the anti-bureaucracy of community

by Molly C

This one goes out to Justin Ruben, Daniel Mintz, and all the other faceless droids that call themselves MoveOn.  Dear Droid, I have unsubscribed from your mailing list at least three times.  When I went to your website to contact you, I found no information but the same over-elaborate submission form I use to contact Comcast.  Quit calling me your “member.”  Please.  I accidentally signed up on your listserv.  Receiving emails does not constitute civic participation.  Besides, I have no clue what you stand for besides asking me for $5 to keep your little machine alive for no other reason than to pretend the Democratic Party has a grassroots base.  The form of your organization goes against every principle of progressive values you co-opt.  If your network is not constantly being made by the substance of your members’ creative contributions and relationships, you are just another bureaucracy.  Just another self-appointed mediator, pretending your own legitimacy to cancel out the space where cooperation use to be.  No thanks, I don’t need to be managed.  Who are you and what do you stand for — that’s the first question.  Then we can meet eye-to-eye and figure out where to go next.

I confess to my own clicktivist laziness, my own willingness to forfeit the stakes of my progressive politics to liberal bureaucrats I don’t know.  But now it’s brought me to some ruminating on such political alienation. “Bureaucracy,” here, is not a thing or an ideology; it’s an impulse acted out by people in social relations, a habit that structures our way of being together — not just organizations but individuals and other in-betweens.  We need working critiques at the level of habit if we are going to get past good intentions and reasonable perceptions and start doing the work.

The work is hard and gets ugly; the bureaucratic impulse habitually sanitizes. One requires organizing people; the other simply manages them.  One distributes responsibility and expects accountability, asking us to rise to new challenges; the other makes our token contribution as easy as all our other unsustainable habits.  In a community working to build, care, and sustain itself, people cooperate with other people, dealing with plurality and conflict without referring to a handbook.  The bureaucratic impulse creates interfaces and intermediaries at each step, little hierarchies within hierarchies within hierarchies — top-heavy weight that flattens the complexity beneath it, a pesticide to grassroots.

I don’t buy that bureaucracy is a necessary evil, that we need somebody to do the technical maintenance of our organizational infrastructure.  We need everybody to contribute to that infrastructure; those necessary, everyday contributions must share in the substance of democratic participation.  That infrastructure makes real our democratic demands and structures our everyday input with political ideals.  It is dangerous, unfair, and unsustainable to leave it in the hands of a few bureaucrats claiming to maintain it as if it were some technical apparatus .  How will we ever be sure where that technical apparatus ends and where democratic space begins?  There’s no way to draw that line without re-instating it — the realm of the technical-bureacratic is demarcated by technical bureaucrats.

If all creative energies go only to campaigns and programs, what default is left for in-between space?  Whatever is there affects  tone and style, nuances that shape our experience, ownership, and belonging.  Anthropology 101: We cannot assume that our tone and style (no matter how friendly and liberal) is the most generic, the most inclusive, the most unmarked.  These assumptions erase the divisions they create.

What’s the opposite of bureaucratic abstracting of personal relations to technical managing?  What infrastructure can we build between campaigns and events that does not silently privilege the middleman who created it?

I suggest “community” not to define it, but just to describe the ongoing process of building sustainable relationships.  Because we can’t afford to have middlemen.  We need people standing up to speak and act for themselves — part of a collective but not on behalf of the collective.  In between campaigns, all we need is community, just the support and social energy, ongoing for all those people who keep tabs on each other, who challenge each other, who respect each other enough to distribute the work load. Nobody overworked or underused.

As an ideal, this is an impossible demand.  Anthropology 102: The liberal concept of the public sphere is a make-believe idea that we all have equal opportunity to be heard just because we can speak.  In fact, our unequal positions and unequal access to capital heavily affect the how, when, and by whom (if ever) we are heard.  Bureaucrats make this worse, not better, by their entitlement to speak and mediate, by their refusal to throw their own hat in the ring, acknowledge their privilege and deal with the implications.

But community is not just an ideal: it is also an ethic and a habit.  We can cultivate it indefinitely and at different scales.  It does not depend only on political victories even while it is threatened by the heightened stress and desperation of hard, lonely times.  It is anti-lonely.  Anthropology 103: The everyday matters so much.  It is shot through with so many histories; it is full of so many futures.  It is the only site of action on which we can rely to consistently present itself, everyday.  And it belongs to everybody.