“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” #BaltimoreUprising

power concedes nothing2

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” —Frederick Douglass

Not enough lifeboats

You cannot take even one breath without manipulating the common fabric of material existence. Everything manipulates everything else. Every action shifts the ground upon which everything else is built. There is no such thing as a fully autonomous project. The question is not whether but how to manipulate. How will you step into responsibility to consciously intervene for the common good? You did not make the world that you were born into, but now you are among its living makers. You are part of the social fabric. Yet you have agency to alter its shape. It is folly to feign or seek purity or neutrality; to pretend that you can somehow become separate from—uncontaminated by—the sins of society, structures, or the state. Do not run for the hills. Instead, study the apocalypse, map its terrain, and plan your intervention. It is selfish to jump ship when there are not enough lifeboats for everyone. We must conspire to take the helm.

Power and self-selection

He who is active in politics strives for power either as a means in serving other aims, ideal or egoistic, or as ‘power for power’s sake,’ that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives. —Max Weber

20131006-121513.jpgThe “crisis of our times” is that those driven by ideals and those driven by ‘power for power’s sake’ have self-segregated. They have specialized, but their respective specialties hold vastly unequal shares of influence on society’s direction. The result for those who strive for power for its own sake is that they tend to get it (as a category of self-selectors; obviously to varying degrees and not in every individual case). For the sake of a short post, I’m going to skip those who are serving egoistic aims (for the moment) and discuss only those who are serving ideal aims (but, of course, the two are not neatly separable). In this pattern of self-segregation, these folks get to surround themselves with others who share their ideals. They get to express those ideals together, often punctuated with creative collective rituals, but without much realistic hope—perhaps not even the desire—for ever arming their ideals with power.

One category gets to play the field, while the other gets to critique the game from the sidelines.

Of course, this is a simplification. Weber might call these two categories (i.e., power-seekers and idealists) “ideal types”. Many shades between exist in the real world. We need more of those shades between, i.e., more ideal-driven people who refuse to cede power to the powerful.

“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

Left-wing ambivalence toward power

There’s no shortage of reasons to be ambivalent toward power. A cursory glance at the 20th Century should cause serious wariness — at the very least toward some of the horrible ways power can be wielded. This wariness, though, is asymmetrical between the political Left and Right — as are its consequences. And I believe this is one of the most important dynamics in need of deeper examination by Left organizers, organizations, and movements.

While there’s evidence that Leftwing ambivalence toward power has existed in many iterations throughout history, I think there’s even more evidence that the paralyzing effects have gotten significantly worse in the past half-century (in the United States), as “character structures” have shifted, and the meaning of activism itself has changed.

Some of this assertion is based on the influential frameworks put forward in The Lonely Crowd, which makes the case that the new predominant character structure (“other-oriented”) in the United States, arising from a backdrop of abundance, places more value on the life of the group than on what the group achieves. Similarly, political scientist Ronald Inglehart asserts a consistent rise in a politics of self-expression across all highly industrialized societies, which started to become dramatically apparent around, say, 1968. I believe these patterns have played out asymmetrically between the Left and the Right, hugely affecting patterns of social organization, activism and social movements.

The main thrust of this asymmetry is that, if politics has become more self-expressive and group-expressive than instrumental (i.e. with the measurable goal of accomplishing X) to most participants, then egalitarian-oriented activists may seek to express their egalitarian values in their groups more than they focus on building vehicles that can accomplish a concrete egalitarian goal or political agenda. On our side, the fulfillment of an egalitarian self-expression can be accomplished within the internal life of the group (or campaign) itself, without ever actually having to win anything. On the Right, the fulfillment of an authoritarian self-expression (to be perhaps a little harsh and overly general in my label) can only be accomplished by actually building and wielding power. This pattern is relatively new (most evident the past 50 years) and, IMHO, it constitutes one of the most paralyzing cultural constraints our movements face today. It is perhaps the primary reason why the Right invests so heavily in leadership development and building organizations, while much of the Left is ambivalent, even self-sabotaging, about both enterprises (and often even about strategy).

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right…”

Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change… And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites — polar opposites — so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love… Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic… It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.

—Martin Luther King Jr.