Revolutionary Work vs. Alienated Labor

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By Nijmie Dzurinko and Iaan Reynolds

Organizing to fundamentally change society is a monumental task. It requires a lot of us as individuals—in particular because it is a collective project.

In order to do this collective work we must be able to do our individual tasks as well as combine our efforts to design and implement processes—determining the order of operations and solving problems along the way. We must coordinate others and be coordinated; keep our eyes on the whole as well as the individual parts; check in with, support, and hold people accountable. We have to be willing to work independently, develop internal motivation, and follow through.  

We are going to run into situations that we are unfamiliar with. We are going to take on tasks we’ve never done. We’ll need to learn how to communicate with other people, deal with conflict and sometimes with people being mad at us. A huge part of the work will involve creating lasting organizations as vehicles for the development of clear, competent, committed and connected leaders. 

In Put People First! PA we borrow a term from the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil—organicidade in Brazilian Portuguese—which we translate into English as “organicity”. Organicity (which comes from the word organic) refers to the totality of the tasks we have, the discipline we have to complete them, and the trust we have in our comrades to collectively accomplish our goals. The foundation for our organicity is the internal coherence of our organization, and it is reflected in the structures through which we articulate our strategy and theory of change. This internal organizational ecosystem consists of committees, teams, campaigns, tactics and initiatives; the methods of coordination and communication that knit these circles together; and the people—at various stages of our Leadership Development Pathway—situated in, participating and coordinating all of these organizational bodies. 

As we build our organicity and our internal coherence, we enhance our ability to collaborate, lead and ultimately to govern. By guiding and strengthening our organizations according to the principles of universality, equity, transparency, accountability and participation, we learn how to apply our values to our conditions and organizing context. What we gain in the internal coherence of our organizations is an achievement of these collectives, and ultimately of our entire class. 

This kind of collective work is very different from our labor that we are forced to sell in the capitalist system. For one thing, developing organicity empowers the working class to shape our reality as historical agents, since it builds our ability to organize our class to meet our needs in accordance with our principles. Under capitalism, our work serves the opposite goal. 

In the capitalist mode of production, our labor is a source of alienation. Though our experiences are different, what workers in every part of the capitalist economy share is the fact that our work is coerced, that we are forced to sell our labor power in order to live. This is what we mean when we say it is “alienated.”  In service, manufacturing, academic and corporate for-profit and not-for-profit  jobs—whether we produce consumer experiences, physical commodities, or “data” and “wins”—our work strengthens a system organized against our best interests. And here as always we have to lift up that in the U.S. context, our particular history of capitalist political economy rests on and has been shaped by the genocide of Indigneous people and the unpaid labor of African people in the form of chattel slavery. 

Alienation shapes our entire social world under capitalism.  All those who have to live by selling their labor are part of the working class. (And the working class of course includes all who are bound by the dictates of the system of work – whether employed or unemployed, excluded from work, incarcerated, or engaged in unwaged caregiving work that props up the system of wage labor.) We live in a society in which our class—the vast majority of the population—has no choice but to sell our labor power or starve and die.

Not only are we forced to work in order to live, but the products of our work — the commodities, profit, or numbers of people served—all contribute to perpetuating the status quo and propping up the existing system based on the interlocking injustices of poverty, white supremacy, environmental devastation and militarism. This is even true of those of us in “helping” professions or with “social justice” jobs.

Although the nonprofit sector does not seem to produce “profit” narrowly defined, the nonprofit sector is a part of this system of production. The fact that this sector’s funding comes from Wall Street and the billionaire class (via the charity arms of giant multinational corporations and privately funded foundations) tells us a lot. Nonprofits are structured to stabilize our social order. The “nonprofit industrial complex” channels outrage about the effects of capitalism not into a coherent and class-conscious mass movement to remove the ruling class from power but into siloed and isolated groups fighting on “separate issues” as if they do not share a common root.  This approach results in milquetoast reforms and support for the Democratic Party as an end in itself, while ultimately segmenting and diffusing the power of the working class. This organized misdirection is one of the key ways the ruling class sustains its power over our lives and labor, our minds, and even our dreams of what is possible. They take our pain and put it to work strengthening the system that made it. 

When we organize to overturn this system, we are doing work of a very different kind than the alienated labor we perform under capitalism. Revolutionary work, unlike alienated labor, makes necessary a commitment to continuous self-development. A commitment to improving our resiliency to take on new and more varied problems runs counter to the ways that we have been conditioned by the world of alienated labor. It is common for those who have been living their whole lives under these exploitative conditions, to associate any form of work with the alienation and suffering of the capitalist social order. We might even adopt, as a reflex, an avoidance of work—an assumption that any exertion of effort is part of an oppressive system. 

Without a new conception of labor, no matter how well intentioned we are, we risk falling into the trap of allowing triggers to overwhelm and control us. We bring our revolutionism into discussion groups and social media spaces but then crumple in the face of the actual tasks at hand, fraught as they are with the need to navigate discomfort and the strain and stress of new challenges. We reject the personal and emotional tasks of personal and collective development as impossible or even oppressive. We risk adopting a defensive stance that looks for the enemy in every comrade asking us to step up, instead of recognizing the objective class enemy we share. It is not a coincidence that the logical conclusion of this attitude leads to a world where no one is doing the work to organize our class or advance our interests. In their control over the way we conceive of our own work and imagine its possibilities, the ruling class possesses an ideological weapon that guarantees the weakness of the class it exploits.

Building our organicity, our organizations and selves, is entirely different than the work we do to enrich the capitalist class and strengthen its domination. Through our struggles, we learn how to accomplish things together, how to build each other up, how to make everything accessible to everyone across languages and abilities, how to bring people together across lines of division and shift/transform historic antagonisms between members of the working class into bonds of solidarity. When we work for a wage, we strengthen a system built on the denial of our needs; when we do the work of organicity, we strengthen a collective oriented toward politically securing them. The alienated labor that enriches the ruling class divides and individualizes us. The revolutionary work that we undertake builds connections across the lines of division imposed on us by ruling class ideology. Behaviors like competitiveness and constantly seeking personal recognition reflect conditioning by the world of alienated labor. The work of revolutionary organizing is not alienated labor, but rather represents the political possibility of freedom. 

As we continue the long process of building the leaders, organizations and networks needed for a fundamental change it is vital that we also build a new conception of labor. The ruling class would have us believe that being forced to work or die is a natural part of being a human. We have long known that this brutal mythology obscures everything truly great about humanity and the work we’re capable of.

At the same time as it teaches us that “work or die” is a natural fact, the capitalist system violently trains those of us who begin to question its workings into the belief that all work is alienated. Many of us thus begin our political development burdened with the deep-seated belief that emotional development and mentorship, base building and the hard work of deepening our internal democracy, ultimately serve an evil higher power operating over and above us. But we must reject this belief and all the habits it allows to grow. The idea that all labor is alienated is itself a capitalist fantasy—an ideological obstacle just as dangerous to the interests of our class as the cutthroat policies of a healthcare profiteer or the vote of a bribed powerholder.

We should demonstrate and practice in our organizations the values of the new society that we are working to build and so we need to be working in a way that demonstrates the lie that the only two things that motivate human beings to do things are money and fear.

To build accountability, love and trust with our comrades in the struggle is already to do away with the harmful ideology that all labor divides and harms us. Our revolutionary work builds the connections that sustain us through the rough times. It is through this work that we can heal and release internalized ruling class narratives that say we aren’t worth anything, that we aren’t good enough. Revolutionary work can give the deep, spiritual meaning to our lives that so many people in our class struggle to find, and suffer without. We learn to love our class, to act with that love for our class—and hatred for the system that oppresses and kills us—as a motivating force every day. In the work of revolution we strive for a new world, one in which our lives and our labor—our creative power, our productivity, and all their useful results—can finally be free.

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