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Guest Article

Guest Article

August 21, 2022

Gwen Snyder on common cult dynamics

Originally tweeted by antifascist, organizer, writer, bitchmedia contributor Gwen Snyder (@gwensnyderPHL) on August 21, 2022.


The Caleb Maupin stuff is horrifying, and horrifying in part because several of his cult tactics are often used by a number of left and “progressive” folks/organizations who seek to exploit young idealists and exploit their labor for profit and power.

For example:

1.) Enforced poverty

In my [Gwen Snyder] organizing career, I have seen groups ranging from weird fringe separatists to relatively mainstream unions do this, for reasons ranging from simple greed and hypocrisy to outright cult tactics.

And the cult ones weren’t uniformly fringe.

Usually, it’s not one or the other. As with Maupin, it’s often a combo of the two.

When I was canvassing for the (for-profit) Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated, or GCI, in my very early twenties, we were explicitly told that we should be grateful to get paid at all, because really we should canvass for free.

I’ve seen at least one mainstream union pull this line with salting, too.

“You should be grateful you get the [minimum wage] pay from the target workplace, even though we directly benefit, pay you nothing, and tell you to wine/dine co-workers out of your own pocket to organize”

To say nothing of all the unpaid internships and poverty-wage entry organizer jobs all over “progressive” nonprofits and unions, which exist to mine idealists for intensive and exhausting labor with zero support, until they burn out.

Enforced poverty can be simply a matter of greed, but very often it is also a measure of control leveraged to keep idealist-recruits dependent on the org and leave them vulnerable to suggestions that they join other folks the org is exploiting in arrangements of…

2.) Org-facilitated group living

There’s nothing wrong with intentional community, but orgs pressuring their workers and/or members into entering these situations is red-flag city.

This is another place where Grassroots Campaigns was troubling but very much not an isolated case.

When I worked there, directors and assistant directors routinely ended up in shitty houses/motels together because they couldn’t afford their own places and because of GCI’s cult mentality.

I can’t speak to how much those arrangements were org-encouraged because even back then I was smart enough to refuse to accept the offered promotion to a director position.

HOWEVER.

I can speak to what they did to field managers.

Our Philly office once shut down with zero notice, leaving us all with no income and at risk of not making rent, affording groceries, etc.

We were told it was an “opportunity,” though. We would get to travel!

We could go up to New York City for the week and learn from the star canvasses up there (I was given this “offer” with less than 24 hours notice).

They would even house us!

Except…

“Housing” was a spot on the floor of an NYC canvasser I’d never met.

I’m a survivor of sexual assault, so you can imagine how fun it was hearing that my pay was now contingent on spending time unconscious on a stranger’s floor in a city where I had no established support network.

But of course, it was about control.

We were considered a problem office at the time, my now-husband and I were considered especially toxic by higher-ups, and this was how they flexed and tried to break up the relationships we’d later lean into and build an IWW union from.

And that whole situation was a great example of…

3.) geographical isolation to facilitate indoctrination / retention

GCI was an absolute cult, and one of its favorite moves was to hire people for misleading job descriptions, then ship them to cities where they had zero support network and couldn’t afford to travel home.

Once a director (my boss at the time) was so desperate she asked me to do her a favor and buy her a plane ticket home. I didn’t get that money back literally until we made it a union demand.

I dealt working class kids crying because GCI tricked them into insecure, quota-contingent summer door-to-door work in a city they weren’t from and that now couldn’t afford to leave.

They were trapped and under constant threat of termination.

Which brings me to…

4.) coerced begging

Sorry, but that’s what fundraising canvassing is, at least under most current models.

Orgs use enforced poverty and geographic isolation to force members/workers into dependency, then tell them to meet their quota begging, or else.

Coerced begging is something cults are renowned for, and something a lot of these cult-y orgs find ways to impose.

It’s often the profit model for the org and its leader, and when combined with quotas leaves members/workers fearful that they’ll be abandoned, financially and socially.

GCI was first and foremost a profit scheme, so it mostly just put people in desperate situations to create a coerced begging situation, which is deeply fucked in and of itself.

But, as with the Maupin situation, quota failures can be used to worsen worker/member financial precarity, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation by the org and/or its leader.

At the same time, these orgs encourage or at least do some friendly winking at…

5.) organizational incest

By which I mean, they create an organizational environment where members/workers tend to bang each other, relatively openly.

Organizational incest helps maintain a closed network of workers/members. For obvious reasons, it’s especially common in orgs that encourage (openly or through the realities of enforced poverty) group living for workers/members.

It really is an isolation tactic.

You extract people from their local support networks, isolate them together in group living, and keep them out of external relationships by encouraging them to form all their new relationships, including sexual and romantic, internally.

It makes it even harder for skeptics to act on their skepticism and leave because the cult-org is now their only available community.

It also helps prevent outsiders from gaining access to the member/worker community and voicing dangerous reality checks about the exploitation.

Org incest is sometimes encouraged explicitly, but more often it’s created by making it impossible for members/workers to have a social life with outsiders.

This is done via enforced poverty (you can’t afford to go on dates) and also weird, extreme work schedules.

When I was at GCI, I’d get to the office at 11 am and often wouldn’t leave until 10 pm and sometimes later.

I did have a support network in Philly, but they were going to bed when I left work.

And dating? lol

The other big way org incest is subtly encouraged is tolerance of workplace romance to an absurd degree.

“Everyone’s fucked everyone, including the boss. Isn’t that hilarious?”

No, it’s a warning sign.

Organizational incest is also majorly conducive to another common red flag cult practice in these orgs, which is sexual exploitation of workers/members by org leaders, especially the Big Genius Guy at the top of the hierarchy.

GCI would have this big annual national brainwash convention which was basically a praise rally for its founder.

I didn’t experience this stuff directly, but when we started our union we found out it was famously an (alleged) sexual procurement event for that founder.

I’m using GCI as my main example here because it’s my own most direct experience with this shit, but trust and believe that this was not an exception.

I’ve also seen “radical” member orgs, nonprofits, and unions use many of these tactics to exploit young idealists.

Now, let me be very clear: this is not a leftist/progressive/Democrat/whatever-specific problem.

It’s an authoritarianism problem, which is generally more common on the right.

At the same time, authoritarian leftists do exist (hi, tankies!), and do pull this shit.

You also get grifters like GCI that exploit the authoritarian left’s language of leadership infallibility, elevation of “comradeliness” over accountability, and emphasis on magical doctrine that is not to be questioned.

It’s cynical and profit-motivated cultism, but still cultism.

Anyway, all of these elements are present in the Maupin story, and that Medium accountability piece about him really spells out how they all work together in mutually enforcing ways to maximize member/worker isolation and exploitability, as well as leader/org profit.

These are tools that cultists use to force compliance and submission, especially around sexual demands and profit manufacture for leaders.

There truly are some orgs that use these tactics purely to brainwash and retain, but… that’s not at all okay, either?

This is one of the many reasons the left is overdue for a meaningful internal accountability movement.

What to do

We need to normalize asking the tough questions, especially when it comes to sketchy leader behavior, sexual exploitation, and impoverishing “fundraising” begging models.

My sincere advice for young folks entering a movement is to be a “difficult” person going in.

By which I mean: ask the hard questions about how members/workers live and earn, how dissent and criticism is managed, and about whether examples of how accountability has been implemented.

And I do mean the past tense there.

It’s not enough for an org to have a theoretical accountability structure.

You want to know that it’s actually been meaningfully applied.

If they’re like “we’ve never needed to,” run.

They’ve needed to, we all have.

They chose not to.

If it’s a cult, they’ll likely shift from love-bombing you to giving you the cold shoulder the moment you start asking difficult questions and refusing to accept bullshit brush-offs.

They will try to make you feel like you are a bad comrade, don’t let them.

Remember, once you start voicing those questions and concerns in front of members/workers, you’ve become a threat.

You’re giving folks in that closed network an outside reality check, and that is one of the main dangers all these tactics are meant to counteract.

That’s not being a bad comrade, that’s being an autonomous, thinking human.

Any organization that sees that as a threat is a threat to you, and is not to be trusted or listened to.

Don’t listen.

Run.

And remember also, Maupin is an extreme case.

Not every culty org is PSL. There are a lot of GCIs and [redacted, but you’d know their name] out there.

There are a lot of problematic orgs that check some of these boxes and have some of these tendencies to some degree.

There are a lot of variations on the theme, a lot of different degrees.

At the end of the day, though, pay attention to whether an org’s asks will isolate you from your support network while extracting labor from you in an unsustainable way.

They all have that shit in common.

Truly liberatory work has an expansive understanding of community. It doesn’t dangle the carrot of cadre exclusivity, and it doesn’t demean people for not following its very specific internal One True Leftist Doctrine and/or One True Leftist Leader.

Honestly, when in doubt, visit your local infoshop and ask some established local anarchists about the org. Even (maybe especially) if you aren’t an anarchist.

You can choose to disregard some or all of what you hear, but if the org is authoritarian you’ll likely hear about it.

Anyway, I hope this is useful to some folks.

These have been some hard-earned lessons, and I hope others can find some wisdom in the lessons without having to take any of these sorts of seminars in trauma.

(P.S. – please excuse how typo-ridden this is! I’m night-weaning an 11-month-old, I am barely stringing words together at the moment.)


Twitter thread lightly edited to become blog post.

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