Libraries in the Context of Capitalism talk

I was so pleased to get to attend METRO’s conference on Libraries in the Context of Capitalism. Highlights for me were Roxanne Shirazi‘s investigation into “value” and what exactly librarians are reproducing when we reproduce the academy through our work. Dan Greene‘s talk on librarians and patrons at the Washington D.C. public library was fascinating and left me anxious for his book to come out. Great great stuff. Below is what I said.

I am here to talk about what we can do about the problems that we have spent the last day and a half outlining and defining. What do we do. What can we do? This is the question that haunts me. I am not usually a prescriptive person. If you know me in real life or if you read the things that I write, you’ll notice that I am almost aggressively resistant to the demand for answers. I agree with David James Hudson, who argues quite convincingly that the demand that LIS scholars and practitioners be “practical” and “solve problems” is in fact a way of narrowing the work that we do, of focusing us on the tasks at hand instead of struggling with and against why those particular tasks and why those particular hands.

And yet, I think we’re at a moment in the history of capitalism and resistance to it that we’re due for some “how to” conversations that address the problem of power and why they have it and we don’t. Or, more generously, what power they have and what power we have, and how to build both the “power” and who counts in “the we.”

I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions but I think they are critical ones for us to be asking right now. I am hopeful that this event and others will help us to make conversations around these questions mainstream and common ones. I’ll be talking today from some very new and, I’ll acknowledge, very shallow experience as an organizer. In September 2016, I was locked out by my employer along with the rest of the faculty at LIU Brooklyn, including my comrade Eamon Tewell, who is here too. We were at the end of contract negotiations when management decided that, rather than continue to negotiate in good faith with us toward a compromise that would give both parties something of what they needed, and set the ground for the next round of bargaining, that they would rather fire us all en masse, forcing us to sign the contract through their big show of power. For me, being on the receiving end of that kind of force, it changed the way I look at and think about the world, its problems, and what the potential solutions might be.

Whatever analysis I might have had before then—and it was shallow and ill-informed, probably—was instantly replaced with material facts on the ground. There is an abstract analysis or understanding of the world that suggests that workers are interchangeable and disposable under capitalism. And then there is watching your employer effectively fire teachers who have given decades to a place, replacing them with ten dollar an hour scabs from That idea you might have had about what adjunctification means for higher education suddenly means something super duper real: colleagues with end-stage cancer unable to see their doctors because management has cut off both their paychecks and their health insurance. Super. Duper. Real.

The experience of the lockout changed me in some fundamental ways, and one of those ways was a newly-urgent sense that if we aren’t talking about what we’re going to do about the slow fires burning around us, then maybe we shouldn’t be talking at all. It has been harder for me to read, think, and talk about the either the tasks or the structures that put those tasks in front of us without an accompanying analysis for how we might make those things different. What are we going to do?

So over the next twenty minutes or so I’d like to offer some ideas about what I think we should do. It’s going to be pretty quotidian, and maybe you’ll wonder why I’m not applying the theories of Max Weber to librarianship. Other people will be better at that than me. What I would like to share are a few “tips and tricks,” “top trends,” “innovations,” that address how we conceptualized and built power during the lockout at LIU Brooklyn. There isn’t anything new in any of this, and I am profoundly a beginner and a novice. I hope that you will share what you know from your own movement work so that we can build this toolkit, maybe even make a LibGuide. I can’t think of a more urgent project that learning together and making common knowledge strategies for building and deploying power.

I want to start by talking briefly about what I mean when I talk about power. One thing I think we learned during the lockout of faculty at LIU Brooklyn was that power is a real thing that can be used against you. Many of us in this room are not normally subject to brute power. We move through the world easily. The world likes us and wants us to be here. Not everybody lives a life like that, and for many of us, that illusion has already been or will be shattered at some point.

Most of the time, I work collegially with my colleagues in university administration. We meet, we make strategic plans, we report about things, etc., we work together at the university. During the lockout, the stark fact of power and how it enabled the lives and work of some of us and not others was clear. Management had the capacity to pay me or to not pay me, to provide me health coverage or to not provide me health coverage. Absent basic protections from the state, I rely on my employer to enable me to pay rent and survive in my body. I can’t keep management from enjoying these things. The power to withhold material necessities from me is immense. Capital has power.

And capital has the backing of the state. Over and over again during and after the lockout people would ask me if it was legal. Is it legal to fire all of your workers in order to compel them to accept a bad contract? Actually, it is. Is it legal to lock out your employees and cancel health insurance, effective immediately, for workers on the verge of giving birth? Yes, yes it is. Perfectly legal. Had we failed to ratify the final contract, could management really have just imposed it on us and forced us to work under its conditions or be fired? You bet. Capital has power that is vested in it by the state.

This was the power that they had, but what was the power we had? What was it made of? This became a central question for me during the lockout and contract fight, and continues to dog me right this minute as I stand here in front of you. How can we resist when capital decides to steamroll us? What does our power look like?

And now I’m going to say something that sounds cheesy and sentimental, but is also hardcore and fierce: we find and build our power in each other.

Capital has more money than us, and it controls ours. The police will defend capital’s interests, and not ours. The monopoly of force favors them.

But there are also fewer of them than there are of us. Most people are subject to the power of capital.

The project, then, is to organize the disparate group of us into an organized force that can contest them. There are more of us than there are of them. There are more of us than there are of them.

So, what does it take to move from many diverse and dispersed individuals into something dense, that can contest the organized power of capital? We have to organize ourselves.

So that’s my analysis of power, brief though it is: it’s us, together, pushing harder for the world we want because we are pushing together. What comes next, and this is the hardest part, is trying to figure out how to organize that force. It’s easier for capital, I will say that. They have access to more resources than we do, and that includes time. Organizing is something we have do alongside our other work, and that other work increases exponentially the farther we get away from capital. I think of all the things that fill my day that capital simply outsources: earning wages by trading my time, doing laundry and dishes, making meals, raising children, all that reproductive labor that also takes time, time that we might otherwise spend building power. Capital hires all of that out. We can’t forget that capital is organized too, and more tightly than we are.

So, how do we organize ourselves? Here come the practical tips. First, we make lists.

Organizing ourselves begins with knowing who we are. In union work, we talk about the “unit”: Who is in the unit? In the LIU Brooklyn labor context, the unit is faculty, full and part time. Outside of that technical definition, my unit is the set of interested parties who share with me a demand, and one that requires us to use our power against some other force in order to get what we want. During the lockout, that sense of a unit was first, my colleagues in the library, then my teaching colleagues, both full and part time, and then, more broadly, librarians and higher ed faculty elsewhere. After that, the unit consists of everyone who wants to transfer resources from the people who control 99% of it to the rest of us. But that’s really big and unwieldy. I do think organizing benefits from defining the context narrowly. More on that in a minute. In other contexts, you might define the “us” as people who use your library. It’s the people who you think will work with you against wherever capital aggregates and sediments itself: prisons and jails, ICE deportations, nuclear arms, coal production. Who’s in your unit?

Once you’ve defined the boundaries of your unit, you have to actually, literally, write down who they are and how to find them. Literally make a list. You think you know everyone who works with you, but you don’t. You only know the people you know. During the lockout, we used the list of dues-paying members as the starting point for figuring out who we were. We made a spreadsheet that included everyone’s name, and then added everything that mattered to me in the context of the lockout struggle about each of those people: their phone number and email address, whether they were full or part time, their academic department. As we went along, I used my list to record every interaction I had with each member of the unit. This helped me get to know my unit a little better.

Because remember, what we’re after is a dense formation of disparate individuals who can be deployed to fight back against the organized power of capital. Sounds lofty, but the way we do that is by literally pulling people together. In a list, and then using the list to get people to show up at an action: a rally, a contract vote, a sticker day. We don’t want to hope people will show up on the picket line. We want to know who will, and who they can bring with them.

This for me has been a central insight into organizing for power, one that you can read about in this book, No Shortcuts, by Jane McAlevey, which everyone should buy and read. That we make lists in order to make power, and we test our power by using our lists to make people do things.

Here’s an example: During the lockout, we held an unemployment sign up fair. This was an action designed by the American Federation of Teachers, our national union. We invited the press to come. We wanted to show both that we were taking very seriously the fact of our unemployment—we were, remember that during the event you don’t know the outcome, we didn’t know if we’d be out for months—and that we were a force, that it wasn’t just a few of us showing up for the event, but that we were still tightly bound together as a group, and would be acting together, when signing up for unemployment and when shutting down the university. We managed to get roughly 100 faculty members to that event. We did that by calling each other, by using our lists of phone numbers.

By then, we’d been working our lists for awhile. We’d gotten to know each other, who was in the unit, and we’d begun to find leaders. Chris Brooks at Labor Notes, another organization everyone here should join and whose books you should buy, introduced me to this definition of leadership: a leader is someone other people follow. We knew that if we could get Kathleen from nursing to show up, she’d bring the rest of the nurses with her. Where John went, the rest of the social sciences followed. So we knew who on the list we needed to convince to come down for the fair. We also knew who our reliable workers were. Not everybody wants to make the list. Not everybody wants to call people and remind them about the unemployment sign up event. I’m sure you know this from your libraries. There are people willing to do things, and other people who just won’t. When time is limited, you concentrate on the do-ers. I’m a do-er. Eamon is a do-er. Maybe you are too. So we had our do-ers making phone calls, we had our leaders committing to come, and every time we made a call, we marked it down in our spreadsheet. Every time someone hung up on us, we marked it down in our spreadsheet. Every time someone asked if they could call their colleagues, we marked it down in our spreadsheet. We used the list to tell us the shape of our power.

So, to return to that unemployment sign up fair. We had about a hundred people, which is about how many people we knew would show up. When your list is good, you will not be surprised. We have about 400 people in the unit. About 200 of them had shown up for the contract vote. This was half of that. The number told us something about the size and the density of our power. It began to take shape.

The other thing that happened that day while the librarians were helping the rest of the faculty navigate the department of education website is that we got a call that the students were walking out of their classes in protest against $10 and hour scabs teaching from incomprehensible syllabi. The faculty were assembled en masse at a coffee shop a few blocks away, signing up for unemployment. We had a force in that moment about 100 people strong. We rose up as a single unit and marched to the campus to join those students in one of the most inspiring, loud, meaningful, and well-covered events of the lockout struggle. It wasn’t spontaneous. It was organized. And it was organized using our list.

I didn’t walk over to campus. I find crowds really agonizing. I stayed back at the coffee shop, and updated our list.

Jane McAlevey talks about actions in any struggle as tests of power. Very rarely will an action be an end in itself. How would we know if the revolution happened? How will we know when we’ve won? The struggles we find ourselves in are long, they started long before us and will continue long after. Along the way, there will be tests. And those tests? Should be monitored and tracked in a spreadsheet. Who showed up to an event when they said they would? Who wore the t-shirt on the day we decided to wear t-shirts? Who signed the petition? Who agreed to bring snacks to the event and then brought snacks to the event? This is building power. It is knowing who we are, who we can count on to do what, becoming that dense, organized counter to capital. And then there will be big moments when we will deploy each other. When we will use our list to know whether we are ready to strike, or whether it is better to retreat and restructure.

So, I guess this is my big bold claim: that power starts with accounting for people and accounting for their relationships to each other, and then, starting from there, pulling in more people, and building more relationships. I would also like to suggest that this is the work that librarians do, work that we are skilled at. Like many of you, I read Fobazi Ettarh’s critique of “vocational awe” that came out in In the Library with the Lead Pipe a few weeks ago. She argues that approaching libraries as spaces that are “inherently good and sacred and therefore beyond critique” contributes to a culture of overwork and underpay for those of us who devote ourselves to them. Libraries work because we do, as the saying goes, and I appreciate so much Ettarh’s voice, urging us to put the material ahead of the ideal. I agree.

What deserves our awe instead? The librarian’s capacity for organization. For taking the minutes. For sending the emails and then following up with a phone call and then sending another email. For showing up at the meeting if that’s what it takes to get you to give me a date for your instruction calendar. It’s our capacity for maintaining the calendars. And, yes, for making and keeping the lists. Where libraries do fulfill the promise of our professional core values and bill of rights, I think they do so through their quotidian maintenance work. That kind of labor is what constitutes most of my days, and perhaps most of your days too. We have to make the library and the world the kind of place we want to be, conversation by conversation by conversation.

I am looking forward to the Q&A, and want to say that I welcome comments that aren’t questions. I think the work begins by all of us telling stories about how we have built, claimed, and deployed power, so that we can begin to imagine more ways of doing that together.

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