the well-funded-employer market is determined by funders. By default these become the left. That they have offices and people in charge means that they are available to cooperate with the media, the Democratic Party, and other institutions as a responsible, respectable, formal opposition. If an alternative view is presented on TV, it belongs to the chairperson of a recognizable national organization, or a left lawyer.

Although these individuals advocate an alternative, they keep working people and less formal activists like squatters, ACT UP, and local groups from presenting their views and being recognized. So while we keep body, soul, and sanity together by working at non-profits, we are helping to prevent the formation of a real movement.

What's more, because these organizations need funding to operate this way, preserving their financial base becomes Priority No. 1. Increasingly structured around their budget, they consider their members as nothing more than a funding source. Yet this thwarts the ostensible purpose of political organizations in the first place--strengthening and enhancing a struggle or movement.

It's no surprise, then, that people usually avoid formal organizations when the need for action arises--witness the proliferation of antiwar groups amid the chaos of the divided formal groups. Yet when no autonomous mass upheavals exist, these labor, civil liberties, and other groups do mitigate political repression and occasionally help push through a useful reform. More importantly, they sometimes provide a space for activists to meet, gain political experience, do some of their "own" political work, and survive without being ground up in the wheels of capital.

Pursuing Your Own Agenda

The question is: How can people whose vision of life is communal and egalitarian and who work at leftist organizations 1) advance exploited people's own initiatives; and 2) develop some fun, collective project that builds community?

The short answer is that you cannot do your own political work while working for the left anywhere I've been if you have my priorities. The long answer is that you can do some of it if you: 1) go around the organization while using its contacts/networks and resources; 2) make it your top priority to facilitate self-organization, not just recruit for your employer; 3) develop horizontal networks among those involved in the group's campaigns; and 4) don't care very much about getting fired.

Historically, this is a very strange way to make a living. The only other leftists who did so were the generation of communists who became union organizers and officials in the '30s and '40s. This precedent is not a comforting one, because both the role these men played and the way unions turned out are a mixed bag at best.

The institutions that today's radicals work for fall into three categories. The first are organizations run as unpaid collectives or communes 20 years ago. The second are those which arose after the '60s movement faded. The third are those already seen as corrupt when the New Left was new, but which have acquired a new attractiveness because other, better alternatives are lacking.

In the first category, I put the Guardian and the National Lawyers Guild--which the New Left literally rejuvenated through collective volunteer work. A number of New Left groups, forged in the heat of battle with 60s communalist enthusiasm, continue to function, but as formal organizations with paid staff and a clear division of labor between managers and workers. During my stay at the Guardian and the Guild, I found people more "consciously" or consistently radical than at Citizen Action. It is always nice to work underneath a poster of Che Guevara or Malcolm X. But the unsavory religious flavor generated when ideological orthodoxy is enforced on top of regular work discipline left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Guardian claimed to be a collective, and a "Leninist" one at that. But a subtle hierarchy existed. I was not the only one told that before I could obtain full membership with policy voting rights I would have to "clarify my views on the Soviet Union."

Organizing the Organizers

The job at the National Lawyers Guild was one of the best I ever had. There was union, something I longed for at Citizens Action, although when my position needed new funding, its function left something to be desired. A staff union testified to the Guild's sincerity about living up to its ideals. But it also raised the question of why we should need union representation at our "own" organization.

There is no question that employees at many "progressive" organizations need unions to get treated with some respect and gain the benefits that even some small, mainstream companies afford their employees. Also, a union provides a way to share thoughts with fellow employees, who are invariably activists too.

In theory, the officials in charge are also activists, even fellow members of the working class. But the creation of organizations designed to gain employer concessions acknowledges that antagonistic relations and class differences exist within the workplace. Whether or not we focus on the power of only some to hire and fire, or the difference between formulating policy and carrying it out, recognizing that class divisions separate most workers in leftist groups from their "professional" executive directors can revive true alternative politics in this country.

On a national scale, the rank and file caucuses that appeared in many unions in the '70s, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, reflect this division. However, as with Miners for Democracy's capture of the United Mine Workers Union, once such groups gain power the relationship between leadership and members remains fundamentally unchanged.

The most dramatic example of this is the rise of Solidarnosc. The strikes that created it in 1980 (and not the other way around) clearly demonstrated that the Communist Party was not the workers party. The union's formation meant that class conflict existed between the workers and the state. But once in power, Solidarnosc started representing class interests other than those of the workers, and rank and file control gave way to a new bureaucratic professionalism.

The Issue of Class

Through the Guild I saw a lot of the United States, met hundreds of radical young people, and probably encouraged somebody to consider alternatives to corporate law. But I was organizing lawyers. Nothing's wrong with this, but I was sometimes aware that I was lower in the social pecking order than my "clients," leftists or not.

What's more, the projects I worked on had to enable lawyers or law students to play a role. The issues themselves--racism, sexism, Palestine--were often good. But radical forms of organization should not only be internally democratic and non- hierarchical, which the Guild was not, but should also allow the exploited to interact in ways that break down the social hierarchy.

Organizations based upon professional affiliations pose problems--they're not bad, but limited. In theory, legal workers and jailhouse lawyers can be members. But the jailhouse lawyers are treated as charity cases, and the legal workers, including the Guild staff, are clearly a low priority. In addition, legal workers have very little decision-making power. This is mostly because of a lack of resources, but also because funding priorities require a focus on paying members.

The inclusion of non-professionals and students was forced on the old left movement by the struggles of students, prisoners and women in the early '70s. Thus, changing the social relations within the legal union are part of the movement outside the organization, which determines relations within.

The increasing moderation of old "New Leftists" and the continued presence of old "old leftists," who always counsel working within established structures like liberal city governments and avoiding controversial subjects like Palestine, made my stay at the Guild uneasy. Old CP'ers had never reconciled themselves to the inclusion of law students, as it would make the Guild seem less serious-minded compared to the American Bar Association--to which it is supposed to be an alternative.

As a result, my position came under fire. A new president of the Guild, as always chosen before the national convention, planned to forego recruiting new members in favor of making the Guild a clearinghouse for high-profile, media-oriented cases handled by a national staff of lawyers. This hasn't happened yet, but the political atmosphere got uncomfortable and increasingly careerist. Some Guild members were defending the police in brutality and civil rights cases for city administrations like Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's, which were perceived as grassroots-oriented. Others were defending the victims.

I took the liberty of expressing my views on these and other subjects. Soon the national office was getting enough complaints about me that I decided to politely bow out. This blew my chances for a good reference despite having set up their whole law student recruitment structure from scratch and adding many new chapters.

Working for these formerly volunteer groups makes you more likely to meet some genuine radicals with whom you may work in the future. You'll also learn a lot of useful information. But it's an uphill climb for someone whose goal is to overcome class divisions and create an ideologically unconstrained movement. Luckily, such groups are still quite marginal because they are explicitly anti-capitalist in theory if not always in practice. Mostly they lack a sense of humor, but they do allow some diversity of views.

Citizen In Action, Public Disinterest

More insidiously typical, and more cynical and prevalent, are "category two" jobs at Citizen Action and similar "community organizations" and "public interest" groups. If the New Left groups were born of '60s rebellion, and became tamer and more conventional with the movement's collapse, the defeat of these revolutionary aspirations in the mid-'70s laid the groundwork for Massachusetts Fair Share (now defunct), the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), the United Neighborhood Organization, and their ilk.

These groups appeal strongly to white suburban liberals and leftists who have little or no experience of real social movements or direct action. They push specific pieces of legislation, which are usually OK as far as they go, but they organize in the most conventional manner possible. They parody the camaraderie of real collectives by going out to canvass in teams, ringing doorbells and making you work endless hours for low pay out of "idealism." You go drinking at the end of the night with your team because you work so much that you never see anyone else.

Public interest groups spread information but foster ignorance--about how the electoral system works, about what constitutes political activity. Suddenly, the "politically correct" thing to do is to write your congressperson!

But if their strategy is absurd, even reactionary, their tactics could be revolutionary. They are among the only groups that go to people's homes to talk to them about politics (only in the last few years have some labor unions tried this tactic). The problem is that the canvasser gets an empty petition signed, a letter written to a Senator, and maybe a new subscription to the group's magazine--period. People are never broken out of the isolation in which the organizer finds them.

I saw this problem most clearly when we canvassed Belleville, New Jersey, mere weeks after the racially mixed, blue-collar town had discovered the largest-ever dump of dioxin, the chemical base of Agent Orange. Citizen Action was pushing a Right To Know Bill on Toxics (which eventually passed the legislature only after farm workers were explicitly excluded from protection under the bill).

The bill was of course too late to help Belleville, but was not irrelevant to their problem. Unlike wealthier towns, everyone gave me some money towards my "quota" in the piecework wage system and wrote a letter. But they all asked, "Which group is it this time!" Every ecological group in the world had been at their front door in the past month, but the residents were still in the same boat. Worse yet, despite their anger and militancy, they remained as isolated and felt as helpless as before.

The New Left at its best saw breaking through people's isolation as the purpose of radical politics. They recognized that in groups, people's consciousness, abilities and commitments are radically different than when they act as individual citizens or consumers.

But in contrast, citizen-based organizing depends on that isolation. No one had called a group meeting where Belleville residents could talk among themselves, relying on their own knowledge and resources as well as the expertise of helpful activists. No one organized direct action to punish the companies responsible.

Public interest and citizen groups (including many mainstream environmental organizations) also depend on a steady supply of cheap, willing labor in the form of idealistic college students and recent graduates desperate for non-corporate work. A successful revival of demands for "wages for students" in the form of lower tuition, higher scholarships, and more grants instead of loans might eliminate these organizations overnight!

The old left joined mass organizations to win members to their own party. Today radicals can play a positive role in such groups only by subverting the "public interest" strategy by fostering rank and file personal contacts to discuss needs met only outside the organizations' limits. Some tenant organizers I know bring tenants together to form fuel co-ops, discuss problems, and pressure the very groups for which the organizers work for more resources and decision-making power. It is rarely possible to carry out this kind of agitation, but the human contacts are very rich at some of these jobs--people would often have me in for coffee, dinner, long conversations.

The Union Staffer

Unions of course fall into "category three"-groups already discredited as sources of social transformation. They are also the most stable and best paying--plus, union organizing leads to much more intensive contact with working people.

But the level of cynicism one finds among union people is astounding. The white-collar division of the ILGWU for which I worked was ostensibly created because, with garment workers declining in numbers, the union hoped (along with many other unions) to latch onto the growth in office workers. But no one has successfully organized large numbers of U.S. office workers. This suggests a need for innovation, experimentation, and concern for issues like abortion, sexual harassment, and child care.

No innovation was allowed at PACE. The hierarchy knew that an organizer has tremendous potential to facilitate contact among workers--in short, to subvert the union in favor of rank and file power. So they put real pressure on us all.

Years ago the ILGWU crushed a unionization attempt by the organizing staff. We were prevented from working with feminist groups, and I was banned from meeting with radical church activists. The height of cynicism was reached when companies were told that if they allowed their garment workers to join the ILGWU without a fight, we could leave their office workers alone. Conversely, we were ordered out of some offices because the garment organizers were interested in the shops. I stayed as long as I could find new ways to meet workers.

I knew PACE would not be the impetus to mass office worker insurgency, but I thought that anything that fostered struggle, militancy, and collective interaction would seed future movements. However, soon there were no avenues toward this goal left, and virtually the whole staff quit.

This job reminds me about one of the biggest problems with all existing organizations: radicals gain experience at such places and bring analyses and knowledge to them, but the organizations impede political movements by preventing us from using all that we know. Their whole basis for existence is the fragmentation of political needs, issues, and identities. In this they are reactionary.

Was I supposed to talk about nuclear power or the death penalty when people wanted to discuss these problems? Or was I supposed to tell them that I was sorry, but our organization didn't talk about those issues? Once, at a union staff meeting, I was told that our goal was to get a majority of pro-union people, even if that meant a white majority over a black minority. Fighting racism was a fine thing, said my boss, but not what we did. When I argued that overcoming racial divisions within the working class would make our job easier in the long run, discussion ended. We organized one workplace at a time, period.

This fragmentation of experiences, goals, knowledge, ideals, and energies means that we spend 40 or more hours per week in ways that prevent us from fully using our talents. All of the various kinds of "intelligence" we've accumulated suffer from disuse because they promote more threatening, multidimensional struggles. Controlling radicals and shutting off uncontrollable avenues of resistance have been capitalism's major projects ever since the 1960s.

In fairness, working for the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) was a much better experience. I worked on a successful strike campaign at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in the South Bronx. The majority of doctors were "Third World" Puerto Rican, Indian, Pakistani, Arab. We had picket signs in Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic, and protest songs in five languages. The residents there were likely to work for wages their whole lives and were ruled by threats from superiors. Nurses and other community people led them on picket lines, breaking down the hierarchy of doctor/nurse/patient. We even won the strike!

However, I discovered that when doctors struggle with other workers, the union undoubtedly represents the professionals' specific interests. These are not always antagonistic to those of other exploited people--CIR supports a national health plan, for instance. But they are different.

In a contract dispute in a state-owned New Jersey hospital where most residents were white middle class males, the issues seemed more narrow and parochial. Contempt for lower echelons of workers lay just beneath the surface in many, though not most doctors. What's more, though CIR is superior to most unions in its recognition of members' needs and demands, even "far left" CIR organizers were sometimes suspicious of rank and file initiatives.

When previous structures carry over or reflect parallel corporate or state hierarchies, the "professional" role the activist plays separates him from the very people he came from or "represents." Obviously, some "professionals" are more "sensitive" to this problem than others. But for the most part it is not subjective.

At CIR, three organizers--myself, and two Other '' anti-authoritarians ''--would sometimes suspect a member who put out a leaflet on his own, organized for other than previously agreed-upon demands, or who called his own meeting.

We weren't necessarily "wrong" in thinking such efforts divisive, incompetent, or even the result of bad intentions. But it's impossible to tell whether you're in and of the organization when you aren't the one working 80 hours a week or living on a dioxin dump. It isn't that members are always right, but that their outlook, interests, and experiences are very different from the organizers'. What's more, they have a different class perspective from the leadership, who become focused on remaining in interesting jobs where they can control institutional policy.

"Portals to Radicalism" or Just "Good Jobs?"

I'm tired of "progressive" jobs, but I've learned that their use value is what's most important--along with the wage. If you can use your job to get experience or create some space for your own political priorities and it pays a living wage, it can be bearable for a while--even positive. But if you feel like you're being ripped off, you'll resent every limitation and restriction that much more.

Now I'm hoping to get a Ph.D. and teach for a living. I don't see a qualitative difference between this and many of my previous jobs: part of the work is interesting and fulfilling to me, part of it is not because it's organized as a job. Pay is low, but the exploitation less severe than in corporations. The human relations can be fun--getting through to students, enjoying room for activism, meeting other faculty with common concerns--but the hierarchy and careerism are stultifying.

I've never kidded myself that I was making revolutionary changes when I worked for unions, except when I tried to go beyond the job's limitations. I have the same attitude towards academia, except there the job security and even eventual wages are a bit higher.

The careerist New Leftists who flocked to teaching positions in the '70s, but who are politically quiescent today (except for their mostly unread books), made the mistake of assuming that teaching per se could be radical activity --as though capital can't turn anyone into a commodity.

The "long march through the institutions" usually leads only to empty institutional victories. But any time people can find collective space to struggle against power, or can work mainly to reproduce themselves and friends instead of profits, a foundation for expanding the struggle exists.

We have to first demystify the alternative labor market. Marxist professorships, civil rights attorneys, union jobs for left-wingers, canvassing positions--all exist today because our extra-institutional struggles created new needs and wants and transformed "the market." The question is how we can move on from these accomplishments and use our proven capacity to transform the labor market to abolish the labor market!

--Stephen Colatrella