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 prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country. These spaces have served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society that they are striving to build. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers could walk up off the street and speak up during a General Assembly meeting, if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings — so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas.

“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.

“I hope not!” I replied.

While I believe that consensus-building is important in democratic grassroots organizing, for me it’s much more of a guiding principle than a replicable formula that should be spread with missionary zeal. When I arrived to help with Occupy Wall Street in early October, the decision-making structures and culture were already established. I am intimately familiar with these kinds of processes. I even lead workshops on consensus decision-making. But I’m not as enamored with process as some folks are. Frankly, I’ve often found much of our process deeply dysfunctional. I take that in stride and with patience; social movements are messy and it takes a while to figure out good and functional processes for democratic decision-making and accountability.

What’s striking is how these processes and rituals have come to stand in for a strategy for many folks. Particular forms of process — from mic-checks to sparkle fingers — have become confused with political content (i.e. goals or a platform). And what’s true for process is also true for our tactical repertoire. Occupation of public parks is for many participants an end unto itself; the tactical form is confused with — or eclipses in importance — political content. It sometimes feels as if the reason we’re here is for our processes and tactics, rather than for the changes we hope to bring about with these as our means.

This is not at all to denigrate these particular forms. Nor is it even to dismiss the importance of collective ritual in protest and in challenger movements. Indeed, there is something viscerally powerful about hundreds of people — many of them hitherto strangers — mic-checking in an occupied public park defiantly in the heart of New York City’s financial district. And Occupy Wall Street would have never broken into the mainstream media cycles and attracted popular attention without these novel rituals. Nor would we have been able to foster the intense level of commitment and sacrifice among hundreds of core participants — folks who put the rest of our lives on hold, who risked arrest and police brutality, who gave everything of ourselves — without these kinds of collective rituals. Collective ritual fosters strong group identity, cohesion, and solidarity — and participants’ willingness to give of themselves depends on this strong sense of solidarity and identity. (I’ve written more about the need for strong group identity — and the need to balance this with intentional strategies to reach beyond the boundaries of the group — here.)

But if our intention is to change the world — and not just prefigure a new world, with no idea about how to actualize it — then these critical collective rituals must take their place within a larger overarching strategic framework. In the quote at the top of this post, Gramsci is elaborating a definition of utopianism that goes further than its popular notion of rosy-eyed visions of how the world could be. Gramsci dismisses utopianists not for the content of their vision of the future, but for their lack of a vision or plan for how to move from Point A to Point B, from present reality to realized vision. In other words, dreaming about how the world might possibly someday be is not the same as political struggle — even when the dreams are punctuated with dramatic public spectacles.

I’ve been wary of “creeping utopianism” in OWS (and in other activism) for the above reasons for a long time, but the other night another layer of this utopian tendency occurred to me: perhaps this kind of utopianism is quite practical after all; perhaps participants are indeed accomplishing their goals, but the goals are not the kind of goals we might expect; perhaps the actual motivating goals are obscured by rhetoric and rationalizations. What if the sense of a strong integrated identity that Liberty Square so powerfully, if temporarily, provided to core participants is itself the utopia? What if the thing we are missing, the thing we are lacking — the thing we are longing for most — is a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community? What if the content or measurable achievements of the utopia matter little? What if it is the potency of the sense of group itself that provides the feeling of utopia?

I suspect that the integrated existence in one identity, in one group, is what provides much of the conviction behind prefigurative politics and the sense of utopia to core participants — much more so than any stated instrumental goals of the group. Form is elevated over content and the life of the group over what it achieves or produces, because a cohesive group and our sense of integrated belonging in it is the chief thing we feel ourselves lacking. This lack amounts to a different kind of poverty, outside of the economic sphere. It comes from the strain we experience in performing our multiple fractured and dispersed identities; from the different worlds, groups, and values we must juggle in the modern world (e.g. school, workplace, neighborhood, home, family, hobbies, interests, etc.). This is not to nostalgically exalt the content of the (many varied) traditional societies whose forms industrialized societies have broken from. There were and are various problems, poverties, patriarchies, and other oppressions in many such traditional societies. But problems of content aside for a moment, there is much evidence that human beings have evolved to function cognitively and communally within this form itself — of an integrated existence with and within one cohesive localized group. Many have suggested that the dispersal of group identities in modern societies — accelerated with the further development of capitalism and corresponding rise of individualism in highly industrialized societies — may be a root cause of many mental illnesses and of anomie. If so, then it is surely also the root of many longings. Perhaps this lack, this longing, attaches itself in some people (people like us) to issues of injustices — partly from resonance and compassion, but also as fetish objects that stand in for our hope of completion, for the filling of this lack.

This would help explain how form so easily and so often eclipses content in many social movement groups. Insofar as participants are motivated by the hope of psychic completion (i.e. to fill the lack), by community and a strong sense of belonging — as opposed to instrumental political goals (i.e. to concretely change X in the world) — how are they to choose what issue, tactic or ritual to focus on? For the sake of filling the lack — in pursuit of this end — how much do such choices even matter? In the constellation of symbols orbiting us, many would suffice as floating signifiers whose meanings are more about catalyzing and deepening group identity than about bolstering the group’s measurable achievements (beyond its own constitution). Thus motivated, the psyche may not be intuitively inclined to think critically about the content filling a given symbol. It may be instead oriented toward following the buzz of the group — i.e. seeking out what issue or tactic or buzzword will be the next thing. The thing, above all else, is a signifier of the group identity/solidarity itself.

The participant motivated more by the group itself than by the group’s accomplishments will likely gravitate toward self-referential issues, tactics, rituals, and rhetoric. And this is how the utopian tendency can lead the core of a potentially popular movement to insularity, isolation, and impotency.

4 responses to “utopianism and the would-be political group”

  1. […] posting utopianism and the would-be political group yesterday, I went back and reread an old article I’d published that discusses this phenomenon […]

  2. Hey Matt-
    Have you read Wini Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left? This post makes me think of that book. She focuses on the tension between prefigurative politics and strategic politics, arguing, if I remember correctly, that the New Left was misunderstood as having no politics or program because of their tendency toward the prefigurative. Good read (and blessedly short!)

    1. Thanks, Holly! I’ll definitely check that out. Gramsci might still argue that they have no politics! I wouldn’t be so harsh, but I think it’s important to distinguish between political opinions, politically-inspired self-(or group-)expression, and the ability to meaningfully engage with politics as it exists (i.e. to mount an actual challenge to existing power and to engage in hegemonic struggle). I think the “tendency toward the prefigurative” is indeed often about opinions, values, and expression more than it is about actually “doing politics”.

      Oh, and congratulations on being the first person to comment on my new blog 🙂

  3. […] utopianism and the would-be political group I explored a layer of utopianism within intense social change movements like Occupy Wall Street, […]

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