It’s a word that gets tossed around fairly frequently, but does anyone care to take a look at this word and the phenomenon it supposedly signifies? Or is this thought too scary? In the world of activism, people get frustrated or disgruntled or tired-out or otherwise find themselves not willing to participate in their political project anymore. When people leave (“the movement”, “the community”, or, perhaps, “the party”, or whatever) we often call it by this blanket term and assume someone simply ran out of energy, like a machine that simply wasn’t given enough fuel. This lack of enthusiasm could indeed be the cause, but ‘burnout’ is a rather mechanistic termthat covers over a long range of causes and motives for leaving this ‘something’.
The vitality and excitement brought with a single body to do what they can to promote and activate broad political change by starting at the “grassroots” level doesn’t just diminish because of entropy or some other such law of physics. There very well could be something wrong structurally wrong with how these activist network-machines are operated that by-and-large tends to repel people away. This could be happening right under people’s noses, without those who stay or those who leave ever articulating why and elaborating with anyone their changing moods and critical thoughts. Those thoughts might not get heard out of respect for the project and worry that these criticisms or lack of enthusiasm on the agent’s part would de-rail an otherwise worthy endevour. Some, I would bet, would rather not tarnish their reputation in voicing core ideological criticisms and ease-off without a clear break. Others might find themselves lacking in belief in those core commitments that hold the group/project together – a loss of faith that is a clear break but doesn’t get the closure of a break-up event. And then people might just feel the weight of inter-personal conflicts and clashes of incompatible characters, simply refusing to see another person anymore.
All of this, and more, could pass for this little word: burnout. In a less-structured, more loose organization the boundaries are less visible and one can pass between them more easily. Any one of these schisms mentioned above could send someone ‘outside’ and subtract from the greater body. The party machines have drawn much harder lines with membership, roles, and a hierarchy – entrenching mechanisms that help the organization endure over long periods of time, despite being stricter in discipline and more compromising to the shifting in the political force field. They are adaptable machines responding to the ebb and flow of political sentiments and brokering tentative alliances. Far left democratic activism and anarcho-style direct action rely on milieus and the general pool of swarming, excited bodies. Decision-making is and must be laid down, codified, but the activity level depends on the rifts opened up in high governmental politics and moments of crisis. The rules in assemblies and organizer/facilitator meetings are called “the process” and often devolve into a general “it looks like everyone agrees, so let’s move on” form of consensus. In full, 100%, consensus processes, dissent and argument are often discouraged for the bad vibes they bring along to the cloud of people drawn together. Bad vibes must constantly be warded off and positive vibes of joy are promoted (and the connection between vibrations and milieus is fascinating to observe), but the pressure to be happy and emit affects of joy turns against critique and can feel oppressive. These principles suddenly begin to look like vengeful dogma when criticism is unwelcome.
People often call activists “busy-bodies” in a negative, put-down sort of way to discount their effects. The over-worked urgency with which bodies are set to work as organizers often reflects religious or moralistic distress, and that panicked commitment fizzles out. In the face of so much injustice, death, poverty, and repression people get riled up. And they also burn-out. Without the power of an organization and an ability to get work done in a way that satisfies (or coerces) people to continue to do so, giving them hope, it is all so much moral outrage and friend-circles. Works of goodness, charity, and other mini-victories aren’t enough in the face of such monumental problems on Earth.
Power is always already there. To have an effective machine, power must be reckoned with within as well as outside of “the system”. After all, what exactly is the alternative to the system if the model you are organizing with is not even working for a dozen or few dozen people? Obvious scaling issues aside, it is a question worth asking. Well-run commoning, assembling in councils and reaching collective decisions, is imperative for direct action. People have to believe that what they are doing could be extrapolated and performed under different circumstances to prevent a vaguely-felt disillusionment that often masquerades as burnout.
Principles for direct action I have come across that amount to a high-threshold majority for decisions (75-90%), stack taking (a list of who will speak in sequence), go-arounds (give everyone the floor whether that speak or pass), and adequate time for debating proposals before they are voted on are the most important practices that must be utilized for effective ground-up organizing. Adherence to them helps prolong a project and ward-off the chaos (in a mythico-cosmically sense) of milieus, vibrations, and inter-personal tensions from poisoning the collective push for a goal. A hierarchical machine has its own codifications, which may become necessary as those political force-fields transform, but in ground-up organizing these principles work. The term given to these practices during Occupy Oakland was “modified consensus”, an outgrowth of the consensus process, but there could be a better one…