01 September 2006


Recently on Znet there was another one of those articles on "why the Left doesn't succeed in America." This one was called "What prevents radicals from acting strategically?" The criticism seemed initially aimed, believe it or not, at angry protests in San Francisco. The author, Matthew Smucker asks:
Is my aim to engage, or to vent? Is the purpose of this protest instrumental; a tactic within a strategy to achieve a goal? Or is it expressive; an opportunity for me to shout to the sky my frustration?
The article then moved forth into a discussion of "the collective ritual aspect of social change movements." We need two different types of action, he argued: collective ritual and strategic engagement. He distinguished between the two as follows:
Another way to think about the distinction between collective ritual and strategic engagement is this: collective ritual expresses an ideal among people who already believe, long for, and/or live it; strategic engagement aims to meet everyone else where they are. We can create our own spaces where we speak our own internal language, but we must not lose our ability to speak the languages of the people who are all around us.
Now, it's difficult to disagree with this approach; of course we should all follow the advice Paulo Freire gave in Pedagogy of Hope, and aim to speak the "language of the people." And, granted, Smucker's concern is valid; in focusing too exclusively on our own "language" we face the risk of encapsulation, defined as follows:
Encapsulation occurs when a movement organization develops an ideology or structure that interferes with efforts to recruit members or raise demands. …members may develop such strong cohesion among themselves that outsiders become unwelcome. In prolonged interaction, a group may develop an ideology that is internally coherent but virtually unintelligible to recruits and outsiders who do not share all of the members' assumptions.
This might be true of "socialist" or "communist" splinter parties, in which advocacy of a correct line is more important than doing anything. But it's rather difficult to claim it of the mainstream antiwar movement or the mainstream environmental movement. San Francisco is an anomaly -- protesters in the rest of the US don't behave like they behave in San Francisco. There is something about Smucker's examples that do not quite ring true. The Weather Underground as an example of a movement that had "encapsulated" itself? The Weather Underground was one example among many of an American nation driven nearly insane by its failure to get its "leadership" to stop making war on Vietnam. And protest marches? Marches are by no means the raison d'etre of an antiwar movement -- marches are set to publicize the movement to the people and (especially) to the mass media. What people say at marches may not be as important as whether the marches themselves receive mass media coverage. If the mass media does not publicize marches, then different tactics must be employed toward the real goal of mobilizing the public to stop the war through a number of means -- electoral campaigns, sit-ins, teach-ins, and so on. Why point to the extremes and then claim "this is what prevents radicals from thinking strategically"?

Anarchist punks might be "encapsulated." But can we say the same of the Iraq Veterans against the War, or Scott Ritter? Or for that matter Ralph Nader or Peter Camejo? No, these people do indeed speak the "language of the people." And, whether you want to call them "radicals," or not, they do indeed wish to do things with radical implications. Ending war is a radical thing. It would appear, then, that Smucker's criticisms do not apply to a broad swath of America's social change movements which are indeed working for social change, and whose inability to change certain aspects of American life cannot be improved merely through "better communication."

My own concern, here, is that there is cadre of liberal "communication professionals," led perhaps by George Lakoff, who wish to use a discussion of rhetoric and/ or discourse to explain the ascendency of the Right and the impotence of the Left. The point is to suggest linguistic strategies to combat the Karl Rove rhetoric of the Bush administration. And that these professionals, in their eagerness to suggest "better communication" as the key to political success for the Left, are disinclined to look for other reasons why the Left is doing so poorly in US politics. Let me advance the public discussion in this direction by suggesting some other reasons for the rightwing tilt of American politics today:

1) Legacy issues. It is common in American political discourse to hear of certain issues being "behind us," as if to say that racism or racial discrimination or sexism no longer exists in America, or that "communism has failed" and so we should just put it in the past. However, racism still exists in America, and that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still reverberates in American politics. Communism, real communism everywhere on Earth, has always been a utopian vision, toward which states such as the Soviet Union strove. The fact that the Soviet Union did not make it to communism did not invalidate communism as a utopian vision. However, it can be said about American politics of both Right and Left that its participants share a routine anticommunism left over from the McCarthy era of the early 1950s and the beginning of the Cold War.

We do best, in this regard, to overcome history by learning and by teaching history, and by resuscitating utopian visions and vital debates that are dismissed as part of a routine of detaching American political debate from historical knowledge. Howard Zinn is one of our most effective weapons; the People's History one of our most powerful and popular books.

2) The place of America in the global system. The world economy is still today in a situation where, as described by Henry C. K. Liu, "World trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy." Liu describes this economy as follows:
The world's interlinked economies no longer trade to capture a comparative advantage; they compete in exports to capture needed dollars to service dollar-denominated foreign debts and to accumulate dollar reserves to sustain the exchange value of their domestic currencies. To prevent speculative and manipulative attacks on their currencies, the world's central banks must acquire and hold dollar reserves in corresponding amounts to their currencies in circulation. The higher the market pressure to devalue a particular currency, the more dollar reserves its central bank must hold. This creates a built-in support for a strong dollar that in turn forces the world's central banks to acquire and hold more dollar reserves, making it stronger.
Thus the US has become the world's favored consumer of last resort -- and in this regard the American Way can be found brandished broadly at every WalMart, as a corporate fortress where the rest of the world's goodies can be bought at a pittance.

We do best in our understanding of this reality if we reflect upon the environmental and job-prospect costs of dollar hegemony. We pay for dollar hegemony and the WalMartization of America by having no job security, by living under a capitalist system that is in the hands of financial speculators, and by a global environment that is steadily deteriorating. This message needs to be brought to people, not as a means of getting them to stop shopping WalMart, but for the sake of ending their solidarity with the politics of international class division. American workers can and should still fight for better lives like the rest of the world, but we need to effectively convey the message that better lives for us, here, does not necessarily mean continued poverty elsewhere.

3) The Two-Party System. Mainstream political organizations, regardless of their original intentions, have all been sucked into affiliation, either political or financial, with the Democratic Party or with vital sources of Democrat money. And the Democrats, unfortunately, are today a reactionary party, favoring a particularly destructive brand of neoliberalism and war politics. The American Left of today tends to fall into the all-too-easy "solution" of blaming all that is bad about American politics on Bush, ignoring the many elites which have acquiesced in the rigging of two elections to put him in his current spot. Criticism of the Democratic Party has become a perfunctory acknowledgement of grim realities, refusing to mention the real possibility that if you don't like what the Democrats are doing, you can quit the Democratic Party and join other parties or form your own.

The backup strategy, of course, is that voting Democrat, now and forever, is the "realistic" lesser-of-two-evils strategy. We can protest and organize all we want, while at the same time supporting a political class which intends to reject our most ardent political desires at every turn, and it will all amount to nothing. We support the Left with protest marches on Sundays, while paying for the Right out-of-pocket every April 15. Cry "unrealistic" all you want; a third party must be built, or America will only get worse.


Anonymous Matthew Smucker said...

Interestingly, I have yet to read Lakoff, but plan to do so soon. Thanks for this response. Please feel free to post it on my website as well, beyondthechoir.org

I want to be clear that my essay does not accuse the anti-war movement of encapsulation. You mention Scott Ritter and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), both of which I think are excellent examples of strategically engaging a broad cross-section of society. I have organized on several occassions with IVAW. In Lancaster, my homebase, we put IVAW, other veterans, and families of veterans in the spotlight at every opportunity. They lead our marches, and, for strategic reasons, I would rather see them at the front of a national anti-war march than the banner of any particular group.

I think encapsulation is a useful concept, because it is the extreme manifestation of the not uncommon activist tendency to self-isolate. While neither Scott Ritter or IVAW demonstrate this tendency, I believe that many anti-war activists do.

I agree that a major purpose of large protests is to attract media attention, but how we present ourselves affects the quality of that attention. I do not believe that media attention is invariably a positive thing. Spotlighting veterans like Ritter and IVAW as spokespeople for the anti-war movement is, I think, a smart way of presenting ourselves. It is a narrative strategy, wherein veterans are sympathetic characters that cannot be easily dismissed in ways that others of us often are. I want to suggest that we closely examine rhetoric, discourse and narrative as major factors in political struggles. Karl Rove, the Bush administration, and other power-holders take these factors very seriously, and I don't think we will serve ourselves by summarily dismissing the usefulness of story-based strategies. After all, we're talking about how people perceive us. Narrative analysis won't solve all of the left's problems - fundamentally we need to organize - but many groups successfully utilize story-based strategies (e.g. IVAW, Student/Farmworker Alliance, and the Zapatistas, to name a few) in their organizing work. The smartMeme strategy & training project has developed helpful tools to aid social movement groups in this work. Francesca Polletta's book, "It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest & Politics," while academic, offers valuable insights into this realm of strategy as well.

While there are plenty of valid critiques of how academia relates to social movements, know that this critique is from a grassroots radical organizer who doesn't even have a college degree. I'm 28, and I've been utilizing and training others in direct action for over ten years. I have used most all of the tactics that I offer as examples. I am not for some tactics and against others. I am for an analysis of the efficacy of tactics within strategies within particular contexts.

Thanks again. In struggle, Matthew

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a thread here but censorship got in the way. I guess the subject of Islam is too embarrassing for the Left.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Samuel said...

Hey "anonymous" --

since you didn't even bother to choose an identity, I didn't feel like I was censoring anyone's work.

your responses, at any rate, were pretty much off topic. the left in the US is not failing because it refuses to join in with the ignorant anti-Muslim chorus of the Republicans, nor is it failing because it does not adopt your intelligent anti-Muslim critique.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Samuel said...

Thanks Matthew, for a cogent and on-topic response. While I agree with your communicative premises, I do intend to persist in saying that the US Left has serious problems in its conceptualization of political, economic, and ecological realities, and that these problems will not be solved by attaching "better communication" to seriously flawed understandings of the world.

We really do need to move beyond, especially, band-aid approaches to global warming, ahistorical thinking about social problems, and "lesser of two evils" approaches to electoral politics. It might be how we say it -- but it's still, importantly, what we're saying.

Mention the system's ecological crisis on the Internet, and you've immediately got a dozen people trying to sell you a new technology which, they claim, will "solve" the problem. Sorry, I want to say to them, I wish you and your businesses the best of success, but your products will not heal the Earth in the way that is needed, even though they may make our lives better in other ways. If capitalism is allowed to continue in its ways, global warming will be a massive disaster, resulting in billions of deaths. How can we toy with it like we do?

The worst of it has got to be the American Left's beholdenness to the Democratic Party. How can we be "antiwar" while voting for a pro-war Presidential candidate?

Now, I don't believe the Left ought to be "staking positions" on every position. But I do think we are quite despairingly behind on the learning curve with some of these issues. How do you approach this?

11:12 PM  
Blogger Samuel said...

I didn't want to dispense with the topic of "legacy issues" and of America's lack of historical memory in a single paragraph. Anthony Woodiwiss' book Postmodernity USA is a good place to start with that. At any rate, I do think there's something to what Michael Eric Dyson said when he said that the difference "between now and then," then being the '60s, is that then there were a lot of white people willing to sign on to the causes of the black people.

5:40 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home