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From Protest to Organizing

How organizing yields power and provides a moral education

One evening in late January, my family and I went to a demonstration at which a few hundred people with signs and banners packed themselves onto a concrete plaza and declared our Brooklyn neighborhood to be a “hate-free zone.” We saw a few friends, some familiar-looking neighbors, and a lot of strangers. We could hardly hear the speakers, but that didn’t matter: it felt great to be there. After the speeches, the demonstrators marched up the sidewalk together, chanting “No ban, no wall” and “Stand up fight back!” All the way home, I felt happy and grateful.

That event exemplifies a political method that I will call self-expressive protest. (Although there are other kinds — disruptive protest, most notably — I will also sometimes use the unmodified word “protest” for concision’s sake.) Self-expressive protest has its place: it can dramatize issues, vent anger, lift spirits. Nevertheless, self-expressive protest also has its limits. I would like to propose that now, as the first shock of the Trump presidency passes, it would be a good thing if Americans on the Left were to shift the balance of our activity from protest to organizing. Organizing is a method of democratic activity distinct from protest; by seeking to build lasting organizations, it yields a power, and provides a moral education, that self-expressive protest cannot.

To understand the value of organizing, it is helpful to notice the different ways that protest and organizing use public space. Protest fills a public space with as many people as possible. The location of the space matters little: think here of the reiteration of airport protests a few months ago or Occupy protests a few years ago. The ideal protest is one that can be replicated anywhere, and can be attended by people who come from and return to anywhere. This may be because protest typically begins with an issue and afterwards finds the people who might take up that issue.

With organizing, in contrast, locations matter more. Organizing characteristically begins not with an issue but with a constituency, a group of people who already share a particular public space, like a workplace or neighborhood. A shared space gives rise to a unique shared experience, and so not only the issues but also the mood of each organization is likely to be unreplicable. If the ethical question for protest is a choice of principles, the ethical question for organizing is what Ignazio Silone called a “choice of comrades.”

If protest participants feel lost in a crowd, the protest’s success is not endangered. Organizing, however, offers the experience of public membership, of learning that one is dependent on and depended on by people beyond one’s family or circle of friends. Organizing pulls people into groups larger, or at least less intimate, than a family or a circle of friends but smaller and more comprehensible than a crowd — groups in which members can see and hear and form judgments about not only their fellow members but also their leaders. Unlike protest, organizing asks members to stick around for more than a one-day effort, and in a moderately-sized group whose members stick around, tasks and knowledge can be shared, and members can become leaders. The consequence is that organizing provides a structure through which members can articulate a shared agenda and hold leaders accountable, and can influence electoral politics and public policy, or negotiate with business owners or bureaucrats. Organizing, in other words, provides institutional power, the durable power that comes from sustained collective action.

Because it uses public space in these ways, organizing allows for a quality of public life different from what we find in self-expressive protest. Protest is hard to sustain for long; it is better at showing support for a cause than at winning it; although a few protest participants show up again and again, many others show up once and then disperse. What’s more, self-expressive protest miseducates its participants. If my main form of participation in public life is to chant and hold signs at protests, I may come to see public life, the shared world of neighbors and strangers and fellow citizens, as merely a screen on which to project my feelings, remaining — as Alexis de Tocqueville put it — imprisoned in the loneliness of my own heart.

Self-expressive protest is not something of which one should make a steady diet. Although it may be that critics of our new president are in for “four years of vigils,” a democratic Left cannot live on vigils and protests alone, and so I want to offer four ideas about the importance of organizing for the American Left right now.

First, organizing is persistent. If protest is the sprinter of public life, organizing is the through-hiker. Our political problems are not limited to our current president; they have deep roots in American culture, economy, and public institutions. Even after Trump’s presidency, those underlying problems will remain. Advocates of a democratic and welcoming society will need structures of power and experiences of membership that are more than episodic. They will need to be through-hikers.

Second, because organizing begins with constituencies rather than principles, it engages people who do not already agree with one another: it fosters expansive solidarities. Organizing prompts us to search for common ground — if not with everyone (that would be a utopian dream), then at least with a modest number of people with whom we do not yet seem to have much in common aside from the spaces, small or large, that we share. Local organizing lays the groundwork for the large-scale coalitions and conciliations that our national politics needs.

Third, organizing educates. Because it changes bystanders into members and members into leaders, organizing develops political skills and builds networks of public relationships. Because it points to the political dimension of existing social relationships, it cultivates the communities on which it is premised and provides a training for political life that no series of protests — and no classroom — can match. In that sense, organizing and protest converge: mobilizing people for a protest is easier when those people already have the skills and networks that organizational membership provides. We will need self-expressive protest again, and future protest is fed by present organizing.

So far, I have suggested organizing’s advantages as a political method, as a matter of power and public membership. But my fourth claim has to do with concerns better described as cultural, or perhaps moral.

When we consider the factors that contributed to the results of last November’s elections, we should notice not only the organizational weakness of the Democratic Party, labor, and the wider Left, but also the cultural or moral patterns that other generations might have called our country’s “mores” — patterns that are the consequence and the cause of our organizational life. Because of the state of our organizations and because of the state of our mores, Americans found ourselves with too few defenses against the rise of a crude entertainer-politician who seems to see political institutions and the public sphere themselves as his enemies. Americans today, even those of us on the Left, have too weak a sense of the distinction between private life and public life, too weak a sense of the distinct value of public life, too strong a disdain for and despair about politics. We too rarely appreciate public life for being public life — for having qualities different from those we seek in private life. Small-screened digital devices and earbuds have turned public space into the setting for side-by-side portable private spaces; pollsters ask us which candidates we find likable, applying the criteria of private relationships to public relationships; increasingly, Americans read memoirs but not novels: we prefer writing that claims (as do private relationships) to be direct and intimate over writing that reminds us (as do public relationships) of the space between us. We have few opportunities to acquire an affection for public life, and many to reject or obscure it.

Nevertheless, we need a public life worthy of our affection. In public life, we learn the limits of the self; we learn that the intractable world of neighbors and strangers gives shape to the self. Because it consists of connections between selves, public life reminds us that we are not alone, that what affects one affects others — and because it marks the distances between selves, it reminds us that we are alone, that no level of intimacy or sincerity can free us from the need for solitude. Where self-expressive protest lets private habits colonize public space, organizing bridges private life and public life: it eases the individualist into an affection for public life and into the role of citizen.

Organizing, better than other political methods, can help us resist threats to democratic mores. If an old-fashioned word like “mores” feels out of place here — too soft, too removed from the urgency of resistance to President Trump — it may be that discomfort with the moral dimension of political life is itself one of the things we ought to be resisting. Precisely because we need to learn what organizing can teach us about the feel and worth of public life, we are likely to find organizing unfamiliar and unpleasant, at least compared with the satisfactions of self-expressive protest. Recognizing that our side needs power may be enough to push us to begin a shift from protest to organizing. But we are likely to find that if we are to sustain that shift, we will have to allow our organizing to change not only our country but also ourselves.

Geoffrey Kurtz

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