Building Transformative Engines For Revolution : Differential Autonomous Transformation

“I think that DAT is how left organizers, activists and leaders are re-inventing human possibility in real time and creating different ways to navigate terrains of power in order to end human suffering.”

This essay is the first in a series of essays I have been working on over the past year. I hope to finally be releasing them over the next month! Please let me know what you think!

Sparks vs. Combustion

An old SNCC organizer once asked me if I knew the difference between spark and combustion. He said the Movement for Black Lives [M4BL] has learned how to create big sparks, starts fires and get attention through direct action and protest. Yet, in order to get free, you need combustion. Combustion is what happens when a spark is tied to an engine. Engines allow you move things and consciously shape change rather than just demand it. Our protest and shut downs were creating fires all over the world, but where was the engine?

It’s engines that drive [r]evolutions.

This essay is my attempt to outline how communities facing domination by outside forces are creating their own engines of revolution. It is not an assertion of how to overcome oppression or the best way to fight it. Rather it hopes to present a generative framework to better understand how we are effectively resisting oppression right now. My hope is that it can be critiqued, rephrased and collectively turned into a platform from which stronger movements can articulate more powerful, liberated and sustainable ways to be fully human.

It is my belief that a revolution is simply a change in who has power over aspects of a given system.  With the advent of global warming, the increasing complexity of society and simplicity of our public discourse, the crises of capitalism and global unease with our way of life; a revolution in our lifetime seems inevitable. The world is in constant motion and there are several engines of change from political machines to industrial supply lines that are changing the face of our planet. Yet when workers, community leaders and organizers talk about the revolution we generally mean a struggle to end domination of one group over others. In order to ensure the coming revolution is our revolution we need our own engines of change. We need a new political analysis and strategic outlook for building movements.

The old way simply isn’t working. Our beat-up unions, civic associations and nonprofits can’t travel the roads that haven’t been repaired since the last infrastructure bill or have been washed out by the latest “storm of the century.” They can barely even ensure that all of us, Black, Latinx, Queer, Trans*, poor, differently abled, femme, youth, etc. are in the same car. Likewise, identity politics without an engine for power building and social transformation has a tendency to lead towards reinforcing a self-limiting victim narrative and framework. We can’t afford to lose sight of the fact that victims do not shape change, rather they are shaped by it.

We need a politics that allows us to recognize each new ploy by corporations to make money off our backs, each time the state overreaches and each time we reproduce the same forms of patriarchal dominance and pyramids of power that we are trying to escape. At the same time, our politics must be able to develop a posture and strategy of opposition tailored to repeal them. We need a politics that realizes that regardless of how we might feel about the state in the abstract or our personal experience of America society, the history of gender, class and racial oppression in this state shows that it cannot be reformed to justice, nor the basis of its society intentionally changed by protests alone.

The politics we need is one that is able to stretch and bend itself to fight in different terrains. From the workplace, to media and cultural commodification, to the psychological and pharmaceutical invasions of the market to the bedroom and the politics of sex. Such guerrilla opposition to capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and state domination seems the only way to defeat the array of forces lined up against us. This is especially true given that the arrangements of corporate and elite interests [post-modern capitalistic hegemony] have moved from pushing their agenda in state capitals and big cities or bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO), in favor of a decentralized global totality and near omnipresence.

In this opposition it is my belief that we will destroy the normative, ableist and limited view of humanity that these ideologies and systems of oppression foster and thrive on. In so doing, we will create multiple new ways of being which can not only reduce human suffering but actually bring safety, stability, a sense of deep belonging and joy, love and happiness into all of humanity’s everyday lives.

The Engines of Oppression

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This framework starts with a basic premise: there are a lot of things in life that are shitty but they don’t have to be.

Our stress levels, the violence we face from each other and the police, our struggle to pay the rent, our difficulty in finding, sustaining and expressing love, and degradation of our environment are not normal or inevitable parts of how humans act and live. These problems and many others are results of engines designed by other people to structure our lives. They are the result of choices we make and choices people with more power, influence and resources make for us. These engines of oppression have divided and conquered and spiritually starved us into this current world.

First, our communities were divided and conquered by explorers, conquistadors, slave traders, and inquisitions. Indigenous spiritual practices, social and human technologies that allows us to make sense of the world and each other, have been ripped apart. Then, years of state and capitalistic domination by “enlightened” imperialist missionaries and “visionaries” have divided our inner life and forced us to deny the existence of much of our pain to cope with the human tragedy of the world they have created.

We retreat into our minds, ivory tower universities or digital landscapes in order to ignore our emotional, physical and deeply spiritual pain. By spirituality I simply mean that sense of being connected to something bigger than ourselves that gives a sense of deep meaning, perspective and wholeness [God, the Universe, the Planet, the Movement, Ancestors, Each Other etc.]. With the perception that the mind and body can be disconnected, we retreat into our bodies [or from our bodies], and dive deep into the escape of drugs, instant surface level gratification of pornography or the numbness of emotional eating; all to escape the deep emotional pain and the gnawing intuition that there must be a better way to live. We have been conditioned to accept and seek out sensation and basic stimulation, without the vulnerability and discernment of actually feeling things deeply in our mind AND body.

At the same time that we have been separated by the unity of mind and body, our bodies are being destroyed by exploitation and expropriation. The material costs of capitalist and state domination whether through brutal labor conditions, the deprivations of both absolute poverty and relative inequality through underdevelopment and sheer ecological destruction are almost impossible to quantify. The pain of this current system is simultaneously material and psycho-spiritual. Its attacks on one realm of human existence reinforces its invasion into another.

Now that we all feel that this way of life is untenable, that we have made our world unlivable, the same indigenous practices that were ripped apart have been pieced back together, devoid of any kernel of resistance, and sold back to us. Yoga and meditation is now a tool to sustain us as good employees, mild mannered subjects of capitalism. This is much the same way that Christianity, a religion that was formulated in large part by Africans, was later repackaged to enslaved Africans to keep them subservient. Likewise, in the realm of science and medicine, the same doulas and midwives that western science scoffed at as “unscientific” are now sometimes only available to wealthy white families.

The very communities that had medicine women and midwives now face a whole host of systemic health problems including high rates of infant mortality. Family farms stretching back generations are sold to agro-businesses whose industrial mono-cropping now threaten our food supply. Now NGO’s try to teach third world farmers the same poly-cropping, nomadic and other ancient agricultural practices that their ancestors were forced to abandon by colonial governments.

Thanks to centuries of colonialism, divide and conquer strategies and spiritual and economic disinvestment, we now have few communities whole enough to organize the type and magnitude of the movements we need to get free.

Civil society has broken down across America. The natural meeting places, outside of state surveillance or market forces, where we could get needs met have either been destroyed, outlawed or co-opted. Even our religious life has moved from patriarchal, but local and attentive to community needs, to mega churches which preach a self-serving prosperity gospel. Block associations,  while often being insular and problematic but at least provided a space for the neighborhood to discuss issues of importance, are now few and far between. There are few places in which whole lives [familial, political, economic, spiritual] can be lived and there is a shared sense of being in “it” together. Now our lives are fragmented into several spheres where we choose different communities from a market of options. Community organizers now have to rise to the challenge of building the communities they seek to organize in the first place. Without strong empowered communities with a shared sense of togetherness we cannot resist the schemes of those with plans for our lives.

Our current daily struggles are in large part due to the fact that power, influence and resources are not equally distributed amongst everyone. They are hoarded by the wealthy and powerful who create or invest in stories like “America being a meritocracy” together with systems of values and worth to make it seem like the wealthy deserve to have what they have hoarded. Systems of belief like racism, sexism, elitism and anti-rural sentiments were old prejudices that those in power developed when they needed to make it seem normal, right and just that the ruling class has more than those “less deserving” others.

Race, class and gender constructions are often tied to stereotypes and social value judgments that seek to divide those of us at the margins against each other rather than against those with wealth and power, and make it seem like we deserve the stress, violence and insecurity we face. The belief that we deserve these things, and so do other people, then goes on to influence the choices that we make. The stress of all of this forces us to lose the unity of mind, body and spirit and individual and communal experiences of life. We have normalized our own self-destructive coping mechanism and accept their isolating, ahistorical, decontextualized profit driven solutions and value systems.

We have to realize that the cures and solutions that the wealthy and powerful give us to solve the problem we face is the same disease they caused and profit from.

The latest, and perhaps most nefarious, disease packaged as a solution we are being sold is called neo-liberalism, the belief that the market can solve all problems. Neo-liberalism, the latest form of capitalism, is not only changing how our governments function but changing the very notions of what everyday people think government is for. Neo-liberalism is by no means the major engine of human suffering operating today but it does bring the interconnectedness of those engines into sharp relief.

Gone are the days where the common citizens believed the lie that our government is for the people and geared towards the pursuit of happiness. Now the common person seems to see the government’s job is to protect business. Now the undefined but all important “market” is seen as a natural social phenomenon that the government must respect and tend to rather than seen as something the government creates by deciding what is and isn’t legal.

People start to become bits of human capital to be invested in or bundled and traded as toxic assets for profit rather than interconnected autonomous beings to support and let thrive in communities. The purpose of life implicitly argued for in our founding documents, that one should pursue happiness and liberty, while often times overlooked or perversely inverted in the history of slavery and genocide, are in danger of being permanently replaced by the imperative to generate economic value in the minds of ordinary citizens. In this whitewashing we even forget that being free to pursue happiness is something we should fight for. Everyday people cede love, belonging and the ability to build communities that meet their needs as a terrain of struggle. Us radicals are often not far behind.

Our liberal democracy, with its focus on individual rights and disregard for power structures and history, was never going to bring liberation to people who were oppressed on the basis of a specifically constructed group identity [race, class, gender etc]. However, liberal democracy does provide a potential platform from which more liberating radically democratic projects could be launched. As Barbara Ransby once cautioned me, “it can always get worse.” Those of us who have for a long time known that the United States was an empire and the largest purveyor of violence in the world should not take solace in Marcus Garvey’s words “when all else fails to organize people, conditions will.”

While this is undoubtedly true, there is ample evidence to suggest the current engines of change are bringing about conditions that will not organize people to greater freedom and liberation. Far from it. Neo-liberal Global Capitalism— a form of imperialism fueled as it is by white supremacy and patriarchy—threatens to bring the spiritual, emotional and psychological alienation, and culture of lovelessness inherent to modern life to unimaginable depths.

It is not enough to take over the skeletal remains of the engines of our supposed democracy. We need an engine that can drive us away from this mad house to a place where we can breathe freely, see clearly and love deeply. From there we can decide what to do with the state as terrain of struggle; as an actively contested subject.

In addition, we have to be real about how much we as social change agents have to change. Anyone who has been involved in movement work for more than a few months knows how toxic, draining and harmful it can be. Anyone who has been in movement spaces for years can see how much de-colonizing work organizers and activists have to do in order to not reproduce the same or similar hierarchies and aspects of domination we are organizing against. The lovelessness, alienation and competition of the outside word is thoroughly embedded into most movement spaces. At times, we even begin to think of our movements only as brands to be invested in and leveraged.  Similarly, many in the divested communities we organize in think of organizing as a service, like dry cleaning, and expect leaders to be miracle workers for their individual problems.

If a revolution is a people taking power over their own lives, then we have to be honest about the need for our personal and communal transformation to keep pace with our revolution. Once we have power, we need the skills, restraint, balance and communal accountability to wield it differently, as well as the skills, practice and knowledge to wield it effectively. These tools must be put into the hands of many and not reserved for an enlightened vanguard.

We need new, energy efficient and sustainable engines that can be mass produced with drivers who know how to navigate through rough terrain.

[R] Evolution

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Here we run into the chicken or the egg problem of the so called transformative [r]evolution. We cannot have a successful revolution unless we have liberated, healed people to manifest it. We can’t be fully liberated if we are just focusing on surviving an oppressive system. Thus you can’t have the revolution until you have a revolution. Yet, we can’t wait for the perfect leaders to come and guide us. We are the ones we have been waiting for and we will never be perfect so our politics shouldn’t expect us to be. This is why autonomous spaces outside the constraints and expectation of mainstream society are so crucial. In autonomous spaces we have the opportunity to be our full, liberated selves and organize without much [though never all] of the self-limiting beliefs and habits that make organizing so difficult. From these autonomous spaces we can launch campaigns that build personal and communal power and that dismantle oppressive systems. Autonomous, liberated spaces where people can be free from the trauma of modern like, make it easier for us to think and act from a healed and empowered place.

Instead of thinking of a revolution as a series of events that build momentum, we can think of revolution as a cyclical process of carving out autonomous space where we are freer and can look beyond the ideologies of oppression to devise transformative campaigns. These transformative campaigns carve out even more space, while teaching us the necessary skills of resilience, self-governance, and mutual aid.

In these autonomous spaces we can achieve what Elle Hearns calls collaborative solidarity. Collaborative solidarity is where campaigns invest in the leadership capability of the most marginalized so that they can be leaders in their own frontline struggles while in common cause with multi-front campaigns for collective liberation. Then, as stronger movements, we can launch more broad based multi-front attacks on oppressive structures and better protect our communities from repression. Thus, we can see that Revolution is the cars we build around our engines [social movements and autonomous projects] to carry us on our multi-generational journey to liberation. Through all of this work, we can be collectively and individually transformed into the people capable of manifesting a more just world.

The basis of this belief lies in my lived experience organizing for my own freedom and in my observation of other frontline community struggles. It lies in the way I’ve seen Black people reclaim spaces in gentrifying communities, use unapologetic Blackness to expand that space and build community and then launch campaigns to further their material interests, and from that liberated space build political and personal power while psychologically and spiritually transforming themselves. It comes from me seeing flawed Black people find as much healing in shutting down a highway as in a healing circle. It is also based on seeing so many campaigns win symbolic victories that have little effect on people’s lives and instilling no desire to take on the next fight.

This analysis is heavily based off the transformative organizing model, Third World Feminist Analysis of writers like Chela Sandoval, emergent strategies as articulated by the brilliant adrienne maree brown, the visionary work of Black Queer Feminists like Audre Lorde and June Jordan, and the vision of Octavia Butler who understood that change is a primary force in the universe. Also, issues of reclaiming the commons and building autonomy as articulated by Silvia Federici and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement Kali Akuno were essential to my thinking.

I also have to give thanks to my various DC activist and organizing communities whose thoughts and perspectives show up in all my work. I appreciate Benjamin Woods, Eugene Puryear and Netfa Freeman for encouraging me to read more about Black freedom movements around the world. Thanks to Marybeth Onyeukwu whose fiery anti-carceral feminism and focus on Black immigrants always encourages me to make critical connections. Thank you to amazing Reece Chenault for reading a draft of this and for our incredibly generative conversations on the practical side of organizing and the politics of love. Special thanks to Rob Wohl and Bjorn Westergard whose late night debates on western Marxism have clarified a lot of my thinking.

Most importantly, much of the transformative nature of this analysis is a direct result of Black Women organizing for liberation in our lifetime. I owe a major spiritual and intellectual debt to Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Erika Totten, Adaku Utah, Omolara Williams McCallister, Katie Lonke and Elle Hearns for their strategic brilliance and cutting edge analysis, their embodied examples of a more livable Black Future and their organizing/healing work which were the initial impetus for this idea. Also my big sister and my immediate family’s first organizer April Goggans who is the reason I started organizing. I also owe an intellectual debt to Buddhist Peace Fellowship whose members brought the intersection of social justice and spirituality and the formation of Build/Block/Be into my life at just the right time to crystalize all of my thoughts into something useful.

Naming this history is important to me because I am interested in highlighting the current existence of and need for more organic intellectuals.

“Traditional intellectuals can distinguish themselves purely through the originality of their ideas or the eloquence of their expression, but organic intellectuals must initiate a process that involves people in social contestation…Organic intellectuals try to understand and change society at the same time…Organic intellectuals generate and circulate oppositional ideas through social action. They create symbols and slogans that expose the commonalities among seemingly atomized experiences, and they establish principles that unite disparate groups into effective coalitions. Most significantly, they challenge dominant interests through education and agitation that expose the gap between the surface harmonies that seem to unite society and the real conflicts and antagonisms that divide it.” George Lipsitz

In my mind, Differential Autonomous Transformation is not something new, nor is it something I created or discovered. Rather, DAT is a description and an analysis of resistance in action. It is an attempt, incomplete but hopefully useful, to synthesis the praxis of many different contemporary organic intellectuals. DAT is an attempt to illustrate the tactical genius of directly affected resistance so that front line communities can learn from each other. DAT is part of the long legacy of the many headed hydra. DAT provides a glimpse of what Susan Buck-Moss calls “universalism from below,” a global revolution for communal autonomy. It allows for the utilization of a specific form of collective subjectivity in which our narrative, political and spiritual terrains become polycentric palimpsests which can be the basis for mass based resistance and collective liberation.

Polycentrism:

  • This means having many centers instead of one
  • Polycentrism is unity in diversity or the ability to incorporate multiple experiences, both subjective and objective, into our understandings of the whole.
  • It means having multi-focal spaces that value a diversity of experiences within the space, allowing for folks to contribute different things to shared projects and receive different benefits from them
  • It means holding pluralistic views without being tolerant of intolerance
  • It means centering the experience and leadership of the most marginalized without reproducing hierarchies.

Palimpsests: is technically a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document. Often the word is used to describe an object made or worked upon for one purpose and later reused for another in which the earlier work can still be seen. Here is a crucial metaphor for understanding the history that is still visible and important in creating our new one.

So What Is Differential Autonomous Transformation?

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Differential Autonomous Transformation [DAT] is a synthesis of emergent strategies of resistance to domination in which oppressed people build engines, guided by a revolutionary love burning in their chests, that manifest the world they want by launching decentralized, targeted swarm attacks on structures of domination to carve out and expand autonomous spaces from which to launch transformative campaigns that build a new world in the shell of the world. DAT is what revolutionary love looks when it is employed by autonomous, healthy, healing communities of resistance simultaneously as tool, weapon, and sustenance.

From my view, DAT is how new social movements in America are trying to build engines of change. DAT is a style of organizing where communities use a praxis composed of several human technologies. A praxis is a cycle of acting, reflecting on the results of that action, reading accounts of other similar actions and then putting all that knowledge to use by acting again. A human technology is a social skill set, ritual or cultural practice that allows people to navigate aspects of the social, political, emotional and spiritual world we create. They are means of social reproduction geared to vision how one can and should move through the world. DAT human technologies allow people to navigate power with increasing agency, autonomy and self-determination.

Most human technologies are passed down to us over generations and re-fined each time an elder teaches it to a youth. Some emerge out of crises to be refined over-time or abandoned once the crisis is averted. Some human technology, especially those we create to deal with trauma are kept long after their usefulness. Human technologies include everything from family structures, to religion, rites of passage, musical genres like the blues or Hip Hop, and hospitality culture to Black folk religion [not to be confused with the hierarchical and colonial Black church] and the hymns and theology that it developed to allow enslaved Africans to recognize and celebrate their humanity under the brutality of slavery.

I believe that over time different conceptions of humanity, human life, human nature or human possibility arise and create a logic to organize our human technologies towards that end. The enlightenment re-organized the human technologies in the image of the rational man in much the same way that neo-liberalism re-organizes society for the economic man.  I believe that the left needs to assert a new vision of humanity, not of human nature but of human possibility, that enables us to ask each other [including ourselves and our enemies] where it hurts and have the skills to move to soothe that pain and dissolve the systems that perpetuate that hurt en masse.

I think that DAT is how left organizers, activists and leaders are re-inventing human possibility in real time and creating different ways to navigate terrains of power in order to end human suffering.

The core human technologies that I see comprise DAT are deeply intertwined and often times inseparable. Like DAT itself, they seek to build a comprehensive whole and compliment each other. They are separated out into three sections for ease of understanding. This is by no means comprehensive. Like everything about this framework, this is just the start of conversation. I hope this essay series leads to people adding on to and challenging this list:

Differential: To be Differential is to utilize political, emotional and spiritual discernment for revolution.

  • Critical engagement
    • The ability to read power in real time and devise a series of tactics suited to your conditions that align with an adaptive and emergent strategy for shifting power.
  • Intersectional power mapping
    • The ability to see how multiple systems of oppression influence and work together to create the power dynamics that underlay a given situation while understanding yourself, your communities and their opponents in relation to these system of oppression, resources and power.
  • Strategic collective action
    • People working together to build power-with (not power over) in ways that further goals of liberation, freedom or ending suffering.

Autonomous: To be autonomous is to be healed and whole outside the structures of oppression and away from state supervision.

  • Oppositional Consciousness
    • The realization of how what you want for yourself and your community is fundamentally at odds with what is expected of you from the society.
  • Radical consent as active co-creation in creating systems of mutual aid
    • Rather than merely helping people make informed decisions, it is working together to transform the options available to us so that there are multiple ways for individuals to get their needs met together with an understanding that we cannot separate our individual and communal experiences/contexts.
  • Holistic healing and well-being practices
    • Ways to disrupt cycles of violence and stop communities from passing trauma between each other
  • Decentralized ecosystems [networks] of intentional spiritual, social, political and economic communities
    • Every thing from co-operatives, intentional communities, new monasticism, anarchist collectives, sou-sous, settlement houses, catholic workers, to the elderly couple that opens their homes to the kids in destabilized conditions up the street.
  • Liberated culture
    • having culture based on non-hierarchical, anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist values that affirm the inherent value of all people and all bodies. It is a pluralistic culture that is not tolerant of oppression and domination and puts life over profit.

Transformation: To be transformative is to move through the world in way that forces ourselves to grow and that changes the world around us to better reflect the world we want.

  • Transformative Love
    • A commitment to building relationships based on an ethic of ending human suffering by coming together to meet the needs and desires of all parties simultaneously, by transforming the context within which those relationships exist.
  • Faithful Witnessing
    • Witnessing against the grain of oppression.
    • A commitment to deep empathy where we recognize people’s [including our own] actions, thoughts and desires as a result of their social location within systems of oppression and affirm acts of resistance to that oppression even when it is uncomfortable or seen as impolite, “unstrategic” or not sanctioned by mainstream society.
  • Letting the erotic guide
    • Using the viscerally felt joy we experience in life, what Audre Lorde called the erotic, as a guide towards liberation
    • remembering that the point of ending human suffering is to feel joy, wholeness and deep satisfaction.
  • Revolutionary visionary experimentation
    • Praxis of testing our beliefs of what it possible by living them out in the present with a commitment to rigorous critique and self reflection that allow us to sharpen our analysis.

5 thoughts on “Building Transformative Engines For Revolution : Differential Autonomous Transformation

  1. Beautiful Aaron! I have a lot I’m chewing on, especially as we’re thinking a lot about engine building at BPF right now. I can’t wait to read more.

    One initial thought I wanted to share and think about some more — when I first read “Differential Autonomous Transformation,” I thought back to my math nerd days. We used _differential_ equations to mathematically model complex systems in the real world, especially how systems change over time. They can model relationships between the eater and the eaten, or how cancer spreads. These models give clearer information about adjustments that could change the system over time.

    I’m seeing this connection in power mapping, building power-with as ways to model complex systems — and I’m curious to think more about whether there’s even more modeling that could be useful.

    Like

    • Hey Dawn!

      The next essay in the series goes into Differential politics. It talks about using previous tendencies or power analysis like Marx-Leninism, Anarchism and revolutionary nationalism as over lays in a complex mapping of power. Rather than seeing each analysis as truth, it argues that we should look at them as models that like Newtonian physics, relativity and quantum mechanics as useful for specific questions at specific scales. The hope is that rather land looking for the grand narrative that explains power and every context we can use existing analysis as context specific. This will allow us do do the work of building a grand reality of radical political, economic, and spiritual democracy. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts as you digest it!

      Aaron

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Where Do We Go From Here? | The Well Examined Life

  3. Pingback: Building Transformation Engines for [R]Evolution pt 2: Differential Politics | The Well Examined Life

  4. Pingback: On Autonomy: Building Transformative Engines for [R]Evolution pt 3 | The Well Examined Life

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