chasing after vs. articulating ‘public opinion’

Poll-pictureIn The Symbolic Uses of Politics, Murray Edelman had this to say about public opinion polling:

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.

(Thomas Gilbert and Andrew Loveridge made interesting related points last year in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.)

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” #BaltimoreUprising

power concedes nothing2

“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 personal is political. #FreddieGray

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)

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)

my articles on Occupy Wall Street

A reader recently brought to my attention that there’s no landing page that houses all of my publications on Occupy Wall Street. Now there is…

Smucker, Jonathan Matthew. 2014. “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 58:74–82

——. 2013. “Occupy: A Name Fixed to a Flashpoint.” The Sociological Quarterly 54(2):219–225.

——. 2012. “Radicals and the 99%: Core and Mass Movement.” Pp. 247-253 in We Are Many: Reflections on Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, ed. by K. Khatib, M. Killjoy and M. McGuire. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

——. 2012. “Falling in Love with Ourselves.” n+1 Occupy! (An OWS-Inspired Gazette), September 2012, pp. 28-29.

——. 2012. “A Practical Guide to Co-option.” n+1 Occupy! (An OWS-Inspired Gazette), May 2012, pp. 5-8.

——. 2012[2011]. “The Tactic of Occupation and the Movement of the 99 Percent.” Progressive Planning Magazine, Spring 2012, pp. 6-9.

Yours truly, mic-checking on November 17, 2011.

Yours truly, mic-checking on November 17, 2011.

more notes on ‘prefigurative politics’

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:

  1. 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.’
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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The Story of the Righteous Few, Exhibit #1: “a very solitary journey”

A friend just brought this meme to my attention:the activist

I’m elaborating on problems with the (relatively new) concept of activism and also about the story of the righteous few in my manuscript. For now, here’s an excerpt concerning the latter (from my chapter in AK Press’ book We Are Many):

Too often we get stuck in a story of the righteous few. 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.

Radicals may start to adorn themselves with distinguishing features to express separation from society, and also to flag other radicals . . . 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.

The full article can be read here.