Another intense semester has come to an end and suddenly I have some time to relax, to catch up with friends, and even to indulge in wasting a little time on the Internet. Just now I remembered old Leeroy Jenkins — the disruptive antihero of World of Warcraft — and I thought I’d watch the Youtube video of his performance from ten years ago.
Because of my predisposition to see WoW as an unforgivable waste of time, I’ve always loved Leeroy’s utter disregard for the norms, processes, and careful strategic planning of his WoW teammates. Unilaterally cutting the collective planning stage short, Leeroy enthusiastically runs headlong kamikaze-style into enemy territory, embarking on what is sure to be a suicide mission, while narcissistically shouting his own name, “LEEEEEROOOYY JEENNNKINNNSS!!!” With the action kicked off prematurely, his teammates have no choice but to follow Leeroy into the field to do battle with beasts and demons and who-knows-what-else, hoping against hope to salvage something from the unfavorable situation created by the asinine antics of their stupid/brave comrade.
This time watching the clip, I realized how tragically perfect Leeroy Jenkins fits as a metaphor for way too many of my experiences in grassroots social movements. From the global justice movement to Occupy Wall Street (*not these movements as a whole, but particular episodes therein) to countless local campaigns over the past two decades, I have spent so much time and energy running headlong into an asymmetrical battle terrain prematurely — because a few ‘heroes’ self-righteously interpreted the imperative to act as an excuse for neglecting to develop a strategic plan. And once the action is underway, others follow, of course — in order to protect their comrades, to bail them out of jail, to fundraise for their legal defense, and on and on; essentially doing ‘damage control.’ (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that everyone who gets arrested at street actions is akin to Leeroy Jenkins, or that willingness to endure arrest and repression never serves to further the strategy of a movement.) I have struggled in so many situations like this to try to reframe actions that have already been unfavorably framed by our shit-show first impression.
Yup, I have reluctantly followed Leeroy Jenkins on doomed and costly missions. I can also remember being Leeroy Jenkins at least a few times. Fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins, screwing it all up. And it just takes one Leeroy Jenkins.
In convening a forum on power and prefiguration this past month for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, I have had the opportunity to engage in a lot of deep and clarifying discussions—with readers and with the forum’s seven other authors. There is no way around the ambiguity of the phrase prefigurative politics and the fact that, as its usage has increased—and as it has become a buzzword within some contemporary social movements—the people who have come to use or identify with it now often intend divergent meanings. Is it accurate or useful, then, to interpret the phrase as I did in my article: “as a claim to replace strategic politics altogether?” I have debated this question for some time, in my own head and with comrades. Essentially, my choice was between interpreting prefigurative politics as either (A) an assertion that political contestation is unnecessary or obsolete—which I did—or (B) allowing a more ambiguous interpretation that references some form or other of ‘being the change you want to see in the world.’
Even though I went with the first option, it is worth unpacking the second interpretation of prefigurative politics. What are these prefigurative forms? Are there different kinds? I see at least four distinct concepts that the single term prefigurative politics sometimes references:
- participatory and horizontal organizational and decision-making processes: for some people this just means less hierarchy and greater levels of member input in decision-making; for others it means a very specific form of consensus decision-making (distinct from majority rules) and/or an ethic of ‘leaderlessness.’
- non-capitalist economic institutions: sometimes called parallel institutions or counter-institutions. Examples include collective workplaces without bosses, housing cooperatives, land trusts — shared projects that provide some kind of material benefit for participants, or even for the larger society.
- anti-oppressive group behavioral norms: this is about recognizing how we are socialized into many social systems of oppression (e.g., white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism) and attempting to establish less oppressive, more liberatory practices in our groups as we work for social justice.
- dramaturgical foreshadowing: here we dramatically express ‘the world as it could be’ in our public-facing actions. For example, blacks and whites integrating a lunch counter in the south foreshadows or ‘prefigures’ the world that action participants were working towards. In this case, the prefigurative elements of the action are part of a communications strategy aimed at morally moving broader audiences.
In case you missed it, the Berkeley Journal of Sociology relaunched on October 1st. I’m part of the collective of Berkeley sociology grad students who worked this past year to re-imagine the BJS’s mission, which ultimately led to the launch of a really great new website: berkeleyjournal.org — check it out! The idea is to publish articles that critically engage with unfolding events, political struggles, cultural trends, and so on — through a sociological lens. Our new tagline: “The point, after all, is to change the world.” I’m currently sharing the managing editor position with my friend and colleague Martin Eiermann.
I also have an article in the new print issue of the BJS. My article, “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?” is part of a forum on ‘Power & Prefiguration.’ Here’s a teaser figure from my article:
You can read the whole article online here, the rest of the forum here, or you can download a PDF of the print version of the forum here (It shows off the great layout of our new print issue).
Finally, check back at berkeleyjournal.org on November 3rd for the second installment of articles in the Power & Prefiguration forum. And keep checking back weekly for new content. Maybe you’ll even decide to submit something yourself?
I was sad to learn of Ernesto Laclau’s passing this morning. Laclau’s intellectual contributions to Left social movements were profound and bountiful. He is the author of many books, including Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (co-authored with Chantal Mouffe). He has a new book due out in May: The Rhetorical Foundations of Society.
Laclau deeply influenced my own thinking about how subjective political actors (e.g., social movements) frame their political projects in relation to broader political alignments and society; and about the political uses of symbols and ambiguity. We corresponded during the first few months of Occupy Wall Street and then attempted to meet up while he was lecturing in the United States, but it didn’t work out. A few weeks ago, to my delight, he agreed to offer comments on the draft of my book. I was quite eager to read his feedback.
In Verso’s write-up today, Robin Blackburn offers an account of Laclau, just last month, “in excellent form leading the company in the singing of revolutionary songs, with special emphasis on those associated with the Italian partisan movement.” Surely, he will be missed. Ernesto Laclau, presente!
Andrew Boyd and I have a new post at Beautiful Trouble: Recapture the Flag. Check it out!
Strategic logic falls on deaf ears; upon ears that have heard enough strategic logics. From birth through youth, daily we are barraged with appeals to buy sugar cereal, candy, toys, and the latest gadgets. And before long we learn the essence of an elaborate manipulative logic whose central goals are private profit and power. We are repulsed by a logic that penetrates and colonizes most everything it touches, leaving injustice and alienation everywhere in its wake. Against this logic we attempt to scrap together art and poetry and, most fundamentally, community. We build a scrappy little alternative clubhouse near the perimeter of the always advancing logics of capitalism and bureaucracy. Our little clubhouse sometimes serves as a makeshift base of operations for our scrimmages with the authorities. Occasionally when the scrimmages heat up, the authorities will raid or burn down our meager fortifications. But we always rebuild. For the most part we are permitted to keep our little clubhouse. Defending it—its culture and meanings and rhetoric and symbols—becomes our prize.
And somewhere along the way we seem to have lost faith in the possibility of really winning against these logics and systems in the world beyond our little clubhouse; the possibility of gaining ground again in the terrain of society. The clubhouse becomes our starting place—the source of all of our reference points—and society is written off as a lost cause. And the logic of strategy? We don’t want to hear the logic of strategy in our clubhouse. This is a liberated, prefigurative and post-political space. We don’t need strategy or organization or leadership or money in our clubhouse. All those things remind us of the insidious logics against which we define ourselves and our projects.
Ah social movement theory… I get to read quite a lot of it this year. I’m enjoying it, but of course I will probably end up writing more about the things that I am critical of.
For example, the often loose usage of the word strategy. Scholars often make an implicit assumption that social movements have strategies. Of course many movements do. But all of them? Just because a group engages in activities does not inevitably mean that they possess a strategy that orders those activities. A strategy is essentially a plan to move toward the attainment of a goal; a kind of map to get from Point A to Point B; from where you are now to where you want to be, accounting for obstacles and constraints that must be navigated along the way. Strategies are often confused with tactics, which are the specific actions within the strategy; actions intended to move the strategy forward. Even in less strict usage, however, a strategy typically references a plan to achieve something; it is not a thing unto itself. Eating ice cream, for example, may be delightful, but it is not a strategy. The same principle applies to a group’s self-expressive aspects: maybe delightful for participants; ≠ strategy.
We should not make the assumption that because a social movement group exists, it must automatically have a strategy by virtue of its existence. Why should we assume that any group that is engaged in collective action is necessarily strategically oriented? A group that comes together because it cares about a given issue (or set of issues) does not inevitably possess strategic know-how. Indeed, I have worked in many groups that had highly developed analyses about the issues they were concerned about but had no strategy for how to make headway on those issues. It doesn’t serve anyone for scholars to describe such a group’s activities as strategic simply because the group is carrying out activities.
If the activities strengthen the identity of the group of actors, that could very well be beneficial for both the lives of individual participants and, potentially, for building the capacity of the group to carry out a strategic plan — but that does not mean that strengthening the identity of the group is itself an instrumental strategy, in the political sense. Such activities are often described by social movement scholars as expressive (as opposed to instrumental), which does not inherently mean these activities are unimportant. I would assert, however, that the extent to which a group’s internal culture comes to decrease its interest in interventions in the world beyond itself is the extent to which the group is effectively depoliticized.