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What follows is an interview with Aaron, a member of Symbiosis Montreal, a chapter of the larger Symbiosis confederation. Symbiosis is a confederation of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. Our motivation for interviewing Aaron came out of reading about Symbiosis, their goals, the conference they were organizing, and their structural proposals, and then finding out that a chapter existed in the city where we live. We were curious to learn more so we called them up and we are glad to share an edited version of the transcribed interview with one of their members here.
Do you want to start by introducing yourself and introducing Symbiosis?
I'm Aaron. I moved to Montreal eleven years ago, but I've been living in and out [of the city] because I'm doing a PHD, which is based in London. Most of my research was in Montreal… I'm from Belgium. I'm from the Flemish side of Belgium.
Basically, the idea behind Symbiosis is on the one hand to gather the forces of local autonomous democratic organizing around North America and not just network, but actually begin democratic deliberative processes so that these organizations all around America can begin to have some kind of common base of power. Another thing that would hopefully come out from that is sharing resources between these organizations and supporting each other and also helping to start new organizations in different places that can work towards these kinds of principles... The first initiation of this project was around [the] popular education aspect of it, which is to create the resources for people to learn how to do autonomous democratic organizing where they live and where they work. So a big part of Symbiosis, which originally started as a research collective, was kind of putting out this material to synthesize and spread the word about what kinds of movements are happening and what kinds of strategies are coalescing and why it's important to build the shared vision and to build a confederation of local movements.
What motivated you to found a Symbiosis chapter in Montreal, [even though most of the confederation is based in the US]? What made that make sense?
Well, the first thing is that I live in Montreal. So I wanted to really work on something where I live. Organizing at different scales and across borders with people who you don't see or who you're not hanging out with can be really hard. Things like social platforms can make it a bit easier. And communication tools like Signal, Slack, and things like that can make it a bit easier. But it's still really hard. And also, Montreal has a really amazing history of organizing, of autonomous organizing that goes back to the 60s, at least. Most of what makes Montreal an affordable, accessible city, that is also extremely politicized already, is this history of collective cooperative organizing. Housing movements, feminist movements, [and] neighbourhood assemblies are a really big part of that history. So when I was helping to start the Symbiosis project, I thought it was really important to begin a chapter in Montreal that could help people in the rest of North America learn about this history in Montreal and connect with struggles in Montreal that are already doing some pretty amazing things. So also, I think there's an issue where the Francophone community doesn't often interact with what's happening south of the border. And I think a big part of all of our discussions here in Symbiosis Montreal have been about trying... before the Congress trying to get existing organizations in Montreal to go to the Congress, but now, especially, to try to begin a process of bringing together diverse movements in Montreal as well. And learning from them and trying to engage and push forward a discussion about what a municipal strategy can look like. But that's still pretty nascent since the Symbiosis Montreal chapter is extremely new and doesn't have a lot of capacity because there's not that many people [in the chapter].
It seems like one of the big pillars of Symbiosis is municipalism. Can you talk a bit more about what municipalism is?
Municipalism is basically the project of building local power and putting politics in the hands of people and also taking things, crucial things like housing, public services, out of the market. A big part of that is direct democracy and creating structures where people can govern themselves.
A big question there is: how does that relate to the state? And there's a lot of ambiguities within municipal movements on how to approach the state. Whether you should go for local elections or not. Whether you should challenge or fight against the state or try to work with it. And I would say that in general the Symbiosis strategy is much more a strategy that questions the role of the state and tries to seize the municipal level of government as well. Why that's so important is that at a municipal level, it's much more face to face. So if you're working on politics at the municipal level, you are engaging with people that you can see and talk to. But the problem is that the state still has the capacity to debilitate and to capture social movements. So I would say that the Symbiosis approach to municipalism is much more one that seeks to build power outside of the state in order to force it to concede power further down the line and to downscale power to the people. Both the Symbiosis approach and the classical anarchist approaches are critical of the state, we agree that if you spend all your energy getting involved with politics, with electoral politics, it can be a waste of time. But on the municipal level many of us in Symbiosis think that you actually can really push the agenda because you're face to face with people. Even just launching a candidate can force, even if that candidate doesn't win, can force certain conversations to happen in a city. So [this strategy] can be seen as a type of propaganda. So unlike many anarchist strains, this kind of radical municipalism would not exclude and is a bit more ambiguous about getting involved with local electoral politics, but it's still extremely critical of it.
And then, yeah, one thing I wanted to say in terms of municipalism in Montreal is that there is this really amazing history. But at the same time, in the 60s and 70s, when these movements emerged, a lot of them became institutionalized into Quebec's social welfare system. So you have the CLSCs, those started as autonomous clinics run by the community and then they became part of the welfare state. And actually many of these initiatives then became kind of professionalized and I think a big problem in Montreal is that almost all [of] these things that might look like neighbourhood power or local democracy are actually professional activists, which systematically takes power away from residents to self mobilize. And I think that that is something that maybe is a problem in the Montreal style municipalism, which is this ‘governance by civil society’. Which really I've seen myself in many ways, it really demotivates people from engaging in politics.
You’ve mentioned this problem of recuperation of grassroots organizing through ‘governance by civil society’ here in Montreal. How do we combat that problem?
Well, I think the first part is trying to find organizations that don't work in that way, organizations that are people powered. And there are some that are member based. And that definitely exists. And then really just encourage more people's political education and popular education and self-organization. Not just to form organizations, but to take politics in their own hands in a collective way. So that could be rent strikes or it could be running their own neighbourhood assemblies, things like that. But a big part of it, I think, is political education. That's why with Symbiosis Montreal, we started with a reading group and started with these kinds of public events, the last of which was in June 2019. It was in Park Ex, where we invited someone from Parkdale Organize. They're really inspiring organization and their whole strategy is to do what they called territorial organizing. The idea is not to try to get people to form their own institutions where people then start having to apply for funding for things and stuff like that. The idea is to get people to self-organize and to support people in that process wherever they can.
Could you do a basic layout of what you think Symbiosis’ strategic vision is at this point?
Yeah, that's a really difficult question because the strategic vision is in a big way the process itself. I could maybe start by very briefly saying how it's worked so far, which was that there was a first effort to make links with existing groups that might be interested in the Symbiosis strategy, which was building a confederation of autonomous local movements. Then asking them if they [wanted to be a part of it] and every time that happened, there was this emphatic nod. [They would say,] “Yeah, that sounds amazing. We're really busy with doing our local thing. But we would support you in any way we can if you made that happen.” And then there was another process of [asking] “would you want to come to this Congress if we organized it?” And it was like, “yes, we don't have the capacity to help (make it happen) ourselves, but we would come.”
So it's this trouble of trying to create a democratic structure for an organization that doesn't exist yet, really, but also needs all the input from all the people who eventually get involved. And so there was a lot of work done before the Congress to try to imagine what that would look like. But I wasn't really part of any of the planning around the Congress or any of that structural work. But I think there is a big problem where when people arrived, they said, “why are we talking about the structure when we don't even know each other yet and don't even necessarily know if we're on the same page yet?” And so that whole kind of proposal for structures was thrown out the door and it went back to square one, which is, you know, drawing up and approving a basis of unity. To me, it's really amazing and inspiring because that's what deliberation looks like: to try to have the courage to start from the beginning and to imagine something together.
But maybe if you were to caricature the Symbiosis strategic vision, it's this idea of dual power, which is to help bring together all the organizations that already have, you know, locally based power and their own political democratic structures and are building their own economic resources around North America. And then from there trying to seed more of these organizations and from there, once there are enough of these organizations, to build an actual confederation that has the power to really effect change on a broader scale. But now it's a lot of really nascent things where if you look at all these different collectives that have been involved in this process, they're by no means (except for maybe Cooperation Jackson and also the comrades from Mexico that came), it's not by any means mass movements. It's just smaller collectives. So the idea would be to build towards a much broader base... In our launch statement, we use this metaphor of “as the branches grow, the roots grow deeper.” So you have this deliberative process where you're starting to meet all these people and actually do democratic decision making together and, at the same time, that gives the resources for the roots, the local roots, to grow deeper and to expand and to share resources between each other. So, yeah, that's kind of the vision. And I've already been seeing that play out where as you start getting to know other people within Symbiosis, you start exchanging ideas of how to organize locally and much of what Symbiosis Montreal has done, has been through conversations with other organizations elsewhere.
Can you talk a bit more about the demographics of Symbiosis? Who's been drawn to Symbiosis so far and where [do] you hope that Symbiosis will go in terms of who it draws to itself? What are the commonalities between the different people who are drawn to Symbiosis?
Yeah, that's a really difficult question because I don't think there's anyone who is doing a demographic count of people’s backgrounds. But I do think, from what I know from the Congress, there was a good contingent of what they called themselves, the global majority. So like non-white men who were there and present.
And I do have a sense that a lot of people in Symbiosis like myself are educated, maybe working class, but you know, are coming at this from a history of organizing and activism and [are] not necessarily working class people. I would say that it's maybe demographically a largely privileged base so far. Which I think is a problem throughout leftist organizing in North America. You know, as we have this collapse of the union movement, there isn't a lot of progressive organizing. It's not necessarily well rooted in marginalized communities and it’s also extremely professionalized.
I would say that Symbiosis is the first organization that I've been involved with that has been an intergenerational project. And that has been incredibly inspiring and amazing for me.
It seems like Symbiosis has been doing a lot of collective writings. One of the documents you sent us is called Build and Fight. We understand your strategy for building, but we are curious about how you all envisioned the fighting.
We've identified this issue on the left [where] there's often an emphasis on the fighting part and not so much on the building part. So we're trying to develop the building part. But when you do that, it might seem like we're saying like we're not explaining the fighting part that much. But it's just a shift in emphasis, and that's why the document is precisely called Build and Fight. But a big part of it is also that if you don't build, you generally don't have the power to fight either. So there's a lot on the left [that looks like reacting to crisis]. You erupt in rage, protest, try to do what you can and then the next thing happens. And we're always on the back foot and we’re trying to shift to more of a [rhythm of] building, where you're doing popular education, you're developing structures that people can join in to and can get involved with, so that when things do hit the fan, you actually have a base from which to have an effective response to fight. And even though I think a lot of people have the feeling that the left is seeing a resurgence in some ways today, there's almost no popular power compared to where we were 60 years ago. Unions have been decimated. This was historically the left's biggest strength: being able to go on strike and being able to refuse capitalist profit, which we have no capacity to do now. And to do that, you have to build organizations and a base that has the collective power to refuse capitalist power or state power in some way. And now most of what we're doing is really performative. Yeah, so it's a bit hard to say, but I think that's kind of the reality. And we really have to go back to the building and that is mostly boring work, but that's where the emphasis is and why the emphasis is there. Because once you build, then you can withdraw power. And then you can force the fight on your own terms.
I wonder if there's certain ways to be building the base that preps people for the fighting, that pushes back against what I think is a very white North American way of seeing violence as everything including property destruction and trying to change people's ideas around that?
I think part of the building is sharing and getting people to have a feel of what winning a fight looks like. I think a huge amount of building a base means picking your fights and winning them and then growing your base. And that was historically how they did it with the unions. That's how tenant organizations do it.
Also going back to what I was talking about different kinds of municipalism. There's also a huge danger where a lot of supposedly municipalist groups, like you could even say Projet Montreal might consider themselves a municipalist group, they might say ‘oh, direct democracy, oh, participatory governance’, but there's totally no concession that if you do build local democracy very, very fast, you're going to be the target of capitalist violence and cooptation and recuperation. So if you, as a city, start trying to build democratic structures and try to take resources and capital out of the market, very fast, you're going to have to fight the developers, the investors, the speculators, and the state as well. And I think Montreal is now bending over backwards to invite the AI industry and the high tech industry [to move here] while supposedly having this municipalist, progressive party in power. There has to be an acknowledgment that this is going to involve fighting as well.
In some of the pieces that Symbiosis wrote, it feels like there isn’t a focus on workplace organizing. You all don’t seem against it, but it isn’t your main thing. And I'm wondering if you can talk about why it felt important to position yourselves in that way vis a vis workplace organizing and how that fits into your larger strategy?
On the whole, I would say that workplace organizing is extremely important and crucial because it's the place where people spend half of their day and winning victories at work can have a huge impact. I actually hope that we can put out more written work which highlights strategies around workplace organizing.
But, I think there's a political economic thing that we have to be aware of, which is that more and more people work in small workplaces or in extremely controlled workplaces like call centers, like Amazon warehouses, places where you don't actually get to talk to or see your coworkers almost at all. Workplaces have become a lot more hierarchical, a lot more isolated, a lot more surveilled, a lot more precarious. There's also a shift to more temporary work. So people are holding down one or two jobs. It's much easier to get fired. There's a lot more pressure on people. Workplace organizing is actually becoming systematically more difficult. A lot of workplace organizing depends on being able to meet your colleagues, your co-workers, and talk to them about your common struggles and that is becoming a lot more difficult.
Then there's the other reality, which is that actually 60 percent of capital today is invested in real estate. So most profits of the capitalist class are in real estate today and when you talk about historically, why was workplace organizing so important? It was because that was where the profits were made. And once you block those profits, you can force the elite to give in to your demands. There's a huge issue where there's so much less power in workplace organizing to force demands to happen. At the same time, there's so much more power in neighborhood organizing to stop developments from happening, to force local politicians to agree to better projects, to really refuse profits from investment in real estate, to actually be able to force the local political class to socialize and take out of the real estate market certain services. It's like once there is more investment and more capital going into a certain market that is where more of your power will be. So that's another thing.
A third thing is that historically, the left has had a focus on the wage, where your goal is to increase your wage. But a lot of Feminist Marxists, for example, have pointed out that your wage is for you to have a good life and a huge important part of organizing needs to be organizing towards things that offer people the means to a good life. So free public transportation, the right to housing. That is absolutely crucial. It’s just kind of like decentering the primacy of the wage as what we should be fighting for and actually fighting for life itself.
A lot of Symbiosis’ focus seems to be on a type of organizing that could be called the social economy (or where you are your own boss). In a context where real estate is where most profit is made and where workplace organizing is getting harder to do, how do you think about building and fighting in the social economy?
Yeah, I think that's a super hard question. It's a totally good question, but it's really hard. And I don't know if I have the answer. There's a section of the primer, the Build and Fight thing that we're writing, which [includes] prickly questions and that should be one of them.
But do you have beginnings of thoughts? It doesn't even need to be an answer. I'm just curious to hear about what types of conversations are happening at that level. I feel like those are conversations that I wish I had more and you all seem to take organizing seriously, so I think probably you have a half baked answer. What does it look like to think about these things for you?
Yeah, I guess a couple of things… It reminds me of a critique that we often have, which is maybe from a Social Democrat side, which is that once you start organizing for the localization of these services, that's totally in line with neoliberalism where it's taking responsibility away from the state. And so that's another critique. So you're helping austerity happen by putting all the burden on the community itself.
And well, a couple of things... One is that if you actually look at the co-operative housing, in general, people agree that it's really hard and a lot of co-ops have difficulties in managing themselves. But if you look at the whole, the experience is generally much better [than living in market rental units]. Like these organizations do much better than the privatized alternative.
In what sense?
Well, I'd just say happiness of the employee or the renter or co-owner. They're much more efficient. There's less harassment that happens. There's more of a sense of meaning. So if you look at the research, that's what you start seeing. But if you talk to people, there's a lot of frustration because you're working overtime to make your co-op work or you're spending extra hours at the board meetings or whatever. And a lot of people don't have time for that. And a lot of people are also really bad at it. I don't know if I would be good at that either.
It seems like that's one of the problems that arises when people start having their own self-managed type of businesses. A lot of people I know who opened bars or tech coops or something, they’re all super overworked. Maybe there's a limit to the meaning that you can get out of whatever economic type of project that you're gonna do. Even if marginally it's going to have an impact on helping people around you or creating a better context, everyone is fucking exhausted and always on the verge of dropping out.
Yeah, I think that's totally true. And I don't think I have the answer to that. But one thing is that even people who try it and then drop out... Let's say they move into a co-op and are like I can't do this. They have then had the experience of engaging with each other in a non-hierarchical way, which most people don't have. And that can go a long way already, just to have that experience and to learn how to do that. It is really powerful because then you start seeing those people at meetings who might never have been activists, but they've had this kind of experience before. They're often really good at helping the process along. So it can really be an important way for people to learn, just like what actual democracy can look like.
And the other part of that is that part of the discussion in Symbiosis is dealing with this kind of austerity, dealing with this cutting of social services. We do have to fight for those kinds of things right now at this moment. We do have to fight for child support, like free childcare, for having health care, because those are the kinds of things that once people have them, it makes life a lot less stressful and a lot easier to get involved. And yeah, [we have to fight for] full employment, things like that make it possible for people to start getting involved in other things. So, yeah, personally, as someone from an anarchist perspective, I have huge problems with the state welfare system. At the same time, I recognize that in this system today, I think strategically it's really important to fight for things like these basic services that allow people [to survive] because I think a really big part of neoliberalism is this very individualizing process where we all feel burnt out, we all feel tired, and we don't have extra time to devote for the things we want to, which are really tiring.
When you're thinking through strategy and you're thinking about priorities, there are choices to be made. I'm curious if the priority [for Symbiosis] is on creating your own institutions outside of the state and then trying to defend them from recuperation and from cooptation and from repression? What I understand you to be saying is that there is a prioritization on defending [state] services and expanding them in some ways. How do you make the decision about what to focus on and prioritize?
Yeah, I think that's a super important question. I don't think I can answer that. Like, because I think it totally depends on people's local situation. If it seems like in your neighborhood starting a clinic, an autonomous clinic would be a good way to build dual power, that would be amazing. At the same time, if things look pretty dreary in your neighborhood, I'm not one to say that you shouldn't. If you're living in a suburb or something and it doesn't look like you can start some kind of autonomous democratic organization in your middle class suburb, I wouldn't be one to say ‘don't run for city council’ or ‘don't start a campaign for state health care’.
So I think it's super contextually dependent. We've had discussions about this mostly in the primer group [the group writing the primer text on how to organize] around tactics and strategies arising from this question. It's a really hard question to strategize around because of what you were just saying. The baseline around that is asking a question like, ‘does this build dual power or not?’ And sometimes building dual power just means starting something so that people learn what democratic decision making and what the democratic process looks like. Sometimes it means offering people the resources they need to be able to live in the capitalist system. Sometimes that means running a candidate for the local city council who can force certain discussions to happen in city council. It really depends. I don't think like there's a hard and fast rule to any of these. Does that help? I don't know.
In one of your texts, you talk about the concept of dark municipalism. Can you explain more about what it is?
Yeah. So dark municipalism is this idea that any tools that the left has developed [can be used by our enemies]. There is a very clear historical precedent for municipalism being used for very conservative, very racist, white supremacist ends. For example, school segregation systems in the United States and generally housing segregation in the United States happened not necessarily at the state or federal level, but largely happened in local county level where white suburban communities consistently voted for ways that would exclude Black communities from moving to those neighborhoods and voted to keep their schools segregated and build local power to be able to do that.
Another example is the Lega Nord in Italy, which is almost explicitly anti-immigrant, almost a proto fascist party, basically preaching violence against racialized people, against women. All their discourse is about local power and the power of the municipality. So yeah, that is one way that municipalism can emerge and there are ways that you can identify those kinds of things and try to struggle against them. One is having very clear principles as a movement, as to what your values are. And that's another reason why it's so important to have a confederation where you put your values front and center...
I’m curious why Symbiosis made the choice to use the language of citizen to talk about the people who would participate in a given municipal project. It feels to me like citizenship is very much a project of the state that's used to exclude people, that's used to stop people's movement, that's used to create different access to movement based on passports and papers.
Just to put it clearly, citizenship is as you said a project of the state in that people who are citizens are people who have a passport and are able to participate in all the things that the state provides. And those who don't, who happen to be not born [in that place], or who don’t go through the process of being citizens are totally excluded from that. And it's a hugely racialized colonial system. And for that reason, the word citizen has a lot of loaded baggage.
And if you go back to it, originally, it's from Athens, from Ancient Greece, where the citizen was someone who participated [in society]. Anyone who was able to participate and have a say in the direction of society by participating in the democratic process. And even then, it was only men born in the city. So it was not women. It was not slaves who comprised a large part of the inhabitants of the city.
But, if you look at the history of the word citizenship, it is not quite so easy because a lot of the time what orients the struggle around citizenship is people's struggle to have a say in society. So even though citizenship gets used by those in power to make definitions of who gets to have a say and who doesn't, it itself is a contested word that people seek to claim as well. So being able to not just seeking to claim citizen, like nation state citizenship, but seeking to claim the right to have a say in the society, in the place where you are. So yeah, I think because of the nation state, citizenship has a really bad rap, but I think there's a case to be made to say this is the negative citizenship and we want to support people's struggles in universalizing and fighting for a kind of citizenship where everyone gets a say and everyone is part of that process.
Have you had similar conversations around democracy?
Yeah, I think maybe it's a similar thing where it's like, yes, this is a super problematic and exclusionary and exclusive concept. At the same time, there's a lot of capacity to reclaim it and to underline certain values that it helps bring about. So a way that word really fits a lot of people's idea [of] what is wrong and what is necessary… I think there's so much that the word democracy has going for it that it's possible to reclaim it for a radical left vision.
Is Symbiosis Montreal an open project? How do new people join?
Yeah. I think in general right now, anyone who's interested can get involved, but we haven't put ourselves out there in a very public way. What people could know is we have a constitution and people can find it here. Symbiosis Montreal is a very embryonic project. We spent a lot of time doing the basis of unity. Most of the [last year] was spent doing support work in Park Ex, and then it was the Congress. And now people are trying to reconvene around doing more outreach in Montreal.
Is there anything you felt like you really wanted to say that you didn't get a chance to say?
You know, Symbiosis, it's such nascent project that it's not perfect and it's still really being worked on a lot. It might seem like a big project from the outside somehow, but it's very small. And Symbiosis Montreal, it's very small. You know, I'd say like maybe around 20 people so far have been involved. So it's really not big. And then, you know, like around five people showing up to most meetings. So, yeah, I wouldn't want to blow it up too much.
A Symbiosis Montreal reading list
- Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya of Cooperation Jackson
- À Nous La Ville, Jonathan Durrand Folco
- Villages in Cities: Community Land Ownership, Cooperative Housing, and the Milton Parc Story edited by Josh Hawley and Dimitrios Roussopoulos
- The Fearless Cities: A guide to the global municipalist movement by Barcelona en Comu, Kate Shea Baird, Marta Junque, Ada Colau, and Debbie Bookchin
To contact Symbiosis Montreal: firstname.lastname@example.org
To read Symbiosis Montreal’s bylaws: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1y7JHatJYs09MR_CeyJtudblTmPvNlFO2FYCIjjfQX-Y/edit#
Further reading :
About Symbiosis from their own mouths : https://www.symbiosis-revolution.org
About Symbiosis’ strategic vision: https://roarmag.org/issues/dual-power
About the Symbiosis Conference in September 2019: