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

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Mobilizing the Tea Party

A little more than a week ago, The New York Times published an article about John Tanton, the modern architect of the anti-immigrant movement in the US. Highly concerned with the environmental degradation that he was seeing around him, Tanton eventually pegged the problem on immigration. The Times writes,

From the resort town of Petoskey, Mich., Dr. Tanton helped start all three major national groups fighting to reduce immigration, legal and illegal, and molded one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in politics. The immigration-control movement surged to new influence in last fall’s elections and now holds near veto power over efforts to legalize any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

The article goes on to document power and influence of the Tanton Network.  

One group that Dr. Tanton nurtured, Numbers USA, doomed President George W. Bush’s legalization plan four years ago by overwhelming Congress with protest calls. Another, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, helped draft the Arizona law last year to give the police new power to identify and detain illegal immigrants.

A third organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, joined the others in December in defeating the Dream Act, which sought to legalize some people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Collectively, these organizations are today known as the Tanton Network. Both

Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have done extensive research revealing the racist and eugenicist foundations of Tanton’s ideas and goals. Moreover, CNC has shown the broad reach of the Tanton Network by mapping out all its various organizations (some of which misleadingly portray themselves as independent and neutral), its sources of financial support and the various institutions with which it partners.

The Tanton Network constitutes a web of organizations in civil society. Moreover, for the purposes of this essay, I will make the claim that they are the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. Gramsci argued that advanced capitalism spawned intra-class specialization-a division of labor between “mental” and “manual” tasks. The contemporary capitalist class is composed not just of people directly involved in profit making, but also their organic intellectuals, whose function it is to organize the ideas of the class and represent them as in the interest of the general public. In so doing, the capitalist class can build popular support for their class-specific cause, and attract others to their hegemonic project, including other classes’ organic intellectuals.  

This of course begs the following question: why should we assume that this anti-immigrant network constitutes a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class? After all, isn’t their ultimate aim to turn off the spigot of cheap labor by stopping undocumented immigration, deporting undocumented individuals who are already here, and in fact, returning legal immigration rates to the pre-1965 levels? Aren’t these goals in fact against the interests of capital because they reduce the supply of cheap labor?

I will argue that the Tanton Network, despite its racist goal to stop immigration and return to an imagined “Europeanized” past, is ultimately engaged in a project of criminalizing im/migrant workers. Criminalization of im/migrant workers, in the last instance, does serve the interests of capital. In other words, the Network’s “success” should not be judged on the basis of whether or not they ultimately create a US cleansed of brown people. This scenario is both economically unsustainable and politically unrealistic.

Rather the Network’s “success” should be measured by the extent to which they do their job building the ideological buffer around the capitalist class. For example, how widespread is the idea that im/migrants are undeserving and morally suspect? Or, how often does the tacit assumption about the acceptability of the movement of capital across borders and the unacceptability of a similar movement of labor appear in the media, in policy debates highest levels of government and in everyday conversations at the dinner table? These types of commonsensical ideas are the ideological basis for the continued criminalization of im/migrant workers. Those ideas serve as the justification of heightened immigration enforcement both at the border and, more importantly, within the US. How this criminalization of im/migrant workers ultimately serves capitalist interests is the subject of a future post. For the purposes of the current argument, what matters, then, is that we think of the Tanton Network as constituting a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class.

What has the Tanton Network done?

Many on the political left have vigilantly documented the intentional efforts of the John Tanton Network to solicit the support of liberal groups for anti-immigrant causes. Whether it was by “the greening of hate”–exemplified by FAIR’s report that immigration is responsible for the environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay–or the promotion of a black-brown divide–by blaming structural poverty and unemployment in black communities to job competition created by immigrants–the Tanton Network is trying to build a wider coalition that includes groups historically associated with the left. But what the left tends to overlook is how the organized anti-immigrant movement is pursuing similar hegemonic projects with the political right–particularly among tea partiers.

This is not surprising. A 2010 New York Times poll showed that tea party supporters were more likely than other Americans to find undocumented immigration “a very serious threat.”  Images of tea party supporters waving signs supporting SB1070 dotted the news media last summer. In the minds of most leftists, the tea party movement was automatically associated with the various agenda items that define the exclusionary politics of the right, including support for anti-immigrant causes.  

However, receptivity to these ideas is not the same as actively mobilizing on behalf of these ideas. Given finite resources and capacity, local tea party organizations (just like progressive groups) have to choose from an array of topics on which to focus their energies. Indeed, in a climate where “Obamacare” has received a lot of the attention from tea partiers, why would “illegal immigration” and “the out-of-control border” solicit any organized anxiety?  

The answer to that question lies with the Tanton Network. (For the purposes of this article, the Tantonites also include local politicians who regularly draw on resources from the Network.) The signing of SB 1070 was a signal to the rest of the nation that Arizona was potential recruiting grounds for a revitalized anti-immigrant movement. But this was going to be a process. The Tea Party Patriots provide a case in point.

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) is arguably the most grassroots of the six national factions that compose the tea party movement.  While the National Leadership Council of the TPP voted to have members wave signs supporting SB 1070, cofounder Jenny Beth Martin maintained that the organization does not take any official stances on the issue of immigration and the border.

But it was symbolically significant that the annual conference was held in Phoenix, AZ this year. And while the conference was dedicated to many other issues outside of immigration, it did provide a testing ground for ways in which the issue of immigration could be turned into a “tea party issue.”

A Musical Performance at Tea Party Conference, February 2011

Using commonplace tea party rhetoric, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer thanked the conference attendees for choosing Phoenix to host their event: “You didn’t have to choose our home, you could have gone somewhere else…I know you are here because we share a common cause in taking back our country. We want our borders secured. We want the federal government out of our daily lives. We want liberty returned to the people, to the states…”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s Welcome Message, February 2011

Joe Arpaio, Maricopa’s infamous sheriff and State Senator Russell Pearce, a sponsor of SB1070, were the conference’s first speakers. Both cast themselves as upholding the law and their oaths to office. For them, DC was a different story. Pearce, feigning to speak to the Obama Administration, exclaimed

You wanna remove that disdain that we have, maybe you oughta keep your oath of office[…] Maybe you oughta secure the border. Maybe when you say you’re going to enforce the law, you enforce it. […]It’s all about cheap labor, cheap votes, while they invade and damage this country. I for one do not apologize for defending the principles of this Republic.

State Senator Russell Pearce Speaking at a Conference Session, February 2011

Speakers aligned popular tea party images and concepts-such as constitutionality, lawfulness, and American exceptionalism-with a nativist framing of immigration and the border. Thus, ICE-police collaboration was construed as simply enforcing the existing laws in service of protecting “the greatest country in the world.” Participants also had opportunities to articulate similar conceptual alignments in other parts of the summit.  During a panel entitled Immigration and Border Security, a middle aged man from Scottsdale, AZ put it very concisely: “1070, like Obamacare, is really a states’ rights battle more than anything else. We apparently don’t have a right to protect citizens of the state of Arizona.” Immigration was also a tea party issue, because it too involved the federal government’s encroachment on state’s rights.

Later, I overheard him telling a woman seated next to him that NumbersUSA was a trustworthy resource if she wanted to learn more.

But this was not an uncontested process. While Pearce spoke, energetic Ron Paul supporters distributed leaflets arguing against SB1070 and measures changing birthright citizenship.

Ron Paul speaking, Feburary 2011

“Internal enforcement is suboptimal and creates costs and regulatory burden for American citizens…contrary to ‘Reagan Republicanism’ which intended to REDUCE government costs and burdens.”  The rest of the leaflet enumerated how the measures would expand intrusion of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, into people’s lives. “Real conservatives don’t yield state powers and put them into the hands of the federal executive.” In a conversation with a representative from the Ayn Rand Institute, I was told that “free markets require that there are no borders.” Later, while waiting in line to purchase a mid-afternoon coffee, a well-dressed man from New York standing next to me confided his discomfort with Pearce’s heavy presence at the conference. For him, scapegoating immigrants was “stupid.” “I wish they’d just focus on the economic issues,” he concluded.  

Chip Berlet asked the left to “[take] the tea partiers seriously.” “With no one appearing to champion their cause, they line up with the anti-Obama crowd, and they stir in some of their social worries about gay marriage and abortion, dark-skinned immigrants, and a black man in the White House.”  The Tantonites are indeed drawing the battle lines. But we have to remember that the pursuit of hegemony is a contested, multivalent process–both on the left and the right.

Tune into future posts that continue to explore the Tantonites, the Tea Party, and hegemonic projects. (This is part three of a series. You can read part one here, and part two here.)

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Developing a Gramscian Framework, part II

part two in a 3-part series. Click here to read part one.

Gramsci opened up the Marxist framework to consider the role of civil society in stabilizing advanced capitalism. The presence of a civil society, he argued, complicates the process of social change. An economic crisis is not enough to shake up a social system. Civil society, as the terrain in which hegemony is exercised, serves as a veritable “earthworks” that prevents such structural opportunities from automatically dissolving into massive social change.

But who are the important characters in this story?

For Marx, a class was the important unit of analysis. A class was determined by its relation to the means of production. So under capitalism, do you work for wages? That is, do you only make enough to take care of yourself and your children? OR do you own a factory? Do you make profit that you could reinvest in your factory and eventually open up a second one? In the classical Marxist framework, social change happens through class struggle between the haves and the have-nots as the disparity in wealth inequality becomes more and more acute.  

Gramsci also thought class and class struggle were important. But, just as the superstructure had become more complex under advanced capitalism, so too had the composition of classes. The modern capitalist class is made up of both the factory owners and the group that organizes their ideas.  

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc (5).

Arguably, for example, the Heritage Foundation houses the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. As a public policy think tank started under the Nixon Administration, they promote neoliberal ideas about the importance of deregulation and the free market as well as a strong emphasis on national security in the realm of international relations. They regularly publish their research, lobby politicians and work to mold the next generation of conservative thinkers through internship programs. Squarely rooted in civil society, these organic intellectuals articulate the interests of the American capitalist class. But they represent capital’s interests as a general interest, by for example, appealing to vague but powerful concepts such as “freedom, opportunity, [and] prosperity.”

Organic intellectuals aren’t the only intellectuals out there. There are also what Gramsci called the traditional intellectuals, a group that imagines itself to be autonomous and separate from the class struggle driving the historical process. While traditional intellectuals do not see themselves as directly linked to a class, they are in fact allied with the ruling class and its ideas. Examples of traditional intellectuals may include professors, the clergy, artists, and others who think of themselves as “endowed with a character of their own” (8). Organic intellectuals, by contrast, recognize their relationship to the dominant group, and orient their activity to disseminating the ruling class’s ideology.

For Gramsci, then, these intellectuals positioned in the various institutions of civil society, are key to the process of social stability and social change. Marx imagined that the development of capitalism would spawn a certain societal simplicity: people would polarize into one of two classes-the proletariat or the capitalist. Eventually, that disparity would create the momentum for political mobilization and struggle. But Gramsci saw advanced capitalism as creating societal complexity. Rather than class polarization, each class experienced massive specialization within itself. Intellectuals were the product of that intra-class specialization.

Social change, therefore, has to involve these intellectuals.  In Gramsci’s own words,

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals (10).

Both maintaining social stability and fomenting social change requires the pursuit of hegemony in the institutions of civil society. Organic intellectuals of the dominant group are always in the process of trying to bring traditional intellectuals into their circle as well as the organic intellectuals of non-dominant groups. It is an ideological battle, or what Gramsci called a war of position.

At the same time, subordinate groups try to create their own organic intellectuals to push an alternative narrative or set of ideas about what society is and can be. That war of position–the work of building an alternative hegemony through class consciousness-raising and an evaluation of society and history through a revolutionary theoretical lens–has to precede a war of movement, or armed insurrection. Agents of social change need popular backing from the sectors of civil society first. But so do the agents of social stability.

Given Gramsci’s theoretical framework, how can we start to analyze contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment in US? The next post will combine preliminary bits of ethnographic insight with this theoretical framework to begin to understand how anti-immigrant sentiment is perpetuated today.  

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Developing a Gramscian Framework, part I

“For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” These were the words of the prosecutor who presided at the trial of Antonio Gramsci in 1926. Mussolini had just finished consolidating fascist control over the government and police apparatus. Gramsci, rapidly rising in the socialist party ranks, was a thorn on fascist Italy’s side. An authoritarian solution to the problem was to silence him.

The irony of history was that imprisonment did anything but silence him. Despite his decade-long detention until right before his death, and despite his deteriorating health, Gramsci poured his creative intellect into the production of a dense collection of essays and reflections, heavily lined with coded language to evade the prison censor. Today they are referred to as “The Prison Notebooks.” This manuscript became an important contribution to the Marxist oeuvre in particular, and to the tools we have to understand and change society, in general.

What did “this brain” bring to the table? This article and the next one will explain some of Gramsci’s main contributions. Using this theoretical framework, the third article in this series will use Gramsci’s concepts to analyze the anti-immigrant movement and specifically, its relationship to the tea party.  

As a European political revolutionary living in the first third of the twentieth century, Gramsci was puzzled by the following: why had massive social change occurred in Russia while similar events had failed to transpire in Western Europe? In the Prison Notebooks, he argued that the answer lay with civil society. In a word, the “west” had a developed civil society while the “east” did not. Civil society makes a society more resilient to revolutionary change.

Classical Marxism had not taken the concept of “civil society” very seriously. According to Marx, there is the state-the superstructure consisting of political and ideological practice-and then there is the economic base-the technical division of labor and the social relations people entered into in order to produce what is needed to live and reproduce. But for Gramsci, civil society needed to be conceptually distinguished from these two things. Civil society is, however, still part of the “superstructure” along with the state:

What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural ‘levels’: the one that can be called ‘civil society,’ that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private,’ and that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’ (12, , all page citations refer to Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith).

Within the superstructure, there is the state consisting of the police, the army and other instruments of violence, and there is civil society, composed of voluntary associations, the media, unions, private educational institutions, political parties, religious institutions and other private entities. The language of the state is coercion; the language of civil society is ideas. The presence of a civil society complicates a society and fortifies it against change. Gramsci’s own military metaphors illustrate this conceptualization best:  

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks (238).

What happens when there is a civil society–this “system of fortresses and earthworks”–and there is a crisis, such as an economic recession?

The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter…the same thing happens in politics, during the great economic crisis. A crisis cannot give the attacking forces the ability to organize with lightening speed in time and space; still less can it endow them with fighting spirit. Similarly, the defenders are not demoralized, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future (235)

A developed civil society makes a society more complicated and less vulnerable to the cycles of crisis inherent in capitalism. Moreover, such a society necessitates a particular type of political strategy of rule. The dominant class exercises power

[…] in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership.’ A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’ or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, indeed, must already exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmental power…it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well (57-8).

According to Gramsci, intellectual and moral leadership is separate from but just as necessary for a social group to rule as coercion. He referred to this “leadership” as “hegemony,” and a group that exercised it as a “hegemonic” group. More concretely, hegemony is the ability to articulate a specific (class) interest as the interest of the whole, and in that way, win the consent of other groups.

For example, hospital workers who want to protest their workload could frame their message in many ways. They could simply say that they want reduced workloads or improved working conditions. Or they could make their message appeal to a broader audience outside of their particular workplace, and even their line of work. They may frame their message as wanting to improve the quality of patient care in order to create healthier communities. Such a message takes a specific purpose and generalizes it.

Examples of capital pursuing hegemony are more extensive. One important battle corporations constantly engage in is the fight against taxes. Their messages try to show that what’s good for the corporation is good for the community by arguing that the corporation is a job creator. From that claim, they may successfully make the case that tax breaks on corporations contribute to a community’s vibrancy by creating jobs and improving people’s standards of living.

But hegemony is not just about ideas. Dominant groups, to ensure consent to their class rule, must also grant economic and political concessions to subordinate groups.  A corporation that is draining a community of its resources may occasionally create scholarships or sponsor other community-targeted programs in order to improve relations with subordinate groups.

In sum, hegemony is a political strategy required by the presence of a civil society. Bourgeois class rule in contemporary capitalist society requires the exercise of repression (through the state) but also winning the consent of subordinate groups. Gramsci realized that western European societies, by contrast to Tsarist Russia, were not vulnerable to the same type of direct overthrow of government. That is, it wasn’t enough to disassemble the repressive apparatus of the state. Massive social change in the west would require a prolonged battle for hegemony in the institutions of civil society. It would require a dismantling of the existing intellectual-moral leadership, through the creation of an alternative one.

In the next two posts I will continue to sketch out the Gramscian framework and then use it to illuminate the methods of the contemporary anti-immigrant movement in the US.

Activism vs. organizing | reflections on Gramsci pt.2

In his essay Voluntarism and Social Masses, Antonio Gramsci argues that “the actions and organizations of ‘volunteers’ must be distinguished from the actions and organisations of homogeneous social blocs, and judged by different criteria.”  He defines these “volunteers” as “those who have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative…”

His language of volunteers vs. organized social blocs aligns with a similar distinction often made between activism and organizing.  Anyone can become an activist overnight, if he or she so desires.  All you need to do is to start taking action as an individual on an issue you care about.  I’m not about to be as dismissive as Gramsci seems to be in this essay about the value of such an act.  However, he makes a good point: organizing is about finding other people to take action with you.  But there’s more – and here’s where I find Gramsci’s framework so helpful – organizing is not just about finding anyone to take action with you; it’s about working to activate an already constituted social bloc and turn the bloc itself into the historical actor.

In Activating Popular Participation | Building a Successful Antiwar Movement, I argued along these same lines:

…we must not neglect to engage already existing cultural spaces. Sometimes we become disinterested in or even hostile toward such spaces because they house the values of the dominant culture. But these spaces also house the people. We cannot expect people to meet us where we want them to be. We have to meet them where they are, with the language they use, in the spaces they frequent.

Entering existing networks and institutions allows the people within them to consider taking action to end the war without feeling that they would have to lose their identity to do so. They can take action as teachers, or union members, or students, or members of a religious community. They do not have to become an “activist”-a distinct identity that many people are uncomfortable claiming-in order to take action. Instead they can begin to imagine working to end the war as an expression of who they already are, alongside people they already know.

This is one of the biggest lessons from US social movements in the 1960s and 1970s: movements usually grow (in size and capacity) quickly not by building their own separate infrastructure from scratch, but by organizing within existing social networks and institutions until they identify strongly enough with the movement that their already existing infrastructure and resources go to work for movement ends. The Civil Rights Movement spread like wildfire and dramatically increased its capacity when black churches and traditionally black schools came to identify themselves as part of a movement. People didn’t have to leave their social networks to become part of the movement. Rather, membership in these institutions came to imply movement participation. These institutions and networks then used their resources-most significantly people power-to further movement goals.

One distinction between Gramsci’s discussion and my approach above is that I made my appeal to the people whom Gramsci would have labeled “volunteers”; namely antiwar activists who, for the most part – but with many important exceptions – “have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative”; who have formed their own groups, which are not embedded within, or in deep relationship with, organized social blocs.  I appealed to these “volunteers” that they should connect with organized social blocs, and that such an approach has been the historically corroborated path to building collective power.

Gramsci, on the other hand, is not so much appealing to these volunteers, as he seems to be dismissing the value of their efforts outright.  His language is much harsher toward “volunteers” who operate outside of organized social blocs, describing them as “‘vanguards’ without armies to back them up, ‘commandos’ without infantry or artillery”:

…In reality, one has to struggle against the above-mentioned degenerations, the false heroisms and pseudo-aristocracies, and stimulate the formation of homogeneous, compact social blocs, which will give birth to their own intellectuals, their own commandos, their own vanguard-who in turn will react upon those blocs in order to develop them, and not merely so as to perpetuate their gypsy [sic] domination.

I have often asked myself why I devote so much time to engaging activist groups that tend toward insularity and that lack a social base of power.  My rationale has been to try to help move these activist groups in a more strategic direction; to push them to connect with the social bases of power they need to connect with in order to succeed.  However, the more I understand about how collective power has historically been cultivated and wielded, the less interest I have in continuing with this kind of engagement.  Increasingly, I believe that my task is to reattach myself to some of the social blocs that I once detached myself from (where this is possible) or to other social blocs and work to strengthen and activate social justice values within these blocs (which already possess abundant resources, infrastructure, and institutions, and do not have to constantly struggle to build from scratch).

To complicate the matter, Gramsci is not just arguing to engage already fully constituted social blocs, but also to “stimulate the formation” of such blocs.  One could argue that anytime an individual finds a few other people to take action along with them, they are taking the first steps toward forming a new social bloc.  Most times this view would be mistaken, in my humble opinion, but there’s not a clear dividing line.

Not a clear dividing line, but there are some patterns and indicators.  Are you someone who surrounds yourself with self-selectors who bond through a common interest in activism?  Is that activism a separate space from the other communities and social networks you are situated within?  Have you severed ties with the communities you once were connected to?  (This is not a judgment; there are often compelling reasons to do exactly that.)  Or do you check your politics at the door when inside those communities?  Or, if you do express your politics in these spaces, is it mostly self-expressive (i.e. “This is who I am as an individual”)?

All of the above would probably locate you in Gramsci’s “volunteer” category.  I say that as a person who has had at least one foot in that category for most of my 17 years of “organizing.”  To be honest, actual grassroots organizing-cultivating and activating social blocs-is something I did without a conscious framework way back when I was in high school, but then I left my community of origin to engage in activism with other self-selectors who mostly thought just like me.  Sure I was surrounded by great conscientious and politically aware people who I love very much, but our “political” activities typically entailed very little of what I would now call organizing.  (I put the word “political” in quotations, because I think Gramsci would argue that many of our activities may have been about politics, but they did not meet the criteria of a truly political action or effort.  I’ll discuss this idea more in a future post.)

The point here is not to bash on activism per se.  There’s already quite enough of that to go around in our society.  And the point isn’t to draw a line in the sand and try to fit social change efforts into a rigid dichotomous framework.  My point rather is to encourage us all to orient ourselves to engage beyond the self-selectors; to cultivate and activate organized social blocs, rather than trying to build something separate and distinct on our own.

This is part 2 in a series.

“Spontaneity” and social change | reflections on Gramsci pt.1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci.  I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.

Years ago, I remember growing wary of tendencies (within activist groups I was part of) to exaggerate and glorify supposedly “spontaneous” elements of activism and protest.  Some group members often recounted protests and direct actions as if what transpired had been spontaneous, even when the same individuals had themselves participated in elaborate planning meetings and preparations for the actions.  What bothered me more was when this fiction of spontaneity mutated until it held a central place in some group members’ theory of change.  The “theory” seemed to hold that if a few committed activists were willing to be “militant” enough, their actions might somehow inspire more people to do likewise; change would ultimately occur as a result of a spontaneous mass uprising of this sort.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.

The myth of spontaneity also seemed present in how the broader society viewed protest and collective action-when it wasn’t ignored entirely-and this bothered me too.  The story of Rosa Parks’ refusal, for example, was popularly told and retold as the story of a woman who was tired, who had had enough, and who spontaneously refused to unfairly give up her seat to a white rider on the bus.  I had learned what really happened: that Rosa Parks was a seasoned community leader; that she had had many strategic discussions with other leaders about this very action beforehand; that she had been part of strategic trainings at the Highlander Folk School, a center that had trained many Civil Rights and labor leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.).  The story of, “I was tired,” annoyed me because it felt to me that it took political agency out of the equation.  The implied lesson seemed to be, “If you, as an individual, muster the courage to stand up and do what’s right, you may just kick off a whole movement (spontaneously).”  The more accurate and instructive lesson, in my opinion, would have been, “If you plan with others, prepare yourself and others, build strong relationships in your community, develop a strategy for action, and build community buy-in, then you may be able to effectively intervene in the historical process.”

I was surprised then to learn later that Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights leaders had intentionally created and spread this myth of spontaneity.  Sociologist Francesca Polletta discusses this in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics:

For American activists during much of the last century, one of the thorniest challenges was to avoid charges of communist influence.  Representing protest as homegrown and spur-of-the-moment was a way to deflect claims that it was controlled by “outsiders,” which meant Communists.  In the Tallahassee, Florida, sit-in campaign, adult leaders who helped plan the sit-ins denied their own involvement for that very reason.  Rosa Park’s activism before the Montgomery bus boycott included a stint at the Highlander Folk School, a radical education center in Tennessee that was branded a “communist training school” soon after Parks’s visit.  This was reason enough for Montgomery activists to cast her as a political neophyte.  Betty Friedan had also spent time at the Highlander Center.  In addition to fearing redbaiting, she presumably wanted to appeal to women who had not been exposed to radical ideas and settings.  Movement stories, in this view, are strategic bids for public support.

Billboard showing Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School

Knowing the above and understanding the historical context, this intentional construction of a story of spontaneity-to dodge being labeled Communists-struck me as clever.  But it still seemed unfortunate.  As Polletta asks, “Why deny the intentionality that might have served to persuade other people of the ease of mobilization?”

I suppose I figured that this example was particular to the Civil Rights Movement, in a particular historic moment and political culture.  It didn’t occur to me that other strategic leaders in other contexts (including in countries where redbaiting lacked the potency it enjoyed in the United States) might employ this same tactic of making highly planned actions appear spontaneous.  Gramsci suggests that wise leaders should do just that.

In his essay Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership (in his Prison Notebooks), Gramsci clarifies the complicated role of spontaneity in political organizing and collective action.  I connected with his distaste for “political adventurers who argue for it [spontaneity] as a ‘political’ method.”  This language aligns with my negative experiences with activists who believe their ill-conceived “militant” actions-when disconnected from an organizing strategy or a social base of power-might somehow someday magically catalyze a spontaneous mass uprising.

What was new to me, however, is Gramsci’s description of the potential strategic value of leaders and movements intentionally creating an aura of spontaneity around their movements.  Gramsci explains:

The leaders themselves spoke of the “spontaneity” of the movement, and rightly so.  This assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity.  It gave masses a “theoretical” consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values…  This unity between “spontaneity” and “conscious leadership” or “discipline” is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.

I find this nuanced argument clarifying and compelling.  It brings together different things I had experienced and impulses I had felt into a more unified theory.  On the one hand, I had felt that popular myths of “spontaneous movements” (like in the case of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott) had limited many Americans’ understandings of the power and possibilities of organized collective action.  On the other hand, when I had experimented with creating an explicit story about collective action in my organizing work with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice, I had mixed results.  The “story of agency” I told was helpful and instructive for a few highly committed young activists to develop their leadership and self-conception.  But most of the people who participated in LCPJ’s efforts were compelled by the historical moment, and had little interest in the nitty-gritty of organizing.  And I started to notice an unintended effect that sometimes seemed to stem from my stressing of intentionality and debunking of spontaneity; namely too much overt attention to my role as an organizer, and perhaps too little sense of ownership from more peripheral participants.

Building ownership is a critical task of grassroots organizing.  Perhaps propagating a myth of spontaneity-rather than resisting it-could have helped to build more ownership from more people in the case of the LCPJ.  In future organizing work, I would like to experiment more with targeting different mobilizing stories to different “tiers” of participants: a story of intentionality/agency for core leaders, and a story imbued with a sense of spontaneity to peripheral participants and broader audiences.