Tales from Underwater

0. CHANGE IS GONNA DO ME GOOD

Things change.

Ain’t nothin’ like it once was.

Ain’t a goddamn thing.

                                                       — Litany of Pastor Manul Laphroaig

These periods of radio silence happen now and again.

Usually they coincide with what I euphemistically call “being underwater,” a hat tip to what sometimes happens with mortgages. When the accumulated debts of sleep, focus, commitment, emotional energy, cognition, and so on balloon to where there doesn’t seem to be any way out from under it all. Life, as the saying goes, gets away from you sometimes.

This is a story about that, and a little about what happened before, but mostly about what happened next.

I don’t do the whole “content note” thing, usually. That I am should tell you something in and of itself. Following Peter Wolfendale‘s notation: Suicide (§0,2-4), Drugs (§3), Mental Health (§*), Memes (§0,3,5), Anti-Semitic Poets (but no actual anti-Semitism) (§1,3,5), Computer Science (§0,2-3,5-6), Game Theory (§3,4), Cognitive Science (§5), Metaphysics (§5), References I Don’t Expect Anyone To Get (§*). I am not currently at risk of self-harm, but I am going to be very, very blunt about a comparatively recent time when I was.

For further context, or perhaps to set the mood, here’s something I wrote while surfacing from a previous span of time underwater, on Ello back when it was still a contender for Social Networks You Remember Hearing About:

Back in late November [of 2014], with the encouragement of @quinn and reddit, I started seeing an EMDR therapist (professionally, not romantically). That’s right around the time I went mostly-dark here. These are probably connected, though not in a bad way.

The theory behind EMDR, as I understand it, is that when something traumatic happens to you, your brain continues to take in all the sensory input that it normally would, but you’re a little busy being traumatised at the time and don’t have the cognitive resources to resolve all that input into coherent memories. Instead, the most salient details get dumped out to disk (as it were), tightly coupled to the PAIN FEAR OTHER HORRIBLE THINGS of the event itself but not to the rest of your memory. If something you experience later reminds you of some of those salient details, you can end up “stuck” in that cluster of fragmented memories, perhaps reliving aspects of the past event, or in my case, sinking into a paralytic sort of despair.

I model my own memory as an N-dimensional graph that I can observe up to a k-dimensional slice of at any given time, where k is in practice somewhere around 6. This fits in neatly with the notion of memories-as-clusters, because in graph theory we have a name for a bunch of points that are tightly coupled to each other but only loosely coupled to the rest of the graph; it’s called a clique. Imagine that you’re a hamster in a Habitrail and you’re too chubby to turn around or walk backward. Most of the little plastic bubbles have just a few tubes connecting them to other parts of the Habitrail, but one group of bubbles has a lot of tubes that only connect to other bubbles in the group, and fewer tubes leading to bubbles elsewhere in the Habitrail. If you scamper into one of the bubbles in this set, it only takes a few steps to lose your way in the maze, and your chances of exiting into the rest of the Habitrail are a lot lower. You’ll make it out eventually, but not without stumbling into a lot of the other bubbles in the clique first.

So, to keep this from happening, you want to reorganise the Habitrail so that even if the hamster does end up in one of the bubbles that’s currently in the clique, it can find its way to another region of the Habitrail just as easily as if it were in one of the non-clique bubbles. How this happens from deciding what takeaway you would rather have had from your painful memories, then free-associating about their details while using your eyes to track a moving object, is a wide-open question. @quinn thinks it’s essentially a biological 0day in some mammalian last common ancestor of ours, which amuses me enormously, and as a side note, if there isn’t a name for a cognitive bias in favour of amusing things, there really should be.

What it feels like from the inside, though, is going back through a bunch of prerecorded raw footage and changing the camera angle after the fact. I say this because that was the first common change I noticed among the memories I explored with my therapist. My experience of them during the moving-object-and-free-association phase was like playing a first-person shooter or reading a story written in deeply immersive first person, like The Catcher in the Rye. Afterward, it was more like watching them from a perspective in the ceiling or somewhere above and behind one of my shoulders, and correspondingly far less intense. All the detail is still there; it just doesn’t hurt so goddamn much anymore.

Far and away the best side effect of the whole thing is that I have a lot of my executive function back. I’m not quite sure how that happened either, but I’m not complaining and neither is @thequux. He noticed a marked increase in my Getting Shit Done ability the day after my first appointment, and while the gradient of the improvement was never quite so steep after that, things continued to improve over the course of the next two months. I had one appointment a week for the first four weeks, then we moved to every two weeks. By the sixth appointment we had run out of things to talk about, so we decided to call it done as of mid-January. Function paralysis is still my hobgoblin, but it’s the “donkey between two equally sized piles of hay” kind of function paralysis that I’ve been arguing with all my life, rather than the “everything is terrible and nothing matters” kind of function paralysis that I’ve been trying to get rid of since 2011, and now I have more cognitive resources with which to work on the former. This for six appointments at sixty bucks a pop. Take that, psychoanalysis.

The tools of wordsmithing no longer feel as comfortable in my hands as they did when I wrote that, or when I wrote this piece as much for my future self as for its nominal recipient. (Thanks, past me!) But, solvitur ambulando, getting comfortable with them again means picking them up and hacking at it. So it goes.

Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me something, anyway.

insanitywolf

1. MACHINIC UNCONSCIOUS

There is a sense in which “being underwater” is a remarkably descriptive phrase for it.

I have friends who occasionally have to deal with selective mutism in certain circumstances. From their descriptions, it sounds almost like being frozen inside a shell of glass: they know the idea they want to convey, they might even know exactly how they want to phrase it, but getting the actual words out is where the system locks up.

Being underwater is different. You can move; you can see and hear things above the water, even if rippled and distorted by the motion of the medium. You can react to them in nearly any way you like, though the same distortions will garble your responses. You are not a fish; you know you are underwater, even if being there doesn’t trigger your drowning reflex. But you cannot break the surface, any more than the mute can break the glass.

After a while, the routine becomes predictable: drift awake, fail to do anything that registers with the world above the surface, maybe eat something, drift back off to sleep again. “But that sounds like depression.” Exactly. Exactly. If it were stressful, you’d be waving as you drowned. Whatever part of your brain it is that keeps you underwater, it does so to cushion you from the chaos and din above, all the things you’d have to confront at once if you came up for air or to communicate. It’s only forestalling the inevitable, of course, but this is near mode brain’s domain, and planning is not its strong suit. The derealisation is only it trying to help, bless its shortsighted little heart.

The catch-22 of near mode’s help is that it precludes other forms. “What would make you feel better?” is really hard to answer when you honestly can’t think of anything that would, even after giving it your best effort. Besides, does it really count as feeling bad if nothing you’re experiencing internally seems to register as a feeling at all?

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives — unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.

— T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” canto III

Nevertheless, the needs of the body intrude in their mechanical way once they become urgent enough, eat-drink-smoke-shit-sleep. It’s not that there’s a desire to die; that would imply some desire existing at all. There is simply no desire to live, no action motivated by anything other than the instinctive urge to retreat from acute discomfort. When it’s only (“only”) a chronic absence of comfort, you float, neutrally buoyant, near the bottom.

There are other names for this sort of thing, of course: burnout, anhedonia, athymia, akrasia. But burnout implies fire and heat leaving behind a charred-out shell, and what I’m talking about is a colder, slower process: sinking farther and farther into murky, unthinking depths as your joints quietly oxidise to stiffness. The others, morphologically, are all propositional negations, defining the thing in terms of what it is not. There are a lot of ways to describe what is missing. It is harder to describe what is left.

2. PARANOID MATHEMATICIAN

I never really got over it after Len died.

I should have gotten back on antidepressants after moving to Brussels. I’d been on a good-enough combination (bupropion and sertraline) the last few months in Leuven, but the move meant changing doctors and it took a while to find a good one and executive function was in short supply and between one thing and another I neglected to get that started back up again. Life was, after all, unstoppably going on, with conference talks and papers and a visa to get sorted out and new relationships and a new job and a brand new academic workshop and whatnot, all of which was evidence of at least some sort of functioning, right? Right?

Fast forward a few years. I remarried in summer 2016, after a four-and-a-half-year live-in relationship; we’d talked about tying the knot in 2015, but delayed for a year both out of logistical convenience for our families and wanting to make sure it was the right decision. In retrospect, the cracks in the foundations were already beginning to show by late 2016; by spring of 2017, things were undeniably unstable, and we started couples therapy. The situation deteriorated anyway, by mid-August it was over, and in October he moved out. So much for making sure it was the right decision, I guess.

That may be an unusually terse description, but, well, we live in unusual times. I’d seen breakups weaponised before, of course, but before this I’d never had anyone offer to weaponise a breakup for me, which is a hell of a thing to have to confront when breaking (har!) the bad news to a friend. (Now you have two problems.) Righteous indignation is a hell of a drug, and I imagine that for many people in bad breakups, such offers might be quite comforting. In a sense, reputation damage is just a new species in the “want me to fuck him up for you?” genus of reassurance memes. Problem is, this only really helps if the recipient of the offer finds it reassuring. After a few iterations of this, I got more cautious about who I talked with, and started to wonder how many of the “we’re separating, but on good terms” announcements I’d seen in the past year or so were honest about the second part. I wasn’t willing to put a smiley face on it and pretend it was amicable, though; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent.

(We’re gonna talk about some of the philosophical dick moves that went down, though. But not yet.)

Instead, I went on the road. The four memorials that ended up being scheduled for Len — in Houston and San Francisco, and at DEFCON and CCC Camp — had turned into a sort of Grief World Tour, which actually sounds cynically awful when you put it like that, but cynicism is a perfectly valid coping mechanism and it was a template for something to do at the time. Besides, I didn’t want to be around for the move-out. So I scheduled some meetings, booked some flights, made arrangements to stay with friends in various places, and flew to the States on the fifteenth of October. Somewhere in there I accepted an invitation to keynote the Ethereum Classic summit, which with my return ticket to Belgium already bought meant flying home, spending the night there, then heading right back to the airport the next day for a week in Hong Kong. After that my folks talked me into coming to Texas for Thanksgiving in spite of the circumstances, which I tacked some other work and personal travel onto, and at the end of it all, what was originally supposed to have been a three-and-a-half-week-long trip ballooned into seven.

As I came to describe it afterward, I need to remember that both distress and eustress are still stress.

I got home the second week of December, and that was when shit got dark.

One of the things my ex had said after it was clear that things were over was that he hoped he hadn’t damaged my ability to trust people. No, I’d replied at the time, only my ability to trust you. What I didn’t remind him of was a conversation he’d been there for:

 

If there’s only so far you can trust people in the first place, there’s only so far you can fall if they let you down. (Decidable problems are priceless. For everything else there’s heuristics, and when those inevitably fail, there’s MasterCard.) Being on the road, in the company of friends I still trusted as far as I ever do, had kept me distracted from thinking too much about the sting of betrayal that was still raw and ragged-edged. At home, I was alone with my confusion and disappointment, all that remained of the hope I’d invested.

I’d taken a Dutch-language class last fall, which had been the limiting factor in when I could fuck off to parts international — my flight was the day after the final. I didn’t need to take the next course in the sequence, but I’d gone ahead and enrolled anyway, because it was actually pretty fun and it got me out of the house. That, I reckoned, put a cap on how long I could spend away, and after all the extensions, my last flight landed the day before the first day of class. I figured the timing was tight, but that stepping back into a familiar routine would be, well, routine.

I woke up Monday morning and couldn’t convince myself to get dressed.

Low-executive-function days are nothing new for me, of course. It’ll be okay, I told myself. You’re allowed to miss some classes, it won’t be that big a deal, just make it to the next one. I spent my day at my desk in my pajamas and bathrobe. I don’t remember what I did that day, or the next, but then, I don’t remember a lot of last December in the first place.

I do remember that when I woke up that Wednesday it was an act of will even to get out of bed. I didn’t make it to class that day either.

That night, the nonstop suicidal ideation kicked in.

3. MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS

Rumination sounds like a bucolic thing, named as it is after the first chamber of a cow’s stomach. Researchers describe it as “a passive and repetitive thinking process,” a pattern of “recursive self-focused thinking.” Sometimes it’s painfully dull, sometimes cripplingly embarrassing with Fremdscham for one’s past self. (Much as the past is a foreign country, one’s past self is a stranger, no matter how much déjà vu it provokes.) Recursive is a better description than repetitive for how I experience rumination; every thought, before yielding to whatever spawned it, reinvokes itself, though not necessarily with the same parameters. Without some terminating condition to bring the chain to an end and start winding back up the call stack, the stack grows and grows without bound. It’s times like these that shed all-new perspective on concepts like undecidable.

This was something different. One of the scumbaggier parts of my brain had stumbled onto a Plan that would work with materials I had on hand and figured out how to turn it into a general-purpose thought-terminating cliché. Like this:

scumbag-brain-on-positive-thinking-photo-u2

Except far, far more detailed. Come on, you need to eat something and then down that entire box of bromazepam and fall asleep in the bathtub. You should tell work you’re not going to be very useful today and then down that entire box of bromazepam and fall asleep in the bathtub. This is starting to get really troubling, let’s talk to a close friend about it and then down that entire box of bromazepam and fall asleep in the bathtub. Like that, for thirty-six hours straight. “Could you go somewhere?” one of the friends I decided to talk to asked, around hour 30 or so. “I don’t know where I’d go,” I told him. “May I suggest not the bathtub?” he replied, gamely. I was in my room, texting on my phone; the drugs were in a drawer in the living room, so at least there was that. But man does not live in bed alone; you have to get up and take a piss eventually, and where there’s a bathroom, there’s enough liquid to drown yourself by.

                                         Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

–T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”, canto I

This is the part I remember least well, writing this some four months after the fact. I remember how I explained it to people during it and immediately afterward; the phrase epistemic crisis came up more than once. My quotidian belief system, whatever system I’ve cobbled together to make sense of my day-to-day environment, was struggling to accommodate the new status quo — and failing at it. Badly. At the time, though, the entire experience was nowhere remotely near that verbal. No, this was other senses firing distress signals. I slept when I could, cried when I couldn’t, and willed myself not to do anything I couldn’t take back, despite what the thought-terminating clichés said. Roughly 36 hours in, both proprioception and my vestibular sense cut out simultaneously. Fortunately, I was still in bed when this happened, so I didn’t fall or anything, but I have to say, the sense of simultaneously not knowing where one is in space and not knowing what direction is up is not one I want to repeat.

At this point I decided that things were Clearly Not Getting Any Better and it was time to upgrade “call for help” to “call for professional help.” But, again, nowhere near that verbally. Well, except for the typing part.

There’s a cultural distinction I have to make here, although I can’t do it alone. Not anymore, anyway. Ever have a belief or an expectation so thoroughly overturned that it’s hard to remember what it was like to have it? Like that, except that other people’s accounts of what to expect are still around to refer back to. I have a decent number of friends in the States who have gone inpatient for one reason or another, some voluntary, some not. The experiences they’ve described to me have been pretty similar to what Scott and Freddie talk about: good luck getting intake to listen, and if by some chance you do get them to listen to you and admit you, good luck getting anyone to listen to you afterward, or treat you as anything other than an object to be dealt with. Being a mental health patient, in the US system, entails a state of moral patienthood as well; you can have agency or care, but not both. You have to be in a really bad place for an American mental hospital to be the better alternative to whatever you’re going through. But, well, I was there.

I had some hints, going in, that Belgium is different. For starters, I have this really good friend, Daan. He’s one of the first friends I made in Belgium, and he’s been through the inpatient system here before — once involuntarily, before I met him, and the second time voluntarily. He didn’t have much good to say about the first time (though I can’t blame anyone for objecting to a forcible Haldol injection), but the second time genuinely did help. Then there was the time another friend of mine who was crashing at my place went off his meds, had a psychotic episode, wandered off, punched a cop, and all that happened was that the police took him to a hospital to wait for his girlfriend to come and get him. (Imagine that happening in, say, Los Angeles.) So there was that. But you never know, do you? Not until you go and find out for yourself.

As luck had it, Daan was online. It was quarter to one in the morning. I told him what was happening, and he promised he wouldn’t call emergency services as long as I kept answering. (In retrospect, this is about the most game-theoretically optimal move I can think of in that kind of situation. Good call, Daan.) It took some searching — the kind it helps to have a native speaker around for — but within half an hour we found a nearby university hospital with a better plan than Scumbag Brain’s. If I could hold on until 8 in the morning, that was when their urgent psychiatric consultation hours started, and if not, I could come to the ER and wait there. Daan asked whether I’d held on to any of the quetiapine that a previous houseguest had mistakenly left, and suggested 25mg as likely to shut Scumbag Brain up long enough to let me sleep without knocking me out for the entire day. I had, so I set multiple alarms, followed his advice, and did in fact get some sleep. When the alarms went off at 7 and 7:30, Scumbag Brain was back at it.

Somehow I motored myself through getting dressed, putting a change of clothes and some toiletries and my e-reader and a USB charger into my backpack, and calling a taxi. I texted my girlfriend in Berlin to tell her where I was going. She texted back that if it got to be 11 a.m. without any further information, she’d assume they’d admitted me and plan accordingly, and reminded me to list her as a visitor if they did.

At the hospital it was about a half-hour wait to see the doctor doing intake that day, an older woman who turned out to be the department head. I have no idea how coherent anything I told her was. I know I mentioned being dumped, the unrelenting intrusive thoughts, how nothing felt real but I still knew that death would be very real indeed. But the how of it is buried under my still-palpable surprise at her response:

“What do you think would be the best thing to do?”

“I think it would be best if I were admitted,” I told her.

She nodded and said, “I think so, too.”

She had my medical records up on her workstation, and we talked about pharmaceuticals. “I’d like to restart you on the bupropion, but for an SSRI, have you heard of escitalopram?”

My nose wrinkled. “That’s one of the isomers of citalopram, right? I was on that one back in grad school, but I hated the side effects.”

Again, not the response my US-conditioned reflexes were expecting: “But sertraline was all right?” I nodded. “Then that’s fine. I’m also going to put down an optional 10mg of etumine, in case the intrusive thoughts get to be too much. It’s an atypical antipsychotic. If you decide you need it, you can just ask at the nurses’ station, okay?” Gentle Reader, I have seen patient-controlled analgesia before, but this was the first time I’ve ever encountered patient-controlled antipsychotics.

I don’t think I can emphasise enough how novel this kind of approach is to someone accustomed to the shut-up-and-take-your-medicine dynamic of the American medical system. The incentives are simply that different. In the US, every patient is distinctive on two different axes: condition and insurance coverage. Since insurance is what pays providers’ salaries, and every insurance plan negotiates different rates with providers, it can be very difficult to get providers to understand that your condition is what you are actually there about. It’s a principal-agent problem; the patient is the principal, but the insurer is their agent, and because the agent has all the control over pricing negotiations with the provider, the principal (i.e., you) runs all the risks of the moral hazard (i.e., not getting the care you need for your problem). In Belgium, there’s a standard tariff that all insurers and providers have to adhere to, which means that to providers, patients are special and unique snowflakes along only one axis: what’s wrong with them. When that’s your starting point, suddenly it starts making sense to treat people according to their individual concerns, rather than as interchangeable instances of some pathological category. Whoda thunk?

I also lost count of how many people reminded me, the first day I was there, that I was there voluntarily and that if I wanted to, I could leave any time. Definitely the intake psychiatrist, as well as the psychiatrist they assigned to me, but also a couple of nurses, unprompted. I don’t know whether I was giving people suspicious looks, if that’s just standard practice there, or what, but enough people said it that I eventually relaxed and believed them. I asked about visitor policies and found out that there weren’t any — whoever wanted to visit could just turn up during visiting hours, no prior arrangements required. I kept my phone, my e-cig, and my e-reader, and when my girlfriend arrived, she brought more clothes, my laptop, and my violin. (I’m trying to imagine how an American psych ward would respond to somebody wanting their violin. “You want WIRES? What do you think you’re going to DO with them?” Uh, practice scales? Be glad I don’t play the cello, or that she left my bass at home.)

I did need the antipsychotics, the first couple of nights. Scumbag Brain was still trying its best; during the day I was scattered and drowsy, but in bed, my thoughts raced unbidden down all the same feculent ratholes I’d come to the hospital to escape, until I D2-blockaded them off for the night. After a few days of that, things got weird: I still couldn’t sleep, but instead of trying to kill me, the racing thoughts were helpful, apart from the fact that insomnia never helps. I brought this up to my psychiatrist, along with the lack of appetite that had kicked in after tapering up my sertraline dose, and after another round of Dorking Out About Pharmacodynamics, we decided to try adding a bedtime dose of an atypical antidepressant whose side effects include drowsiness and hunger. With sleep, appetite, and mood mostly stabilised, I finally had the cycles to devote to resolving the epistemic crisis.

(Also notable: nobody seemed to think it was unusual for a patient to have questions about things like biological half-lives or receptor binding affinities. I’ve had American doctors react to that as if I’d challenged them to a dick-measuring contest that they were afraid of losing.)

As I put it to people after I left: all told, the hospital was a safe environment in which I was able to experiment with psych meds under expert advice for as long as I felt it was necessary, but nothing was forced on me. I never thought anyone would say this of a psych ward, but it was honestly one of the most autonomy-respecting experiences I’ve ever had.

4. DISSOCIATED KNOWLEDGE

That previous section took a long time to write. “It was difficult,” you might say. But not “difficult” in the sense of harrowing or exhausting. More like difficult to access. I know, retrospectively, that these things happened. I have logs for many of them. I know that they happened to a person who I was, but it is difficult to remember being that person, and therefore difficult to write about what it was like to be her. I know that she packed a backpack, for example, because of the details and omissions involved in the facts of it; I eventually brought that backpack home, along with the things my girlfriend and other friends brought me, and I still have the toothbrush the hospital gave me because past-Meredith forgot to pack one. But I can’t remember doing any of the packing.

If you’re wondering whether it feels a little weird to have had someone you don’t clearly remember being make potentially life-altering decisions about you, the answer is yes.

Nor is this the first time that’s happened. In fact, the previous time, it was even more life-altering, but I’ve had more time to get used to the side effects.

Len’s suicide plunged me into an emotional and ethical dilemma. On the one hand, I was unspeakably angry, but on the other, allowing any of that anger to settle on my memories of him brought on overwhelming waves of guilt over being unfair. I circled that Gordian knot for months, searching for a place to slice it that wouldn’t leave me hating either him or myself for the rest of my life. The eternalist stance of “everything happens for Some Higher Purpose” only works as long as you can get past the problem of theodicy, which I can’t. But I wasn’t willing to punt to nihilism, either; when something matters, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t. Things do happen for reasons, and sometimes those reasons are terrible. Sweep them under the rug, and they’re only going to come crawling out when it’s least convenient.

At last I figured out how to thread the needle, and it only meant having to tear down my entire value system and rebuild it on a fresh foundation. This sounds like a lot of effort, but how many QALYs does “spending the next forty years consumed by hatred” come out to? Unless you’re a lot more present-biased than I am, the math is pretty obvious. And that’s how I ended up with universal autonomy as a terminal value. Not just my autonomy, everyone’s. I don’t have to like the ends that people pursue with their autonomy, but the fact that someone might choose an end for themselves that I wouldn’t choose for myself or them attests to exactly how real their autonomy is. Where suicide is concerned, “end” is uncomfortably literal, but my comfort really doesn’t factor into it. (Pieter Hintjens was, of course, especially supererogatory in that regard. But I digress.)

What was especially interesting about this was that it opened up a lot more productive directions not just to think in, but for the emotions to go. If for no other reason than pragmatism, it just isn’t that useful to be angry at a dead person. How are you ever going to resolve it? Being angry on their behalf, on the other hand, is all kinds of fuel. Look at the situation through the autonomy lens. Certainly there were a lot of path-dependent reasons that fed into Len’s secrecy about his seizures and mental health issues, and I even learned the details of some of them. But I refuse to be fully deterministic about it; we are talking about free will here, after all, so determinism is an absurd position to take in the first place. I also refuse to passively accept some of those reasons, like mental health stigma, and not to put too fine a point on it, coming up seven years on from The Event, that refusal has more than a little to do with why I’m still here today.

Or spiral back outward, past the second link in this article: look at Mark Fisher’s life through the same lens. He did a lot of that for us while he was alive, conveniently; I didn’t know him then, so his writing — about mental health, about precarity, about all of it — is how I’m getting to know him now. Capitalist Realism engages with it directly, as do significant amounts of his blog; there’s a lot for me to digest still, but I’m confident there’s more there there, whatever it ends up being.

You can imagine there’s a lot of cathexis bound up in this, of course. You’d also be right. Which was why having it weaponised against me, from completely unexpected quarters, was such a tactical nuclear manoeuvre.

My ex and I had made a variety of commitments to one another, some explicit, some implicit. Our marriage vows were an explicit one; giving each other shell accounts, and then sudo capability, on our respective laptops as the relationship deepened were somewhat more implicit ones. I will take care of this, do right by it. I could have looked at his porn collection any time I liked; Gentle Reader, I am more content when people feel secure in their privacy, and I never once did.

(There is perhaps an entire essay to be written on the emergent social ritual of deleting one’s ex’s shell account, but this is not that essay.)

In any case, I’m dancing around with preliminaries as I flinch back from engaging with the content of the epistemic crisis. On with it.

When you get down to the very bottom of it, the fault at the core of the betrayal was bad data. Let’s set aside, for the purposes of this discussion, what process generated and sent the bad data, and just look at the receiver side. The most salient feature of the data at the time was that it looked genuine. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

Over time, however, there grew to be a disconnect, a divergence, between the affect of the data and the content of the data. The protestations of loyalty became more and more fervent as the evidence of other priorities grew more and more undeniable. “Your mouth says one thing, but your revealed preferences say another.”

Social engineers will tell you that the most effective way to convince someone else of a falsehood is to actually believe it yourself. This is the same principle behind Method acting. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say it works, right up until it doesn’t anymore. There are probably multiple ways for that to happen, but a reliable one is ceasing to believe the lie.

August was when he couldn’t maintain the illusion to himself any longer. He’d been keeping it up, he said, much longer than that — months, at least. Possibly as long as a year.

This was, shall we say, a lot to take in all at once. And in fact I didn’t take it in all at once. Over the weeks that followed, chunks of realisation fell like debris from a deorbiting satellite. Certain plans were no longer tenable; certain goals were that much farther out of reach. The common theme among all of them was “That commitment you thought you could count on? Evaporated.” Burned up on re-entry. Gone.

Steelmanning as hard as I possibly can here, I can see one possible difference in point of view that could lead to such a drastic divergence in expectations: whether one considers a commitment to be an artifact or a process. An artifact is a static entity, fixed into being at the moment of its having become an artifact. A process is a dynamic entity, and it interacts not just with one’s past self, but with one’s present and future selves as well. If commitment is a process, it is a pruning process, a filtering process; one precommits to cutting off certain courses of action that one could, in principle, otherwise take.

On the other hand, if commitment is an artifact, then “I meant that commitment at the time” is a semantically non-null statement. The artifact might once have been a treasure, but now it is trash. If it’s a process, though, that statement bottoms out in vacuity.

I’m dancing with prolegomena again. On with it.

To me, a commitment is an exercise of one’s present autonomy that is binding on the space of choices available to one’s future self. When we make commitments, we choose to limit the combinatoric richness of that option space in favour of some other kind of richness, some other value. So it caught me completely flat-footed when my ex characterised my expecting him to live up to the commitments he’d made in his wedding vows as trying to restrict his autonomy. Wasn’t that supposed to be his lookout when he made them?

It was an irrefutable argument, I’ll give him that. Even now, I can’t really argue with it. People get to do what they want with the courses of their own lives. I just, you know, expected something resembling continuity, resembling consistency. Perhaps that was my mistake in the first place.

The value structure held. As much of a shock as a direct hit on its core premise was, it was designed to take hits like that and keep functioning. Overengineered, you might even say.

What lay underneath it was a different story.

Consider a building. A hardened building, let’s say, resilient to external shocks. Put it on a proper pile foundation, no redneck engineering here. Hit it hard enough, though, and if hydrogeological conditions are right, the soil under it can liquefy. Usually this is an earthquake’s fault, but a sufficiently powerful explosion can do it too. The sand or silt goes quick, anything trapped in it but buoyant rises, whatever rests on it sinks, and the soil goes slow again.

If the building is a value structure, meaning is the ground it rests on. Not the piles (those are part of the building), the ground. What happens when that ground isn’t solid anymore? We might also use another metaphor and say that meaning is upstream from value. What happens downstream when the river shifts course somewhere upstream?

Whatever your answers to that are — that’s what I mean when I say epistemic crisis. I had no solid ground, no charted course, no basis from which to apprehend what anything meant, for a while there. “Surprise, the last N months of your life were fake news!” AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH.

How people behave in a crisis is, not to put too fine a point on it, weird. Rationality typically doesn’t enter into it, unless it’s the instrumental rationality of having trained a response for a particular kind of crisis (e.g., active shooter firearms drills), and even then the bulk of the reasoning went on long beforehand. During the Incident itself, the elephant has control, not the rider.

Where this gets complicated is when the elephant is in a position to make binding commitments on its future self — which includes not just the elephant, but the rider. Inpatient psychiatric care is of course one such binding commitment, but then again, so is suicide. “Diminished capacity” is such a euphemistic way of describing it, even if it’s true that I was operating at maybe 60% of my usual cognitive ability when I checked out of the hospital and am probably back around 85-90% now. It’s a paradox: if you know (in some sense) that you’re operating at diminished capacity, how do you know whether you’re competent to evaluate the course of action you’re considering? Or, put another way, if you’re not actually in control of your rational faculties, can you actually be said to be acting autonomously?

I didn’t have good answers to those questions then, or if I did, I don’t remember them. I don’t have good answers now, either. The best I have is a first approximation that meets them with another question: do you want to continue to be a process, or not? For some people, either the desire to live or the fear of death are strong enough to risk a period of captivity, whether imposed by oneself or by third parties. Others, for whatever reasons (and oh, there are many), would rather halt than take that chance. I don’t get to choose for anyone else, but I do get to decide for me.

5. ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD

The temporal logic of actions. Communicating sequential processes.

Something there is that doesn’t love static analysis.

It has been remarked that a system of philosophy is never refuted; it is only abandoned. The reason is that logical contradictions, except as temporary slips of the mind — plentiful, though temporary — are the most gratuitous of errors; and usually they are trivial. Thus, after criticism, systems do not exhibit mere illogicalities. They suffer from inadequacy and incoherence.

— Process and Reality, p. 6

Not to go all strong-form-of-the-Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis on you or anything, but Steve Yegge has a hell of a point about object-oriented programming and nouns. We laugh at satire like FizzBuzzEnterpriseEdition, for values of “we” that include anyone who’s ever had to deal with Spring or Struts, because Java’s relentless fixity on things lends itself to self-parody, but also because we’ve seen what happens when languages with no first-class functions have to deal with passing functions as arguments anyway.

boilerplate-boilerplate-everywhere.jpg

Alan Kay takes it even farther, saying that he regrets having used the term object to refer to values in Smalltalk in the first place, “because it gets many people to focus on the lesser idea.” But we’ll get back to that.

Cumbersome epistemology and equally cumbersome grammar aren’t the only things that can make object-oriented code difficult to reason about. Hidden state is much, much worse. The principle of abstraction — hiding implementation details of library or framework code from the people who use it — has great intentions when it comes to reducing the cognitive burden on developers, but only delivers on them insofar as the implementation isn’t terrible. (Hands up everyone who’s had to deal with somebody else’s handrolled ORM. Or somebody else’s O(n³) sort. Or somebody else’s buggy comparator. Right, that should be enough; if your hand didn’t go up, find someone whose did and get them to explain it to you.) Maintaining an OO codebase over time (in my experience, particularly in an enterprise environment; your mileage may vary) requires eternal vigilance against scope creep, lest one class of object try to become God or leaky abstractions dissolve your architecture into a big ball of mud.

The functional paradigm opposes the object-oriented paradigm in both regards: immutable records rather than mutable objects mean never having to reason about “but what if the value of that field changes?”, and if anything, functional languages privilege verbs (i.e., functions) over nouns (it is right there in the name, after all). Mysteriously, though, there is fixity in the Functional Kingdoms as well; immutability is one aspect of it, and another is static typing. (Meanwhile, Alan Kay drifts overhead in a hot-air balloon, shouting into a megaphone about message passing. But we’re not quite there yet.)

Types help both us and compilers reason about what functions do. A helpful compiler will tell you when it doesn’t make sense to do some function to a particular thing, and why. An unhelpful compiler (looking at you, every single C) will look the other way as you cast puppies through a void pointer into wood and feed them, yelping, into a woodchipper.

Even more helpful compilers will reason for you about not just what goes into and comes out of functions, but their side effects as well. Monads, say what you will about their other qualities, encapsulate side effects — which is all well and good until you have to compose them. Enter monad transformers, and applicatives, and … wait, why is everything suddenly a noun again? If we’re trying to characterise well-behaved software, is “what is it?” really a better lens than “what does it do?”

Perhaps I’m being unfair to PL theory here. (I am occasionally mistaken for a PL theorist. It comes from a place of love.) Scala and Go have turned traits and structural typing (the idea that a thing is what it can do, checkable at compile time — you can also think of it as static duck typing) into concepts that a randomly selected working programmer has probably heard of. Meanwhile, out on the bleeding edge of type theory, session types and linear dependent types hold promise as tools for characterising the correct operation of entire protocols. This has tremendous implications for security, but after thirteen years in this field, I’ve learned never to close my eyes. The attack always comes from something you forgot — or didn’t bother — to model.

I’ll just cut myself off right here before I go and recapitulate the entire debate between substance metaphysics and process metaphysics through the lens of type theory. (Maybe another time, though.) That said, there’s a historical thread of inquiry here: it starts with set theory, then Russell and this section’s namesake, Whitehead, develop the theory of types to overcome inconsistencies in set theory. Much later on, Per Martin-Löf draws on L. E. J. Brouwer’s intuitionistic mathematics to create intuitionistic type theory, from which the entire ML family of languages springs. Whitehead went in a different, more abstract direction, though. Setting aside the formal language of the Principia, he drew on casual, everyday language,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

— T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” canto V

which he then used rigorously and methodically

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

— ibid

to develop a process-oriented account of existence.

The complete consort dancing together)

— ibid

Instead of entities having primacy, interactions do. Existing becomes a process of interacting with the universe in some way.

(Bubbles break on the surface of the water. Alan Kay circles overhead in his balloon.)

Interaction, as a matter of definition, entails a subject and at least one other subject to interact with, although the other subject can also be the self. (See also: reflexivity, recursion.) “What is the type of one endpoint transducing?” Mu. The question is poorly posed, not only when the other subject is absent, but when the recursion goes too deep and the stack overflows. “But Meredith,” I hear you say, “whence this radical intersubjectivity? Are you really calling even inanimate objects subjects?” Well, yes, actually. As I type on this keyboard, my fingers wear down the texture of the plastic keys; eventually the keys will become smooth and polished from use. At the same time, the plastic wears off microscopic bits of skin from my fingers. This may sound like a semantic quibble, but let’s look at it from the perspective of syntax for a moment. Ditransitive verbs are those which require two objects (a recipient and a theme), such as “lend” or “show”. English does not, to my knowledge, have any disubjective forms, although copular constructions are somewhere in that vicinity. Probably other stative verbs too, if you’re willing to admit prepositional phrases as characterising interaction, which I for one am. So we’re operating at a bit of a disadvantage trying to talk about disubjective interaction in a language that seems grammatically bound and determined to characterise all interactions in terms of subjects and objects, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned to count on all these years, it’s that linguistic robustness finds a way.

But we were talking about stack overflows. We were also talking about bounds on volition, earlier.

Bounds on volition are pretty clearly downstream from bounds on cognition, in my point of view. You can’t willingly do something it never occurs to you to do. Cognition, in turn, is bounded by the physical limits of inference. We can pose and debate the existence of additional bounds, but that one bounds everything. Is this pessimistic of me? Not at all. Like a sucking chest wound, halting is Nature’s way of telling you to slow down, because you will not get any farther no matter how hard you try. Call it computable realism, perhaps, for the pun if nothing else. “Wait, are you saying you agree with the simulation hypothesis?” No. But I am saying that nature computes, that what it can compute is bounded, and that those bounds are guardrails beyond which those questions that can be asked cannot necessarily be answered.

When we’re talking about brains, things get even more complicated, because brains are self-updating processes. Self-modifying code, if you will. Self-modifying hardware, really, although the distinction gets blurry down at the physical layer. Neurons that fire together wire together, and these wirings change in density and strength with repeated firings; old patterns fade away and new patterns emerge in the tapestry over time, the code says something different. Often it interacts with old code in unexpected ways, not that this should surprise anyone. Sometimes it interacts with itself in unexpected ways, not that this should surprise anyone. (And yet it seems like, every time, it does. Including me.)

I’ve gotten pushback on this view of consciousness, usually from people who think I’m treating sapience as deterministic and find that sort of thing distasteful, though occasionally from people who think I’m treating sapience as deterministic, conclude there are cheat codes to manipulating people (and that I’m holding out on them), and generally give the first group cause for their distaste. If anything, I think that both skepticism of the computational view of consciousness, and naive mechanistic interpretations of it, are predicated on a sort of ascetic ideal that even real-world source code almost never achieves in practice, much less people. (This is why I keep saying that langsec is also about usability, but that’s a completely different tangent.) Clean layer separation, simple functional interfaces, fully specified state machines, well-typed outputs — these are all well and good in software, and bad things can happen when we don’t employ them. Still, the underlying hardware matters too, and both the software and the wetware in humans are spaghetti all the way down. Different spaghetti, for everyone, with equally individual lifetimes of experiences. Rephrase the central dogma of genetics into, if you will, the computational dogma of genetics: DNA is unarchived into RNA, which is compiled into the protein machines on which the self-modifying algorithms that are us execute. The worst spaghetti code a human — or any team of humans — has ever produced cannot possibly compare to the explosive mess that is the human metabolic system. We had a chart of it at the office at IDT; sometimes I’d stand there and stare at it, thinking, “This is so ridiculously baroque it could only possibly have evolved.”

This is also why I can’t get on board with the concept of coherent extrapolated volition: it’s Laplace’s demon, but for people. Wetware decision processes are neither pure nor functional, simple as that. They are side-effecty as hell, and trying to treat them otherwise is trying to abstract away implementation details that turn out to be necessary in much the same way that time turns out to be a necessary implementation detail if you need to reason about timing attacks. It’s not the extrapolation part I disagree with, it’s the coherent part. Getting a system to run stably for a short while is easy. Keeping one up longer-term takes a lot more work. You could almost think of computation as an attractor, given how often it crops up by accident, but it’s an unstable one. As Paul Snively likes to say, “information wants to be free, computation wants to diverge.”

(Alan Kay drops a corked bottle from above. It splashes and bobs in the water; a pair of hands breaks the surface, followed by the rest of a figure. It uncorks the bottle, tips out a rolled-up piece of paper, and unrolls it. It reads: “Turns out, we were the real weird machines all along.”)

6. FINAL FORM OF THE STATE

At last: the end. No, an. It’s never over.
At last, an ending that, sometimes, you’re happy
To walk away from. Sometimes, you walk back.

— “Any Landing You Can Walk Away From

At last: where do we go from here?

It’s always better to have an eventual destination in mind when asking this. At least, better than “anywhere else,” which is a common default in these sorts of situations. But no amount of care with respect to your destination can improve your odds of escaping yourself; as Buckaroo Banzai sagely advised us, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

There’s actually a sense in which not all that much has changed. I still have the same friends, same blog, same hobbies, same apartment (slightly redecorated), same redonkulously loyal and affectionate cat. Same research, (mostly) same colleagues, same workshop. I’ve been on sabbatical from my job since mid-February, because a chief scientist who needs a three-hour nap after reading a twelve-page paper is a chief scientist who needs some time off to finish getting her head back in order, but that’s been going relatively well. In the meantime, I’ve kept busy, shuttling back and forth between colleagues and conferences now that it’s finally goddamn spring. (Nearly summer, now. This piece has been baking for a while.) I also got myself accepted to the DeepSpec summer school on formal verification, with plans to come back to work once that’s over. It’s a bit like LARPing as an unaffiliated early career academic, except with fewer worries about where the next paycheck is coming from and no publish-or-perish pressure.

Crucially, I also still have a brain that, for all its features, still tries to up and murder me every once in a while. The one big difference is that now I have tools for that. Maybe applying them over time will unwire the neurons that forged themselves together in firing, bulldoze and regrade the slippery slope that leads down to suicidal psychosis. Or maybe it won’t, in which case, here’s to better living through chemistry and safety nets that work.

From a pragmatic standpoint, I have to consider the very real possibility that this may not be my only trip through the inpatient system. Events that shake me up so thoroughly that I have to dig all the way down to metaphysical bedrock to eventually make sense of them are few and far between — thankfully — but quod erat demonstrandum, they can happen. Suicidality may follow a kindling model, independent of depressive episodes, or maybe not; the research is not extensive. Perhaps that will change, in the wake of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. But those of us enmeshed in evasion games with the black dog don’t have time to wait for the research to tell us what to do; we are made biohackers by circumstance, trying to keep always a step ahead of it. One more cycle. One more tick.

You’d think I’d be angrier, but after all the ping-ponging around Kubler-Ross’ web of grief states — which should never have been called “stages” to begin with — what I’m left with, when I glance in the rearview mirror, is only a sense of profound disappointment. The kind it takes work not to turn into pity as the past gets more distant, at least if one looks back often enough to make that an issue. Easier, then, simply not to look back at all, apart from the necessary safety checks when changing lanes.

There’s no moral to this story, except possibly: something always happens next. But morals answer why?-questions, and this wasn’t a story about why, it was a story about what and some inferences about how. Which is to say, a story about what and a story about a story about what. “Something always happens next” is an answer to “why should I keep going”; it is not necessarily a good answer or a right answer, if every next thing that can happen is too much to bear. It is only a true answer. That doesn’t make it useful.

I can’t provide an answer that will unerringly convince you, or your friend, or your loved one, or the celebrity you admire, to keep going. I’m not even entirely sure how I convinced myself. You’d think, having been through it, that I could account for it. Instead, all I know is that I saw the net, I grabbed at it on the way down, and it caught me. Not everybody has a net under them. Not everybody can see it when it’s there. Not everybody can bring themselves to reach out, even if they see it. Some people who reach out will still slip through the cracks anyway. Survivorship bias is also a hell of a drug, and I can’t promise you that I’m not on it.

That said:

blackboard

“The great Cold Rationalist lesson is that everything in the so-called personal is in fact the product of impersonal processes of cause and effect which, in principle if not in fact, could be delineated very precisely. And this act of delineation, this stepping outside the character armour that we have confused with ourselves, is what freedom is.” — Mark Fisher, transcribed on my kitchen wall by Giancarlo M. Sandoval while I was in the hospital.

The lines between machine and brain are nebulous, and that’s okay. Not in the shopworn “this is fine” sense; no, really, this is not a threat. It’s a handle.

Just a little more computer science. I promise there won’t be much more.

handle is an interface to some resource: a file, an output buffer, a network socket, a process. Like the handle of a shovel or an axe, its construction manifests how you interact with it. A handle is opaque if it doesn’t afford you any meaningful interactions — if all you can really do with it is pick it up, put it down, or hand it off to something else. There isn’t really a commonly-agreed on antonym for opaque here, but we might call a handle that gives you recognisable affordances for interacting with it an introspectable handle. A file handle affords you the ability to seek to some point in the file, to read from it, and to write to it. A socket handle affords you the ability to send and receive data over it. A process handle affords you the ability to redirect its output, or to attach some supervening process to it. A debugger, for example.

In an extremely Rube Goldberg but no less real sense, there is a handle I can use to attach a debugger to the process that is me. It involves taxicabs and insurance and the most mockably baroque bureaucracy in western Europe, but it’s there. There aren’t words for how grateful I am for that. The Rube Goldberg machine doesn’t need to hear them — it can’t anyway — but I wish I could figure out how to construct them for other people to hear. To know that it’s possible. I’ve been trying for about ten thousand words now, and the best I can do is hope it helps.

Debugging is the programmer tracing the program, step by step or in leaps and bounds, forward and backward in time. Even when the program is the programmer, this is interaction: self-interaction is still interaction.

But eventually self-interaction gets predictable. And the only way to bring in unpredictability is to go out and interact with things you can’t predict.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

May you never halt. I’ll try not to either.

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radical book club: what Righties can do

The first time I raised the idea of Righties learning from Lefties, a lot of people greeted it with derision. Plenty still do. That’s a terrible attitude, one that Righties need to overcome if we want to win.

Some Righties argue that we don’t need to learn from Lefties, because Righties are just better. You’ve heard it, I’m sure: “Lefties are weak, Lefties are cowardly, Lefties are afraid of work.” But absolutely none of that is true. Lefties are tough. Lefties are brave. Lefties are smart. Lefties are the hardest workers you’ll ever see.

Part of the issue here is cultural. Some of the ways Lefties get and use power are very culturally offensive to Righties. It’s hard to intellectually appreciate a difference in values when every fiber of your being is telling you that the other person is just being an asshole. And it’s hard to see the mechanics at work, because the press talks about Lefty movements and moments as if they magically just happen.

But other parts of this attitude go back to high school civics class. Political movements are part of civics, too, but schoolbooks don’t talk about how they actually work. In high school civics we talk about bills, and we talk about laws, and we talk about the three branches of government, but we don’t ever talk about power. We talk about Rosa Parks, but not the Highlander Folk School; we talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., but not Ella Baker. Which means that we don’t address huge parts of how the world actually gets changed.

powerbrokercoverThe legendary biographer Robert Caro mentioned once that he had heard college professors talk very convincingly about how the paths for freeways in New York City were chosen. The professors listed variables, and considerations, and trade-offs, and they talked very knowledgeably and nothing they said was worth a damn because the paths for freeways in New York City were chosen for one reason and one reason only: a freeway was where it was because Robert Moses wanted to build the freeway there. Considerations meant nothing next to power.

That’s what movements are about: gaining power. Movements don’t just happen. And they’re not the product of orders from on high, or rent-a-protestors paid out of somebody’s checkbook. They’re the product of a lot of people doing a lot of hard work over a very long time.

Righties don’t want to believe that. Thus, the same old horseshit: “oh it’s all George Soros.” “Oh we don’t get turnout for protests because we all have jobs.” “Oh we’d win a Second Civil War in five minutes anyway because the Lefties are wusses and we’ve got all the guns.”

It can’t possibly be that there’s work we need to do, work that we’ve been neglecting because we don’t understand how it works and we’re lazy. That’s unthinkable.

Well, think it. Because it’s true.

Some Righties talk about the idea of a post-political world — the idea that a system with less citizen input, on the continuum from Singapore to monarchy or neocameralism — would be more stable. But in a world without elections, there would still be shifts in power. It’s just that the mechanisms by which power shifts wouldn’t have occasional moments of relative transparency. And those circumstances, I hate to tell you, favor the Left: look at how often the Right wins elections but doesn’t get what it wants, while the Left doesn’t win as many elections and gets what it wants anyway. Leftist organizers are some of the most important political figures in the country. I didn’t vote for them, did you?

I don’t know about you, but I like getting what I want, and I like the idea of having as much power to get it in as many ways as possible. I like the idea of having power to keep my politicians honest, power to exercise directly in my world, and power that can be used directly to make my country, the world, and people’s lives better.

And let me be frank about where I’m coming from politically. I’m not coming at this from a hard righty perspective here. I’m not even a fringe type, not a reactionary or an ancap or anything. I’m a normie, and this is me screaming at normies that we have to get up off our asses. Listen up, normies: if we don’t organize for power, other people will.

The good news is: there are a lot of us.

So let’s organize for power. Here are some brief thoughts about how to get it.

Continue reading

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I See Trad People

None of the maps seem to fit the territories anymore, and it’s quite perplexing if you wish to make sense of today’s politics.

Why did the tech-savvy gray tribe abandon its absolute devotion to the free flow of information? Why are right wing traditionalists irreverently worshipping pagan gods and dadaist humor? Why do left wing gender egalitarians so staunchly oppose men’s rights? How on earth did the sexual revolution lead to a supposed rape culture?

Dig past the surface and it’s contradiction after contradiction. Focusing on communists on one side or fascists on the other doesn’t help, nor does redirecting the blame onto the globalists / bankers / trolls / russians / … Blue and red, purple and green, they’ve slowly but surely started to blur together, and we need to look elsewhere.

I’ve talked about the religious dimension of this conflict before, how there are obvious parallels between contemporary political practice on the left and religious ritual. Today I’d like to recast this a bit towards a related concept: tradition and orthodoxy.

sixth_large

“I see trad people, walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re trad.” Continue reading

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radical book club: the Centralized Left

The last installment of Radical Book Club focused on decentralized organization: important stuff, particularly for Righties looking to learn from the Left. But the Left and the Right are different cultures. Righties like things like hierarchies, and clarity, and categories with neat little ticky-boxes. The concept of a decentralized Left is uncomfortable and icky for many Righties to contemplate; to even consider emulating it is enough to make any reactionary worth his salt break out in a cold sweat.

So what are Righties to do? Well, wipe the sweat off and take a look at Lefties who are into things like hierarchies and clarity and categories with neat little ticky-boxes — well, more into them than the anarchists are, anyway. Today we’re looking at centrally organized Lefty structures — unions, front groups, and nonprofits, all of them employed in community organizing.

rulesforradicalscover

The phrase “community organizing” invites kind of a knee-jerk reaction among Righties; even reactionaries hibernating for winter jolt awake with a start to blurt “Alinsky!” That’s because Saul Alinsky’s RULES FOR RADICALS is, in the view of many Righties, the Lefty book you should read. I don’t agree with this. In my view, the main reason Righties have such a high opinion of RULES FOR RADICALS is that they haven’t actually read any other Lefty books.

If you’re a Righty, you’re probably puzzled. I mean… it’s Saul Alinsky! The Lefties love Saul Alinsky! Right?

…well, not exactly.

Alinsky is kind of a curious cat. The Lefties who are most influenced by his methods often don’t talk about him much, and in many cases Lefties who do talk about him are critical. Here’s the dynamic you need to appreciate to understand this: Lefties, by and large, do not read older Lefty books the way Righties read older Righty books. A lot of Lefty training is done orally, and it’s not always hugely sourced. One Lefty friend of mine, for example, was shocked to realize years later that his college newspaper had literally been doing Maoist criticism/self-criticism sessions. They’d left any mention of Mao himself behind, of course, but they’d kept the technique.

That’s kind of what happened to Saul Alinsky. His methods are everywhere, but if you read organizing books you’ll be surprised how rarely he’s mentioned. Mainstream Lefties are actually baffled by how popular Righties think Alinsky is.

So why do we fixate on Alinsky so much? My guess: political opposition research on Obama and Clinton led Righty campaigners to rediscover his books. And then Righties all assumed that of course all the Lefties faithfully read Alinsky, because if he were a Righty we would.

The Lefties who do faithfully read older Lefty books and talk about them tend to be either old themselves, or communists. And communists really don’t like Saul Alinsky very much. This may seem weird for Righties, because for us there’s not enough daylight between Alinsky and communists to matter. To get where the commies are coming from, you have to understand that from their perspective Alinsky was kind of doing what I do: pulling organizing techniques out of ideological context and making them available for other kinds of people to use. In Alinsky’s view, the people in a community who were being organized knew perfectly well what they wanted; the organizer, an outsider, was there to help them get it. In the communist view, this is wrong. The people do not know what they want. The people need to be led, not to lead. Alinsky is atomizing the situation by tackling specific problems and not the overall system. The organizer’s job is not endless campaigns to get people various separate things they want; the organizer’s job is a campaign to get them some goddamned communism.

I mean, I’d still call Alinsky a stinking commie, but that gives you an idea of how other stinking commies see him.

RULES FOR RADICALS is honestly not very useful for Righties, despite the fact that it’s the only Lefty organizing book of which a lot of Righties have even heard. In the Tea Party heyday, people basically xeroxed Alinsky’s chapter on tactics: you know: “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it,” all that stuff. But if you read the rest of the book, you quickly see the problem: Alinsky had the benefit of lefty Institutions, many of which he didn’t even have to build, and he blithely assumes that you’ve got access to Institutional support the way he did. Dude ran an organizer training school with a full-time fifteen-month curriculum. Yeah, no, not gonna help us Righties right now.

If it’s any consolation (it is to me), Alinsky felt his training school had “more failures than successes” — he turned out people who were screwdrivers, not Swiss Army knives. So somebody who was great at organizing colleges couldn’t organize the middle class, somebody else who was great at organizing black people couldn’t organize Puerto Ricans. Like that.

There are a very few tips in Alinsky’s RULES FOR RADICALS that I feel are applicable to Righties. One is that small victories are essential; don’t just go big or go home. Alinsky likened this to managing a boxer: you want to pick opponents carefully for a path that leads to a real shot at a championship, avoiding defeats that might derail or end the fighter’s career. On at least one occasion, Alinsky took this so far as to literally fake a victory: he knew the other party fully wanted to give Alinsky exactly what he was demanding, so Alinsky created a show of resistance for himself to heroically overcome by refusing to let the other party speak even a word. When Alinsky paused long enough to let the guy say “Yes, of course,” it looked like Alinsky had worn him down.

The other essential tip is growing the movement. In Alinsky’s view, everything is a movement numbers game. Job one for the Alinskyite organizer is to build a mass power base, because without numbers you have nothing. So the most important question is, “How will this increase the strength of the organization?” How many recruits will it bring in? If losing a fight will bring in more recruits than winning that fight would, then the organizer must lose that fight. Because more recruits mean a larger long-term victory.

Alinsky also explains that your organization also has to have a bunch of issues. Having a bunch of issues broadens your appeal, bringing in more people, and gives you ways to keep your people engaged. If your organization isn’t doing anything, people will get bored. They’ll occupy themselves with busywork, not actually accomplishing things, and they’ll get mired in internal factionalism. (This explains a lot of the internal factionalism on the Hard Right, actually.)

It’s important to use what’s available to you. This is why Lefty groups so often use mobbing tactics; they’re holdovers from the days when they had lots of poor people and not much else. Alinsky cites Gandhi as an example: “To oversimplify, what Gandhi did was to say, ‘Look, you are all sitting there anyway — so instead of sitting there, why don’t you sit over here and while you’re sitting, say ‘Independence Now!’”

Alinsky’s big dream was revolution as an endless relay race, free of dogma — ie, Lefties passing the torn from one revolutionary group to the next, and just getting Leftier forever. Which, depressingly, is pretty much what we’ve got.

And that’s really all you need out of RULES FOR RADICALS. The rest of it isn’t hugely interesting or helpful, and reading it means spending time with Saul Alinsky, who’s an extremely unlikeable person. Just on a personal level, I find myself quite liking most of the Lefty authors I read. They may be political enemies, but they’re not dicks, and I could see myself punching out the time clock and having a beer with them. But I was surprised to find myself loathing Alinsky, just on a personal “Christ, what an asshole” level.

noshortcutscoverA deeper criticism of Alinsky and Alinskyism forms one of the legs of Lefty radical Jane F. McAlevey’s NO SHORTCUTS: ORGANIZING FOR POWER IN THE NEW GILDED AGE. In McAlevey’s view, the Left’s focus on Alinskyite mobilizing has been a mistake. McAlevey calls for a return to deeper, old-school union organizing, and her perspective offers some very interesting insights into different kinds of organization and useful techniques for power.

To begin with: who’s McAlevey? Radical student leader, community organizer, educator at the Highlander Center, union organizer, and grad student. The book is her doctoral dissertation, which she did under Frances Fox Piven (yes, THAT one). Back up a minute, you say: the Highlander Center? What’s that? Oh, nowhere special, just the place Rosa Parks and a lot of other civil rights movement folks trained, that’s all.

You didn’t think the civil rights movement just woke up one morning knowing how to do this stuff, did you? It’s work. People train for it. (Righty activists desperately need more and more effective training centers.)

McAlevey argues there are three kinds of ways to press for change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. Advocacy is stuff like the ACLU does, or FIRE: advocating by professionals on behalf of a goal or constituency. The problem with advocacy is that you’re only advocating one specific case. That’s great if you’re talking about setting a legal precedent in a court of law — something with binding effects for everybody. But in the vast majority of cases — say, those fought on college campuses — advocacy victories are one-offs. They’re constrained to a particular situation, and don’t change things structurally. And because they’re done by professionals, the people who are being protected gain no ability to fight for themselves. FIRE or YAF may swoop in like knights on college students’ behalf, and that’s great — until the next time. It’s expensive whack-a-mole. Advocacy, being case-constrained and dependent on outside intervention, isn’t very effective. This is why Righties mostly lose.

Mobilizing is Alinsky stuff: professionalized activists/agitators mobilizing community members in groups targeted campaigns. The people do learn, somewhat, but in the classic Alinsky approach they are led. McAlevey doesn’t like that; she wants an actual movement of the masses. That’s organizing: a broad-based, mass movement oriented around a community’s natural leaders with the goal of growing for power. And in McAlevey’s view, as a Lefty radical, organizing is the only change process that matters.

Today’s Left has prioritized shallow mobilizing (professionalized, top-down, Alinsky) over deep organizing (massed, bottom-up, old-school industrial unions). McAlevy says this is a mistake. What you want, she says, is a real grass-roots movement in which everyone is active, making relevant decisions, and leading. Specifically, McAlevey’s calling for the Left to update and use the 1930s/1940s methods of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO.

The CIO was an inclusive industrial union that organized everyone — skilled, semiskilled, unskilled, white, black. It was a model based on organizing by the workers, who would organize their own social networks, using them to reinforce union campaigns. The CIO didn’t train professionals to organize and recruit. They trained everybody to organize and recruit. For an overview of some aspects of the CIO-type approach, take a few minutes to read the short, excellent pamphlet ORGANIZING METHODS IN THE STEEL INDUSTRY, by William Z. Foster.

If the name William Z. Foster rings a bell for you, it’s because Foster was a communist, later head of the Communist Party USA. McAlevey doesn’t right come out and say it, but it’s pretty clear: she’s basically a communist, and she’s nostalgic for the 1930s-style CIO approach in part because that that’s when communists in the labor movement were busily gaining power.

The legendary head of the CIO, John L. Lewis, was neither a communist nor a socialist. Per McAlevey, he detested them. But communists were fantastic organizers, so he would often hire their organizers for campaigns and then purge them once the job was done. This approach had limited utility, because the commies were also involved with other, more radical unions — so when the CIO absorbed those unions, a condition of the deal was inevitably taking on their radical leadership. In short, communists were able to get in with the CIO at higher and lower levels because — stop me if you’ve heard me say this — they made themselves useful.

(Liberals later purged communists from the unions, which McAlevey notes was the one in a one-two punch, the two being McCarthyism. It’s the circle of life: liberals protect commies, commies boost liberals, liberals welcome commies, commies subvert liberals, liberals purge commies, conservatives purge commies moar, liberals protect commies.)

Which brings us to McAlevey’s problem with Alinsky. He had been CIO, but in a limited capacity. He worked as a mobilizer outside of factories, not an organizer inside them. So Alinsky didn’t know the whole CIO elephant. Nor, argues McAlevey, did Alinsky’s top-down community organizer model enlist the whole population as anything other than a mobilized force. As a result, Alinskyism is only unifying within each campaign. It Leftified Chicago, all right — as a slew of little fiefdoms. Mobilizing, not organizing.

Even worse, from a communist’s point of view, Alinsky not only got in communists’ way, he hoovered up their potential donations. Alinsky presented himself to the Catholic Church in Chicago as a community-organizing alternative to the Reds, so the Church funded him massively. This made commies apoplectic. Those should have been their donations! Alinsky’s recruits should have been their recruits! The concept may seem weird to Righties, but that’s how commies see Alinsky: as a tapeworm in the gut of Full Communism.

It’s fair to attribute some of that critique to commie sour grapes, but McAlevey also argues that Alinsky was most successful when he had established CIO-style organizations to draw on. He couldn’t build organizations of his own that were anywhere near effective. Because? Right: his leadership approach was professionalized, top-down. Not organic, bottom-up. The CIO revolution was worker agency, worker power, which is not the case in most modern unions. They’re flabby, soft, with lazy leadership. Compared to the glory days, anyway.

Righties aren’t going to go out and build unions, much less CIO-style ones. But there are some aspects of this organizational approach that could be useful. Building robust communities, where everybody sees their purpose? Righties like that sort of thing. Development of organic leadership, identifying and facilitating the rise of a community’s natural leaders — kings in waiting, you might say? Why, that’s downright neoreactionary!

So that organic leadership concept sounds kind of important. How do you do it? You analyze people’s social groups. Figure out who the unofficial leaders are. The people others look to. They may not be prominent, they may not have fancy titles. What they have is the respect of their fellow workers.

You are not looking for activists. Organic leaders are not activists. They do not self-select. And activists are often assholes. You want leaders, not assholes. And you make friends with them, and bring them on board.

Often an organic leader is reluctant to sign on. They’re usually good, dependable workers. So union recruiters do something they call “framing the hard choice:” they remind the organic leader of their self-interest, and get them to realize that the way to realize their self-interest is through collective action (in their case, a union).

The recruiter has a long face-to-face conversation — or many conversations — with the prospective recruit. Union organizers are very carefully trained for these conversations. They are not random. They are not half-assed. The organizer carefully provides leading questions. And, at the appropriate time — this takes a long time! — the organizer drops the bomb. Something like: “So, Sally, I want to be clear about what I am hearing. You are good with the boss continuing to charge you $440 per month, deducted from your paycheck, just to keep your kids healthy and you healthy enough to show up for work, for the rest of your life?”

And then the recruiter waits. And says absolutely nothing. For as long as it takes. They will sit there, face to face, in dead silence. For minutes. An hour. As long as it takes for the prospective recruit to make their decision. Because it’s a big decision, and big decisions should be respected. This is not a random conversation, and this moment has been carefully stage-managed. As McAlevey has it, “[The recruit] is not being lied to, she is not being promised anything, she is not being manipulated, and she is being advised that the employer will take swift and direct action against her and her coworkers. …An axiom of organizers is that every good organizing conversation makes everyone at least a little uncomfortable. And it’s a conversation that must be had. All other actions come from this one.”

I’d say that McAlevey is being a little disingenuous. That conversation is absolutely manipulative. The organizer has an destination in mind for the recruit, and knows what it is, and has trained for conversations just like this one to practice getting recruits there. But that’s how you start nudging people towards union in strength.

How do you know for sure you’ve recruited an organic leader? You give them a shit test. Lefties call it a structure test. Say, “get everybody on this shift to sign a petition to be presented to the boss the next day.” Something like that. If they can’t do it, they’re not an organic leader. You’ve got an activist. Go find an organic leader instead.

Righties tend to think of unions (and Lefty groups in general) as being top-down: telling their people what to do, and their people doing it. But that’s not how it works. The militant union 1199 has a list of guidelines, “Advice for Rookie Organizers,” and it’s powerful stuff:

  • Get close to the workers, stay close to the workers.
  • Tell workers it’s their union and then behave that way.
  • Don’t do for workers what they can do.
  • The union is not a fee for service; it is the collective experience of workers in struggle.
  • The union’s function is to assist workers in making a positive change in their lives.
  • Workers are made of clay, not glass.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask workers to build their own union.
  • Don’t be afraid to confront them when they don’t.
  • Don’t spend your time organizing workers who are already organizing themselves, go to the biggest worst.
  • The working class builds cells for its own defense, identify them and recruit their leaders.
  • Anger is there before you are — channel it, don’t defuse it.
  • Channeled anger builds a fighting organization.
  • Workers know the risks, don’t lie to them.
  • Every worker is showtime — communicate energy, excitement, urgency, and confidence.
  • There is enough oppression in workers’ lives not to be oppressed by organizers.
  • Organizers talk too much. Most of what you say is forgotten.
  • Communicate to workers that there is no salvation beyond their own power.
  • Workers united can beat the boss. You have to believe that and so do they.
  • Don’t underestimate the workers.
  • We lose when we don’t put workers into struggle.

Note something that Righties typically don’t associate with Lefties: the emphasis on requiring the people you’re organizing to do their own hard work. Righties think of unions and organizing as being beggarly behavior, demanding other people give you stuff. But that’s not what CIO-style unions train people to do. They train them to fight for what they want. That fight gives people power and a sense of identity.

A union isn’t just great as a workplace advocate. It’s also a power base for cordycepting other organizations. Churches, for example. An organizer can work with a sympathetic minister to get access to the congregation, and other orgs he works with. Or union member parishioners can work the minister. Same effect: the church can be drawn in to using its manpower and connections to support union efforts. Or unions can be used as a base to help people organize other workplaces. Using a power base for growth is key.

McAlevey describes several organizing efforts, commenting on successes and failures. They include a nursing home union, teacher’s union in Chicago, a meat factory union in North Carolina, etc. To give you an idea of how this works, let’s take a look at the meat factory example: 5,000 workers at Smithfield Foods, a pork factory in Tar Heel, NC, got a union in 2008 after two failed efforts in 1994 and 1997.

Here’s how it happened. Lawsuits after the 1997 case meant that ten workers who had been fired during earlier efforts to unionize got rehired. Nine accepted buyouts. One wanted his job back. He started organizing in the plant, wearing pro-union stuff; he knew the company couldn’t do too much to him. Then he got a couple friends. They talked to people, physically mapped the place, noted who worked where, what disruptive actions they could do.

They started building relationships — and not just ones involving them. Black and Mexican workers in the plant didn’t get along. So the union identified who black & Mexican natural leaders were, and invited them to a picnic together. When the employer started an immigration status purge, over a thousand Latin workers walked off the job — a wildcat strike. Immediately, the union was providing water and pizzas for the protesting strikers. Demonstrating value.

The Smithfield plant accepted a Catholic priest as a trustworthy mediator, thinking he wasn’t union-connected. And he hadn’t been, before his union leader parishioners coached him. You’ll also note that by mediating, even through a priest, the employer had conceded the principle of negotiation. So negotiation was something that could happen now.

All of this is what union leader Jeff Fiedler calls ground war. In union campaigns, Fiedler calls worker engagement the ground war and external campaigns against company vulnerabilities the air war. Now it was time for the air war: a national consumer campaign vs. Smithfield Foods.

Unions and their agents aren’t legally allowed to call for boycotts, or pressure other companies from doing business with the subject of a boycott. But community groups can. If you’ve wondered, that’s why Lefty boycotts work and Righty boycotts fail, and why Lefties turn out more people for protests: Righties mobilize people as individuals. Lefties mobilize people as existing groups.

An organizer who’d worked on the union’s 1997 organizing campaign had a college buddy: Reverend Nelson Johnson, a black minister who worked for Lefty causes through his church. Reverend Johnson invited a bunch of regional religious leaders to a meeting, and brought in a farmworker leader to school them on unions and immigration. Johnson made sure that one of those religious leaders was the Reverend Dr. William Barber, who was the brand new head of the state NAACP.

Until Barber, the state NAACP had been accepting regular donations from Smithfield Foods, blessing the company, and looking the other way about how their employees were treated. But Barber saw an opportunity. Under him, the NAACP refused Smithfield’s donations, and he worked with the religious leaders to put Smithfield under the hammer.

Barber, Johnson, and the others formed a plan to picket a dozen grocery stores. The stores were all from the same popular regional chain, and they were in places that the religious leaders had people in their network who could raise crowds for the picketing. The preachers didn’t lead the pickets; they would just speak out about them when they happened, you understand, as public figures who just happened to observe. No connection whatsoever to the pickets they, uh, had somebody organize.

At this point Smithfield decided to call the union’s bluff: “Okay, let’s have a vote for a union and see if people want to unionize.” The union declined.

McAlevey says this was because the union figured the plant would cheat. To be fair, they had before; the plant’s previous union elections hadn’t been above-board (see earlier reference to lawsuits). A less charitable theory would be that the union wasn’t ready and wouldn’t win. Yet. Declining the election lost the union some mainstream support, but it was an essential choice for later victory.

The union escalated the air war. Brought in another Lefty group, Jobs for Justice, to target Smithfield’s celebrity endorser: Food Network star Paula Deen. (This was before Paula Deen’s later scandal; at this point, Deen was beloved.) Deen was on a book tour. Jobs for Justice looked at her itinerary, and looked at their network: where on Deen’s book tour did they have numbers? Five cities overlapped. Jobs for Justice disrupted Dean’s appearances in those cities, called in to her radio appearances.

All of this made news, and Jobs for Justice brought the clippings to the attention of Oprah Winfrey, then the unquestioned all-powerful goddess of daytime TV, whose show had booked Paula Deen. Jobs for Justice gave Oprah’s people a pile of clippings: look at all this news, they told Oprah’s people; don’t you see, Oprah would be wading into the biggest labor fight in the country!  They wanted to help Oprah, you see.

Jobs for Justice wanted Deen’s appointment cancelled, but settled for her being barred from saying “Smithfield” on the air. It was a massive lost sales opportunity for the company. Smithfield filed a racketeering lawsuit against the union.

The union nearly folded. But on the eve of the start of the trial, the company blinked, and negotiated. The company dropped the lawsuit. The union dropped their slogan and their boycott campaign. They both agreed to hold a union election. The factory voted to unionize by 162 votes out of 3,820 cast.

Oh. Remember Reverend Barber, the new head of the state’s NAACP? Rev. Barber started a thing called “Moral Mondays.” You know — the protestors who picketed the NC Legislature every week? Guess where a lot of those protestors worked?

Yeah.

That’s how it works: power in one place (state NAACP) gets you power in a second place (pork factory union), so you can use that power in a third place (the NC legislature). And in more places: the pork factory union started helping out the chicken factory workers down the road in their efforts to get their own union.

You don’t start one isolated group, or even a network of groups, and charge ahead to victory. Everybody builds their own groups, and then they get a bunch of different groups together, and cooperate, and help each other gain power. Per Marshall Ganz, that’s strategy: “turning what you have into what you need to get what you want.”

The most useful single tool for Righties mentioned in McAlevey’s book is a technique called power structure analysis. The chief book on power structure analysis is William Domhoff’s WHO RULES AMERICA. The tl;dr is that power structure analysis involves breaking down how your enemy’s power structure works, so you see where & how & by what means it’s vulnerable. To give you an idea how that works, here’s a short power structure analysis exercise for students that gets them to figure out who certain individuals in powerful positions in colleges and corporations are, and what their background is.

Whatever you’re opposing — an organization, a bureaucracy, a government — the atoms that make it up are people. Not faceless offices: human people. You can persuade or pressure people. Once you know who the people you’re dealing with are, then you can look into them and figure out how to flip them. You can figure out who has the power to give you what you want, and who’s irrelevant. You can figure out what people like, and dislike; what they’re respond positively to, and what they’re afraid of. Who their allies are. Who their enemies are. What kinds of pressure they’re vulnerable to, and where.

Lefty mobilizing uses power structure analysis against enemies. So does organizing. But organizing also uses power structure analysis as a mirror, to assess the organization’s own strengths and weaknesses.

As Sun Tzu said, in THE ART OF WAR, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” That’s why Righties lose.

Whether people will agree to your demands depends on how much complying with you will cost them vs. how much your disruption will cost them. You have to know how much complying with your demands will cost your enemy. If you don’t, you’re LARPing.

Target selection is important. Unions use this in their campaigns, and also in selecting places to organize. Amenable targets set precedents. In McAlevey’s view, success comes from experiencing collective struggle. Form a group, do something hard, win. That gives confidence and skill for more victories.

If you’re curious, she also believes education and health care are the strategic sectors of today’s economy, as steel and coal were for the CIO. These sectors, she notes, are approachable by organizers, and they’re personal — they offer intimate access to a community. Also, health-care professionals and teachers are mission-driven and work in teams. That makes a great social base for a strong, success-oriented union. And the social base matters. Know who you’re organizing. People aren’t all the same.

Righty groups aren’t going to look like CIO-style unions, but a lot of McAlevey’s insights on CIO-style team-building and personnel are important. Particularly the case studies. Definitely check them out. The tl;dr: fuck consultants. Train your people. Not activists — PEOPLE. Empower your people. Find natural leaders among your people. Yes, this is hard work. Hence the title of McAlevey’s book: as she says, “There are no shortcuts.”

Okay, so now we’ve got a better handle on how Lefties work and some tools they use — but what about the actual organizational techniques? How do Righties do this stuff? How about some nuts-and-bolts?

playbookforprogressivescoverA terrific, approachable book for Righties looking to get a clear nuts-and-bolts picture of how Lefties organize — in this case, building something close to what I think of when I imagine a classic communist front group — is Eric Mann’s PLAYBOOK FOR PROGRESSIVES: 16 QUALITIES OF THE SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZER. Mann provides not only a framework, but a detailed nuts-and-bolts description of how the stuff he does works on ground level. It’s a great introduction to these concepts, and it’s a simple read, so it’s a good base for further readings.

According to the biographical sketch Mann provides, he graduated Cornell in 1964 and worked in the civil rights movement as a field secretary for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). He did some stuff against the Vietnam War, did labor organizing as a radical auto worker, and in 1991 opened the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The stuff Mann gracefully elides is a stint in SDS and Weatherman. So he had some time as a hard boy. But he didn’t write his book about any of that. PLAYBOOK FOR PROGRESSIVES is about Eric Mann, founder of the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC), and one of the people behind Los Angeles’s BRU/SDP: the Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros!

Yeah: this dude organizes people who ride the bus.

Are you laughing? Don’t. Mann’s group has three thousand dues-paying members. If you haven’t started something with that many dues-paying members and actually accomplished something with it, maybe you should listen to him.

Mann says he got the first money for his Institution, the LCSC, by writing to a militant environmentalist author, who introduced him to a Lefty philanthropist, who raised $50K. By publication of Mann’s book in 2011, the LCSC had 15 full-time staff, tons of interns, and hundreds of volunteers. They run a six-month residency organizing school that has turned out 90 serious organizers, several of whom, you’ll be shocked to learn, are teachers in LA’s public schools.

After reading Mann, I’m starting to think conservative think tanks should have community organizing arms attached. To give you an idea of why, take a look at what Mann’s LCSC made of a public transportation issue. L.A. was pouring money into public transport, but the money was all going into trains. Trains are Stuff White People Like. Meanwhile, half a million poor people of color rode crowded, underfunded, stinking, overpriced diesel buses.

This is a moral outrage. But no one cared. Because moral outrage doesn’t matter. As Mann notes, “moral outrage absent of a plan is in fact adolescent, non-strategic, and counterproductive.” So Mann’s group made a plan.

The first thing the LCSC did was organize a strategy group. They do this for every cause they take on. We’re talking up to a year of research. By “research,” we’re talking reading, meeting people, questionnaires to find out the shape of problem — not among fanatical activists, among normal people in their target demographic — how serious it is, how badly people want to solve it. Let me stress this: they didn’t decide what they wanted to offer, then go out and try to sell it. No. The LCSC talked to people on buses and did surveys. They found out what people wanted, what there was actually a demand for. Then they formed the BRU/SDP, drew up a platform to meet the market, and started recruiting.

Recruiting people for political groups is something that Righties — radicals and mainstreamers — don’t understand at all. Righties go for low-hanging fruit: throwing out a notice and hoping people who are already interested in your stuff will show up. Mann’s guys make people interested. Here’s how: the BRU/SDP puts recruiters on buses. A recruiter strikes up conversations with likely bus-riders, explain the group, and tries to convince the targeted passenger to join on the spot. The goal of this initial contact: sell the person a membership card, for a price of at least one dollar. Selling the membership card, Mann says, is essential: this makes the person more likely to actually go to the next meeting.

The job isn’t done when people show up for a meeting. No: Mann’s group works to filter some of those people out. Because showing up is a sign of curiosity, not a sign that a person is a good fit for your group. So the BRU/SDP makes it clear to these new members exactly what they’ve signed on for. Their orientation session lays out the theory of transformative organizing and what the BRU/SDP specifically does. Mann’s people take pains to be honest about what they’re for. They hold nothing back. They list everything they do for buses, and they list specific victories they’ve won. (Citing victories is essential; it shows value.) Then Mann’s people add: “we also are active in these political causes; our strategy is a broad-based popular movement for mass Leftist organization.”

There are three ways people react to this information. Some people say, “Well, I’d like a better bus service, but nah, this isn’t for me.” Some say, “Eh, I don’t hate your causes, I’ll join.” Some sing the Internationale.

The people who actually join Mann’s group fall into two groups: active members and warm bodies. Active members attend at least four meetings per year. This qualifies them to run for office in the BRU/SDP and vote for its planning committee. Active members are organizers, marchers, recruiters. The warm bodies (Mann’s group calls them “dollar members”) pay dues, sign petitions, and participate in phone trees.

A very good recruiter has maybe a 10% chat-to-recruitment success rate. Maybe a third of those noobs will actually show up for a meeting. Every meeting sees ten to twenty new recruits. Maybe half of those will come back for another meeting. Between the orientation filter and just flaking out, only half to a third of the new recruits who go to even one meeting of the BRU/SDP become active members. Do the math: Mann’s BRU/SDP recruiters talk to six hundred people, in person, to get two or three new active members and a maximum of seven more warm bodies.

And it works for them. The BRU/SDP organized bus riders and led campaigns: sit-ins, fare boycotts (you ride the bus, but don’t pay), and lawsuits. They fought for years and won a lot from the MTA, including non-stinky natural gas buses to replace the old stinky diesel ones. (A cynic might wonder if they got any funds from natural gas bus manufacturers.) They won real and meaningful results for poor people of color who ride buses. They showed value.

The logical question: what’s in it for Mann’s LCSC? Remember, in creating the BRU/SDP they’re not solving their own problem: they’re going to considerable lengths to find out what other people’s problems are, and trying to solve those people’s problems. Where is the BRU/SDP’s self-interest in all of this?

The answer: people. Everybody the LCSC organized adds to their organization’s power. The BRU/SDP provides them with manpower, contacts, and — thanks to presentations at BRU/SDP meetings — the opportunity to indoctrinate people on a host of Leftist causes, domestic and international. Neat trick, huh? That’s one of the things Institutions are good for.

The key element in Mann’s movement is the organizer. Unlike Alinsky, who’s more focused on campaigns and broad generalities, Mann is more focused on nuts and bolts and building movements — if you think of Alinsky as one thing, and McAlevey’s CIO-style organization as another thing, Mann’s group is in between. He’s closer to Alinsky, but he’s much more detailed than Alinsky is on what organizers do and how they do it. And Mann’s organizers do a bunch of different things. High-level organizers have to be able to do all of them — the more people you’re herding, the broader base of skills you need, and the more roles you have to be able to fulfill.

As Mann and a lot of Lefty authors I’m reading point out: not everybody is an organizer. It takes a certain type. People aren’t all the same person, and you have to factor that into any organization you’re trying to build. Somebody who isn’t an organizer could be a great coder, or publicity type, or phone banker — things like that. You have to find places where everybody can contribute.

Mann lists twelve different roles for organizers to fill. Some are fuzzy and overlappish, but to be fair, twelve is a catchy number. The roles Mann lists for organizers are foot soldier, evangelist, recruiter, group builder, strategist, tactician, communicator, political educator, agitator, fund-raiser, comrade & confidante, and cadre.

A foot soldier is a door-to-door worker who talks to people, hands out petitions, stuff like that.

An evangelist is the one who calls for personal transformation in service to the cause: an MLK, a Malcolm X. Or a Tim Wise.

A recruiter is focused on getting new members, getting them to stay, and getting them to move up. This is worth some detailing.

Mann describes three subroles in recruiting: the opener, the closer, and the retainer. The opener starts a conversation, makes a good impression, assesses if the person high-potential recruit, describes organization, gets the person’s contact info for a follow-up. The closer makes follow-up calls and home visits, to get the new contact to get past reservations and lead them to become an active member. The retainer keeps people inside the organization, and helps them build capacity and find a place in the organization.

Unsurprisingly, methods for opening recruitment vary; a lot of it involves listening carefully. Recruiters let their subject talk. They listen carefully and attentively to the subject’s concerns. And they show they’re concerned, too, very concerned, about specific conditions that matter to the person. When the recruiter talks about their demands, those are concrete demands, too, ground-level, focused on the subject’s experience. Then the recruiter ties that experience to a larger worldview: these concrete solutions to specific problems are all, as Mann puts it, “part of a wholesale social transformation.”

The recruiter listens to real concerns, asks leading questions, and then asks: “Would you like to do something that matters?” The next step is to sell that joining the BRU/SDP, of course, is “something that matters.”

Some examples of questions recruiters use to assess a recruit’s potential: “Where do you work? What do you think about the conditions on the bus? Do you know about our organization?” Another Mann likes to add: “Have you ever been involved in a movement before?” Because people who already have experience and skills are high-value recruits.

Once you’ve got people in the movement, what do you do with them? Say hello to the next role of the organizer: the group builder. The group builder takes individual recruits and makes teams out of them: committees to do the organization’s work. Building an internal infrastructure.

The strategist thinks long-term: for the organization, for the movement. They plan out campaigns on high level. It’s an accelerationist position: making things get bigger and crazier, to make social transformation more achievable. Mann lists five components of strategy:

  1. analyze the over-arching political and economic contradictions of the system within which you are working
  2. identify the political forces against whom you are bringing your demands
  3. determine the strategic aim, the most fundamental objectives you are fighting for
  4. determine how to align your main forces and your allies
  5. develop clear programmatic demands that can rally a long-term movement

For example, when South Carolina charged five members of a predominantly black union with felony riot, the union got help from AFL-CIO strategist Bill Fletcher, who set up a massive pressure campaign. He organized multiple defense committees nationwide and in Europe, put the local’s president on the road to drum up support, started campaigns to run down South Carolina’s economy and reputation, and isolated the state’s attorney general in the hopes that internal conservative politics would pick him off. It took 18 months, but the charges were dropped. As the local’s president learned: “Bill taught us that as a strategist that you can’t just do things, no matter how creative, and expect to win. You have to go into a campaign against a far more powerful opponent with a clear, long-term strategy, a constantly evolving tactical plan; and a view from the beginning that the outcome is never in doubt — we will win the campaign no matter what it takes.”

The tactician does analysis on ground game and coordinates maneuvers, coordinates actions. They’ll analyze particular opponents, anticipate their moves, and focus on details of the plans to implement the strategic vision, organizing and sequencing tasks to win specific objectives. One of the BPU’s tactician’s duties, for example, is to check over all the propaganda leaflets before they go out, to make sure they’re in line with the organization’s vision and strategic goals.

The communicator speaks multiple languages — with so many immigrant members, the BPU has to have simultaneous translations at its meetings.

The political educator describes the ideological framework that gives a movement orientation: how the system works, how change can happen. Radical professors, for example, are political educators.

The agitator is somebody who leads the crowd at events — a consciousness-raiser & rabble-rouser, who stages confrontations, raises morale.

The fundraiser raises funds. That simple. Money is power, and Lefty groups have people dedicated to getting it. (Mann allows that in any political organization, rich people will give most of the dollars in terms of amounts. But for a movement to work, to have a broad base, the majority of contributions have to come from small donors. Don’t just hit up rich people.) Mann quotes the legendary farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez, who was an absolutely brutal fundraiser:

I would go door-to-door to talk to the campesinos. I explained that the dues for the United Farm Workers were $15 a year. I would ask the workers to contribute to the union organizing drive. One worker told me, “I am very poor. Can I have the dues for $5?” I replied, “Do you want one third of your liberation? Are you trying to build a union on sale? If I went into your house, would I find a six pack of beer or clothes worth more than $15? If you have money for that you must have money for the union — if you believe in it. Management is powerful, we must be powerful. The dues are $15, what do you want to do?

The comrade and confidante is one of those fuzzy roles — basically, you win people’s trust by building personal relationships, so you don’t get backstabbed by treacherous internal politics.

The cadre is what lefties call the most committed, gifted, “professional” organizers. They may not be paid, but it’s their life’s work. People who will do whatever the organization asks, volunteer their asses off, who can build a base, evolve a project or a group — that’s cadre. The Bernie Sanders campaign called their cadre “super volunteers.” In Mann’s view, cadre are essential. “To carry a campaign to victory, any serious organization must have a base that can force some institution to change. You cannot build such a base without an organizer; you cannot build a successful movement without cadre.”

But the book is called 16 QUALITIES OF THE SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZER, not 12 ROLES. So what’re these qualities that Mann’s talking about? You don’t want to know. Disappointingly, most of them are bullshit platitudes, not worth enumerating: “listen to people, be a team player but find your own voice” — dumb stuff like that. And for a Righty, some of Mann’s qualities are just laughable. Such as Quality Six: “Be a Tribune of the people!” (Which, Mann helpfully explains, means “indoctrinate poor people of color to be anti-war so they don’t join the US military.”)

To top it all off, like Alinsky, Mann assumes you’re a Lefty with access to Institutions like the one he’s got. For Righties, this is not helpful. But we can still pull some good ideas out of the back half of Mann’s book.

To begin with, everyone needs to internalize Mann’s first quality of an organizer: join an organization. “There is no theory of social change that involves individuals operating alone.”

Ahem: THERE IS NO THEORY OF SOCIAL CHANGE THAT INVOLVES INDIVIDUALS OPERATING ALONE.

LEAVE YOUR BASEMENTS, ROBOTS. TALK TO PEOPLE.

Mann also argues that you shouldn’t try to roll your own organization; you should join someone else’s. You can argue, of course, that this is self-interest; as a guy who runs organizations, having people looking to join someone else’s organization obviously benefits him. But the counter to this is that being part of another organization is how you learn. Righties don’t have as many orgs to join and learn from. Luckily, that’s covered somewhat in Mann’s second quality: base-building!

Mann’s Second Quality: “build a base, never walk alone.” As he notes, “your adversaries can count.” If you don’t grow, you don’t advance, let alone create a strong multiplier effect.

Here’s how Dolores Huerta & Cesar Chavez built a base for United Farm Workers, following the model of Fred Ross’s Community Service Organization: first, develop a list of leads. This can come from anywhere: petitions, databases, previous contacts, merchants who support your cause, what have you. Talk to your leads, on the phone or in person. (The Bernie Sanders campaign people found talking to people online is quicker to scale, but it’s less effective for feeling people out.) What you’re looking for in these conversations is hosts: namely, people who have will, enthusiasm, and who know six to eight people they can invite to a house meeting.

The house meeting, of course, is an opportunity for you to give a presentation and host a discussion as the organizer for your group — in Chavez and Huerta’s case, the United Farm Workers. Per Dolores Huerta, the six-to-eight number is critical. You want it a good size, but small enough that it’s intimate and people can really talk.

You might think the important part of the house meeting is the presentation by the UFW rep. That’s the whole point, right? Wrong. The important part is the host is being trained. The host calls the people being invited. The host helps the organizer plan the agenda. They’re learning by doing. The basics of organizing.

And from that group of six to eight at the house meeting, you pick the best person. You have them volunteer to be the host of a second house meeting, to which they’ll invite new people, six to eight of their friends, and at that second meeting you pick the best of those people to host a third house meeting… and so on. Rinse, lather, repeat, until you’ve had a total of 200 people in house meetings. Once you’ve got those 200 people, you call a meeting that’s defined by geographical area (neighborhood, city, whatever), elect officers, and start work.

Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta did this, slowly and painstakingly, county by county. From house meetings, they worked up to county-wide meetings. They formed the National Farm Workers Association three years into the project. After six years of hard organizing work, they started their first grape strike and boycott in 1965.

Lefty action does not come out of nowhere, people. It is hard work. Respect it.

Campaigns, when an organization is ready for those, rely on advance work. Before a fare boycott, for example, the BRU sent fifteen organizers to get feedback from 850 bus riders, to make sure enough people would buy in to make the boycott stick. Did the bus drivers interfere? No! Because Mann’s group took the time to work with the bus drivers to find out what they wanted. It turns out bus drivers wanted the MTA to buy more buses, because that meant more jobs for bus drivers, and less crowded buses, so bus drivers would have a more pleasant working environment. So the drivers were fine with the fare boycott.

Another thing Mann stresses is showing value to your members. For their meetings, the BRU rents a room from a church, with a big kitchen, and they feed everybody a great free breakfast spread. It’s a great draw. Dues pay for it, and remember, they’re organizing people who don’t have much money. So meetings are a treat.

Always be useful, is what I’m saying.

The great campaign, Mann notes, takes years; the motto he uses is “fight, fail, fight again.” And it takes courage. “Courage, like most other qualities, can be learned, and must be built up one step at a time.”

Finally, Mann offers specific advice for Lefties, some of which is applicable for Righties and some of which is frankly creepy. He recommends increasing involvement in stages, to keep moving your involvement and capacity slowly upward. Alliances are important, so make them: seek out networks of organizations doing great work, and reach out. Hard Lefties do international alliances; they learn from each other at the World Social Forum, make international delegations to each other, and the like. And locally, they build movement centers, making places to gather. Then there’s the stuff that will strike Righties as creepy and cultish: being strategically positioned in society. That means deliberately making life choices that give you strategic opportunities to organize, and organizing where you are. If you’re in an important position — the public schools, a major corporation, that sort of thing — organize right there. Understand your life from an organizer’s perspective: what are you a part of that can be organized? Organize it. Build a deep base in your workplace and community.

The question Mann leaves unanswered, though, is how you build a deep base like that. Particularly if, like a lot of Righties, you find yourself starting from something resembling scratch.

rootstopowercover

As with last time, I’ve saved the tactical nuke till the end. The book you really want to read is ROOTS TO POWER, by Lee Staples, with contributions from various other authors. The first edition was published in 1984; the current edition is the third. And it’s so good, you should just go out and buy it now.

Staples’s resume takes up multiple pages of preface. He started out with the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1968, organizing in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. He organized in Los Angeles for a while, taught community organizing at Boston University School of Social Work, and was lead trainer at ACORN’s Institute for Social Justice for three years. He’s also done some international work with NGOs in the Balkans. But despite the globe-trotting, his focus is local settings. As the foreword by the late Richard A. Cloward (yes, THAT one) notes, local settings are where ordinary people come together — and that consolidation can lead to political leverage. Even if your group’s focus is the state or national level, local is the key onramp for recruiting and building ownership. If you don’t involve the people you bring on locally, they won’t feel ownership — and won’t come back.

Staples’s subject in ROOTS TO POWER is how to build Grassroots Community Organizations, abbreviated as GCOs, for use as ongoing power bases. He classifies GSOs based on the arena they’re organizing, the political level they operate at, and whether they draw membership from individuals or from existing organizations.

Arenas for GSOs are turf (geographic basis), faith (congregation-level or larger), issue (health care, education, etc.), identity (ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.), shared experience (tenants, homeowners, homeless, etc.), or work-related (labor unions, minimum wage campaigns, etc.). Political level is whether the organization’s focus is neighborhood, city, state, or national. In membership terms, an organization that signs individuals up one at a time is called direct membership, while one that signs up groups (ie, a coalition of church congregations or something) is called an organization of organizations, or O of Os. The advantage of direct memberships is that the members have a stronger primary loyalty to the organization than they would to an O of Os. The advantage of O of Os is that they’re quicker to scale, because they absorb whole organizations at a time.

Whatever their arena, level, and membership, the approaches GSOs take to their work fall under what Staples describes as either community development or social action. In community development, you’re organizing to do stuff your damn self to make things better. That playground is broken-down? Fix it! That vacant lot is strewn with trash? Clean it! You’re not changing the power structure, you’re just making stuff nicer within the framework that already exists. Social action, though, is adversarial. It’s pressure, coercion. Community development says “let’s grow together.” Social action says, “fuck you, pay me.”

Righties see this distinction as philosophical and ideological: “Community development is a good thing Righties do. Social action is a bad thing Lefties do.” But for Lefties, these approaches aren’t moral choices. They are tools. Which one you use depends on how much your target resists, which in turn depends on how much their self-interest conflicts with yours. The community development approach only works when your end condition is also a win for the person you’re trying to sell it to. Staples cites as an example partnering with business leaders on immigration, because they benefit from cheaper labor supply.

Neither community development nor social action can be performed by one person acting alone. You need an organization to do it. And when creating an organization, you have ask yourself a key question: “Who wants what from whom, and how is this to be accomplished?”

Who is taking action? That tells you about membership, leadership, staffing and structure. Who are your members? How broad is your membership base: are you organizing a few people or a lot? How deep is their involvement: do they care a lot or a little? Who are your leadership and your NCOs? (You need NCOs, and you need to build their skills; doing so improves the skillset of your people and your movement, and distribution of power internally means your organization isn’t dependent on any one person). Do you have paid staff? Is your level neighborhood, city, state, national? How is your organization structured internally? (The usual answer to that last question is “a ton of committees,” typically 5-7 people for straightforward tasks and 12-15 for complex ones, standing committees for technical responsibilities and temporary ones for short-term projects. To avoid polarizing committees on any subject, Staples recommends that you operate them by consensus where you can. And it’s best to have committees run by co-chairs; this gives newer second-line leaders the chance to learn from more experienced ones. Temporary committees are especially useful for training new people in leadership; if they bog down and do nothing, disband them rather than let them sandbag your organization.)

What do your people want? That tells you your goals (you want both long-range and middle-range ones) and objectives (outcomes you can measure within some defined period of time). “Grow membership” is not an objective. “We will have 2000 members by the end of the year” is. You want to be able to assess your track record and your effectiveness.

From whom do they want it? The whom is your targets. And here is the most important thing: targets are people. Not institutions. Not bureaucracies. People. And not just any people: the people who have the ability to give you what you want. If they are resistant or immune to pressure, you pick secondary targets, who have the ability to influence your first target, and you target them.

How do your people get what they want? That’s strategy and tactics, finances, allies, communications. “Strategies are methods designed to influence targets to act in a manner that enables and organization to achieve its goals and objectives. Tactics are specific procedures, techniques, and actions employed to implement strategic approaches.” Finances should be raised internally as much as possible; if you take more than a third of your organization’s funding from any one source, your organization is dead if that source is ever pulled. Allies will have strengths you have and resources you don’t — and the reverse is true, too. Communications need to be strong internally and externally — your leadership needs to hear from members, and your external relations with media must be focused.

Once you figure out the rough shape of what you’re trying to build, you have to actually put the thing together. Staples describes, in detail, how to create a direct membership neighborhood turf organization. You build a turf organization by walking around a neighborhood and knocking on peoples’ doors. Organizations built around issue, identity, or shared experience, like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s efforts with farm workers, are better suited for small invitation-only house meetings, because the people you’re trying to organize don’t all live near each other. Quality of recruits will be higher, but they’re slower to organize — an organizer will see 4-5 people per day (Staples) or 6-8 (Huerta) in house meetings vs. 30-40 by doorknocking.

There are four stages to building an direct membership neighborhood turf organization: groundwork, developing an organizing committee, general recruiting, and formation. The first two take four to six weeks; general recruiting takes another six to eight before you form (taking longer saps your momentum).

Groundwork is research: what’s the physical terrain like? Who lives there, demographically? How has the place has changed, and how is it changing? Who owns? Who rents? What are the key instutitions? Schools, churches, organization, agencies? Who are the power figures? What are the existing issues (these probably have leaders already who won’t want you on their turf)? What are the potential issues? What are the trends impacting the area?

The Organizing Committee, or OC, is the a working group that prepares the organization for general recruitment. This way, when recruits arrive your group has a leadership structure and knows what it’s doing. To build an OC for a neighborhood group, approach gatekeepers: well-known, respected people from the community who can work well with other people — and give you access to them. Make appointments individually, each for a 35-40 minute meeting. Approach likely supporters first; that will help you build momentum.

There are four things you want to do in the meeting. You tell the person who you are, and show your bona fides. You learn from them — not just what they know about the community, but what their self-interest is; their problems may aggregate to larger issues. You tell them about the concrete benefits the organization wants to provide. And then you ask for things from them: access to their contacts, a place to meet, public support, or further information. It’s important to ask for the biggest favor first — not because you’re more likely to get it that way, but if they refuse they’ll likely agree to subsequent smaller favors to make it up to you.

At the end of the meeting, have the person refer you to other people who might be interested in the organization, and ask permission to use their name in introducing yourself (“Father Mulcahey said you might be interested”). Five gatekeepers or so will get you 15-20 contacts, and you can build more contacts from them. You’re going to have to meet at least 30-40 people whose names you’ve been given, or 70-80 random people in order to get 12-15 people for your organizing committee. You’re not looking for the first 12-15 — you want organic leaders whose first loyalty will be to your group. The people with the most potential will help form the OC. The others are potential members to be invited to the later formation meeting. Weed out anyone who sucks.

The Organizing Committee meeting is ideally held in somebody’s house, and rotates thereafter; this helps them feel ownership. The meeting agenda is as follows: introductions, discussion of issues, formal decision to organize, definition of membership, decision about dues (will you collect them? if so, the first collection happens then and there), recruitment plan and timetable (general publicity doesn’t work, social media is only a supplement; face to face is king, which in a neighborhood group means going door to door). Pass around a doorknocking signup sheet at the first meeting, and draft a letter to residents that you’re organizing and what it’s about), and time/place/chair for the next OC meeting. And then you rinse, lather, and repeat — except now, you’ve got the organizing committee helping you.

The goal you’re trying to reach now is to get strength on your turf. This doesn’t take much: in a neighborhood, it means getting ten percent of the people. And not all of them are going to stay; some will fall off, so even when you’re established you’re going to need to recruit constantly. You have to provide access points for people to see value and join, so before you start doorknocking again you’re going to need issues. That’s a job for the organizing committee.

There are two things you have to understand about issues. The first is that the organizer doesn’t just tell the organizing committee what they are. The community will not be motivated to try to solve the organizer’s pet issues; they’ll be motivated to try to solve their own. So issues need to appeal to the self-interest of members and potential members — that’s what spells success, in work and recruitment. You need to give your membership “immediate, specific, and winnable issues with a compelling self-interest draw.” To maximize potential membership, choose issues with broad appeal.

The second thing you need to understand is that issues aren’t problems. Issues are proposed solutions to problems. “Crime” is not an issue. “We want streetlights on X Street” is. And organizers want their people to feel they get there on their own.

Organizers grease the process of people analyzing and making concrete changes to their lives by helping them figure out what their problems and issues are. They do a lot of Socratic questioning, asking leading questions that challenge the status quo. Lefties call this “reality softening” — I’m not kidding! they really call it that!

What organizers are looking to exploit are things that make people angry — what organizers call “mainsprings of discontent.” For example, “response to what is perceived as a bad decision” — the city’s decision to put a polluting-spewing power plant down the block, say. Another mainspring is “vision and model,” which is where the organizer asks people what they want to see, and then explains how other groups achieved that vision. Then there’s “the self-identified discrepancy,” which is contradiction between what public figures or groups say and what they do; organizers love to highlight those. Finally, there’s “malfunction” — some important institution just plain doesn’t work.

The organizer identifies the source of discontent, asks leading questions to stoke it — what problems have you seen? What do you think should be done about that? Then the organizer floats options. Questions like: how about if we all showed up at the slumlord’s house? What would happen if everybody in the building stopped paying rent? Like that. And lets people talk these possibilities out. The important thing to get people to realize that they can actually do something. And then start to think about things that they can do.

Once the organizing committee is ready, it’s time for the general recruitment drive. More doorknocking, but now it’s not targeted; you’re hitting every door in the neighborhood, in teams of two: organizer and organizing committee member. When somebody answers, don’t just talk at the door. Your goal is to get into the house for a ten-minute conversation, get them to sign your sign-up sheet, and provide contact information. If they’re not into it, don’t push it, because then they’ll just come to your meeting and drag everybody else down bitching about how they don’t like direct action or making pickles or whatever else it is you’re into. While you’re doing the general recruitment, the organizing committee keeps meeting regularly: assessing recruitment progression, discussing issues, and researching issues to plan initial action strategies. You’ll want to get a small victory or two out of the gate, so include some modest aims.

The next step is the formation meeting, where you actually form the organization. You can bring out general publicity, but don’t expect it to do much for you; it’s mostly reinforcement. What you’re really counting on are your sign-up sheets from all the door-knocking. A day or two before the meeting, get each member of the organizing committee to make ten phone calls. Tally responses as yes, no, or maybe. Only count the yes answers to estimate numbers.

Here’s the agenda of your formation meeting:

  • Welcome by the OC Chair
  • The Need to Organize: Guest Speakers, “Testimony” by Community Members
  • Presentation and Vote on Issue Campaigns
  • Open Discussion on Other Issues
  • Collection of Membership Dues (if established)
  • Nominations and Election of Temporary Officers
  • Action Plan and Wrap-up

The temporary officers should serve for three months. You want to line up strong nominations ahead of time, so make sure that at least one candidate for each position is competent, probably a member of the organizing committee. You should also ratify a bunch of issue campaigns (the ones you’ve researched, of course), and whether you’ll be using community development or social action. After the meeting, contact everybody who attended to attend but didn’t — reinforce their desire to attend and be involved.

That’s basically it. From there, you keep growing, adding issues, launching campaigns, and winning victories. The term for this is “organizational mileage.” It’s stuff you can measure: your numbers, your skills, your allies, your public profile — all the things you can use to gain more and bigger victories and build your power base. Issue campaigns are essential to this, which is why Lefties never stop having issue campaigns. Without issues, your organization will die. Issue selection is crucial.

So here’s how you select issues. As we touched on earlier, the concepts of breadth (how many people care) and depth (how much they care) are important. Deep and broad issues (a lot of people caring a lot) are winners; shallow and narrow issues (a few people who don’t care) are useless to you. For what it’s worth, deep and narrow is better than broad and shallow.

Your organization will want to have both recruitment and maintenance issues. A recruitment issue brings in tons of new people using a deep, broad appeal — the Women’s March was a recruitment issue. Maintenance issues are ones that give you organizational mileage — wins that keep your people engaged and happy. Questions you want to consider:

  • Is the issue consistent with the long and middle-range goals of the organization?
  • Will the issue be unifying or divisive? Weakening your base puts your power in jeopardy — this applies to both failing to stand up, and to purity spiraling. A small, ineffectual, fractious base jeopardizes the attainment of all other goals.
  • What is the GCO’s capacity to undertake this issue campaign at the present time? Both of those are important — you can have great capacity, but if that capacity is tied up elsewhere then the timing for a new campaign may be wrong.
  • Will the campaign help the GCO grow? This isn’t just a size question; will the campaign help you build capacity by developing new leaders?
  • Will the campaign provide a good educational experience for leaders and members, developing their critical consciousness, independence, and skills? Analyze situations, make plans, enact those plans, and assess results.
  • Will the GCO receive credit for a victory on the issue, improve its credibility, and increase its overall visibility? Be careful of claiming more impact than you really had — it can hurt your credibility with those in the know.
  • How will the campaign affect organizational resources? Is it going to hurt your funding or your ability to operate? You should be willing to take that hit and know when it’s coming — don’t assume everything will be okay and then get blindsided.
  • Will the campaign develop new allies and/or enemies?
  • Will the campaign emphasize collective action, producing new strategies, tactics, or issues? You get organizational mileage out of campaigns that provide the most opportunities for participation by the most people.
  • Will the campaign produce a significant victory? You need wins. Wins are awesome. Wins are a cure for infighting — if you’re defeated, or have internal strife, you can pull out of it if you have something in your back pocket that you can do immediately that represents a win.

Once you have an issue, it’s time to build a campaign. You start with strategy, which consists of cutting and framing the issue, followed by strategic analysis.

Cutting and framing starts with the same question you use to create a GCO: Who wants what from whom, and how is this to be accomplished? Who is your Action Group (your organization’s members and potential members), what is goals and objectives, whom is the targets, and how is whatever it is that gives you the necessary leverage.

The point of your objectives is to move your organization towards your ultimate goal. So objectives have to be concrete, specific, and realistic. And they have to be things the organization membership and community really want, not just your little clique of leaders.

Again, your targets are not broad impersonal forces. They are individual humans, specifically people who have the power to give you what you want, are available face-to-face, and are vulnerable to the pressure that you are able to bring to bear. Your power comes from your ability to reward or punish the target.

Look at the world from your target’s perspective: what do they want? What are they afraid of? What do they hope for? How will they react to your proposals? What is their vulnerability? How could they use their strength to your benefit? How can you make your weaknesses into assets for this campaign? What new forces can you bring to bear? Who might be a potential ally with you in this campaign? Where is your leverage?

Points of leverage that allow you to influence somebody are called handles. Handles can be incentives or punishments. Incentives are preferable, because they have the potential to win the target as an ally, not just a grudging acquiesor. Handles also have a rationale component: here is the carrot/stick, and here is why it is okay for us to use this.

Some examples of handles include positive incentives, new information (“this has just come to light!”), laws (making politicos either enforce laws on books or change them), broken promises (“you said you’d do X but you didn’t!”), contradictions (“you say you care about X, but you haven’t done anything about X”), precedents (“you did this before, now do it for me”), incidents (something shocking that offers a rationale for change), events (e.g., an enemy rally), bureaucratic regulations (things that bureaucrats must do, must not do, and may do), situations (elections, scandals, or hazards), and crises.

Once you know your action group, goals and objectives, targets, and the handles you’re using, you move on to strategic analysis: what forces are in play? Staples gives a couple of different tools for analyzing this. One is Force Field Analysis, the other is opposition/support/objective conditions analysis. The two cover overlapping ground.

Force Field Analysis (FFA) compares driving forces (things that will help you succeed; e.g.: handles, media contacts, allies, etc.), unknown forces (things that may help or may hurt), and restraining forces (things that will act against you). Each of those categories gets a column. Write the relevant forces in the appropriate column, and give each a power ranking from 1-5 (5 being high). Seeing where the powerful forces are gives you a good idea of how likely you are to succeed. You can bolster your chances by moving moving unknown or uncommitted forces into your camp, or by pushing them away from the enemy’s.

Opposition, support, and objective conditions analysis is pretty similar. Opposition is “who’s against you?”; you want to know who they are and how much the issue matters to them: how likely are they to fight, based on their self-interest, and what tools do they have to do so? Support is “who is with you, and who might be?” Some supporters might not be able to be with you openly (such as secret allies in bureaucracy who leak you internal information), and others you might need to shun (incompetent morons who might embarrass or damage your cause). Objective conditions include items like the political climate, current events, and other things you can’t control.

Whichever analysis you’re using, it’s important to remember that the target’s resistance will vary based on how much they agree with your action group and how much of a power shift you’re asking for. If you’re close to agreeing anyway, you don’t need much of an imbalance in forces in your favor. If they don’t agree with you and you’re asking for a lot, they’ll be much more inclined to fight, and harder to wear down. Overcoming that kind of inertia isn’t a one-and-done thing where you do something and get what you want. It requires an environment of increasing pressure.

The final step in strategic analysis is SWOT assessment. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This is your Action Group looking in the mirror: you’ve assessed your enemies, now it’s time to assess yourself.

Strengths and Weaknesses are internal qualities. How many participants will you have? What’s your leadership quality/quantity? How about staff and volunteers? Internal and external communications? What organizational resources can you bring to bear?

Opportunities are external. How can this thing you’re doing further your goals, long and middle-range? Can it grow your organization and build unity? What kind of education will your members and leaders get from doing this? What new strategies and tactics will you get to practice? Will this build your organization’s status, giving you credit for cool stuff? What kind of allies will you develop? How will you expand your resources?

And threats, of course, are external. How can targets retaliate against you? What will threaten your people? Your funding? Could something alienate your allies or the public? What happens if you lose — how does that impact your organization? What happens if people get arrested, go to jail, get attacked?

Answering all of these questions should make you realize whether launching a campaign against this target at this time is a good idea or a really stupid one.

The final step in all of this is the Action Plan. There are four parts to it: 1) selecting appropriate tactics, 2) preparing for possible opposition countertactics, 3) defining a timetable, 4) making plans for recruitment, preparation, and assessment.

Not all tactics are appropriate to any given campaign. Broadly speaking, you’re seeking leverage, and leverage is going to be either direct or indirect. Indirect pressure engages public sympathy, and is reliant on a media plan for good PR; direct pressure goes for the target personally, and not only is it not reliant on public support it’s probably going to be alienating to normies (this is stuff like blocking traffic or organizing a rent strike). That’s a calculated risk, and it might screw you over, so choose your level of militancy carefully. Regardless, you want to involve as many people as possible: numbers show your strength, increases your power, and makes your people feel strong and accomplished — which is fun.

Your opponent will probably use countertactics, so you’ll have to be prepared for them. Have contingency plans for if they’re enacted, and rehearse the implementation of those plans ahead of time. If you’re reacting to something unexpected, you’re screwed. You want to always be reacting to things you have foreseen.

There are a variety of countertactics organizations use; Staples lists several common ones he calls the Seven D’s of Defense: Deflecting, Delaying, Deceiving, Dividing, Denying, Discrediting, and Destroying.

Deflecting: “oh, that’s not my department, you want to talk to the Information Bureau, three doors down.” You defeat this in advance by researching whether the individual in question has the power to make the necessary decision. Refuse to deal with people who don’t have the power to give you what they want. Demand a written pledge from the people who do. Punish them if they break it.

Delaying: “we need more time to do that.” Delay hurts GCOs; they lose momentum, and can actually lead to infighting if progress isn’t felt. The cure: deadlines. Make them prompt but fair, and have a consequence if they aren’t met. You can also provide incremental deadlines, which start with quick easy stuff that the target doesn’t mind doing and will provide you with a neat series of wins. This also gives you momentum and gets your enemy used to conceding to you.

Deceiving is just straight-up lying. There are many kinds of lies. Some are technical excuses, smiles and gladhanding with inaction, turning negotiations into presentation on their problems. Against technical excuses, get professional help to simplify the problems but let the organization decide how to act on the simplified version. Against a smile and glad-handing coupled with inaction, ignore the glad-handing and focus on the inaction. Document everything they say. If they try to turn a negotiation into a presentation on why they can’t possibly do X, limit the time for the presentation, remind them you’re here to negotiate, not be lectured, and let them know that pressure will go up if there’s no action.

Dividing is splitting your organization or coalition. Sometimes the target will try to win over moderate leaders because they disagree with militants over tactics; their goal is to get you to discard an effective tactic before you win an actual concession. Sometimes they’ll try to buy people out. Sometimes they’ll try to cause internal dissent in your group, maybe by hammering on existing divisions, maybe by hammering particular people, trying to get them to overreact in alienating ways.

To deal with these tactics, lay out the possibility of them to your group ahead of time. Make sure everyone keeps an eye out for their deployment. Maintain tight message discipline: only the designated spokespeople can make agreements for the group, and the action group decides who the designated people are. Work through as many possible issues privately beforehand, to keep a united front in public when the pressure is on. If somebody tries to peel off moderates by getting them to doubt militant tactics, keep the focus on what the target is actually offering in exchange. Have a meeting for your group where you go back over what your goals and objectives are, take a look at the proposal and see if it’s a real step forward for the stuff you actually want. If the answer is not a big honking yes, don’t reassess your tactics. You don’t want your tactics or your personnel to become the focus.

Denying is just saying no. The answer to denying is to escalate. Are your targets “not available?” Use pressure tactics to force a meeting — fill their lobby chanting loudly, confront them at home, that kind of thing. Are your targets protesting, “We can’t do that?” Have prepared research that shows they can.

Discrediting and Destroying targets your group and your people. You are less vulnerable to this if you have a lot of people and a track record of legitimacy. If they say you’re lying, use a media plan to talk about your research. If they say you’re not representative, mobilize a large crowd. If they condemn your goals, set a claim of moral superiority: your tactics are justified by this moral reason which many people — not just those in your movement — will believe. If they target your people with arrests, disemployment, harassment, violence, what have you, then your GCO has to show value by protecting your people. If you don’t protect or aid them, but just carry on as usual, your people will start to think you suck, and they’ll be right. If you come under legal pressure, “strong allies, solid legal defense, a stepped-up media campaign, and aggressive direct action can add up to an effective counteroffensive.” But courtroom action is slow and favors the established interests.

In addition to knowing when you’re being countered, you have to know when you’ve won. Before you begin define your victory conditions, and do it on a spectrum: not just what “absolute victory” looks like, but what a “little win” or a “big win” looks like. If your target agrees “to do something, stop doing something, alter what it’s doing, report back, provide information, give recognition, or recommend something to a higher authority” — all of those are things you can take as a win.

Next up: build your timetable. A campaign that goes on forever, accomplishing nothing? That’ll kill your organization. Have a preplanned timetable that’s broken into phases. That makes the campaign much easier to manage on your end, and if the campaign isn’t working you can save face by breaking it off at the end of the current phase. You won’t necessarily have the same objectives or targets at each phase; you might start targeting one coffeeshop and then escalate to target the franchising company, for example. Count backward from key dates to plan your actions; pick your fixed endpoint before you start. You want to keep pressure on the target, but you need to give yourself time to do the necessary cat-herding. Events with big turnouts need to be about a week apart.

At this point, you’ve picked your issues, cut and framed them, done strategic assessment, planned for countermeasures, defined your victory conditions, and built a timetable. You’ve got two steps left before your action, and one step after it.

The last things you have to plan for when getting ready for your action are recruitment, preparation, and assessment. That is, you need to continually bring in new people, prepare for mobilizations, and debrief once actions are done.

As in the earlier stages, primary recruitment is face-to-face. Social media is great for raising awareness and mobilization, but face-to-face recruitment is still king. Doorknocking gives you quantity; one-on-ones and house meetings give you quality. There’s a third kind of face-to-face recruiting at this stage: the captive audience. A captive audience is there for a union meeting, a faith group, that sort of thing, and they get a presentation from an organizer as part of that. Whatever you use, get people to put their names and contact info on a sign-up sheet. (Never offer somebody a blank sign-up sheet; put some information on it first. Similarly, if you’re recruiting in a group setting, have some people pledged to commit ahead of time, so they set a precedent for others.)

There’s also secondary recruitment is old-school stuff like posters, literature distribution, and announcements at non-political meetings (the organizer isn’t there to speak, but the minister or the bingo caller or what have you reads out an announcement that there will be a meeting at X time and place).

On preparation for the actual action, you’re looking for 8-12 people, leaders, who represent the diversity of views in your organization and are accountable to your organization’s members. Some of the reason for this criteria is what Lefties call “prefigurative” — ie, they want their organizations to have a consensus feeling because that’s how they want to run the world they plan to win. But it also has a practical side: this makes the organization’s members feel that they really are a a part of everything — that they’re valued, not lackeys. So strategic and tactical planning should be participatory, to hopefully minimize schisms and infighting. When the plans are drawn up, the leadership should give the larger group a chance to provide input into the plans and the demands.

Once you know what you’re doing, rehearse. Literally do improv role-play of the confrontations you’ll be having. This makes you much more comfortable with what you’re doing when it really happens, and lets you get an idea of what you’ll do if presented with countertactics. Don’t give away strategic information, don’t get offtrack, don’t justify yourself or be put on the defensive, and don’t debate: demand. Staples provides a lengthy list of logistical considerations, everything from parking to which way the doors open in places you’re planning to occupy; research them well ahead of time. Enlist allies or at least give them a heads’ up; line up your legal representation ahead of time; prepare all the things you need. Have a place to assemble, and march to your event site as one unit — it builds spirit and protects your people.

And now, finally, you can go out and execute your action plan. Have fun.

Now come back and debrief. Use a structured process. Questions to ask yourself and your team:

What happened? What did the target do, or refuse to do? How much progress have you made towards your goals/objectives?

Why did this happen? You’ll inevitably focus on the target’s reaction at first — their interaction, countertactics, and resistance — but what you’re really asking is questions about yourself. You’re looking at “recruitment, turnout, leadership roles, secondary roles, the ability to attract allies, strategic and tactical planning, timing, the execution of direct action tactics, response to countertactics, the articulation of demands, negotiations, the ability to secure commitments from the target, logistics, and media coverage,” and you’re asking two questions: what did you do well? what could you have done differently? (You’re not pointing fingers; you’re celebrating your success and figure out how to go from here, but you want to be sure that people have followed through on their previously-expressed commitments.)

Finally, ask yourselves: Where do we go from here? What’s the impact on the larger campaign? How do we adapt?

And then, of course, you do it all again, only bigger the next time.

That’s what a campaign is. Most of the time, when a target concedes that their best available option is meeting your demands, it’s not because whatever action you just did is so bad-ass. It’s because they’re worried the action you’re about to do next is worse. This is why you escalate during a campaign, and don’t use your biggest efforts up front.

This concept may sound weird to Righties. Because if your goal is Solving the Problem, why wouldn’t you want to solve it right away? That’s the critical difference between what Righties think and what Lefties understand. Righties want to solve the problem. Lefties want to *build community involvement* in the problem. From the community organizer’s perspective, a problem is not something to be solved; a problem is an opportunity to grow numbers and power. If you go straight to problem-solving, you’re missing a chance to become powerful.

As an example, Staples cites a group representing public housing tenants who want better pest control. The obvious target is the director of public housing, right? But you don’t just have one planning meeting and then try to occupy his office to make him give you what you want. No: you have local meetings in the housing developments, doorknocking to get as many people involved as possible, so large numbers of residents feel ownership of your campaign. Now you use escalating tactics to work up your people, build your numbers, and gradually ramp up pressure on the director of public housing. By the time you’re ready to occupy his office, it’s not one weird thing he can ignore, it’s a much bigger crowd than you could have mustered at first, and it’s part of a growing power movement.

Are you starting to get an idea of the insane amount of incredibly helpful detail ROOTS TO POWER provides?

Staples tells you how to hold a meeting, how to structure groups, how to pick and run issue campaigns. For people who aren’t great conversationally and don’t know how this would work: Staples gives you sample scripts. He gives you examples and after-action reports. He gives you exercises and self-tests. The level of useful information in ROOTS TO POWER is just off the charts; anybody interested in how activism works should buy this book immediately.

Between this column and the previous installment of radical book club, we’ve taken a detailed look at eight books detailing both centralized and decentralized activism, everything from affinity groups to community organizing to industrial unions. If nothing else, you should have a better idea of how the various kinds of Lefty activism work: what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why they make some tactical choices that seem confusing to us. Don’t be content with these columns; buy the books (the best of them, at least) and read them for yourselves. The Lefties have been kind enough to write these books for us and the least we can do is give them some sales.

I’m going to keep reading radical Lefty books, and I’ll keep recommending them, though probably one at a time and in much shorter bites than this. But before I continue with radical book club, I’ll discuss what strike me as the most important lessons from my reading so far, as well as actionable things that Righties should be doing.

That topic, next time.

 

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Commencement 101

I’d like to start by congratulating you, new graduates, for the degrees you have so diligently earned. This university prides itself on a challenging and diverse curriculum, and it’s no small feat to pass with flying colors. Now you must head into the wider world, and in the finest tradition, I’m supposed to send you off with a speech to both inspire and entertain.

Except, that’s not what you actually need to hear. You’ve spent the last few years inside the institution that is the college campus, meant to teach you the necessary skills for life, so it may be strange to find out you’re woefully unprepared for what awaits you. But it’s true.

It’s not that they’ve failed you, it’s that they haven’t tried at all. You really shouldn’t be surprised. Most of your professors barely have any experience of employment outside the gated walls of academia. Tenure ensures some never will. Their departments are ruled by a corpulent bureaucracy that considers budgetary flow an unchangeable force of nature. The entire enterprise is an exemplar of undeserved inertia. Expecting this environment to prepare you for the perils of professional life is like expecting a sterile laboratory to strengthen your immune system.

Instead here are 8 simple lessons that will serve you well in the decade to come, as you try and make your way through the rest of your 20s.

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Times to Die (Mental Health Part I)

Every day I wake up hoping that the day ends. That is the only semblance of hope that is anywhere in life in some days for the depressed person: the hope that most of the days will end, and that somehow, we will not exist. By fading away naturally and without pain, the depressed person looks for exits, but never quite runs towards them, only contemplates them for afar, only to be reminded of the options possible a few years later, where another episode might take its hold.

To fantasize about the possibilities of dying is to entertain the idea that the space you are currently filling will be vacant. A person forms extraordinary networks of people during their lifetime, most of them remain active one way or the other, but the question that enters the mind of the depressed person is “what if I was not there?” In its most narcissistic variants, the ideation turns towards what people will feel when the person is not there. Other times, it is a way out of pain, a relief from consciousness that sometimes only ever goes away with drugs.

When someone commits suicide, the topic comes up for a limited time, despite mortality being a persistent conundrum for most people. For people suffering illnesses, concerns about mortality never do quite go away from the day to day schedule of extra added pain people go through. However, much like suicidal ideation that is concerned more with externalities and suicidal ideation concerned more with self-relief, there are two ways to think about the opposite of suicide, that is living. Are you living for yourself or for someone or something else?

Philosophers refer to these as the “big questions” and people like Emil Cioran, Nietzche, and more contemporarily Thomas Ligotti and Eugene Thacker have tried to answer the big questions, or at least try to attack them from different points of view. In one way or the other, while it would be easy to differentiate between positive and negative thinkers of these big questions, no one has a an all encompassing, yet concise, answer to these conundrums. Systematic language betrays a lot of the particularities that make the depressed person think about living or dying. If one tries to answer the question without taking in the particulars of that person’s context and live, one might as well be speaking about a mannequin, not a living, breathing human being.

The depressed person is not seem crying all the time. In some ways, it is quite the opposite, as depression takes hold of a paralyzing numbness that might pass as pensiveness for the outside onlooker. When the depressed person commits the act of suicide, the reactions are often of surprise, only for interested people to look for signs of suicidal ideation everywhere, and connecting the dots to make sense of what happened. Commercial biographical films take this approach towards representing depression and suicide, it is the approach of the outside onlooker that knows how the story ends, and therefore sees in every movement, action, and spoken word a sign of what is approaching. Nevertheless, reality does not have background, swelling music, to highlight the actions of people, to know if what they said should be taken with gravitas or is some kind of cry for help.

It is in this way that the depressed person becomes invisible, even to themselves. The imperceptibility of the omnipresent personal grey cloud is the phantom that haunts the people around the void left by the depressed person. For the depressed person, suicide, or mortality, tends to be something that they have contemplated for years, yet never quite done. Emil Cioran famously said that “you always kill yourself too late.” I take this to mean that the continuous mulling over of suicidal ideation essentially blocks the grand gesture of committing suicide. Contemplating ways to die is never actually grandiose. There is no music before you die, and there is even less when you are dead.

The first time I attempted to kill myself, I had taken a large amount of pills. I was 13, and did this without any sort of glamour to the event. It is no wonder that I got found and forced to puke. The event was a watershed moment for a lot of people in my family that believed that mental health was not really something to be taken into account, neither did my friends. The circumstances of the time led me to believe that it was the only viable way out from what I considered to be a horrible reality. The feeling never quite dies out, it only visits less often. But it paid a visit again 2 years later.

After a while, the depressed person starts to talk about these feelings, and how they came to be part of their core. For someone that would find out later on that endogenous depression was something I was gonna to live with, the ever constant questioning of mortality and death became sources of rumination. Topics I shared with people in my family in more than one occasion where handled with the usual responses of how much there was yet to be lived. The depressed person rarely listens to cliches or pleads, as the state of numbness pushes out the triteness of optimism, and places the comfortable feeling of giving in, yet never quite doing anything about it. It may become, with time, more comfortable to talk about the idea of suicide and death, but rarely in public discourse is it accepted that death is the best option available, not if you have lost someone to suicide.

Suicide is a personal decision, something that ruminates in the mind of the depressed person for a while, and is not to be taken lightly. As with every personal decision, it has personal particularities that are not easily extrapolatable to other cases. “They were not in a correct state of mind” is one of the usual phrases professed by those that are left behind. However, this judgement call, seen from whatever angle, is not easily assessable, and it becomes hard to process for anyone around the depressed person, let alone entertain, the notion that suicide might was the best option available for the person, at the moment. A lot of these questions come down to personal autonomy, and how much of it has been fostered throughout a person’s development process. One learns of external sources of pain, and internal ways of engaging with them, but if the phantom is haunting from the inside, what is the best way to deal with it? It does not come down to help or hell, other people can momentarily serve as tokens of forgetting, but they do not make for “sustainable solution” for depression or suicide. Because there is not one.

One of the very first things in any sort of road to dealing with depression, external or endogenous, is to decide is these conditions are something that anyone is willing to live with. It is something I hope to be exploring in future posts. But I could not continue doing so without asserting the first principle of any kind of deal with depression: you have a right to kill yourself. It will never be pretty to write or say those words, as our progressive saviour culture has decided that anyone and everyone should continue living, even if they cannot fathom the thought of existing. The “it gets better” culture, specifically for adults, fosters the idiocy chain of a concatenating cult. If one has decided that there is no going back, there is no going back. When this has pragmatic consequences, no one can know. Yet, positivity culture and the rise of progressive values that elude any conversation about suicide that is not about saving, occlude the unthinkable truth of someone’s existence, that they simply should not be living anymore.

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The Anti-Slip Slope

In the game of fallacies, the slippery slope is considered a noob tier move. However, I think there’s some hidden nuance and wisdom in the manoeuvre, worth exploring.

First though, a little parable.

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