We do it badly, or not at all

reflections on the Congress of Municipal Movements

Anna Ronan Shaw
Oct 18, 2019 · 11 min read

A/N: Since last summer, I’ve been involved in Symbiosis: a network striving to create a continental confederation of directly democratic grassroots movements in North America. From September 18–22, 2019, we held a 4-day Congress of Municipal Movements in Detroit, MI, bringing together delegates from dozens of organizations across the continent to meet and deliberate forming a confederation for mutual aid, decision-making and information sharing. This article is geared towards those already familiar with the Symbiosis project.

I’ve spent the past year learning a lot of ways how not to build a directly democratic continental confederation of grassroots organizations, and a couple of ways how to.

The Congress of Municipal Movements was a roller coaster, in ways I hadn’t foreseen from the outset but were nonetheless utterly unsurprising. What was surprising was the fact that, by the end of it, something had started to work. Some mutual understanding, some trust, some sense of community and shared ownership had emerged, and things were forming that weren’t forming before. What those things are, exactly — well, we’ll see. To determine for this what it looks like is the opposite of the point. The point is to allow this to emerge out of what is authentically needed from it, and do our best to build it step by step.

What happened at this Congress? What came before, and what comes after? I do not pretend I can offer any kind of objectivity, but I do think I can offer a unique perspective as someone both on the inside of the Symbiosis “backend,” and someone who shared a lot of the same frustrations with that backend expressed by folks who hadn’t been as involved in those conversations up until Detroit.

I am writing this reflection in three parts. First, on my knowledge of this movement up until the Congress. Second, on my experience of the Congress and how things unfolded there. Third, on possibilities and ideas of what may come next.


I. Symbiosis, before the Congress
Or, starting a circle

I joined Symbiosis in August 2018. The short version of the story is, I met a guy at a general assembly and one thing led to another. There was a retreat in Vermont last year, immediately preceding the Institute for Social Ecology summer gathering, when a bunch of organizers interested in this confederation met to talk about the interim structure of Symbiosis and plan for the 2019 Congress.

The point of forming a confederation of grassroots organizations was that it be driven by and for those organizations, so the outcomes couldn’t be determined without the conversations happening and the organizations at the table. But who would be at the table? How would they be chosen, and who decides? Where would the Congress even be? What would the interim processes and structure look like to get to the point when a new structure could be built through collective ownership and real-time deliberation?

This process had to be cyclical, with form following function following form following function, renegotiated according to the needs expressed at each step of the way. It was always going to be a circle.

Turns out, it’s not easy to start a circle.

As I grew more involved in Symbiosis, what had seemed simple at the outset quickly became more and more glaringly complicated. The conversations that unfolded over the following months were difficult and confusing, a constant negotiation of trying to move the project forward while ensuring all interested voices were given a chance to make decisions equitably and democratically. With over 1000 members across multiple countries and timezones, an ever-expanding Slack workspace, continued renegotiation of internal communications and projects, and an ever-looming deadline, every day of Symbiosis work was a new exercise in hammering out a new kind of democracy. Democracy is difficult, and made all the more difficult when you’re dealing with hundreds of voices in digital space, many of whom had never met one another before. In sum: oof.

In a society so entrenched in authoritarian structures, our democracy muscles have largely atrophied. When you’re used to being ruled, ruling yourself takes practice, and the year of my involvement leading up to the Congress was a deep and difficult practice. The process was not perfect, but every organizer did their best to be collaborative and intentional at each step. No step along the way ever came easily, from what colors to use on the website to how to phrase the launch statement to how to bring in or on-board new organizations. Everything was deliberated as best it could have been.

The constant tension that emerged was one that persisted into the Congress: those who were heavily involved in the “backend” were so heavily involved that they literally did not have the capacity to step back and onboard new members well, which perpetuated an unfortunate sense of insularity and hierarchy that was unwanted by all involved.

Naturally, those who were less involved in local organizing had more capacity to be involved in network-wide organizing. Sadly, the efforts to have representatives from local organizations form the core group working on the Congress and confederation didn’t really take off the way everyone hoped it would. Naturally, it was a slow-moving shitshow most of the time. Sadly, by the day the Congress started, those who’d been pushing past the point of burnout for the past several months were exceptionally burnt out.

I don’t know how else to put this but to say: if you joined Symbiosis recently, Welcome. Thank you for being here. Please pardon the mess. It was utterly exhausting to get here. A lot happened. A lot was trialed, a lot was errored, a lot was trialed again.

We were always going to do this badly, or we weren’t going to do this at all.


II. The Congress of Municipal Movements
Or, doing this badly

After four days of frantically running around Detroit, and twelve months of frantically running around the internet before that, Wednesday the 18th arrived. For those of us who were heavily involved in the production of the Congress and in Symbiosis leading up to it, my read on the general sentiment between us was, “Let’s just get through it, and hope we haven’t wasted the last (two) year(s) of our lives.”

For those who were new to Symbiosis at the Congress, I want to stress the point that there was a very strong effort made across the board at democratically deliberating as much ahead of time as possible, so that the Congress could push forward instead of reinventing the wheel. No one had authoritarian intentions, and everything that arose at the Congress was the product of open deliberation between anyone who showed up to deliberate. This does not mean it was without major flaws.

To those like myself, who were not new to Symbiosis, I remind us: we must always work with what’s happening now, what’s in the room, and understand that the whole point of an in-person Congress was to allow this confederation to forge out of the shared experience of human beings, together. Prefiguration is noble until you’re met with the actual thing, and then we must continuously reevaluate.

My memories of the first two Congress days are a bit blurry — a lot of running around and handling logistical crises. The first time I really got to be present with everyone in a room was the first assembly. I’ll let others speak to the early assemblies, but the words tedious, obtuse and arbitrary come to mind.

The decision-making and assembly processes we had set up just weren’t working how they were intended to. Somehow, every effort to create something shared and accessible had created something inaccessible and alienating. Despite being opposed to the parliamentary process from long before the Congress, I feel the utmost compassion for those who were pushing for it: they were doing their best, desperately soliciting input and help from others, getting none, and just moving forward as best they could.

We were going to do this badly, or we weren’t going to do this at all.

By Saturday afternoon, the rifts that had been forming between viewpoints in the room began to feel like ruptures. I’m not sure exactly how to define the two opposing viewpoints, but I feel there were mainly two: on the one hand, there were those who liked the process of democracy through parliamentary practice, on the other were those who wanted authentic, human conversations to drive action.

Or maybe — On the one hand were those who wanted to start at ground zero at the Congress and build together from there, and on the other were those who had been forging a proto-confederation together for a while and wanted to keep that going.

Or maybe, it was a difference between wanting to prefigure a new governance structure versus building a robust mutual aid network.

Or maybe, it was the children of DSA versus the children of the WTO protests and Occupy. Or maybe, libertarian socialists versus anarchists. Or maybe, liberatory structure versus liberatory experience.

What it came down to was ultimately the question: does form follow function, or does function follow form? Of course, there’s always some kind of a feedback loop. Of course, it isn’t easy to start a circle.

If this confederation was going to work, it was never going to happen by one side winning out over the other. The point of building this structure together was not to break apart like the Left always does, but to bridge divides and find solutions that could work for the needs of everyone, to the best of our ability. The point was to find commonality and allow for harmonious differences. The point was to work together, not to call out problems on either side and let the challenges get the better of us.

I found myself gripped by a sense of hopelessness mixed with a sense of resolve. If bridging divisions between people already so heavily aligned wasn’t possible… then the revolution surely wasn’t. But it was possible. It is possible. We just had to figure out how.

The image that kept coming to mind was of Caduceus — or, those medical snakes. Two entities, wrapping around each other, diverging, spiraling up. In our case, it was two perspectives, working together towards a shared vision that could not be accomplished without the other.

On Saturday night, we went from drawing jagged lines to actually flowing in a circle together. On the verge of complete breakdown, one of the main Symbiosis organizers asked an organizer skilled in facilitation to lead a circle process, and went around group to group begging exhausted and fed-up organizers to come back and give this one more shot. Thankfully, we did — because what happened there was magical.

In that Saturday night assembly, something changed. From acting like minds alone, we shifted into being fully human together, and we walked out with community. From throwing our hands in the air, we reached out to each other. From frustration and exasperation came authentic shared experience. Though differences were still present, the diverging viewpoints began to view each other, and learn from each other’s wisdom and mistakes.

Democracy is messy. Healing is messy. This work was never going to go smoothly.

It is so easy to get caught up in “If you’d just do it my way, this would work!” thinking — and maybe it would, for a time — but it wouldn’t be democracy. Direct democracy is the practice of individuals advocating for their needs together in community. The funny thing about humans is that, while we may all have the same basic needs, we all have different ways of approaching those needs, different priorities within them, different strategies for meeting them. Amid the urgency of impending climate collapse and rising fascism, it’s easy to get caught up in our minds, fixated on our ideas of the best way forward, and forget that we are all human. We are more the same than we are different.

In my view, the bonds we forged by the end of the Congress were strong because we had struggled together. We’d frustrated each other, and been frustrated together. We’d shared a profound experience and reached a point of release, of mutual understanding, of connection — together. The differences hadn’t been erased, but they were differences between allies, multiple perspectives within a shared whole. Like love, we’d fallen in trust. It was all the stronger for the pain that led to it.

By the end of the Congress, we walked out with… something. I can’t say exactly what that something is or will be, but a palpable change had been made: from Symbiosis and a continental confederation being a pipe dream of a few organizers, by Sunday it had become a shared commitment across multiple groups and a diversity of perspectives.


III. What comes next?
Or, step by step

Look, this was never going to “work.” No matter how on-fire the world is, how needed a unified Leftist front, how many trails were blazed before us from Chiapas to Rojava, we were never going to get 135 people from a few dozen grassroots groups into a room for a weekend and walk out with a fully-intact continental confederation with fully fleshed-out structures for decision-making, information-sharing and mutual aid.

All the same, something kind of… did work. Something did happen beyond individual organizers forming new relationships. Some sense of collective ownership and shared commitment arose to this project as a whole, and I do believe the connections we made will prove useful when and where they can best be used.

For the past several months, I’ve been thinking about the “value add” of Symbiosis as a thing. To me, the point of trying to create this network is not to add a new organization, but to bridge gaps between existing ones and forge an organized radical Left. The institutions we’ve been cultivating to meet our needs in a new way, from gardens to co-ops to assemblies — to me, these are the bones. The advocacy organizations and the organizers themselves, these are the muscles. Symbiosis, as-a-thing, is the tendons, connecting these pieces to work together in harmony.

Going forward, I don’t imagine we’ll prefigure a new kind of governance on a continental scale — nor, I believe, should we. The very structure we need on a global scale is one that allows for harmonious interaction and mutual aid between organized nodes, with all power retained at those nodes.

Where I see decision-making structures and organized confederations forming is on the local and regional levels. I see the continental level remaining an informational and mutual aid network, to be activated in the ability to share and spread information and resources. Beyond that, I don’t see continental-level decision-making as a viable possibility, nor an ideal to strive for.

Looking forward, I keep coming back to the old adage, “Think globally, act locally.” Where I see this going is to think continentally about networks of support and information-sharing, and acting locally and regionally to build decision-making structures. We know our own backyards. We know who’s doing what, and who can work together best. If we go this direction, to build structures locally / regionally and continue talking to each other continentally — this too will take time. None of this will happen overnight, and as frustrating and disheartening as the difficult moments can be, they will never not happen.

Rather than get fed up at the seeming impossibility of it all, I remind myself: This is possible. Let’s figure out how.

To each of you, I remind you: this work is not easy, for anyone. Please, be compassionate to yourselves and to others. This is a grand labor of love, and love needs to be kept at the core of it all.

Anna Ronan Shaw

Written by

Philosopher-king, pro bono. Writing for a world where many worlds fit. www.annaronan.com

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