Month: June 2012

FORCE = MASS x ACCELERATION

That Max Berger has some real zingers. He and I spent the past few days at Harvard with Marshall Ganz and the Leading Change Network. Max discussed Occupy Wall Street during a panel on Organizing vs. Mobilizing. And — boom — he drops this ripe physics metaphor: Force equals mass times acceleration. We [Occupy Wall Street] had a lot of acceleration and little mass. Preach it, comrade Berger. Can you spot the real Max Berger?

Left-wing ambivalence toward power

There’s no shortage of reasons to be ambivalent toward power. A cursory glance at the 20th Century should cause serious wariness — at the very least toward some of the horrible ways power can be wielded. This wariness, though, is asymmetrical between the political Left and Right — as are its consequences. And I believe this is one of the most important dynamics in need of deeper examination by Left organizers, organizations, and movements. While there’s evidence that Leftwing ambivalence toward power has existed in many iterations throughout history, I think there’s even more evidence that the paralyzing effects have gotten significantly worse in the past half-century (in the United States), as “character structures” have shifted, and the meaning of activism itself has changed. Some of this assertion is based on the influential frameworks put forward in The Lonely Crowd, which makes the case that the new predominant character structure (“other-oriented”) in the United States, arising from a backdrop of abundance, places more value on the life of the group than on what the group achieves. …

Is government a contestable space?

Yesterday in Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?), I essentially argued, among other things, that there may be harm in framing our social, economic, and political change efforts in the United States today in a term whose applicability may be historically contingent. The word revolution, I suggested, conjures the idea of overthrowing a government, and as such is descriptive of a particular model of transformation that only applies to the radical overhaul of particular kinds of oppressive governments, e.g. feudalism, monarchies, dictatorships, and colonial governments. The harm, I suggested, comes from the uncritical and unqualified dichotomization of revolution vs. reformism in some activist circles, where the former is exalted and the latter dissed. If we reject revolution vs. reformism as a false dichotomy and embrace that reforms (i.e. winning real improvements in real people’s lives now) are important, then another question arises: Is government a contestable space? If winning reforms is important, the practical consolidation will necessarily involve some kind of government action. And forcing some kind of government action will necessarily involve a …

music and politics, real and retreat

My recent visit to Barcelona happened to coincide with an amazing party at the biggest squat I have ever been to in my life. Seriously, the Can Masdeu is lord of all squats. It is big enough to eat all the other squats I’ve ever visited. The party was to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the squatters’ and the community’s successful thwarting of a several-day police eviction attempt. Folks were pretty stoked at the party. I danced until 6:30am, and as I left, I passed probably 100 more people who were just arriving. That’s how they roll in Barcelona. Can Masdeu: it’s big. At around midnight I got to experience something really moving and intimate. A group of singers herded/ushered a couple hundred of us into a big room in the middle of the huge squatted building. The whole property had once been a leper colony, and apparently this room had been a big bathing room. The walls were stone, the ceiling high, the lights were low, with a small disco ball hanging from the …

Revolution! (wait, what are we talking about?)

I like to fancy myself a revolutionary… blah blah what does that even mean? I’d like to suggest for a minute that maybe the words revolution and revolutionary have been mostly emptied of their contents; that their meanings are more than slightly ambiguous, even among their proponents (I’m talking specifically within the United States); that they serve largely as references to inspirational historical moments and as signifiers of belonging (i.e. “getting it”) within some radical groups, organizations and subcultures — much more than these words presently (again, in the US) suggest an instructive path or framework for social, economic and political change. There. I said it. The danger of questioning a signifier of belonging is that it can call into question one’s own belonging in the group where the signifier is operating! So, when we say revolution, I think we’re mostly vaguely refering to the overthrow of governments — and in specific historical circumstances. Social justice-directed revolutions have overthrown monarchies, feudal systems, and colonial governments. I don’t know of a single Left-direction revolution in this sense (i.e. …

“Asks” & the asymmetry of hegemonic contests

I’ve been thinking more about the processes involved in the projection of primary/proximate group-oriented experiences and instincts onto larger, abstract imagined communities. These processes seem, by all accounts that I put stock in, historically contingent. In other words, the tendency to identify with a large, abstract, realistically unknowable public (e.g. a nation, a religion, a race, an economic class, etc.) is a relatively new phenomenon; there’s evidence that most cultures did not engage in this sort of identification/projection throughout the course of known human history. Elements/pieces of this puzzle to dig into in future writing: uprooting/disappearance of traditional communities “alienation of labor” emergence of mass media: newspapers and novels at first (see Imagined Communities), followed by radio & television (Internet and its feeding of particularisms and self-selecting tendencies may complicate this — see The Filter Bubble). mass media messages are still interpreted / internalized / assimilated through the intermediaries of “real” (/local/proximate/primary) social groups (e.g. family, congregation, workplace, etc.) I’ve written about this some before (here), but I’m gearing up to go into greater depth. …

particularisms, universalities & hegemonic strategy

Wrote this list at the bar last night, and I’m not going to pick it apart just now. Not sure all these dichotomies belong in the same list (especially narcissism / collectivism) — but it’s helpful for me to see it all together for the moment. After starting on Ernesto Laclau’s Emancipation(s) later in the evening, I might add to the list emancipatory moment / preceding social order. I suppose this may amount to a geeky teaser for posts coming down the pike.

Encapsulation

After posting utopianism and the would-be political group yesterday, I went back and reread an old article I’d published that discusses this phenomenon of social movement organizations that, in the course of especially intense situations or campaigns, become all-encompassing, integrative identities for core participants. The original article was the second part in a three-part series I wrote in 2006 titled What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically?. I’m reposting portions from that post below, to continue this train of thought… While in Argentina in 2004 I interviewed Maba and Valde, a sister and brother from one of the Movements of Unemployed Workers 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 …

utopianism and the would-be political group

“The attribute ‘utopian’ does not apply to political will in general, but to specific wills which are incapable of relating means to end, and hence are not even wills, but idle whims, dreams, longings, etc.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks In late October my cousin came down to Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park), then home of Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived about 20 minutes early so he could check things out for himself. My cousin and I both grew up in farmhouses outside of the very small town of Bird In Hand, PA. He has lived in New York for a few years now. I was eager to hear his impressions about Occupy Wall Street. “What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society — or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!” Much has been made about the …

fog lifts

The week in New York City was good, but also anxiety-inducing. Back in the middle of the exhausting teeming projects of the remnant of Occupy Wall Street, I unsteadily fumbled for my bearings — after nearly a month of down-time in Greece and Spain. Presently, I am feeling a little hazy, having just woke from a dissatisfying nap. But then … I focus. On a detail. A sound. The haunted piano chords in the Sufjan Stevens song I’m listening to through headphones. The vocal harmonies. A crisp plucked acoustic guitar note. Or a suddenly real image in front of me: the three lanes of traffic this bus is stuck in at a near standstill; several bright suns reflected off the rear windows of SUVs; old train tracks running parallel to our right; ivy, weed trees, and litter filling the shallow ravine between tracks and highway. I focus fully on any or all of these inputs, for a fraction of a second, and the focus overwhelms. The haze is pierced, the veil is ripped and gone. …