“What are the ways we could organize people into new social forms in which new human, more humane, more liberatory capacities would emerge that we could use for our own liberation?” asks Aaron Goggans of the WildSeed Society. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Goggans and host Kelly Hayes talk about how activists can resist the trends of late capitalism, including the alienation imposed by the tech world, by cultivating modes of communication and communal care that defy the norms of our individualist society. Goggans argues that social movements are “responsible for figuring out a liberatory and empowering way of filling … the human desire for mutual recognition, belonging and connection.”
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the cultivation of relationships, belonging, and the kind of storytelling we need to build strong movements for justice, liberation and transformation. In our last few episodes, we have discussed the culture and influence of the tech world, and how the hype around AI, and ideologies like longtermism, are shaping our world. I wanted to follow up those conversations with some discussions of the kind of organizing and culture work that we need to mobilize in the face of these threats. In the tech world, we have an industry that is attempting to consume every other industry, while furthering surveillance and social control, one algorithm at a time. It’s a sector that has changed the way we communicate, the way we organize, and in many cases, the way we understand ourselves and each other. So, how can we, as organizers, move in response to these challenges? What kind of relationship building and narrative work do we need in these times? The first person I wanted to discuss that question with is my friend Aaron Goggans.
Aaron is a writer, facilitator and organizer working at the intersection of Spiritual Liberation, Economic Revolution and Social Transformation. As a Steward of the Pattern at the WildSeed Society, Aaron works with his comrades to help people exit and heal from capitalism by building portals to a future where we all get free. Aaron’s vision and analysis has always been helpful to me, and we are in deep agreement about the need for social formations that can help people foster new ways of living in relation to one another. Today, we’re going to talk about what that work can look like, and about how we can navigate some of the challenges that arise when we, as wounded, alienated people, try to connect in communal spaces.
It is my hope that this episode, like all of our shows, will serve as a resource for people doing justice work. I’ve spent many years developing resources for people who are organizing for change, and I am so grateful for this podcast, as a vehicle for that work. If you find Movement Memos meaningful, you can support our work by subscribing to Truthout’s newsletter or by making a donation at truthout.org. You can also support us by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, by leaving a positive review on those platforms, and by sharing your favorite episodes with others. I want to thank everyone who has taken any of these actions to support Truthout and the work we do. We are committed to publishing the kind of news and analysis that can help fuel movements, but we’re only able to do that because of listeners and readers like you. So thanks for believing in us, and for listening and reading. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.
Aaron Goggans: I’m Aaron Goggans. I use he/they pronouns or anything said with love and respect. I was born in Colorado and currently reside in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I am an organizer, facilitator and kind of world builder with the WildSeed Society. The WildSeed Society is a spiritual community that exists at the intersection of movements for spiritual liberation, social transformation and economic revolution. We have spent the past couple of years supporting social movements on the ground, particularly social movements that are engaged in uprisings, and helping them build out concrete structures to articulate the liberation that they’re seeing as possible in their communities.
And that oftentimes means helping people sort of process their trauma, helping people think about what safety means to them and connecting them with people who can help them reach physical, political and economic security and safety. It also means prototyping new ways, whether it’s through courses or through blog posts, that people can be together in ways that allow us to move from an individual mindset to a more collective mindset. And finally, it means fundamentally rethinking how we resource each other and figuring out ways that we can move from people needing to earn a living or having to work to get the things they need to live to ways that we can resource each other on the basis of communal luxury, right?
Not individual surviving or individual wealth building, but actual communal luxury, that coming together and feeling dignified and pleasurable and self-actualized together — outside of the logic of capital and outside of the logic of exchange — where we give our genius to each other and we practice and learn to receive that genius. And we give care to people unconditionally within our capacity and respecting our boundaries, we give unconditional care to people so that we can all experience care together. Yeah, we’ve been doing that since 2019 and are excited to continue supporting movements in that way and trying to draw those three different focuses together and see what’s possible when we try and bring those different strategies and different lineages of liberation together.
KH: The WildSeed Society’s vision for change felt especially relevant to me, on the heels of our recent discussions about tech leaders who are exploiting sci-fi tropes to prop up destructive, self-serving ideologies. On the organization’s website, the WildSeed Society describes itself as:
A movement of science fiction characters who we read about and needed to be real.
It is a manifestation of the world we knew was possible because we knew this world would never be enough.
It existed in the collective imagination of people who knew they were not fully free –
Long before Octavia Butler wrote her brilliant and life changing novel, Wild Seed.
A book where a small group of weirdly gifted individuals raised descendants who would build a powerful interconnected network.
As a sci-fi nerd, I find this description incredibly appealing, but what does it mean to invoke science fiction as a means of understanding ourselves and our work?
AG: The WildSeed Society is the community and organization that I am organizing with now, and it is kind of full of a bunch of nerds who are obsessed with science fiction. I think that there is this trope, particularly in the science fiction that I read, like I’m super into the X-Men, of [how] people come together and they discover that if they do a certain thing or organize themselves in a certain way, they have more power than they would on their own. I think that as an organizer, most organizers kind of believe that, you kind of have to believe that, and I think a lot of organizers believe that, especially if you come out of the Midwest School, that organizers build organizations and organizations allow us to be more powerful together than we are as individuals.
As an organizer, I’ve always taken that just super literally. There’s a deep childhood part of me that still wants to get my X-Men powers. And I believe that if we organize together and we figure out a way, not only are we more powerful in a political sense, but I think that human capacity expands and you get certain kinds of human capacities in a group that’s organized in liberatory empowering ways that individuals don’t have on their own. We certainly see the opposite, right? Masses where people do things that are bad that they wouldn’t do on their own, but I think the positive is true. And I think the WildSeed Society is interested in that human potential of, what are the ways we could organize people into new social forms in which new human, more humane, more liberatory capacities would emerge that we could use for our own liberation.
So as an organization and as a community, the WildSeed Society is kind of interested in seeing what kinds of human potential we can unlock for liberation, joy and dignity at the intersection of movements for spiritual liberation, movements for social transformation and movements for economic revolution, which we all kind of see as different sides of that same push for collective liberation.
KH: One of the great stumbling blocks we face in that push for collective liberation is alienation. As Mariame Kaba and I wrote in our recent book, Let This Radicalize You:
The remedy to alienation, a state that often keeps people cooperative and docile in the face of injustice, is belonging. As longtime organizer and nonviolent direct action trainer Lisa Fithian told us, “We have to intentionally build a culture of belonging that embraces the time and space for healing work as part of that culture.” Some common organizing models are transactional and extractive, often replicating the oppressive dynamics of capitalism, where organizers function like managers, treating volunteers as workhorse employees. Frameworks that treat activists as mere unpaid labor, or as bodies to arrange for photo ops, without cultivating hope, purpose, or belonging for those individuals—or granting them any power in the entity they work within—can lead to frustration and burnout and cause many people to drop out of movements. We cannot win by replicating the dynamics of the dominant society. There is no “beating them at their own game.” We are not managers or CEOs. We can only win by building something entirely different that offers people something that the oppressor cannot.
Effective organizing, therefore, does not begin with having the most compelling argument or the most dazzling direct action, but with developing the capacity to bring people into relationship with one another, such that they might begin to overcome alienation and fear.
AG: One of the things that has been really compelling in my work and my organizing and my writing and my facilitation is that I’ve always experienced this deep hole of belonging, this empty space where almost like the wound of not belonging just was so overwhelming that it pushed me to kind of engage in the world in a very particular way. Some of that was good because it pushed me to find belonging and build belonging. As I’ve been on my own healing journey, I’ve realized the extent to which that desire for belonging is a deep part of why people engage in social movements. But social movements tend to not build spaces particularly for belonging, right?
Belonging is often an afterthought or it’s considered you build a safe space for people who have your identity and then hope people find belonging, which is very different than saying, “Our goal here is to give people that sense of mutual recognition, that I am a human being and I get to live authentically, and then I’m going to offer faithful witness to you to see you as a human being and kind of build a place together where we can belong together as our authentic selves.” I think the show in the past couple episodes have talked about this sort of “religion-shaped hole” in people that AI and the right wing is taking advantage of.
I think those two things are connected, right? That one of the best things that religion can do is it can give you that sense of belonging, and that religion as a sort of organized hierarchical structure that makes claims to absolute truth, I think is really problematic, but at its core is what I would call spirituality, which is that thing that connects us to each other and is that sort of felt embodied somatic sense that we are part of a larger thing, that there is interconnectedness in the universe and that we are a part of it. We often talk about how we think of ourselves as an individualization of a collective experience, and there’s deep belonging in that.
I think that the human desire for mutual recognition, belonging and connection is what is at the heart of that hole that religion tries to fill, but has often been co-opted by the state. I think that it’s just human, right? It’s one of the things about us that it’s both beautiful and vulnerable, and that social movements really need to understand that this is one of the human needs that if we want to change the world, we have to be responsible for figuring out a liberatory and empowering way of filling that need. I think that because most of us have been taught to access spirituality through religion, and religions have mostly been co-opted by the state to be about “peace” and to equate peace with the social order, right?
So then religion becomes about maintaining some social order instead of connecting people. I think that because of that, a lot of organizers kind of reject spirituality and we’re left with social movements that have this religion-sized hole that either gets filled with ideologies that don’t love us or become sort of a pushing force that because we don’t recognize that what is pushing us is a need for belonging, we can be pushed into things that don’t serve us and don’t serve our communities.
And I think that rather than trying to ignore this sense of belonging or secularize it in some way, we should take it seriously as something that’s always going to be there, and that there is mystery in the world and there is something beyond our sort of abstract relationship to the material that is somatic, that is embodied, that makes people want to sing, that makes people want to hug each other, that makes people want to look in the eyes and say, “I see you and I care about you,” and that social movements should take that need as seriously as the need to disobey orders, as the need to have the freedom to organize in your workplace, as the need to have food and shelter, the need to belong, the need for mutual recognition and the need for interconnectedness should be as central and should be taken as seriously as are other sort of political principles.
KH: In addition to interconnectedness, and mutual recognition, organizers also need wins. I’ve often heard people say that activists need the experience of success, in order to feel and understand that victories are possible. I agree with that sentiment, but I also know from experience that not all victories leave us feeling energized and enamored with possibility. Sometimes, winning means living to fight another day, and while those kinds of victories are crucial, they can also leave us feeling demoralized and worn through. As a friend told me, when Trump was defeated in the last presidential election, “We won a slightly less devastating immediate future, and I’m so fucking tired.”
AG: When the George Floyd uprisings happened and the Breonna Taylor uprisings happened, there was this overwhelming sense for me and I think for a lot of people of a sense of desperation, but also of purpose and groundedness that things were bad and this was an important moment, and that if we didn’t kind of draw the line here, we might not all survive what came next, that it was this moment of a police riot connected with a rise of a fascist movement in the White House and a developing grassroots fascist movement and also a mass disabling event through COVID, and that there was kind of this dramatic moment in which we were going to sacrifice whatever we could to give ourselves a better future.
I think in a lot of ways, people who were on the front lines, whether it’s in the streets protesting or doing mutual aid or in the front lines in our homes, in that weird sense, of masking and trying to physically distance without social distancing and organizing online or checking in on our immunocompromised or disabled comrades that we had won in the sense that Trump was denied a second term in office and we got a sort of government that was at least nominally more interested in dealing with these crises, and most of us survived and most of us were out of jail.
So it was a victory in some sense, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, that the things we lost in that fire in the late Trump years were so immeasurable and I think we lost track of what they were, that we just had this victory that devastated us and the sense that we couldn’t survive another victory like that. And because it was a victory and because the things we lost, we kind of didn’t track and there wasn’t a social narrative of, remember when we used to not be afraid to go outside, remember when we used to have more hope, remember when we didn’t see white vans going down the street and wonder if they’re going to just pick us up and throw us into them. We didn’t have a national conversation about that, right?
It’s part of the reason why I love the work that you did, Kelly, in Chicago to have public grief because I think there wasn’t enough of that. I think social movements now have this unprocessed Pyrrhic grief where we won, but it feels like a loss and the emotion is too big to process it. So it is just hanging around in our social spaces, and oftentimes, I think really living into our bodies, that in addition to the physical trauma of COVID and the ways it gets into our nervous system, I think this grief is also sitting in our bodies and it’s making people physically sick. People are experiencing sort of mental health crises for the first time.
I think the movement and movements in general were hit flatfooted because, if we’re honest with ourselves, the model of social movements has been to just throw young people at these crises and not have a plan to take care of them mentally or physically or financially, and to just always assume that there’s another generation of people who are going to spend five years doing it, and as long as there’s enough of us who put in the 20 years to kind of be in leadership positions, we’ll be fine. When that strategy hit a mass disabling event, we realized that there isn’t a bench anymore, and the care network that we all required to reproduce our lives fell apart.
Now I think we’re dealing with what we call this crisis of unprocessed Pyrrhic grief, which is creating crises in organizers and crises in our movements because we have funded the fight but not the recovery. We think that the way to actually deal with this is to take seriously the need to build social infrastructure that is autonomous, that’s aligned with our principles, that can care for people in the recovery, and that there has to be as big of a commitment as building infrastructure and institutions to fight and to defend what we’ve won.
KH: Our movements definitely need infrastructure, in order to defend our victories, and to make our lives and our labor worthwhile, amid so much struggle and crisis. In our current organizing landscape, nonprofit workplaces are often considered part of that infrastructure, but it’s important to remember the limitations of such spaces. As Sarah Jaffe wrote in Work Won’t Love You Back:
The problems of today’s nonprofit sector are outgrowths of this necessary inequality: nonprofits exist to try to mitigate the worst effects of an unequal distribution of wealth and power, yet they are funded with the leftovers of the very exploitation the nonprofits may be trying to combat. Nonprofit work then is also caring work, also service work, privatized, on the one hand, unlike public school teaching, but supposedly not in service of the profit motive. Nonprofits are not, despite their supposed lack of interest in profit, exceptions to the capitalist system but embedded in it, necessary to its continued existence.
Now, I happen to believe that some nonprofits do absolutely essential work. But as Sarah’s book reminds us, we have to be mindful of the limitations of structures that function as mechanisms for the exchange of labor for wages under capitalism. We can and must make our workplaces as just and caring as possible, but no workplace under capitalism embodies liberation. So where does that leave us?
AG: One of the big lessons that the WildSeed Society has had in the past couple of years is how terrible work is and how when we think about having decades of funding the fight but not the recovery, we’ve built these organizations and workspaces within the movement that are just terrible. There’s this belief that if you believe in your workforce and you’re working for a common good, then all the sacrifices are worth it. Nonprofits or movement organizations can be these great places to work, but that’s not true. This is fucking terrible because work is fucking terrible, right? I feel like if I could start a religion, it would be the evangelist to abolish work.
I just think that we haven’t thought really critically as a movement of movements about this fundamental fallacy in Western thought about work being necessary. I think there’s some challenge about hard work being a moral good. I think there’s some push back against that, but there is this belief, and I think the left kind of falls into it sometimes that work is unavoidable, and I think that’s bullshit. I think that work is unnecessary and that if we really think about what we mean by work, I think more people would agree with it. It’s one of those things that because people haven’t figured out a good alternative to work, people just keep doing it.
But if you really think about it, there is labor which is putting energy into something so that it becomes something else, right? I would argue that labor is necessary. You have to do things to get things to feed ourselves, to wash ourselves, we have to do labor. But work is this weird social construction about things that are productive and things that we are going to valorize and make visible to move civilization forward in a very particular way, right? So if you work for a pharmaceutical company, you have a job and you are doing work, but if you are selling weed to people who are anxious or people who have cancer and it’s not legal where you are, you are not working, right? You are definitely doing labor, but you’re not doing work, right?
I think that it’s not just a semantic argument, that there is this mythology of work, that there are things, there are activities that are productive and there are activities that are not productive and that the things we need to focus on are productive activities. It all has been drawn into this idea that humans are supposed to be productive, and that in order to make people productive, you have to have a general schema and people have to follow rules and there needs to be a boss who tells them which ways they’re supposed to be productive and which things they’re supposed to produce. I just say fuck all of that.
The most important things we do as human beings, loving ourselves, being in families, building friendships, taking care of children, the labor and all of those activities are organized in fundamentally different ways, yet it actually produces human beings. It produces society, it produces culture. The WildSeed Society is very interested in looking at the ways in which we really reproduce our lives, in ways in which labor is consensual, in which labor is sometimes invisibilized, but is crucial and the ways that we give of each other, in ways that you can’t quantify, and how those are some of the most deeply human and liberatory experiences we can have.
We are interested in saying, “Okay, can we take those principles of the gift, can we take those principles of care, can we take those principles of kinship and actually figure out a way to produce the physical goods and the services that we need to live the lives that we want?” So for us, the first thing we think of doing as a group is creating a community of shared risk, right? It’s to say, “Fuck this idea that we’re all just individuals. That’s an unrealistic thing.” It’s like that meme you see on Instagram, which I love, which is so much of modern problems are us trying to do as individuals things we used to do as a community, right?
So we say can we pull together a small group of people to change how they view kinship and say, “We’re going to be a community of shared risk, which means an injury to you is an injury to me. When you get sick and you have COVID, I’m going to be there to help you. When your kid is in the Jefferson County School District in Louisville and the buses don’t work, that’s not just something you’re going to have to deal with as a parent. Even though it’s not my child, I’m going to work with you and walk with you as we try and figure out how we get your kid to school because an injury to your family, an injury to people you love is an injury to me, right?
That we really think of as to follow something that David Graeber wrote, as the freedom to build new social relationships, we want to embody that and prototype that on the small scale in ways that we can scale up of how do we take care of each other and build this community of shared risk, right? Then the second thing to abolish work and move towards this care and gift economy is to say that we’re going to rethink this weird nuclear family that comes from bourgeoise society in Europe, that we should have multiple adults trying to resource a group of people, right? So we build an income sharing pod where people come together and put their money in a shared pot and then they draw from that pot as they have need, right? That takes having a deep conversation of the difference between a need and a want.
I think that there are these new social forms that we think of as the WildSeeded way which help people step out of the capitalist and capital logic, both in a material sense through income sharing and through building a community of shared needs and in a cultural and ideological sense of reaffirming that we’re not here to do this alone, that fundamentally to make it through life as a human being, as a person with thoughts and feelings and as objective that is worthy of being cherished and shared, we have to do things collectively and that we need to think of communal ways of doing that, and that the ways that capitalism and U.S. society with patriarchy and white supremacy have given us to organize ourselves to meet our basic needs are terrible, and that they’re all about making us productive and making us good servile servants of capital.
And that, as radical as we want to be, it’s very difficult for people to step into a new world and just step into kind of the chaos and crisis of it all. So what we try and do in the WildSeed Society is create these new social formations that we’ve prototyped as a core group that we can then offer to people as like this is the next step, right? Are you tired of trying to figure this out on your own? Create a care pod where you can meet with other people who have gotten training on trauma-informed care, who can help you go through life, because life is often shitty and it’s really hard to do alone, and we’re not built to do it alone, right? So we give people this new social form of a way of building infrastructure to care for themselves, right?
In that WildSeed way, we kind of take that to how we also organize ourselves as an organization and that we don’t have roles that people need to fill, but people really ground in spirit and ground in the needs of our community and say, “What is the intersection between what I love to offer, what I’m uniquely good at, and what my community needs, and then what my community has the capacity to hold, right?” We offer people an opportunity to utilize their labor at that intersection and to try and change what the community has the capacity to hold by building the community’s capacity to hold love and dignity and humanity so that we are capable of more together.
We think of this as prototyping on a scale of five or six people the kind of world in which people could realistically have access to the freedom to disobey orders, the freedom of movement, the freedom to form new social relationships and freedom from deprivation, which we kind of think of taking from David Graeber as the four foundational freedoms of the world we want. Through our courses like Collective Care Pod course or Healing from Internalized Whiteness or our spaces like emotional emancipation and our programs like Mutual Aid or Revolutionary Aftercare, we are trying to expand this way of living that we’ve prototyped as a team and offer it to more and more people.
Our hope is that if we can fundamentally abolish work as we think of it now, and offer people ways to coordinate their labor through the logic of gift, and offer ways, practical ways to take care of each other and to normalize collective care, ungendered, non-gendered, unconditional care, that we will start to see ourselves organized in ways that, as I said in the beginning, increase our human capacity and make us capable of things as community members that we were incapable of as sort of neoliberal units of production.
KH: I love the idea of discovering what we are capable of when we aren’t being reduced to “neoliberal units of production.” I also deeply appreciate Aaron’s distinction between the ways we enact work under capitalism, and labor, which exists in many forms. Another thought that came up for me, as Aaron talked about how terrible work can be, is that we actually need less productivity, in the capitalist sense, for the sake of our planet. Capitalism demands continuous growth, but continuous economic growth is destroying life on earth. A 2012 study found that a 10% reduction in work hours is associated with an 8.6% reduction in a person’s carbon footprint. Basically, shorter work weeks are better for the environment. And while such reductions might seem like a drop in the bucket, in the larger scheme of our climate struggle, they are undeniably a step in the right direction. As Jason Hickel writes in Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World:
Growthism is little more than ideology – an ideology that benefits a few at the expense of our collective future. We’re all pushed to step on the accelerator of growth, with deadly consequences for our living planet, all so that a rich elite can get even richer.
But we are also indoctrinated in a culture that glorifies being overworked, which means that easing up on our productivity can be a difficult transition to process. Here at Truthout, when we moved this podcast to a biweekly schedule, I was relieved that my life had become more manageable, but I also felt a sense of guilt. Why was my work life less taxing and stressful, when so many other people were grinding away without relief? On a weekly schedule, my workload had been overwhelming, and I found that my to-do list was in constant conflict with my body’s needs, as a disabled person. And yet, being paid the same amount to work at a slower, more deliberate pace, that allowed me to actually enjoy my job, left me feeling guilty. It was as though, on some level, I felt like the stress and the feelings of overwhelm I had previously experienced were supposed to be there. That’s what capitalism does to our minds. But as I said before, even though our workplaces are not going to liberate us, we have to work to make these spaces, where we spend so much of our lives, as just and caring as possible, and I am really proud that Truthout is a place where we endeavor to do that. I also feel that the show has only grown stronger during this time, when I have been able to put more thought and care into each episode. So, I think that’s important to consider as well – if the work itself is important to us, the degree to which we are cared for, or uncared for, as human beings, will ultimately impact the quality of that work, too.
Another obstacle we face on that journey of discovery is our tendency to tear each other down, or to allow our communication to break down over our lack of shared culture and language. I recently read a poem by Kai Cheng Thom called “to the church of social justice,” from the collection Falling Back in Love with Being Human: Letters to Lost Souls. The poem compared the author’s evangelical upbringing to her experiences in social justice spaces. Cheng Thom drew a parallel between being told she was going to hell, for the first time, at the age of 3, and being told that she was “problematic” for the first time, at the age of 17, when a group of fellow activists explained that if she did not believe and act in the right ways, she had “chosen the side of the oppressor.” The extremity that Cheng Thom described, the inflexibility and condemnation — it felt familiar, as someone who has witnessed, experienced, and also played an active role in such intransigence, at different points in my organizing. I deeply appreciated Cheng Thom’s final reflection, at the end of her poem, in which she stated, “i have questions about heaven. i have questions about the Revolution. those questions are the same: upon whose bones do you intend to build your paradise?”
AG: When I first started organizing, it was a beautiful moment and also just a really hectic and stressful and dramatic moment, right before Ferguson and then through the beginning of BLM and the Movement for Black Lives and that whirlwind. There was a tendency, I think, in left spaces for everything to be problematic and for problematic to kind of almost take on this almost Christian thing of just impure or wrong or tainted in a way that it’s just really not great for figuring out how to organize ourselves in ways that lead to dignity and joy. We would be in social spaces and people would do something like, “Hey, we need to start this meeting on time.”
And people would be like, “That sounds like white shit to me.” We’d be like, “Well, I mean, I guess. I don’t know that it’s a stereotype that white people start meetings on time, but we rented this room in the library for an hour and they will kick us out for the salsa dancing class if we don’t leave and we have more than an hour’s worth of things, so we kind of need to start this meeting on time.” There can be this tendency if you’re in a position of leadership, particularly before the group has cohered and figured out a liberatory sort of stewardship model or a way that leaders can empower other leaders to resent people who do that because it’s like, you’re just disrupting, you know what we’re here to do.
One thing I learned in reflection was whenever I have the energy of like, “Ah, you know what I mean?” It’s like, no, don’t. I’m calling on a mainstream logic of how we do things, which I know is always going to be based in white supremacy and patriarchy, and that we actually do have to do the work of saying, “How do we want to collaborate and what are the things that build us to liberation?” And that the worst thing you can do I think when collaborating with people is to tell them that their feelings aren’t valid because all feelings are valid, right? The emotional stories we tell about those feelings might not be based in reality, might not be helpful and might not be coming from a healed place, but we should help people trust their feelings.
What we learn to do to stop certain conflicts and also build the political analysis of certain people and try and build a collective capacity to feel critically is kind of how I think about it, is instead of dismissing when people said things like that, like this feels white to me, to actually dive in of like, “When you say white, what do you mean? Do you mean like how Europeans do it? Or do you mean historically used as a tool to build a racial hierarchy and to control people?” What we realized when we started actually asking that question was people were saying that, “You have done something that reminds my body of this time that somebody else in power did that thing. So I associate somatically people doing that thing with people trying to control me or denying my humanity or trying to gaslight me or dismiss something about me.”
So we started to break down, okay, so these are the things we’re actually against, right? We’re against denying people’s reality. We’re against vilifying people or kind of putting people on a pedestal in which they’re not human. We’re against denying complexity and that we can actually use people’s feelings as a sign of are we doing that, and if we are not doing that, but the other person feels that we are, part of the way that we move through that is allow people or invite people into a different somatic story and to say, “Oh, I understand that you feel that I am being white and trying to control time when I say this, and so let me rephrase it and actually say, I think your time is valuable and precious. I think my time is valuable and precious and I want us to get the most out of this time that we can.”
Sometimes that means, okay, maybe we don’t meet in a place that only allows us to meet for an hour. Maybe we need to find a spot where we can be chill and maybe we start our meetings with fellowship time and food, but we should be clear that we do have things to do as a group, and the things that we organize ourselves as a group is kind of the lifeblood of this group. It’s how we have a sense of purpose. So we also need to hold that time as precious. Over time, we sat with this and me and my collective at the time, a worker owned a co-op that did anti-oppression training for nonprofits, started to facilitate these spaces where we kind of refined on this idea of what are the things that actually not only make us feel like we’re liberated, but we’ve noticed in our reflection on our actions build our capacity to articulate that freedom in concrete ways, both individually and as a group.
We realized things that built our liberation were things that balanced being together through both collectivism and respecting autonomy, right? So we decided to call that interdependence, that when we centered our interdependence, that we are individualizations of a collective experience and it is the collective’s responsibility to support and nurture the genius of individuals when we live in the tension between those two principles, we find ourselves having more liberatory outcomes, right? Another part of it was creating change through transformation, that we needed both evolution where we asked people to kind of step in as their higher selves, to come from a more grounded place, to kind of take the time to work through their trauma so that they could be experiencing what we’re doing together in the moment and not be pushed back with those time traveling emotions from the past.
But it also required a revolution. It required the people who had been disempowered in spaces to be empowered in our spaces, to give them the right to make decisions, right? So we found that transformation as the way we hold revolution and evolution was another tool or strategy of liberation. Then finally, in thinking about this idea of feeling critically and having our feelings and sometimes people trying to use their feelings to tell other people what to do, we realized that the most liberatory outcomes came from when we were both head smart and heart wise, that we really sat with each other and be like, “Feelings are real, feelings are valid. There’s no world in which feelings don’t kind of determine what we do, but you can determine that subconsciously or you can kind of feel your feeling all the way through and then use your feelings and your emotions to make values-aligned choices, right?”
That with insight, when we balance being head smart and heart wise, we can get to the most liberatory spaces. So we realized that it was more useful to talk about whether somebody was using liberation logic or domination logic rather than saying, “This is problematic, right?” It moves us away from trying to point at the individual identity of the other person that we think this thing is coming from, which I think happens in movements a lot. Because in reality, we’ve all been taught how to use domination logic, and our identities kind of determine which types of domination logic we can get away with without social consequence, but fundamentally, it’s a strategy that we use and we learn those strategies from different ways.
If you tell me that I’m doing this because I’m a man, it might not resonate if you say like, “Oh, you’re just being middle class about it.” It’s like, “Well, I actually learned this from my grandpa who was working class.” So you might just throw away the comment because you’re like, “That’s not where it’s coming from.” When it could be like, “Oh, I’ve learned this from my grandpa who was working class, but also deeply patriarchal, and though this might seem like a class thing for you on the outside, for me, this is actually part of my internalization of patriarchal logic and domination strategies.”
If you don’t tell that story of where it’s coming from, but just name the strategy that people are using, it’s a way more effective way of actually trying to say, “You’re doing this thing that doesn’t work for our liberation. Here’s this alternative set of tools. Let’s talk together about which of these tools that we use.” So to me, that understanding of the difference between liberation logic and domination logic is fundamental to all the things that we focus on within WildSeed of how do we build out new structures, how do we have these new kinds of freedoms, how do we build communities of shared risk, how do we create spaces where people can process their grief and their trauma. I think it depends on looking back in our history of struggle and identifying the tools that were actually useful for our liberation and figuring out how can we use those strategies as tactics for our liberation in this particular context.
KH: As we round out our discussion today, I want to circle back to the subject of science fiction, and how it’s being weaponized by tech leaders who are hyping up large language learning models, and downplaying what it means to be human, in order to prop up the so-called AI revolution. We discussed the tech world mythos around what AI is and where it’s headed in our recent conversation with Paris Marx. If you listened to that episode, you know the technology does not match the hype. Tech leaders are trumpeting the genius of their supercharged autocomplete bots, while also warning that AI could destroy us all – a concern that they argue should put them at the center of defining regulation. A suspicious person might observe that such fear mongering has positioned tech leaders like Sam Altman to influence AI-related legislation in ways that favor the interests of the industry – and that suspicious person would be correct.
My most unhappy observation about the AI hype machine is that, at present, the strategies of tech leaders appear to be working. As apps are continuously created to track and surveil us, mining us for data, making us more predictable, controllable and socially isolated, it is crucial that activists and organizers resist a future defined by algorithmic governance. But when our own imaginations are being used against us, how can we reclaim our wonder, our sense of awe, and indeed, our love of science fiction, to envision another way forward?
AG: I love science fiction. I particularly love artificial intelligence as a science fiction trope. I think it’s fascinating. It’s one of the things that I love in science fiction when it shows up in the storytelling that I do as a writer. I love the idea of these artificial intelligences that develop this really intense purpose and kind of chained to the contact within the characters they’re working in. So when you talked about longtermism and transhumanism and how that’s intersecting with this new kind of automation that the tech world is trying to sell as artificial intelligence, I was so devastated.
Because I was like, these dudes like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have taken this beautiful trope in science fiction that is just very importantly fiction and are using it to sell this grift of human-based automation. I think you’ve done a really good job in these last couple episodes of talking about the real human cost, but also the real human basis. It takes human beings saying “is this a cat or not a cat?” to train this automating machine to do a thing, and they’ve destroyed the most liberatory possibilities, right? It’s like they had a choice to envision pushing us into a Star Trek-esque gay communal luxury communism, and they decided to have this automated capitalism.
I do think it comes out of the figments of their imagination as white men who have a limited set of stories they can tell, and therefore have a limited set of ways they could contribute to the world, right? There’s that idea that Elon Musk said that he’s accumulating this wealth for the betterment of other people, which is an absurd, absurd statement, but it is the kind of thing a science fiction villain would say. I think that so much of how we interact in Western society has to do with the prevalence of the drama triangle and hero stories as the only way we can think about conflict and think about tension and think about resolving that, right? That there’s a hero or a rescuer and a villain and a victim, and you can’t be both of those things at the same time, though, you can change from one to the other.
But if you don’t want to be a victim, then you have to be either the hero or the villain, and that’s just not how life works. We’re not always in these dramatic triangles, and yet as movements, we can kind of only think about getting free after some massive collapse. We have to experience that Mad Max thing for 200 to 300 years, and then afterwards when everybody’s too tired and nobody has the will to build a new state, then we’ll get our sort of anarchist freedom. I think that’s very sad. I think we need to go back to old folklore before they were hero stories, right? There’s a lot of other kinds of stories where people grow in which nobody is the hero, right?
A lot of our indigenous, and I mean that really broadly, both indigenous people in North and South America, but also just indigenous people in Africa, indigenous European stories, the culture of people who have lived in a place for a very long time and haven’t been colonized by state structures tell all sorts of different stories with different lessons based on different ethics and values. I think that now is a really good time as we’re seeing the story structures behind the myths that are the basis for our institutions kind of crumble or show themselves to be just things which people said to pay less on taxes.
It’s time to rethink of those kinds of stories and rediscover ways that people can grow and have love and have dignity or deal with loss or grief that don’t require that dramatic triangle, don’t require heroes or don’t require victims to have to be saved by an outside force. I think now is a time for transformative science fiction. It’s a time for organizers to take seriously the need to tell stories in which there are Black people in the future, in which there are people with different bodies and different capacities and ways of thinking in the future, in which there are different types of thinking about sex and gender, in which there are different philosophies that come up, in which there are different struggles for liberation that succeed and win, and that different visions of who we could be together are possible.
I think that one of the projects that I’ve been a part of in the past few years that I’m most excited about is WildSeed is building out this universe of the next 500 years, and we’re starting to have these storytelling sessions where we pull people together and we say like, “Okay, pretend this is 2030. This is what we’ve decided has happened in the next 20 years. What are we doing in the next 10?” We’re just building out an alternative timeline in which there’s no aliens outside to save us, and no… somehow we get free. It’s like, no, we’re human beings as we are now and this is the history of historic changes and material changes and new cultures that move us from where we are to where we want to go.
I believe that that kind of organizing and that kind of visioning is an important organizing tool. And I think in this time when everything is automated, it’s important for us to say that yes, we need different kinds of stories. It’s important that we have different kinds of stories. Yes, it’s important to say that AI is not going to write those stories, but it’s also important to say that the way we make collective stories, the way we find collective meaning together is important, right? That you can’t automate the process of humans telling stories to each other and the growth that happens when we all take part in telling new stories, and that those two things should be entwined.
We need different stories with people of color, with women as full human beings and agency, but we also need to tell those stories in more democratic ways from the bottom up, in ways that allow us to step into different roles, in ways that increase our empathy and compassion, in ways that tie us together and build new bonds of kinship. It’s a big task, but it’s also a beautiful one, and it’s something that only we can do, right? Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are not going to beat us at that organizing campaign. The police are not going to beat us at who can tell more lovely, dignifying, collective diverse storytelling processes. So I think that’s also another reason to take it seriously as a strategy for liberation.
KH: I agree wholeheartedly that this is a time for storytelling, and a time to imagine futures where our lives have value, and where technology is a vehicle for liberation, meaning and collective joy, rather than extraction and the accumulation of wealth. I sometimes daydream about a book club that alternates between practical liberation, nonfiction texts and speculative science fiction. Because we need facts and theory in our lives, but we also need to dream together. We have to make space for that dream work, whatever that might look like in our lives.
I also agree with Aaron that we are more creative storytellers than our oppressors, and I would ask people to consider that our abilities, in that regard, are presently under attack. As Paris Marx has argued, one of the functions of AI technologies is to deskill workers. For the sake of saving money and time, the work of piecing sentences together, for professional purposes, for schoolwork, and public speaking, is increasingly being outsourced to language learning models like ChatGPT. As a lover of words, I see this trend as a potential precursor to a profound loss. I believe we must hold onto our creativity at all costs, and defend it against any technological replacement. If we allow bots to speak for us, we may one day find that we have lost our voices, and our oppressors would benefit greatly from such a loss. We must nurture and defend what the tech world would cheapen and replace. To live in opposition to the death-making culture of late capitalism, we have to cherish our humanity, our connectedness, and our creative potential.
Toward that end, I will be collaborating with Aaron in the coming weeks, as my friend Tanuja Jagernauth and I embark on a new project – a weekly virtual space we’re calling Understory. The project arose out of conversations in our community between people who are not interested in organized religion, but who want a space for fellowship and community, where prison abolitionists can share and explore ideas that are sacred to us. In a forest, the word “understory” refers to the shade-tolerant trees, plants, ferns, mosses, and fungi that line the earth, beneath the tree canopy. It is a space of essential growth, decomposition and renewal that often goes unseen. In Understory’s weekly virtual gatherings, we hope to make space for the growth, breakdown and rejuvenation of ideas that fuel our organizing and sustain us as people. Tanuja proposed the project to me as a kind of place-making, where participants could experience grounding, cohesion, and beauty, while also building coping skills and experiencing a kind of rest and reflection. As someone who often talks about how our movements need to offer people epistemic, existential and relational grounding, I was very interested in cultivating a space where people could engage with certainty and uncertainty, while finding a kind of safety in each other, and experiencing a sense of belonging. We need vehicles for change, that address our material needs and attack the forces that would destroy us, but we also need spaces where we can hold each other in our humanity, and reaffirm our sense of who we are, and why we do what we do. I believe that projects like this one are a step in the right direction, as we resist the hype and mythos of the tech world, and the algorithmic governance of our lives and worldviews.
I want to thank Aaron Goggans for talking with me about belonging, relationship building, AI and science fiction. I got so much out of our conversation and I hope our audience has as well. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Music by Son Monarcas, Brendon Moeller, Christoffer Moe Ditlevsen, Lama House, David Celeste and Yonder Dale
- To learn more about the work of the WildSeed Society, you can check out their website.
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