Month: April 2011

Populism & Hegemony (series)

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through an exploration of these ideas?

A series on populism and hegemony may sound nerdy, esoteric, and less-than-fully-practical for on-the-ground organizers, campaigners, and advocates for social justice (my intended audience), but I believe that understanding the patterns and processes of these two related concepts is key to effective long-term political struggle.  

In this series I’m digging in and attempting to work out some useful frameworks. I’m a student, not an expert, on these subjects &#151 and I’d love for other folks to weigh in on these ideas.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Anatomy of Political Identity
  2. Marx’s error
  3. Bonding & Bridging
  4. Long lefty laundry lists
  5. Wisconsin: How Populism Works

Wisconsin: How Populism Works | Populism & Hegemony pt.5

This is the fifth post in a series.

Teachers, students, firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, and even Green Bay Packers players, visibly aligned and defiantly mobilized together in Wisconsin last month, conveyed something very important and powerful. Okay, duh. That’s obvious. If we could orchestrate that kind of line-up all the time, we would, of course. But you can’t just pull that out of a hat.

I concluded Marx’s error saying that “we have some very powerful, very contemporary examples of … populist alignments.”  By which I especially meant Wisconsin.

What are the ingredients of this so-called populism? And how did it come about?

Long lefty laundry lists | Populism & Hegemony pt.4

This is the fourth post in a series.

Let’s say that I care a lot about the war in Iraq, and I start planning with some other folks in my town to put together a public rally to call for an end to the war and occupation. Well, what if we made the rally about the economy too? Everyone cares about the economy, right? Surely more people will come out if we link these two issues. Hey, while we’re at it, immigration is a big issue for a lot of people in our community, and I think we can get this one local immigrant rights organization onboard for our rally. We should at least be able to get someone to speak. And that makes sense. Immigrants are impacted by both the war and the economy. Also, there have been some folks working locally to stop a proposed waste incinerator. We should definitely have someone from that group speak at the rally. Wow, if we list all of these issues on one flyer, then we can attract a lot more people than the folks who would come out just because of the war or any one of the issues on its own.

There are several important flaws to this kind of explicit connect-the-dots approach. It’s not that we shouldn’t be connecting the dots. And it’s not that we shouldn’t have strong moral narratives that can help people make sense of a platform of issues. But a strong moral narrative is different than just throwing a bunch of seemingly disparate issues onto the same flyer and assuming that we’ll be able to connect with anything other than an already highly politicized&#151and particularly politicized&#151audience (aka “the usual suspects”). What this kind of approach tends to do is to attract self-selecting individuals who come to the event as individuals. They may come as individuals from many different social backgrounds, with relationships to different social blocs. But these social blocs are not bought in, which means small numbers and few resources for the effort. Rallies are supposed to be demonstrations of grassroots organization and power (in order to leverage pressure to affect political change). But they can all too easily accomplish the opposite of this intention; they can be demonstrations of disorganization, powerlessness, and even incoherence (i.e. disconnection from any organized social base).

Bonding & Bridging | Populism & Hegemony pt.3

This is the third post in a series.

Strong group identity is something of a double-edged sword for social justice movements. On the one hand&#151as discussed in part one of this series&#151it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a strong core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle.

On the other hand, a group’s identity tends to grow stronger and more cohesive at a cost of becoming more distinct from other group identities. The cost is the barrier that results from the distinction of said group from other groups. While this is true of all groups to some extent, it tends to have particular consequences for political/politicized groups. Take, for example, a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against their rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in political struggle, on the other hand, has not only to foster a strong within-group identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity &#151 if it is to orchestrate and leverage the power it needs to accomplish its political goals. Add to this that oppositional struggle tends to trigger an oppositional psychology, which can inject “with steroids” the natural tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from outsiders.

I have called this tension (or double-bind) the Political Identity Paradox. Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong within-group identity and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.

Marx’s error | Populism & Hegemony pt.2

This is the second post in a series.

As discussed briefly in part one, in modern society our identities are complex. Our lives tend to be fragmented. In different spheres of our lives, we play different roles, hold different loyalties, perform different identities, and cultivate different aspects of our identities. Take a minute to think of some of the many ways you identify or have identified throughout your life. What are some key aspects of your identity?

Seriously, take a minute. If you want, grab a piece of paper and a pen and write them down.

Welcome to the new BeyondtheChoir.org!

Welcome to the new BeyondtheChoir.org!

This is an online space for grassroots change agents — folks who are engaged in grassroots organizing, campaigning, activism, advocacy, etc. — to share practical strategies, tactics and tools. It’s also a place to dig into deeper social change theory and to make it practical.

There are lots of great websites that cover and critique the news. This site is more about engaging questions about how we can organize ourselves and strategically intervene.

How to post (and what to post)

There are three ways to join the conversation: user diaries, quick hits, and comments. To do any of these three things, just create an account by clicking here. (Note: if you do not receive a confirmation email within a few minutes, please email info[at]beyondthechoir[dot]org, and we will send it to you.)

Comments: pretty straightforward. If you read an article that you have thoughts about, you can post a comment at the bottom of the article.  You can also post a comment after another person’s comment. The option to post a comment will only appear when you are logged in.

Quick Hits: A “quick hit” is a short blurb you write that briefly describes and links to a pertinent article that you’ve spotted somewhere else (on another site). The option to add a quick hit appears in the User Menu, after you’ve logged in.

User Diaries: A user diary is an article that you write and post. We recommend not actually composing the article online (you might lose it!), but rather copying and pasting it into the fields. The option to add a user diary appears in the User Menu, after you’ve logged in. User Diaries will then appear in the “Recent Diaries” box on the right, and under the “User Diaries” button in the menu bar. (We frontpage some user diaries.)

What kinds of articles should you post as user diaries? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule, but the general thread here is more how-to (as advice or as a genuine question) than news and views. There are lots of great sites that provide breaking updates and editorials on important progressive issues. We’re less about pointing out what the government or corporations are doing (or should be doing), and more about strategizing about how we, as progressive change agents, are going to make them do it.

So, welcome to the new site! Feel free to post questions (or thoughts) in the comments section below.  Cheers.

Anatomy of Political Identity | Populism & Hegemony pt.1

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through a study of these ideas?

Populism and hegemony can mean very different things to different people.  Rather than frontload this series with my particular working definition, I’m going to try to build from the ground up. To approach these concepts, first we need a working definition of political identity; what it is, what purposes it serves, and how it operates. This is the topic I will focus on in this post.

I’ll begin with an assertion that I hope to make meaningful through this post: that all politics is based on identity with a group.  The inverse: there can be no politics without identity with a group.  Identity is the stuff of politics. If a political project is a sand castle, then people are the sand, and identity &#151 and new articulations of identity &#151 is what sculpts the sand to form a coherent political “structure.”

This is the first post in a series.