#KeystoneXL: Taking sides and winning


Important news today. I feel so proud of all my friends, colleagues, and comrades who chose to intervene in history, to challenge ‘fate’, to not be indifferent about humanity’s future, to work to stop the Keystone XL. This victory is not everything, but it is certainly something—something important—in this age of resignation and hopelessness. May it be a harbinger of even bigger things to come. I am proud of you, every one of you, my dearest family, you who have chosen to not be indifferent.

gramsci-e1357927126292I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent…

I am a partisan, I am alive, I feel the pulse of the activity of the future city that those on my side are building is alive in their conscience. And in it, the social chain does not rest on a few; nothing of what happens in it is a matter of luck, nor the product of fate, but the intelligent work of the citizens. Nobody in it is looking from the window of the sacrifice and the drain of a few. Alive, I am a partisan. That is why I hate the ones that don’t take sides, I hate the indifferent.”

—Antonio Gramsci

Full quote here.

BeyondtheChoir.org website relaunch coming soon

We are relaunching our website this fall (2015) in order to reflect the current training and movement support work of Beyond the Choir. The current site was constructed to serve as an online forum for grassroots mobilization &#151 for people who are working for social justice to share practical strategies, tactics and tools, and to analyze the constraints and openings in our political terrain. We will be archiving past posts so that they are still available, but the new site will serve our organizational mission. Please check back this fall to find out more about Beyond the Choir’s work.

Beyond the Choir strategy training in Atlanta, GA

‘Awkward’ socialists tarnishing the Democratic Party’s big business-loving brand

Dastardly socialists fighting for the common good.

Dastardly socialists fighting for the common good.

Today in a Politico article titled “The Socialist Surge” Ben Schreckinger and Jonathan Topaz discuss how uncomfortable it is for the Democratic Party to have a self-identified socialist Presidential candidate—Bernie Sanders—picking up so much steam among the Democratic Party base. The sub-header reads: “The rise of Bernie Sanders is proving awkward for the Democratic Party.”

You know what might be even more ‘awkward’ for the Democratic Party than the idea that many of their base voters would vote for an open socialist? How about the reality that most Democratic Party politicians holding national office owe their political careers to their cowering before Wall Street and big business—as the latter wrecked the economy and consolidated their stranglehold over the American political system—all while claiming to represent and fight for the ‘middle class’?

Yeah. That’s some serious awkward there. Go, Bernie, go. #Bernie2016

Instrumental & expressive aspects of collective action


A very basic breakdown:


  • We join with others to take collective action in order to achieve measurable goals. Our actions are tactics within strategies, which we hope will result in tangible successes/gains/improvements to people’s lives.
  • We are concerned with results. We evaluate whether our actions are moving us toward making substantial change.


  • We also join with others to take collective action because it makes us feel good. Our actions express our values, our identities, and our sense of belonging in the group or the movement.
  • Expressive aspects of collective action and movement participation are important — this is what feeds us, makes us feel like we’re not alone, and keeps us going.
  • WARNING: you can fulfill your expressive motivations without ever winning anything!

A longer elaboration of this dualism, authored by Joshua Kahn-Russell, Zack Malitz, and yours truly, is available at BeautifulTrouble.org.

Celebrate progressive victories


This weekend I am celebrating with friends. I am celebrating that the confederate flag has overnight become a pariah, even among mainstream conservatives. And I am celebrating that gay people can now marry each other anywhere in the United States. Do I think that these victories have solved structural racism or discrimination against LGBTQ people? Of course not. Nonetheless, I am celebrating these victories. They were hard won. These shifts will positively impact a lot of people in meaningful ways. And these victories point the way forward.

Some of my radical friends’ dismal reactions to good news this week has reminded me of something I wrote a few years back about the story of the righteous few. I decided to repost a lengthy excerpt today:

Radicals tend to become radicals because we become disillusioned with aspects of the dominant culture. When you feel like you’re up against the culture, it’s easy then to develop an inclination to separate yourself from that culture. When we begin to become aware of the destructive impacts of capitalism, racism, sexism, and whatever other social systems we encounter that we see perpetuating oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. We feel a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.

However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society more generally. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from the mainstream of society. With the mainstream seen as bad, we begin to look for ways to distinguish ourselves and our groups from anything mainstream. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate, and develop distinctions between ourselves and the mainstream, because these distinctions reinforce our radical identity. The distinguishing features go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive…

In the story of the righteous few, success itself becomes suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been ‘watered down.’ It seriously messes with radicals’ heads when some of our ideas start to become popular! We are so accustomed to being the most radical kid on the block, and suddenly people we’ve never met are coming out of the woodwork, marching in the streets with us, and spouting some of the lines we’ve been saying for years. Frankly, it can lead to a bit of an identity crisis. [emphasis added today]

The only thing I’ll add to this is: How do you expect to get more people to join collective action to win bigger victories if you completely dismiss the value of everything collective action has accomplished thus far? Take a minute to celebrate. We have our whole lives to keep critiquing, and, more importantly, to keep fighting for a better world.

Usurping the ‘officialization effect’

Bourdieu series, post #2

Power tends to appear magical to those who have less of it, and mechanical to those who are accustomed to wielding it instrumentally. Different social groups are differently positioned within the larger ‘field of power’; each possessing a different measure of symbolic power and equipped to a greater or lesser extent to navigate the terrain of symbolic power. The asymmetry is not only a matter of control of capital and material resources; it also has to do with the dispositions (or habitus) that correspond with individuals’ different positions in the social structure (affected by education, family life, and many other factors) The power gap between agents’ dispositions is manifested in their different attitudes toward power itself. This can be seen in the phenomenon (or device) that Pierre Bourdieu calls the officialization effect — typically wielded by the few to awe the many. Essentially, those who already hold the reins of power have (as a perk of that position) continually blowing at their back the wind of the officialization effect, which endows them with an aura of presupposed competence (Bourdieu 1990b:109).

So elites tend to possess both predisposition and capacity to effectively project their particular interests as universal (even if rival elite factions frequently fight amongst themselves over the details). The capacity to define the universal is the operation par excellence of symbolic power. The ‘universal’ is not actually universal here. It is, however, still quite real—not because it actually constitutes an objective universal, but because its projection of universality and articulation of the ‘common sense’ constitutes a powerful political operation. In other words, while the ‘universal’ is not really universal, it is nonetheless a political mechanism that the armchair critic’s truth does not dissolve.

Symbols are the instruments par excellence of ‘social integration’: as instruments of knowledge and communication…they make it possible for there to be a consensus on the meaning of the social world, a consensus which contributes fundamentally to the reproduction of the social order. (Bourdieu 1991:166)

What Bourdieu neglects to mention regarding the officialization effect is that, in rare occasions, such a tool can be effectively wielded by relatively powerless political challengers (e.g., social movements). This kind of projection of officialness can be quite difficult for an underdog to pull off, but there are abundant examples of savvy agents doing so successfully—even ‘passing’ as official until the point that they actually become so (i.e., when they take state power). Even on a local and partial level, such audacious projections of power—power that is not actually possessed (yet)—can provide a tactical boost in campaigns.
Continue reading

Bourdieu series (landing page)

Pierre Bourdieu, taking it to the streets

Pierre Bourdieu, taking it to the streets

I had the opportunity this past semester to take an intensive graduate seminar at Berkeley that focused on the works of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The class was quite intensive, and aptly named “Bourdieu Bootcamp” by the instructor, Loïc Wacquant, from whom I learned volumes. Prior to this semester, the most I had ever read that was written by a single author was probably J.K. Rowling, so this was a fun challenge. I’m going to post a series over the next few weeks in which I will wrestle with some of Bourdieu’s concepts—especially symbolic power, fields, and doxa—in an unsystematic manner, applying them especially to struggles for social and political change. These will be nerdy posts—you have been warned.

This is the landing page for this series, which I will update with each new post.

  1. The moral imperative of strategies of universalization
  2. Usurping the ‘officialization effect’