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).
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?
And here’s the three-part essay:
What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically?
- Ritual & Engagement
- The Story of the Righteous Few
This article made the rounds on Z net and a bunch of Indymedia sites back in 2006. I wrote it in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. I’m reposting here in three parts, with no edits.
Here’s Part Two. And here’s Part Three. And here’s the video.
Ritual & Engagement
It’s August and I’m back in San Francisco. I love this city. It’s been over three years since my last visit – an extended stay that started a week after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time thousands of people in the Bay Area launched, and for many weeks sustained, a stronger show of resistance than could be seen anywhere else in the country. People put their bodies on the line to shut down San Francisco’s financial district, as well as war-profiteering corporations throughout the region. I was proud to be a participant. I’ve spent most of the time since in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, organizing with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice. Now I’m back in SF just a few days, already marching in an anti-war protest.
“Hey hey! What do you say? How many kids did you kill today?” the crowd chants.
I don’t join in. We don’t use chants like this in Lancaster. Actually, I can recall very few occasions where we have chanted at all. I used to chant as loudly and enthusiastically as the next person, but now something holds me back.