Another intense semester has come to an end and suddenly I have some time to relax, to catch up with friends, and even to indulge in wasting a little time on the Internet. Just now I remembered old Leeroy Jenkins — the disruptive antihero of World of Warcraft — and I thought I’d watch the Youtube video of his performance from ten years ago.
Because of my predisposition to see WoW as an unforgivable waste of time, I’ve always loved Leeroy’s utter disregard for the norms, processes, and careful strategic planning of his WoW teammates. Unilaterally cutting the collective planning stage short, Leeroy enthusiastically runs headlong kamikaze-style into enemy territory, embarking on what is sure to be a suicide mission, while narcissistically shouting his own name, “LEEEEEROOOYY JEENNNKINNNSS!!!” With the action kicked off prematurely, his teammates have no choice but to follow Leeroy into the field to do battle with beasts and demons and who-knows-what-else, hoping against hope to salvage something from the unfavorable situation created by the asinine antics of their stupid/brave comrade.
This time watching the clip, I realized how tragically perfect Leeroy Jenkins fits as a metaphor for way too many of my experiences in grassroots social movements. From the global justice movement to Occupy Wall Street (*not these movements as a whole, but particular episodes therein) to countless local campaigns over the past two decades, I have spent so much time and energy running headlong into an asymmetrical battle terrain prematurely — because a few ‘heroes’ self-righteously interpreted the imperative to act as an excuse for neglecting to develop a strategic plan. And once the action is underway, others follow, of course — in order to protect their comrades, to bail them out of jail, to fundraise for their legal defense, and on and on; essentially doing ‘damage control.’ (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that everyone who gets arrested at street actions is akin to Leeroy Jenkins, or that willingness to endure arrest and repression never serves to further the strategy of a movement.) I have struggled in so many situations like this to try to reframe actions that have already been unfavorably framed by our shit-show first impression.
Yup, I have reluctantly followed Leeroy Jenkins on doomed and costly missions. I can also remember being Leeroy Jenkins at least a few times. Fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins, screwing it all up. And it just takes one Leeroy Jenkins.
A related kind of ambiguity pervades political process as well: uncertainty about how much public support or opposition for programs exists or can be created. Because opinion is constructed and volatile, all indicators of it are problematic. Poll reports are therefore another device for the reduction of ambiguity to clarity.
Polled individuals are abstracted both from their everyday lives and from political discussion and action shared with others. Their opinions are therefore also abstract — not necessarily related to any course they would pursue when involved in political activities different from answering an interviewer (or, perhaps, voting). In this artificial situation expressed opinion depends upon verbal cues together with changing memories of past situations and anticipations of future ones. Polls and surveys generate numbers that have the dramaturgical look of hard data and the epistemological look of shifting fantasies.
In his essay “Public Opinion Does Not Exist,” Pierre Bourdieu similarly deflates polling as an elaborate trick that elites use to claim to speak for ‘the people.’ This mechanism, which measures aggregated answers of individuals, who are extracted from any organic social context, to questions about matters that they may or may not have any prior concern or idea about, has an inherently conservative bias to it. This conservative bias is due, in part, to the fact that the majority of people will likely be marginally informed, at best, about most issues, and the vague impressions they have will have been mostly informed by dominant discourses. So, while a particularly impacted community or field may hold intimate experience, expert knowledge, and higher stakes concerning a given issue, the opinion of an ill-informed majority—whose snapshot ‘opinion’ is no-doubt shaped by dominant discourse, which tends to be biased to favor elite opinion—will count just as much. Actually it will count for more, in the aggregate. Nonetheless, political elites can use the concept of ‘public opinion’ as a weapon—a weapon that is disguised as a mere measuring stick—to legitimize themselves, their agendas, and their powers.
While it may be foolish for political actors (including underdog challengers) to ignore popular sentiment, it is perhaps even more foolish to ‘chase after the wind’ of public opinion; to treat it as if it were something that existed concretely, as an unbending thing, rather than as an ever-constructed construction, whose articulation a political actor has to constantly contribute to and contest — if that actor hopes to be a contender, and not merely a commentator on the sidelines.
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” —Frederick Douglass
The phrase “the personal is political” was originally intended to mean that the oppression that you experience as an individual is patterned—that there are structural factors underlying your experience, and so there are probably others experiencing similar things. “The personal is political” encouraged individuals who were experiencing oppressive situations—for example, a woman abused by her husband, or a worker exploited by her employer—to view these situations not as personal problems, but as political problems, and to realize that remedial action requires coming together with others to address the issue collectively in the public sphere.
Such a process is precisely what has been happening across the United States as police killings of our black and brown brothers and sisters are now being seen as a pattern, a structural problem, and a political problem, by more and more people. This means that each needless death and each instance of excessive force is now understood as part of a bigger moral narrative. Victims’ families and communities no longer have to struggle on their own, isolated from each other. There is now a stronger sense, at least, that ‘you are not alone.’ This articulation of a common story about structural racism and economic inequality in relation to America’s police departments provides a stronger basis for the collective mobilization it will take to change this intolerable situation.
Racism is a powerfully destructive force in American society. Its crimes and its harm are immeasurable. It is a structural problem, which means it is everyone’s problem. It is all of our responsibility. It asks something of each of us. Please pay attention to Baltimore, with compassion in your heart. #BlackLivesMatter#FreddieGray
The Rev. Westley West leads a march for Freddie Gray to the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station, Wednesday, April 22, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
An amazing person left us today. Eduardo Galeano’s writing about Latin America is a gift to all of humanity. If you’ve never read anything by Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America is a good place to start.
In convening a forum on power and prefiguration this past month for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, I have had the opportunity to engage in a lot of deep and clarifying discussions—with readers and with the forum’s seven other authors. There is no way around the ambiguity of the phrase prefigurative politics and the fact that, as its usage has increased—and as it has become a buzzword within some contemporary social movements—the people who have come to use or identify with it now often intend divergent meanings. Is it accurate or useful, then, to interpret the phrase as I did in my article: “as a claim to replace strategic politics altogether?” I have debated this question for some time, in my own head and with comrades. Essentially, my choice was between interpreting prefigurative politics as either (A) an assertion that political contestation is unnecessary or obsolete—which I did—or (B) allowing a more ambiguous interpretation that references some form or other of ‘being the change you want to see in the world.’
Even though I went with the first option, it is worth unpacking the second interpretation of prefigurative politics. What are these prefigurative forms? Are there different kinds? I see at least four distinct concepts that the single term prefigurative politics sometimes references:
participatory and horizontal organizational and decision-making processes: for some people this just means less hierarchy and greater levels of member input in decision-making; for others it means a very specific form of consensus decision-making (distinct from majority rules) and/or an ethic of ‘leaderlessness.’
non-capitalist economic institutions: sometimes called parallel institutions or counter-institutions. Examples include collective workplaces without bosses, housing cooperatives, land trusts — shared projects that provide some kind of material benefit for participants, or even for the larger society.
anti-oppressive group behavioral norms: this is about recognizing how we are socialized into many social systems of oppression (e.g., white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism) and attempting to establish less oppressive, more liberatory practices in our groups as we work for social justice.
dramaturgical foreshadowing: here we dramatically express ‘the world as it could be’ in our public-facing actions. For example, blacks and whites integrating a lunch counter in the south foreshadows or ‘prefigures’ the world that action participants were working towards. In this case, the prefigurative elements of the action are part of a communications strategy aimed at morally moving broader audiences.