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.

Communicative Capitalism, Status Update Psychology, and Filter Bubbles

Have you ever taken photos at an event — with the thought that you would later post them to Facebook? Maybe you even loaded them from your smartphone while the event was still in progress? Have you ever Tweeted from a protest? Have you ever found yourself thinking about how you would translate something you were experiencing into a status update?

I’ll cop to all of the above.

In my post last week (Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?) I discussed Jodi Dean’s Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. As the title of her article suggests, Dean argues that the virtual world—with its incredibly abundant circulation of information—is foreclosing on real-world political action. Sharing, “liking”, or commenting on a political article can create the illusion of taking action, as can blogging, signing an online petition, and countless other virtual political expressions. These forms give us a feeling of participation, but our virtual “contributions” are drowned in “a massive stream of content” that nobody—let alone anybody in power—actually has to respond to.

Today I want to suggest that this illusion does not only impact people whose political activity is limited to the virtual world. I think it also negatively affects the thinking of many people who are very active “on the ground” and in the streets. During real-world actions—protests, marches, occupations, etc.—we’re already thinking about their virtual representations. We’re Tweeting, live-streaming, posting photos, and updating our statuses in real time. It’s not that we shouldn’t be thinking about the strategic projections and representations of our actions and our movements. We should definitely be doing so. How movements are perceived is critically important. The problem is that the cluster structure of the virtual world shifts who our audience is. Our audience doesn’t just shift; it shrinks. And it doesn’t just shrink; it becomes just us. We ourselves become our only audience. Continue reading

Activists in Google’s N-gram viewer

I learned about Google’s N-gram viewer from reading Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble. The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books — 5.2 million books in total… [Pariser].” So you can see how often different phrases have been used in print, over many years.

I was just wondering whether an N-gram viewer search might seem to support my claim in What’s wrong with activism? — that activism as we conceive of it is a pretty new thing. What’s wrong with activism, I argue, is how it has become such a thing unto itself — such a specialized identity — that “non-activists” can easily be inoculated against; how it extricates active politics from the fabric of everyday life.

Here’s what comes up searching the word “activist” 1912-2012 in N-gram viewer:

Usage of the term takes a dramatic upturn in the 1960s and continues to climb steadily up until the turn of the millenium. It’s declined a little since then. Does this mean anything? All sorts of phrases come and go all the time, but that this coincides with the cultural trends of specialization and self-selection in U.S. society (discussed by folks like Ronald Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, etc.) is interesting.

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