when ritual replaces strategy

In utopianism and the would-be political group I explored a layer of utopianism within intense social change movements like Occupy Wall Street, and I suggested that the utopian drive in these situations may be at least as much about immediate participant experience as it is about an envisioned ideal future. That is to say the incarnated utopian space (e.g. Liberty Square) provides an integrated group identity that fills a lack for many core participants. The lack is caused at least partly by the fragmentation of modern existence — the dispersal of our identities across many spheres (e.g. workplace, family, religion, interest, hobby, neighborhood, etc.) and the accompanying anxiety caused by the necessary constant juggling of our selves. Who are we? Each of us contains many selves, many performances, each of which emerges in relation to different groups and circumstances. But those who can step fully into one single radically integrating identity are able to fill this lack and longing—even if temporarily—with an integrated sense of self and of belonging. Out of many identity fragments emerges a singularity: the revolutionary. And those who are unable to step in so fully can still experience this utopian space as representing the potential completion of their lack.

The potential problem with this arrangement is political. Because this utopian space is what fills our lack, the achievement of the space will likely be exalted over what the space achieves; the life of the group over the group’s capacity to act as a vehicle for change. The sense of utopia, as defined above, can be accomplished without ever having to actually win anything.

This is how a group’s internal processes can come to stand in for a strategy. Our tactics, ostensibly about moving forward a strategy or plan, become valued more for their self-expressive and group-benefiting capacities than for their instrumentality. What does this look like? In the real-life planning, processes, and actions of such a group? I will describe my observations from a planning meeting for an action. I believe that candid and descriptive discussion of this phenomenon is important, but it is also tricky. The point is not to single out particular individuals or groups, so I am omitting and changing some details and not naming individuals or the group itself.

The meeting started by jumping immediately into logistical matters. This was the group’s first large-group meeting to plan for the action, so it was not the case that a strategic stage had preceded and we were now in the logistical/implementation phase. Several minutes into logistical matters, it was mentioned that a smaller core had done some pre-planning and scouting of the action site. But they shared neither what they discussed nor any context they might have read. The word strategy was not mentioned, nor anything even vaguely resembling strategy. The goals of what the action might accomplish were never discussed. Instead we immediately launched into logistics. We discussed roles: medics, legal support, bail and jail support, sign-making, media, etc. There was a lot of emphasis on risk—on the levels of risk—and on logistical matters that kept that risk at the forefront of participants’ minds. Group members could choose between different levels of risk (of arrest and/or confrontation with police). The levels were represented by color codes, safest to riskiest: green, orange, red. The large group later split into smaller planning groups corresponding with these color codes. (This emphasis on risk is important as it relates to a ritualistic hierarchy of sacrificial behavior — and the difficulty of honestly critiquing this group pattern from within the group. Further explication of this point will be saved for a future post.) Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 2)

I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists.

Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…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.” [Long lefty laundry lists].

I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these issues and aggregations non-explicitly / ambiguously?”

In this post, I’ll argue that populist alignments in our heterogeneous society depend on this ambiguous linkage, which equally depends on the strategic use of floating signifiers.1 Continue reading

Yes, populism

In my last post two posts (What is hegemonic struggle? and Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment, pt.1), I argued essentially that we should not view hegemony as a monopoly of our formidably powerful opponents; that we ourselves must in some ways be hegemonic; that our ability to make large-scale political change depends on our ability to engage in hegemonic alignments; and that our hegemonic struggle requires a contestation of popular meanings, powerful symbols, and commonsense.

I also used the word populism and briefly defined what I mean by the term populist alignment: “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.”

And I contrasted this with faux-populism, where elites style their alignments—and disguise their interests—as populist, “by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example…”

Why am I using the term populism? Am I aware of pejorative usages of the word, including within parts of the left. Of course. Some populist formations have not only been linked with misogyny and racism, but they have been misogynistic and racist populist alignments — i.e. misogyny and racism were essential contents of the populism. But are these essential features of populism, consistent in all of its historical incarnations? No. These are particular contents of a form, and are not inherent to the form itself. 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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