By Karma Bennett
The flip-side of the tribalism taking over America is a force sorely lacking on the left: the notion of community. If people can be driven to endanger their own health in support of a thinly-veiled con man, what might they do in support of a movement for self-actualization, freedom, & justice, and why aren’t they?
Among 45’s most ardent supporters are evangelicals. These are people who gather in community at least once a week. They look to their church for support and save their pennies to give back to that community. The community is stronger than rationality or rule of law. To wit, one of the first claims of sociology is that the rule of law of one’s community has a stronger pull than the wider laws of society (anomie).
Look to moments when the left has won significant battles. The Civil Rights movement was also born in churches. The Black Panthers grew out of community members providing mutual aid through programs like school lunches. Unions are a powerful force in part because workers, in spending day after day together, can easily form communities. The hard work of forming a union is the strengthening of community to the degree that workers feel they can trust one another to keep the organizing of a union secret.
Other movements that have grown quickly are built of autonomous zones, like Occupy. People sharing food, shelter, childcare and medical supplies quickly develop community bonds.
Now let’s assess where the left is at today. To those who want to fight climate change, how many are part of a community that meets weekly to work on this issue? Indeed the most successful group that has brought attention to the climate crisis are the student walk outs. Consider that students are inherently powerless. Their only power is in their pre-existing community.
I’ve been involved in countless lefty movements, most of them ineffective. I recall an Indymedia group I volunteered for in the nineties that was driven by one determined and amazing single mom. Despite her efforts, the group had only a handful of volunteers. I suggested they start having socials to bring in new people. But no, they said, these are not the kind of half-assed recruits they wanted. Stopping corporate oligarchy isn’t supposed to be fun, they argued. You do it because you have to. Because it’s necessary. Activism becomes a form of self-sacrifice. As it turns out, self-sacrifice isn’t popular.
Compare this to a friend who explained why she still attends church even though at heart she doesn’t believe in God. She explained: she has friends there. They sing songs together. Being a part of the church makes her feel good. I wonder, is the church weakened by her lack of belief? Or is it stronger because of the size of their community?
Long before cancel culture was a term, the left has been overly careful of purifying our ranks to only the most devoted. Casual participants who are more interested in making friends and breaking bread are deemed unworthy and do not belong.
This point of view fails to recognize that devotion is only fostered through participation. Few people will take the time to read the pamphlets and learn the issues without the pull of community. So folks find their community elsewhere. There’s more community in a casual Dungeons & Dragons group than in many activists organizing for change in their own neighborhoods! You will find that the organizers that last are the ones engendering community.
If you have found that you joined a rally or attended a political meeting because you should, not because you wanted to, you intuitively feel the heart of the problem. Years ago, I lived in a temporary autonomous zone formed to protest the poor monitoring of the sweatshops for my university’s apparel. I remember being surprised how much I enjoyed doing tedious work like dishes and cleaning up. It felt like all labor was important, because all of it was necessary to achieve change. It was frustrating at times, and celebratory too. In community we build toward something together and that sparks an excitement for all that must be done. Perhaps there must be sacrifice for us to reach our goals. But it can’t only be sacrifice. The surest way to get people excited to show up is to create a space that fuses those goals with a commitment to building bonds between members.
A lot of people like to joke that Gil Scot-Heron was wrong when he sang that the “The Revolution Will not be Televised,” but they leave out the second half of the line, “the revolution will be live.” If people don’t come together to build the thing, the revolution won’t happen in the first place.
“You’ll not be able to stay home brother. You’ll not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out…”
Through the connective power of the Internet, these words are more prescient than he could have imagined. Many of us care deeply about the issues that plague society, but that caring happens in isolation. You will not be able to participate by blacking out your Facebook avatar or posting a story on insta-Twitter. Those things do help with advocacy, but in the face of mask-off fascism, advocacy is no longer what is needed. You will not be able to Instagram your way to the revolution, brother, because community organizing doesn’t happen through a screen.
What Is Community?
I’m not saying community can’t be built on the Internet. Perhaps at this point it would help to establish what community is.
The root word in community is munos meaning debt. A community is a group of people who are in debt to one another. This mutual debt builds trust. (For a thorough exploration of debt and community, I highly recommend the book Debt: the First Five Thousand Years by David Graeber.) All of society is a web of acts done for one another. Before market economies meant that debt could be scrupulously measured, the daily routines of life engendered community. The lawyer who defends you in court could not do so without the farmer who makes her food, while the farmer could not share his crops without the construction worker who builds the roads, on and on we are in debt to each other, tracing back to the original bonds of debt you owe to the family that fed you and changed your diapers.
However, capitalism decreases our communal bonds by giving us immunity. There’s that munos root word again, this time meaning free of debt. By putting an exact price on everything, we feel free of obligation to the restaurant that feeds us, or the lawyer who defends us, or the crew who lays asphalt. We may debate whether the labor of the lawyer is worth twice that of a social worker, but it is taken as an assumption that everyone is better off with the attachment of some exchange value for the work they contribute to society. We come to believe that we are truly immune to our debts to society. This leads to isolation and distrust on an epic scale.
Mutual Aid Is the Key to Community
It is only in service to one another that community is built. I am not speaking of the good feeling that people get from volunteering. I’m speaking of the gratitude people feel for what has been done for them at no price. If you preside over a local club, you will feel indebted to the secretary who takes the time to write out the notes and the editor who takes time to publish the newsletter, just as they are grateful to you for taking the time and energy to organize the meetings. If these roles were paid, they would engender entitlement, as participants debate whether your contribution matches your compensation. Stripped of this framework, these acts instead create gratitude, and that gratitude inspires further commitment. It’s through such small acts that relationships are fostered, and a web of these relationships make up a community.
There is a crisis of community in American society. Immunity, the community killer, has become the goal of American life. How many would rather drive to the store than trouble their neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar? Though true immunity is impossible for society to function, people feel safer if they can claim they owe nothing to anyone. But without these debts they become increasingly isolated. In isolation we can’t organize against injustice.
What Can We Do?
We would benefit from putting community at the heart of our organizing efforts. Getting to know one another, building trust and cooperation are just as important as creating agit-prop and organizing rallies.
We might consider how our movements make people feel. Are they showing up because they feel obligated or guilty? Or are they excited to be a part of a group they feel warmly towards, who shares their values? Do they have fun? Do they trust one another? What do organizers know of the lives of the other participants? Of what struggles they face? Of who is important to them? If they were snatched up by Trumplethinskin’s goons, how long before those in your group would notice?
When we look out for one another and share resources, these acts of mutual aid have the added power of fostering community.
A movement built of isolated activists is easy to infiltrate or destroy. Instead we should strive for more than a gathering of people with a common goal. We can make our spaces a third place, a home away from home. While we tear down the state, we can also work towards the future we want to build through acts of kindness and generosity.