the life of the group vs. what the group accomplishes

occupy_london_tentThis Monday during Cihan Tuğal’s comparative analysis of revolts in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Turkey—part of the Berkeley Sociology Colloquium Series—he offered this gem about the occupation of Gezi Park:

Even though a non-commodified space monetarily redistributes resources among its participants, it does not result in an egalitarian world beyond the revolt itself. [from my notes of Tuğal’s presentation]

Cihan discussed multiple motivations for several kinds of participants. One key motivation that struck me—which I think relates to the above quote—was pleasure. Many bourgeois participants were motivated negatively by “the impoverishment of social life” caused by increasing commodification and positively by what Cihan described as “pleasure”. All this reminded me of Slavoj Žižek’s warning (to Occupy Wall Street) about “one of the great dangers the protesters face:”

…the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the fun they are having in the “occupied” zones. But carnivals come cheap— the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed. This requires difficult and patient work— of which the protests are the beginning, not the end.

And both quotes remind me of a much older text, The Lonely Crowd, in which David Riesman et al discuss what they saw as a newly predominant character structure, embodied in the other-directed individual:

Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.

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What’s wrong with activism?


Over the years I have often been asked how I became an activist. The question of how individuals as individuals become involved in social change movements, fascinating as it may seem, can carry equally fascinating assumptions about activism itself. It may imply a voluntary and self-selecting enterprise, an extracurricular activity, a realm of subculture, and a differentiating label; that an activist is a particular kind of person. When people refer to me as an activist, I have taken to correcting them: “I dislike the label activist,” I politely explain, “because it lets everyone else off the hook. We all have civic responsibilities. Social change happens when whole communities are in motion.”

This kind of individualistic thinking about collective action is mostly a recent phenomenon. In the past half-century our imaginations have been colonized and severely limited by the individual rational actor paradigm. This capitalist dogma gained currency in concert with tectonic cultural shifts in social identity and organization. In the past half-century, society has become more individualistic and self-expressive, as civic involvement demonstrably declined. It is little wonder that collective action itself has come to be popularly viewed as an essentially individualistic endeavor.

Examining these tectonic cultural shifts has profoundly changed how I understand political struggle. I have come to view much of what is today called activism as more self-expressive than instrumental. This is foundational to my paradigm, and a brief presentation of the relevant broad trends is necessary here. 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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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.