Month: July 2012

common pitfalls of challenger movements

Maybe you noticed that I’ve been writing about hegemonic struggle lately (here, here, and here) — about strategic frameworks for political and cultural contestation. Hegemonic contestation, as I’ve been discussing, in concert with capacity-building, leadership-building, organizational-building processes, is IMHO the thing to do. It is central to the how of political change; the yes; the what to do in the instruction manual. If this is a core political conceptual framework, as I believe it is, why is it shrouded in mystery? Why are the basics unknown to so many who are engaged in the modern phenomenon we commonly refer to as “activism”? Why is such a foundational aspect of mounting a viable political challenge so unfamiliar to so many would-be challengers? Part of the answer may be found in the below list of common pitfalls that many challenger movements fall into (in our era and specifically in the United States). This is a list of patterns, attitudes, orientations, etc. that often stand in our way. These are internal problems — conceptual problems, really — which …

sacrifice in movements (and ritualistic tactical hierarchies)

lunch counter sit-in Sacrifice is a collective value typically esteemed in social movements (as well as in human societies), one that can profoundly benefit movements (and societies). Personal sacrifice can be a dramatic expression of collective values, such as sharing, solidarity, and mutual aid. A movement participant’s willingness to make a personal sacrifice or take a personal risk speaks profoundly to the world we are trying to build – one in which individuals are willing to give of themselves for the good of the whole. And the value of sacrifice is not only expressive (of values). It’s also a practical necessity. To succeed, movements need a lot of time and energy; we need folks who are willing to give up other parts of their lives—and to sometimes endure hardship—if we’re to build our collective capacity to make change. However, there can be downsides to sacrifice as well. Half of the concept of sacrifice is cost; the other half is some greater benefit (group benefit, future benefit, etc.). So, sacrifice for its own sake—sacrifice that only …

when ritual replaces strategy

In utopianism and the would-be political group I explored a layer of utopianism within intense social change movements like Occupy Wall Street, and I suggested that the utopian drive in these situations may be at least as much about immediate participant experience as it is about an envisioned ideal future. That is to say the incarnated utopian space (e.g. Liberty Square) provides an integrated group identity that fills a lack for many core participants. The lack is caused at least partly by the fragmentation of modern existence — the dispersal of our identities across many spheres (e.g. workplace, family, religion, interest, hobby, neighborhood, etc.) and the accompanying anxiety caused by the necessary constant juggling of our selves. Who are we? Each of us contains many selves, many performances, each of which emerges in relation to different groups and circumstances. But those who can step fully into one single radically integrating identity are able to fill this lack and longing—even if temporarily—with an integrated sense of self and of belonging. Out of many identity fragments emerges …

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 2)

I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists. Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.” [Long lefty laundry lists]. I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these …

Yes, populism

In my last post two posts (What is hegemonic struggle? and Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment, pt.1), I argued essentially that we should not view hegemony as a monopoly of our formidably powerful opponents; that we ourselves must in some ways be hegemonic; that our ability to make large-scale political change depends on our ability to engage in hegemonic alignments; and that our hegemonic struggle requires a contestation of popular meanings, powerful symbols, and commonsense. I also used the word populism and briefly defined what I mean by the term populist alignment: “a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system.” And I contrasted this with faux-populism, where elites style their alignments—and disguise their interests—as populist, “by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example…” Why am I using the term populism? Am I aware of pejorative usages of …

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 1)

Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist. First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post: A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically …

What is hegemonic struggle?

I was supposed to drive to Philly this afternoon for the Occupy national gathering, but alas, my car broke down in southern Rhode Island, and now I’m back in Providence. Not just in Providence, but at a bar in Providence. And not just any bar, but the Duck & Bunny — the somewhat peculiar bar around the corner, where it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at the counter and read a book or type on your laptop. I’ve been sitting here the last hour and a half reading more of Ernesto Laclau’s nearly impenetrable Emancipation(s). I find it challenging to finish books once I’m pretty sure I’ve already grasped the main ideas — especially when each page feels like I’m climbing twenty flights of stairs when the author could have built an elevator (i.e. explained their ideas in a broadly accessible way). Nonetheless, I’ve become a big fan of Laclau and his Gramscian schema for hegemonic struggle. Oh no, I’m doing it too: “…Gramscian schema for hegemonic struggle!” I believe that making these ideas accessible to …