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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

our-gang

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.

March 24, 2014 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Not all groups have strategies.

Ah social movement theory… I get to read quite a lot of it this year. I’m enjoying it, but of course I will probably end up writing more about the things that I am critical of.

For example, the often loose usage of the word strategy. Scholars often make an implicit assumption that social movements have strategies. Of course many movements do. But all of them? Just because a group engages in activities does not inevitably mean that they possess a strategy that orders those activities. A strategy is essentially a plan to move toward the attainment of a goal; a kind of map to get from Point A to Point B; from where you are now to where you want to be, accounting for obstacles and constraints that must be navigated along the way. Strategies are often confused with tactics, which are the specific actions within the strategy; actions intended to move the strategy forward. Even in less strict usage, however, a strategy typically references a plan to achieve something; it is not a thing unto itself. Eating ice cream, for example, may be delightful, but it is not a strategy. The same principle applies to a group’s self-expressive aspects: maybe delightful for participants; ≠ strategy.

We should not make the assumption that because a social movement group exists, it must automatically have a strategy by virtue of its existence. Why should we assume that any group that is engaged in collective action is necessarily strategically oriented? A group that comes together because it cares about a given issue (or set of issues) does not inevitably possess strategic know-how. Indeed, I have worked in many groups that had highly developed analyses about the issues they were concerned about but had no strategy for how to make headway on those issues. It doesn’t serve anyone for scholars to describe such a group’s activities as strategic simply because the group is carrying out activities.

If the activities strengthen the identity of the group of actors, that could very well be beneficial for both the lives of individual participants and, potentially, for building the capacity of the group to carry out a strategic plan — but that does not mean that strengthening the identity of the group is itself an instrumental strategy, in the political sense. Such activities are often described by social movement scholars as expressive (as opposed to instrumental), which does not inherently mean these activities are unimportant. I would assert, however, that the extent to which a group’s internal culture comes to decrease its interest in interventions in the world beyond itself is the extent to which the group is effectively depoliticized.

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