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