What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? (part 1 of 3)

This article made the rounds on Z net and a bunch of Indymedia sites back in 2006.  I wrote it in collaboration with Madeline Gardner.  I’m reposting here in three parts, with no edits.

Here’s Part Two. And here’s Part Three. And here’s the video.

Ritual & Engagement

It’s August and I’m back in San Francisco.  I love this city.  It’s been over three years since my last visit – an extended stay that started a week after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  At that time thousands of people in the Bay Area launched, and for many weeks sustained, a stronger show of resistance than could be seen anywhere else in the country.  People put their bodies on the line to shut down San Francisco’s financial district, as well as war-profiteering corporations throughout the region.  I was proud to be a participant.  I’ve spent most of the time since in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, organizing with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice.  Now I’m back in SF just a few days, already marching in an anti-war protest.

“Hey hey!  What do you say?  How many kids did you kill today?” the crowd chants.

I don’t join in.  We don’t use chants like this in Lancaster.  Actually, I can recall very few occasions where we have chanted at all.  I used to chant as loudly and enthusiastically as the next person, but now something holds me back.

“Hey, hey, what do you say?  How many kids did you kill today?”  It strikes me as angry, grotesque and even a bit juvenile.  I feel that most of the people I am trying to reach are more likely to be repelled by, than attracted to, this message, form and energy.

Is the anger justified?  Hell yeah.  But I have to ask myself, am I trying to reach people (in order to build power, to affect change), or am I just rattling cages?  Is my aim to engage, or to vent?  Is the purpose of this protest instrumental; a tactic within a strategy to achieve a goal?  Or is it expressive; an opportunity for me to shout to the sky my frustration?

Why do we chant?  Why do we carry signs?  Why do we march?  Who is it for?  Is it primarily communicative or expressive?  Meaning, are we trying to communicate something to someone, or are we merely expressing ourselves?  If the former, then we should concern ourselves primarily with the meaning others will take from what we say and how we say it, strategizing around what methods, mediums and messages will most likely persuade our target audiences.  If the latter, then our protests may be serving more therapeutic than instrumental purposes.

When we look at the state of the world we are frustrated, angry, even heartbroken, so we vent.  We feel isolated in the dominant culture where destructive values and politics reign.  So we find community–a sense of sanity and belonging–by coming together with likeminded people to express our alternative values boldly, loudly, and, most importantly, collectively.

I do not wish to disparage the therapeutic role social movements can play in participants’ lives.  We who hold progressive or radical values feel the lack of representation of these values in the dominant culture.  This can cause a profound sense of isolation for us as individuals.  Many of us, during the process of our politicization or radicalization, feel isolated within our communities – often for good reasons.  As I came of age in Lancaster, I encountered resistance to my newfound radical notions, and not enough support to sustain me.  So I went out looking for likeminded people.  Finding them and communing with them has been and continues to be both inspirational and therapeutic.

Coming out of isolation then is an important subtext to the collective social change work we engage in together.  In this work the explicit purpose of coming together with likeminded people is to affect change, likely more effectively through joint action or mass action.  A second and less explicit purpose is to come out of isolation by surrounding ourselves with reflections of our own values.  We accomplish this by collectively creating projects, spaces, culture and ritual.

It is important to examine the collective ritual aspect of social change movements, and how it can be both critical and detrimental to strategic goals.  By collective ritual I mean collaborative expressions of shared values that serve to further a collective narrative.  By collective narrative I mean a story (or web of stories) through which we find meaning, filter information, and interpret events and experiences.  Our narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it.  They frame much of our thought and action.  Different narratives encourage different sorts of actions, behaviors and mentalities.  For example, a person who believes that earth and everything in it was literally created in seven days, and is soon destined to end in dramatic apocalypse, may not see much point in recycling or reducing dependence on fossil fuels.  Similarly, a person who holds a justice-oriented narrative is more likely to put faith in social change efforts than a person who sees humanity as inherently selfish or “fallen.”  More than we tell these stories, the “stories tell us1 what to do.

I use the word ritual to describe acts that affirm our narratives and the values they contain.  In Christianity, for example, collective ritual typically includes church attendance, group singing, and Eucharist, but it can also be found in far subtler aspects of everyday life.  In activist groups and subcultures collective ritual may include protests, events, gathering places, music, fashion, publications, vocabulary and much more.  Collective ritual is hardly distinct from subculture itself.  More precisely, subculture is little more than the sum total of collective rituals.  Collective ritual is anything intended to affirm the group or subcultural identity and narrative.  This is not to say that a protest has no instrumental purpose other than affirming an alternative narrative, but rather that this affirmation is part of what motivates protest participants.  That said, without a consciousness of this motivation we run a greater risk of our protests truly having no instrumental value.

Ritual is important – vitally so for social change workers.  Our rituals represent the survival of alternative values within a dominant culture that under-represents and represses such values.  Through collective ritual we gather strength and build solidarity by surrounding ourselves with reflections of our alternative values and visions.

However, expressing values and living principles is not the same as engaging society and affecting systemic change.  It is important to draw a distinction between collective ritual and strategic engagement.

By engagement I mean the work of engaging the broader society and power structures in order to affect change.  Strategic engagement can and does overlap with collective ritual, but the two are substantively distinct, and it would be advantageous to develop a consciousness about when and how we choose to utilize one or the other or both.

Both agendas are essential, and social change movements suffer when either is neglected.  Collective ritual serves as a remedy to the paralysis caused by isolation.  It provides sanity and a sense of belonging.  However, strategic thought and action in social movements is retarded when participants pursue insular ritual to the neglect of broader engagement.

DC activist and punk Mark Anderson describes the distinction in terms of subjective and objective:

…if we are to really contribute to change, much less revolution, we must distinguish between the “subjective” (internal: seeking personal identity, meaning, purpose) and the “objective” (external: actually helping to change power relations, structures, and values that uphold oppression of the many by the few) aspects of our activism. …I am not saying that one is important and the other is not.  Both the subjective and the objective are critical, at different times and in different ways.  They are even interconnected–i.e., I begin to feel personal power, which enables me to take actions that might help striking workers get better pay and working conditions or, more fundamentally, help to build power to alter social structures.  However, the two are not the same.2

While both are important, these two motivations for participation in social change efforts are often in tension with each other.  By developing an active consciousness of these two motivations, social change agents might become more intentional about when and how we fulfill each motivation, and by doing so we may increase our effectiveness while still attending to our wellbeing (personal and communal).

Another way to think about the distinction between collective ritual and strategic engagement is this: collective ritual expresses an ideal among people who already believe, long for, and/or live it; strategic engagement aims to meet everyone else where they are.  We can create our own spaces where we speak our own internal language, but we must not lose our ability to speak the languages of the people who are all around us.

Read Part Two here.


  1. Quoted from a soon to be published book by the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project.  smartmeme.com
  2. Mark Anderson. All the Power (Canada: Punk Planet Books/Akashic Books, 2004).

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