Long lefty laundry lists | Populism & Hegemony pt.4

This is the fourth post in a series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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…

What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? (part 1 of 3)

This article made the rounds on Z net and a bunch of Indymedia sites back in 2006.  I wrote it in collaboration with Madeline Gardner.  I’m reposting here in three parts, with no edits.

Here’s Part Two. And here’s Part Three. And here’s the video.

Ritual & Engagement

It’s August and I’m back in San Francisco.  I love this city.  It’s been over three years since my last visit – an extended stay that started a week after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  At that time thousands of people in the Bay Area launched, and for many weeks sustained, a stronger show of resistance than could be seen anywhere else in the country.  People put their bodies on the line to shut down San Francisco’s financial district, as well as war-profiteering corporations throughout the region.  I was proud to be a participant.  I’ve spent most of the time since in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, organizing with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice.  Now I’m back in SF just a few days, already marching in an anti-war protest.

“Hey hey!  What do you say?  How many kids did you kill today?” the crowd chants.

I don’t join in.  We don’t use chants like this in Lancaster.  Actually, I can recall very few occasions where we have chanted at all.  I used to chant as loudly and enthusiastically as the next person, but now something holds me back.

“Hey, hey, what do you say?  How many kids did you kill today?”  It strikes me as angry, grotesque and even a bit juvenile.  I feel that most of the people I am trying to reach are more likely to be repelled by, than attracted to, this message, form and energy.

Is the anger justified?  Hell yeah.  But I have to ask myself, am I trying to reach people (in order to build power, to affect change), or am I just rattling cages?  Is my aim to engage, or to vent?  Is the purpose of this protest instrumental; a tactic within a strategy to achieve a goal?  Or is it expressive; an opportunity for me to shout to the sky my frustration?

Why do we chant?  Why do we carry signs?  Why do we march?  Who is it for?  Is it primarily communicative or expressive?  Meaning, are we trying to communicate something to someone, or are we merely expressing ourselves?  If the former, then we should concern ourselves primarily with the meaning others will take from what we say and how we say it, strategizing around what methods, mediums and messages will most likely persuade our target audiences.  If the latter, then our protests may be serving more therapeutic than instrumental purposes.

When we look at the state of the world we are frustrated, angry, even heartbroken, so we vent.  We feel isolated in the dominant culture where destructive values and politics reign.  So we find community–a sense of sanity and belonging–by coming together with likeminded people to express our alternative values boldly, loudly, and, most importantly, collectively.

I do not wish to disparage the therapeutic role social movements can play in participants’ lives.  We who hold progressive or radical values feel the lack of representation of these values in the dominant culture.  This can cause a profound sense of isolation for us as individuals.  Many of us, during the process of our politicization or radicalization, feel isolated within our communities – often for good reasons.  As I came of age in Lancaster, I encountered resistance to my newfound radical notions, and not enough support to sustain me.  So I went out looking for likeminded people.  Finding them and communing with them has been and continues to be both inspirational and therapeutic.

Coming out of isolation then is an important subtext to the collective social change work we engage in together.  In this work the explicit purpose of coming together with likeminded people is to affect change, likely more effectively through joint action or mass action.  A second and less explicit purpose is to come out of isolation by surrounding ourselves with reflections of our own values.  We accomplish this by collectively creating projects, spaces, culture and ritual.

It is important to examine the collective ritual aspect of social change movements, and how it can be both critical and detrimental to strategic goals.  By collective ritual I mean collaborative expressions of shared values that serve to further a collective narrative.  By collective narrative I mean a story (or web of stories) through which we find meaning, filter information, and interpret events and experiences.  Our narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it.  They frame much of our thought and action.  Different narratives encourage different sorts of actions, behaviors and mentalities.  For example, a person who believes that earth and everything in it was literally created in seven days, and is soon destined to end in dramatic apocalypse, may not see much point in recycling or reducing dependence on fossil fuels.  Similarly, a person who holds a justice-oriented narrative is more likely to put faith in social change efforts than a person who sees humanity as inherently selfish or “fallen.”  More than we tell these stories, the “stories tell us1 what to do.

I use the word ritual to describe acts that affirm our narratives and the values they contain.  In Christianity, for example, collective ritual typically includes church attendance, group singing, and Eucharist, but it can also be found in far subtler aspects of everyday life.  In activist groups and subcultures collective ritual may include protests, events, gathering places, music, fashion, publications, vocabulary and much more.  Collective ritual is hardly distinct from subculture itself.  More precisely, subculture is little more than the sum total of collective rituals.  Collective ritual is anything intended to affirm the group or subcultural identity and narrative.  This is not to say that a protest has no instrumental purpose other than affirming an alternative narrative, but rather that this affirmation is part of what motivates protest participants.  That said, without a consciousness of this motivation we run a greater risk of our protests truly having no instrumental value.

Ritual is important – vitally so for social change workers.  Our rituals represent the survival of alternative values within a dominant culture that under-represents and represses such values.  Through collective ritual we gather strength and build solidarity by surrounding ourselves with reflections of our alternative values and visions.

However, expressing values and living principles is not the same as engaging society and affecting systemic change.  It is important to draw a distinction between collective ritual and strategic engagement.

By engagement I mean the work of engaging the broader society and power structures in order to affect change.  Strategic engagement can and does overlap with collective ritual, but the two are substantively distinct, and it would be advantageous to develop a consciousness about when and how we choose to utilize one or the other or both.

Both agendas are essential, and social change movements suffer when either is neglected.  Collective ritual serves as a remedy to the paralysis caused by isolation.  It provides sanity and a sense of belonging.  However, strategic thought and action in social movements is retarded when participants pursue insular ritual to the neglect of broader engagement.

DC activist and punk Mark Anderson describes the distinction in terms of subjective and objective:

…if we are to really contribute to change, much less revolution, we must distinguish between the “subjective” (internal: seeking personal identity, meaning, purpose) and the “objective” (external: actually helping to change power relations, structures, and values that uphold oppression of the many by the few) aspects of our activism. …I am not saying that one is important and the other is not.  Both the subjective and the objective are critical, at different times and in different ways.  They are even interconnected–i.e., I begin to feel personal power, which enables me to take actions that might help striking workers get better pay and working conditions or, more fundamentally, help to build power to alter social structures.  However, the two are not the same.2

While both are important, these two motivations for participation in social change efforts are often in tension with each other.  By developing an active consciousness of these two motivations, social change agents might become more intentional about when and how we fulfill each motivation, and by doing so we may increase our effectiveness while still attending to our wellbeing (personal and communal).

Another way to think about the distinction between collective ritual and strategic engagement is this: collective ritual expresses an ideal among people who already believe, long for, and/or live it; strategic engagement aims to meet everyone else where they are.  We can create our own spaces where we speak our own internal language, but we must not lose our ability to speak the languages of the people who are all around us.

Read Part Two here.


  1. Quoted from a soon to be published book by the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project.  smartmeme.com
  2. Mark Anderson. All the Power (Canada: Punk Planet Books/Akashic Books, 2004).