Filed under: Anarchist Movement, Critique, US
A critical report back from the Symbiosis Conference. To hear an It’s Going Down interview on the conference. Go here.
I’d heard hubbub about Symbiosis for almost a year, but I didn’t quite get it. Was it just a bunch of people on the internet? What were they trying to do exactly? Why was their design so fly?
A couple months back I met a new friend who had been involved in some of the online organizing, and he had given me reason to believe that the Congress was going to be well worth attending, even though the whole thing was kind of confusing. The confusion first made sense to me when an organizer explained on a conference call for new member organizations that they were working with a “chicken and egg” problem: on the one hand they wanted to build a federation of municipalist organizations; on the other hand they wanted the meaning and organizational forms of that federation to be determined by the member organizations themselves. But in order to get those organizations to create the federation, they had to build enough of the federation to get them to join it… in order to build the federation. It is a hard problem, and it is a credit to the early organizers — let’s call them the egg-builders — to have had the good sense to embrace this paradox.
Having had this problem explained to me, I communicated it to others and it relaxed a bit of the anxiety around the sense of confusion. It helps to learn that something is confusing not because you don’t or can’t understand it yet, but because the thing is in its very nature, necessarily confusing. It also added to the excitement: we weren’t just joining on to something that is pre-made, we were being invited to help make it.
When we arrived to the Congress, held in the Hogwarts-esque halls of Marygrove College, we encountered well over a hundred people from across the continent. There was the usual spread of awkwardness and fast-friendships, and the first talk I made it to — delivered by spokespeople from Symbiosis, Cooperation Jackson, and the National Indigenous Council in Oaxaca — only contributed to my excitement. To be honest, it actually left me humbled. We in Carbondale can get pretty myopic about our project, and it is easy to inflate our sense of importance. Hearing from the spokespeople from Jackson and Oaxaca put our town’s struggle in a much grander perspective.
The first sign of trouble began during the first assembly Friday morning. There had been breakout groups on various proposals submitted in advance, and I had participated in a good, though too brief, discussion on the proposal to create local research and mapping into the “race-capital nexus.” When we were ushered into the assembly room, it was set up like a theater, with all chairs facing a screen upon which the agenda was projected. After a brief reminder about the prior-agreed-upon-decision-making-process — let’s call it the “shell” — we immediately began going through proposals and moving toward votes on them.
Immediately, it felt way too fast. We had just arrived the afternoon before, and while we’d all had time to drink and chat, there hadn’t been any intentional space where people from all these different projects around the continent could introduce themselves as member orgs, and where we could get a feel for who was in the room, what they were up to, and why they and their orgs thought it was a good idea to form a federation. And yet, here we were forming an international committee for an organization that we had been told it was the task of this congress to create. As a comrade put it later, “at least buy me a drink first.” In retrospect, the situation is pretty clear: we were all in an egg that was trying to act like a chicken, without having yet gone through the process of hatching.
As it turns out, hatching is painful.
How to Hatch, in Three Steps: First, peck at the shell, or, revolt
What unfolded over the next 36 hours was the work of many people. There were multiple lines of initiative that began a gentle revolt by the incubating body against its shell. In what follows, I’ll be tracing the line of development as I experienced it. In doing so, I hope to invite others to describe the narrative as they experienced it as well, so we can understand the complexity of a (tiny) process of social change. To say this another way: I understand the story I’m about to tell is utterly incomplete, and I would love to learn more about what unfolded by reading others’ accounts.
For me personally, ground zero of this revolt was like this: I knew I wasn’t liking what was happening, and I could tell from a glance that my fellow Carbondale comrades were not liking it. But maybe we were weird? So I started glancing around at the faces and body language of the room. After a few rounds of this, I caught eyes with a total stranger sitting a few feet away, who was also a person of the global majority (a phrase used by people of color at the Congress to more accurately describe their caucus). I asked: “Are you as repulsed by this as I am?”
The “yes” was emphatic. This was enough to confirm for me that it wasn’t just some weird culture we have in Carbondale, but that people that we didn’t even know were just as upset. So as the meeting was wrapping up, I made a process comment of sorts. I said something like, “if this is how this weekend is going to be, then we have a real problem. We haven’t even gotten to know each other yet and we’re already passing an international committee. So if anyone wants to do get to know each other and hear about our different struggles, we can meet at lunch.” Someone shouted, “why don’t we just do that now?” It was decided it would wait until after lunch.
Second, let some air in, or, reform
The second assembly on Friday was much different. It was clear to the organizers that something needed to change, but the facilitators were clear that whatever changes were to happen had to themselves be passed within the existing decision-making structures — the content had to change, but there could be no violence to the pre-decided form. In other words: the shell could not break. So even though it was obvious that most people just wanted to hear from each other and start talking about their projects and how they related to what Symbiosis might become, getting into that was frustrated by the need to do so through a cumbersome process — one which some people were adept at, while others found either confusing or simply irritating. I and my fellow Carbondale delegates did not want to spend an entire assembly focused on changing the rules to the assembly, when all we wanted to do was have a big conversation.
Amidst the talk about procedure, a proposal for how to spend our time was put on a white board, then edited and modified by about 6 people in real time, and then passed. Immediately people’s bodies loosened up. A line formed and 3 minutes were given for people from member orgs to summarize their work and say why they thought being a part of Symbiosis was important. The highlight of the assembly was the compa from Oaxaca, who described the learning curve they had experienced through involvement with the National Indigenous Council. In the first year she said they had all gotten together and tried to pass all these declarations and use all these rules, and it was full of frustration. The second year, they loosened up a bit, but they were still driven by a sense of urgency to get something done and they didn’t get much done. By the third year, they just listened to each other and managed to actually accomplish something. I’m summarizing, but that was the thrust of it.
For many of us, this was a serious validation of our desires, and reflected the way we already organize with our own group as well as comrades in other networks throughout the continent.
Personally, I framed the tension to myself and the many others I spoke with as a tension within the concept of “democracy” itself. On the one hand, democracy can be identified as a process by which a certain set of rules and procedures are deemed legitimate. The parliamentary scheme developed on the internet prior to the congress, the shell, was “democratic” in this sense: in principle anyone could have had a hand in shaping it, it had its own procedures internal to it for amendment, and it was ratified by all the people who voted for it prior to the congress.
But there is another sense that the word “democratic” invokes: the qualitative transformation in relationships. The feeling between people of mutual recognition and egalitarian partnership in constructing a common world. In the second assembly on Friday, we got a small taste of this transformation, and I stress that it was an affective change — something that is difficult to precisely define or plan for, but is a shared feeling. This was still happening within the shell, and it still felt a bit rushed, but there was still a shift. The question for me was whether we would continue to go deeper on that path, or whether the first sense of democracy would reassert itself.
It’s worth saying that I think there are serious reasons to separate these two aspects of “democracy” in our minds, that is, to treat them as separate concepts altogether.(1) I won’t get into it in detail here, but the tendency of the sense of democracy-as-procedure to continually swallow up the sense of democracy-as-experience-of-being-equal-together plagues movements of “direct democracy” continually. Personally, I think we should consider finding a new word for the qualitative experience of equality and emphasizing that as a value over and above “democracy,” identified with a process of legitimizing a set of rules. The thing about being together as equals is: it requires no prior process of legitimization. It is self-grounding as a desirable way to be together. But this doesn’t really make sense to people before they’ve had such an experience.
The different intentions were becoming clearer between the partisans of the shell and the partisans of the embryonic fluid striving to form itself. The former had come because they wanted to pass certain documents that would solidify the structure and the political identity of Symbiosis — most importantly, a “points of unity” document. The latter felt that honing down such documents was putting the cart before the horse, and that we needed to actually construct a unity among ourselves before any such organization could have substantial meaning. This and a million other things were discussed in a hundred tiny conversations throughout the evening. Certainly unity was being constructed, but in opposition to and in spite of the organizational forms meant to legitimize it.
Saturday morning after breakout groups specifically on points of unity proposals, we returned to assembly. We went through the language of the document, consolidating different points, changing the language — basically, imagine 80 people co-editing a document using a modified Robert’s Rules of Order. On the one hand, I personally had no substantial objection to any of the points put forward. On the other hand, I felt that we hadn’t discussed the strategic situation or sense of such a points of unity, and that there were substantial reasons to consider other approaches. The folks who were really pushing for a points of unity document, considering it to be of utmost importance, had assumed that importance was transparently evident to everyone. Me and other delegates from my town felt it warranted further discussion.
The problem was not with the points of unity, but that there was no space made for serious reflective discussion about it. It was all a matter of whether you agree or disagree with this or that abstract principle. There was no opportunity to turn an idea over, to think it through, to question whether it makes sense to put something out that basically occupies a niche market in the menu of Left organizations, or whether there was a different aspiration to which a federation like Symbiosis could aspire. It was also irksome that the same people continued to be most vocal with their amendments and their points of process, while others were once again feeling frustrated or bored.
It started to feel like every time an interesting or critical reflection was about to come out, the person uttering it would be cut off with a point of process. When the hell were we supposed to think together?
Third, break out, or exodus
Before the second assembly on Saturday, I learned that one of our comrades from Carbondale was done with it. She was going to check out D-Town farms and try to make contacts with people involved in the local food movement. I also learned that everyone from Cooperation Jackson was doing the same thing. Personally, I felt very invested in the course of the Congress, and decided I would try to stay for the second assembly.
Right from the beginning, we ran into a problem: assembly attendance had dropped substantially, and the number of delegates required for a quorum had to be revised again in order to adapt to that. At one point it seemed like we hadn’t made the quorum. This got me thinking again about the concept of “legitimacy.” Here you have a room full of people from around the continent, ready to work together and build something, but somehow the fidelity to a structure that only a slim number of them actually built was going to risk delegitimizing what was discussed or decided? As it happened, whether in accordance with the rules or not, the quorum was deemed met.
At the beginning of the assembly a friend from Carbondale got on the mic. I should note that those of us from Carbondale did precious little consulting with each other throughout this weekend. We didn’t plan moves or anything, and I was often very pleasantly surprised when my own feelings were echoed by others from my crew. We were all feeling and thinking along similar lines, but not coordinating.
The comrade from Carbondale got up to question the nature of the points of unity document, and he was immediately processed to silence. This angered me. So I got up and said that the point of an organizational form was to facilitate the capacity of people to speak and think together, and that in fact the forms being used had annihilated that capacity.
Another comrade from Carbondale got up and pointed out that the majority of the comrades from the People of the Global Majority had left the room. I left after that and, along with three other packed cars, joined the exodus to D-Town farms.
The farm was a slice of paradise. By far the most beautiful and extensive urban farm project I’ve ever seen, we were lucky enough to have arrived on the day of a festival. Kids were learning traditional dances, pizza was being cooked in a cob-oven, and it was an explosion of sensuous joy. We took a photo together posing as escapees from the Symbiosis Congress.
I had never intended to leave the Congress for good. I was done with the assembly, but had met so many amazing people that I wanted to continue to spend time with. I later learned that a Carbondale comrade had given the impression that we were all going home.
I’m not sure what happened while so many of us were gone, but whatever transformations took place among the remaining Congress attendees strikes me as somewhat miraculous. Facing a large exodus of member organizations, Congress organizers had the courage to let the shell crumble.
I understand my account has been extremely Carbondale-centric. My apologies for this, because I know it is at best only a partial account reflecting my own interpretive biases. But I don’t think any story of the Symbiosis Congress will be adequate without singling out one comrade who not only participated in the revolt from the very beginning, but also had the skills and grace to give living form to what remained after the shell was completely broken. “You-know-who-you-are” from Athens, if we manage to build what this federation into what it should become, it will be a result of your work. It should also be mentioned that the people who had the courage to invite Imani to exercise her skills, even if that meant breaking something they had spent almost two years building, deserve all of our respect and admiration. A number of people worked on planning this Congress like it was a full-time job for a very long time. You know who you are, as well.
We had arrived back at the Congress and were deep into socializing when a comrade came out and invited us to yet another assembly. We were told we would all sit in a circle and there would be no formal process. Against my first impulse, I decided to attend. What I experienced was beautiful.
It was simple: we were to see all of us and hear all of us. We were to listen to the reports from various working groups. And then we were to hear all of us again. There was an outpouring of relief and emotion in the circle, expertly facilitated by Imani. It was friendly, it was gentle, and it felt like finally, the day before we all left, we were actually getting started.
Among the many things said, I want to point to the final statement from one of the main organizers of Symbiosis who had initially introduced the idea of the “chicken and egg” metaphor at the start of the Congress. It was moment of parrhesia — of self-risking, public truth-telling. He said that it was hard not to feel a sense of failure, since he had his fingerprints all over the formal rules. But he had learned that he had to trust the process — which, he hastened to add, was *not* the formal procedures, but rather the process of collective wisdom unfolding among those in attendance. I didn’t get to spend much time talking to this organizer over the course of the Congress, but he earned my admiration in that moment.
The second sense of “democracy,” the qualitative change in our experience of being together, had triumphed. We ended with a song, and with a palpable sense of elation in the room.
Everything had changed. We had to explain this to comrades coming back late or who hadn’t come to the Saturday night assembly. The shell was gone, the revolution had succeeded. We had become a chicken.
The next and final assembly was similarly in a big circle, with people reporting back from various breakout sessions in the center, fishbowl style. We took questions from everyone about the proposals from the breakout groups, and then had a chance to answer or modify them. In general, it felt like everyone had adapted to the idea that we were going to move more slowly, forming a points of unity working group, as well as other working groups to carry out concrete tasks to help build our relationships to make the federation grounded in substantial relationships among people and organizations, rather than about mutual assent to abstract concepts.
We had lunch before a final vote to ratify these proposals. While I was in the cafeteria, an announcement was made about needing more help with dishes. I had shamefully not lent a hand with dishes the whole weekend, and although a vote was coming up, I realized I felt completely at ease with missing it. I trusted the direction things were going, and I could actually focus on the real work of the revolution — the dishes. Shout out to Antonio: we are unstoppable, cleaner dishes are possible.
Crossing the Roads to Come
So what the hell happened last weekend? What does it mean? What are the lessons we should take from it as a newly pecking and scratching federation? I want to start by offering an historical hypothesis about how the process we experienced came about. Basically, Symbiosis was an encounter between the children of Occupy, separated at birth.
The Occupy movement marked a new wave of radicalization in the U.S., kicking off a process we are still within. Occupy was also a site of tension between, on the one hand, the partisans of direct democratic process — consensus process for Occupy — and, on the other hand, radicals who saw the encampments as spaces of encounter, places where people practiced communal relations and underwent radicalization through a temporary suspension of the logic of the state and capital.
These two tendencies within Occupy were in constant tension, and were one of the critical fractures which the movement failed to resolve. The process folks constructed a bureaucracy without any power, the autonomist folks failed to act in a way that could keep the movement building against its external challenges from the winter and the state. When the DSA went into hyperdrive after Bernie’s campaign, the process folks helped form the Libertarian Socialist Caucus while bearing in mind their critique of Occupy’s consensus process; the autonomist folks joined various DSA chapters and took them in a more action oriented direction, such as in Carbondale, where we created a Solidarity Economy Working Group that didn’t spend much time focusing on the decision making processes of the larger body. A new round of people radicalized through the experiences of the last 5 years (Ferguson, Standing Rock, Bernie’s campaign, Trump’s election, and so on) were pulled into the various tendencies based on what was present where they were organizing and their own preferences and political beliefs.
So neither of these tendencies found during Occupy went away during the last 8 years, they just went in different directions and took different lessons from the experience. The process folks took the lesson that consensus process was undemocratic, since it allowed a single person to frustrate a whole group. They adapted their procedural understanding of direct democracy to a non-representative voting structure of recallable delegates. They created a shell.
The other folks, the anarchists and communists who have foregrounded “autonomy” in their strategic thinking, have spent the last 8 years organizing on a continental level without any articulated formal processes at all. No “decision-making”: just discussion of the situation and the formation of autonomous groups to respond to common perceptions of what needs doing. This has been rewarding in many ways, but also limiting, because it is difficult to join up with and there are certain kinds of organizing — particularly across great differences — that may require clearer formal processes.
I know it may be easy to think I’m saying otherwise, but I am truly appreciative that the process folks created a shell. Shells aren’t bad in themselves. They allow for the incubation of something new. But they have to be broken when the time is right.
The only trouble was, I think, that the shell-makers of Symbiosis lost track of the insight contained in their guiding “chicken and egg” metaphor. They forgot they were making a shell to be cracked, and thought they had made a form for the organization, for which member orgs were going to provide content. What happened in fact was that the “content” — the feelings, thoughts, experiences, and desires of the attendees themselves — struggled against the existing forms. The “we” that was being created couldn’t be reduced to a bunch of proposals to be voted into a pre-determined structure. I don’t fault the egg-builders for this, and certainly I’m not into holding any grudges. Honestly, I feel like the whole experience was better because they held so firmly to the shell. It allowed for the transformation we underwent together to feel meaningful in ways that it simply wouldn’t have if the form had collapsed the moment someone pushed against it. Maybe the chicken learns an essential lesson in the struggle to get out of the egg.
Confession: I’m often confused about what “dialectics” means, but this weekend made a dialectical process viscerally clear to me. The form organizes the content, which then exceeds the form, which then finds a new form that reconciles the tension. We lived that this last weekend, and could feel the process unfold qualitatively. I ask folks who were there to really remember the shifting feelings they experienced, and to continue to reflect and interpret them in the weeks to come.
This process, I’m suggesting, was a re-encounter between the tendencies that were in tension during Occupy. Hopefully, our experience together is a sign that over the last 8 years we’ve learned enough to productively reconcile this tension for the struggles to come.
But what is this chicken that the dialectic hath wrought? If we don’t have points of unity, what do we have? Well, we definitely have a lot of potential points of unity, and a working group that aims to continue that discussion. We also have a working group that aims to break out of its mundane heading as “skillshare,” and begin building a strategic repository of experiences in actually engaging in municipal struggles. We also have an amazing and ambitious plan to adapt and expand the long-running “Detroit Summer” project, founded by Grace Lee Boggs, into a “Symbiosis Summer,” which will allow us to work together on a deep, place-based organizing campaign. We have also, through the crucible of struggle, forged the beginning of a common history together, transitioning from a network into something that might meaningfully be called a “federation.” We’ve begun to create a story of our common struggle. Honestly: not bad for a weekend.
As a conclusion, I want to remind myself that our work of building a federation of ongoing municipal struggles, and seeding new ones, has just begun. In a sense, the struggle we went through together was just catching the federation up to the insights and experiences that have been learned by movements around the globe since the 60s, and we landed with appreciation on the organizational forms of the anti-globalization movement — facilitated assemblies and spokes-councils, with a striving toward consensus. This was made possible because of the maturity and shared perceptions of the Congress attendees, who were all anti-authoritarian in principle, even if some of them clung to the authority of a process they perceived to be legitimate. But movements in our recent history have also hit walls with these forms as well, and if we are going to be something that is growing, living, and breaking new ground, then there will be new limits and growing pains we will encounter along the way. The next shell may be more difficult to perceive, since it will calcify around a form that emerged organically from a struggle.
As revolutionaries who are attempting to build municipal movements as a strategic front within a global attack on the ecocidal structures of capital, the state, Empire, hierarchy, whatever you want to call the enemy, we have to remain connected to the feeling that emerges when we are building a common life together, to remain prepared to be disappointed when what worked once does not work the next time, and to be constantly open to the surprising ways reality refuses to conform to our theories.
As our compa from Oaxaca reminded us, we make the road by walking. This means the roads that are already laid down must be crossed.
Why? Why cross the road?
To get to the other side.
(1) For an excellent analysis of the tensions within the concept of democracy, and implications of this for recent social movements, see Crimethinc, From Democracy to Freedom.