#KeystoneXL: Taking sides and winning

kxl

Important news today. I feel so proud of all my friends, colleagues, and comrades who chose to intervene in history, to challenge ‘fate’, to not be indifferent about humanity’s future, to work to stop the Keystone XL. This victory is not everything, but it is certainly something—something important—in this age of resignation and hopelessness. May it be a harbinger of even bigger things to come. I am proud of you, every one of you, my dearest family, you who have chosen to not be indifferent.

gramsci-e1357927126292I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent…

I am a partisan, I am alive, I feel the pulse of the activity of the future city that those on my side are building is alive in their conscience. And in it, the social chain does not rest on a few; nothing of what happens in it is a matter of luck, nor the product of fate, but the intelligent work of the citizens. Nobody in it is looking from the window of the sacrifice and the drain of a few. Alive, I am a partisan. That is why I hate the ones that don’t take sides, I hate the indifferent.”

—Antonio Gramsci

Full quote here.

“Counter-hegemony” and Left Ambivalence Toward Power

I’m reading Cihan Tuğal’s Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. I’m still working my way through it, but so far I’ve found it very insightful. There are so many things in the book that I’m looking forward to digging into, so I feel a little bad that I’m about to start with the one thing that I’m ambivalent about: Tuğal’s use of the term counter-hegemony. I’m not usually one to nitpick about terms—especially esoteric terms like counter-hegemony—but here I go…

Dr. Tuğal did not invent the term, of course. Moreover, I suspect that because I agree so much with his descriptions and assessments (of patterns of political engagement, in the case of Islamist movements in Turkey), it stands out all the more when I do take issue with something. His book has got me thinking more specifically about what I don’t like about the term generally. To be clear, I introduce his work here as a jumping off point for this blog post, rather than as the object of my critique.

Here’s my problem with the term counter-hegemony: it is unclear whether (1) it implies an opposition to the idea of hegemony itself, or (2) it notes an opposition to a particular hegemony — opposition by a challenger force (i.e. an alternative, aspiring hegemony). I want to be careful to not put words in his mouth, but I suspect that Dr. Tuğal intends something closer to the latter interpretation of counter-hegemony. I had the pleasure of meeting him this past weekend at the UC Berkeley sociology open house. At the end of one of our conversations, we briefly discussed my ambivalence about the term. This ambivalence was reinforced later that same day by a discussion with another person who subscribed to the first interpretation, i.e., that to be counter-hegemonic is—and should be—to be against all hegemony.


This is how I define hegemony only some of the time.

To me, particular actors and political alignments maintain particular hegemonies. Their political challengers are not counter-hegemonic—insofar as the term may imply being against the idea of hegemony itself—but are themselves aspiring hegemonies. They want their ideas to win.

My concern is about power and the US Left’s ambivalence toward it. Rather than framing a conversation about how a Left might build and wield power, the term counter-hegemony may suggest inherent opposition to—or at least confusion about—power itself. The “counter” part reinforces our eternal outsider status and casts doubt on whether we even want power. It’s similar to how the term counter-culture suggests the creation of sideshow alternative subcultures, rather than a seizure of the main stage — i.e., a contestation of the meanings, symbols, narratives, and institutions of the popular culture. Continue reading

Falling in love with ourselves

Also published in Occupy! #5. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

In late October of last year my cousin came down to Liberty Square, then home of a thriving Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived early so he could check things out for himself. I was eager to hear his impressions.

“What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society—or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!”

Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country, when they existed. The camps, for example, served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants consciously prefigured the kind of society that they were striving to build. It was indeed a compelling moment for my cousin—or for any stranger—to witness. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers like him could walk in off the street and join our world—could even speak up during a General Assembly meeting if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas, thus prefiguring a kind of direct democracy lacking in the wider world, particularly in the realm of mainstream politics.

“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.

“I hope not!” I replied. Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 1)

Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist.

First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post:

A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically some particular group also exercises a form of hegemony (i.e. predominance, leadership) within the alignment itself.

A populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system. In other words, elite interests can and do align into hegemonic alignments, but these do not constitute populist alignments.

A faux-populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment dominated by elite interests that styles itself as populist. It accomplishes this most effectively by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example of a faux-populist alignment. The so-called “Tea Party” is another example. The use of faux- is admittedly something of a value judgment; both faux-populist alignments and genuine populist alignments have to engage the same mechanics of hegemonic contestation.

A floating signifier (also called an empty signifier) is a catalyzing symbol whose meaning is ambiguous. Floating signifiers are essential for catalyzing broad hegemonic alignments in a heterogeneous society. The signifier frames the alignment itself, and is necessarily ambiguous—its meaning is floating, its content “empty”—as all of the groups that comprise the alignment must see their values and hopes reflected in the symbol. The signifier can be a politician (quintessentially Juan Perón), a group (e.g. public school teachers in Wisconsin), a slogan (e.g. “We are the 99%!”), or a brand (e.g. the “Tea Party”), among other possibilities. (More on floating signifiers here.)

I believe that hegemonic populist alignments are “the only game in town” if we want to accomplish big social, economic and political changes. The powers we are up against—especially when it comes to Wall Street, corporate power, and capitalism—are so entrenched, have so consolidated their control of the economic and political spheres, we have no option except to organize a truly broad-based counter-force.

Continue reading

What is hegemonic struggle?

I was supposed to drive to Philly this afternoon for the Occupy national gathering, but alas, my car broke down in southern Rhode Island, and now I’m back in Providence. Not just in Providence, but at a bar in Providence. And not just any bar, but the Duck & Bunny — the somewhat peculiar bar around the corner, where it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at the counter and read a book or type on your laptop.

I’ve been sitting here the last hour and a half reading more of Ernesto Laclau’s nearly impenetrable Emancipation(s). I find it challenging to finish books once I’m pretty sure I’ve already grasped the main ideas — especially when each page feels like I’m climbing twenty flights of stairs when the author could have built an elevator (i.e. explained their ideas in a broadly accessible way).

Nonetheless, I’ve become a big fan of Laclau and his Gramscian schema for hegemonic struggle. Oh no, I’m doing it too: “…Gramscian schema for hegemonic struggle!” I believe that making these ideas accessible to more people — particularly to the most active emerging young leaders involved in contemporary social change movements — is important. So, I suppose I’ll take a crack at it now.


Antonio Gramsci: worth reading

What is hegemonic struggle?

My working definition of hegemony falls somewhere between the first two definitions offered in the dictionary app on the device I’m typing on:

1. leadership or predominant influence exercised by one nation over others, as in a confederation.

2. leadership; predominance.

Continue reading

“Asks” & the asymmetry of hegemonic contests

I’ve been thinking more about the processes involved in the projection of primary/proximate group-oriented experiences and instincts onto larger, abstract imagined communities. These processes seem, by all accounts that I put stock in, historically contingent. In other words, the tendency to identify with a large, abstract, realistically unknowable public (e.g. a nation, a religion, a race, an economic class, etc.) is a relatively new phenomenon; there’s evidence that most cultures did not engage in this sort of identification/projection throughout the course of known human history.

Elements/pieces of this puzzle to dig into in future writing:

  • uprooting/disappearance of traditional communities
  • “alienation of labor”
  • emergence of mass media: newspapers and novels at first (see Imagined Communities), followed by radio & television (Internet and its feeding of particularisms and self-selecting tendencies may complicate this — see The Filter Bubble).
  • mass media messages are still interpreted / internalized / assimilated through the intermediaries of “real” (/local/proximate/primary) social groups (e.g. family, congregation, workplace, etc.)

I’ve written about this some before (here), but I’m gearing up to go into greater depth. Maybe even a little rambling now…

Hegemonic struggle is a contest over who can win the investments of proximate groups into a particularly-framed imagined community. It is a game of making unembedded abstractions into potent forces within real, measurable, tangible local communities. OR of making the situation of one particularism — i.e. one particular community — into a symbol of the universal. It involves strategically selecting and often fabricating — or just happening upon — specific stories, situations, conflicts, communities, people, symbols, phrases, memes, what-have-you, and projecting these for broad resonance, elevating them to a claim of universality.

Continue reading

utopianism and the would-be political group

“The attribute ‘utopian’ does not apply to political will in general, but to specific wills which are incapable of relating means to end, and hence are not even wills, but idle whims, dreams, longings, etc.”

—Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

In late October my cousin came down to Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park), then home of Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived about 20 minutes early so he could check things out for himself. My cousin and I both grew up in farmhouses outside of the very small town of Bird In Hand, PA. He has lived in New York for a few years now. I was eager to hear his impressions about Occupy Wall Street.

“What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society — or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!”

Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country. These spaces have served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society that they are striving to build. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers could walk up off the street and speak up during a General Assembly meeting, if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings — so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas.

“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.

“I hope not!” I replied.

While I believe that consensus-building is important in democratic grassroots organizing, for me it’s much more of a guiding principle than a replicable formula that should be spread with missionary zeal. When I arrived to help with Occupy Wall Street in early October, the decision-making structures and culture were already established. I am intimately familiar with these kinds of processes. I even lead workshops on consensus decision-making. But I’m not as enamored with process as some folks are. Frankly, I’ve often found much of our process deeply dysfunctional. I take that in stride and with patience; social movements are messy and it takes a while to figure out good and functional processes for democratic decision-making and accountability.

What’s striking is how these processes and rituals have come to stand in for a strategy for many folks. Particular forms of process — from mic-checks to sparkle fingers — have become confused with political content (i.e. goals or a platform). And what’s true for process is also true for our tactical repertoire. Occupation of public parks is for many participants an end unto itself; the tactical form is confused with — or eclipses in importance — political content. It sometimes feels as if the reason we’re here is for our processes and tactics, rather than for the changes we hope to bring about with these as our means.

Continue reading