Seven years ago I worked at a tenant and worker organizing group in Washington, D.C. We referred to ourselves as a “movement-building” organization, but weren’t always clear what we meant by that. One evening I was out door-knocking with one of our members, James, an African American man in his 50s. He asked me about a conference some of us had attended in Atlanta the previous week, the US Social Forum.
“What was the big theme there that stuck out to you?” he asked.
It was a good question. At that moment, the DJ Unk song “Walk It Out” was booming from a nearby car.
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“Well, I was most impressed by the groups that really try to walk out their beliefs — connecting all the dots between racism, capitalism, even imperialism, and the inner work we have to do as people to overcome the things we’ve learned.”
I explained more about what that meant to me.
He shook his head, amused.
“That’s a tall order!” He thought about it a little more. “When will we get time for all that?”
That tall order is the subject of Chris Dixon’s book “Another Politics,” newly released by University of California Press. The product of dozens of interviews conducted with community organizers over the last decade, the book is an excellent distillation of what Dixon calls “another politics,” a shared political orientation that unites grassroots organizers working from similar principles in the United States and Canada across issue, movement, sector, strategy and identity.
Through the interviews, he identifies four core principles that unite left “anti-authoritarian” organizers across different “strands” of struggle, transcending traditional notions of issue-based organization: being against domination of all kinds, prioritizing the development of new social relations and forms of social organization in the process of struggle, linking struggles for improvements in people’s lives to long-term transformative visions, and grassroots organizing from the bottom-up. In regards to these different strands, he writes, “We braid them together as we work collectively and build relationships across politics, campaigns and movements: anarchist labor organizers draw on analytical frameworks from women of color feminism, radical queer activists use community-based models for dealing with violence developed by anti-racist feminists and prison abolitionists.” He explores how Occupy Wall Street, anti-colonial movements and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, among other groups, have contributed to developing “another politics” across decades.
Dixon digs even deeper, characterizing organizations practicing “another politics” as being explicit about their “collective refusal” of oppression — specifically, as incorporating “the four anti’s” of anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression and anti-imperialism into their work. This left me wondering how some organizations might “fit” this taxonomy — what if your group has a handle on economic exploitation, for instance, but relies on charismatic leadership? But Dixon is nevertheless clear about organizations that he sees as practicing “another politics,” and the book is most compelling when he recounts movement-building victories, like the story of Canada’s multi-city immigrant rights group No One is Illegal: “In a stunning December 2007 action, some 2,000 people, largely South Asian, blockaded the Vancouver International Airport to stop Singh’s impending deportation. And starting with an ‘Education Not Deportation’ campaign in 2006, NOII-Toronto launched a multi-year fight for Toronto to become a solidarity city, where all people can access city services regardless of immigration status. Organizing across sectors and services, they finally won in 2013.”
Dixon also uses the book to highlight “ideas rarely in writing,” exploring dynamics of movement-building organization that don’t get much print. For instance, he writes about the process of integrating not just issue lenses but our whole selves — creating community and organization that operates at the speed of the whole. As Dixon writes, “recognizing and deliberately fostering feelings and relationships as essential ingredients for transformative struggle” is still not a widespread practice, and he points out that this is not a new phenomenon, as the Black Panthers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee also sought “to develop common expectations about how people should treat one another.”
Continuing this thread, he also counts as emergent practices among “another politics” practitioners, forms of organizing that affirm families and domestic and reproductive work simultaneously with challenging systemic inequity, and moving beyond an individual-focused anti-oppression politics. Dixon and the people he interviews point out that the wounding through oppression that we all experience shows up in our organizing, and have permeated organizational culture except where the influence of feminists and others committed to transformational work has created a different way of creating structure, that prioritizes a strategy and collective struggle rooted in healing and wholeness. This increasing focus on wholeness and wellness, seen in the recent popularity of integrating somatics and other healing disciplines into community organizing, can only make us more adept at building a broader and more resilient web of movements.
And Dixon helps unpack the challenges unique to movement-building organizations, which, he says, must move towards specific victories and goals, while also moving through a process that creates new ways of being, doing and relating, that avoid replicating oppressive practices. All while avoiding “ruts” common to anti-authoritarian groups, like knee-jerk nonhierarchy, and the “burn bright, burn out” cycle of organizations that rise and fall quickly. Dixon illustrates this point with a fantastic metaphor offered by Project South’s Steph Guillioud, comparing different forms of organization to different kinds of cars suited to particular functions: “The variations in vehicles don’t change the map, they don’t change the road, they don’t change the need for people to drive and people in the back or the people moving it. We will always have and need the people who can push it and the people that can work on the insides, the people who can never get a ride, et cetera.”
It’s rare to find a book on social movements written explicitly for people with less academic credentials than its author. Dixon, who wrote the book for a PhD program, takes care to explain terms as they come up; he doesn’t assume we know about ethnography (“analyzing lived culture while experiencing it”). And he gives his interviewees plenty of airtime to put their own spin on, for instance, “affective organizing,” which becomes “not being a fucking asshole,” in the wonderfully succinct words of Bay Area activist Harjit Singh Gill. Still, the number of concepts he introduces feels overwhelming at times, and I longed for a glossary or flow chart when concepts like “noninstrumental organizing” popped up (which, it’s worth noting, refers to the analysis and strategies people can create when they come together in dialogue and struggle as peers, as opposed to treating people as instruments to be manipulated, or pieces on a figurative chess board to mobilize toward a predetermined end).
“Anti-authoritarian,” then, could be shorthand for “principled organizing” — organizing that gets down to the roots, that refuses to settle for electing a slightly better candidate, for selling out our potential allies to scoop up a superficial win, or that sees the path to victory as anything less than the destination itself.
Towards the end of the book, I was reminded of my exchange that day with James. Clearly, as Dixon demonstrates, there are mixed-class organizations that make time for individual and collective healing practices, for skillshares and strategy seminars, for discussion groups, for intentionally developing and evaluating leadership, and for developing organizational structure. But increasingly, as people are forced to work longer hours for lower incomes, I have to wonder: How are organizations adapting to support their people to do more with less? I longed for more detail on what day-to-day life is like for an organizer in the six specifically-chosen cities from which Dixon chose his interview subjects. What does it look like to practice “another politics” in Atlanta, for instance? It’s worth asking, given that the book is structured around questions like, “How can we most productively manifest our visions through our organizing work?” Like a good organizing mentor, Dixon (and his interviewees) gives us insight without “right” answers, helping to deepen our understanding of commonalities and remind us of the deep roots of the “another politics” leftist lineage.