Rest, Build, and Fight
The Jewish Currents editorial staff discusses how its relationship to work and political struggle is shifting in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As the world confronts the scope of the threat posed by Covid-19, the staff of Jewish Currents has been engaged in a series of conversations about how the magazine can respond to the present moment. Last week, we published a letter from Jewish Currents’ editor-in-chief, Arielle Angel, exploring some initial thoughts on this question. A draft of that piece served as a point of departure for a staff discussion about what it means to operate as a magazine of the left now, and what this crisis demands of us—with respect to one another, to our communities, and to the world at large. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Ari M. Brostoff: I want to start by articulating some internal divisions that have come up in our conversations over the past week. At one pole, there’s the argument that we should be performing and modeling some kind of work stoppage. As a nonprofit left organization, we have the luxury of proceeding, for some stretch of time, in direct response to a political crisis; we’re facing relatively little external pressure to carry on business as usual. How might we take that opportunity to flout the capitalist imperative that production—in our case, the production of articles—must continue at all costs? What are other ways we might spend our time right now that feel more essential: addressing our own individual needs and the needs of our loved ones, organizing mutual aid, and so on?
The second argumentative pole has critiqued this first pole as promoting a kind of fake strike. A labor strike is not when management shuts down operations, but when workers collectively decide to stop working. So, what are the actual politics of a work stoppage that doesn’t pit labor against capital? And how should we, as mostly salaried employees, take into account the larger economy of freelancers who are part of this endeavor?
For me, the starting point is: I don’t want to have a fake strike. In fact, I think this is a time when—as members of a professional left organization—we probably need to be working more within the bounds of the organization. But what that means is still an open question. Are there shifts in the kind of work we’re doing that would make sense right now—say, from writing and editing to mutual aid or community support? And how can we make sure that whatever we’re doing, it’s not something that we are doing unilaterally, without taking contract workers into account?
Jacob Plitman: Right. Having been a union organizer during a strike, I want to emphasize that it’s not the organizers who go on strike—and also that a strike is not a period of rest. For both workers and organizers, a strike is a period of very intense work. It’s a massive exertion. It’s a state of war.
We can’t simply prefigure a general strike by ceasing to work—doing so both overestimates and underestimates our power. It’s an overestimation because it imagines that closing shop might spark off some sort of event, and it’s an underestimation because it suggests that our normal work isn’t our best shot at promoting such ideas. We speak to a base, and now that base needs to hear from us.
Arielle Angel: I agree with you in theory, Jacob. But I’m struggling with the question of what working actually looks like in this new reality. For example, we just commissioned a frequent contributor for a piece about the virus, and she wrote back a few days later and said, “Look, I can’t write this. I’m stuck in another country. I have no idea what’s going to happen here. I can’t theorize my way into this moment. For my own mental health, I have to just stop and figure out how I feel.” I think, to some extent, all of us are feeling that way. I’m not saying that we should go into strike mode. But I do think it’s harder to work in this moment, and instead of pushing against that, we may need to lean into this recognition.
Nathan Goldman: What we have to do, in a sense, is lean into the alienation of this moment in order to figure out how to transform or rethink it. It’s analogous to and intertwined with this position of self-isolation we find ourselves in: We’re all struggling to understand that the way to show up for the most vulnerable in our community is to not show up, physically. To what degree is action in this moment action in the way we usually understand it, and to what degree must it be, instead, a form of inaction or refusal?
AA: We have an opportunity here to remake the way that we work. When I discussed my own work life in my letter, part of what I was trying to get at is the fact that we have rebuilt Jewish Currents on a culture of labor that’s totally unsustainable. This is about collectively making a decision to prioritize care in a way that we can carry into the future.
David Klion: I’m the only person on this call who expects to still be a freelancer for the foreseeable future, and I’d say right now we have two major obligations. One is to record and illuminate our community during this crisis. And the other is our obligation to freelancers, especially those with whom we have established relationships: to make sure that writers who are struggling to make ends meet can still benefit from our content budget. All kinds of people need money in very urgent and acute ways, but the people who that money is intended for and who will need it most in the near future are freelancers.
AA: Yeah, but what if we can decouple those things? What if we think about who the writers are whom we pay on a regular basis and whether we can afford to pay them whether we publish them right now or not?
DK: I think that’s an interesting idea. At the same time, even as freelancers are re-evaluating whether our previous projects matter anymore, most of us are eventually going to come to the same conclusion: we want to write, and we want the places we normally write for to be there for us. Solidarity can mean monetary support and mutual aid, but writers also want bylines and substantive work they can be proud of, and to the extent that we can, we should keep giving them opportunities for that.
I also want to echo Jacob’s earlier point: not only that striking is work, but that we have to figure out what we’re striking against. A strike is a demand for an exploitative employer to change something. It’s not a mental health day. That’s not to disparage mental health days, but the distinction is important.
AMB: I don’t think this disagreement should actually be set up along the lines of the strike versus the mental health day—although we can learn from both of those forms. The thing about mental health days is that they are traditionally conceived of as being individual. And we’re dealing with a situation where there is a massive amount of reproductive labor—the kind of care work that keeps people going—to be done at every level, from our families and intimate circles to our broader communities. What we’re trying to figure out is not really work versus non-work, but what kind of work, and what the relationship is between that work and the labor of running a magazine.
Whatever we do, we have to do it in coordination with others. As you guys know, there’s already been an effort for a while to figure out how we can support the organization of Jewish Currents contract workers—some of us who are now full-time started working on this with the Freelance Solidarity Project when we were part-time ourselves. To my mind, bringing that to fruition now is the way we put our money where our mouth is.
Mari Cohen: As we think about our own needs and responsibilities, I want to make sure we’re situating ourselves not just as a leftist organization but as a leftist media organization. There is a journalistic ethos that these are the moments where you’re called to action: you don’t take breaks, and the personal is always subordinated to a journalistic mission. I find that nonstop work arrangement toxic in a lot of ways. But there is an argument to be made that in a crisis like this, we, much like healthcare workers, should be on call.
Joshua Leifer: As writers employed by a magazine, we have institutional support for our own thinking, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that. It’s a position that few people are in, and I want to take that responsibility seriously, to think about what we owe others when we have that security. Of course, this is a time when everything is harried, and many people are being forced to put even more of their focus toward their immediate, material well-being. But it also seems clear that people are looking for a kind of spiritual language. The other day, we talked about that poem by Lynn Unger, the Unitarian minister who used Shabbat as a way of understanding a response to the pandemic, which seemed to be going viral on Facebook. To me, that suggests that people want to feel and think through what’s happening together. Given that need, it seems like it would be an abdication of responsibility for us to drop out.
AA: I think that there is a spiritual role to play, but it’s something that I’m struggling with. I’ve had a lot of responses to my piece from older liberals where they say, “I agreed with everything you wrote, but why do you have to go after capitalism?” To what extent is our role to explain this catastrophe to people like our parents whose baseline assumption is that capitalism is good? How much time should we spend convincing them? I’m personally more interested in doing what you’re talking about, Josh, which is about thinking with and for this left community that has to act. But I can’t deny the opportunity here.
NG: Can’t we do both? I think the poem that Josh brought up is an important example. Anecdotally, older liberals are exactly the people we saw sharing that. And the vision the poem offers is limited, but it has a radical kernel. How can we unleash that potential and reach those people? How can we nourish our own community and sharpen its thinking while also radicalizing other people, and welcoming the newly radicalized?
JP: People are coming to the table with unusually existential questions on their mind, examining fundamental questions about who they are and what the government does for them and what their relationship with their neighbors should be. The only upside to crisis is the opportunity for reevaluation. If that’s not a signal for us to go into overdrive, I don’t know what is.
AA: I hear what you guys are saying, that we have a sense of responsibility in a moment of crisis. But the way we would normally respond is by working staff members to the bone. And for me, part of what we need to take from this moment is the recognition that that’s not acceptable.
AMB: That’s why I think we need to be taking ourselves seriously as employees of this organization, while mindful of our different positions within it. These are the same questions coming up as we negotiate our contracts. What are the provisions we need? It might mean more flexibility around paid time off, or unpaid time off. These questions apply to everyone here, both staff and management.
JP: So what are we doing right now to tee ourselves up for what we need to do? What is the documentation and reporting and idea-making that we will need when we return to the streets? I’ve been thinking a lot about Cooperation Jackson, which is a cooperative organization in Jackson, Mississippi, that is doing the most material kind of cooperative building work. They raise money to buy buildings and provide housing. It’s very explicitly a “dual power” organization—as in, they are concerned with simultaneously providing direct services and winning political fights. In their book, Jackson Rising, they describe their strategy as “build and fight.” “Build” means building the structures to provide care and necessities to everyone who lives in a community. It’s a very direct, class-conscious effort to cultivate institutions that can do what the state and the market will not. “Fight” means figuring out how you leverage “build” to diminish the power of the opposition.
Mutual aid is important, but it must be combined with political struggle. Like pebbles in a creek, a lone co-op or mutual aid formation can remain in the stream of capitalism for some amount of time, but given enough time and continuing resistance, it will be washed away. And so the “build and fight” strategy acknowledges the immediate need to take care of each other and the equally immediate need to fight—the first will be destroyed if we don’t do the second, and the second is impossible if we don’t do the first. A lot of that applies to Jewish Currents, though the modes in which we do these things differ.
MC: That’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about the different ways that people are going to respond to this crisis. One way is to approach it in terms of mutual aid and rejecting the incapable state, providing for each other in this moment. And then there’s this other level of organizing that says no, the state needs to provide sick leave now—these larger structural changes need to happen, and maybe we don’t have the power to make them happen yet, but we must push to gain that power. I had been thinking of those two approaches as being at odds, but what the Cooperation Jackson example shows is that there can be a politics that brings them together. We can talk about this in abstract terms—pebbles in streams—and it sounds beautiful, but I still wonder: what does it look like to actually do it?
Jewish Currents wants to hear your responses to this conversation and our letter from the editor. What would you like to see us publish and do in this moment? What are the broad topics this community should be thinking about and the particular skills, histories, and strategies we should know? How are you doing in this unprecedented time? Please send suggestions, pitches, tips, and updates to firstname.lastname@example.org.