I have been traveling, so not posting. But I have also been talking some with Rom Coles via email–as he responded to my post some time back on his book, Visionary Pragmatism. Rom is a human of unbelievable energy, having written a number of interesting books of political theory (in fact, “visionary” is the best word to describe his books), while also carrying on a more than full life as a community organizer/political activist. In particular, he is deeply committed to and engaged in democracy on the ground. So here is his description of what he is currently up to in Sydney, Australia, as he works to catalyze community responses to climate change and to the economic devastations of neoliberalism. Everything in quotes is by Rom.
“Thanks for those sharp reflections in your blogpost. I think I agree with basically everything there – including, for sure, the need to work with/in the Democratic Party in order to pull it left in the context of winner takes all election system. Especially when the only alternative is the Green ‘party’ which is a party in name only – or worse, a parody of a party. I also really liked some of your other posts, including the Merlefest one. For all its limitations, I have found Merlefest to be a pretty heterogeneous space of conviviality (yes, all white, but also these festivals tend to be the only places where conservative southerners, hippies, professionals, etc., gather and share at least some overlapping enjoyments…). But then, I’m biased as I just love bluegrass and especially new grass and bluegrass-jazz-classical-blues fusions! We go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival most summers and love it – though it is much less diverse.
The one thing I’m interested in opening further than you may want, perhaps?, is a lot more institutional change in higher ed that is supportive of engaged modes of research and pedagogy. I ‘get’ the critique of that – perhaps most famously from Wendy Brown, and also many others – and I love reading, teaching and writing about great books as much as anyone. But I also think that we are in the last decade (if that) for generating major change to avert complete planetary collapse, widespread neofascism emerging in quite a few spots, etc, and that there is still comparatively a lot of freedom in these spaces we inhabit – though the boxes are shrinking rapidly for sure.
In Sydney, I’m working more on an inter-institutional level right now, helping to catalyse an engaged research and pedagogy movement that so far has drawn scholars from 8 institutions of higher ed in the city. We are working with Sydney Alliance, which is an umbrella organisation of 45+ organisations – ranging from a variety of faith traditions, unions, nonprofits and so forth. We’re cooking up a pretty ambitious ‘pilot’ collaboration around climate justice in migrant communities in western Sydney. The aim is to pull all sorts of capacities together to cultivate green energy, participatory democratic cultures that collaborate across lines not crossed so far (in this case Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Indians, Middle Easterners, white progressives, and more), perhaps (still in discussion stage) generating new community-based economic models/platforms, etc. We’re also strategising to ‘flip’ those parliamentary seats, which are pivotal to Aussie politics – sort of like how if you flipped several states in the Southeastern US you would flip the country – pulling the plug on the ’Southern Strategy’ that has held sway for half a century now!
At the same time, something that is very exciting about it is that we are organizing this through the National Tertiary Education Union, so at one and the same time building an inter institutional identity as scholars and a locus of power to intervene on educational issues at the state and national level, and also really trying to shift what the union is, so that it not merely a wage-contracts negotiating unit (important as that is) but also a union that is a locus of voice and organizing power around the craft of research and teaching and how universities are structured. This is super important in AU right now because the form neoliberalization is taking is to abolish departments – leaving faculty as mass anti-associational ‘lumpen’ and creating yet another administrative layer on top that dictates downward. Anyhow, all this is to say we’re up to some interesting stuff, I think.”