One of the cruel absurdities of capitalist society is that it demands that each of us, on top of the business of living our life, also manage it. Everything from navigating a complicated health insurance plan to leasing an apartment to buying groceries is an individual responsibility; if it’s shared it’s shared at the level of the nuclear family. It’s incredible how much of our time is wasted on this stuff—and how harsh are the consequences for failing to manage even a single aspect of one’s life.
It’s not surprising to find a socialist organization walking a fine line between rejecting this expectation for the impossibility it is, and reifying it in comrades’ relations with each other. In DSA, we have a transformative vision: while we fight to pass Medicare for All, we also seek to transform the social relations of medicine so that patients are treated not merely as bodies but as people. On the other hand, as we set about running these campaigns and building our chapters, we, too, operate under the faulty premise that our members can manage their own lives—that they will take care of themselves and take on reasonable commitments.
This is hard enough to do in our private lives, but in the context of a socialist organization it is untenable. To understand why, just imagine having an engaging job that demands a great deal of your time and energy. Then imagine having a second one, just as demanding, except you don’t get paid for it. For many of us who are active in DSA, this is the situation in which we find ourselves.
We are workers, and DSA organizing is more work. The fact that it’s for a cause we believe in doesn’t change this. Nothing will. But we should acknowledge it, then begin to figure out how to make it bearable.
We must learn to support each other. Though it may sound obvious, this is as difficult and transformative as anything we hope to do. Running a campaign or leading an organization is a collective undertaking, and to succeed we must share a sense of responsibility for its success. But to learn to be there for each other in the way we need is going to require a new way of relating to each other—one we will have to deliberately forge.
Why the old models won’t work
Being part of a socialist organization is a new endeavor for most DSA members, and as we search for a basis on which to interact with our comrades we tend to borrow from familiar models. Though we can borrow some elements from relations such as those of family, friends, and coworkers, none of these is sufficient. Trying to build DSA on these bases will reinforce the structures of oppression that exist in society and will ultimately (probably quickly) fail.
Considering how much time we spend at work—considering it’s one of the few places where we may be part of a “team” and where we apply ourselves to long-term tasks—it’s no surprise that when we come to DSA, we bring to it the same skills, habits, etiquette, and ethic that we’ve learned at our jobs. The model of coworkers at the same socialist organizing workplace is probably the most tempting for DSA members to emulate.
But we need to be extremely selective in what we borrow from the professionalism of capitalist workplaces. Otherwise we risk recreating their same alienation and inexorable individualism—a fatal mistake for a socialist organization.
This professionalism obliges us to pretend we are in control, going to work willingly and cheerfully—a mask, we know, for what is in fact coercion. But since we wear this mask day in and day out, we end up wearing it to DSA meetings, too. Even here, where we come of our own accord, we put on the same artificial public face, and implicitly expect the same of our comrades. What’s concealed are struggles which, though they may seem banal, are perhaps our most important.
Come to a DSA meeting and you may look around and see a roomful of bright-eyed volunteers ready to roll up their sleeves and get down to the work of living out their socialist values. What a beautiful image! We want to reflect it back. But it’s a mistake to see only this, and not also the trouble taken to make it to this meeting, the even greater effort required to get a single thing done. And, beneath all that, the struggle just to keep it together, which is more than enough to occupy us. We do DSA work on time borrowed from our obligations to our friends, our partners, our families, ourselves.
Once we recognize this we can see that we don’t all come in with a clear calculation of how much time we can afford to donate to this organization. We steal time from the rest of our lives to give it to something bigger than any of us—and it’s not sensible or rational according to the logic of the society we live in today. What brings us to DSA is a human need that finds no satisfaction in the world as it is—it’s a longing to subsume our individual selves in a larger project, to work together to build a world we own in common.
We’re humans, not organizing robots
We all know that it’s bad to commit to too much, yet DSA members and organizers in general do it all the time. We overcommit and we don’t follow through, or we get burned out, or both. Whether it results in someone walking away from their leadership role or just a lot of emotional distress, burnout is bad for the organization and the movement. We need to actively combat it. A default solution is to tell our comrades to do a better job of managing their commitments—but in an organization like ours, we can’t assume that’s enough.
Two years ago, I got really burned out. I was both spearheading a campaign within our chapter and representing Chicago DSA on that coalition’s leadership—roles that are now, thankfully, split among multiple people. I mention it here because it showed me my limits. Everyone has these and what I’ve learned is that it’s best to just know this and assume that they exist, rather than pushing them all the time.
When the campaign was first getting off the ground, I did everything I could think of to organize for it. In meetings and in one-on-one conversations, I rallied chapter members to adopt the campaign and to win our first victory. This turned out to be the easy part—though it was a great deal of work—because I did it with a team of several people who supported each other.
When that team fell apart, I kept organizing, but I couldn’t build a new team on my own. I didn’t have the emotional energy to organize other chapter leaders individually. I didn’t have a “personal base” in the organization (and I never will—I don’t think socialist organizing works that way). All I could do was ask my comrades for help.
I’m not the first DSA leader to hit a limit like this, and I won’t be the last. We’re humans, not organizing robots. This is why we have to relate to each other as comrades, not as coworkers, each held responsible for their own self-care and commitment management.
A new relation
The exhilaration of organizing, the grand vision of socialism, can propel a person far. But even these are not enough to keep you going if you have to carry the weight of the work on your own. Eventually you will, like a tired traveler, sit down at the side of the road and go no farther.
Fortunately I didn’t reach that point—help from my comrades came through.
If DSA is to succeed, then, we can’t just take our members’ volunteer labor hours like so many donated canned goods. There has to be a reciprocity, not only at the level of what we choose to fight for with our campaigns, but also in how we conceive of this work.
Advancing socialism, building a new world, is at every step collective work. It won’t happen unless we apply our vision of radical change to the way we relate to each other. This means supporting each other when we need it, not just when we’ve signed up for it. It means “assuming good faith” to an extent that may seem imprudent.
Organizational practices of mutual aid can also help foster this principle. Child care, care for members who are sick, sharing rides or other kinds of resources—these are things that make it easier for members to participate in DSA on a basic level, and we should learn to do them (as in some cases our chapter already has). These are all the more important now that we are living under a pandemic and economic crisis. They will only become more important as our organization grows in size and strength and our work becomes more intense.
Our work is already intense. The amount of work my comrades do to build DSA, in so many different ways, is incredible. But let’s recognize that if we’re winning, it’s only going to get harder. We’re going to have to go to even greater lengths and make even greater sacrifices. If our workload already feels impossible, if we’re already on the edge of burnout—what will we do when the stakes get higher?
We will have to rely on each other. We will have to trust each other, and to live up to that trust. There’s no other way we can do this.
Helping each other out when we need it sounds simple—but we shouldn’t overlook the extent to which our habits, our common sense, and our coping methods all militate against it. It’s too easy to stay wrapped up in that little cocoon of private misery that we joined DSA to try to escape. It’s too easy to emerge from it a little, only to be wound back up by that isolation that comes from feeling unsupported and uncared for—in organizing work that is difficult and for which we needy people only require more care, more support. We’re trying to transform our world with this organization, and that gives us reason to relate to each other in a brand-new way. Let’s strive to be to one another what nothing else in our present world will.