At the end of 2020, an episode of "Spadework", a podcast about organizing, was released for the first time. Can you tell us who you are and how did this project come about?
Daniel: I think it’s interesting to note that despite our very different origins, we’ve both been driven by a need to change the world.
I feel that I am very much a product of my times. I voted for Obama as a teenager. I thought I was going to get a Swedish-style social democracy. Instead, what I got was an expanded war on terror, a more sophisticated deportation apparatus, and the sell-off of public universities to banks.
As we know, the crisis didn’t end neoliberalization – it deepened it. The crisis came to mean that many of my friends are now crippled by debt. Many have jobs that they simply hate and are forced to keep because they have no other option. Nearly all of them live with their parents, even those that studied at the university. Almost all of them don’t see health professionals on a regular basis because their medical insurance is terrible, and dental insurance is not part of the coverage. (You should’ve seen my dentist’s reaction here in Berlin when I opened my mouth after ten years of not having my teeth cleaned)
The lives of most people in my generation are simply hard.
Spadework = Spadework refers to the preparatory and difficult work that is needed in order for a garden or a harvest to blossom in the spring. It was a term popularized by Ella Baker, a key organizer of the American Civil Rights Movement and an architect of the Freedom Schools of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It is referred to in a number of texts, including most recently Alyssa Battistoni's article Spadework and Chris Crass's book Towards Collective Liberation.
This lived experience led to a politicization on my part. Occupy was my first political experience where I was actively involved. After that I joined a small anarchist organization (cadre). From 2013 to 2015, I was part of a graduate student union (UAW 2865) and was elected its representative. When I moved to Berlin with Antje in 2015, I took part in the refugee struggles from 2015 to 2019 before joining Die Linke in late 2019.
These were fundamentally transformative experiences. But what defined them was a slow and often painful recognition that a rewarding, resilient, and politically effective organization does not develop by itself. Regardless of location and organization, it was a struggle to keep the transformative organizations, with which we wanted to conduct our actual struggles, from falling apart.
We live in the moment where our political struggles are again characterized by more willingness to experiment. We are trying harder to actually integrate and ground ourselves into social groups and the organizations that we are also trying to transfrom. This means a slow and painful reorientation towards politics that embraces the contradictions that define working-class cultures.
This podcast for me is a forum where our guests can discuss what organizing means today: in this conjuncture, across space and terrains, in order to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Daniel Gutiérrez and Antje Dietrich spoke with Lucie Matting and Aleksandra Kulesza.
Antje: Daniel already mentioned that we were part of different political organizations together, in different countries (the US and Germany) and in different structures (from a union to an autonomous organization to a party). And while I think I‘ve learned a lot from these different organizational forms and while I think it is very healthy for a political development to see more than one organization from the inside - I also sensed an occurence of problems that were similar everywhere: the question what is a good leadership, the question on how to grow, how to be accessible for people outside the left scene, or how to overcome oppression due to racism, sexism and classism.
Over time, we also saw that many people have found answers to some of those questions, never to all of them. However, each organization managed to answer one or two of them. For us the Werkstatt für Bewegungsbildung is the place, where we will try to collect the answers, share them with other people and - hopefully - make the left as a whole stronger. We will do this in workshops, but we also want to have a little archive of this very particular knowledge. And for us, this is what we want Spadework to be.
What inspired you in particular to create a podcast?
Daniel: Both of us are overworked parents, organizing and living in a catastrophic pandemic. Even before Corona, we didn’t have much time to consume cultural productions outside of those required by our work. Podcasts help to satisfy that need. You can listen to it while bicycling, while running, while on public transportation, while driving. I’ve learned a lot this way myself, so I figured, why not to try this format.
Antje: Additionally, what I really like about the format is that it allows a dialogue. I would like an investigatory, careful approach of “preguntando caminamos" to guide our learning process and for our podcast to capture this sentiment.
Which approaches and projects are important for you? Which guests are you particularly looking forward to intverviewing?
Antje: As people, who were politically active in the US, we are excited by the development of Democratic Socialists of America. It’s fascinating to see this experiment in mass organization blossom out of an environment designed to suffocate such formations and cultures.
Another impressive organizations is the Sunrise Movement, the way it was able to change the discourse of environmental politics with the help of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in the United States was simply incredible. And then #BLM, which, with its very diverse, sometimes even paradox of structure, should make everyone reconsider the supposed contradiction in the question of spontaneity and organization.
Daniel: Here in Germany, Die Linke is no doubt fascinating. I’ve always understood its importance, even as an anarchist in the United States. I directly benefited from the materials being published by the RLS, and grasped that even if I disagree with some of its politics, Die Linke is a kind of keystone organism whose existence enabled the existence of so many other things.
Antje: And of course, the Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen campaign is remarkable, particularly because of Starthilfe. This organizational innovation dedicated so many resources to building and distributing leadership. I find it to be a simply fascinating work that doesn’t happen every day – moreover everything was done by volunteers. Well, I think everyone should be studying them.
Daniel: Of course, all of the guests we’ve had and plan on having are important. They speak to tendencies and experimentations in organizations that we feel need to be underscored. That said, the experiences that Chris Dixon, Sharmeen Khan, and future guests like Rodrigo Nunes, Bue Rübner Hansen, and Manuela Zechner represent are the most interesting for me because they inhabit a middle-ground that refuses to give in to much of the dichotomies we work in. It’s not black and white for any of these comrades – organization or spontaneity, horizontalism or verticalism, activism or organizing – they live in a contingent and constantly unfolding grey. And that is what politics and organization are all about: adapting and being able to fit, according to the existing terrain and balance of forces. It requires being comfortable with a flux.
Antje: We are really looking for people who are (or sometimes were) involved in politics “on the ground”. Who sat in these boring meetings, who experienced the feeling of solidarity. But who also want to reflect on their activism. We want people who can praise their movement but also name its weaknesses.
What do you say to: "Organizing is an US-American approach that is once again being brought to Europe"?
Daniel: Well, personally, I get annoyed when “organizing” is reduced to a very specific repertoire or a model. In this context, Rodrigo Nunes always makes it clear that we are all already organized and are constantly organizing ourselves. Isolating certain practices in order to view them exclusively as organizing ignores the whole context in which that practice occurs. This approach also goes against the sentiment that there is a fundamental difference between “mobilization” and “organizing.” This isn’t to say that there isn’t a distinction in existing organizational tendencies – one approach is focused on mobilizing already existing resources in the hope that that mobilization generates more mobilization, while the other approach is focused on building more social resources through expanding and distributing leadership of specific social bases in order to transform the structures that define their lives. Both approaches are organizing resources and people – their strategic investment of resources simply sets different priorities.
That said, there are very specific organizing models, like Jane McAlevey’s, that are defined by particular practices, mechanisms, and techniques, that must be applied in a concrete order and procedure no matter the environment. Yes, I can see how one could say this is an “export.” However, I would also say that the development of this very specific knowledge about class conflicts cannot be subordinated to any methodological nationalism.. It seems absurd to me that Germans would be complaining that organizing is an imported knowledge, when much of these insights were developed in organizations that go back to the SPD itself. I mean, there is no small cult within the DSA that studies the SPD prior to World War I in order to “rediscover” the lost knowledge of organising practices The circulation of such concepts is neither country unique nor new.
Like the working-class itself, its sciences, its arts, and its weapons have no homeland.
Antje: I feel, Daniel might have said everything already. Maybe one point from the German-native speakers perspective: I do see a difference between the meaning of ‘organizing’ in the English native speaker sense and the English term ‘organizing’ that is used today by the German left. It is unclear to me if the question of where the concept migrated from is actually relevant in practice. In our podcast and our political work we focus on learning from each other, if we don’t look beyond our boxes, there is not much to be gained. We have to see what other organizations in other countries are doing. What doesn’t work is the idea that we can just make a carbon copy of a strategy and then win that way again. But that is not just true for concepts from other countries, it is also true for concepts from different times, different areas, different campaigns. We always need to adapt what we have learned to our very particular context.
What (political) differences do you see, especially between the US-American and German approaches?
Daniel: For me it is not easy to talk about concrete differences. At the end, the struggle is a broad flow of mixed activities and strategies with a context-based circulation of practices and strategies. Yes, there are certainly different organization approaches — I already talked about the difference between mobilization and base-building. And we can see other models in the area of "base-building" or even organizing: the IWW organizing model, McAlevey’s model, Zach Exley’s and Becky Bond’s model and others.
Antje: I think there’s a serious problem when we try to take something that worked in one place and in one setting and trying to transplant it elsewhere, without thinking of the concrete conditions of the new environment and the relations of forces we are introducing this to. This is why I’m somewhat critical of comparing these different models. I feel that such a comparison assumes - to a certain degree - that these models are fixed, almost ritualized arrangements of practices that are pretty static.