Churn is an organizational philosophy whose central tenet is that you can always replace people. If you agree with that philosophy, you don’t need to worry about losing people, and you don’t really need to care about how they’re doing. It’s a popular philosophy in America, and its applications are legion.
Churn gets applied to material things as well as to people, which is why we have a consumer culture that relies more on replacement than repair. Nowadays, people are struggling so much economically that replacing everything broken with a new model makes little sense. Repair would be a better option for folks (as well as providing gainful employment for anyone who can acquire the skills, thus buttressing local economies) but after roughly twenty-five years of replacement consumerism, there are far fewer competent repairmen, and far less institutional support for the ones we still have. Who’s going to enter a dying profession? What makes things worse is that the philosophy of churn has a generally bad effect on skill levels across whatever group adheres to it. Training falls into disrepute—why invest more than you must in such a temporary relationship?--and the very nature of churn tends to sideline or even eliminate veterans from the organization, thus ending the unofficial training that often happens when experienced workers work alongside novices.
Churn is thus very obvious in consumer culture and the workforce, and it even makes a kind of sense that Americans would find it there. The American economy is about maximizing profit for the few, and if you want to maximize profit, it’s very useful to both devalue workers and decrease the quality of products. It’s a lot more surprising to realize that left-wing activism, for the past forty years or so, has also followed the philosophy of churn. But it has.
It’s basically been assumed since the Reagan years that being a left-wing activist means doing loads of unpaid labor on a shoestring budget under conditions that are brutal for morale. Those conditions are assumed to be inevitable. Maybe, given the political and economic factions that have run the nation for the past 45 years, they are. But that would be more reason to attend to the care and healing of your activist workforce—if you didn’t subscribe to the philosophy of churn. How many times have you heard a left-wing group inquire as to the well-being and happiness of its activists? I never have, except in the specific case of bigotry.
Left-wing groups sometimes go through the process of asking their black, brown, LGBTQ, or female members whether or not they are experiencing bigotry from their white, straight, cis-gendered, or male members. Or, at best, people from such traditionally oppressed groups bring such concerns to the group themselves. Nobody with sense would suggest that a left-wing organization shouldn’t have such a process, since bigotry, apart from being immoral, destroys trust between workers, which in an activist context can be catastrophic. But it’s a long way from Jane accusing Joe of disrespecting her because she’s female and Rhonda accusing Jane of disrespecting her because she’s transsexual to an activist culture that nurtures its workers.
I was a left-wing activist for 30 years. Most of that time, I assumed that any bad feelings I had in connection with my activism were just features of the political landscape—nothing I, or any of my fellow activists, ought to try to deal with in any way—except by bulling through them. Stiff upper lip! Keep working; keep fighting. The one time I reached out for help because I thought I was about to truly burn out, the leader of my organization basically told me just that: any bad feelings or exhaustion should be disregarded; work till you drop. I know that sounds virtuous: maybe even heroic. But underneath it is the idea of churn.
The left badly needs, among many other things, to heal its morale: to rekindle its internal fires. The philosophy of churn, especially if unacknowledged, will make that more difficult, not less. Perhaps it’s time to question our assumptions about ourselves and our work.