Aug 31, 2021 • 39M

[rh11] Marshall Ganz on transforming grassroots momentum into political power

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For almost sixty years, Marshall Ganz has played an instrumental role in progressive movements and major democratic campaigns. He began to develop his approach to organizing while working alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, and would go on to design the grassroots organizing model that helped propel Obama to his historic victory in 2008. He’s now a senior lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society at the Harvard Kennedy School. Today we’re sharing Part I of our conversation.

CHRISTIAN: Marshall, it’s such a pleasure to have you join us.

MARSHALL: Thanks Christian, happy to be here.

CHRISTIAN: In the past few years, there have been a number of watershed moments, including Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March and climate strikes. While all this energy has been exciting, it’s not clear that these movements have been able to fully translate that into power. You’ve made the distinction between mobilizing and organizing–shall we start there?

MARSHALL: That’s a good place to start, because there has been a lot more mobilizing than organizing. The distinction, I think, is this: you can mobilize individuals’ resources, people who already agree with you, to show up somewhere or maybe to send an email. In other words, mobilizing is taking a capital you already have and spending it, but it doesn’t generate anything new. And that’s because it’s not rooted in the capacity to absorb anything new. What I mean is that organizing is about bringing people together and making commitments to one another to develop a collective capacity–an organization or a movement–in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To do that, you have to bring people into relationship with each other, you have to develop leadership, and you have to commit to people engaging as strategists as well as actors. Then if you have a mobilization, it’s a strategic choice, not just a reaction to the moment, and you’re equipped to use that mobilization to build power.

What we’ve seen so much of in recent years is digital media being taken advantage of to share information with large numbers of people in reaction to some motivating event, asking them to show up somewhere or something similar. But there’s no new capacity-build, no real power built that sustains. So you wind up having lots of these one-shot deals, and then they don’t translate into power, because they weren’t conceived that way. Zeynep Tufekci has a terrific book Teargas and Twitter where she does a study of these mobilizations, and that’s the contrast she makes. One of her arguments is that when you’re trying to mobilize in order to influence decision makers, how they see the mobilization–the rally, march, etc–depends a whole lot on what they think went into it. The March on Washington in ‘63, for example, was evidence of organized power. Some of the rallies we’ve seen more of these days are not evidence of that; they’re evidence of a momentary energized public that then may just disappear.

So mobilizing without organizing doesn’t get you very far. Organizing and mobilizing can get you a lot of places.

CHRISTIAN: In a recent article, you mentioned the work of feminine sociologist Jo Freeman and her phrase “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Can you talk about that for a moment?

MARSHALL: It’s interesting, because culturally when you say structure, I think people want to run the other way. It’s like oh, that’s going to be a constraint on my autonomy, and the highest good I have is my autonomy.

The sort of radical individualism that’s a result of political marketing and economic marketing… well, let me put it this way: structure, at its most basic, is simply a commitment we make to each other that we’re going to coordinate our work in some way. We’re going to meet once a week, or we’re going to use these criteria, or we’re going to end at this time. It’s just agreements we share so as to create continuity in our work or our relationship. That’s all structure is.

So the first problem is that it has a bad rap to begin with. It’s in this culture that feels like, I don’t want that. In part, that’s a reaction to experiences of oppressive structure; if maybe you’ve been in a situation that was a top-down deal, where you were structurally constrained, then you say, I want out of that. And so you go to the opposite extreme: uh-uh, nothing. There’s both a combination of that reaction to an oppressive structure and the lifting up of this kind of extreme individualism around us that makes structure sound like a problem, not a way of solving anything. And then you get what Jo Freeman in the early seventies called the tyranny of structurelessness.

This isn’t the first time this happened; in my generation, we went through the anti-structure phase too. But her argument was look, human beings are going to create structure anytime they get together. They’re going to make agreements. And it can either be on the books, transparent and accountable, or it’s going to happen off the books, opaque and not accountable. In a group where oh no, we don’t want any structure, we don’t have any leaders here... ok great, then what happens? Well, somebody’s still making decisions. Who’s that? Or wait, who decided that? And usually they disintegrate into various forms of factions and antagonisms, and fall apart. Not always–but a whole lot of the time.

Now sometimes the substitute for structure is intense personal relationships. You’ll have a movement or organization start with a core group of people who really trust each other, so they don’t need to build structure. Well, as they grow, guess what? The only decision-making authority in the whole organization is that little core. And so it winds up being the opposite of what it sets out to be; it winds up being very centralized, very personalistic and very top-down. There are organizations around us right now really struggling with this. They have local groups, which sort of want to do their own thing, and a national group of founders, and there’s no locus of legitimate decision-making. So structure is also an antidote to nepotism, to personalism, to all that stuff. It’s a way to be transparent about how we’re going to work together. But the aversion to it is a problem, it’s a big problem. A lot of organizations really struggle with it because see, it was sort of the norm.

Ok, here you’ve got to distinguish between firms–whether nonprofit or for-profit firms–and constituency-based representative organizations, in terms of where the authority comes from. In a firm, the authority comes ultimately from a board, which is fundamentally a function of ownership. And in nonprofits, it’s not so different–it’s still the board. Whereas in a union, for example, the authority comes from the members and is then delegated upwards. And in the federal structure, a citizen delegates to the city, to the state, to the federal–so the authority source goes from the bottom up. That’s the difference between a nondemocratic and a democratic organization.

For many years, up until the sixties or so, the typical form of association in the US was the representative form. It became dominant on a large scale in the late 19th century when a lot of civic capital was created. A typical model was a local chapter, state, and a national, and with elected leaders, and all that. Well, that kind of came apart in the sixties and seventies and it’s never really been successfully replaced. Unions still operate that way, some much better than others; some are much more engaged and capable of renewal. But people’s daily experience isn’t of that much–less and less. So like my students don’t know how to have a meeting. Now what does that mean? They didn’t make Toastmasters? No, it means that it takes a certain orientation to create a collective.

De Tocqueville, when he’s writing in the late 1830s, says the genius of America is associationism. By association, he means people connecting with other people, learning how their individual interests differ from common interests, developing affective bonds and learning to govern themselves. The whole capacity for collective, in this sense, has been eroding seriously. It goes beyond social capital, it’s like self-governance. How many good meetings have you been to? I’m not romanticizing the past, but there was a Civil War general who was active in the YMCA after the war, when all these associations were growing and people were asking, how do we govern ourselves? He came up with a pocket version of a set of rules; that’s where Robert’s Rules of Order came from. The innovation was that you could fit it in your pocket, because there were a lot of competing forms around. Well, that became kind of a standard thing. So it wasn’t this big puzzle, how do we decide? Nowadays, we’re like wait, how do we decide, who’s going to make the decisions? Is it going to be by consensus? Are we going to vote? What’s our commitment to honor decisions we don’t agree with? Oh wait, you made the decision? Then I’m walking. Well, then you don’t have a collective anymore–you just exit.

I guess what I’m saying in different ways is that this capacity for collective effort, where you’re ready to invest elements of your own agency in creating a collective agency, is really very, very much under assault. And so people substitute aggregation for it like, let’s get a bunch of opinions. What’s missing is people coming together and figuring out how to act on what they have in common. Instead it’s just aggregate…which is how a lot of market stuff works, and how politics has come to work.

CHRISTIAN: You talk about these micropractices and how they can turn into macropower. In many ways, this is leading into your thoughts on the breakdown of civil society.

MARSHALL: Yeah, well exactly, you have sort of two assaults. One comes from the economic direction. Markets are fine for certain things; they’re fine for figuring out efficiencies based on who’s got the resources to command them. But they don’t build anything collective, that’s not what they’re about. So a market process can be a pretty efficient way to operate an economic domain, but it’s all based on exit–you vote by your feet or by your dollars. Now politics is essentially, or has been traditionally, a collective effort. It’s about trying to bring people together to find common ground or to articulate their differences in such a way that they can be tested, argued about. That has been disappearing from our politics since the seventies, when the Supreme Court ruled that speech is money. What that meant was that we were the only liberal democracy that has no constraints on campaign spending–not on where it comes from, but the spending. What that did is create an industry that doesn’t exist elsewhere, political marketing–and it’s an, I don’t know, $15 billion industry now, that feeds off itself. The more money that’s spent, the more money they make. So it puts us in this transformation from what, historically, has been a collective process, into yet another form of marketing. It’s through soundbites or videos or social media, but it’s not bringing people together; it’s all about finding the niche that they’ll respond to. It’s kind of like oh, this person can be reduced to this issue, so now I’m going to hit on that issue. People aren’t issues though–they’re whole human beings. And so it fragments so much more than anything else. And at the same time, it turns politics into being dominated by wealth, for the most part.

Now what’s happened is that the wealth that’s generated on the economic side has generated a whole lot of inequality on the civil society side, so over the last thirty years, civil society organizations and movements have come to depend on philanthropy. And it’s crazy, but when we were building movements, it wasn’t like that. There’s been this shift where now I’ve got to figure out how to take care of my donors, I’ve got to come up with data that can convince my donors that this thing matters–as opposed to building a constituency based on people power that can contest the power of wealth. So it’s a big problem. I talk to my organizing friends, and it’s like we’ve got to get a grant, we’ve got to get a donor. Well, that wasn’t the deal, you know.

Now something like the Sunrise Movement is interesting because it didn’t start that way. It started more out of a real movement being generated by young people, just like March for Our Lives. But March for Our Lives pretty soon got taken over. And Sunrise, so far, has resisted that. By taken over, I mean hey, we want to help you, we want to support you–but now you need a board, you need this and this, and oh by the way, yeah we’ll give you a couple seats on the board. Well, it was just coopted; it just got appropriated. And so that’s a problem. In our country more so than in Western Europe where the same thing hasn’t happened to their politics, not like here, and the inequality isn’t as great.

So then the question is: where are the spaces in which you can create power that’s based on people rather than wealth? Movements are often what can fill those spaces. To me, that makes something like Sunrise very important. But also very challenging, in that they need the structure. Because there’s a lot of energy for change out there, but there’s also this problem of… well, here’s another just interesting person, Elizabeth Anderson. Do you know her work?

CHRISTIAN: I don’t believe so.

MARSHALL: She’s a philosopher at the University of Michigan. Her work is on freedom and equality, and her argument is that they are interdependent, not contradictory. Because the argument we get is that if you’re going to have equality, then you have to give up liberty. And she’s sort of saying well, maybe that’s the case if you look at it in an individual, but in a society, you can have the liberty of one person dominate everything based on wealth, and you don’t have much freedom. So if you look at it in terms of who has the capacity to make choices and act on them, then a concentration of wealth, inequality, is the opposite of freedom, not just the opposite of equality. Because if it’s equality in freedom, that’s very different than equality in nominal equality. So she wrote this book called Private Government, and it’s about the fact that most people spend most of their time in what she humorously calls communist dictatorship–in bureaucracies in which they have no say, in which they own no property. And increasingly, the firm or the bureaucracy moves out of just work life into private life. So it’s kind of like, where do people experience democracy on a day-to-day basis? I go from my job, well, there’s my house. But then where do I experience self-governance that actually matters?

All of this comes back to micropractices, because how do you have democracy unless people can learn how to do it? How do you begin to balance concentrations of power with people power, unless you can build collective capacity? The energy’s out there, the need is out there–the George Floyd response showed that woah, there’s a lot out there. But it’s either going to take shape in a form that can really assert power, or it’s going to dissipate. To me, that’s what this moment is about, because clearly there’s an awakening. The question is ok, what do we do with that? We’ll see.

CHRISTIAN: There’s an author you’ve referenced, political scientist Sidney Verba, who says essentially that liberal democracy is a gamble that the equality of voice can balance the inequality of resources. You just mentioned the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that money is speech, and it feels like we continue to head down that path. As I look at how we spend our political capital, it feels like money in politics is one of the most pressing issues. Can we go further into how we address the current role of money in politics?

MARSHALL: Now, I think it’s important to go to the starting point. Compared to other liberal democracies, we have far less of a functional democracy. It has to do with the origins, the constitution; it has to do with the institutions and how they were negotiated in order to accommodate slave states, basically. We have this thing called the Senate. Now representatives? Ehh, no way. The Senate gives such power to nonrepresentative minorities, it’s unbelievable. Rhode Island, you get two votes. California, you get two votes. What’s democratic about that? Anything? I mean, nothing. How do you justify that? At the time, they were trying to make an alliance of small states and big states. Well jeez, look at now. Now you have these underpopulated red states exercising more power than super-populated blue states. That’s just wrong. And then the rules of the Senate itself make it so that unless you have sixty, you don’t really have any power to do anything; it’s like a stranglehold. Then there are first-past-the-post districts, where you elect one person per district, so 51% gets you 100% of the representation, but 49% gets zero representation. Then there are the districts designed by incumbents. What I’m saying is that there were deep institutional problems to start with that make it even harder to be a genuinely representative democracy. Now you add into that the money thing, and it’s pretty understandable why the US has kind of been at such variance with the rest of the world, especially in the last 40 years. You know, the whole neoliberal thing–it comes from here.

So we have a lot to overcome if we are going to get a functional representative democracy. Maybe it will take constitutional amendments. Maybe it will take social movements that are able to exercise civil disobedience at such a scale that they can’t be ignored. Maybe it will take electing progressive people wherever they can and beginning to try to build enough of a base for that. But that’s why movement energy is so valuable and so important and so precious. And that’s why to see it dissipate into Occupy Wall Street is so frustrating, because it’s a protest. Great. Protests are not movements. Protests are not organizing. Protests are protests. So it all comes back together. I’m not trying to be gloom and doom, I just think we have to accurately see what the deal is, so that we can figure out how to deal with this thing and use our energy strategically to do it.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah. And to comment on your point about undemocratic institutions in our government, I think about the words progressive and conservative, because you look at the amount of power you need to have progress, versus a system that has been set up by the people who want to conserve an unequal and harmful set of norms.

MARSHALL: Exactly. The founders were trying to assure the dominance of local elites, which is what they were. And they weren’t so hot on democracy–they were a republic. They emulated the Romans, not the Greeks. It’s interesting… you see it in the architecture. The design of the 1770s through the 1790s is very Roman-influenced. You don’t get the Greek stuff until about the 1820s or 1830s, when it becomes much more of a democratic ethos, and you actually see architectural styles change and become more like the Greek model.

CHRISTIAN: I didn’t know that, that’s a great observation. So there’s this essentially neoliberal attempt to gut power from the government and present the market model as the only model, as opposed to it being just one of the tools we have to create the world we want. How do you overcome deeply entrenched cultural beliefs like this, beliefs that are human constructs, reinforced through the education system and the media? Maybe this is a chance to dive into one of the major successes of your work, the public narrative.

MARSHALL: You know, the question you’re asking is how do you explain radical shifts of any kind? And boy, we should be so conscious of the contingency there is in life. I mean, nobody thought Trump was going to be president. Nobody thought Tahrir Square was going to happen. Very few people thought a black man would be elected president. In other words, we’re living in a time in which the power of contingency plays out again and again. Now that can be scary, but it can also be hopeful. Because it means that as fixed as things seem to be, they aren’t that fixed.

Covid is a great example–the radical shift in lifestyle that we went through in the way we worked, everything, that’s what change feels like; it’s disconcerting, it can be uncomfortable, but boy, it can be creative, it can be resilient, it can be adaptive. In a certain sense, if we really want to deal with climate change, it’s more like Covid than it is like getting your local city councilperson elected. So we are capable of dealing with change as a species, but it’s also a lot harder for us to initiate it. It’s almost like sometimes it takes an external shock and then things open up and people say woah, wait a second.

The market crisis in 2008 had the potential for that, because it shook up the whole economic system. That was a crucial moment, when Obama went one direction and I think a different direction was possible–was absolutely possible then, and supportable, to manage capital in a different way. Well, that was missed. Trump is another kind of shock and throws a lot of things into play along with Covid. That’s why right now it feels like there’s a lot more fluidity. You have a progressive perspective in the Democrats that just hadn’t been there for a long time. You actually have a critique of capital, which is like, woah. There’s a generational shift that’s going on. The flaws of the system became so clear during covid.

One of my colleagues is running for governor here in Massachusetts, Danielle Allen, and part of her whole deal is, look what happened during Covid with housing. You know the story of the miner’s canary?

CHRISTIAN: Canary in the coal mine?

MARSHALL: Yeah, exactly. So if you look at Covid and where the hurt is, it’s in the most vulnerable people–vulnerable in terms of health, economy, housing, you name it. It’s just all in great relief there. On the other hand, the wealthy have done pretty well. So are the tools there? Is the time right? Because you’ve got to be doing something about organizing people, about changing the narrative. You’ve got to figure out different strategies and how to create enough of a structure.

So I just see lots of possibility, and lots of agency possible right now. Since you can’t predict everything, what you can do is lay as much of the groundwork as you can–to be prepared, so to speak. Does that make sense? Because it’s not just like cost-benefit analysis that we’re talking about, it’s a fundamental value shift. And value shifts don’t happen just because somebody makes an argument, they have to do with thinking about oneself differently, one’s community differently, and about the world that we confront differently.

Now that’s where narrative is. Narrative is a way of understanding and articulating what we care for, what our sources of hope are, what our sources of hurt are–as individuals and also as communities and also as nations. Because what stories teach is what is of value. They teach what is of value in the moments where there is a disruptive challenge or threat. That’s what a plot is, a plot is just that. It’s someone going along and something crazy happens, and they’ve got to deal with it, and then there’s an outcome. Now that basic plot structure–we’re not interested until that happens. It provokes our interest because we’re infinitely curious to learn how to deal with the unexpected, that for which we’re unprepared in our daily lives, like a marriage breaks up or we lose a loved one. So the subject of narrative is how to deal with disruption and how to find the moral or emotional resources to do so. And because we can identify with the protagonist in the story, we feel it. We don’t just understand it with the head, we feel it with the heart. Narrative is fundamentally a form of emotional language, and emotional communication and values are fundamentally about emotion.

So when movements come along, they do that work. I got introduced to organizing in Mississippi with the Freedom Summer Project and I’m so grateful for it, because people were refashioning understandings of themselves as, I am somebody. Yes, I can find the courage. Yes, I merit this. Then that was playing out on a communal level; I’m talking about the black community. That began to create the power to transform the institutional. And that’s the story formulation–of a new story for me, the new story for us, and now this moment is a storymaking moment, because we’ve got a chance to act and really change things and it’s urgent that we do so.

So narrative plays a crucial role, but it’s also not the only role–you’ve also got to build power. And you’ve also got to have some structure. When we came out of the Farmworkers, it was like you always have to have a story, strategy and structure. Why are you doing what you’re doing, how are you doing it, and how are you organizing yourself to do it? It’s interesting to reflect on the progression in Black Lives Matter, which has been a restorying; it’s been a restorying of American history. There was a big shock to the system, a double-whammy. So it provoked sort of a revaluing. And the revaluing is what can help move things in a different direction.

I think that’s potentially a lot of what’s going on right now. The way young people feel about climate–I mean, it’s like a religious thing. A lot of people of my generation don’t get it, you know? Hey, it’s their future. It’s like the givens are not givens. So there’s a tremendous potential for real change there, I think.

CHRISTIAN: We have so many serious issues to address as a society, but the question for climate I think is how do you organize around something when the worst is yet to come, as opposed to organizing around something that’s clearly visible? With Black Lives Matter, the visceral footage of people being killed by police has been a catalyst for civil rights progress.

MARSHALL: Along with hope. Hope not as in flowers in May, but hope as Maimonides’ hope–belief in the plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable. Hope as more a sense of possibility.

CHRISTIAN: Along with hope. How do you tap into what triggers the shift in the story?

MARSHALL: I think it’s a combination, because you don’t get mobilization without urgency. Urgency is crucial. Now you can respond to urgency in a short-term way like oh, we’ve got to do this. Or you can see the urgency as creating the opportunity for real depth and tackling some of the structural problems. I use the example of the Montgomery bus boycott. The bus issue was a big issue, segregation is really painful, but the initial idea was a lawsuit, because that was Brown v. Board of Education. Now a lawsuit might have won. The movement came because of the boycott. They stumbled into that and then oh wait, this is a whole different deal. And then oh, ordinary people can create power and oh, it doesn’t just depend on the lawyers. So out of that came a whole stream of activity that really nobody predicted. And it was because it was a process of discovery and emergence.

On climate though: the challenge has been to make the important urgent, right? That’s always a challenge, making the important urgent. In a movement, how do you create urgency if the urgency isn’t evident? Well actually, the civil rights movement did quite a bit of that by creating moral crises, like Selma march. In other words, they were using mobilization to create urgency. If you listen to the March on Washington speech, Dr. King’s speech, you’ll see that’s what it’s all about, it’s all about freedom now. Because the experience of Black Americans is very different from the experience of most White Americans. Media played an important role, showing the police dogs etc., and all that was very important. I think one thing that’s changed with climate is that young people are hope, the future. Mothers Out Front, an organization here in Massachusetts of mothers and grandmothers–they’re all about climate. Why? Well, because of their kids. It’s a moms’ movement, it’s not just a kids’ movement, you know? You want a future for your children, well, better look at this. And environmental justice–it’s not abstract, it’s right there, right now. So there are the elements to create the kind of urgency. Is it going to be enough? Who knows. Maybe the next hurricane, or the next earthquake.

CHRISTIAN: That explanation of important and urgent feels vital. In many ways, I see the progressive movement getting lost in things that are urgent, but not necessarily as important.

MARSHALL: Amen. We organized an event here at the Kennedy School a few weeks ago, getting together 70 practitioners and academics to try to do something to get at that, looking at whether you have democracy if certain essentials are missing. Do you have a democracy if there’s not vote equality? Probably not. Then ok, let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with now. And most everybody is caught up in the urgent things. So now is there a way we can respond to urgency deeply so as to recognize the importance of what we’re doing now for the future? It’s a strategic challenge, because you need a venue in which there is that perspective. You’re trying to put the pieces together.

The bus boycott, in doing a boycott rather than a lawsuit, created power, developed leadership and used the urgency to build a base for the future. Did they consciously do that? That may not have been the intent, but that’s what happened. And so the question we have is how do we use these urgent challenges to create greater depth, so that we can actually get to where we need to get to? That’s strategic stuff.

CHRISTIAN: The Democratic Party has tried to build a larger and larger umbrella, which is important because it’s representing a diverse group of individuals, but the challenge then is that we’re each coming to it with the issues we care most deeply about. And it’s sometimes hard to let go to say, you know what, if we collectively focus on building power, then we have power that we can use to address all of the urgent priorities. Getting to that mindset shift is challenging.

MARSHALL: It is indeed, because you need venues in which to do that work, to provoke fresh thinking. In this year’s organizing class, as like a laboratory experiment, we formed teams by issues. What you wind up with is a collection of people who are defining themselves by one sliver of themselves. It’s not too surprising that they may be fragile. It’s not surprising that they’re going to remain small. It’s not too surprising they’re going to lose their creativity. Because what they’ve done is take this one variable and make that the definition of their identity.

Now you can go at it a different way, which is to do the work with other people to discern common values. Values are much broader. In other words, if you organize around a purpose as opposed to a strategic objective, it goes broader, it goes deeper. Let’s say we share this value of a sustainable world. Why do we care about that? Well, we’ve had different experiences that have led us to care about that. So how do we act on that? Well, there are going to be thirty strategies. Now the question is, do we have enough coherence and enough structure to be able to look at those strategies and say hmm, we can build our power best by focusing over here on this? And so then we have the unity we need in order to do that, and they become strategic choices rather than identity choices.

See, defining by issue turns everything into an identity group. Issues fragment like crazy. So an effective political party would do this work. I got to spend enough time in Canada to see an alternative parliamentary system, with a labor party, but enough the same that the differences are interesting. I was really interested in the New Democratic Party, because the unions and the liberals were all thrown together and had to come up with a common leader. They had to come up with a common policy, because it’s parliamentary and so there’s much more pressure to internally negotiate and find common ground. Not compromise, not lowest common denominator but common ground, so as to be able to be more strategic. We don’t have anything that does that.

Part II of this conversation with Marshall Ganz to follow. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.