What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? (part 2 of 3)

Reposted. Part Two of a three-part article from 2006, written in collaboration with Madeline Gardner.

Read Part One first.  And then here’s Part Three.


While in Argentina in 2004 I interviewed Maba and Valde, a sister and brother from one of the Movements of Unemployed Workers1 groups, MTD Solano. Interviewing them separately, I asked them what they value most about their work with the MTD. Both answered that they like how integrated their lives are now. Maba said that while many join MTDs out of necessity, she joined by election, because her life felt too fragmented before. Now nearly everything she does is related to MTD Solano; her work at a collectively run cafe, a children’s workshop she organizes, her neighborhood, her family, etc. All of her activities share a meaning and purpose.

Political Science Professor Emily Stoper describes a similar cohesion experienced by members of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) during the Civil Rights Movement:

Many SNCC members report that before 1964, they often experienced a sense of harmony and certainty that is rarely felt by other Americans. Their lives were not fragmented. Instead of filling a series of largely unrelated roles (parent, employee, citizen), they filled only one role: SNCC worker. Instead of balancing in their heads a multiplicity of values, all of them tentative, they had one certain, absolute set of beliefs. The group provided a world order that is far more complete and stable than any that individuals could assemble for themselves. 2

I can relate to this sense of harmony. I felt it intensely during the Minnehaha campaign and land occupation in Minneapolis to stop the controversial rerouting of a highway through a neighborhood, parkland, and sacred sites to the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community and the American Indian Movement. For sixteen months we did everything together; cooking, eating, cleaning, building tree houses and barricades, meeting, working security shifts, singing, sitting around the campfire, getting arrested or beaten up by cops, etc. When I would leave camp, it was to go produce or distribute flyers for events related to the campaign.

While this sense of harmony and integration can be deeply fulfilling to those experiencing it, it can be equally alienating to those on the outside. In his examination of the implosion of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the emergence of the Weather Underground, Frederick D. Miller describes the phenomenon of encapsulation:

Encapsulation occurs when a movement organization develops an ideology or structure that interferes with efforts to recruit members or raise demands. …members may develop such strong cohesion among themselves that outsiders become unwelcome. In prolonged interaction, a group may develop an ideology that is internally coherent but virtually unintelligible to recruits and outsiders who do not share all of the members’ assumptions. Such groups are not uncommon in movements; they constitute the fringe of organizations that appears strange to outsiders. An encapsulated organization may find it easy to maintain its dedicated core of members, whose identities are linked to the group and who may have few outside contacts, but such groups have little chance of growing or increasing their influence. Most strikingly, they may lose interest in such things, contenting themselves with maintaining their encapsulated existence.3

This resonates with my own experiences of activism, particularly in younger social movement groups and activist subcultures. It plays out in the simplest ways, but tends to spiral. Many anarchists, for example, have explored ideas and theory, and have had experiences, that have led them to identify with this label. For (many or most of) them anarchism means self-organized decentralized societies, without hierarchy or oppression, based on solidarity and mutual aid. This is, after all, a definition of anarchism as a political philosophy. Many anarchists, associating primarily with each other–constructing together a separate narrative–lose sight of the fact that many people think that anarchism means chaos. While it is possible to give a description of the principles of anarchism that is intelligible to most anyone, the term itself often is not. Add to it a vocabulary that regularly references syndicalism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-neoliberalism, anti-statism, etc., and you have an ideology that may in fact hold much in common with many people, but whose description4 is incoherent or repelling to outsiders. When participants in anarchist groups insist on using their group’s internal language to talk with outsiders, they are more likely to encounter unfavorable responses.5 Such negative experiences reinforce their feelings of social isolation and draw them deeper into an encapsulated existence.

It is important to realize that encapsulation happens for understandable reasons. Technocratic society alienates many people who seek to construct and live a different story – an alternative narrative. Participation in a collective struggle can be a deeply fulfilling and integrating way of doing this. However, because activists’ alternative narratives exist in opposition to the status quo, they tend to create barriers between the activists and the broader society. Collective ritual (that furthers an alternative narrative) often builds group cohesion by drawing attention to how the group is different from the status quo (which often comes to mean different, generally, from everyone else). The further developed a group’s alternative narrative–the longer it has been alive within a particular group or series of groups–the more it will tend toward isolation and encapsulation, unless specific mechanisms or intentionality prevent this from occurring.

Full-scale encapsulation could not occur in the context of the Minnehaha occupation for the same reasons that it could not occur with SNCC or SDS. These were political campaigns with regular interaction with a larger public. Still, in each of these cases a core group developed a strong cohesion that, at least at times, tended toward encapsulation. In the case of SDS many core members broke with public organizing to form the Weather Underground, which had virtually no dialogical interaction with any public.6

How prevalent is this phenomenon within social movements? While full-blown encapsulation is relatively rare, still, the tendency of social change agents to create identities that distinguish them from others, and to become insular, is very common. The negative impact of encapsulation is disproportionately detrimental, because it tends to occur especially among the most dedicated social change agents; people who give all or nearly all their time and energy to social change efforts, and who are often ready to sacrifice even more. Movements need these people to be successful. That is, movements need some people who are heart-and-soul dedicated to the cause, flexible and free from other commitments or distractions. Critical as these people are, still, they comprise a very small percentage of any successful social movement. To be successful, movements need tens of thousands–if not millions–of people who are willing to give something. To get plugged into movements in ways that build capacity, these folks generally need, first, to feel welcomed by, and then, some direction from, the more involved change agents. If these dedicated change agents fail to engage the next tier of potential movement participants, they will certainly fail to engage the broader society. These potential participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to affect the kind of systemic overhaul we imagine. Therefore, the interplay between these tiers of movement participants is of critical importance. Encapsulation and the general tendency of activist groups to self-isolate, prevents this needed relationship, creating an unbridgeable chasm where there should be a continuum of levels of involvement (as well as levels of political analysis), and leaving dedicated radicals cut-off like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It may feel glorious, but it’s a suicide mission.

To prevent self-isolation and encapsulation in social movement groups, activists first need to recognize the problem. We need to examine how our groups’ collective rituals and alternative narratives, if unchecked by an imperative to strategically engage society, will tend toward self-isolation. We need to see how profoundly this limits the potential power of our movements. When protest tactics become primarily collective ritual without regard to a strategy for broader engagement, then much of the nonparticipating public is likely to associate the given issues with the particular ritual, or the “type” of people who perform the ritual. People who sympathize with the issue or goal may not become active in the cause because they are not interested in assimilating into–or being identified with–a fringe subculture, or because they see a lack of strategy.

Read Part Three here.


  1. MTDs (Movimientos de Trajabadores Desocupados) are political organizations of unemployed workers that proliferated following the collapse of Argentina’s economy in 2001. Many MTDs espouse horizontalism–organization without hierarchy–and direct action, working collectively on constructive projects to meet their own needs. My favorite website for info on MTDs is in Spanish, www.lavaca.org.  Information in English is available at www.autonomista.org.
  2. Emily Stoper, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science Emerita, California State University, East Bay.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization. (Carlson Press, 1989)
  3. Frederick D. Miller.  The End of SDS and the Emergence of the Weatherman: Demise through Success.  Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson, editors.  Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999)
  4. This example focuses on labels and rhetoric, but the concept applies beyond words; images, symbols, and even style can hold vastly discrepant meanings.
  5. To be clear, I am not arguing that anarchists, communists, or any other-ists need to stop identifying as such. I am pointing out the gap–between those who identify under the labels and those who do not–in meanings associated with these labels. If activists believe that a given term or label is worth reclaiming from an inaccurate or maligned popular definition, I wish them the best in fighting that battle.
  6. It should be noted that WU members were situated in a context where global revolution seemed to be just around the corner. Their reference groups were armed revolutionaries from other parts of the world. They worked under a theoretical framework that seemed compelling.

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