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 — 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.
- Anatomy of Political Identity
- Marx’s error
- Bonding & Bridging
- Long lefty laundry lists
- Wisconsin: How Populism Works
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—and particularly politicized—audience (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).
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—as discussed in part one of this series—it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement—the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged—without 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 — 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.
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.
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 — and new articulations of identity — is what sculpts the sand to form a coherent political “structure.”
This is the first post in a series.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci. I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.
This is the landing page for this series. You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.
- “Spontaneity” and social change
- Activism vs. organizing
originally published on November 1, 2010
In my post last week (Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!??), I asked, as the title suggests, what prevents the kind of broad, committed, collective action that we’re seeing in France from happening here in the United States. This is especially perplexing, given that their strike is about opposing the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 – whereas here our retirement age is already later than that, our college tuition rates promise a lifetime of debt, our health care system is all sorts of effed up, our hours are longer, our vacations shorter, our social safety net far less comprehensive. I could go on.
I started to answer my own question, discussing the mechanics of how collective action and protest have been negatively branded here, so as to effectively inoculate many people against participation. In response (over at Daily Kos), Pesto asked:
The $64,000 question WRT inoculation is why it hasn’t worked as well elsewhere. It’s not as if multinational corporations in France never considered trying to break French workers’ solidarity or willingness to shut the economy down to win what they want. They certainly understand the basic concepts of propaganda that have worked so well in the US. But whatever they’ve been trying in France hasn’t been working very well.
Big question. Where to begin? Well, why not start with Lady Gaga? More specifically, let’s start with CNN’s utilization of Lady Gaga as a cultural intermediary in their “coverage” of the strikes:
France strike – Some 200 demonstrators blocked France’s Marseille-Provence airport for more than three hours Thursday as strikes and protests continued across the country. The action comes ahead of a final vote on the country’s Pension Reform Bill. Pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris shows this weekend because of “the logistical difficulties due to the strikes,” her website said.
originally published on October 21, 2010
Do you ever look at newspaper articles about worker and student strikes in countries like France or Greece or Argentina-you know, the kind of activity that shuts down the whole country-and think to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Those people know how to protest!?”
Well, I sure do.
Not to glorify any particular tactic for it’s own sake, but geez, the spirit of collective action and common purpose that’s displayed in those moments-let alone the negotiating power it awards to grassroots movements, unions, and progressive political parties-is something that sometimes, um, feels a little lacking here in the good old U.S. of A.
So what are you waiting for. Go ahead. Try that here. See how many people you can turn out. See where it gets you.
Likely. not. very. far.
We have a situation here. We’re stuck in a Catch 22. As a society, we presently seem to be inoculated against the means necessary for our own collective advancement. (If you’re at the top of the plutocratic order, now’s the time to congratulate yourself on a brilliant system.) And I’m not talking about any one particular style of collective action or protest – we’re not France or Greece or Argentina, and I don’t particularly want us to be. I’m fully ready to embrace an all-American style, and I would settle for whatever kind of collective action (within ethical and strategic limits) powerful enough to challenge entrenched power and privilege. Is that such a tall order?