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18

Spadework

On political organizing

by Alyssa Battistoni

0
terms
5
notes

forming grad student union at yale. so good!!

Battistoni, A. (2019). Spadework. n+1, 34, pp. 18-30

19

It was hegemony, Stuart Hall argued in 1983, that was key to understanding the disappointment of his own generation — why Thatcher and the new right had triumphed in remaking common sense after a decade of labor union revolt. Hegemony shaped how people acted when they weren’t thinking about it, what they thought was right and wrong, what they imagined the good life to be. A hegemonic project had to “occupy each and every front” of life, “to insert itself into the pores of the practical consciousness of human beings.” Thatcherism had understood this better than the left. It had “entered the struggle on every single front on which it calculated it could advance itself,” put forth a “theory for every single arena of human life,” from economics to language, morality to culture. The domains the left dismissed as bourgeois were simply the ones where the ruling class was winning. Yet creating hegemony was “difficult work,” Hall reminded us. Never fully settled, “it always has to be won.”

In other words, there is no economic deus ex machina that will bring the revolution. There are still people, in their stubborn, contradictory particularities, as they exist in concrete space and time. It is up to you to figure out how to act together, or not; how to find common ground, or not. Gramsci and Hall insist that you must look relentlessly at things and people as they are, face your prospects with brutal honesty, and act in ways that you think can have an effect. In these ways they are an organizer’s theorists.

—p.19 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago

It was hegemony, Stuart Hall argued in 1983, that was key to understanding the disappointment of his own generation — why Thatcher and the new right had triumphed in remaking common sense after a decade of labor union revolt. Hegemony shaped how people acted when they weren’t thinking about it, what they thought was right and wrong, what they imagined the good life to be. A hegemonic project had to “occupy each and every front” of life, “to insert itself into the pores of the practical consciousness of human beings.” Thatcherism had understood this better than the left. It had “entered the struggle on every single front on which it calculated it could advance itself,” put forth a “theory for every single arena of human life,” from economics to language, morality to culture. The domains the left dismissed as bourgeois were simply the ones where the ruling class was winning. Yet creating hegemony was “difficult work,” Hall reminded us. Never fully settled, “it always has to be won.”

In other words, there is no economic deus ex machina that will bring the revolution. There are still people, in their stubborn, contradictory particularities, as they exist in concrete space and time. It is up to you to figure out how to act together, or not; how to find common ground, or not. Gramsci and Hall insist that you must look relentlessly at things and people as they are, face your prospects with brutal honesty, and act in ways that you think can have an effect. In these ways they are an organizer’s theorists.

—p.19 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago
20

Why was it so hard to see ourselves as people who might need a union? Gramsci had observed that any individual’s personality was “strangely composite,” made up of a mixture of beliefs, thoughts, and ideas gleaned from family history, cultural norms, and formal education, filtered through their own life experiences read through the prevailing ideology of the time. Hall had taken this up to argue that when the working class failed to espouse revolutionary thought, women to embrace feminism, or people of color to advocate antiracism, it wasn’t because they suffered from false consciousness. The idea that consciousness could be true or false simply made no sense: it was always, Hall stated, “complex, fragmentary, and contradictory.” This was just as true for those on the left as for anyone else. “A tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project,” Hall had warned in 1988. “Of course, we’re all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then — Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration—we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.”

The Thatcherite project was since then much advanced, and we had internalized its dictates. For our whole lives we had learned to do school very well; in graduate school we learned to exploit ourselves on weekends and vacations before putting ourselves “on the market.” Many of us still believed in meritocracy, despite learning every day how it was failing us. The worse the conditions of academic life became, the harder everyone worked, and the harder it became to contest them. Plus, we were so lucky to be there — at Yale! Compared to so many grad students, we had it good, and surely jobs were waiting on the other side for us, if for anyone. Who were we to complain? Organizing a union of graduate students at Yale seemed to many like an act of unbearable privilege — a bunch of Ivy League self-styled radicals doing worker cosplay.

—p.20 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago

Why was it so hard to see ourselves as people who might need a union? Gramsci had observed that any individual’s personality was “strangely composite,” made up of a mixture of beliefs, thoughts, and ideas gleaned from family history, cultural norms, and formal education, filtered through their own life experiences read through the prevailing ideology of the time. Hall had taken this up to argue that when the working class failed to espouse revolutionary thought, women to embrace feminism, or people of color to advocate antiracism, it wasn’t because they suffered from false consciousness. The idea that consciousness could be true or false simply made no sense: it was always, Hall stated, “complex, fragmentary, and contradictory.” This was just as true for those on the left as for anyone else. “A tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project,” Hall had warned in 1988. “Of course, we’re all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then — Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration—we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.”

The Thatcherite project was since then much advanced, and we had internalized its dictates. For our whole lives we had learned to do school very well; in graduate school we learned to exploit ourselves on weekends and vacations before putting ourselves “on the market.” Many of us still believed in meritocracy, despite learning every day how it was failing us. The worse the conditions of academic life became, the harder everyone worked, and the harder it became to contest them. Plus, we were so lucky to be there — at Yale! Compared to so many grad students, we had it good, and surely jobs were waiting on the other side for us, if for anyone. Who were we to complain? Organizing a union of graduate students at Yale seemed to many like an act of unbearable privilege — a bunch of Ivy League self-styled radicals doing worker cosplay.

—p.20 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago
21

We were all too busy, but the too-busyness wasn’t really about time, or at least not only. Being too busy meant people didn’t see why the union was worth making time for. Your job as an organizer was to find out what it was that people wanted to be different in their lives, and then to persuade people that it mattered whether they decided to do something about it. This is not the same thing as persuading people that the thing itself matters: they usually know it does. The task is to persuade people that they matter: they know they usually don’t.

new tag on organising?

—p.21 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago

We were all too busy, but the too-busyness wasn’t really about time, or at least not only. Being too busy meant people didn’t see why the union was worth making time for. Your job as an organizer was to find out what it was that people wanted to be different in their lives, and then to persuade people that it mattered whether they decided to do something about it. This is not the same thing as persuading people that the thing itself matters: they usually know it does. The task is to persuade people that they matter: they know they usually don’t.

new tag on organising?

—p.21 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago
22

It’s not easy to be the site of a battle for hegemony. It’s not a beatific Whitmanesque “I contain multitudes”; it’s an often painful struggle among your competing selves for dominance. You have one body and twenty-four hours in a day. An organizer asks what you’ll do with them, concretely, now. You may not like your own answer. Your inner Thatcherite will raise its voice. You can’t kill it off entirely; you will almost certainly find that it’s a bigger part of you than you thought. But organizing burrows into the pores of your practical consciousness and asks you to choose the part of yourself that wants something other than common sense. It’s unsettling. It can be alienating. And yet I also often felt I was finally reconciling parts of myself I’d tried to keep separate — what I thought, what I said, what I did. To organize, and to be organized, you have to keep in mind Hall’s lesson: there is no true or false consciousness, no true self that organizing discovers or undoes. You too, Hall reminds us, were made by this world you hope to change. The more distant the world you want to live in is from the world that exists, the more deeply you yourself will feel this disjuncture. “I’m not cut out for this,” people often say when they struggle with organizing. No one is: one isn’t born an organizer, but becomes one.

—p.22 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago

It’s not easy to be the site of a battle for hegemony. It’s not a beatific Whitmanesque “I contain multitudes”; it’s an often painful struggle among your competing selves for dominance. You have one body and twenty-four hours in a day. An organizer asks what you’ll do with them, concretely, now. You may not like your own answer. Your inner Thatcherite will raise its voice. You can’t kill it off entirely; you will almost certainly find that it’s a bigger part of you than you thought. But organizing burrows into the pores of your practical consciousness and asks you to choose the part of yourself that wants something other than common sense. It’s unsettling. It can be alienating. And yet I also often felt I was finally reconciling parts of myself I’d tried to keep separate — what I thought, what I said, what I did. To organize, and to be organized, you have to keep in mind Hall’s lesson: there is no true or false consciousness, no true self that organizing discovers or undoes. You too, Hall reminds us, were made by this world you hope to change. The more distant the world you want to live in is from the world that exists, the more deeply you yourself will feel this disjuncture. “I’m not cut out for this,” people often say when they struggle with organizing. No one is: one isn’t born an organizer, but becomes one.

—p.22 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago
23

[...] Why on earth did I keep doing it?

Why did anyone? Because of their political beliefs? Maybe at first — I didn’t want to be an armchair revolutionary. But sheer ideological conviction is rarely a predictor of someone’s organizing stamina. More importantly: because your father was in a union, or — more likely — your mother needed to be; because your friend needed child care or you needed a therapist. These things genuinely mattered. But at some point you took a leap into excess. Was I really organizing forty hours a week because I wanted dental? At the rate we were going, I was unlikely to see any of the benefits anyway.

If much of my daily struggle was against the experience of grad school itself, I had also been looking for something like the union for a long time. I had ended up at the community-organizing nonprofit all those years prior after a few months spent volunteering with an anarchist collective in the ruins of New Orleans after Katrina, frustrated with the limits of mutual aid in the face of total state breakdown, and had been grasping for some kind of political activity that was both transformative and pragmatic ever since. Organizing was all about that dialectic. The union connected our demands — which were real but not exactly world-historical — to the long history of labor struggles, contemporary efforts to rebuild worker power, visions of a radically different future that we could play a role in bringing about.

So we demanded bread and butter, but we were ultimately organizing for the future of academic life, which was visibly crumbling around us; or for the revival of the labor movement, which had mostly already crumbled; or because it was intolerable to live in a city as segregated as New Haven and not do something about it. That our union had been organizing for three decades was both motivating and burdensome. We knew the past triumphs and failures, attachments and wounds; we inherited hope and melancholy. In this, it was not unlike the broader left: so much history, so much struggle — sometimes too much. We knew we had tuition waivers and stipends and health care because of the union; still, the fact that no one yet had won the whole thing in the end could be sobering. Why would we be the ones to succeed where so many others had failed? But it was also comforting: as there was GESO before us, so there would be GESO after. The campaign to unionize US Steel had taken nearly fifty years; more recently, Smithfield Foods had taken twenty-four.

Sometimes I felt I was organizing for the future of the entire world, in a deductive train that went: capitalism was going to devastate the planet; to fight it we needed strong unions, which meant new organizing, particularly in low-carbon fields like teaching, which meant building the academic labor movement — which meant that I needed to unionize the Yale political science department. It was absurd. Could I have been more quixotic, more grandiose, more self-important? Our style of organizing was intense, often all-consuming, and I knew that, too. I didn’t always like it. Often I longed for a nice life, an easy life, the life of the mind that academics were supposed to have. Couldn’t I just go to demonstrations here and there on the weekends before stopping off for groceries, the way I had before?

—p.23 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago

[...] Why on earth did I keep doing it?

Why did anyone? Because of their political beliefs? Maybe at first — I didn’t want to be an armchair revolutionary. But sheer ideological conviction is rarely a predictor of someone’s organizing stamina. More importantly: because your father was in a union, or — more likely — your mother needed to be; because your friend needed child care or you needed a therapist. These things genuinely mattered. But at some point you took a leap into excess. Was I really organizing forty hours a week because I wanted dental? At the rate we were going, I was unlikely to see any of the benefits anyway.

If much of my daily struggle was against the experience of grad school itself, I had also been looking for something like the union for a long time. I had ended up at the community-organizing nonprofit all those years prior after a few months spent volunteering with an anarchist collective in the ruins of New Orleans after Katrina, frustrated with the limits of mutual aid in the face of total state breakdown, and had been grasping for some kind of political activity that was both transformative and pragmatic ever since. Organizing was all about that dialectic. The union connected our demands — which were real but not exactly world-historical — to the long history of labor struggles, contemporary efforts to rebuild worker power, visions of a radically different future that we could play a role in bringing about.

So we demanded bread and butter, but we were ultimately organizing for the future of academic life, which was visibly crumbling around us; or for the revival of the labor movement, which had mostly already crumbled; or because it was intolerable to live in a city as segregated as New Haven and not do something about it. That our union had been organizing for three decades was both motivating and burdensome. We knew the past triumphs and failures, attachments and wounds; we inherited hope and melancholy. In this, it was not unlike the broader left: so much history, so much struggle — sometimes too much. We knew we had tuition waivers and stipends and health care because of the union; still, the fact that no one yet had won the whole thing in the end could be sobering. Why would we be the ones to succeed where so many others had failed? But it was also comforting: as there was GESO before us, so there would be GESO after. The campaign to unionize US Steel had taken nearly fifty years; more recently, Smithfield Foods had taken twenty-four.

Sometimes I felt I was organizing for the future of the entire world, in a deductive train that went: capitalism was going to devastate the planet; to fight it we needed strong unions, which meant new organizing, particularly in low-carbon fields like teaching, which meant building the academic labor movement — which meant that I needed to unionize the Yale political science department. It was absurd. Could I have been more quixotic, more grandiose, more self-important? Our style of organizing was intense, often all-consuming, and I knew that, too. I didn’t always like it. Often I longed for a nice life, an easy life, the life of the mind that academics were supposed to have. Couldn’t I just go to demonstrations here and there on the weekends before stopping off for groceries, the way I had before?

—p.23 by Alyssa Battistoni 1 year, 4 months ago