Communication is a Revolutionary Act: Thoughts on communication and media for liberation

fight-for-15This week we’re including a piece by Scott Nikolas Nappalos on media and communication where he argues that we need to view them as part of our political process rather than just tools. The IWW has a unique history when it comes to culture, media, and communication in the history of North America. In particular, the IWW experimented with different forms of communication and media as part of its organizing including the famous cartoonssongsthe Industrial Worker newspaper, and the One Big Union Monthly. IWWs used forms of communication as political acts in ways that were innovative for their time such as silent agitators (mass visual propaganda), song and soapboxing tactics, and publications that sustained a working class culture of writers, artists, poets, and working intellectuals. Though good history of this is absent (and indeed of the IWW in general), Salvatore Salerno’s book Red November, Black November explores how culture and community formed a backbone of the IWW. The union went so far as to create a workers university run by IWWs, the Work Peoples College, that addressed a broad range of life under capitalism including basic skills, jobs and home life, as well as training for participating in the IWW, and of course political, artistic, and scientific education. This tradition was picked up by IWWs who started an annual educational and cultural retreat in Minnesota for IWWs by the same name. While focusing on the North American context and the IWW specifically, his points also apply more generally. Nappalos ideas open up a different take on communication that moves away from all the hype and technofetishism of our age, and tries to shift the focus towards understanding our role in sustaining and nurturing political relationships in struggle.


SN Nappalos

Traditionally many radicals have looked at communication and media as tools for implementing their ideas, programs, and lines on populations. Adopting the same model from capitalist marketing theory and propaganda models, communication is thought of as transmitting information from sender to receiver, with most of the thinking centered around how we can best transmit the information to our receivers, how to achieve the greatest numbers, etc. Different media are debated, and today fascination with the emergence of social media and internet culture has captivated political actors of all stripes. After the development of mass industrialized media around a century ago, the model of media and communication as a megaphone still is dominant in the actions and thinking of our time.

The focus is on the message (how to package it, what it is, its intended effect) and the receivers (how to get to them, which grouping to target, etc). This is a different way to come at things than organizing. Organizing is about collective action built through relationships at its most basic. Anyone who has tried to organize anything knows that messaging only goes so far, and that the life blood of organizing is the process of building and sustaining interactions between people. In practice you see a divide between people obsessed with media whether to increase numbers, inspire, or induce people into action, and those more focused on the relational aspect of organizing. In labor organizing today there are campaigns that seem to rest nearly exclusively on media, and others that reject it all together. The Fight for 15 has been criticized by Adam Weaver along these lines for substituting media targets for sustained organizing. Corporate campaigns made popular by groups like SEIU, CIW, environmental NGOs rely on media often in place of collective action by the effected to win concessions from companies. This strategy has been adapted to social media and political campaigning by unions like SEIU and UFCW using tactics developed by the Democratic Party, particularly in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. On the other side, many labor and community campaigns make little or no use of any type of public media, and are criticized by some for failing to engage the public at all. In the early 2000s the Portland branch of the IWW had a strong anti-media current, to which I belonged, that saw reliance on media pressure as alienating to the power built through collective workplace action.

Clearly, media has some role to play as all groups need to be able to create and distribute content about their struggles. Trivially media just is creations about our struggles. Turning that into a formula as well as rejecting it all together are both mistakes, and each come from a similar orientation. Approaching communication as a tool of transmission (or banking as Freire called it, as in depositing information into someone’s mind) leads to these positions. Against this perspective, the process of communication itself should be seen as a political process between organizers and their constituency. The act of communicating then is not a neutral tool that we adopt to better have an impact, but is itself part of doing politics. Choices we make in creating and distributing media then have political outcomes and content. This is clear when we look at some examples. The Fight for 15’s seeks primarily media attention and directs that solely towards legislation (rather than demands from the companies) has consequences in the politics of the participants. Seen from the approach to media and communication, these tactics should be seen as militant forms of institutional lobbying perhaps. [2] The IWW Starbucks campaign which began nearly a decade ago similarly utilized a heavy emphasis on media attention to pressure the company. This use of media was different from SEIU’s as it was directed at bringing additional pressure onto existing workplace struggles. The role of media is distinct in the two cases, though it should be argued that the relationship of the workers to the media in both is problematic. If we accept that communication is political, the neutrality of such activity as a tool is problematized.

At the heart of this is dissecting what media really is. Communication, which media is built out of, is a form of interaction and relationship between people. Communication is action, and one that demonstrates and potentially changes relationships in society. A demonstration in some languages is called a manifestation. When people come together to protest, they are in a way communicating or showing something. Demonstrations manifest the perspectives, solidarity, and collectivities of people during different moments. Those acts can in the right environment help to shift the thinking and behavior both of the participants and those around. Occupy Wall Street had a surprising effect in just that way, or perhaps before the outset of the second Iraq war when millions of Americans flooded the streets of our cities. Our political orientation to communication then should be the transformation of cognition through struggle, the development of a praxis through the back and forth of our ideas and experiences, and deepening the capacities of people to intervene in their own issues. The media, thinking, and actions of radicals should be directed towards these ends through a conscious political approach to communication.

Within this perspective is the idea that we work with people where they are at through engaging their needs and perspectives, and dialoguing in struggle. Rather than trying to project political ideas into people, our media should seek to build out of the issues and fights people are engaged in. This is simply organizing. That isn’t to say however that people are always right and have some innate desire to be revolutionaries. Instead, it is to recognize that revolutionary politics begins with where people are and moves forward by radicalizing ourselves and struggles that might otherwise be recuperated, reactionary, or simply dissipate.

Looking at media as a process gives us an additional place to do politics. When interviewing people fighting evictions we are not simply creating good content to promote our ideas or organizations, but also engaging in a dialogue that has the potential to change the work of the anti-eviction militants, our own ideas about struggle, and to propose, debate, and work out ideas that emerge in the course of fighting. Those concerns are more valuable than even the content that is produced. Taking it one step further, even once the content is produced, the distribution of that content is again an opportunity to inquire, engage, and expand the capacities of people within our networks and outside them. The creation of media creates simply one site among many where a seamless series of relationships and interactions provide the chance for capacitation of militants, solidarity, and constructing networks. Communication should be understood as a field of action that has many forms, media being only one of them.

In an age of social media, internet, and the breakdown of traditional political community, there are both limitations and possibilities opened up. We are limited through the closing of the investment people paid into the political communities rooted in stable and fixed sources of struggle such as the lives built around particular factories in the last two centuries. The life, networks, and communication channels which used to sustain whole anarchist, communist, and socialist collectivities are largely gone. Likewise, people’s relationships to media itself and political engagement has shifted in society as a whole. People turned to the labor and radical press for example because of their relationships to those worlds. At the same time, the internet, the global financial crisis, and the transition ongoing amongst traditional dominant means of communication has created space where radical ideas on occasion have disproportionate currency in the population. We are witnessing some of the more widespread questioning of the values and functioning of capitalism today than in generations. While producing and distributions paper publications for example has become more difficult, spreading articles and calls for action online has never been easier. Unfolding are both centralizing and decentralizing trends, neither being wholly reactionary or progressive. As people’s interaction with media shifts, there is the potential to propose and construct new forms of communicative activity and shape a popular culture of creation and media directed towards political ends.

Along with these shifts, there are potentials we should raise. Rather than thinking of communication as originating inside organizations and simply moving out, we should be utilizing the horizontal networks that exist with between individual organizers, within organizations, and amongst supporters of the broad libertarian milieu. If we see the communication of individuals and groups with the popular classes as itself a political process tied to struggle and cognition, then we should invest in creating a broad effort to engage as many as possible within our networks in communication politically. The goal here is not only to “get our ideas out there”, but to build organization where all the members have the capacity to participate in communication, and with the goal that those interactions, sharing, and dialogue will build both organization and new powers. Just as it’s true outside organization, it’s true inside. The process of communication between militants should build us all up, engage in dialogue, and develop praxis rather than simply transmitting a line.

When engaging with materials, media, and communications we are not trying only to pass on the existing content, get others to replicate it, etc. Instead we need to look at how we can get people to invest in the process of exploring issues, ideas, and challenges raised by the anarchist communist perspective, and how that process of dialogue can be active; create new ideas, new conversations, and most importantly new activity. Rather than a model of simply transmitting ideas like passing buckets of water along a line, we need to think about communication as reproduction where there is change, evolutions, and where the people involved in communicating are themselves the actors.

For example sharing articles on facebook has led to debates (often unpleasant ones), discussion, and sometimes activity. Based on materials produced, various networks distribute the articles, and groups end up discussing them in a decentralized manner, and at times actions respond based on those interactions. This is a raw unorganized sort of thing where certain individuals are initiating with responses from a wide variety of people. Thinking politically, we can see how the way information moves along these networks creates various points of potential opportunities both for organization to try and build the creative capacities of radicals as well as for collective projects themselves.

A few questions are raised by this line of thinking in general:

1. How do we educate and prepare our militants to engage in communication as a political struggle through popular education, media, and distribution of our content?

2. How do we engage in popular education through dialogue around people’s needs in struggle?

3. How do we use and expand existing networks for dialogue with and reproduction of revolutionary thinking and activity?

Within the IWW, discussions of media and communication are quite common informally and occasionally around the officials organs in existence. Presently the IWW has a few formal media projects (the Industrial Worker paper, the General Organizing Bulletin as an internal publication of the business of the union, and the official websites and social media of the organization). There are also more local projects like the Organizer, a blog of the Twin Cities General Membership Branch, and Recomposition itself, which is a project of longtime IWWs. The Industrial Worker is a labor paper with distribution in the thousands, which is a rare thing today. Various IWW campaigns get local and national news coverage such as Insomnia Cookies, Mobile Rail, Starbucks, and Jimmy Johns efforts. IWWs in different cities engage in flyering neighborhoods agitating for organizing amongst different sectors. Likewise there are IWW books, pamphlets, artwork, and music being produced through the official literature department and more informally.

The Industrial Worker is an obvious place for potential activity. Generally discussion around the publication centers simply on layout, getting good articles, and distribution. This mirrors traditional ideas on media as transmission. If we take a political approach to any media, the paper presents the potential to engage workers who create its content, and opportunities to dialogue with others through the act of distributing it. If our goals are to do capacitation work through generating content and working around it, then IWWs could rethink how they want the paper to function within the organization beyond professionalism or the attraction of a good publication. Additionally, if the paper is thought of less as a physical thing and more as a node of content and interaction, a robust online publication could offer a field of activity that could engage potentially hundreds of IWWs and the people they work with. The General Organizing Bulletin likewise is another place where debate, dialogue, and discussion could give chances for IWWs to grow beyond local contexts which can wax and wane with the ups and downs that inevitably come with workplace and community organizing.

Recomposition itself embodies this approach. Our attempt has been to facilitate working class writers to become better at what they do and to move forward discussions around our experiences and perspectives. At some junctures those relationships and work made the content itself secondary. A further step down this road might be to start to build ways for people to do the work of recomposition not simply through contributing or responding to articles, but also through events in their area around the work and writings, creating local content and sites, and mentoring on a larger scale than a small editorial collective could do.

Within organizing similar dynamics hold. Creating the media materials for actions and workplace activity should be imbued with the same political character as our thinking around how to sustain and increase action. In producing flyers, stories, press releases, etc., our focus should be on the people stepping up to create it, and how we will work with others receiving it to build a more aware and solid movement. This work isn’t just for designers, artists, or writers, but also another pole for workers to step forward and challenge themselves in a mentored environment.

This discussion brings out something fundamental about the anarchosyndicalist tradition and its approach to politics. The orientation comes out of the experience of capitalism in our daily lives through the frustrations and suffering, but also the aspirations of people who see past our present circumstance. Wrestling with our reality amongst others around us, our thinking is crucial to being able to keep moving forward in the face of a difficult and isolating world. Liberatory politics resides there, in the hearts and minds of people set against a system that represses us subtly in countless ways. The desire to escape those dynamics can lead to magical thinking such as capitalism inherently falling apart for us, or using different tricks (media, political manuevering, military antics) that will make the whole system crumble. By situating liberation in the dirty business of daily life we propose something far more revolutionary, that our actions and thoughts can be the cells of an organism evolving and growing towards a new world from the ashes of the old.

[1] Good histories and texts in English are difficult to find, and I’m indebted to conversations with direct participants and organizers in Miami and South America. Starting places would include Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Liberation, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, and the few english language histories of anarchist pedagogy such as Avrich’s the Modern School.

[2] Though I am hopeful that the pressures of the struggle and the workers themselves can push beyond the plans that the Democratic Party and union hierarchies have for them.

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