Why You Should Start a Solidarity Network
By John Jacobsen at Feb 07, 2011
For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.
Why You Should Start a Solidarity Network
People often accuse anarchists of being opposed to all forms of organization. Some of us are quick to point out, however, that it’s not all organization we are opposed to – just apparently the effective ones.
When I first became interested in Anarchist politics, there weren’t many groups for me to get involved with. All of the collectives I joined seemed to form, fall apart, and reform – always the same people reshuffling into new groups, disbanding, and starting over again. If they took part in any discernible action at all, it was normally because some other group had organized it.
All over the U.S., in fact, the Anarchist organizations I had worked with could be summed up in one word – they were aimless.
They had vague objectives. They had no discernible, immediate goals. Actually, if you asked most of them what they were doing, I’m not sure you could get a straight answer.
These are chronic issues in much of the Anarchist movement today, and if my experience is any indicator, you’ve probably run into similar problems.
There is, however, a way to get around these issues: with perseverance and a little bit of elbow grease, you can start your own solidarity network.
Although by no means does this model offer the only solutions to these common problems, the solidarity network model, nonetheless, does offer some practical insights and examples of how we can:
1. Win fights against our bosses and landlords, 2. Attract new workers to our organizations, many of whom will have never even heard of Anarchism before, 3. Empower ourselves and our fellow workers, and 4. Establish a stable and positive presence in our community, off of which we may continue to grow in new directions.
The Seattle Solidarity Network, or SeaSol for short, started in 2008 with only a handful of activists, from a variety of backgrounds. Some had experience in labor organizing, others in anti-summit work against the G8, and others still in various anti-war campaigns.
In part, the intention of the first organizers was to build on the great work of people who had come before them. The vision for SeaSol, in fact, might best be described as a blending of the “direct action case work” of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the “solidarity unionism” of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Since its founding, SeaSol has grown to encompass a membership of over 100 people, and an organizing committee of 15. These fifteen organizers, moreover, can rely on a mobilizing list of 400 supporters to call out to actions when needed, of whom we can reliably count on perhaps 20 – 30 people to turn out.
Largely, SeaSol’s growth can be attributed to its success rate. Out of 25 fights SeaSol has taken on, we have won 22.
Further still, SeaSol’s success rate can be attributed to its organizing model – which brings us to the first reason to start a solidarity network in your home town:
1. Winning Fights Against Bosses and Landlords:
“Winning,” a SeaSol organizer once said, “is like a drug.” A very intoxicating and empowering drug.
For those of us who have poured our hearts into a lot of “symbolic” anarchist projects – a lot of anti-police brutality work, anti-war organizing, anti-G8 campaigns, and so on – for those of us who have spent time around these campaigns, we have often felt extremely demoralized.
We have felt this way because despite all the sacrifice, we never won anything. The campaigns never seemed to end after the enemy had conceded something; instead they always seemed to stop when people just became exhausted.
Because of this, the SeaSol model stresses that organizers should have both a good understanding of how to take on bosses and landlords (what tactics work, what don’t), and also on how realistic winning a potential new campaign could be.
We like to show this relationship – between our strength and our demands – in our “Winability” graph.
In the graph, we can see that as our demands on a boss become greater, it becomes necessary for us to find more leverage to hurt them. So, the smaller the demand, the less leverage we need. The bigger the demand… you get the idea.
You might think this sounds obvious, and to Anarchists it probably is. This graph is just a nerdy way of teaching people a concept Anarchists have always deeply appreciated – Direct Action.
Even so, Anarchists could still learn a thing or two from SeaSol’s take on that old idea.
Part of what makes SeaSol so effective is that we base our actions on our actual strength. If, for example, it was going to take us “5 units” of pressure to win a demand from a boss, but we could only reliably keep up “3 units,” we would decline to take on that fight.
Of course, there is no way to quantify any of this, but you understand the concept.
The idea, in a nutshell, is to make sure that we aren’t ever spending time on fights we are not yet strong enough to win. By choosing fights carefully, we can focus our energy somewhere we can have a bigger impact. It is, after all, results that people most want to see.
Once the fight is underway, SeaSol uses two basic principles to plan the campaign: escalation and sustainability.
First, we brainstorm what tactics might be effective in the campaign, and we rate them from least to most powerful. We do this because we want to escalate as the fight goes on. “Its not the memory of what we did to them yesterday that will make the bosses give in,” explains a SeaSol organizer, “but the fear of what we will do to them tomorrow.”
The process of mapping out a fight in this way is helpful not only because it allows us see just how much support we will have to mobilize – its helpful also because it allows us to see if our initial plans are sustainable.
2. Attract new workers:
There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons people may choose to join an organization. How friendly people are, how inclusive the group is, whether or not they agree with the principles of the group – all of these are important considerations for people.
Unfortunately, they are often the only considerations many anarchist organizers have when starting new groups. But there’s another consideration we should take into account – people may also want to know what your organization is doing.
The fact of the matter is that its hard to attract most people to your organization with great ideas and inclusiveness alone. People really want to see things get done.
It’s also hard to retain people if there isn’t a sense that progress is being made – if there isn’t some sort of momentum. People tend to burn out pretty quickly in groups where there is not a lot getting done. And who can blame them?
One of the reasons SeaSol has had more sustained growth than any other Anarchist organization in the Northwest over the last two years is that it offers something practical and concrete to people: mutual support, community, and a real, practical defense against your boss and landlord.
What’s more, the retention of new members has also been helped along by our momentum: there is always enough work to go around.
No matter how involved someone wants to get initially, we can always find space for them to come lend a hand. When we attract new people through our ongoing fights and new campaigns, we are increasing our capacity, which means we can take on more fights, thus attracting yet more people.
3. Empower ourselves and others:
“Empowerment” is a term bandied about a lot in radical circles. “We need to empower them and empower them…” It can, at times, be used so often it becomes meaningless.
It is also used quite often in circumstances where, quite frankly, nothing of the sort is happening.
In SeaSol, however, we see it very concretely every day.
The process by which we accomplish the goals of our organization – winning fights against bosses and landlords – involves a lot of formal training. People need to learn how we make mobilizing calls. They need to learn how to conduct a meeting with a potential new fight, and they need to learn how to get a picket line together.
To these ends, we have a lot of one on ones, and we have a lot of group trainings.
But people don’t really learn how to organize by hearing a talk or by attending trainings. What’s most important about the education people get with the Seattle Solidarity Network is that they are given a space in which they can put ideas into action. Any worker that has a few spare hours every week has a place to come and learn the art and science of people power.
There is more to empowerment, however, than just learning new skills.
Even if the people involved in SeaSol are not ready to become full on organizers, the experience of taking on a boss and winning can still be a very radicalizing experience. It increases not just our power, but our confidence in ourselves.
The campaigns we conduct concretely show us all the real class divisions rife in our society, with workers on one side, and the bosses, landlords, cops and courts on the other. Arguably, the fights we conduct are able to reach many people in a way that our extensive libraries cannot.
4. Establish a stable and positive presence in our community, off of which we can grow in new directions:
Starting a new political group is hard. Getting people together to start any new group is hard. You need to find new ground rules, set new boundaries, find a space to meet, and just get a feeling for how you’re going to work with each other. This takes a lot of work.
Arguably, then, it’s a problem when groups are constantly falling apart. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the state of the Anarchist movement today.
If you are interested in avoiding a lot of the redundant, and frankly unnecessary work of constantly forming new groups, the Solidarity Network model has some advantages.
First, there is never any shortage of workers being screwed over by their bosses or landlords. As long as organizers are dedicated to fighting back, your work is cut out for you.
Secondly, the longer you’re around, the easier it is to build a bigger and more inclusive community. It just makes sense. If you’re around for years, and are engaged in work that is important to your community, people are going to know about you. If you’re around for all of two months, no one is going to get a chance to get in contact with you.
In the end, the Solidarity Network is just a beginning to something we all hope will be something much broader, and more encompassing.
With a larger network – and the community of struggle it builds – new possibilities become apparent to us. People have pitched ideas about the Seattle Solidarity Network taking on fights around police brutality, around violence against the LGBTQ community, or even around a case of sexual violence at a local high school.
These are all legitimate fights we may well be capable of dealing with. The point is, this model offers the chance to build a foundation for greater things down the line.
SeaSol provides us with the people power we need to start building a movement, and as the network grows, new possibilities will present themselves to us.
For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.