re: Left fragmentation in USA, circa 1968-present (rough notes for future writing)

And I’m back to posting very rough notes…

(1) Conceptual shift over past half century from civic/political framework to hobby/elective framework (i.e. “activism”). (2) In concert with broader cultural and structural shift away from “the commons”, toward individualism. (3) The implosion and fragmentation of the Left in the early 1970s. (4) Consolidation of radicals across issues. (5) Marriage of radical remnant and counter-culture. (6) Narration of a common radical constellation of shared meanings and reference points. (7) Signaling behavior oriented toward the center of the radical constellation. (8) Alienation of radicals from broader social bases. (9) Normalization, institutionalization, and ritualized performance of this alienation.

Not to mention the role of non-profit organizations in relation to entrepreneurial framework, self-selection, marginal differentiation, and fragmentation.

sacrifice in movements (and ritualistic tactical hierarchies)

lunch counter sit-in

Sacrifice is a collective value typically esteemed in social movements (as well as in human societies), one that can profoundly benefit movements (and societies). Personal sacrifice can be a dramatic expression of collective values, such as sharing, solidarity, and mutual aid. A movement participant’s willingness to make a personal sacrifice or take a personal risk speaks profoundly to the world we are trying to build – one in which individuals are willing to give of themselves for the good of the whole. And the value of sacrifice is not only expressive (of values). It’s also a practical necessity. To succeed, movements need a lot of time and energy; we need folks who are willing to give up other parts of their lives—and to sometimes endure hardship—if we’re to build our collective capacity to make change.

However, there can be downsides to sacrifice as well. Half of the concept of sacrifice is cost; the other half is some greater benefit (group benefit, future benefit, etc.). So, sacrifice for its own sake—sacrifice that only expresses and reinforces the group culture, without benefit to the group’s external goals (or to its capacity to achieve future goals)—can hardly be counted as a good. Giving up one’s time, safety, or freedom for a cause should be tied to at least an educated bet that the sacrifice will help the cause succeed.

In my post when ritual replaces strategy, I discussed an action-planning meeting, where risk and levels of risk were repeatedly emphasized: “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.” I wrote that, “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.” I said that I would save elaboration on this point for a future post. This would be that post.

I used to be part of a network of activists who gathered several times a year for reflection and protest against militarism and other social injustices. This group was part of what is known as the plowshares movement: activists who hammer on military machinery (missile silos, fighter jets, etc.) to symbolically convert “swords into plowshares”, as referred to by Isaiah in the Bible. The first plowshares action was in 1980 in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where eight activists—including Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the radical Catholic priest brothers who raided draft boards, burning the files in the late 1960s—entered General Electric with household hammers to destroy nosecones of nuclear weapons. This action happened in the context of numerous anti-nuclear campaigns and a growing anti-nuclear consciousness in the United States. Since then many plowshares actions have been carried out around the world, but mostly in the United States. Cumulatively, plowshares activists have served decades of prison time, with individual sentences ranging from probation to over ten years. This is a group where sacrifice and risk clearly play a big part in the group. Continue reading

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