Occupy Gaia in 2012: Subtle Activism meets Street Activism

by David Nicol

In early October of 1939, one month after Germany invaded Poland, British esotericist Dion Fortune sent a letter to her network announcing the start of a magical project to support the war effort by opening a channel to allow spiritual influences to uplift the “group mind” of the nation. The project came to be known as the “Magical Battle of Britain.” The letter contained instructions for a specific meditation practice that all members were asked to perform each Sunday from 12:15-12:30 p.m. and then again daily at any regular time of their choosing. A small group of experienced practitioners under Fortune’s guidance formed the focusing point for the meditation work, sitting in circle together each Sunday at Fortune’s home in London.

The meditations involved visualizing certain symbols believed to attract and focus spiritual forces that acted through them. Although the symbols were first created through the imagination, Fortune describes them “coming alive” early on in the group’s work, as though taking on independent forms that maintained themselves of their own accord and that developed organically over time. A set of symbols eventually emerged that were associated with key figures from the Arthurian tradition (King Arthur and Merlin) and from Christianity (Christ and Mary). It was understood that, through meditating on these symbols, the network helped to transmit to the collective British consciousness the archetypal ideals of chivalry and bravery associated with both Christianity and the myth of King Arthur, crucially strengthening the nation’s resolve during its hour of need. Because the myth created by the network was in deep harmony with the British national tradition, it was thought to have been especially accessible to the national mind. The theory was that individuals would pick up the ideas unconsciously and bring them to consciousness by thinking about them. Experts in various positions of influence would then give concrete expression to the ideals through action in the world. Indeed, Fortune claimed that the editorial pages of The Times—widely regarded at the time as the mirror of the national mind—came to give expression to the ideals of the work in a way that was “not only adequate but verbatim.”

Subtle Activism
The Magical Battle of Britain is a striking example of what I call “subtle activism”— the use of spiritual or consciousness-based practices for collective (rather than individual) transformation. Subtle activism is a bridge between the inner world of spirituality and the outer world of activism (as normally conceived) that emphasizes the potential of spiritual practice to exert a subtle but crucial form of social influence. It arises from the recognition that there are many creative ways to support social change and that shifting collective consciousness lies at the heart of any successful campaign. History is replete with examples of victories by armies or social movements that were badly outmatched by their opponents in technology and size, yet which prevailed because they possessed the superior will. Subtle activism feeds the will of a social movement by making it more conscious of, and permeable to, profound evolutionary and spiritual currents that underlie it, adding deeper dimensions of meaning to the movement and inspiring greater levels of motivation and commitment among its participants. It works on the assumption that, beneath the appearance of separation, we are profoundly connected to each other at deeper levels of consciousness, and that the focused spiritual attention of even a relatively small group can subtly and positively affect the collective consciousness of an entire community, nation, or even species.(1) It is not a substitute for direct physical action, but it can play a vital role as part of a more integrative approach to social or planetary change.

While the “Magical Battle” example illustrates a western esoteric approach to subtle activism, it can be practiced in a variety of spiritual forms and traditions. A notable form that has emerged since Fortune’s time—facilitated by the development of the Internet, the growing global interfaith movement, and the increasing hybridization of spiritual traditions—is a global meditation event involving many thousands of people engaged in synchronized spiritual practice in different parts of the planet. In whatever way it is practiced, subtle activism can be seen as one of a growing number of creative spiritual responses to the challenges of our times that recognize the need to integrate the paths of inner and outer transformation.

Looking at our present moment, how might we engage in the practice of subtle activism to support the Occupy Movement and the broader movement for global transformation it represents?

The Spiritual Dimension of the Occupy Movement
From the beginning, there seems to have been a certain magic to the Occupy Movement. Whereas most interventions by progressive activists in recent decades failed to make hardly a dent in mainstream awareness, the Occupy Movement almost instantly struck gold. It was quickly recognized as something more than just another protest, a movement of potentially historic significance. Whether it was the brilliant marketing meme of “Occupy,” the simplicity of the “We are the 99%” message, the strategy of setting up encampments, or just the stars lining up right, it evidently tapped a red-hot vein in the collective psyche and inspired a widespread excitement that fundamental systemic change might actually be possible.

At the time of writing, with many encampment sites largely abandoned for the winter or having been shut down, the movement seems to be in a liminal phase, trying to ascertain its next move. Some are already writing eulogies, arguing that the movement has failed to channel its early momentum into a mission specific enough to gain political traction. Perhaps this is true. Yet the seeds of revolution planted in the fall will inevitably sprout forth again in new ways, and probably soon. The injustices highlighted by the movement have not in any way been addressed and, with the events of the Arab Spring, the emergence of the Spanish and Latin American indignados, and the proliferation of Occupy sites world-wide, it is obvious that we have entered one of those rare historical periods in which the zeitgeist supports revolutionary action.

The bigger picture is that the issue of economic injustice targeted by the Occupy Movement is just one symptom of a multidimensional global crisis that is exerting enormous evolutionary pressure on humanity to make a fundamental shift. To acknowledge the multiple threats of climate change, peak oil, massive species extinction, calamitous loss of topsoil, overpopulation, and potential financial collapse is to recognize that the current form of our civilization is rapidly approaching its demise. In this context, the Occupy Movement represents an inevitable uprising of the life force on the planet to attempt to initiate a new way forward.

The transition we are called to make goes far beyond incremental policy changes within the current system, positive though such changes might be. We are called to re-imagine and re-create our world around fundamentally new organizing principles. The old world is essentially on life support in any case. Our choice really is to participate consciously in the birth of the new era, or to have it forcibly and painfully delivered to us.

At the heart of the transition lies a shift in consciousness from the modern trance of experiencing ourselves as somehow separate from each other, from nature, and from the cosmos to a mode of awareness in which we acknowledge and live the truth of our interdependence and interconnection. Ecologist and cultural historian Thomas Berry succinctly summarized this shift as one in which we will experience the universe as “a communion of subjects” rather than as “a collection of objects.” For human civilization truly to become a benign and sustainable presence on the planet, we will need not only to develop a global culture of cooperation, rather than competition, to solve the many planetary-scale challenges that affect all humans, but also to fundamentally transform our relations with the entire community of life on the planet. 

Although the Occupy Movement has focused its attention on the inequities of the financial system, I believe that much of the excitement it initially generated was because, in the diversity of its participants and in the generality of its aims, it also represented a long awaited public stance for a fundamentally new and more inclusive world on every level. The General Assemblies and the practice of making decisions by consensus, for example, can be understood as an evolutionary experiment to create new, more participatory governance processes that could serve as a model to better harness the collective wisdom of a society. The spiritual significance of the movement can thus be seen in the way it has created an opening in the socio-political domain through which the seeds of the new consciousness can enter.

Whether the new consciousness will actually take root and flower through the Occupy Movement is an open question. As noted, after the initial eruption of energy in the fall, the movement has entered a more introspective phase, an in-breath, to pause, gather energy, and reflect before making its next major outward push. And the movement does face many challenges: how to resolve internal conflicts about whether to adhere to non-violence as a strategy versus ‘a diversity of tactics’ that includes property damage or even physical violence; how to avoid becoming overly focused on disputes with police and local authorities regarding the encampments at the expense of highlighting the primary issue of economic injustice; how to embrace the complexity of protesting against a financial system we still use and depend upon.

Yet this period of inner reflection and dialogue represents an ideal time to channel energy into the movement to help realign it with the deeper impulses that provided it with its power and relevance in the first place. This is the work of subtle activism, accessible to almost anyone. Again, it is not a substitute for more obvious or direct forms of action—which are necessary and to be encouraged—but it represents a creative response that allows many people to become engaged who might otherwise remain passive. Out of the wide spectrum of actions that can be undertaken for social change, frontline engagement does not call to everyone (and of those called, not all can respond). Indeed, in relation to the Occupy Movement, for every person who has camped out in tents and marched in the rallies, there have surely been hundreds, if not thousands, or even millions who have sympathized with the protesters, yet who would not or could not join them in the streets. Through subtle activism, we can link together with all who share our sense of the underlying promise of the Occupy Movement (including those on the streets) and build a planetary field of awareness that holds a space for the highest possibilities to emerge from the movement.

Here is a project that provides a way to do just that.

Occupy Gaia
Occupy Gaia is a subtle activism program convened by the Gaiafield Project (http://gaiafield.net) to help build a global field of support for the Occupy Movement. (2) It is one of a surprisingly large number of initiatives that have been developed to link the transformative power of spirituality to the Occupy Movement (other examples include meditation flash mobs, Sit for Change, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Zen Peacemakers, and various interfaith coalitions). Occupy Gaia involves two free one-hour teleconferences/audio webcasts per month, in which participants engage in a simple subtle activism practice. After callers introduce themselves, the practice starts with a short guided meditation to connect participants to themselves, to the group field, and to subtle and overt dimensions of the natural and spirit worlds. Then a period of silent meditation follows, usually about 20-25 minutes long, during which participants bring their inner attention to the Occupy Movement while remaining open for any guidance that might arise from the field. In the final stage of the practice, participants are invited to share any insights or experiences that came to them during the meditation. The call becomes like a multi-dimensional planetary oracle, with a field of deep collective wisdom about the current state of the movement emerging from the intersection of our human awareness, the inner and outer ecology of Gaia, and subtle dimensions of spirit. Personally I almost always experience the calls to be profoundly meaningful and am usually struck by how quickly an atmosphere of deep intimacy develops from participants sharing their inner worlds with each other.

This article is a call to action for all who resonate with an inner approach to collective transformation. To those who feel the call, we invite you to join us on the second Wednesday of each month, from 5.30-6.30pm Pacific time and/or on the fourth Friday of each month from 8.30-9.30am Pacific. For the call-in details, please visit http://gaiafield.net.



1. A growing body of scientific evidence supports this hypothesis. See the many well-documented studies by researchers associated with the Transcendental Meditation movement that show consistent, statistically-significant correlations between the presence of large TM groups and improvements in indicators of social harmony (such as crime rates) in nearby cities. (For a good summary of the research see TM researcher David Orme-Johnson’s website: http://www.truthabouttm.org or Robert Oates’s Permanent Peace: How to stop terrorism and war—now and forever.) Also note the strong evidence of non-local transmission of mental images between human minds in parapsychology research, such as the remote viewing studies undertaken by the US government at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1970’s and 1980’s and the ‘ganzfeld’ studies conducted by a variety of researchers since the 1970’s (for a detailed discussion of this research see Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe).

2. The Gaiafield Project is a project of the Center for Subtle Activism, an action research center associated with the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. 

About the author
David Nicol, PhD, is Director of the Center for Subtle Activism, an action research center based at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco that advances the study and practice of subtle activism. His forthcoming book Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation is the first comprehensive academic treatment of the topic. His articles have been published in Tikkun Magazine and the Journal for Transformative Education. He has been on a path of spiritual development for over twenty years and is a long-term practitioner of the Diamond Approach of A.H. Almaas. A former environmental lawyer from Australia, he now lives in Berkeley, California with his wife Kate and dog Jackson. He can be contacted at davidnicol2012@gmail.com.

A Love Letter to the Overcommitted

It usually starts with a lack of sleep. Then I notice I'm only eating carbohydrates, and mostly things which require less than 10 minutes to prepare. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check my Blackberry, or worse, getting up to read and respond to emails at 3AM. Somehow my email will have strangely tripled in volume, seemingly without my noticing. I'll become nervous, kinda mean in meetings, prone to daydreaming, and tingly when I think about the object of my affection and obsession. Usually about 5 weeks in I wake up, joyful but tired, and realize I've done it all over again: in love with a campaign, I'm inevitably sliding into burnout.

Burnout is a risk in any field but it's especially prevalent in the social justice movement. There are lots of theories for this. Some think it's because we give more than we're ever given back. Others argue it's the working conditions–long hours, a lack of institutional support for self-care, or the tendency for nonprofits to take on more than they can accomplish. I think it's deeper than all that. As activists and organizers our role is to study where our society has failed and then generate creative solutions to fix it. We are students of violence, oppression, and harm. What most people spend their time tuning out we actively work to tune in. This can get depressing, especially when our gains might feel too minimal, or our efforts too small. Often we don't have a space to process our feelings about this, or we feel guilty for having them. Soon physical ailments appear and the stress gets the best of us. We no longer feel inspired and our work becomes stale, unoriginal, and brittle. It's a common story.

Sometimes it becomes a little too common. In my work at Occupy Wall Street I've noticed many people experiencing burnout, and felt myself compromise my own well-being in ways which are unsustainable and unjust. Like many I experience what E.B. White described so well: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Balancing these two needs is the chief tension in my existence.

It has been said we should be actively modeling the behaviors and structures of the world we want to achieve. Do we want to live in chaos? We have that now. Do we want people to overwork themselves? No. People died for the 8 hour workday for a reason. While campaigns are often our medium for change, they are actually somewhat corporate in their implementation: product development, branding, marketing. Yes, they are useful for recruitment and achieving some goals, but ultimately they trap us in a certain way of thinking: we have to do it all right now (!) because the campaign requires it. The campaign must have its pound of flesh!

Alright, well, let's just take a minute here. The revolution isn't going to be next Monday. That campaign you're feverishly working on is a great idea. It can help make some important changes. But burning yourself out on a single campaign isn't going to help anyone. We are in this for life. We will see change in our lifetimes but we won't see every aspect of that vision of a safe world we hold in our hearts. We have to commit to the long haul, folks, a lifetime of working on these concerns in one form or another.

What does that mean for you? It means you need to find a way to make it sustainable. It means the boundaries you've broken down to allow yourself to truly feel, and thus react, to atrocity must be reexamined. It means you have to find balance. Vacations are good, and necessary, but this is a daily practice. It is not enough to throw yourself into the abyss with the idea “well i have this spring break coming…” You have to find ways to play, to relax, and to engage with the world every day. If you don't you're not going to make it in this movement, and dear overcommitted, we need you too much for that.

So, what to do? There are some important practices you can implement within your organizations and for yourself that can help prevent burnout:

1. Self-assessment is crucial. There are many tools for this, but one of my favorites comes from the ACLU.

2. Play. Stuart Brown, who has devoted his life to the science of play, has found that “the process of play allows us to deal with the craziness and allows generation of solutions to problems…in the absence of play we meet life’s paradoxes with bitterness and rigidity that prevents us from really engaging.” Basically, play helps us to maintain empowered strategic thinking. Without it we lose our edge.

3. Create space for reflection. Emotional and physical check-ins at the beginning or end of each meeting, periodic burnout assessments, and planned reviews of goals and progress will help your group become more effective and healthier. Reviews of goals and progress should also include time to amend strategies and adjust practices to meet the needs of group members and campaigns.

4. Create a clear decision-making structure and write it down! Use it to clarify decisions and share it with new recruits so they don’t feel left out. Stick to this process even when everyone seems to agree to something informally. This will create a culture of transparency and participation that will benefit everyone.

5. Avoid informal power structures by developing clear roles with specific tasks. Make it a point to train new people in those roles on an ongoing basis, that way you have folks who can support each other and a way to bring new people into your work.

5. Recognize each other’s work. Offer feedback when people do things, including acknowledging those who do the grunt work. Thank people. Take time to also ask people if they feel supported and give them a chance to make asks of the group. This will help prevent any one person from getting overwhelmed or getting stuck doing backend tasks (like filling out forms) that are essential but often unnoticed.

6. Reconnect with your vision as an individual and as a group. Most people are activists for highly personal reasons and when you connect the group’s work to individual passions it helps foster awareness, empathy, and creativity. You can ask people to talk about their motivations or set aside time for people to get to know each other’s activist histories. This is especially useful as a way to engage new members.

7. Learn to facilitate conflict. You can help the group reach a decision and ease stress simply through developing strong facilitation skills. There are many books on this but the best way to learn is to practice.  Give group members turns practicing. Afterall, you’re going to be meeting anyway so it might as well be a learning opportunity.

8. Be intentional and deliberate about your work by setting SMART goals. (SMART=Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) SMART goals give the group a shared standard by which to measure progress and review strengths and weaknesses. This is especially useful and necessary when group members need to talk about workload.

9. Utilize solidarity economy practices to reduce stress, meet needs, and create community. Often we're stressed due to our economic insecurity. By working cooperatively and democratically with others we can save money, live our values, and be healthier activists. Join a CSA and learn to cook with others. Join a housing co-op for cheaper rent and shared housework. Shareable has a ton of blog posts on ways you can live a more self-actualized existence through collaboration, and there are many examples of successful long-term activist communities who built themselves through these practices.

These steps can be difficult to take, which is why it may be helpful to work alongside others. In my collective, SolidarityNYC, we've recently begun meeting twice a month for  brunch to discuss the challenges we're experiencing in practicing our values. By meeting to discuss this struggle we hope to make our efforts both sustainable and create accountablity for ourselves when the work is more difficult. Creating an affinity group is one way we can learn together and reinforce each other's well-being.

In addition to this I've learned that leadership development and delegation are important group practices that support our individual well-being. I've also learned what works for me to get what I call head space: long walks, hula hooping (sometimes even on conference calls while on mute so no one knows), singing, dancing, biking, a moratorium on unnecessary media, writing, and nurturing relationships. This has been a long and slow process, so don't beat yourself up if it takes awhile, but know that growing sensitive to your own needs and to those of other leaders is an essential skill to your work. Setting boundaries that allow you to meet those needs is similarly vital. The integration of caring for self and those around you is what will ultimately allow us to sustain our leadership for the greatest possible impact. That's the goal, right?

I love all of you, you know, and I just want you to be happy, healthy, kicking corporate ass, and taking back and building power for as long as you are given the opportunity. We live in a beautiful world with exceptional opportunities for wonder. Make sure you're giving yourself time to access that too. Not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with gladness to know you and have the chance to work with you. But I'd be a liar if I said I'm not a little worried about this trend.

So take a break. Recognize someone's work. Cultivate wellness. And know in your heart that we will win eventually.

Cross-posted from Shareable.net

Activists caught in the Filter Bubble

How personalization helps activists find each other while losing society

Also published at Alternet.

Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You is a must-read for pretty much anyone who uses the Internet. Eli breaks down troubling trends emerging in the World Wide Web that threaten not only individual privacy but also the very idea of civic space.

Of key concern to Eli is “web personalization”: code that maps the algorithms of your individual web use and helps you more easily find the things that the code “thinks” will pique your interest. There’s a daunting amount of information out there, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to even begin sorting through it. Personalization can help. For instance, I can find music that fits my tastes by using Pandora, or movies I like through Netflix. The services provided by companies like Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, et al are designed to study us&#151to get to know us rather intimately&#151to the point where Netflix can now predict the average customer’s rating of a given movie within half a star. Eli paints a picture of your computer monitor as “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”

Whatever the benefits, the intent of these services isn’t just to benevolently help us find the things we’re looking for. They’re also designed to help companies find unwitting customers. When you open your web browser to shop for a product&#151or really for any other reason&#151you yourself are a product whose personal information is literally being sold. Companies that you know, like Google and Facebook, and companies you’ve probably never heard of (e.g. Acxiom) are using increasingly sophisticated programs to map your personality.

And it’s not just creepiness and individual privacy that’s at issue here. Personalization is also adding to a civic crisis. It’s one thing for code to help us find music, movies and other consumer products we like. But what about when code also feeds us our preferred news and political opinions, shielding us from alternative viewpoints? Personalization now means that you and your Republican uncle will see dramatically different results when you run the same exact Google news search. You’re both likely to see results that come from news sources that you prefer &#151 sources that tend to reinforce your existing opinions. Maybe your search will pull articles from NPR and Huffington Post, while his will spotlight stories from FOX News. Both of you will have your biases and worldviews fed back to you &#151 typically without even being aware that your news feed has been personalized.

Web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes. Each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms&#151rather than challenges&#151our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.  

This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.

Values reflected back: the illusion of doing something

If you’re an activist, then probably a lot of your Facebook friends are activists too. Your friend Susan has been posting all week about the public workers in Wisconsin. Jacob posted an insightful read about white privilege that’s at the top of your newsfeed &#151 50 of your friends “like” it. Sam is a climate activist, and her Facebook presence reflects it. And you just posted an article about an upcoming protest to end the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan.

When you log in on Facebook as an activist, it might feel like you’re part of a mass movement. Social justice issues are front and center &#151 as if that were the main thing people used Facebook for. That’s how web personalization works on Facebook. When you click on a lot of posts about gay marriage, you will start seeing more similar posts. When you check out certain people’s profiles, they’ll show up more often in your newsfeed. If these folks think a lot like you do, you’ll see a lot of stuff that reinforces your worldview.

It’s fun and validating to see a lot of stuff you agree with. But consider the implications. People who are opposed to gay marriage are seeing a lot of articles that reinforce their beliefs too. And, perhaps more important, folks who aren’t that interested in the issue probably won’t see anything about it at all. Maybe you fancy yourself an agitator with your Facebook posts, but the folks who might feel agitated&#151and the more persuadable folks in the middle&#151typically aren’t seeing those posts at all. Furthermore, even if you think you’re right about all your beliefs, how are you going to be equipped to persuade others if you’re not exposed to their views?

You can spend your whole day expressing your political identity on Facebook. You can also use it to mobilize the usual suspects to take some online action &#151 or maybe even to get some of them out to an “offline” political event. But to mistake this kind of thing for grassroots organizing is a big problem.

Grassroots organizing is a process that happens within&#151and within deep relationship to&#151already constituted social blocs. It’s a process of articulating demands in language that means something to the community and making those demands actionable. It is moving the community into action as a community &#151 not just fishing for a handful of radicals who come out as individuals. But most activist spaces today are spaces for self-selectors, where folks do enter as individuals. And to really enter these spaces, you often have to assimilate to an activist subculture, and check some aspects of your identity at the door.

I don’t know of any mass movement in the history of the world that was composed of all self-selecting individuals (at least no movement that lasted longer than a flash). Take the Civil Rights Movement. If Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks had been oriented toward the center of a small circle of self-selectors, they would not have been the leaders of a movement. (Picture them inspiring each other with status updates like, “No one should have to give up their bus seat because of the color of their skin. Please post as your status if you agree.”) It only became a movement when these and other good leaders helped to move whole communities&#151most notably black churches and schools&#151into action as communities. Membership in these communities came to imply movement participation. This is how movements become movements.

Self-selection on steroids

Web personalization shouldn’t be blamed for starting this pattern where people gravitate toward the things they “Like”™. Eli is quick to point out how Americans had been clustering into likeminded groups for a few decades before the web was even a big deal. We have literally been migrating into values-homogenous social spaces since the late 1960s. Discussing the ideas of Ron Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, and others, Eli paints a picture of an increasingly fractured society.

For the past four decades or so we’ve been rearranging our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do &#151 phasing out folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes.  We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance. With or without web personalization, it makes sense that we would continue to follow the same pattern in our online communities.

Ron Inglehart’s explanation for the trend is based on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”: once our basic survival and material needs are provided for, we then focus more attention on social networks and individual expression. This explains why dramatic outbursts of self-expressiveness hit every industrialized society in the world simultaneously in the late 1960s. According to Bill Bishop (in The Big Sort), a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.” And apparently, self-expressive people prefer to express themselves in like-minded company.

So what’s the big deal? I like my friends and I’m glad they share my values. It’s affirming. It makes me feel good. I can relax in like-minded company. What’s the problem?

Eli discusses several problems with this trend. I want to discuss, for an activist audience, a political problem &#151 political in the sense of collective power. My friends and I may be satisfying our identity needs when we talk politics at the bar&#151or when we share political posts on each other’s Facebook walls&#151but what are we accomplishing? What can we accomplish? What do we, as a small, self-selecting, self-segregating group of folks have the capacity to accomplish &#151 if we’re not connecting with others?

See, if you love to play the online game World of Warcraft and&#151for reasons I can only guess at&#151you want to spend all your time doing that, then living in a bubble doesn’t pose much of a problem for you. By surrounding yourself with other folks who are equally obsessed with this admittedly pretty cool videogame, you can be an all-W.O.W.-all-the-time kind of person. Best to you.

If, on the other hand, you set out to stop global warming, you will absolutely fail if you only surround yourself with people just like you. You need a heck of a lot more people to get on board. The magnitude of your task demands that you break out of your activist ghetto and go beyond the boundaries of self-selection. If you want to build the kind of collective power needed to take on the fossil fuel industries&#151with all their money, power, and entrenched webs of influence&#151then you have to somehow infuse your goal into the identities of many, many sectors of society.

But are you, climate activist, up for this task? Or will you instead orient yourself toward the center of a small, insular climate activist subculture? Will you frame your message strategically to connect with people who live beyond the boundaries of your group? Or will you content yourself to signal only to your friends? The world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but at least you’re there taking a righteous stand, surrounded by other righteous eco-warriors, right?

As a grassroots organizer, one of things that troubles me most about the filter bubble is its potential to take the tendency of insularity among would-be social change agents and to inject it with steroids. I’ve seen some of the most committed social justice activists strangely resembling folks who are obsessed with World of Warcraft. They structure their lives around something that they’re really into. And no one else is paying attention.

The very concept of a group of activists speaks to this fragmentation. It’s as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby&#151like being a skater or a “theater person”&#151rather than a civic responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a way, the very label “activist”&#151its individualizing, identifying affects&#151excuses everyone else from civic responsibility. I may or may not have an opinion about a given issue, but I can’t be expected to do anything about it because “I’m not an activist,” or “I’m not really into politics.”

In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific micro-aggregations, it makes sense that “activism” itself could become one such little niche. But when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches. We need huge swaths of society bought in.

Bursting Bubbles

Reaching a broader audience is an indispensible task of social change agents. If we are to leverage the kind of collective power it takes to make the kind of change worth talking about, we need to construct broad alignments of heterogeneous social forces. This task becomes more challenging as the public information landscape becomes increasingly ghettoized. Here’s Eli:

…the Internet has unleashed the coordinated energy of a whole new generation of activists&#151it’s easier than ever to find people who share your political passions. But while it’s easier than ever to bring a group of people together, as personalization advances it’ll become harder for any given group to reach a broad audience. In some ways, personalization poses a threat to public life itself.

If we’re not intentional, the task of reaching a broader audience won’t just be harder; it’ll be hopeless. If activists are themselves ensnared in self-selecting, self-affirming&#151one might even say narcissistic&#151filter bubbles, they will lack even the inclination to attempt bridging beyond the boundaries of comfortable little clubs.

Political expression that doesn’t engage beyond self-selectors is essentially apolitical. There is no politics without friction. Civics is not easy or clean or pure or contained. It’s messy. Civic engagement requires us to break out of bubbles, to dive into the mess, and to lean into the friction.

The hopeful nugget here is that social change work has always started with a belief that reality is dynamic, not static. Things change all the time, even seemingly fixed structures. And we can step up and be self-conscious agents who influence the direction of change. The filter bubble, and all the constraints that come along with it, is another kind of structure we have to engage. Recognizing the structure is an important first step. To that end, Eli’s book is a great contribution. Then we’ve got to do some stuff that may make us feel uncomfortable.

Bob Moses wouldn’t have been a leader in the Civil Rights Movement if he had stayed in the north and only surrounded himself with other Harvard-educated young black academics and professionals. For the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to help catalyze a movement, he and others would have to enter some of the most dangerous segregated areas in the South and talk with some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country &#151 probably at times an altogether uncomfortable experience.

While Bob Moses sets a pretty high measure to compare ourselves with, perhaps we can at least take a little inspiration and conceptual wisdom from his approach. If he and other Civil Rights leaders could muster the courage to step so far out of their comfort zones, perhaps we can at least start consciously taking a few small steps in that direction.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, strategist and trainer. He serves as Director of Beyond the Choir.

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.

“World update: Strikes force Lady Gaga to postpone shows” (Wow, France… pt. 2: parroting)

originally published on November 1, 2010

In my post last week (Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!??), I asked, as the title suggests, what prevents the kind of broad, committed, collective action that we’re seeing in France from happening here in the United States.  This is especially perplexing, given that their strike is about opposing the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 – whereas here our retirement age is already later than that, our college tuition rates promise a lifetime of debt, our health care system is all sorts of effed up, our hours are longer, our vacations shorter, our social safety net far less comprehensive.  I could go on.

I started to answer my own question, discussing the mechanics of how collective action and protest have been negatively branded here, so as to effectively inoculate many people against participation.  In response (over at Daily Kos), Pesto asked:

The $64,000 question WRT inoculation is why it hasn’t worked as well elsewhere.  It’s not as if multinational corporations in France never considered trying to break French workers’ solidarity or willingness to shut the economy down to win what they want.  They certainly understand the basic concepts of propaganda that have worked so well in the US.  But whatever they’ve been trying in France hasn’t been working very well.

Big question.  Where to begin?  Well, why not start with Lady Gaga?  More specifically, let’s start with CNN’s utilization of Lady Gaga as a cultural intermediary in their “coverage” of the strikes:

World update: Strikes force Lady Gaga to postpone shows

France strike – Some 200 demonstrators blocked France’s Marseille-Provence airport for more than three hours Thursday as strikes and protests continued across the country.  The action comes ahead of a final vote on the country’s Pension Reform Bill.  Pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris shows this weekend because of “the logistical difficulties due to the strikes,” her website said.

Modern US reporting on international news at its finest.  At least they bothered to include the bit about the Pension Reform Bill, which just might lead readers to wonder whether those mischievous demonstrators may have some kind of an opinion about pension reform or something.  But this anecdote illustrates more than the sorry state of what passes as mainstream journalism.  CNN no doubt is genuinely at a loss for how to cover what’s happening in France, either because they think most Americans won’t understand the issues or because they themselves don’t understand the issues, or likely a combination of the two.  Lucky for CNN though, Lady Gaga – a common cultural reference – happens to be touring in Europe; and CNN’s market audience will definitely be able to relate to the “inconvenienced traveler” story too.

So besides showing the sorry state of today’s mainstream media, this anecdote also illustrates the lack of a popular framework through which Americans can understand what’s happening in France.

Why isn’t there a popular framework to understand what’s happening in France?  Largely because the Democratic Party repeatedly fails (with many important individual exceptions) to tell a coherent and overarching economic justice narrative.  In the words of political psychologist and neuroscientist Drew Westen (in his book The Political Brain), “…Republicans assert an extreme principle, the public never hears a compelling counternarrative, and gradually public opinion shifts to the right.”  In other words, if Republicans say “greed is good” over and over for three decades, and Democrats are too timid to say, “No, actually greed is bad!” then much of the public – who is predisposed from childhood to think that greed is indeed bad – is left to doubt their own commonsense and instead internalize the malignant idea that the economy is way too complicated for them to understand and that greed must inadvertently play a beneficial role through that invisible hand thing or whatever.

More from The Political Brain:

…political scientist John Zaller has shown how the discourse of “political elites” enters into public discourse and shapes public opinion.  …when political elites offer a single message-as is often the case in matters of war, at least early on, when politicians of both parties put aside their differences to support the war effort and the commander-in-chief-the vast majority of the public tends to adopt this shared understanding.  Political scientist (and sometimes-consultant) Samuel Popkin has argued that this tendency to play “follow the leader” is a sensible strategy for most voters, who have their own lives to lead and don’t have the time or interest to study all the affairs of state.  Accepting uncontested elite opinions represents a form of what Popkin calls “low-information rationality.”  If no one on either side of the aisle is contesting an issue at the top of the information chain, why would most voters, who have far less direct knowledge, contest it at the bottom?

Last week The Other School of Economics offered some great analysis about what’s happening in France, describing this same parroting phenomenon as “me-tooism”:

…”me-tooism” is the new modus operandi: the practise of adopting or imitating a policy successfully or popularly proposed by the rival party to ride a popular trend. Resulting in a failure to articulate radical differentiation.

So in our case, Democrats see the Republicans having some success in demonizing people who benefit from social welfare programs and, instead of providing a potent counter-narrative, they say, “Hey, me too!”  And as a result:

…neo-liberal orthodoxies have now penetrated the collective psyche (you’d be excused to say ‘brainwashed’)…

Could it be that decades of conservative and neo-liberal brainwashing now trigger Pavlovian unconsidered mainstream chain reactions?: “Government -> control -> banks -> red flag -> smells like socialism -> bery bery bad -> it must me shite”. End of the story.

I love the use of arrows here.  Because “arrows”-not arguments-is what this game is all about.  These aren’t rational arguments, but cognitive associations.  Government is associated with control; control/regulation of banks is associated with socialism (as pejorative), which is a huge red flag for most people because it’s somehow simultaneously associated with Nazism and Stalinism, and both are “enemies of the nation”; and that’s all “bery bery bad.”  The wild thing is that these associations are are physically structured in our brains, taking up physical space, physically linked in our neural networks.  Republicans have had so much success in burning these associative networks into our brains that nowadays the mere mention of the word “government” activates the whole string.  When Democrats fail to boldly say, “No, actually greed is bad!” they’re allowing Republicans to take something as popular as fairness and associate it with fear and resignation; and they’re failing to activate the powerfully motivativing neural networks in our brains that are concerned with fairness and compassion.

In his post Taxes & Terrorism (Open Left), Paul Rosenberg argues that:

…the basis of conservative politics is fear… The conservative try to flood the zone with fear, so that people can’t think straight . . . If the GOP can turn anything into a flashpoint of fear, then they can keep on repeating it, and all thought shuts down–perhaps not for everyone, but for enough. But for them to be really secure, they need the Democrats to buy into their logic as well.  Once the Democrats are gripped with fear, and unwilling to talk about a given issue, then that issue belongs to the GOP.  Their position on it doesn’t have to make any sense.  Making sense is beside the point.  The point is scaring people.  The point is, in a word, terrorism.

So Republicans have a culture of fear-mongering, that is met by Democrats’ culture of caution.  For whatever complicated reasons, this hasn’t taken nearly as much in France.  The Other School of Economics argues that that’s really what’s at stake in France:

…more than such and such policies (a tax cut here, a pension age there), it is the blanket acceptance of the liberal [meaning neo-liberal economic] dogma as the only reasonable alternative that is the ultimate prize…

The trouble is that the French seem to be quite recalcitrant, and are telling us that Society is not dead yet…

We should ponder what makes this country still have the ability to reactivate its immune defenses like that. Not being naïve about the many not-so-glamorous aspects of French society (the same as everywhere else really: temptation to materialism, inequalities, latent racism, yadi yada…) there is still a “cultural exception” that is driving the neo-cons nuts. The French should keep it that way.

Progressives in France are still willing to frame a progressive narrative, rather than parrot the reactionaries.  When a political party (or whatever organized force with power) actually tells a progressive story, they provide and reinforce cognitive associations that can actually change the way a society thinks.  A potent progressive narrative inoculates against fear (so that when, for example, reactionaries try to scare people about potential terrorist threats, society is undeterred) and activates our feelings of compassion, justice and fairness as motivators.  As a result, young people are more willing to get out into the streets and to sacrifice convenience today for the long-term health of the whole society – their resignation navigated and their better angels activated.  Protests are then bigger, and because they’re bigger they then get even BIGGER because people want to go to big protests, not small ones.  So then they’re also more powerful, and they’re more powerfully leveraged politically because there’s not such a chasm between the political parties and young idealists out in the streets.  And because protest is seen as powerful by more people, more people are down to participate.

How to get from here to there?  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

(P.S. Lady Gaga rocks.)

Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!?? (pt. 1: inoculation)

originally published on October 21, 2010

Do you ever look at newspaper articles about worker and student strikes in countries like France or Greece or Argentina-you know, the kind of activity that shuts down the whole country-and think to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!  Those people know how to protest!?”

Well, I sure do.

Not to glorify any particular tactic for it’s own sake, but geez, the spirit of collective action and common purpose that’s displayed in those moments-let alone the negotiating power it awards to grassroots movements, unions, and progressive political parties-is something that sometimes, um, feels a little lacking here in the good old U.S. of A.

So what are you waiting for.  Go ahead.  Try that here.  See how many people you can turn out.  See where it gets you.

Likely.  not.  very.  far.

We have a situation here.  We’re stuck in a Catch 22.  As a society, we presently seem to be inoculated against the means necessary for our own collective advancement. (If you’re at the top of the plutocratic order, now’s the time to congratulate yourself on a brilliant system.)  And I’m not talking about any one particular style of collective action or protest – we’re not France or Greece or Argentina, and I don’t particularly want us to be.  I’m fully ready to embrace an all-American style, and I would settle for whatever kind of collective action (within ethical and strategic limits) powerful enough to challenge entrenched power and privilege.  Is that such a tall order?

What do I mean, we’re “inoculated?”

I’m glad you asked.  Have you ever heard someone say something like, “I’m not an activist or anything,” or they look at you like you’re from Crazy-ville (or they simply don’t engage) when you start talking about the protest you went to?

Think about the word protest for a minute.  Seriously.  Stop.  And think about it.  Notice.  What comes to mind with the word?  Now try it with the word activist.

Okay, how long did it take for “the 60s” to come to mind?  And from there, how long did it take before you started seeing images of Woodstock, tie-dye, hippies, marijuana, free love, or Days of Rage?  Or let’s go more contemporary – did you picture black-clad, masked anarchists smashing a Starbucks window, or, alternatively, a small group of older, white Quakers standing vigil to oppose (yet another) war?

If you’re like most Americans, you have many of these associations burned deep into your neural pathways.  If you’re reading this, you’re likely among an audience that also holds a lot of positive associations with protest and activism – thankfully, many Americans do.  But still, you know the story.  You know… the story of the dirty stinking hippie going through a communist phase until you graduate from college (and if it lasts much longer everyone wonders when you’re going to grow up and get a real job) – ring a bell?  You know how protest and activism have been negatively branded in our culture.

Americans today tend to be uniquely skeptical of collective action that challenges power-for multiple fascinating historically rooted reasons that are beyond the scope of this post-compared to our counterparts in most advanced “democratic societies.”  And the past four decades have been especially rough on grassroots progressive movements; following the social upheavals that culminated in “the 60s,” conservative activists retrenched to build and very effectively amplify a coherent, overarching values-based narrative, while the most activisty of progressives have largely self-segregated into single-issue advocacy efforts (or cross-issue, but micro-identity-based and/or counter-cultural activist scenes) that lack a coherent, overarching values-based narrative that resonates beyond the borders of our self-selecting bubbles.

French firefighters: with the protest

Conservatives claimed a monopoly on the flag, the Constitution, the Bible, and the whole story of America – language and symbols that hold a whole lot of meaning for a large majority in our country.  And at least some on our side conceded these symbols, essentially saying, fine, you can have ’em!  In the flag we saw genocide, slavery, conquest, and war.  In the church we saw historic justifications for sexism, racism, poverty, and all sorts of bigotry; an “opiate of the people.”  (Nevermind the central role that churches played in the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, and countless other social justice struggles.)

In reality, most progressive-minded Americans haven’t forsaken their identity with these common and still powerful symbols.  But reality isn’t the only thing we’re dealing with here.  We have also to deal with perceptions of reality – specifically, a hegemonic conservative narrative that says that progressives have abandoned (and are attacking!) sacred American values.  (So what if there aren’t any actual real-life protesters spitting on soldiers when they come home – doesn’t it just sound true?)

So back to inoculation.  Here’s how it works.  To inoculate someone against a virus, you introduce a very weak strand of the virus that triggers the body’s immune system to kick in.  Based on this exposure, the body builds up antibodies against the weak strand.  Then anything and everything that comes along remotely resembling that weak strand, well-BOOM!!-IMMUNITY!!!  Now the host has a built-in resistance to the real virus.

And here’s how it works in politics and culture.  The hegemonic conservative narrative-with all its supporting resources, infrastructure, and echo chambers-introduces into popular consciousness an exaggerated picture of progressive collective action (aka activism).  Picture the most over-the-top crazy stupid dirty stinking hippie latte-drinking un-American communist window-smashing flag-burning Kumbaya-singing event you can imagine.  This caricature of a stereotype is the metaphorical weak strand that is exaggerated in order to inoculate against the real thing.  Then when an opening for powerful collective action comes along, well-BOOM!!-IMMUNITY!!!  All those negative associations come to mind and most people recoil out of revulsion or fear of the associations.  They now have a built-in resistance to your commie virus.

This conservative hegemonic strategy of inoculation preys upon the way the human brain has evolved to function.  More on that, and some ideas about what we can do about it-I promise, this isn’t just a cynical rant!-to follow.  Stay tuned…

Interview: Jose Vasquez on Antiwar Organizing & IVAW

originally published on September 30, 2010

Listen to the full interview with Jose Vasquez:


Jose Vasquez shares his journey from Army Staff Sergeant to Conscientious Objector to Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War – and offers some reflections on organizing with veterans and GIs in today’s antiwar movement.

To find out more about IVAW, check out their new site.

You can donate to IVAW here.

Is politics your home, or your car?

When I’m in my home, I want to be comfortable. I don’t want to live with people who make me feel ill at ease, or whose values I don’t share.  I don’t want conflict.  I take great care in making my “house into a home.”  I hang things on the walls that reflect my personality, my values, and who I am.  This is my sanctuary.

When I’m driving in my car, I want to get somewhere. I have a destination in mind.  Gas is expensive, and Rhode Island drivers are effing crazy – so I’m not interested in much other than Point A to Point B.

Sure, when I’m in my home, I may have some projects and have goals around those projects.  And, sure, when I’m in my car, I may want to listen to music that I especially like, or have great conversations with my friends.

But entertain the (admittedly over-simplistic and falsely dichotomous) metaphor for a minute and ask yourself, are your politics your home or your car? In politics and the political organizations you’re part of, are you looking primarily for sanctuary, or are you looking to get somewhere?  Do you get involved to express your values (like hanging paintings and posters on your walls), or are you stepping into a vehicle with a destination in mind? And do you have a map?

Or are you in a gas-guzzling mobile home that’s broken-down on the side of the road – really hoping the engine will magically restart some day, but it’s been like 40 years, and you’ve kind of gotten comfortable here, and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to arrive somewhere new? And besides, cars are bad.


What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? (part 3 of 3)

Reposted. Part Three of a three-part article from 2006, written in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. Read Part One here and Part Two here first.

Many of us, when we become disillusioned with the dominant culture, we develop an inclination to separate ourselves from it. When we begin to become aware of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other forms of social, economic or ecological oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. This often comes from 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. 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 society. With society seen as bad, we begin to look for ways of distinguishing ourselves and our groups from it. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and society, because these distinctions support our justice-oriented narratives. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive. We adorn ourselves with distinguishing features to express separation, and also to flag likeminded people and establish ourselves in–and assimilate into–oppositional subcultures.

These distinguishing features take on particular flavors in different subcultures. Activist and movement strategist Michael Albert describes student activists he encounters at college speaking engagements, “As compared to their classmates, the activists look entirely different, have different tastes and preferences, talk differently, and are largely insulated from rather than immersed in the larger population.”1

Mark Anderson describes in tribal terms the same phenomenon in punk:

The punk subculture has many of the hallmarks of a tribe…piercings, tattoos, more. These markers, also including hairstyle, dress, music form, even slang, help to demark the boundaries of the group, to set it off from the larger populace. In this way, appearance can even be a form of dissent, a strikingly visual way to say, “I am not a part of your corrupt world.”2

Many such subcultures–consciously or not–prize their own marginalization. If society is unjust, then our justice-oriented narratives are reaffirmed when we are rejected by society (or more accurately, portions of society). If society is bad, then marginalization in society is good. We tell each other stories of how we were ostracized in this or that group, how we’re the outcast in our family, how we were the only revolutionary in a group of reformists, etc. We swim in our own marginalization. This is the story of the righteous few.

One of the largest barriers to strategic thought and action in many U.S. social movements today is that, in the story of the righteous few, success itself is 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,” rather than because they’ve organized or communicated their message effectively.

Here we see the importance of checking our narratives for faulty components. If we allow the story of the righteous few to hold a place in our narratives, then our social change efforts are likely to be greatly hindered by a general mentality to separate and distinguish ourselves from society and to retreat from success. To organize effectively this mentality has to turn 180 degrees to a mentality to connect with others, to notice commonalities, “to weave ourselves into the fabric of society,”3 and to embrace being embraced by society. This is a profound paradigm shift that most radicals have yet to make. It intensely challenges us because it requires nothing short of getting over ourselves.

The dominant is not all of society, and often it’s not even the majority.  Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire comments:

Sometimes, in our uncritical understanding of the nature of the struggle, we can be led to believe that all the everyday life of the people is a mere reproduction of the dominant ideology. But it is not. There will always be something of the dominant ideology in the cultural expressions of the people, but there is also in contradiction to it the signs of resistance – in the language, in music, in food preferences, in popular religion, in their understanding of the world.4

We often make the mistake of assuming that everyone subscribes to the dominant ideology, or even that those who seem to subscribe do so completely. However, a lack of visible resistance to a dominant ideology does not necessarily signify an enthusiastic embracing of the ideology. Submission or acquiescence to a dominant ideology is not the same as ideological alignment. For example, many people, though aware that a new Wal-mart would harm their local economy, may still refrain from participating in a grassroots campaign to stop it. A small turnout for a counter-Wal-mart protest does not necessarily mean that the entire town–or even the majority–is happy about the development. It could be that people lack faith in the feasibility of stopping something as big as Wal-mart, that the tactics or rhetoric of the campaign seem inaccessible or extreme to them, or even that they perceive a lack of strategy in the campaign (among many more possibilities). While each of these possibilities still poses a challenge to organizers, these challenges are of a different type and quality than the challenge of reaching someone who is explicitly pro-Wal-mart. By exploring alternative explanations for lack of participation, organizers can develop better strategies. But if organizers see the lack of participation as an inevitable popular embracing of Wal-mart, then they will feel–and likely be–defeated, and if they continue in their resistance, they are likely to be taking a stand more than waging a struggle; consciously or unconsciously adopting the storyline of the righteous few.

Social movements should aim to succeed. Fighting an advantaged opponent without the intention of success is not so much fighting as it is coping. The tendency of the outgunned resister to run headlong kamikaze-style into enemy lines is the tendency of someone who wants to be righteous – not of someone who seeks to affect change. We must ask ourselves if our intention is to bring about real change, or if it is to act out righteous narratives (either as individuals or in small enlightened groups).

The tendency to think “that all the everyday life of the people is a mere reproduction of the dominant ideology” is detrimental to movement building. We need to shift our mentality to one in which we actively look for forms of resistance to dominant ideologies, however subtle, and encourage these forms. While it is important to recognize the limits of often subtle and uncoordinated expressions of resistance to dominant ideologies, it is equally important to recognize the existence and value of such expressions. By encouraging such expressions we can affirm and therefore strengthen people’s anti-dominant values and identity, which can lead to a broadening of our base.

While we challenge the dominant storyline, we must also challenge some components of our own narratives. We must scrap the chapter of the righteous few, and replace it with a story of collective liberation in which, instead of setting ourselves apart, we engage in the hard work of bringing people together.


  1. Michael Albert. The Trajectory of Change (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002).
  2. Mark Anderson. All the Power (Canada: Punk Planet Books/Akashic Books, 2004).
  3. Quoting NY activist Beka Economopoulos.
  4. Paulo Freire, Ana Maria Araujo Freire, and Donaldo P. Macedo. The Paulo Freire Reader (New York: Continuum, 1998).