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July 1, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

The danger of fetishizing revolution

My latest article, published at Waging Nonviolence: The danger of fetishizing revolution.

What do contact with extraterrestrials, the return of Jesus Christ, apocalypse, and revolution all have in common? In a sense, they are all imagined redemptions — epic reset buttons for humanity. Onto these we can pin our heartbreaks and frustrations with the world as it is, with all its suffering, mire and messy details. Any of these redemptive apocalypses can serve as the X that solves the daunting problem of our sense of impotency. This messianic X — this unknown and imaginary seismic intervention — might help us to hold onto a kind of hope despite overwhelming evidence of a hopeless reality. Somehow, someday, something will occur that stops the madness, and we will be able to begin anew…

Read the full article at Waging Nonviolence.

May 31, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

dissent and resignation

With the relatively recent invention of the activist as a special category, non-activism becomes the implied norm. Non-activists—i.e., normal people—are excused from having to wrestle with the content of pertinent political issues and what remedial collective action might be taken, as activism is treated as a distinct realm unto itself—an elective activity in some ways equivalent to football, Burning Man, or World of Warcraft. Its political impotency is a general unstated assumption, and so its members are seen as value-expressive rather than political-strategic. Too often activists themselves feed this perception.

An example that epitomizes the tendency is the bumper sticker slogan “I’M ALREADY AGAINST THE NEXT WAR.” Hardly a political intervention, this sad message proudly proclaims resignation to a future in which there are inevitably more wars, while the individual dissenter can celebrate their moral commitment to be there protesting tomorrow’s wars as fervently and impotently as they protest today’s.

My point is bigger than this one bumper sticker. Its message epitomizes the problem of settling for—even celebrating—a resigned self-expressive dissent. One of the biggest constraints any challenger movement has to overcome is widespread resignation; the belief that meaningful change is simply not possible, that the forces we are up against are far too powerful. To overcome popular resignation in our particular cultural context—I’m talking about the United States, especially since the 1970s—we have to recognize and strategize about negative stereotypes about “activism” itself; especially that “activists” are often seen as the righteous few crying out in the wilderness and, whether you love them or hate them, you’re not going to bet the farm on their victory. Unless they can demonstrate that they have enough savvy to navigate the severe constraints before them; that they have a fighting chance of success.

April 14, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Thank you, Ernesto Laclau

ernesto-laclauI was sad to learn of Ernesto Laclau’s passing this morning. Laclau’s intellectual contributions to Left social movements were profound and bountiful. He is the author of many books, including Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (co-authored with Chantal Mouffe). He has a new book due out in May: The Rhetorical Foundations of Society.

Laclau deeply influenced my own thinking about how subjective political actors (e.g., social movements) frame their political projects in relation to broader political alignments and society; and about the political uses of symbols and ambiguity. We corresponded during the first few months of Occupy Wall Street and then attempted to meet up while he was lecturing in the United States, but it didn’t work out. A few weeks ago, to my delight, he agreed to offer comments on the draft of my book. I was quite eager to read his feedback.

In Verso’s write-up today, Robin Blackburn offers an account of Laclau, just last month, “in excellent form leading the company in the singing of revolutionary songs, with special emphasis on those associated with the Italian partisan movement.” Surely, he will be missed. Ernesto Laclau, presente!

April 10, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Recapture the Flag (new post at Beautiful Trouble)

Andrew Boyd and I have a new post at Beautiful Trouble: Recapture the Flag. Check it out!

March 27, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Strategic logic falls on deaf ears


Strategic logic falls on deaf ears; upon ears that have heard enough strategic logics. From birth through youth, daily we are barraged with appeals to buy sugar cereal, candy, toys, and the latest gadgets. And before long we learn the essence of an elaborate manipulative logic whose central goals are private profit and power. We are repulsed by a logic that penetrates and colonizes most everything it touches, leaving injustice and alienation everywhere in its wake. Against this logic we attempt to scrap together art and poetry and, most fundamentally, community. We build a scrappy little alternative clubhouse near the perimeter of the always advancing logics of capitalism and bureaucracy. Our little clubhouse sometimes serves as a makeshift base of operations for our scrimmages with the authorities. Occasionally when the scrimmages heat up, the authorities will raid or burn down our meager fortifications. But we always rebuild. For the most part we are permitted to keep our little clubhouse. Defending it—its culture and meanings and rhetoric and symbols—becomes our prize.

And somewhere along the way we seem to have lost faith in the possibility of really winning against these logics and systems in the world beyond our little clubhouse; the possibility of gaining ground again in the terrain of society. The clubhouse becomes our starting place—the source of all of our reference points—and society is written off as a lost cause. And the logic of strategy? We don’t want to hear the logic of strategy in our clubhouse. This is a liberated, prefigurative and post-political space. We don’t need strategy or organization or leadership or money in our clubhouse. All those things remind us of the insidious logics against which we define ourselves and our projects.

March 26, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

The individual rational actor paradigm (is dumb)

Boring warning: Just like yesterday’s post, this one is also boring. You have been warned.

In the individual rational actor paradigm, the unit of analysis tends to be the generic, atomized, essentially selfish individual. When applied to social movements, the paradigm clumsily attempts to illuminate the “mystery” of collective action by examining the peculiar types of individuals who join collective efforts—and their individual reasons for joining—rather than by examining particular contexts or situations that tend to activate people (more often in blocs and clusters than as lone individuals). Frankly, when a scholar assumes that collective action participants are atomized individuals whose involvement can be explained by individually rational choices, I am inclined to assume that their research is probably not worth much.

The use of the term entrepreneur to describe social movement innovators betrays this same view of the benefit-maximizing, cost-minimizing individual; a view that is taken for granted as the modus operandi of Homo sapiens. I think it is problematic and grotesque to transpose an individual profit-maximizing logic and terminology onto a thoroughly collective project. Those who are central in facilitating the latter are commonly referred to as leaders—not entrepreneurs—on account of their skills in building consensus and solidarity and in articulating values, goals, targets, and strategies that can move whole groups. Their mission is not to maximize private profit. Sometimes their mission is precisely to challenge or dismantle private profit! Read more…

March 25, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Boring ramble about levels and units of analysis for examining political contention

Note: The word “boring” is the first word in the header; if you read this and are bored, you have only yourself to blame!
For practical shorthand we treat groups as if they had coherent singular wills. A political group navigates a terrain—distinct and external to itself, ostensibly—that it finds itself situated within, in order to achieve its goals. Clear on these goals, the group navigates the terrain like an obstacle course or a map that leads to X. Terrains are not stable things, however, and with shifts in the terrain, we see not only shifts in the group’s goals but shifts in the very composition of the group. The group is problematic as a thing. It is neither neatly bounded nor fully homogenous in composition and will. The group is itself a terrain of contestation, whose ideologies, ideas, goals, priorities, strategies, tactics, and leaderships push and pull, congeal and dissipate, shifting the definitions, parameters, and active participants of the group, as well as the group’s relation to the broader external political terrain.

Shifting our analytic gaze then from the group level to the individual level, we can conceive of a preliminary hegemonic contest of leadership between individuals within the group that is waged and won prior to—or alongside—the group’s contest within the broader political context. Conceptually, this may serve us as a tool for apprehending certain parts or stages of dynamic political reality. For example, rather than just stating that “churches joined the civil rights movement”, we might examine whether politicization of pre-existing religious organizations was internally contentious, and what factors led to successful or unsuccessful activation.

However, our analytical gaze must also always focus on both more micro and more macro levels. More micro than the individual? Yes, because within every individual mind is the internalized map of the full external terrain of the group and beyond — even including internalized versions of the opponents’ ideas. The individual can only be described as having a singular will for practical shorthand purposes, as there is a contest within the contingent terrain of every individual mind. What then is our unit of analysis? Ideas themselves? As if ideas could be free-floating things existing in a cloud prior to their embodiment? Yes, we can use this as a unit of analysis, but again, only for practical shorthand, rife with additional analytical traps. Indeed, there are traps and severe limitations within each level of analysis when we attempt to neatly separate messy interactive units and levels. Thus we can never settle on any particular one—whether society, group, individual, or ideas in individuals’ heads—except on a temporary basis, as one among many lenses through which to assess a context and situation.

Let us momentarily suspend doubt to entertain this picture of disembodied ideas in a cloud, themselves possessing an expansionary or colonizing will. Now we can analyze how ideas as subjective agents might navigate, stoke, channel, or graft onto different faculties and processes of the individual mind and body (in interaction with other minds and bodies in a group). Ideas order and can reorder emotions, memories, primal drives, and relationships, aligning these for the purpose of the ascendency or spread of the idea. We need not believe that an idea can achieve full autonomy from a carrier or host to entertain a notion of symbiosis wherein the idea is no longer seen as fully organic and integral to the organism of the individual (or group), but as a kind of foreign agent, possessing its own “DNA”, finding a home, gaining a foothold, etc.


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