On the heels of watching that interview where Hardt talks about the WTO protests as an experiment in multitude, my friend Matt asked me and others to think of some things around the upcoming Republican National Convention, ye olde WTO protests, and multitude. He asks “What are the stakes of organizing around the concepts and practices associated with the multitude? Is mass convergence an effective way to mobilize for political change? How can/should we incorporate the lessons about white privilege that are evident in past convergences of this type?” Here are some notes toward a response.

First, a note on the Hardt interview. In the interview Hardt talks about the WTO protests in terms of multitude. They’re not the only case, nor are the a case of a fully successful or fully realized multitude. What they are is a case of an “experiment in the multitude.” An experiment in multitude-ing, maybe? I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, summit protests aren’t my favorite thing. Leaving aside the fates of that cycle in the U.S and abroad (said fates I think differ somewhat) post 9/11-Afghanistan-Iraq war, there’s also the (more important) matter of the questions that were being asked in movement circles abotu the efficacy of summit protests – an internal movement dynamic, as opposed the external dynamic of war etc. These are part of make me unsure what to do with the WTO protest as historical inspiration and as example of multitude. On the other hand, sure, WTO protests were important and – this is the bit I like best about this – the language of “experiment in the multitude” is nice: it gets away from a sort of objective “is it multitude or not” aspect which could be read into Empire and Multitude – multitude as a technical as opposed to a political composition of the class, based on forms of labor etc.

That aside, Matt’s questions. The stakes of multitude, I’ll come back to that at a later date. I think there’s several and I think they vary somewhat depending on whose multitude one’s appealing to and which version they put forward in different texts. I’ll also have to come back to the third. I’m not clear on how white privilege entered into the summit protest type of action or that cycle of actions. I’ve read a bit about that, but that was quite a while ago, and I’m not also not always sure what to do with some discussions of white privilege. I’m deeply sympathetic in some ways, but to paraphrase my friend Adam, some of my encounters with that stuff seem to revolve around white people, mostly men, talking about themselves a lot, which is itself surely bound up with white (and male) supremacy.

So, for now, notes on the second, mass convergence, summit type protests. Like I said, I’m not excited about this type of activity so much despite my involvement with the Free Association, which does a lot of work on this stuff — I like being part of that but I’m not on the central committee thereof. (I met Jann from Wildcat last year, he said about himself, “I’m a dinosaur, I fetishize the workplace.” I liked that quite a bit.)

Todd and I have a piece coming out in Turbulence where we address some of this, or at least stuff tangentially related to this. The Turbulence folk, some of who are Free Association-ists, are more pro-summit protests that me and Todd. Here’s a bit from our piece, about summit protests and workplace organizing (our preferred activity, though this is neither an either/or nor a bid for any kind of superiority) —

There’s a difference of both site and function [between summit protests and workplace organizing]. The summit protest’s site is at a location where there’s a summit. Its functions are many and include getting a lot of people into a place together for a positive experience (inspiring, educational/transformational, meeting people, communicating, etc), and physically impeding the functioning of the summit. With workplace organizing the site is double: in the workplace, as the place for action against the bosses, and outside the workplace, in homes, in meeting rooms or elsewhere. Put differently, the sites are the face-to-face encounter between two or more people (outside work), and the bigger and conflictual encounter between groups of workers and their bosses/the production process (in the workplace). But we’re not claiming any monopoly: we know some of these types of sites also exist in summit protests and other activism, and that’s excellent.

Few people literally live at work, but almost everyone lives at work in the sense that we have to go there for our jobs. We’re not there deliberately in the same way we are at a summit protest. In other words, we’re not necessarily already plugged into the movement. Take the positive encounters between protesters and residents that happen at a summit protest (like when people bring food and water to protesters, cheer them on, talk to them, etc). They’re really cool but aren’t the reason for the protest. By contrast these types of encounter are the whole point of workplace organizing. We organize at work to meet our co-workers. Or rather, organizing at work is meeting (actually many, many, many meetings…) with our co-workers. The function of workplace organizing is also double. First, to produce a positive experience, preferably one which leads to members of the organization and to people becoming organizers. This isn’t always or even often fun, but it is transformational and educational, both in how we see the world and in our capacities, like learning a new dance step or learning to keep cool while speaking in front of people. The second function is to increase collective power at work and therefore to improve conditions.

This was part of a general vein of “not activism, organizing!” throughout our piece. The editors pushed us on this. They said “You draw a distinction between activism and ‘organising’, and you say there are “real limits to summit mobilisations” but argued that we were drawing too neat of a line, neglecting that “many “activists” organise and many union “organisers” are activists.”

That’s a fair point. Insofar as “activists” organize, that’s awesome and the criticisms of activism don’t apply to them. Insofar as “organizers” activist-ize, the criticisms of activism does apply to them. I’m not actually anti-activism per se. I think it has a definite purpose. If I get in a jam where activism (protests etc) will help, I hope my comrades do that. I do think there’s much more activism than organizing around at least in the US. That balance needs to be adjusted: not necessarily less activism, rather way way more organizing. And I think the results of both (especially if both get bigger and win more) will benefit each other. For instance, the transformational effects of one on individuals could have results for the other, as people’s lives take them across different sites.

I do still want to focus on – and want others to focus more on – workplace directed activity, or rather, on organizing and not summit protest and similar activity that I think of as activism. This is because organizing, particularly workplace organizing (tenant organizing as well I think) involves active and planned reaching out to people who are not already in agreement with me, trying to find a way to meet them where they’re at at the individual level, and trying to move them into a position of agreement. That is also just the start, because people need continual development, myself included.

It may be that some forms of what I call and what participants call activism do this too. If so, excellent. For several years I did Take Back The Night work, activity against genderd, sexual, and sexual orientation related violence. That had a similar dynamic. I called it activism at the time, though it had a strong organizing content. At the same time, that wasn’t an attempt to build organization – that’s the other thing that I now think is tremendously important and which summit protests don’t necessarily do. When I’m organizing or supporting other organizers one of the goals is to get the person to eventually become an organizer too, and to keep building the organization. Sometimes that fails. When it does, it might still succeed in the long term in contributing to the political recomposition of the class, though I think that will occur faster through organization than not.

I also have some doubts around the summit protest style of action because it sometimes involves a logic of representation which I’m hesitant about. I’m thinking of calls for new rights under the EU constitution, calls for better laws, calls for a citizen’s income, etc. I’m not excited about that stuff and I don’t think it’s likely to succeed and may help produce negative results – I think it anticipates the capitalization of refusal, says to the class enemy, “here’s a way that our needs and yours can be made compatible”.