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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Work and Play in Social Activism

This poster is for the Workers' Defense Project 1st Annual Soccer Tournament. The WDP is engaging in an innovative medium for raising awareness, funds and fun. Instead of merely asking for money or just hosting a rally the WDP has decided to bring both into a single event. This event is a stroke of tactical genius for a few reasons: 
First, Soccer Sells. Soccer is not only the most popular sport worldwide but has a large following here in Austin, especially among the most direly affected populations the organization seeks to assist. The Justicia Copa Laboral indicates the WDP is attuned to its target population on a cultural level. 
All of the proceeds of the event benefit the WDP's computer literacy course which; an initiative aimed at helping to teach workers a vital vocational skill set within Austin's technical industries. Many of the workers the WDP benefits are of a Latino background and thus need help with not just learning English, but translating English Language Training into marketable skill sets. 
Using Soccer to spread the WDP's cause reconnects abstract worker's rights issues to an Ethos of Community. It shifts the terrain of the debate about Labor policy from a technical economic issue to concrete histories, communities and cultures. Soccer is an international sport thus invokes ideas about the transnational flows migrants, capital and knowledge. 
When one aids the WDP you are not simply helping a lobbying firm but participating within a collectivity; an assemblage of people with real families, dreams, and desires. Instead of simply challenging stereotypes on the level of rational deliberation, the event publicly constitutes a site of performance, pride, and promise. One cannot simply persuade and tell the public that a job is more than a number on a spreadsheet, an opportunity cost, a liability - you have re-present the invisible, marginalized populations in a positive light. Furthermore, these public events express these laboring bodies as more than a charity case, a victim subjected to the whims of the business cycle. These bodies beat with hope beyond being a statistic of servitude. 
An event is a Gathering - showing solidarity means more than checking a box on a political questionnaire.  Witnessing the mixture of bodies laughing, sweating and toiling together shows that the relations between those trying to help and those in need does not have to mirror the segregation experienced in the market. Playing soccer together evinces publics that competition need not be conflated with a brutish interpretation of human nature. Rather, an ethos of collectivity can be forged despite the inevitability of competitive practices. 

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Workers Defense Project: Occult Expertism

The other day I was speaking with Joao Costa Vargas, a professor and ally of the Workers Defense Project and I realized something interesting about the structural dynamics of the social advocacy group. I told Joao about how I was researching the group this semester and he asked me if I knew Cristina very well. I had to pause for a second; I knew the name, I recalled she was on the board of directors, but I couldn't say that I knew her very well or that I could say much about her as a person.

I think this, albeit anecdotal, encounter says something about the nature of the way that the Workers Defense Project handles its business. First, there is a large separation between the on-the-ground operations of the group and the directers of the organization. There exists a significant gap, both perceptually and empirically, between those the organization's leadership and its body of workers. While it is practically impossible, and perhaps unwise, to completely abolish this fissure between the visionaries and the implementers of social change; this structural fact potentiates some more significant consequences for the group's future.

How will an organization whose stated aim is to work on behalf of workers be perceived if it models the corporate structure in all aspects except the profit motive? Do the inequalities of work relations end when incentive structures and monetary systems are equalized? Or do other power relations persist beyond the numbers on the spreadsheet? Although the Board of Directors is quite exceptionally qualified according to neoliberal standards; most of the executives have multiple higher education degrees, some even from Ivy League institutions such as Brown, could they still be guilty of perpetuating the unequal power relations they aim to subvert?

If the organizations maintains in the division of labor between skilled and unskilled labor, between experts and docile laborers, between those capable of adapting to an immaterialized, flexible and adaptive work environment and those that are more suited for basic manual labor how can our cultural ethos change from its current preoccupation with conflating skills with life value? How can our current systems of economic production break out of its rigid regimentation of people that has existed sinces The Republic or Aristotle's Politics, dividing the polis into Philosopher Kings and Workers, full humans and those naturally disposed to slavery?

The cult of expertism through which the organization perpetuates an ideology of paternalism damages its ability to cultivate a new sensibility of labour relations. If the oppressors view themselves solely as the bearer of Enlightenment knowledge that rides into the slums on a white horse of liberation they will be perceived in terms which are negligibly different from that of the original exploiters. Only when liberation becomes a mutual and reciprocal process, rather than a one-way street can a truly emancipatory politics arise anew.

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Terms of Disappropriation

As the specters—and discourses—of diaspora and disability meet, their relationship
need not be frightening.

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