The Story of O.

How a Marxist whole foods cult from the ’70s perfected modern woke social control

BY Samuel Biagetti, TABLET

One evening in the later months of 1982, a young bakery manager, machinist, and political organizer named Alexandra Stein parked her car on a seedy side street in Minneapolis then quietly walked up the block to a rundown duplex building. Although she had been living on this street for over a year, she had never visited this particular house before, nor even known of its existence. Upon arrival, she slipped into the living room and found five chairs arranged in a circle, four of them occupied by people she knew and one of them reserved for her.

This was no ordinary social visit: Stein had been summoned here for an “ideological hearing” (similar to what in other extremist political groups has been called a “struggle session”) conducted by fellow members of a political cult called simply “the O.” Previously known as the “C.O.,” for “Cooperative Organization,” it had first taken shape in the mid-1970s as a militant Marxist reading group that attempted to infiltrate and commandeer the Midwestern food co-op movement, before going deep underground. By the time Alexandra joined in 1980, the O. was fanatically secretive. While the cult’s members rarely met, and communicated with code names, all of their activities, from work to travel to sex, were directed by an unnamed hidden ringleader by means of typed, unsigned memos delivered through an internal mail system. The ideological hearing that Alexandra joined on this autumn evening was unusual in that more than three O. members gathered together in a single room.

As outlandish as it may sound at first, the O. is significant today as a historical touchstone for the emergence of a conformist and totalizing mindset among the white-collar middle class. Secretive and extremist groups, which flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, adapted a set of classic social-control techniques to the manipulation of idealistic activists entering the managerial workforce. Blending social-justice and pseudo-therapeutic language, the management strategies they pioneered carried over into the service industries, academia, and the growing nonprofit-industrial complex. For example, Christian Parenti has shown that one of the most common exercises found in diversity and social-justice seminars, the degrading and objectifying “privilege walk,” originated in 1980s workshops run by members of the Re-Evaluation Counseling Communities, a Seattle-based cult patterned on Scientology and using a thinly veiled knockoff of L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics.”

What is more, in the current century, the social surveillance and control fostered by political and self-help cults has come to pervade the wider public discourse. In the current pressure-cooker environment, speech taboos multiply, and once-ordinary terms and habits become the bases for accusations of an expanding array of heresies, from “ableism” to “misogynoir.” Social media, meanwhile, serve as platforms for constant cycles of denunciation, confession, and social banishment. As a result, over the past decade, polemicists have increasingly complained of a “woke” or “leftist” zealotry seizing the levers of power, loosely referring to its adherents as members of a “cult.” These critics have a valid point, but amid their hyperbolic rhetoric, they have failed to follow through on the comparison, and so have ignored the basic instrumental function of woke language—namely, that it enables a largely invisible elite of owners and employers to extract labor and compliance from the managerial class.

Contemporary critics of the “woke ideology” often seek to trace its origins to the influence of long-dead social theorists, from Hegel to Foucault. In response, the defenders of social-justice ideals counter that to be “woke” once meant merely to be vigilant and alert to injustice, as in blues singer Lead Belly’s admonition to “stay woke.” Both arguments, however, are preoccupied with the intellectual genealogy of terms and concepts, while ignoring the concrete practices of social control that link historical cults to modern-day labor management. Wokeness today is not at root a set of ideas or doctrines, but a style of social interaction that serves to enforce conformity and compliance.

It should hardly need to be said that cults have leaders, who tend to use common strategies for recruiting and manipulating members, such as isolation and alternating rounds of flattery and humiliation. They separate their followers from outsiders and often exploit them for money, sex, or power. The O. in 1980s Minneapolis stands out as an instance of a group whose leader remained anonymous and controlled his followers through elaborate bureaucratic procedures; it was, one might say, a cult of impersonality, and thus a preview of woke labor management. Its methods are unusually well-documented due to the disclosures of Alexandra Stein, a former member who escaped the group in 1991 and later published Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult. CONTINUE

June 12, 2023 | Comments »

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