It’s no secret that many left-wing activist groups and nonprofits, roiled by the reckonings over sexual harassment and racial justice of the past few years, have become internally dysfunctional.
In June the Intercept’s Ryan Grim wrote about the toll that staff revolts and ideologically inflected psychodramas were taking on the work: “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.” Privately, I’ve heard countless people on the professional left — especially those over, say, 35 — bemoan the irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism of some younger colleagues. But with a few exceptions, like the brave reproductive justice leader Loretta Ross, most don’t want to go on the record. Not surprisingly, many of Grim’s sources in the nonprofit world were anonymous.
That’s why the decision by Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party, to speak out about the left’s self-sabotaging impulse is so significant. Mitchell, who has roots in the Black Lives Matter movement, has a great deal of credibility; he can’t be dismissed as a dinosaur threatened by identity politics. But as the head of an organization with a very practical devotion to building electoral power, he has a sharp critique of the way some on the left deploy identity as a trump card. “Identity and position are misused to create a doom loop that can lead to unnecessary ruptures of our political vehicles and the shuttering of vital movement spaces,” he wrote last month in a 6,000-word examination of the fallacies and rhetorical traps plaguing activist culture.
Addressed to the left, Mitchell’s keen, insightful essay seemed designed to be ignored by the broader public. It had a deeply unsexy headline, “Building Resilient Organizations,” and was published on platforms geared toward professional organizers, including The Forge and Nonprofit Quarterly. Among many progressive leaders, though, it’s been received eagerly and gratefully. It “helped to put language to tensions and trends facing our movement organizations,” Christopher Torres, an executive director of the Leadership for Democracy and Social Justice institute, said at a Tuesday webinar devoted to the article.
Mitchell’s piece systematically lays out some of the assertions and assumptions that have paralyzed progressive outfits. Among them are maximalism, or “considering anything less than the most idealistic position” a betrayal; a refusal to distinguish between discomfort and oppression; and reflexive hostility to hierarchy. He criticizes the insistence “that change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale,” an approach that keeps activists turned inward, along with the idea that progressive organizations should be places of therapeutic healing.
All the problems Mitchell elucidates have been endemic to the left for a long time. Destructive left-wing purity spirals are at least as old as the French Revolution. Jo Freeman’s classic essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” about how resistance to formal leadership in second-wave feminism led to passive-aggressive power struggles, has remained relevant since it was published in the early 1970s. It’s not surprising that such counterproductive tendencies became particularly acute during the pandemic, when people were terrified, isolated and, crucially, very online. There’s a reason Grim’s article was titled “Elephant in the Zoom.”
“On balance, I think social media has been bad for democracy,” Mitchell told me. It’s a striking statement, given the organizing work he did in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., where social media played a major role in galvanizing protest. But as Mitchell wrote in his essay, social media platforms reward shallow polemics, “self-aggrandizement, competition and conflict.” These platforms can give power to the powerless, but they also bestow it on the most disruptive and self-interested people in any group, those likely to take their complaints to Twitter rather than to their supervisors or colleagues. The gamification of discourse through likes and retweets, he said, “flies in the face of building solidarity, of being serious about difference, of engaging in meaningful debate and struggle around complex ideas.”
The publication of “Building Resilient Organizations” and the conversation around it are signs that the fever Mitchell describes is beginning to break. It’s probably not coincidental that that’s happened in tandem with the end of pandemic restrictions and the return of more in-person gatherings.
But that doesn’t mean the dysfunctions Mitchell identified will go away on their own once people start spending more time together. He puts much of the onus on leaders to be clear with employees about the missions of their organizations and their decision-making processes and to take emotional maturity into account in hiring decisions. He urges leaders to support unionization efforts, seeing unions as the best way to mediate employee grievances. Rather than simply chiding young people for their unreasonableness, he’s trying to think through more productive ways to manage inevitable conflicts.
After all, the ultimate aim of social justice work should not be the refinement of one’s own environment. “Building resilient and strong organizations is not the end goal,” said Mitchell. “It’s a means to building power so we can defeat an authoritarian movement that wants to take away democracy.” Here’s to remembering that in 2023.
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