Organizing to Put All the People and the Planet First

This blog was born out of feelings stirred up by inattention to one of the most important stories taking place today, the story of egalitarian, grassroots organizing. In June of this year over four thousand people came together for the second annual People’s Summit. They came to spend three full days getting to know one another face to face in what the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune after it described as “the nation’s largest political conference.” The Summit was, above all, an organizing event that represented movements, organizations, and individuals from all over the country. One older couple travelled fifty hours by train from northern California. They were present at the workshops and plenary sessions all three days and faced a fifty-hour train trip back home.

This second annual People’s Summit, I suggest, is the tip of one of the biggest stories gone missing from a society that boasts of its Big Data. Big Media will pick apart a set of stories obsessively, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, no matter how ephemeral, if it occurs within the circle of power at the centers where Big Media itself lives, Washington and Wall Street in particular.

The signs that there is an alternative to the Big Media stories that makes more sense of things, taking shape as it gathers steam, tend to be interpreted as “noise,” odd bits and pieces that fall outside the lines of what really matters. I believe that the story represented by the Summit belongs to such an alternative scenario; that it not only makes more sense but is vital to the task incumbent on those committed to government of, by, and for the people.

The sheer rich idiosyncrasy of the individuals, groups, and institutions forming this movement make it an unruly thing, moving rapidly, emerging in unexpected obscure, small ways. It is happening across the country, crossing the neat boundaries, left and right, of the conventional categories of social and political analysis. But what is happening is not as unformed, helter-skelter, and disorganized as it seems from the occasional notices it gets from mainstream media.

What I witnessed at the Summit was organizing for the purpose of taking back power from an unrepresentative minority. Unlike demagogic populism, it is a movement to redistribute decision-making power by widening,not limiting, the franchise, extending it to all the people, on behalf of the common wealth. It is not just focused on Washington. It is a story about local politics: regional, state, cities, towns, all the way down to neighborhoods and neighbors. Its practices are exercises in the virtues and ethos of egalitarian democratic interdependence. It is the story of organizing as a school for democratic practices, democracy in action.

Democracy will always be in the experimental stage. We are always going to be testing whether a nation conceived in liberty for some, but dedicated to the proposition that all persons are created equal can in fact be brought about. Democratic organizing requires practices of self-critique in light of its ends, self-critique which includes critical re-imagining of those ends. While I focus in this blog on organizing, I plan to report, in a separate blog, on efforts at reimagining egalitarian arrangements of interdependent freedom in the face of global, indeed planetary challenges.

In the book from which I have taken the title of this blog, Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (2010), Princeton professor Jeffrey Stout calls attention to “the nearly complete failure of social critics, as well as the mass media, to depict the democratic practices that have occasionally produced victories … in our politics” (p. 92). Stout wrote this in 2010 in the aftermath of Katrina. This is the story that is still not being told. This is the story that must be told.