‘Organising is the Best Kind of Antidepressant’

The activists, who first met at Occupy Wall Street in 2011, talk about the limits of protest – and the power of connecting across difference to change the world

Amy Fleming in The Guardian: Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor’s new book, a galvanising examination of the history of solidarity and how we can use it today to shape a fair and sustainable future, was born out of friendship. But the pair are from distinctly different backgrounds. Taylor is a Canadian-born writer, film-maker, musician and activist (the pair prefer the term organiser, more of which later) who grew up in Athens, Georgia. Hunt-Hendrix is an activist, too, as well as a political theory scholar and granddaughter of a Texas oil billionaire. She grew up on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, spending summers in Dallas.

From left: Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor. Photograph: Maria Spann/Guardian

The two women met at Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They first wrote together in 2015, creating a technology issue for the Nation magazine and, says Hunt-Hendrix, “decided we were great collaborators and that was something we wanted to keep doing”.

They started writing Solidarity during lockdown, but publication was delayed because their original publisher, Verso, was in dispute with its union, so they decided to switch in solidarity with Verso’s workers. As they finally gear up for their book tour, they sit and talk – Taylor, who is visiting family in North Carolina; Hunt-Hendrix at home in New York, a little croaky from the interrupted nights of new motherhood – about what solidarity means to them and why beating polarisation is our only hope.

How did you come to collaborate?
Leah Hunt-Hendrix: I thought Astra was the coolest. The first time we talked one-to-one was when she was organising a telethon for the Rolling Jubilee Fund, which raised money to buy and cancel tens of millions of dollars of debt. I think she may have then invited me to a meeting for Strike Debt, which was an Occupy [Wall Street] spin-off.

Astra Taylor: I respected Leah out of the gate for the way she engaged during Occupy. There were many factions and divisions in that messy but important movement, and I certainly took note of folks I felt were committed and serious about trying to build power over the longer haul. Occupy was a school as well as a protest. I was a kid who was always interested in social justice, and when Occupy erupted I was like: the movement might not be perfect, but it’s calling attention to the crisis of democracy, to inequality.

LHH: Occupy was an amazing experience. Solidarity was a very prominent term there, but when I went back to the Princeton library to see what had been written about it, there was so little, so I ended up writing about it for my PhD dissertation. I went on to build an organisation called Solidaire – a fund to help resource social movements. I was so inspired by Astra’s work, having learned how the concept of solidarity came from a financial term in ancient Rome for mutually held debts. Rather than being a fluffy concept of “let’s all get along”, it was about organising debtors.

AT: When she told me about her dissertation and the etymology of solidarity, I remember having a kind of A-ha! moment. We had collaborated on enough stuff to know that we worked well together and that we would have an intellectual adventure doing [the book] – and we did.

You talk about organising as key to solidarity, but what does organising mean to you?
LHH: Organising is a practice of getting involved with other people, choosing a problem that you want to address, and working together to try to overcome that problem. Whether it’s trying to cancel student debt, or my first experience with organising in college, when I joined a campaign to get a living wage for city employees.

AT: It’s useful to contrast organising with activism. I can be an activist by myself by raising awareness, tweeting a lot.

LHH: Tweeting is not organising.

AT: Organising pushes against the idea that we can do this on our own, and that we win just by protesting. It’s not just about all showing up in the street one time and a big display of shared aspirations. You need to dig in for the long haul and coordinate with other people and build a power block.

People don’t have a lot of opportunities in our lives to organise precisely because there’s been a centuries-long war on solidarity. We have to teach each other, begin where you are with a few friends and take those baby steps. There really is no alternative.

You say friends, but in the book you describe movements such as Occupy as being much broader than that.
AT: I think that that matters so much. We both want to be part of movements that are majoritarian, inclusive in the sense that there’s all kinds of folks from different walks of life coming together. I’d been on the left in New York City for a while but I didn’t know everybody at Occupy. A lot of them were younger than me. I grabbed on to that opportunity, forming the Debt Collective, which is the union of debtors. Just as Leah was thinking hard about solidarity, I was thinking hard about democracy. There were so many claims within the movement that “this is what democracy looks like” – from a chaotically run meeting to, I don’t know, a drum circle.

Astra, do your creative and organising worlds overlap much?
AT: Rarely do they overlap in literal ways. Ages ago I roped my partner [the singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum] into playing music at Occupy, and also at the launch of the Rolling Jubilee, but we haven’t done anything like that since. That said, my more artistic projects – as a film-maker, or playing music with Neutral Milk Hotel [with Mangum] – don’t feel totally separate from my political work. Organising is absolutely a creative act; it’s about seeing the world as malleable and changeable, almost as a kind of material you can mould and remake. Political work can be very serious and hard but it is also an opportunity for collaboration and the unexpected, for experimentation and play. Organising, not unlike art-making, fundamentally involves taking an imaginative leap and also taking risks. Making films and being in a band involve coordinating a bunch of people and doing something together you couldn’t do alone. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a critical mass of the Debt Collective founders were artists…

More here.

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