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“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. Maybe even a little rambling now…

Hegemonic struggle is a contest over who can win the investments of proximate groups into a particularly-framed imagined community. It is a game of making unembedded abstractions into potent forces within real, measurable, tangible local communities. OR of making the situation of one particularism — i.e. one particular community — into a symbol of the universal. It involves strategically selecting and often fabricating — or just happening upon — specific stories, situations, conflicts, communities, people, symbols, phrases, memes, what-have-you, and projecting these for broad resonance, elevating them to a claim of universality.

In this struggle for which particularism will be elevated to the status of universal (i.e. who/what will frame the “commonsense”), there is an important asymmetry. Assuming that grassroots challenger forces engage in effective hegemonic struggle over cultural meanings and prevailing narratives, on a national level in the United States today—yes, this is an ambitious assumption—still, what comes next? the plutocratic forces will not simply pack up and go home when challengers succeed in changing the prevailing narratives. Yes, they may be exposed, but an unspoken narrative of popular resignation may be just as constraining to challengers as a popular embrace of the plutocratic projected ideology. (Though there are surely differences worthy of discussion.)

Here’s the asymmetry: when forces defending the status quo win the hegemonic contest over meanings, understandings, narratives, commonsense, etc., what they then ask of the “masses” (who are embedded in particular communities) is usually simple: “Don’t do anything.” Status quo forces are like a salesman selling nothing. You don’t have to buy/do anything. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. You don’t even have to sign on the dotted line. Challengers, on the other hand, must first win the hegemonic contest—a huge feat unto itself—and then we must “seal the deal” and win more than docility, more than uncommitted support or deference. Action—collective action—is precisely what we need in order to actually build and wield the power it will take to win anything more than the smallest piecemeal concessions.

It is far easier to ask someone who is doing nothing already to just keep at it than to ask him or her to invest time, energy, resources, identity, etc. into a foolhardy adventure that she doubts will ever amount to much. It is hard to overstate this asymmetry and the challenge we face here. But it is important to do more than shrug our shoulders at the size of the challenge. This is a terrain we must map — if we actually intend to do battle here.

Winning the hegemonic contest is critical. Popular identification with the symbols, meanings, stories, and “characters” we put forward is hugely important. Even passive identification is of some value. But we must move some portion — probably always a relatively small minority — of that “mass” into visible and capacity-building action. So we have to be ready with our asks. And these should not just be more of the same of what our core committed folks are already doing. No, occupying more parks all across the country, for example, is not our ask. Correction: it is the ask at a very specific stage in the unfolding of this wave — but it is an ask aimed at core folks in other cities; it does not, itself, automatically provide an on-ramp for people and communities beyond the “usual suspects”. Though, importantly, it did set up smart organizers in other cities to 1) become local focal points themselves by joining/branding themselves as part of a new dynamic national force and national story, and then 2) to come up with their own locally and regionally resonant asks for constituencies within their reach. Occupy Atlanta and Occupy Minnesota, in their Occupy Homes work, are two of the strongest examples of this.

Ideally, however, we would possess the strategy, tools, organization, and discipline to provide smart, scalable asks on a national level. Yes, we need bold direct actions like occupations, and yes, we need some web buzz and “clicktivism” — but we really need strategic scalable actions that are somewhere in-between.

Such actions should:

  1. be seen as intuitively effective (not just going through the motions)
  2. actually be effective
  3. build popular investment into a leadership that delivers — and that is perceived as being capable of delivering.

More later. It’s 1am.

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