The Anatomy of Organizing, Part I

(See Part II here.)


My mean little idea is that organizing is the most important thing the left should be doing. This would be a nice little idea if in fact the left did any organizing, but this largely is not the case.

Progressive and leftist political organizations engage in a very wide range of activities, but year after year, it seems so little is gained and so much is lost. I suspect a lot of leftist activity is just not advancing the ideals that we hold so dearly.

Organizing is a particular kind of activity for changing society. So much is bound up in that concept that it gets investigated and poked at a lot less than should. If it’s organizing that we want to do but we don’t know what it is, we’re condemned to eat every plump red berry we come across in the name of organizing.

This frustration around what organizing is and why no one seems to do it is not only the source of my own frustration and malaise in the present political moment, but I think is central to the weakness of the left writ large. I feel we really must come to some conclusions about what organizing is and what it’s worth.

What Is Organizing?


Organizing is about bringing people together to change society. Cosmetic or inconsequential changes might be attainable through other means, but working towards a full-spectrum societal transformation, even if step by step, requires getting serious and going big, which only organizing can do. If we already were rich or had armies or police forces, we wouldn’t need to go around protesting in the street because we could get what we want through the market, bribery, or armed force. The problem is that the vast majority of people have scant extra money and guns that can stand up to the money and guns that the rich and powerful have. The only advantage we have is in our numbers, so bringing together our people is what we must rely on.

Organizing that lives up to its name has 3 essential features: 1) recruitment and skills development, 2) democratic decision-making, and 3) direct action. It’s often implicitly assumed that some coordinated activity constitutes organizing if it contains just 2 of these 3 ingredients, but no such effort can make much meaningful change. When organizing efforts get lazy, one of these three can drop off without people noticing, and months or years can go by while the organization spins its tires. To avoid this, all three ingredients have to be explicit and perpetually attended to. With groups smaller than 10 people, making these practices explicit often and understandably takes a back seat as things are getting off the ground, but to grow any larger and maintain a fraction of their potential, explicit policies are necessary. Great organizing has some further things besides, but let’s first go deeper what these features do and don’t mean.

The first feature, outreach and skills development, is the most foundational of organizing. Without outreach, an organizing effort will never grow large enough to change anything, and without skills development, an organizing effort will remain inert or at least centrally controlled in the hands of those who already have organizing skills. Obviously, that which is centrally controlled can never be democratic and thus isn’t organizing for another reason to boot.

Outreach begins with bringing people into contact with the organization, its ideas, and its actions. Then, those people must be invited to participate or learn more, either through coming to meetings or actions or sitting down to talk with a member 1-on-1. Once new people participate and join an organization, they need to be constantly supported, encouraged, and given opportunities to develop new skills and take on new tasks. When done right, outreach and skills development flow into each other.

Perhaps more than the other aspects of organizing, this is the one that is often taken for granted, which leads to a circle of friends or an in-group that becomes virtually impossible for new people to join. Sometimes this is intentional, as with affinity groups or cells, but more often it is an oversight or a mistake. Organizations need explicit policies, norms, and committed roles for outreach to grow steadily and healthily. Targeted outreach for reaching specific parts of the community who are most impacted by the issues is also important for growing a solid membership.

Outreach is also most effective when done within organic relationships that people have with each other. In a workplace, natural relationships between co-workers forms the community glue that can create trust, solidarity, as well as shared material conditions. In neighborhoods, the neighbor relationship can play that role, in schools, the classmate relationship, and so on. This relationship can also be based on common experiences, the way families of police murder victims can form strong community ties with each other. Organizing among those who show up instead of among those who bear some common social or material experience is often where groups have to start, but if that’s relied on too much for too long, the group becomes distant from an area’s existing communities and stalls. When done well, outreach and development turn organizations into pile-drivers of social change.

Democratic decision-making, the second feature of organizing, is central not only to the process of changing society, but is the foundation for the vision of society we are working towards. Democracy is the appetizer to a new society, the main course, and the tasty dessert, all in one. How our organizing manifests democracy reveals the truth or lies in everything we do.

Democratic decision-making is a skill that is under-developed in us by mainstream institutions. In the nuclear family, the schoolroom, the company (to say nothing of government itself, but that’s another conversation), we can at most come to be feudal lords of these institutions ourselves, but very rarely is democracy a shared practice of governance. The atrophying of our democratic muscles is what makes organizing democratically so difficult but also what makes us so weak when unorganized.

But democracy is also the feature that most divides what people think of as real organizing. Like the institutions we grow up in, all too often our organizations for justice are not participatory. Most social justice 501c(3) non-profits rely on corporate and government grants for money. While such non-profits may play beneficial roles in society through the services they provide, these organizations can almost never play any role in actually changing the structures of society itself beyond the desires of those who provide the money. Those with millions to give away don’t often have much interest in challenging the status quo very far. These non-profits are legally required to have a board of directors that governs the organization, who in turn hires (and can fire) the executive director and oversees the group’s mission. So for people who join an organization and want to have some democratic voice in it, they are constrained by collective forces of the executive director, the board of directors, and, the ultimate puppet-masters, the funders. Many explicitly revolutionary groups are not 501c(3)’s but still rely on various kinds of insulated higher committees who decide the direction and trajectory of groups. Both of these kind of orgs are adept at masking their inherently anti-democratic structures behind flowery and militant political messaging, but if you stick around long enough one begins to learn the unspoken way that things get done. It’s a slippery business to try to change society to be more democratic while working in a group that is fundamentally not democratic, and this is likely the primary cause of disillusionment that causes untold thousands to leave our movement each year.

In addition to a (sometimes handsomely paid) executive director, full-time paid organizing staff can have a similarly diminutive effect on people’s self-assigned role in organizing. When some people are paid and trained and organize professionally, those around them will naturally see themselves as less qualified and important. While organizing staff are trained to be facilitators of struggle, humble, and to groom more organizers, the power relations behind these roles are made no less real. Because the board and executive director hire staff and manage them, the staff will tend to align themselves with their bosses and their own paycheck, which can run counter to the democratic leanings of organization’s claimed constituency. The issue is more complex than space here allows, and I’m not against paid organizing staff entirely, but in most cases they are a further hindrance to the collective self-determination of the group.

Democracy is not only a moral principle but a strategic one as well. When people are involved in making the decisions for a group, they become more invested in the process of social change and commit more time to it. Democracy also emboldens people to use all their capacities and skills in their organizing instead of taking direction from others with more authority about where and how it is appropriate for them to organize.

It also needs to be recognized that democracy in organizing is also more complex than “1-person, 1-vote” even if that is the baseline. That baseline doesn’t mean that everyone can do anything they want. Rather, it is the starting point for deliberating and acting together in mutually empowering ways and forms the basis for accountability of the individual to group principles. Additionally, not every person who joins an org instantly has the same power in that group as someone who’s been around for years. This can be a source of frustration to new members, but it just takes a while for new members to acquire the background knowledge, learn the meeting procedures, and establish the trust with other members that is required for democracy to flow freely.

The last feature of organizing is direct action, of which there are varying definitions. Some use it to mean acting directly in a situation to give people what they want. For example, radicals in Portland started filling in potholes on neglected streets themselves instead of waiting for the Department of Transportation to get to them. While I think this kind of practice can be important in social movements, it does not itself constitute organizing of the kind that directly challenges the status quo. An alternative and organizing approach to filling in potholes oneself would be to attend, protest, and disrupt Department of Transportation meetings until road maintenance is carried out as dutifully in the poor neighborhoods as in the rich ones.

I use direct action here to mean acting to directly pressure those in power to give people what they want. This kind of direct action takes strategic disruption as its primary tactic, such as labor strikes, shutting down board meetings, building occupations, or blocking highways. This is in opposition to indirect ways of pressuring those in power, such as voting them out, signing petitions, appealing to their good graces, giving money to their electoral campaign, or protesting within officially prescribed boundaries and without threatening further consequences.

The problem with indirect ways of challenging power structures is that they can often be ignored and maneuvered around. Asking politely might be worth trying but should not be relied on as a long-term tactic if one wants deep social change. A more insidious problem with indirect methods is that it lets those who have power keep it, for even when you win, your capability for change is no greater before than after because you have not altered the balance of power. Most organizations that hold mainstream political views, and some with more radical views, are unwilling to be disruptive because of their investment in the continued functioning of the status quo, which is fine if making fundamental social change is not the aim, but is otherwise is a condemnation to irrelevance.

Not all disruption is good disruption. If disruption is not done in coordination with lots of other people, in alignment with clear goals, and toward a long-term vision, it is as useless as any other strategy. Who can be seen as legitimate agents of disruption is also key. While the smear of “outside agitators” is often used disingenuously, it’s also true that some people will be more effective in their actions because they are publicly seen as part of the aggrieved community that they are themselves disrupting.

Even the strategy of disrupting with lots of people can be warped into a strategy of mobilizing without organizing. Mobilizing means getting all your people out to actions. When you merely mobilize your network repeatedly without organizing, your organization will never grow stronger because you won’t be pulling more people into the work, developing their organizing skills, or getting people invested in the democratic process of changing society. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t mobilize wider networks to participate in actions but when that is used as a substitute for organizing in those wider networks, that is a serious problem.

You’re Either With Organizing or Without It

Surely, good organizing consists of more than outreach, democracy, and direct action, but even these essentials are lacking in 95% of left activity today. If an organization isn’t doing all three of these consistently and in coordination with each other, then it’s not organizing. I don’t mean to say that that 95% is worthless, though I think its value for social change is directly related to its relation to organizing. If an activity supports organizing but is not itself organizing, then that activity is adding to the momentum of social change. However, too much activity is fragmented from organizing to have any substantive social effects despite many participants’ impressions to the contrary.

Here is a list of other activities that can be done either in concert with organizing or isolated from it: activist conferences, concerts, and art shows; research and writing; consumer choice activism; journalism; having political conversations with friends and family; being aware of current events and political trends; reading groups. Even if what you are doing isn’t organizing but you want social change, you can ask yourself how you might connect your work to organizing efforts. For example, concerts can be used as outreach and fundraising tools for real organizing efforts, media collectives can cover and spread the ideas and actions of organizing, even consumer choices can support organizing in the context of a coordinated boycott. I have myself spent hundreds of hours planning conferences and shows that were not directly tied to organizing even though they were hosted by orgs that otherwise do organize. While my efforts here might have successfully justify themselves in other terms, it was not organizing and I consider it to be a personal failure of mine in my attempt to advance local organizing work.

However, when I’ve come together with others to organize, I’ve seen real victories that made material differences in people’s lives and have had my commitment to social transformation reaffirmed. If this is what the left wants, the left will have to do what it takes to get it. People’s interest in political activity is at an all-time high in my life-time, and if there’s any chance we have to turn things around in the coming decades, our actions in this moment will have an outsize impact. We can bring people into the usual leftist merry-go-round, or we can build a mass movement to shake the foundations of society. It’s organize or bust.

2 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Organizing, Part I

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