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July 17, 2012 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

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 means that they are potentially avoidable errors. I have explored some of these pitfalls elsewhere (notice the hyperlinks), and I will explore more of them in upcoming posts. Many of these are different names or different incarnations of the same underlying patterns. This list is only a small constellation within a whole universe of possible pitfalls; it is in no way exhaustive.

Listed in no particular order…

It’s important when looking at this list to not place all the blame for the problematic frameworks on the challenger movements themselves. It’s all too easy to “blame the activists.” If a society lacks movements that are strong enough and strategic enough to function as drivers of meaningful social change, then culpability and responsibility for that lack is shared across that society. It would be unfair to only point at those who are visibly active when so much of the problem has to do with widespread passivity. Challenger movements are not conjured out of thin air. They emerge organically within larger social realms, in relation to and in tension with status quo structures, cultures, norms and policies. Changes and developments in the larger social realm shape the character and content of emerging challenger movements. The same is true for the constraints that movements face, including constraints internal to movements’ (sub)cultures. Social movements are not fully autonomous subjective historical actors, neatly separable from the status quo we challenge. So, if a certain strategic error or pitfall is found to be recurring within challenger movements of a particular era, then we may be able to reasonably theorize a relationship between the common/recurring error and larger sociological patterns. To understand our movements’ internal challenges (e.g. to understand the above list of pitfalls), we also must study the broader social context we find ourselves in.

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