#OccupyWallStreet: Perfectly Coherent



General Assembly in Iowa City

Much has been made by some news outlets and pundits about the supposed “incoherence” of the Occupy Wall Street protests. “The protesters” don’t have a coherent message, we are told. They can’t even agree on any solutions. What the heck are they proposing?

This angle is wrong-headed. The strongest and most successful social movements in history have always tapped into multiple concerns that are important to different swaths of society, and often articulated in different ways. It’s not typically the responsibility of a broad movement to propose specific policy solutions &#151 at least not at this stage in the process. It’s on us to create pressure to move society in a direction. When we do that successfully, windows will open to fight for this or that specific change. The bigger a movement we grow, the more pressure we create, the more substantial and meaningful those windows for measurable gains become.

And historical perspective is not all that’s wrong with the “incoherence” frame. There’s a pretty damn clear coherence to Americans’ anger at Wall Street right now. If it doesn’t upset you that the top 1% is still making record-high profits and paying record-low taxes while the rest of us struggle just to survive, then I don’t know that I’ll be able to explain it to you. But I think most people feel it in their gut. That’s why us being here is resonating with so many people. That’s why this movement is drawing so much attention, and why I think it’s going to continue to gain momentum over time.

The momentum is really starting to spread beyond the “usual suspects”. It’s important to emphasize and encourage this. For example, while coastal occupation actions have drawn the most media attention so far, actions are also happening all across “Middle America”, from Ashland, Kentucky to Dallas, Texas to Ketchum, Idaho.

I just heard a first hand report about four hundred Iowans marching in Des Moines, Iowa today as part of the October 15 international day of action. I’m working on the press team here at Occupy Wall Street, and I just got the chance to talk on the phone with Judy Lonning a 69-year-old retired public school teacher who participated in the Des Moines action today. Here’s what she had to say:

People are suffering here in Iowa. Family farmers are struggling, students face mounting debt and fewer good jobs, and household incomes are plummeting. We’re not willing to keep suffering for Wall Street’s sins. People here are waking up and realizing that we can’t just go to the ballot box. We’re building a movement to make our leaders listen.

Cheers to that.

Radicals, Liberals & #OccupyWallStreet: This is What a Populist Alignment Looks Like

Glenn Greenwald asked yesterday whether Occupy Wall Street “can be turned into a Democratic Party movement?”. He discusses how the tone of establishment Democrats has quickly shifted and how many in the Party&#151including the White House&#151are now clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave.

Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress even told the New York Times that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

After detailing the hypocrisy of a Party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street, Greenwald concludes:

So best of luck to CAP and the DCCC in their efforts to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA. I think they’re going to need it.

Greenwald is right, I think. Very few of the committed folks who are sacrificing time, safety and comfort to make these occupations happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

However, the fact that establishment Dems are clamoring to figure out how to co-opt this energy is a serious victory for genuine progressives and Left radicals. This is what political leverage looks like. Radicals haven’t had it in this country for a very long time, and now we’re getting a taste of it.  

Having leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull forces to the left. How often are genuine progressives and radicals in a position where the major political parties are reacting to them? I think I can count the number in my lifetime on one hand.

Now, here’s what not to do. Don’t make these occupations a “radicals only” space for fear of co-optation. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment. Will some parties to this fragile populist alliance try to stab radicals in the back, throw us under the bus, and claim all the credit first chance they get? Likely so. The thing to do about that is to organize better, to make it so you can’t easily be disposed of &#151 because you are too connected to too many people who will throw down for you. That’s good organizing and that’s real politics.

This is why I find Steve Horn’s piece at Truthout yesterday so unhelpful. His article titled MoveOn.Org and Friends Attempt to Co-Opt Occupy Wall Street Movement argues that “the liberal class is working overtime to co-opt a burgeoning social justice movement.” First, I think the piece is unfair. I think that MoveOn and Van Jones are legitimately interested in doing whatever they can to support this movement, and I appreciate the capacity that they add. But even if you concede his main point&#151that liberals want to co-opt a more radical agenda&#151so what? Sure, let’s not have any illusions here, but does Horn seriously not want to involve liberals in this effort? Do any progressives and radicals seriously think we will be able to achieve the kind of change we imagine without engaging large member organizations that aren’t as radical as us?

This isn’t a moment to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to beat the crap out of Wall Street, and to encourage as many people as possible&#151including people we may not particularly like&#151to do the same.

Populism & Hegemony (series)

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through an exploration of these ideas?

A series on populism and hegemony may sound nerdy, esoteric, and less-than-fully-practical for on-the-ground organizers, campaigners, and advocates for social justice (my intended audience), but I believe that understanding the patterns and processes of these two related concepts is key to effective long-term political struggle.  

In this series I’m digging in and attempting to work out some useful frameworks. I’m a student, not an expert, on these subjects &#151 and I’d love for other folks to weigh in on these ideas.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Anatomy of Political Identity
  2. Marx’s error
  3. Bonding & Bridging
  4. Long lefty laundry lists
  5. Wisconsin: How Populism Works

Long lefty laundry lists | Populism & Hegemony pt.4

This is the fourth post in a series.

Let’s say that I care a lot about the war in Iraq, and I start planning with some other folks in my town to put together a public rally to call for an end to the war and occupation. Well, what if we made the rally about the economy too? Everyone cares about the economy, right? Surely more people will come out if we link these two issues. Hey, while we’re at it, immigration is a big issue for a lot of people in our community, and I think we can get this one local immigrant rights organization onboard for our rally. We should at least be able to get someone to speak. And that makes sense. Immigrants are impacted by both the war and the economy. Also, there have been some folks working locally to stop a proposed waste incinerator. We should definitely have someone from that group speak at the rally. Wow, if we list all of these issues on one flyer, then we can attract a lot more people than the folks who would come out just because of the war or any one of the issues on its own.

There are several important flaws to this kind of explicit connect-the-dots approach. It’s not that we shouldn’t be connecting the dots. And it’s not that we shouldn’t have strong moral narratives that can help people make sense of a platform of issues. But a strong moral narrative is different than just throwing a bunch of seemingly disparate issues onto the same flyer and assuming that we’ll be able to connect with anything other than an already highly politicized&#151and particularly politicized&#151audience (aka “the usual suspects”). What this kind of approach tends to do is to attract self-selecting individuals who come to the event as individuals. They may come as individuals from many different social backgrounds, with relationships to different social blocs. But these social blocs are not bought in, which means small numbers and few resources for the effort. Rallies are supposed to be demonstrations of grassroots organization and power (in order to leverage pressure to affect political change). But they can all too easily accomplish the opposite of this intention; they can be demonstrations of disorganization, powerlessness, and even incoherence (i.e. disconnection from any organized social base).

It’s fully understandable why activists might tend toward some version of this flawed approach. Activists are very political people. They tend to have much more developed political ideologies than that of the average person, because they tend to focus more of their attention toward political issues. They see the connections, and they want others to see the connections too &#151 and to take action!

Unfortunately, the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.

I started this series lamenting how the political Left in the United States is plagued with a culture of fragmentation and issue silo-ing. Am I now also lamenting when activists make connections between issues? No… at least not inherently. The question is not whether or not we should burst out of our “issue silos”. The answer to that question is unequivocally yes, we should. Our question, rather, is about how. How do we do so in a way that will work? Our purpose in “connecting the dots” is not just to get an insufficient fringe of radicals to understand the connections. Our purpose is to break whole constituencies out of self-segregating “silos” &#151 to facilitate a bridging process; to build a populist alignment.

A “long lefty laundry list” of issues is not going to get us to where we need to go. What, then, is the alternative? I’ve been leading up to it all week, and tomorrow I’ll borrow from Ernesto Laclau&#151and second-hand-borrow from Antonio Gramsci&#151to sloppily attempt to describe not a formula for how, but an observable pattern that can be found at the heart of every populist alignment, I believe.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll stick with me for tomorrow’s post. Full disclosure: I’m trying to figure this shit out, and I would love to hear your thoughts about these ideas. Let’s banter in the comments section, how about it?

Bonding & Bridging | Populism & Hegemony pt.3

This is the third post in a series.

Strong group identity is something of a double-edged sword for social justice movements. On the one hand&#151as discussed in part one of this series&#151it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a strong core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle.

On the other hand, a group’s identity tends to grow stronger and more cohesive at a cost of becoming more distinct from other group identities. The cost is the barrier that results from the distinction of said group from other groups. While this is true of all groups to some extent, it tends to have particular consequences for political/politicized groups. Take, for example, a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against their rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in political struggle, on the other hand, has not only to foster a strong within-group identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity &#151 if it is to orchestrate and leverage the power it needs to accomplish its political goals. Add to this that oppositional struggle tends to trigger an oppositional psychology, which can inject “with steroids” the natural tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from outsiders.

I have called this tension (or double-bind) the Political Identity Paradox. Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong within-group identity and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.

In his remarkable examination of patterns of declining civic engagement in US society in the last third of the 20th Century&#151in his book, Bowling Alone&#151Robert Putnam provides some useful language for thinking about this tension. He talks in terms of bonding and bridging. Bonding involves the kind of within-group identity formation and emphasis I have discussed, which typically includes some degree of differentiation between group members and outsiders. Bridging is about connections among and between groups. Here’s Putnam:

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations.

Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Dense networks in ethnic enclaves, for example, provide crucial social and psychological support for less fortunate members of the community, while furnishing start-up financing, markets, and reliable labor for local entrepreneurs. Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion.

I suggested in part one of this series that:

…a primary function of identity is for group members to signal belonging and commitment to the group, thereby contributing to the health and well-being of the group, while also securing one’s individual place (and therefore survival) in the group.

That, in a nutshell, is what Putnam describes as bonding. I continue:

Group members can signal this [bonding/belonging] by expressing commonality or distinction:

  • Commonality: I am like others in this group.  I share values with this group.  I belong in this group.
  • Distinction . . . from other groups: I belong in this group because I am different from members of other groups &#151 especially groups that my group views as a threat or that the group identifies itself in opposition to…

So, the “double edged sword” of group identity that I described above&#151the Political Identity Paradox&#151speaks to the need for groups engaged in political struggle to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big structural changes.

We can talk in terms of within-group vs. between groups, distinction vs. commonality, differentiation vs. universality, or bonding vs. bridging. However we phrase it, what we’re talking about is the tension between the imperative for groups to cultivate internal solidarity and the imperative to connect beyond the boundaries of the group. Understanding this tension is crucial for understanding the emergence of&#151and the obstacles to&#151populist alignments.

Marx’s error | Populism & Hegemony pt.2

This is the second post in a series.

As discussed briefly in part one, in modern society our identities are complex. Our lives tend to be fragmented. In different spheres of our lives, we play different roles, hold different loyalties, perform different identities, and cultivate different aspects of our identities. Take a minute to think of some of the many ways you identify or have identified throughout your life. What are some key aspects of your identity?

Seriously, take a minute. If you want, grab a piece of paper and a pen and write them down.

Below is a partial list of aspects of my identity; things that have meant something to me personally at different times in my life&#151many of them simultaneously&#151that I came up with in about a minute:

 boy    man    Caucasian  
 American Indian    American    Pennsylvanian  
 Minnesotan    rural    working class  
 Christian    Mennonite    pacifist  
 feminist    antiracist    pagan  
 heterosexual    musician    punk  
 revolutionary    progressive    student  
 worker    electrician    activist  
 environmentalist    organizer    trainer  

What did you come up with?

Our individual identities today tend to be multifaceted and fragmented. We live in a highly heterogeneous society, where individuals tend to have much greater agency over which features of their identities they will invest in and cultivate, and which they will divest from. In some important senses, we are consumers of our identities. I could start out a conservative farm kid and end up a bohemian artist in the big city. And in the process of this transition, as I invest in one set of identities and divest from another set of identities, I am simultaneously investing in new clusters of people and divesting from others.

This is not quite the world that Karl Marx imagined when he was hunkered down writing up a manifesto. Then, capitalist industrialization was making more and more people seem more and more alike. Industrialization was producing a relatively homogenous industrial working class; meaning that a critical mass of folks worked in similar exploitative arrangements, made similar wages, lived in similar conditions of squalor, packed into the same urban areas, wore similar clothing, and on and on. All of these similarities acted as signifiers of an emerging “group” &#151 the industrial working class.

This is precisely how working class “consciousness” developed simultaneously in industrializing countries all around the world within such a relatively short time span &#151 causing a political polarization that was favorable (in terms of numbers that could be mobilized) to working class interests. I put the word consciousness in quotations because I believe this emergence was only possible because of how signifiers of similarity triggered primal, preconscious group-oriented instincts in people’s heads (per my discussion in part one).

Today, working people are still being screwed. Capitalism has further consolidated wealth and power, but the kind of solidarity and class consciousness that was common a hundred years ago is rarer today. There’s no longer any one coherent, organized working class identity that’s big enough to shake up the status quo. To be clear, the emergence of class identity was never an automatic process. Nor was it even close to a fully homogenizing process. There have always existed important heterogeneous layers within any broad class identity. But the signifiers of class similarity, more abundant a hundred years ago than today, probably made the constructive process of working class identity significantly easier.  So much so that many Marxists believed that a radical redistribution of capital and political power was a foregone conclusion; an inevitable, automatic historical process… right around the corner.

But today we are a very self-expressive bunch. As individuals, we express ourselves in dramatically different fashion, and thereby signify to each other&#151i.e. constantly remind each other of&#151our differences. These expressions of difference, as discussed in part one, are at their root signifiers of belonging with the groups that each of us identifies with the most.  The bonding is happening within these groups, but we’re increasingly disinterested in crossing bridges between groups.

This is what a fragmented society looks like.

To be clear, I am not making a value judgment about this fragmentation. This is not a nostalgic rant longing for the era of a more homogenous-seeming working class. Rather, I am attempting to accurately assess our contemporary terrain, for the purpose of working toward a strategy that makes sense for our context; ideally, a winning strategy for progressives. I believe that the fragmented, heterogeneous composition of our society makes populist alignments absolutely indispensable, if we want to build the kind of collective power that can rein in the very rich and powerful and bring about meaningful progressive change.

Fortunately for this discussion, we have some very powerful, very contemporary examples of such populist alignments, which I’m leading up to…

(For a deeper discussion of how advanced industrialized societies became so fragmented, read anything by Ronald Inglehart, or check out Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, or read my review of it.)

Anatomy of Political Identity | Populism & Hegemony pt.1

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through a study of these ideas?

Populism and hegemony can mean very different things to different people.  Rather than frontload this series with my particular working definition, I’m going to try to build from the ground up. To approach these concepts, first we need a working definition of political identity; what it is, what purposes it serves, and how it operates. This is the topic I will focus on in this post.

I’ll begin with an assertion that I hope to make meaningful through this post: that all politics is based on identity with a group.  The inverse: there can be no politics without identity with a group.  Identity is the stuff of politics. If a political project is a sand castle, then people are the sand, and identity &#151 and new articulations of identity &#151 is what sculpts the sand to form a coherent political “structure.”

This is the first post in a series.

Identity is a group-oriented process.

We often think of identity in individualistic terms; identity as the definition, self-conception or self-expression of the individual self.  However, defining or expressing one’s self implies an other to which one defines or expresses oneself.  Identity, therefore, implies relationship.  It is a process that is constructed in relationship.  Even identities that feature highly individualistic characteristics are still signaling something to someone other than oneself.  

And it’s not just a relationship-constructed process.  It’s also a group-constructed process.  What we’re signaling is largely about the group we identify with and our place in the group.  One can signal many particular things with (and within) an identity, but the two foundational things we signal to each other with our identity expressions have everything to do with the group itself.  These two things are belonging and distinction.  For example, if everyone in my social network attends church, I too am inclined to attend church at least in part because it signals my belonging in my social network.  (It may even be a required expression of belonging in some social networks.)  And I may refrain from alcohol and drugs in order to distinguish myself from the other (e.g. sinners, non-believers, etc.).  Now, I may be able to offer many good reasons why I have made an individual choice to attend my church and to take part in all of the rituals and life choices that go along with that.  I’m not arguing that these conscious reasons are false or disingenuous.  But they do not change the fact that I am also signaling belonging and distinction through these identity expressions.

I could reduce this framework further and argue that there are not two but only one foundational thing we signal through identity expressions: belonging; that belonging (to a “group”) is the foundational thing we signal through identity expressions, and that distinction (from other groups and identities) is a strategy employed for the purposes of signaling belonging to one’s own group.  Indeed, these two purposes are often accomplished simultaneously.  For example, a self-identifying hippie man may grow his hair long to signal belonging to the “rainbow family,” and with the same expressive act he signals distinction from&#151perhaps even rebellion against&#151dominant social norms.  I’m not arguing that these processes are fully (or even partly) conscious.  Our kind rainbow comrade hippie friend may explain it something like this, “I just like my hair long.  It’s just who I am.”

Now, let’s not pick on hippies just because they make for such easy targets.  This is a universal logic that I believe applies, to some extent, to all human groups: dominant groups, subdominant groups, and marginal groups alike.  The guy with the short crew cut is doing the same thing as the hippie: signaling likeness (belonging) to “the group” with which he identifies, as well as difference from other groups and identities.  This signaling practice happens everywhere all the time.  It happens through hairstyle, fashion, diet, lifestyle, musical tastes, dance moves, courting rituals, leisure interests, hobbies, career choices, political preferences, rhetoric, slang, even accents!  We are constantly signaling belonging and distinction.  It has everything to do with community.  It has everything to do with power and politics.  It has everything to do with us and them.  

And, I suspect, it has everything to do with primal and pre-conscious group-oriented survival instincts; with how we have evolved to behave in highly social and cooperative groups.  

Group identity through an evolutionary lens

We like to think of our life choices &#151 especially the big ones that constitute our identity &#151 as self-aware, rational choices.  But let’s be real.  The prefrontal cortex is, in the span of evolutionary time, a new kid on the block.  Only a very small portion of our brain activity involves conscious rational thought, and that part is not divorced from primal and pre-conscious emotions and instincts.  Our orientation toward “the group” certainly has conscious and rational aspects, but, like most of our behavior, it is predominantly primal and preconscious &#151 similar to how bees do not consciously decide to do this dance or that dance to indicate to other bees where to find the pollen.  Rather, these dances, and the ability to instinctively read the meaning of the dances, are the behaviors that served the group best and therefore survived.  In a social species, the behaviors that best serve the group tend to be the behaviors that survive (and therefore reproduce) over generations.

Looking at identity through an evolutionary lens, we might ask, “What does identity accomplish?”  Why did this behavior survive and develop?  What purposes does (or did) it serve?  What drives us to invest so much energy into its construction?  Well, if identity is, as I have advocated, largely about signaling belonging to “a group,” then why from an evolutionary perspective might people be inclined to signal belonging to a group?  The answer is somewhat obvious.  As I put it in The Political Identity Paradox:

If the thought of being abandoned by the group that you identify with troubles you, congratulations; that’s probably a hard-wired adapted way to feel. Your cave-person ancestors probably survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, the group. Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who pissed everyone off until they got 86’ed, probably didn’t fare quite as well evolutionarily.

It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who didn’t. This kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social, more cooperative, kinder, gentler species.

Where does that leave us now? It likely equips us with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we’re part of. We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins.

(For a deeper look at collective action through an evolutionary lens &#151 including downsides &#151 see my recent series Evolutionary Logic of Collective Action.)

I’m suggesting that a primary function of identity is for group members to signal belonging and commitment to the group, thereby contributing to the health and well-being of the group, while also securing one’s individual place (and therefore survival) in the group.  

Group members can signal this by expressing commonality or distinction:

  • Commonality: I am like others in this group.  I share values with this group.  I belong in this group.
  • Distinction (A) from other groups: I belong in this group because I am different from members of other groups &#151 especially groups that my group views as a threat or that the group identifies itself in opposition to.
  • Distinction (B) from other members of the same group: My particular role and contribution in this group is _____.  I am especially or uniquely needed in this group because of my particular contribution.

Values

But what about values?  Don’t I construct my identity according to the values that I develop?  This can certainly be the case, but those values are constructed by my identity and experiences with some group in the first place.  And, as with identity, we may benefit by asking what purpose values serve?  What is it about values that allowed them to develop into a phenomenon, to occupy a place in our cultural practices?

Below is a sort of “equation” intended to succinctly capture the group-benefiting purpose that values serve:

G = generic given group

G needs = perceived or articulated threats or opportunities that feel relevant to the group

Values = identity with G + perception of G needs

According to the above “equation”, we develop our values based significantly on 1) our identity with particular groups, and 2) our beliefs and perceptions about what will best serve our groups.  What we believe will best serve a given group is based on an ongoing cultural discourse within the group, where the group makes sense of experiences, events, encounters with outsiders, developments, and changes.  I use the word discourse in the broadest sense: values are expressed and developed and altered through many forms of discourse, including stories, music, ritual, rhetoric, colloquialisms, actions, service, leadership, and really anything in the day-to-day life of a group.  Through such a discourse &#151 through the meaning-making processes of the group &#151 over time, the group identifies and articulates which things pose opportunities and which pose threats.  These notions become the values (and even the common sense) of the group.

For example, on a base level, a village located in an area where flooding is common may come to value building houses and community structures up on stilts.  The flood is a threat.  The technology of stilts is an opportunity.  It gets more complicated when we push the framework from strictly material concerns and into the social arena, but there’s also no fine line between the two.  For example, most foraging cultures value egalitarianism, especially when it comes to food.  Hoarding is seen as a threat within such groups, and the pattern has been to develop, over countless generations, mechanisms that encourage, celebrate, and ritualize the sharing of food, and also mechanisms that sanction and punish hoarders (sometimes severely).

Modern society complicates this framework significantly.  We now juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity.  The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter.  But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity.  It is no small development, however, that people in such societies now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which “groups.”

The term group can mean many different things.   A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship.  It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups.  But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, “race”, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team.  With the label generic given group I am accounting for this broad spectrum of “groups”, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group.  I will return to this idea of group identity projection&#151and the difference between proximate groups (like a church or workplace) and abstract groups (e.g. nation, class, public)&#151in a future post.

There are of course many insightful lenses through which we can examine values &#151 other than the group-constructing, group-benefiting framework I have put forward here. One important approach to values that I will flag now and discuss in a future post is that of authoritarian versus egalitarian values (or, as George Lakoff puts it in his family-as-foundational-metaphor approach, strict father morality and nurturant parent morality).

Political dimension of group identity

How does this group identity framework relate to politics, political struggle, and social justice?

In the previous section, I discussed how values form and change over time, based on conceptions (within the group) about what is good for the group.  These values tend to manifest as concrete goals.  For example:

A village values having eggs to eat for breakfast.

A fox is killing the hens.

New goal: Kill the fox.

Limiting ourselves to the information we have here, killing the fox is a goal, but not really a political goal.  Groups’ goals are not political until their realization comes into conflict with other groups.  To be clear, for purposes of this discussion, I am not talking about “interpersonal politics”.  When I speak of politics, I’m not referring to struggles between individuals, but between aggregations of people (“groups”).

So, when achievement of a goal depends upon negotiation or struggle with other groups (or with a political system that contains other groups), that goal becomes political.  A demand for the realization of the goal is a political claim.  When political claims find cultural expression within a given group, this amounts to the political dimension of group identity.  A group becomes politicized when something it wants to be or do is “messed with” by someone else &#151and when the group’s distain for the  “messing with” is articulated into something actionable.

For example, a black Christian congregation in the South in the early 1960s may value equality and human dignity.  They may have a goal of treating each other, and being treated, respectfully and as equals.  White supremacists (and the political systems and cultural institutions that they dominate) interfere with the realization of the black church’s goal, which gives the goal a political tone.  To become a political claim though, it has to be demanded.  It has to find cultural expression within the given black church.  The grievance has to be made actionable.  Once this has happened &#151 through processes of articulation &#151 the church has effectively become politicized.

The process of articulation is no small detail.  It is a cornerstone in the formation of populist alignments and in the waging of hegemonic struggle, a theme I hope to discuss at length in this series.  Stay tuned…