Went to the library on the weekend, and stumbled on a slender gem called “What a way to run a railroad: an analysis of radical failure.” Written in the mid-80s, looking back on all the ‘counter-cultural’ projects that had gone up like a rocket and then down like a stick since the mid-70s.
We know how difficult it is to sustain a critical and oppositional project in a society which is structured at all levels against it. But these external difficulties do not themselves provide a sufficient explanation. Some radical organizations appear to believe that failure in a capitalist world is a direct sign of ‘correctness’ – capitalism proved evil once again. Such are the pure but vicious delights of ideological purity.
And this too…
And here the central notion is that of the ‘collective’. The assumption is that as long as we fight in the right way we are bound to win. From here it is only a short step to thinking that it doesn’t matter if we win, as long as we’ve played the game in the right spirit.
And they have many astute and biting things to say about the (largely tacit) cultural assumptions that still bind us (word chosen advisedly) 25 years later. Here’s some tastes…
A further problem is the frequent lack of clear discussion over policy options: often the very notion of being clear about what your policy objectives are is tainted with all the evil connotations of machismo and ‘power’. A polarized discussion will be presented in such a way as to blur differences. Moreover, this whole process (especially when merged in a ‘consensus’ decision-making procedure which excludes the possibility of decision by majority vote) encourages people to say similar sounding things when they actually mean the very opposite. Equally bad, it often leads to a use of language that serves to obscure sharp differences of opinion so that at least the work at hand can carry on.
At the heart of the matter is the problem of defining responsibilities in radical projects. The present pattern is one in which undefined responsibility is too lightly undertaken without considering the nature of the job and whether, for example, a volunteer is the right person to do it. And when things start going wrong it becomes even more difficult to reallocate responsibility.
But accountability means more than simply apportioning blame to certain individuals. It also means developing an organizational culture which will encourage the individual in question to be the first to bring the problems to the attention of the collective. This requires a working atmosphere in which the admission of personal inadequacy or failure is not necessarily regarded as culpable.
There’s more, but I want to reflect a bit, and maybe do blogs on specific excerpts. Betcha. Can’t. Wait.
A final quote (I promise). This, on what I call “invisible power” owes a lot to the wonderful “Tyranny of Structurelessness” by American feminist thinker Jo Freeman.
The problem is that informal elites are not accountable to anyone. Because their power has no explicit basis there are no straightforward mechanisms for removing their influence. Unless you are part of the influential group it is hard to know who has real power in an organization run by an informal elite: who you should lobby for what purpose; what are the criteria on which decisions are based; which of the organization’s goals should take priority. Decisions will still be taken, agendas set and issues resolve, in any informal organization, but the basis on which these decisions are made is simply not made explicit.
Entry into the elite can be hard. Those who do not fit – because of class, race, sexual preference or politics – will be discouraged from becoming part of the ‘inner circle’. Those who are part of that elite inevitably have personal and political interests in maintaining the status quo. The consequence is usually that groups of friends become the main mean of organizational activity. Crucial discussions are held, and crucial decisions made in the pub, or in someone’s front room. The perpetuation of the elite is institutionalized and becomes very hard to break.