August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments

The Populist revolt — the most elaborate example of mass insurgency we have in American history — provides an abundance of evidence that can be applied in answering this question. The sequential process of democratic movement-building will be seen to involve four stages: (1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority — a development which, for the sake of simplicity, we may describe as “the movement forming”; (2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people — “the movement recruiting”; (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis — “the movement educating”; and (4) the creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way — “the movement politicized.”

Within this broad framework, it seems helpful to specify certain subsidiary components. Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect. They are not resigned; they are not intimidated. To put it another way, they are not culturally organized to conform to established hierarchical forms. Their sense of autonomy permits them to dare to try to change things by seeking to influence others. The subsequent stages of recruitment and of internal economic and political education (steps two, three, and four) turn on the ability of the democratic organizers to develop widespread methods of internal communication within the mass movement. Such democratic facilities provide the only way the movement can defend itself to its own adherents in the face of the adverse interpretations certain to emanate from the received culture. If the movement is able to achieve this level of internal communication and democracy, and the ranks accordingly grow in numbers and in political consciousness, a new plateau of social possibility comes within reach of all participants. In intellectual terms, the generating force of this new mass mode of behavior may be rather simply described as “a new way of looking at things.” It constitutes a new and heretofore unsanctioned mass folkway of autonomy. In psychological terms, its appearance reflects the development within the movement of a new kind of collective self-confidence. “Individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence” constitute, then, the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics. Their development permits people to conceive of the idea of acting in self-generated democratic ways — as distinct from passively participating in various hierarchical modes bequeathed by the received culture. In this study of Populism, I have given a name to this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct. I have called it “the movement culture.” Once attained, it opens up new vistas of social possibility, vistas that are less clouded by inherited assumptions. I suggest that all significant mass democratic movements in human history have generated this autonomous capacity. Indeed, had they not done so, one cannot visualize how they could have developed into significant mass democratic movements.

Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978)

Just a bit of common sense, perhaps, and from a historian whose views on the present are not the most clear-eyed, but worth remembering when considering political ‘alternatives’ at a time when the mainstream seems to have no other content than denying their existence.

Countless alternatives have been offered, of course, to the USA’s long string of disasters over the past decade — from Afghanistan to Katrina to TARP right down to this debt ceiling farce. In spite of the seriousness of their content — plans for bank nationalization, single-payer health care, economic stimulus, green infrastructure development plans, financial reform, demilitarized borders, troop drawdown, torture bans, etc. — they’re almost never discussed on their practical merits. Instead they’re dismissed for being ‘not politically possible,’ ‘unrealistic,’ and for that reason, ‘unserious.’ That’s because the apologists, and let’s just concentrate on the outwardly sympathetic ones for now, aren’t asking for alternatives, exactly. They want An Alternative. That is, they want an alternative center of power, something that could force Real Change through our Broken Institutions. This center doesn’t already exist, so with a few little noises of protest, the critics submit to what they say they hate, over and over again, until they learn to take pride in their prostration, otherwise known as ‘professionalism.’ When a careerist like Yglesias says he wants An Alternative to save him from his bean counting ways, he is smirkingly asking for someone else to pay his bills and invite him to Washington dinners. No offers are forthcoming, so back to exegesis.

This is the time to cite Chris Hedges’s “phantom left,” his observation, not made often enough, that the fantasy of a communist shadow nation just waiting to take power is as useful for liberals as it is for conservatives. Its degree of actual existence depends on its intended use — even the ‘desire’ for a Global Communist Superstate can serve as an alibi in the right hands. At its worst, ‘calling for’ a united left can be a way of undermining actual attempts to build one — pitting class politics against identity politics is a case in point. At another extreme it can lead to messianism.

This specious desire is for an already-constructed Outside of political conflict, equally present in Obama’s fantasy of reasoned, “bipartisan” centrism and Badiou-via-Zizek’s calls for revolutionary terror mathematically derived from the prophetic lineage of Robespierre and Mao. A secular outside is just the acknowledgement of many outsides, gaps in structure to be more precise, which are simultaneously points of agency. Refusing to realize this and assuming politicians are ‘forced’ to do the things they do is part of the same logic that absolves us from responsibility – we too start to think of ourselves as ‘forced’ to ‘be realistic’ about what we’re willing to demand from them, as if we were literal rather than metaphorical cogs in a machine. I hate to call what I’m trying to outline here ‘micropolitics’ because of all the baggage, but since we aren’t in a moment of powerful oppositional parties, what ‘the left’ means depends a great deal on what individuals who identify as ‘left’ do. There’s no need to be ‘against’ potential third parties, but the movement’s strength is not currently centralized enough to insist on them. There are, however, many autonomous institutions, many struggles, that need stronger connections (a piece of evidence often cited to justify this claim is the attendance of the last U.S. Social Forum and the relative lack of media attention) . The condition for realizing them is not a super-state or the dream of one, but commitment to politics outside the veal pen, outside mainstream terms of debate and independent of official power.

It hasn’t proved very reliable, but sometimes ‘serious people’ choose to risk their careers and official legitimacy by taking the many alternative ideas and organizations more seriously. For whom would it be a victory if Elizabeth Warren became a Senator? Should it be considered a loss for the left that Cenk Uygur was pushed out of MSNBC? These aren’t particularly consequential examples, but that’s the point: the political, media, corporate, and financial classes are not going to be the basis of anyone’s revolution. There are many theoretical and historical arguments for why, but a good shorthand is simply that the desire of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois — aka the “middle class” and “business class” — to retain and reproduce their privileges, while often sympathetic and sometimes linked to working class struggles (in, for example, the politics of access to higher education), is just not fundamental enough in a world system flimsily upheld by deep, multiple layers of oppression, violence, and ecological devastation. All that said, the halls of official power are open to (occasional, local, partial) dissent, and the most important rule for initiating it can perhaps be put like this: changing things from inside a system only works if non-rhetorical ties to its outside are maintained. As the state, the corporate media, even the university become more insular, as they isolate themselves ever further from their constituents, they may simply have to be abandoned — not as targets, of public pressure, criticism, and demands, but as subjects of identification and of investment of time and energy. Some are closer to this point than others.

[Note: this is a good documentary on the current sorry state of institutional left-liberal politics, and this on Gramsci (which I linked to in the comments to the last post) is some good forward thinking.]

So I end up with my own defense of “opting out.” Enough evaluating the appropriate distribution of praise and blame to Democrats, enough treating them like protagonists. Enough hoping for transcendence.

Somewhat whimsically, I’ll end with this piece of historical reflection from professional weirdo Alan Moore. Not very ambitious, but it almost seems that way in the political dark age we’re living through:

This is why I split from the comics industry. The way it had handled The Black Dossier certainly propelled me into other directions away from comics, to the point where the League is my only expression in the comics field and is likely to remain to so for the foreseeable future. When that happened, the nearest we got to supportive comments from the rest of the industry was along the lines of useful advice like, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” I’m not expecting the writers and artists of the industry to go out and struggle with Galactus, should he turn up suddenly and threaten to eat the world. Of course I’m not. I’m just asking them to show a little bit of ordinary human courage. I think that if they had done that, then the industry would probably not be in the state that it is.



§ 7 Responses to Outside(s)

  • traxus4420 says:

    Dissatisfaction – can it reach critical mass?:

    The trouble is, Chamberlain said, the deal cut by President Obama and the Republicans to raise the debt ceiling has many of the same aspects as union-busting budget Walker passed through the Wisconsin legislature, firing up what has become one of the most active progressive battlefields in years.

    “No real protections on entitlements. Dramatic cuts out of education. No shared sacrifice,” Chamberlain rattled off. “That’s exactly what happened in Wisconsin.”

    DFA’s research has shown voters in the recalls motivated by cuts to programs like Medicare in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) House budget (which has been the subject of more than one ad the group has run in contest). Behind that, they’re moved by the potential for cuts in education programs as well as policies that adversely affect the middle class workers like librarians and teachers.

    Progressive critics have said the deal to raise the debt ceiling could have many of the same effects. And the fact that voters just watched Obama get behind the deal could have a chilling effect on turnout.

    the anticipation strategy for dissatisfaction:

    A critical element of the deal, largely covered up in the media coverage and the statements of Democratic and Republican politicians, is the timing of the cuts, which are heavily back-loaded.
    While the total cuts over a ten-year period will be as high as $2.8 trillion, the actual spending cut for fiscal year 2012, which begins October 1, is $7 billion, while only another $3 billion in spending will be cut during fiscal year 2013. This means that less than one-half of one percent of the total cuts will take place during the next two years.
    The White House fact sheet claims that the purpose of phasing in nearly all the cuts after fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30, 2013, is to “avoid harming the recovery” that the Obama administration claims is under way in the US economy.
    The White House also claimed that enforcement mechanism to be triggered in the event that Congress fails to enact sufficient cuts “would not be made effective until 2013, avoiding any immediate contraction that could harm the recovery.”
    A major reason for the delayed introduction of the cuts and the enforcement mechanism is to disguise their impact before the 2012 election, allowing the Democrats to campaign as purported opponents of budget cuts they have already endorsed.

  • Watching Obama in that documentary is really eerie, because one has certainly begun to wonder if one imagined it

    • traxus4420 says:

      yeah, eerie in a different way than watching equally hyperreality-inducing clips of reagan or bush jr., where the simulacral quality of their lies is foregrounded and basically acknowledged. watching obama interact with his audience is almost as if you’ve gone back in time, except for his skin color, and once you notice that it’s like you’re watching someone’s dream.

  • […] starts from here: Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level […]

  • Hilo says:

    You seem to be arguing Yglesias’ position more than any other. In the absence of what you both acknowledge to be a center of gravity for progressive movments, Yglesias constructs an excuse generating discourse for his compliance. Opting out doesn’t hurt that, you simply become invisible to him.

    This isn’t to argue that he’s right, but to argue that this kind of argument is a bit smug in its inefficacy. I’ve been watching left movements for nearly two decades, and they’ve accomplished little, they’re based on mythologies about the previous eras. Not on what made them work, but what satisfies the ideology of people interpreting them. The reality is that popular movements have always had local goals and fights, they’ve transitioned those local goals to the national stage when they’ve been successful, for directed and focused gains, not an overthrow of the system, which is, as you and Yglesias both note, unlikely. I always wonder about where Hedges lives, if he indeed lives anywhere, and if there is not a group close by that is struggling under some unbearable condition that would be a perfect place to ply his ideas on a practical level, rather than giving derivative, boring speeches that no one hears but the people who live in the blogosphere. His idea that change is not possible at any level, reminds me of the elitist activist who finds local issues boring because they won’t end up being covered by the New York Times.

  • traxus4420 says:

    this is probably coming too late to be ‘worth it,’ but here’s a response just the same.

    it seems to me you’re arguing two contradictory things at the same time in a way that suggests to me i’m not making myself clear. the first, that abandoning active participation in mainstream party politics (backing one party against another in their various power bids) is smug and ineffectual, and the second, that the substance of left-wing politics is local and not generally interested in taking over the state. it seems to me that accepting the second point implies a break with the dominant parties — at the national level at the very least — so that they become “targets, of public pressure, criticism, and demands” and not “subjects of identification and of investment of time and energy.” in other words, strengthening connections between local politics rather than legitimate (useless) or illegitimate (futile) attempts to take over the state. for now, anyway.

    do you still think i’m being smug?

  • Hilo says:

    My main point is that too often these manifestos end up being calls to do nothing when faced with the intractable nature of national level politics. For many decades, left wing activism has been happening on the local scale, ignored completely by the public sphere. Now that the liberal participants in the public sphere can no longer get what they want out of the system–or at least cannot pretend that they were getting anything out of it any longer–they want to call it all bullshit and hide. They don’t become involved in any kind of non-electoral political movements at all, they simply “opt out”, which means doing a lot of complaining and trying to convince people that are politically active that they’re wasting their time. In essence, trying to dishearten them, rather than boosting them. Additionally, for people who expect little more than corruption and self-enrichment at the national level, that is, for people who understand that there are limited victories at the national level that have impact on many people, there are worthwhile battles there as well that involve electoral politics.

    You mentioned Hedges, a particularly annoying example of what I’m talking about. I once watched him humiliate a woman who asked why she shouldn’t get involved in local green party politics. His answer was dismissive and completely ignorant. Re reading your essay, I see that you were hinting at some of the points I made in my rebuttal. So, it’s possible I’m viewing you through that lens I view Hedges in. In my defense, you weren’t as clear as you could have been. I cite this, for example, as an idea that you began, but didn’t elaborate to an adequate level:

    “There are, however, many autonomous institutions, many struggles, that need stronger connections (a piece of evidence often cited to justify this claim is the attendance of the last U.S. Social Forum and the relative lack of media attention) . The condition for realizing them is not a super-state or the dream of one, but commitment to politics outside the veal pen, outside mainstream terms of debate and independent of official power.”

    I can only guess at what you mean as politics outside the veal pen. I was at the US Social Forum, by the way, and since then I’ve heard one criticism after another about how it was an extension of ‘official power’, because of its ties to the AFL CIO, which continues to be a Democratic party device. A stupid argument, I find, but passionately argued by its critics nonetheless.

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