On Organizing: The Personal is Political

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Third in the series: On Organizing

The Personal and the Political

Personal politics — deeply felt and enduring — might just be the only politics that really matter. In the late 1960’s, Carol Hanisch and others in the emerging women’s movement breached the borderline between private lives and public action.  Daily oppressions and humiliations that seemed a “natural” part of women’s lives were revealed as a historically constructed system of patriarchy.  Since then, organizers have understood that problems seen as personal are often expressions of underlying political issues. Organizers raise consciousness by helping people see their personal trials as outcomes of power struggles and political choices.1

Individualism and the free-market ideology that believes rewards are distributed according to merit also encourages people to understand their troubles as personal shortcomings and failings. If the organizer allows those views to go unchallenged then people will be demoralized and passive and few will take the risk to become activists.

The organizer provides the relevant context—social, economic, political, or historical–to demonstrate that the grievances being experienced are not just individual matters but part of broader trends with solutions that can only be found in concerted action. The point is to link individual problems with systemic causes. Then you can help someone to discover an identity of interests with others. Common interests make collective action possible.

One must, however, be careful not to overemphasize large impersonal forces in history as that may promote victimhood or resignation in the face of the juggernaut. The twin and indispensable part of connecting the personal with the political is the promotion of agency: the basic democratic belief that people have the ability to govern themselves and improve their lives.

Promote agency by breaking down isolation, fear and fatalism. Embolden people by aiming for small victories and positive events that you have some measure of control over. Connect modest struggles with larger issues and the broader movement.

Show how some small victory is linked to the struggle for workplace democracy—almost all workplace issues are.  The movement against mass incarceration connects the personal with the political. When our prisons are full of non-violent offenders and HSBC does not even get indicted for laundering hundreds of millions for the drug cartels it is obvious that discriminatory policing selects criminals by color and class. Crime and punishment are personal politics.

Organizers also promote agency through the long and patient effort to develop leaders. Ella Baker, one of the most influential organizers of the mid-20th century, argued that movements needed “the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.”

So true. That is what organizers do.

Sometime in their lives most people have developed a positive core of attributes that can be bought to bear on the political process. In many cases people see these skills as personal ones appropriate to their role as parents or special to their occupations. It is the organizers job to be aware of an individual’s strengths and skills, and to help them find political work that matches and then enhances their abilities.

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.”2

We fuse the personal to the political with personal responsibility to activism. The people have rights and responsibilities and they are both collective and individual. In many ways, the organizers most important target is not the power-holder or decision-maker but the sources of passivity, avoidance, and denial within the people.

And, we should not deny that our problems are largely of our own making.

As Fredrick Douglass taught, “Find out just what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

Submission or resistance?  Both regulate injustice. We make choices and those choices have consequences. There is simply no substitute for personal responsibility to political life. Yes, the political is personal too.

When many millions discover just how political their personal lives are — and act on that knowledge —  then we will cross the threshold to revolutionary change.


 

  1. See Also Sara Evans classic work, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and New Left.

2. Versions of this quote have been attribute to June Jordan, a Hopi Elder, and Grace Lee Boggs.  Let us honor all by encouraging leadership and participation.

About Richard Moser

Richard Moser has 40 years experience as an organizer and activist in the labor, student, peace, and community movements. Moser is author of "New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era," and co-editor with Van Gosse of "The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America." Moser lives in Colorado.
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