A very basic breakdown:
- We join with others to take collective action in order to achieve measurable goals. Our actions are tactics within strategies, which we hope will result in tangible successes/gains/improvements to people’s lives.
- We are concerned with results. We evaluate whether our actions are moving us toward making substantial change.
- We also join with others to take collective action because it makes us feel good. Our actions express our values, our identities, and our sense of belonging in the group or the movement.
- Expressive aspects of collective action and movement participation are important — this is what feeds us, makes us feel like we’re not alone, and keeps us going.
- WARNING: you can fulfill your expressive motivations without ever winning anything!
A longer elaboration of this dualism, authored by Joshua Kahn-Russell, Zack Malitz, and yours truly, is available at BeautifulTrouble.org.
This weekend I am celebrating with friends. I am celebrating that the confederate flag has overnight become a pariah, even among mainstream conservatives. And I am celebrating that gay people can now marry each other anywhere in the United States. Do I think that these victories have solved structural racism or discrimination against LGBTQ people? Of course not. Nonetheless, I am celebrating these victories. They were hard won. These shifts will positively impact a lot of people in meaningful ways. And these victories point the way forward.
Some of my radical friends’ dismal reactions to good news this week has reminded me of something I wrote a few years back about the story of the righteous few. I decided to repost a lengthy excerpt today:
Radicals tend to become radicals because we become disillusioned with aspects of the dominant culture. When you feel like you’re up against the culture, it’s easy then to develop an inclination to separate yourself from that culture. When we begin to become aware of the destructive impacts of capitalism, racism, sexism, and whatever other social systems we encounter that we see perpetuating oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. We feel a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.
However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society more generally. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from the mainstream of society. With the mainstream seen as bad, we begin to look for ways to distinguish ourselves and our groups from anything mainstream. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate, and develop distinctions between ourselves and the mainstream, because these distinctions reinforce our radical identity. The distinguishing features go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive…
In the story of the righteous few, success itself becomes suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been ‘watered down.’ It seriously messes with radicals’ heads when some of our ideas start to become popular! We are so accustomed to being the most radical kid on the block, and suddenly people we’ve never met are coming out of the woodwork, marching in the streets with us, and spouting some of the lines we’ve been saying for years. Frankly, it can lead to a bit of an identity crisis. [emphasis added today]
The only thing I’ll add to this is: How do you expect to get more people to join collective action to win bigger victories if you completely dismiss the value of everything collective action has accomplished thus far? Take a minute to celebrate. We have our whole lives to keep critiquing, and, more importantly, to keep fighting for a better world.
Bourdieu series, post #2
Power tends to appear magical to those who have less of it, and mechanical to those who are accustomed to wielding it instrumentally. Different social groups are differently positioned within the larger ‘field of power’; each possessing a different measure of symbolic power and equipped to a greater or lesser extent to navigate the terrain of symbolic power. The asymmetry is not only a matter of control of capital and material resources; it also has to do with the dispositions (or habitus) that correspond with individuals’ different positions in the social structure (affected by education, family life, and many other factors) The power gap between agents’ dispositions is manifested in their different attitudes toward power itself. This can be seen in the phenomenon (or device) that Pierre Bourdieu calls the officialization effect — typically wielded by the few to awe the many. Essentially, those who already hold the reins of power have (as a perk of that position) continually blowing at their back the wind of the officialization effect, which endows them with an aura of presupposed competence (Bourdieu 1990b:109).
So elites tend to possess both predisposition and capacity to effectively project their particular interests as universal (even if rival elite factions frequently fight amongst themselves over the details). The capacity to define the universal is the operation par excellence of symbolic power. The ‘universal’ is not actually universal here. It is, however, still quite real—not because it actually constitutes an objective universal, but because its projection of universality and articulation of the ‘common sense’ constitutes a powerful political operation. In other words, while the ‘universal’ is not really universal, it is nonetheless a political mechanism that the armchair critic’s truth does not dissolve.
Symbols are the instruments par excellence of ‘social integration’: as instruments of knowledge and communication…they make it possible for there to be a consensus on the meaning of the social world, a consensus which contributes fundamentally to the reproduction of the social order. (Bourdieu 1991:166)
What Bourdieu neglects to mention regarding the officialization effect is that, in rare occasions, such a tool can be effectively wielded by relatively powerless political challengers (e.g., social movements). This kind of projection of officialness can be quite difficult for an underdog to pull off, but there are abundant examples of savvy agents doing so successfully—even ‘passing’ as official until the point that they actually become so (i.e., when they take state power). Even on a local and partial level, such audacious projections of power—power that is not actually possessed (yet)—can provide a tactical boost in campaigns.
Pierre Bourdieu, taking it to the streets
I had the opportunity this past semester to take an intensive graduate seminar at Berkeley that focused on the works of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The class was quite intensive, and aptly named “Bourdieu Bootcamp” by the instructor, Loïc Wacquant, from whom I learned volumes. Prior to this semester, the most I had ever read that was written by a single author was probably J.K. Rowling, so this was a fun challenge. I’m going to post a series over the next few weeks in which I will wrestle with some of Bourdieu’s concepts—especially symbolic power, fields, and doxa—in an unsystematic manner, applying them especially to struggles for social and political change. These will be nerdy posts—you have been warned.
This is the landing page for this series, which I will update with each new post.
- The moral imperative of strategies of universalization
- Usurping the ‘officialization effect’
It’s not every day that I have the honor of being accused of writing “foolish things” by the “great tax reformer” Grover Norquist. After reading Kevin Drum’s account of Louisiana Republicans’ exacerbation with Norquist, I Tweeted my own exacerbation. To my surprise, Mr. Norquist took at least a few seconds to break from his busy agenda of bankrupting America to explain himself.
To whom was he referring? Who would say such a foolish thing, I wondered? “We can do better than freedom?” What an absurd argument to make! And then I suddenly realized that it was me! He was referring to my Twitter profile, which leads with the sentence “We can do better than capitalism.” Easy mistake to make. I gently corrected him.
Now, let’s tax the rich already. “Simple.”
Bourdieu series, post #1
And one is tempted to say, contrary to the moralists who insist on pure intentions, that it is good that it should be so. No one can any longer believe that history is guided by reason; and if reason, and also the universal, moves forward at all, it is perhaps because there are profits in rationality and universality so that actions which advance reason and the universal advance at the same time the interests of those who perform them (Bourdieu 1997:126).
Bourdieu argues not only that the political project of universality is inescapable—i.e., that someone (or some group or class) will succeed in defining the contents of the universal, even if others eschew the contest itself—he is also suggesting here that there is potential social value in the operations of universality. It is not only a matter of practical necessity in the terrain of politics that contenders claim and contest the symbols, contents, and products of universality; there is also a broader social good in the operation—potentially, at least, and however untidy. While the political operation of constructing, cultivating, and wielding broad unity, and of framing universality(/ies), does indeed obfuscate important differences, heterogeneity, and power concentrations within the constructed alignment—sometimes at great costs to particular groups, especially those that are already marginalized—it simultaneously bridges between the potent solidarity found within fields (and in-groups) and the broad inclusionary project of constructing a common society within which all particular groups and fields must coexist. Continue reading
Another intense semester has come to an end and suddenly I have some time to relax, to catch up with friends, and even to indulge in wasting a little time on the Internet. Just now I remembered old Leeroy Jenkins — the disruptive antihero of World of Warcraft — and I thought I’d watch the Youtube video of his performance from ten years ago.
Because of my predisposition to see WoW as an unforgivable waste of time, I’ve always loved Leeroy’s utter disregard for the norms, processes, and careful strategic planning of his WoW teammates. Unilaterally cutting the collective planning stage short, Leeroy enthusiastically runs headlong kamikaze-style into enemy territory, embarking on what is sure to be a suicide mission, while narcissistically shouting his own name, “LEEEEEROOOYY JEENNNKINNNSS!!!” With the action kicked off prematurely, his teammates have no choice but to follow Leeroy into the field to do battle with beasts and demons and who-knows-what-else, hoping against hope to salvage something from the unfavorable situation created by the asinine antics of their stupid/brave comrade.
This time watching the clip, I realized how tragically perfect Leeroy Jenkins fits as a metaphor for way too many of my experiences in grassroots social movements. From the global justice movement to Occupy Wall Street (*not these movements as a whole, but particular episodes therein) to countless local campaigns over the past two decades, I have spent so much time and energy running headlong into an asymmetrical battle terrain prematurely — because a few ‘heroes’ self-righteously interpreted the imperative to act as an excuse for neglecting to develop a strategic plan. And once the action is underway, others follow, of course — in order to protect their comrades, to bail them out of jail, to fundraise for their legal defense, and on and on; essentially doing ‘damage control.’ (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that everyone who gets arrested at street actions is akin to Leeroy Jenkins, or that willingness to endure arrest and repression never serves to further the strategy of a movement.) I have struggled in so many situations like this to try to reframe actions that have already been unfavorably framed by our shit-show first impression.
Yup, I have reluctantly followed Leeroy Jenkins on doomed and costly missions. I can also remember being Leeroy Jenkins at least a few times. Fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins, screwing it all up. And it just takes one Leeroy Jenkins.
In The Symbolic Uses of Politics, Murray Edelman had this to say about public opinion polling:
A related kind of ambiguity pervades political process as well: uncertainty about how much public support or opposition for programs exists or can be created. Because opinion is constructed and volatile, all indicators of it are problematic. Poll reports are therefore another device for the reduction of ambiguity to clarity.
Polled individuals are abstracted both from their everyday lives and from political discussion and action shared with others. Their opinions are therefore also abstract — not necessarily related to any course they would pursue when involved in political activities different from answering an interviewer (or, perhaps, voting). In this artificial situation expressed opinion depends upon verbal cues together with changing memories of past situations and anticipations of future ones. Polls and surveys generate numbers that have the dramaturgical look of hard data and the epistemological look of shifting fantasies.
In his essay “Public Opinion Does Not Exist
,” Pierre Bourdieu similarly deflates polling as an elaborate trick that elites use to claim to speak for ‘the people.’ This mechanism, which measures aggregated answers of individuals, who are extracted from any organic social context, to questions about matters that they may or may not have any prior concern or idea about, has an inherently conservative bias to it. This conservative bias is due, in part, to the fact that the majority of people will likely be marginally informed, at best, about most issues, and the vague impressions they have will have been mostly informed by dominant discourses. So, while a particularly impacted community or field may hold intimate experience, expert knowledge, and higher stakes concerning a given issue, the opinion of an ill-informed majority—whose snapshot ‘opinion’ is no-doubt shaped by dominant discourse, which tends to be biased to favor elite opinion—will count just as much. Actually it will count for more
, in the aggregate. Nonetheless, political elites can use the concept of ‘public opinion’ as a weapon—a weapon that is disguised as a mere measuring stick—to legitimize themselves, their agendas, and their powers.
While it may be foolish for political actors (including underdog challengers) to ignore popular sentiment, it is perhaps even more foolish to ‘chase after the wind’ of public opinion; to treat it as if it were something that existed concretely, as an unbending thing, rather than as an ever-constructed construction, whose articulation a political actor has to constantly contribute to and contest — if that actor hopes to be a contender, and not merely a commentator on the sidelines.
(Thomas Gilbert and Andrew Loveridge made interesting related points last year in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.)