The Ontology of Organizing: My Fundamental Philosophy

— 1 —

A few weeks ago, I spoke at the ten-year anniversary of the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. The anniversary event went without a hitch. There were various activities throughout the afternoon: kids screen printing t-shirts, music, food. Various organizations were tabling at the Memorial Union: Cops Off Campus UC Davis; the student arm of AFSCME 3299; and even the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) at UC Davis. I got real happy when I saw the YDSA. In the months and years following the pepper-spray incident, a few student organizers and I came together to create that club. That the club could exist 10-years later — allowing dozens of teenage radicals a space to connect and learn about politics and organizing — was something I’d never really considered as a young student organizer. When I struck up conversations with the current members of the YDSA — these young socialists so incredibly awkward, sure, but awkward in the particular way only self-described marginalized teenagers can be — I got even happier. I remember exactly what it was like to be a teenage socialist, full of angst, grand theories about the world, and desperate to find a community of other people who felt just like me about life and the world. Those conversations during my tenure with the YDSA at UC Davis ten years ago — sitting on the quad, drunk in someone’s dorm, grabbing some food after a rally, etc. — helped shape and form my foundational core beliefs to this day.

At 4:01pm — the exact time riot cops pepper-sprayed me and my fellow student organizers ten years ago — the crowd of maybe a hundred students migrated to the quad (the scene of the crime). The air was chilly, and the thick clouds in the sky blanketed everyone’s faces with soft gray light. It would be inaccurate of me to say something like “it was a surreal experience for me” because it simply wasn’t. While it is way more than fair to say I was traumatized by the pepper-spray incident, it was also a decade ago — I’ve since healed, I’ve since grown, and the pepper-spray incident holds virtually no emotional resonance for me. The National Lawyers Guild at UC Davis — a bunch of law students who, if the past is any indication, will eventually become activist lawyers — opened the event, informing people about their legal rights when in confrontations with the police. Some professors, a few representatives from student clubs, and another former student organizer from a decade ago gave speeches. I gave the final speech. In my speech, I encouraged the crowd to think about the root causes of the pepper-spray incident and of police violence in general — I pointed my finger to the neoliberalization and privatization of the University of California and of society at large. I also made the point that, while my fellow student organizers and I were definitely victims ten years ago, we weren’t only victims, and that not only did the pepper-spray incident serve as a catalyst for a very successful working-class movement on campus, but that we’ve since witnessed many, many working-class victories. My intention was to give the crowd the feeling of hope — the emotion that prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba so wisely described as  “a discipline.” If you’re curious, you can find my speech on my blog thelastorganizer.com.

As I said, the pepper-spray incident no longer holds any emotional charge for me, and so when I was writing the speech, I very much wanted my speech to serve the crowd, and I thought long and hard about how to do that. I was spending way more mental bandwidth writing and re-writing the speech in my head than I care to admit — and for weeks leading up to the event. I figured I was in a somewhat unique position and given a pretty unique opportunity: at UC Davis, the pepper-spray incident has been legitimately mythologized in the eyes of its young student organizers, much in the same way I’m sure the free speech movement was mythologized in the eyes of UC Berkeley students in the 1960s and 1970s. What I’m trying to say is that I was in somewhat of a true position of influence and authority, particularly given that in the last ten years since the pepper-spray incident, I’ve kept at it — still organizing — and have successfully helped organize thousands of workers into labor unions. That’s why I opened my speech, as any good rhetorician might, denying my own authority, saying, “When I was struggling with what I wanted to say, I also didn’t want to lecture this crowd. I hated that when I was a student organizer here at Davis — seasoned, professional organizers coming to us, telling us how to do activism, how to do organizing. I felt back then that seasoned, professional organizers didn’t know what they were talking about. And now that I’ve become a seasoned, professional organizer myself, I can confirm — none of us know what we’re actually talking about. At least not when it comes to how to build a true, militant, strong Left in this country. If any of us knew how to do that, we’d be doing it, or we’d have done it.” As I’ve since learned in the last decade, the only way to have more influence when you already have a lot of influence in any given situation is to deny that influence exists at all.

It turned out that all my stressing about the speech turned out for the best. After I wrapped up the final speech of the event, and as the crowd marched its way to the UC Davis police station, literally dozens of student activists came up to me to compliment the speech and strike up conversations with me. It was so odd, feeling like a mini-hero to a hundred teenagers. Gen-Z is tech-savvy as all hell too, I’ll give them that: several of them magically found me on Instagram and DM’d me. And as the crowd eventually found itself in front of the UC Davis police station, and as a few students set off red flares in front of the entrance (thereby obstructing the view of those inside and of the cameras atop the building), and as the crowd chanted anti-police slogans, and as several of these student organizers started to deface the outside of the police station — the overwhelming emotion I could feel swelling within my heart was: pride. In the haze of one’s old personal memories, the student organizers at UC Davis ten years ago may have been okay; the student organizers at UC Davis now are definitely alright.

I got coffee with one of these student organizers — it’s this coffee conversation that was the impetus for this essay. My god, talking with someone ten-years your junior and him soliciting stories from you about the “good ol’ days” is surely the quickest way to feel old. I was telling him a story of how, during the height of the Occupy movement, I allegedly used to do stuff like throw bricks through bank windows. His eyes were wide. I always appreciate people who can earnestly, sincerely ask lots of questions — it’s a sign of a good organizer.

There was a beat in the conversation. He asked me, “Do you still consider yourself a revolutionary?”

The question took me aback. I turned my head and squinted, the way I do when I’m not sure how to answer a question and I’m trying to search for my truth. There were probably some seconds of silence. I turned back to him. I said, “I’m not sure.”

He looked confused. He said, “A lot of young student radicals, they grow up and grow out of radical politics. Not only have you kept at it, but you’ve been doing the work. How could you not know if you consider yourself a revolutionary?”

I felt I was disappointing him. I said, “I’d hope that if I were in a true revolutionary situation, I’d do the right thing. I’d hope I’d be on the right side of things. I’d hope I’d have the courage to risk it and potentially sacrifice myself, even in the face of uncertainty, even in the face of grave danger. That would be my hope — but I just haven’t demonstrated that to myself yet. As an example, I *have* demonstrated to myself some degree of competence at leading angry workers through a boss fight and through a successful union election. I feel confident calling myself a competent union organizer. I’m also confident that I know how to use fancy lights to take someone’s portrait — I feel confident calling myself a competent photographer. But a revolutionary? How would I possibly know?”

— 2 —

It’s feedback I’ve gotten from fellow union organizers who’ve watched me have organizing conversations, sure, but it’s also consistent feedback I’ve gotten from all my ex-girlfriends: I am a highly compassionate person, but I am well below-average when it comes to politeness.

While both these personality traits (compassion & politeness) are similar — they both are related to empathy, and fundamentally they are both subtraits within the “agreeable” personality trait in the Big Five personality model (technically speaking) — the semantics here, I think, are essential. Politeness has to do with one’s social agreeableness to who someone is and how someone is acting right now in the present day. Politeness has to do with respect — as opposed to aggression. Polite people have good manners and follow social norms and societal rules. On the other hand, compassion is — in my reading — much more involved. Compassion has to do with how emotionally involved one is in relation to other people. Compassionate people recognize that regardless of someone’s current situation, helping them now can help facilitate their betterness for tomorrow — in this way, compassion is much more correlated with time/the future, while politeness is much more correlated with the standards of the here and now. In this way — and the social psychological research shows this to be the case — politeness is positively correlated with people who hold conservative politics, while compassion is positively correlated with people who hold progressive politics.

It’s not hard to imagine why. One can certainly imagine an archetype of someone who is highly polite, yet not compassionate: for example, someone — attuned to the cultural hegemony — votes against social welfare policies but who is sure to follow all standard traditions at, say, a dinner party, welcoming guests, complimenting everyone, etc., again, following the cultural hegemony. Conversely, one can also imagine the archetype of someone who is highly compassionate, yet not polite: for example, someone who feels emotionally compelled to volunteer at a soup kitchen, but who, if in confrontation with a rude visitor, has no problem keeping it real with them, talking back, or who — contrary to the cultural hegemony — has no problem telling off a politician who is harming the poor, or who has no problem bucking social norms and doing weird stuff like activism or organizing.

Clearly I’m biased here, but in my experience I have found that those hopeful to become union organizers who are high in compassion but low in politeness have a personality advantage in the day-to-day work of organizing. Certainly — and the social psychological research shows this to be the case as well — we all have the ability to shift (and sometimes even radically shift) our own personalities with time and effort. I know for a fact that I am a much, much, much more extroverted person today than I was a decade ago. But in the end, the ability to completely tell the truth to a worker — full social and emotional authenticity, regardless of politeness, regardless of the cultural hegemonic social rules — while also being the type of person who can make a worker feel, despite your bluntness, that you are fully, fully on their side on a deep emotional level (i.e., compassion), is the only way to have true, deep, actually *transformative* organizing.

I’ll dedicate section three of this essay to unpacking that last sentence, but I want to make explicit something I’ve so far only hinted at: in this way, compassion is fundamentally a faith in people to create newness within themselves with respect to time. Compassion is deeply open to the future. And compassion, in this way, is a trait that insofar as I can surmise is fundamentally Kantian in nature; that is, compassion treats people as ends unto themselves, not mere means.

There’s been a lot of talk about transformative organizing versus non-transformative/transactional organizing. There’s also been lots of talk about business unionism versus social unionism. And of course, there’s always talk — especially among UC Davis student organizers, but amongst the younger Left in general — about what is and what is not revolutionary.

What I wish to posit (and this is my ultimate thesis to this essay) is that while these frames are useful and have their place, ultimately these discussions exist on an insufficient plane — that the meta-frame with regards to organizing should exist within what I’ll call “Becoming,” within the line between who someone is and who they will be when confronted with the responsibility of the unknown in struggle; and that within the meta-frame of Becoming, frames like “revolutionary” become mere rationalizations; and that the truth and meaning to be found in organizing is not within the domain of rationality but in the domain of who one may Become within the dialectical process of who someone is and who they will be when confronted with the responsibility of the unknown in struggle.

I know, I know. That was a really long, potentially confusing sentence. I will unpack that sentence in section four of this essay.

— 3 —

As I previously deconstructed, real compassion is fundamentally Kantian in nature; that is, compassion treats people as ends unto themselves, not mere means. Is the lack of this Kantian ethic not precisely what many Leftists bemoan about non-transformative/transactional organizing, business unionism, reformist/neoliberal sociality, whatever you want to call it, etc.? That, for example, as in the famous failed RWDSU organizing drive of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, staff organizers had not built deep, authentic relationships with the workers and their communities, and that in these staff organizers’ chase for union authorization cards, the workers were treated as means, not as people as ends unto themselves? There’s a word for that, when you treat people as a means in order to receive what you want in the absence of a fully transparent, authentic dialogue of expression, listening, and true communication: that word is “manipulation.”

In debriefing the failed organizing attempt at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, seasoned organizers everywhere agreed in consensus — and this is consistent with my own experiences as a professional union organizer of six-and-a-half years, and consistent with my conversations with other seasoned, professional organizers with a demonstrated history of success — that what the RWDSU organizing team should have done is built deeper relationships with the workers to empower them to take ownership of their own campaign, not (in effect) manipulate them. Yet as I pointed out in my speech to UC Davis student organizers during the pepper spray anniversary event, even seasoned, professional union organizers with a demonstrated history of success have so far failed to manifest a strong, vibrant Left — even seasoned, professional organizers have not in mass been able to escape the trap of incorporating manipulation.

This may seem like a wild claim, but in my estimation it’s the type of truth that is so pervasive (like a fish unaware it is in water) that we rarely stop to notice it: think of the people in your life who have fundamentally changed the way in which you conceive of, think about, speak about, and act within your Being, deep, deep, deep, deep down. Those people are almost universally people you’ve grown to be very close with, particularly because you were able to create a space with them that is open, honest, transparent, non-judgmental, and fundamentally authentic. How then can we expect any organizing to be truly transformative if it is not fully authentic and non-manipulative? That is, actually Kantian? Truly compassionate?

Thus in my estimation, an organizing practice not dedicated to a true compassion fundamentally rooted in Kantian ethics is fundamentally manipulative; I would add, though, that an organizing practice rooted in politeness is also manipulative. As I previously deconstructed, politeness is fundamentally rooted in social norms and cultural hegemony. Politeness, as an example, could mean telling someone you like their dress even if you dislike the aesthetic. In an organizing context, politeness could mean, for example, being falsely positive about a worker’s organizing conversation with their coworker, or downplaying the severity of an upcoming boss fight. What this organizer inauthenticity ultimately does is fundamentally rob a worker of an authentic conversation in which space is created to be fully open, fully honest, fully transparent and vulnerable about what is going on. Again, this may help a union organizer falsely motivate a worker to get union authorization cards from their coworkers, but the fundamental space to truly transform — in the way that your deepest friends have changed you the ways you conceive of, think, speak about, and act within your Being — is taken away. It is manipulative. It doesn’t build the type of relationship necessary to build a strong, vibrant Left, certainly not if anything about our universal observations about how we socially change deep, deep down is to be observed.

In the subtle ways we read for authenticity in all social conversation — a subconscious calculation matching the congruence of words, tonality, body language, facial expression, eye contact, action, emotional energy, etc. — we get a “sixth sense” of whether and when to deeply trust people. We just get a feeling about it. And might I posit that the only way to make a true transformative change with people is to be fully, actually authentic in order to allow for space for that transformative change — that is, being limitedly polite, and fully, fully compassionate?

This is precisely what I meant when I wrote, “In the end, the ability to completely tell the truth to a worker — full social and emotional authenticity, regardless of politeness, regardless of the cultural hegemonic social rules — while also being the type of person who can make a worker feel, despite your bluntness, that you are fully, fully on their side on a deep emotional level (i.e., compassion), is the only way to have true, deep, actually *transformative* organizing.”

— 4 —

A paradox appears, then — if the only way to true interpersonal transformation is through authenticity, then what is the point of organizing? Is it not the point of organizing to — with full intent — create a situation where a select target of people take action in order to make specific changes to society, the system, etc.?

This is precisely how I used to view organizing when I first started my career — and indeed, within the framework of non-transformative/transactional organizing, business unionism, reformist/neoliberal sociality, whatever you want to call it, etc., one can be very successful. One may even be able to receive lots of union authorization cards. Yet I would posit based on my experiences (and indeed based on my conversations with seasoned, professional organizers with a demonstrated history of success) that authenticity actually helps one achieve goals like receiving lots of union authorization cards — often more successfully than manipulation would have. Ultimately, then, my view of organizing is not about what I can add to myself artificially to become a better organizer, but rather what I can do to remove that which is inauthentic to myself and — in a Kierkegaardian leap of faith — know that wherever that authentic journey takes me is where I’m supposed to be, and that so far in my journey removing that which is inauthentic to myself has so far allowed me to become a better organizer. 

It’s subtle. Yes, authenticity is important for organizing. But importantly, authenticity not for the sake of organizing. That’s the wrong frame. You are authentic through being limitedly polite and maximally compassionate within a fundamental Kantian ethic, period. Also then authenticity is the key to organizing.

This is true with organizing on a technical level. I started to really think deeply about/embody authenticity in my union organizing about four years ago in 2017. I wrote about this journey of authenticity in a series of essays titled “An Exposition on Mental Health & Organizing.” I wrote, “One of the biggest things I’ve noticed internally — by attempting not to define my self-worth through organizing — is that I’m a lot more carefree when talking with workers. The reason I am a lot more carefree is that, while before there was a selfish internal ‘need’ for a worker conversation to go well (‘I need you to build your union so that I can see the tangible results of the growth of my organizing skills and therefore my self-worth’), now my organizing has become more selfless (‘my sense of self will remain totally the same regardless if you decide to build your union or not and here’s why you will benefit if you build your union’). What this internal shift does is, in subtle emotional ways, take pressure off the worker I’m talking to (‘as the essence of non-needy, you will not hurt me no matter what you decide’). And yet, while I am more carefree (since I’m no longer taking the worker’s energy), my ‘soul’ shines through more, and workers can more deeply feel my authentic joy I feel about organizing when I go into the ‘plan to win/vision’ parts of the organizing conversation. Thus, an emotional paradox is presented to the worker: a feeling of both carefree and passion. Although very subtle, then, the worker feels no extra pressure and is able to make a decision all on their own, and so it is a *firm and committed* decision without pressure.”

I continued writing, “Another thing I’ve noticed in my inner experience of organizing is that I’m having a lot more fun. The reason I’m having more fun is that, while before organizing felt like emotional labor (‘I’m doing this to feel self-worth and to cope with not feeling socially full’), now I’m doing it not out of ‘need’ but of ‘choice.’ And why do I make the choice? Because human interaction is beautiful, complex, and amazing, and building solidarity and community is gorgeous. Importantly — my inner experience should already be beautiful, complex, amazing, and gorgeous, and I would feel so without organizing, but organizing just makes it even more so. Thus, through this inner shift, I am not ‘taking’ emotional energy from workers but ‘giving.’ The worker feels this on an abstract level, and so — on top of the worker feeling less pressured to make a firm committed decision that isn’t 100% *theirs* — the worker actually feels good when talking with me. Or more abstractly: the worker no longer subtly feels like they are giving emotional energy to me, but rather, the worker actually *gains* emotional energy talking with me and feeling my sense of fun.”

And I concluded, “Lastly, I’ve noticed that my inner experience of organizing is more authentic. Why? As I slowly move from an inner experience of ‘coping’ to ‘thriving,’ I’m realizing that some of my outer technique has served to protect my ego. The act of protecting my ego isn’t who I am but rather an inhibition of myself. And so when I get to worry less about ‘being a great organizer’ and I get to shed the technique which I unknowingly learned from coping, workers subtly sense more so that I genuinely believe the things I’m saying during an organizing conversation (because I do), and my words have more impact.”

One way to formulate this approach to organizing is to distinguish between “intent” and “premise.” To answer the question at the top of this section (is it not the point of organizing to — with full intent — make a select target of people take action in order to make specific changes to society, the system, etc.?), the answer becomes a resounding “no.” And indeed this is no longer how I embody my organizing practice. When I enter into an organizing conversation nowadays, I no longer have an “intent” with which I would like to take from the worker — at least not ideally. Instead, I try to — as immediately as possible — set a “premise” with the worker. This can be as simple as, “I’m here to talk with you about union organizing because your coworkers are coming together to improve working conditions.” But the point is that once a conversational premise has been established — and a conversation fundamentally needs to have a premise/frame for meaningful communication to happen — I try my best to embody that both the worker and I are equal. While I know that I have more factual information about unions and union organizing, I allow myself to be emotionally moved by the worker in the same way that I — in the search for an authentic space of communication — hope to emotionally move the worker. We’re in this together. We’re creating an authentic relationship that’s honest, transparent, and open. And I am not committed to receiving a union authorization card from the worker, although I may believe it may happen as I have an authentic conversation with the worker about their work conditions and their coworkers — although again, I am not attached to it. This embodied organizing practice  again, reinforces that my view of organizing is not about what I can add to myself artificially to become a better organizer, but rather what I can do to remove that which is inauthentic to myself and — in a Kierkegaardian leap of faith — know that wherever that removal of inauthenticity takes me in conversation is where that worker and I are supposed to be, and that so far the trend has been that by removing that which is inauthentic to myself has so far allowed me to become a better organizer (and even receive more union authorization cards — although again, that’s not the point). And indeed this reinforces what is ultimately my faith that people should join together to fight against inequity and oppression (when I just let go, organizing seems to work out) — but importantly, it’s through an embodied faith, and not a rationalization.

This is a key distinction and starts to lead to my ultimate thesis to this essay: the meta-frame of organizing should be conceived through Becoming, not rationalization.

There are plenty of people involved in politics who identify with what they know and who they already are. This can lead to surface confidence, but I’d like to posit that this is a very dangerous sort of confidence. Identifying with what you already know makes you an ideologue. It means you are not moved by that which is unknown — that which is other. Politically, identification with what is already known leads to authoritarianism, even if it is Left authoritarianism — and we’ve all seen this, whether that’s an abusive non-profit executive director who micromanages their staff in the name of false, non-embodied compassion, or whether that’s an activist so narcissistic he never truly listens to others and so fails in the long run to have many friends or allies.

So too is it dangerous for people involved in politics to identify with only that which is not known — from the perspective of many Leftists, these are the vast majority of liberals, who scour for evermore information regarding different cultures and theories, who may read lots of books on social and economic justice, maybe even listen to lots of NPR, but who never seem to take any of these ideas into who they are deep down, who don’t come to embody any of the ideas they are exploring. Identifying only with that which is unknown leads to nihilism.

Indeed, the only effective way towards an authentic embodiment of an organizing practice is to be in the middle of that which is known and that which is unknown/other: you must present who you are completely authentically (that which you know), and must be completely open to that which is in front of you in an organizing conversation (that which you do not know/other) — and specifically open in a way such that what you know is equal to what you do not know.  

This is precisely what I meant when I wrote, “While these frames [non-transformative/transactional versus transformative, business unionism versus social unionism, reformist versus revolutionary, etc.] are useful and have their place, ultimately these discussions exist on an insufficient plane — that the meta-frame with regards to organizing should exist within what I’ll call “Becoming,” within the line between who someone is and who they will be when confronted with the responsibility of the unknown in struggle; and that within the meta-frame of Becoming, frames like ‘revolutionary’ become mere rationalizations; and that the truth and meaning to be found in organizing is not within the domain of rationality but in the domain of who one may Become within the dialectical process of who someone is and who they will be when confronted with the responsibility of the unknown in struggle.”

— 5 —

So, I had coffee with a student organizer. He asked me if I was a revolutionary. I told him, “I’d hope that if I were in a true revolutionary situation, I’d do the right thing. I’d hope I’d be on the right side of things. I’d hope I’d have the courage to risk it and potentially sacrifice myself, even in the face of uncertainty, even in the face of grave danger. That would be my hope — but I just haven’t demonstrated that to myself yet. As an example, I *have* demonstrated to myself some degree of competence at leading angry workers through a boss fight and through a successful union election. I feel confident calling myself a competent union organizer. I’m also confident that I know how to use fancy lights to take someone’s portrait — I feel confident calling myself a competent photographer. But a revolutionary? How would I possibly know?”

The German philosopher Heidegger believed that one could not know outside of Being — that Being was the limit. But philosophically and spiritually, I go much further. I believe — indeed, it’s an embodied faith — that the dialectical relationship between the full truth of who we are in the present moment and the unknown metaphysics of the Universe will lead us to justice. But in this dialectic, we must be authentic in the ways I’ve deconstructed in this essay. And we must be equally open to the unknowns of others and of struggle. Ontologically, it is not Being that is the limit; it is Becoming. Practically speaking, that means I must speak only that which I know to be true — as I am equally open to the truth of others. And I believe this to be not only practically true — as I have demonstrated — but metaphysically true.

I hope to be faced with the unknown of revolution in my lifetime. I hope to Become ready for it.

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