That Max Berger has some real zingers. He and I spent the past few days at Harvard with Marshall Ganz and the Leading Change Network. Max discussed Occupy Wall Street during a panel on Organizing vs. Mobilizing. And — boom — he drops this ripe physics metaphor:

Force equals mass times acceleration. We [Occupy Wall Street] had a lot of acceleration and little mass.

Preach it, comrade Berger.

Can you spot the real Max Berger?

Left-wing ambivalence toward power

There’s no shortage of reasons to be ambivalent toward power. A cursory glance at the 20th Century should cause serious wariness — at the very least toward some of the horrible ways power can be wielded. This wariness, though, is asymmetrical between the political Left and Right — as are its consequences. And I believe this is one of the most important dynamics in need of deeper examination by Left organizers, organizations, and movements.

While there’s evidence that Leftwing ambivalence toward power has existed in many iterations throughout history, I think there’s even more evidence that the paralyzing effects have gotten significantly worse in the past half-century (in the United States), as “character structures” have shifted, and the meaning of activism itself has changed.

Some of this assertion is based on the influential frameworks put forward in The Lonely Crowd, which makes the case that the new predominant character structure (“other-oriented”) in the United States, arising from a backdrop of abundance, places more value on the life of the group than on what the group achieves. Similarly, political scientist Ronald Inglehart asserts a consistent rise in a politics of self-expression across all highly industrialized societies, which started to become dramatically apparent around, say, 1968. I believe these patterns have played out asymmetrically between the Left and the Right, hugely affecting patterns of social organization, activism and social movements.

The main thrust of this asymmetry is that, if politics has become more self-expressive and group-expressive than instrumental (i.e. with the measurable goal of accomplishing X) to most participants, then egalitarian-oriented activists may seek to express their egalitarian values in their groups more than they focus on building vehicles that can accomplish a concrete egalitarian goal or political agenda. On our side, the fulfillment of an egalitarian self-expression can be accomplished within the internal life of the group (or campaign) itself, without ever actually having to win anything. On the Right, the fulfillment of an authoritarian self-expression (to be perhaps a little harsh and overly general in my label) can only be accomplished by actually building and wielding power. This pattern is relatively new (most evident the past 50 years) and, IMHO, it constitutes one of the most paralyzing cultural constraints our movements face today. It is perhaps the primary reason why the Right invests so heavily in leadership development and building organizations, while much of the Left is ambivalent, even self-sabotaging, about both enterprises (and often even about strategy).

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right…”

Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change… And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites — polar opposites — so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love… Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic… It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Is government a contestable space?

Yesterday in Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?), I essentially argued, among other things, that there may be harm in framing our social, economic, and political change efforts in the United States today in a term whose applicability may be historically contingent. The word revolution, I suggested, conjures the idea of overthrowing a government, and as such is descriptive of a particular model of transformation that only applies to the radical overhaul of particular kinds of oppressive governments, e.g. feudalism, monarchies, dictatorships, and colonial governments. The harm, I suggested, comes from the uncritical and unqualified dichotomization of revolution vs. reformism in some activist circles, where the former is exalted and the latter dissed.

If we reject revolution vs. reformism as a false dichotomy and embrace that reforms (i.e. winning real improvements in real people’s lives now) are important, then another question arises: Is government a contestable space?

If winning reforms is important, the practical consolidation will necessarily involve some kind of government action. And forcing some kind of government action will necessarily involve a contestation of the space within government (at least at the consolidation phase of the process).

Now, let’s entertain for a minute that we decide that government is not a legitimate contestable space for genuine challenger movements. Then what is our theory of change? How will we improve the lives of real people (including our own lives), despite the powerful systemic obstacles in our way? I see two alternatives: we could 1) return to the arguably callous aforementioned “revolutionary” framework, where, in order to not legitimize “the system” or put a band-aid on a gaping wound, we postpone all social advancements until after the glorious moment of revolution (reminiscent of religious faith in a “reward in the hereafter”); or we could 2) adopt a voluntaristic “prefigurative politics” where we serve food in parks for free, squat community centers, organize bike collectives, plant community gardens, open free clinics, hold daily 4-hour General Assemblies, etc. — modeling the kind of nurturing, cooperative, anti-authoritarian world that we hold in our hearts. Or — score! — we don’t even have to choose between those two options: we can do both at the same time. And, in fact, I think that these two approaches, engaged simultaneously, constitute the basic modus operandi of many activists and activist groups today, especially explicitly anti-authoritarian groups.

Continue reading

music and politics, real and retreat

My recent visit to Barcelona happened to coincide with an amazing party at the biggest squat I have ever been to in my life. Seriously, the Can Masdeu is lord of all squats. It is big enough to eat all the other squats I’ve ever visited. The party was to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the squatters’ and the community’s successful thwarting of a several-day police eviction attempt. Folks were pretty stoked at the party. I danced until 6:30am, and as I left, I passed probably 100 more people who were just arriving. That’s how they roll in Barcelona.

Can Masdeu: it’s big.

At around midnight I got to experience something really moving and intimate. A group of singers herded/ushered a couple hundred of us into a big room in the middle of the huge squatted building. The whole property had once been a leper colony, and apparently this room had been a big bathing room. The walls were stone, the ceiling high, the lights were low, with a small disco ball hanging from the ceiling, slowly rotating. The room was packed full, most folks sitting on the floor, everyone listening intently. There were maybe 15 singers, accompanied by one Spanish guitar. They sang several old songs from the Spanish revolution (e.g Ay Carmela). It was breathtaking, conjuring so much history, beauty, and tragedy.

Listening to the singers, I started thinking about how important group singing is to social movements. I had previously heard old original recordings of some of the songs — had heard the hope in the chorus of voices. Sitting there, I thought about how persistently Miles Horton emphasizes group singing in his (must-read) autobiography. And then I was trying to recall the details of a study I’d read that asserted evidence that deep primal group bonding is achieved through group singing. More and more thoughts, stream of consciousness. I had brought a pen just in case I might have some thoughts (they’d been coming frequently during my travels!). I quickly jotted them down on the backside of the directions (to the party) my friend had printed for me:

Is there a parallel in the extrication of politics from the fabric of most people’s lives (and groups) and the extrication of music? Music, like politics, is still in our lives in that it is all around us, but we are passive to its force. It affects us, but we lack agency — we defer to musicians as we defer to politicians (or even to “activists”). Music, politics, sex — everything primal and powerful — is sterilized, arrested, under control, and sold back to us as a tame consumer good. We are passive. We are spectators.

Continue reading

Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?)

I like to fancy myself a revolutionary… blah blah what does that even mean? I’d like to suggest for a minute that maybe the words revolution and revolutionary have been mostly emptied of their contents; that their meanings are more than slightly ambiguous, even among their proponents (I’m talking specifically within the United States); that they serve largely as references to inspirational historical moments and as signifiers of belonging (i.e. “getting it”) within some radical groups, organizations and subcultures — much more than these words presently (again, in the US) suggest an instructive path or framework for social, economic and political change.

There. I said it. The danger of questioning a signifier of belonging is that it can call into question one’s own belonging in the group where the signifier is operating!

So, when we say revolution, I think we’re mostly vaguely refering to the overthrow of governments — and in specific historical circumstances. Social justice-directed revolutions have overthrown monarchies, feudal systems, and colonial governments. I don’t know of a single Left-direction revolution in this sense (i.e. the overthrow of a government) that has been accomplished in a representative democracy (even in really shitty representative democracies). The only forces I can think of that have overthrown elected governments in the past century or so have been rightwing reactionary forces, usually through the form of a military coup. There have been plenty of those! If you can think of an exception to this, I’m all ears.

The best defense I’ve heard of current usage of the word revolutionary (again, in our context — I’m not talking about Tunisia or Egypt) has gone something like this: “Revolution is about overthrowing the current order. Presently, we have an oppressive plutocratic / capitalist order. We are working to overthrow that regime.” Great, I’m down with that, and I’ll happily keep sporting this signifier with this intended meaning. Still, it really doesn’t do much for me anymore…

What am I getting at? Why does this matter?

It matters because, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging, the word revolutionary can privilege certain tactics and approaches over others. As a label, revolutionary is meant to distinguish a change agent within a broader field of change agents — to marginally differentiate oneself and one’s group within a broader alignment of groups working for change — perhaps even more than it is meant to distinguish us from all-out defenders of the status quo. As such, its posed opposite is less the status quo than it is a reform approach to change. In extreme form, this tendency lumps “reformists” together with the status quo and its defenders — into one big inpenetrable monolith that we’re unequivocally against. It sets up a false dichotomy of revolution vs. reform — a framework that has some merit, but that can be paralyzing without further clarification and nuance. Furthermore, as an ambiguous signifier of belonging (in certain radical subcultures), group members may be inclined to do things, to say things, even to wear things that seem “revolutionary”, and to distance themselves from anything that reeks of “reformism”. In extreme form this leads to the idea of revolution as apocalypse: what is needed is a cataclysmic, nevermind catastrophic, reset; any improvement in the situations of real people is dismissed, maybe even denounced, as prolonging the life of the “system”.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who uses the word revolution is guilty of any of the above. After all, advertisers love to brand the shit they’re selling as “revolutionary” too.

“Asks” & the asymmetry of hegemonic contests

I’ve been thinking more about the processes involved in the projection of primary/proximate group-oriented experiences and instincts onto larger, abstract imagined communities. These processes seem, by all accounts that I put stock in, historically contingent. In other words, the tendency to identify with a large, abstract, realistically unknowable public (e.g. a nation, a religion, a race, an economic class, etc.) is a relatively new phenomenon; there’s evidence that most cultures did not engage in this sort of identification/projection throughout the course of known human history.

Elements/pieces of this puzzle to dig into in future writing:

  • uprooting/disappearance of traditional communities
  • “alienation of labor”
  • emergence of mass media: newspapers and novels at first (see Imagined Communities), followed by radio & television (Internet and its feeding of particularisms and self-selecting tendencies may complicate this — see The Filter Bubble).
  • mass media messages are still interpreted / internalized / assimilated through the intermediaries of “real” (/local/proximate/primary) social groups (e.g. family, congregation, workplace, etc.)

I’ve written about this some before (here), but I’m gearing up to go into greater depth. Maybe even a little rambling now…

Hegemonic struggle is a contest over who can win the investments of proximate groups into a particularly-framed imagined community. It is a game of making unembedded abstractions into potent forces within real, measurable, tangible local communities. OR of making the situation of one particularism — i.e. one particular community — into a symbol of the universal. It involves strategically selecting and often fabricating — or just happening upon — specific stories, situations, conflicts, communities, people, symbols, phrases, memes, what-have-you, and projecting these for broad resonance, elevating them to a claim of universality.

Continue reading

particularisms, universalities & hegemonic strategy

Wrote this list at the bar last night, and I’m not going to pick it apart just now. Not sure all these dichotomies belong in the same list (especially narcissism / collectivism) — but it’s helpful for me to see it all together for the moment. After starting on Ernesto Laclau’s Emancipation(s) later in the evening, I might add to the list emancipatory moment / preceding social order. I suppose this may amount to a geeky teaser for posts coming down the pike.