Boring ramble about levels and units of analysis for examining political contention

Note: The word “boring” is the first word in the header; if you read this and are bored, you have only yourself to blame!
For practical shorthand we treat groups as if they had coherent singular wills. A political group navigates a terrain—distinct and external to itself, ostensibly—that it finds itself situated within, in order to achieve its goals. Clear on these goals, the group navigates the terrain like an obstacle course or a map that leads to X. Terrains are not stable things, however, and with shifts in the terrain, we see not only shifts in the group’s goals but shifts in the very composition of the group. The group is problematic as a thing. It is neither neatly bounded nor fully homogenous in composition and will. The group is itself a terrain of contestation, whose ideologies, ideas, goals, priorities, strategies, tactics, and leaderships push and pull, congeal and dissipate, shifting the definitions, parameters, and active participants of the group, as well as the group’s relation to the broader external political terrain.

Shifting our analytic gaze then from the group level to the individual level, we can conceive of a preliminary hegemonic contest of leadership between individuals within the group that is waged and won prior to—or alongside—the group’s contest within the broader political context. Conceptually, this may serve us as a tool for apprehending certain parts or stages of dynamic political reality. For example, rather than just stating that “churches joined the civil rights movement”, we might examine whether politicization of pre-existing religious organizations was internally contentious, and what factors led to successful or unsuccessful activation.

However, our analytical gaze must also always focus on both more micro and more macro levels. More micro than the individual? Yes, because within every individual mind is the internalized map of the full external terrain of the group and beyond — even including internalized versions of the opponents’ ideas. The individual can only be described as having a singular will for practical shorthand purposes, as there is a contest within the contingent terrain of every individual mind. What then is our unit of analysis? Ideas themselves? As if ideas could be free-floating things existing in a cloud prior to their embodiment? Yes, we can use this as a unit of analysis, but again, only for practical shorthand, rife with additional analytical traps. Indeed, there are traps and severe limitations within each level of analysis when we attempt to neatly separate messy interactive units and levels. Thus we can never settle on any particular one—whether society, group, individual, or ideas in individuals’ heads—except on a temporary basis, as one among many lenses through which to assess a context and situation.

Let us momentarily suspend doubt to entertain this picture of disembodied ideas in a cloud, themselves possessing an expansionary or colonizing will. Now we can analyze how ideas as subjective agents might navigate, stoke, channel, or graft onto different faculties and processes of the individual mind and body (in interaction with other minds and bodies in a group). Ideas order and can reorder emotions, memories, primal drives, and relationships, aligning these for the purpose of the ascendency or spread of the idea. We need not believe that an idea can achieve full autonomy from a carrier or host to entertain a notion of symbiosis wherein the idea is no longer seen as fully organic and integral to the organism of the individual (or group), but as a kind of foreign agent, possessing its own “DNA”, finding a home, gaining a foothold, etc.

Marx and the state (#marxtheory)

bread-line-nycI recently argued that there is a common thread that connects (1) Marx’s analysis of material world and superstructure, (2) his prediction of the inevitability of communism, and (3) his underdevelopment of subjective political strategy. Now I want to suggest that these three themes are connected to a fourth: Marx’s treatment of the state as an incontestable apparatus.

Marx’s view of the state is complex, inconsistent, and in a process of development over the course of his writing. Above all, though, he sees the state as the bourgeois state. The state emerged to serve the interests of a particular economic class (the bourgeoisie) and it is folly to entertain hope of it serving the proletarian class or ameliorating the inequality, exploitation and suffering caused by capitalism.

To understand this assessment of the state, we must examine Marx’s treatment of bourgeois and proletariat as neatly bounded categories. He details complexities and contradictions within each class, but he mistakenly believes that as capitalism proletarianizes more and more people, their conditions will become increasingly similar and, as a result, proletarians will come to recognize their structural commonality and begin to act self-consciously as a united class. As Cihan Tuğal explained, “The general trend in capitalism, according to Marx, is this increasing simplification of polarized classes. [my notes from a recent talk]” Contra Marx, history has instead shown how capitalism often achieves the opposite: a continuum of stratification within “the proletariat” and between classes, a popular orientation toward upward mobility, and fragmentation of class identity. Continue reading

cooperative societies with state aid (#marxtheory)

That the workers want to create the conditions for co-operative production in all society, and hence first of all on a national scale, means only that they are working for the overthrow of present-day conditions of production, and has nothing in common with establishing co-operative societies with state aid! But as far as present-day co-operative societies are concerned, they are only of value if they are independent creations of the workers and not creatures of the government or the bourgeoisie.

Marx Later Political Writings (p.221)

Here Marx is criticizing the German Workers’ Party for its demand of “state aid for setting up producers’ co-operatives under the democratic control of the working people.” I am no expert on the historical context to which Marx was speaking, but his critique strikes me as almost purist — and less than instructional concerning the relationship, practical or ideal, of a workers’ party to the state. Is Marx here suggesting an all-or-nothing contest between the proletariat and bourgeois classes for full control of the state apparatus? Ultimately, that is what Marx is advocating (e.g. with the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”), but is Marx conceding all concessions from the state in the interim? Is he suggesting that (bourgeois) state funding for worker-demanded cooperative projects is beneath the dignity of a true workers’ party — or that such an outcome is not a realistically attainable possibility? Must everything worth winning be seized? Can nothing first be conceded (by the bourgeois state, as it is, in the interim)? Could not the winning of such concessions be utilized by organizers as stepping stones — as tangible evidence of what collective action can accomplish, in order to whet workers’ appetite for larger victories? To what extent does Marx view the state as a contestable space?

Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation

The nation as a constructed concept frames a commonality amongst citizens who live within the borders of a defined land mass. The conceptual common terrain of nation has provided a large part of the ground upon which the idea of a public was built. Though a plausibly common terrain, it is also an arena of contestation. Different particular actors within nations vie for hegemony — to shape both power relations and the symbolic universe through which relations and reality are interpreted. Other particular actors have to emerge, to construct themselves (i.e. to organize), and to demand their place and their rights as equals within—as part of—the nation and the public.

Here by actors I mean groups, aggregations, identities, etc. that congeal and organize sufficiently to develop the capacity for aligned collective action. The emergence of such actors requires some articulated common aspect of identity (e.g. women, blacks, workers of the world, Protestants, etc.). That commonality, internal to the identity of the actor/aggregation, also defines ways that members of the group are different from others. Such aggregations, if they are to become political actors, must simultaneously perform two challenging identity-related tasks: bonding and bridging. (I was introduced to the bonding and bridging terminology through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Bonding: The group has to articulate and celebrate its particular internal commonality — the thing its members hold in common, which is also the basis of their difference from others. This bonding is the political actor’s premise and source of collective motivation, dignity, strength, and organization.

Bridging: The group has also to appeal to a potent commonality beyond the boundaries of its particular identity. Within a heterogeneous public, the political actor/challenger must assert itself as a legitimate contributing member of that public. It must appeal to the solidarity that is projected onto the imagined community of the nation — solidarity that is felt by those who identify with the nation. It must enlist specific allies (i.e. other actors within the nation) to support its claims. It cannot do this effectively without appealing to a potent commonality larger than itself. Continue reading

Is government a contestable space?

Yesterday in Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?), I essentially argued, among other things, that there may be harm in framing our social, economic, and political change efforts in the United States today in a term whose applicability may be historically contingent. The word revolution, I suggested, conjures the idea of overthrowing a government, and as such is descriptive of a particular model of transformation that only applies to the radical overhaul of particular kinds of oppressive governments, e.g. feudalism, monarchies, dictatorships, and colonial governments. The harm, I suggested, comes from the uncritical and unqualified dichotomization of revolution vs. reformism in some activist circles, where the former is exalted and the latter dissed.

If we reject revolution vs. reformism as a false dichotomy and embrace that reforms (i.e. winning real improvements in real people’s lives now) are important, then another question arises: Is government a contestable space?

If winning reforms is important, the practical consolidation will necessarily involve some kind of government action. And forcing some kind of government action will necessarily involve a contestation of the space within government (at least at the consolidation phase of the process).

Now, let’s entertain for a minute that we decide that government is not a legitimate contestable space for genuine challenger movements. Then what is our theory of change? How will we improve the lives of real people (including our own lives), despite the powerful systemic obstacles in our way? I see two alternatives: we could 1) return to the arguably callous aforementioned “revolutionary” framework, where, in order to not legitimize “the system” or put a band-aid on a gaping wound, we postpone all social advancements until after the glorious moment of revolution (reminiscent of religious faith in a “reward in the hereafter”); or we could 2) adopt a voluntaristic “prefigurative politics” where we serve food in parks for free, squat community centers, organize bike collectives, plant community gardens, open free clinics, hold daily 4-hour General Assemblies, etc. — modeling the kind of nurturing, cooperative, anti-authoritarian world that we hold in our hearts. Or — score! — we don’t even have to choose between those two options: we can do both at the same time. And, in fact, I think that these two approaches, engaged simultaneously, constitute the basic modus operandi of many activists and activist groups today, especially explicitly anti-authoritarian groups.

Continue reading