Tag Archives: social movement

Laclau On Populist Reason

Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason is like the mother of all books on populism. Partly in its difficulty (Sweet Christmas is difficult an understatement), but also, after much struggle for comprehension, its depth of understanding of populism and how exactly it works. It is thus quite a different book from those by Jan-Werner Müller or Marco Revelli. Luckily it is fairly unique.

That all goes to say this is a boring work in progress that should be read as such even more than all my other boring posts on books.

It is in argument with both work on populism and the masses as well as with thinking around class formation and revolution and agency within Marxism. As well as with Hegel and Zizek and others. I do not untangle all of these arguments. Could not. I love the concept of hegemony but hardly touch it as constituted here. I still can’t decide whether I even want to read Lacan. Life is short and I still wish people had gone with Fromm as their psychoanalyst of choice. But no.

Part I: The Denigration of the Masses

Just to give you a taste of the language:

As I argue there, the impossibility of fixing the unity of a social formation in any conceptually graspable object leads to the centrality of naming in constituting that unity, while the need for a social cement to assemble the heterogeneous elements once their logic of articulation (functionalist or structuralist) no longer gives this affect its centrality in social explanation. Freud had already clearly understood it: the social bond is a libidinal one… ‘Populism’ was always linked to a dangerous excess, which puts the clear-cut moulds of a rational community into question. So my task, as I conceived it was to bring to light the specific logics inherent in that excess, and to argue that, far from corresponding to marginal phenomena they are inscribed in the actual working of any communitarian space. (x)

But there is some clarity here as for Laclau, like Müller and others, it is not the content of struggle but the form of it that defines populism.

My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon but to a social logic whose effects cut across many phenomena. Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political. (xi)

His argument, as I understand it, is that within much of political theory populism cannot be well understood because of its own limits of how it understands people as social agents. In his words, the impasse is ‘rooted in the limitation of the ontological tools currently available to political analysis … the limits inherent in the ways in which Political Theory has approached the question of how social agents ‘totalize’ the ensemble of their political experience‘ (4).

This has happened in the way that it has been defined from the beginning ‘in terms of ‘vagueness’, ‘imprecision’, imprecision’, intellectual poverty’, purely transient’ as a phenomenon, manipulative’ in its procedures, and so on‘. It has been separated from ‘what is rational and conceptually apprehensible in political action from its dichotomic opposite: a populism conceived as irrational and undefinable‘ (16). If defined as irrational, how then can political theory understand its rationalities? This block comes from the longstanding academic distrust, fear and sometimes hatred of the masses, the bestowing of all rationality on the individual alone.

…the rabble of the cities which was, for Taine, the real actor in the revolutionary process. Within this general decline, any group could degenerate into a crowd. Taine anticipates what will become the established wisdom among crowd theorists —namely; that rationality belongs to the individual, who loses many of his rational attributes when he participates in a crowd. He likes to compare crowd behaviour to inferior forms of life, like plants or animals, or to primitive forms of social organization. (34)

This distrust is still shaping how much of the discourse around populism forms today. Part of why I find Müller’s work helpful in defining precisely what is dangerous in the constructions of populism (the exclusivity of definition of ‘a people’ leaving those outside open to violence and repression) as opposed to this general distaste for mass movement. And of course, Laclau argues that there also exists psychology specific to popular identity:

Whatever its short-comings, crowd psychology had touched on some crucially important aspects in the construction of social and political identities — aspects which had not been properly addressed before. The relationship between words and images, the predominance of the ’emotive’ over the ‘rational’, the sense of omnipotence, the suggestibility and the identification with the leaders, and so on, are all too real features of collective behaviour. (39)

Part II: Constructing the ‘People’

The real usefulness of Laclau for my own thinking and work lies in this way of thinking through how ‘the people’ is constructed, though mostly written off by other authors — a single paragraph in Müller for example, that hardly does this work justice. But you have to work through a whole lot of difficult theoretical work to get there.

The two pejorative propositions to which I referred were: (1) that populism is vague and indeterminate in the audience to which it addresses itself, in its discourse, and in its political postulates; (2) that populism is mere rhetoric. To this I opposed two different possibilities: (1) that vagueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such; (2) that rhetoric is not epiphenomenal vis-a-vis a self-contained conceptual structure, for no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices. If this is so, the conclusion would be that populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such. (67)

Again, this highlights how Laclau sees this work contributing to how we understand politics much more broadly.

The categories he describes as central to his approach:

  1. Discourse. Discourse is the primary terrain of the constitution of objectivity as such. By discourse, as I have attempted to make clear several times, I do not mean something that is essentially restricted to the areas of speech and writing, but any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role. This means that elements do not pre-exist the relational complex but are constituted through it. (68)
  2. Empty signifiers and hegemony.
    1. Given that we are dealing with purely differential identities, we have, in some way, to determine the whole within which those identities, as different, are constituted (the problem would not, obviously, arise if we were dealing with positive, only externally related, identities).
    2. Since we are not postulating any necessary structural centre, endowed with an a priori ‘determination in the last instance’ capacity, `centring’ effects that manage to constitute a precarious totalizing horizon have to proceed from the interaction of the differences themselves. How is this possible?
  3. Rhetoric. There is a rhetorical displacement whenever a literal term is substituted by a figural one. (70-71)

Where Müller defines as populism one group forming itself as ‘a people’ exclusionary to others and under a charismatic leader, he does not really go into how this happens. For Laclau, it is this how that is central to populism’s definition.

we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group [as opposed to the ideology or mobilization of an already constituted group]…’the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. (73)

Central to this is what Laclau terms the ‘internal frontier’, the dividing line between us and them. This resonates strongly with Revelli’s description of the importance of borders and internal segregation. This oppositional character is central to all definitions. I find Laclau’s language here quite difficult, but this conceptualisation really useful:

…we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands. The requests are turning into claims. … A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the `people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands —whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification (74).

This essentially means that multiple groups and multiple demands can be brought together (the equivalential chain or articulation) in a way that does not eliminate differences, merely connects them together in opposition. The existence of the internal or antagonistic frontier in one requirement for this, the second that all of these demands must be able to see themselves as represented by one central demand wide enough, vague enough, to allow their own issue to fit under it — what Laclau terms the ’empty signifier’.

I particularly like the initial requirement of ‘requests’ becoming ‘claims’ and demands, this is the moment individual discontent and resistance can become movement, right? But not necessarily a populist one.

Also required is crisis.

Without this initial break-down of something in the social order — however minimal that something could initially be — there is no possibility of antagonism, frontier, or, ultimately, ‘people’. (85)

And within this break down is needed both unfulfilled demands and unresponsive power. Where these occur, and there exists an internal frontier (the other side of which sits unresponsive power) and a growing ‘equivalential bond’ there remains the moment in which the links between these different groups and demands is forged,

… equivalential relations would not go beyond a vague feeling of solidarity if they did not crystallize in a certain discursive identity which no longer represents democratic demands as equivalent, but the equivalential link as such. It is only that moment of crystallization that constitutes the ‘people’ of populism. What was simply a mediation between demands now acquires a consistency of its own. Although the link was originally ancillary to the demands, it now reacts over them and, through an inversion of the relationship, starts behaving as their ground. Without this operation of inversion, there would be no populism. (93)

This link becomes in its way more prominent than the demands themselves. This happens when

…some kind of common denominator has to be found which embodies the totality of the series. Since this common denominator has to come from the series itself, it can only be an individual demand which, for a set of circumstantial reasons, acquires a certain centrality (Let us remember our Solidarnosc example, above.) This is the hegemonic operation, which I have already described. There is no hegemony without constructing a popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands. So let us locate the popular identity within the relational complex which explains the conditions of both its emergence and its dissolution.

Two aspects of the constitution of popular identities are important for us. First, the demand which the popular identity crystallizes is internally split: on the one hand, it remains a particular demand; on the other, its own particularity comes to signify something quite different from itself: the total chain of equivalential demands. While it remains a particular demand, it also becomes the signifier of a wider universality. (95)

It is thus not a question of ‘finding an abstract common feature underlying all social grievances, but with a performative operation constituting the chain as such’

It is like the process of condensation in dreams: an image does not express its own particularity, but a plurality of quite dissimilar currents of unconscious thought which find their expression in that single image. It is well known that Althusser used this notion of condensation to analyse the Russian Revolution: all the antagonisms within Russian society were condensed in a ruptural unity around demands for ‘bread, peace and land’. The moment of emptiness is decisive here: without empty terms such as ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, and so on being invested into the three demands, the latter would have remained closed in their particularism; but because of the radical character of the investment, something of the emptiness of ‘justice’ and `freedom’ was transmitted to the demands, which thus became the names of a universality that transcended their actual particular contents. (97)

This means that the ‘problem’ of the vagueness and imprecision of populist symbols as described in much of the literature is actually its key feature required for its existence.

On to the nature of populist leadership.

A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? The two most common types of explanation are ‘suggestion’ — a category taken from crowd theorists — and ‘manipulation’ — or, quite frequently, a combination of the two (a combination which presents no major problems since each shades easily into the other). In my view, this kind of explanation is useless. For even if we were going to accept the ‘manipulation’ argument, the most it would explain is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds — that is to say, we would know nothing about the kind of relation which is subsumed under the label of ‘manipulation’. (99)

Sometimes I think he is at his clearest when laying out quite how others are wrong. The leader is in some ways like the empty signifier. A necessary focus. As Laclau writes:

However, the symbolic unification of the group around a individuality — and here I agree with Freud — is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’. (100)

And on to the final attribute, and into the great world of affect. A world of theory I work with very little. This is a handy summary of how far we are though:

A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage – via equivalences – from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other – something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described. This qualitatively differentiated and irreducible moment is what I have called ‘radical investment’. … It is clear, however, that if an entity becomes the object of an investment – as in being in love, or in hatred – the investment belongs necessarily to the order of affect. (110)

An this is a more complex way to theorise how a part of ‘the people’ tries to constitute itself as the whole:

So we can conclude that any social whole results from an indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions. But in discussing the constitution of popular identities, we are dealing with a very particular type of whole: not one which is just composed of parts, but one in which a part functions as the whole (in our example: a plebs claiming to be identical with the populus). 111

That requires more thought perhaps. But finally we are ready to bring it all together. The three aspects then of populism:

  1. First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. I see social logics as involving a rarefied system of statements — that is to say, a system of rules drawing a horizon within which some objects are representable while others are excluded. So we can talk about the logics of kinship, of the market — even of chess-playing (to use Wittgenstein’s example). A political logic, however, has something specific to it which is important to stress. While social logics consist in rule-following, political logics are related to the institution of the social. Such an institution, however, as we already know, is not an arbitrary fiat but proceeds out of social demands and is, in that sense, inherent to any process of social change. This change, as we also know, takes place through the variable articulation of equivalence and difference, and the equivalential moment presupposes the constitution of a global political subject bringing together a plurality of social demands. This in turn involves, as we have seen, the construction of internal frontiers and the identification of an institutionalized ‘other’. (117)
  2. There are two other aspects from our previous discussion which have to come into our conceptual characterization of populism: those which concern naming and affect. … From this we can deduce that the language of a populist discourse — whether of Left or Right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating: not because of any cognitive failure, but because it tries to operate performatively within a social reality which is to a large extent heterogeneous and fluctuating. I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision — which, it should be clear, does not have any pejorative connotation for me — as an essential component of any populist operation. (118)
  3. I’m no longer quoting Laclau but trying to put this into my words because this still seems unclear to me…There must be a particular demand unfulfilled that can in a sense stand in for multiple demands, or the equivalential chain in Laclau’s language. There is a tension between the differences among the multiple demands and the particular demand, but neither can fully stand in for the other so this tension must be present and balanced to create movement. These must be contained within ‘an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization, to ‘business as usual’…There is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation, and it is their presence we intuitively perceive when we call a discourse or a mobilization ‘populistic’. (123)

These charts defiinitely helped me understand this better…particularly thinking about the differences between domination and hegemony. So, domination:

p 130

He gives the example of the Russian Tsar on the one side of the dichotomic frontier, with multiple sectors of society standing in opposition each with their own demands, but uniting in an ‘equivalential chain’ behind the demands of D1 (which becomes the signifier).

Hegemony is the process by which the group on the other side of the dichotomic frontier works to incorporate the demands of certain of these sectors to ‘interrupt’ the creation of an oppositional equivalential chain through creation of an equivalential chain of their own, blurring the lines of this frontier and ensure their hold on power. It looks more like this:

p 131

So what happens to the ‘signifier’ demand of D1 when their other interests are accommodated/co-opted and people change sides as it were? It has to be recast, a new signifier/symbol found and this is always what is at stake in moments of change and crisis when this signifier is suddenly ‘floating’, requiring redefinition after the break up of what was a stable formation. Laclau makes the really interesting observation here about how often it is not precisely the content of D1 that matters to individuals, but its form, ie its radicalism. This explains why so many of the left seemingly quite easily can swing to the right — the swing in support for the New Deal to New Conservativism for example. Laclau writes that for a very long time conservative populism would have been unthinkable in the US, as the conservative tradition was ‘centred on ‘defence of unregulated capitalism and the discouragement of any kind of grass-roots mobilization‘. This began to change with McCarthyism, and a shift in discourse shift from workers to ‘regular Joe’. This marked a break between populism and liberalism, witnessed the New Deal’s discourse in retreat and the moment it fell apart as middle America experience a great loss of power, stuck between Washington elites and demands of ‘minority’ groups. This is a pursuasive narrative to some degree, though I think the faultlines of race and gender cleave this in two just a little, force a more historic look at ‘conservatism’

There follows some arguments with Marxist ideas of the working class as the agents of social change and how this is now untenable. This is undoubtedly my favourite sentence for style and verve.

The ‘peoples without history’ have occupied centre stage to the point of shattering the very notion of a teleological historicity. So forget Hegel. (147-148)

Part III: Populist Variations

This is where all of the theory is brought somewhat to earth. Somewhat.

It is not just the idea of ‘the people’ that must be constructed, but also the antagonistic frontier. I do myself feel a desire to make this all a little more material here, root this in concrete oppressions. But this wider definition makes more sense of the rise of Trump and the revolt of the still-well-to-do-though-not-as-well-to-do-as-before masses. This is a political process and upends Habermas and Rawls who see representative democracy as politicians representing the will of the people presuming that to be pre-existing when in fact it must be constructed. This is why populism can fit within both totalitarian and liberal democratic regimes.

And again, it does not arise without crisis. This is so prescient of our current conjuncture.

populism never emerges from an absolute outside and advances in such a way that the previous state of affairs dissolves around it, but proceeds by articulating fragmented and dislocated demands around a new core. So some degree of crisis in the old structure is a necessary precondition of populism for, as we have seen, popular identities require equivalential chains of unfulfilled demands. Without the slump of the 1930s, Hitler would have remained a vociferous fringe ringleader. (177)

The possibilities for movement are three:

1. A largely self-structured institutional system which relegates to a marginal position any anti-institutional challenge — that is to sat; the latter’s ability to constitute equivalential chains is minimal (this would correspond to the first two situations within Schedler’s model).

2. The system is less well structured, and requires some kind of periodical recomposition. Here the possibility of populism in the Schedler/ Surel’s sense arises: the system can be challenged, but since its ability for self-structuration is still considerable, the populist forces have to operate both as ‘insiders’ and as ‘outsiders’.

3. The system has entered a period of ‘organic crisis’ in the Gramscian sense. In that case, the populist forces challenging it have to do more than engage themselves in the ambiguous position of subverting the system and, at the same time, being integrated into it: they have to reconstruct the nation around a new popular core. Here, the recon-structive task prevails over that of subversion. (178)

Key to remember (and perhaps quite usefully illustrated by Italy’s three different populist movements in the past few years)

there is nothing automatic about the emergence of a ‘people’. On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim. The reasons for this are clear: political identities are the result of the articulation (that tension) of the opposed logics of equivalence and difference, and the mere fact that the balance between these logics is broken by one of the two poles prevailing beyond a certain point over the other, is enough to cause the ‘people’ as a political actor to disintegrate. (200)

Laclau has all these lists and bullet points which usually serve to make things clearer but I am not entirely certain these do. I think they do. These refer to the ‘set of theoretical decisions necessary for something like a ‘people’ to become intelligible, then the historical conditions that make its emergence possible’

  1. A first theoretical decision is to conceive of the ‘people’ as a political category, not as a datum of the social structure. This designates not a given group, but an act of institution that creates a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements. For this reason, I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis would not be the group, as a referent, but the socio-political demand.
  2. It is in this contamination of the universality of the populus by the partality of the plebs that the peculiarity of the ‘people’ as a historical actor lies. The logic construction is what I have called ‘populist reason’. (224) On the universality of the partial: A popular demand is one that embodies the absent fullness of the community through a potentially endless chain of equivalences. That is why populist reason — which amounts, as we have seen, to political reason tout court breaks with two forms of rationality which herald the end of politics: a total revolutionary event that, bringing about the full reconciliation of society with itself, would make the political moment superfluous, or a mere gradualist practice that reduces politics to administration.
  3. Let us move now to the other angle: the partiality of the universal. This is where the true ontological option underlying our analysis is to be found. Whatever ontic content we decide to privilege in an ontological investment, the traces of that investment cannot be entirely concealed. The partiality we privilege will also be the point that universality necessarily inhabits. The key question is: does this ‘inhabiting’ do away with the specificity of the particular, such that universality becomes the true medium for an unlimited logical mediation, and particularity the merely apparent field of expressive mediation? Or, rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque (non-)representative moment becomes constitutive? (225)
  4. … the unity of the social agent is the result of a plurality of social demands coming together through equivalential (metonymic) relations of contiguity, the Contingent moment of naming has an absolutely central and constitutive role. The psychoanalytic category of overdetermination points in the same direction. In this respect, naming is the key moment in the constitution of a ‘people’, whose boundaries and equivalential components permanently fluctuate. Whether nationalism, for instance, is going to become a central signifier in the constitution of popular identities depends on a contingent history impossible to determine through a priori means. (227)

I copy at such length because I might not be understanding. The ‘people’ are constructed through politics, and do not pre-exist politics in some natural organic form to be discovered or tapped. This politics and process of construction centres around a socio-political demand. Through this a portion of the larger population articulated around this demand comes to argue it represents the whole — the universality of the partial. Number 3…whew. That demand, that partial population claiming to speak for the whole will shape future politics. There is more there I am not getting. And that finally for all of this to come together, it is the naming of that demand that is central, and this will be shaped by the particular history and circumstances of each ‘people’ so formed rather than necessarily by class a la Marx.

And to come to a finale:

We need to make a final point. The passage from one hegemonic formation, or popular configuration, to another will always involve a radical break, a creatio ex nihilo. It is not that all the elements of an emerging configuration have to be entirely new, but rather that the articulating point, the partial object around which the hegemonic formation is reconstituted as a new totality, does not derive its central role from any logic already operating within the preceding situation. Here we are close to Lacan’s passage a l’acte, which has been central in recent discussions concerning the ethics of the Real…As the equivalential/articulating moment does not proceed.from logical need for each demand to move into the others, what is crucial for the emergence of the ‘people’ as a new historical actor is that the unification of a plurality of demands in a new configuration is constitutive and not derivative. In other words, it constitutes an act in the strict sense for it does not have its source in anything external to itself. The emergence of the ‘people’ as a historical actor is thus always transgressive vis-a-vis the situation preceding it. (228)

And there we are. I am most familiar with the rise of the Alt Right, and this helps explain so much I think. That they are not the oppressed as Revelli writes, but the winners of a previous era now experiencing some loss. The insane multiplicity of agendas and conspiracy theories and religious congregations that have somehow come together (without agreeing with each other and even hating each other, the perfect equivalential chain really) around a billionaire and his claim to make America Great Again and to be cleaning out the swamp. The visible construction of these discourses through media. I like Revelli’s addition of the right-wing twist, with its need for evil elites and a third group as scapegoat — immigrants.

Laclau was writing long before this of course. He ends with some thoughts on the conjuncture he was writing within:

The question concerning historical conditions should therefore be: are we living in societies that tend to increase social homogeneity through immanent infrastructural mechanisms or, on the contrary do we inhabit a historical terrain where the proliferation of heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly political forms of social reaggregation…

the answer yes, and why?

globalized capitalism. By capitalism, of course, we should no longer understand a self-enclosed totality governed by movements derived from the contradictions of commodity as an elementary form. We can no longer understand capitalism as a purely economic reality, but as a complex in which economic, political, military, technological and other determinations — each endowed with its own logic and a certain autonomy — enter into the determination of the movement of the whole. In other terms, heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism, the partial stabilizations of which are hegemonic in nature. (230)

Let the crises and rise of populisms begin.

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.

Jan-Werner Müller on Populism

This is just a very short introduction the subject, and very clearly written. It has three goals: to help define what qualifies as populism, looks at some of the deeper causes, and what a successful response might look like.

For Müller, there are three conditions to a movement to qualify as populism:

  1. it must be critical of elites.
  2. it must be antipluralist. ‘Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. Populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist)’ (3). It is exclusionary, leaving some outside the boundaries, and therein lies its danger (4)
  3. it represents a particular form of governance: attempts to hijack the state apparatus; corruption and ‘mass clientelism’; efforts systematically to suppress civil society
Chapter 1: What Populists Say

Notes through 60s and 70s, the ‘spectre’ of populism as identified by Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner was that of the 3rd world anticolonial struggles. Ah, the glory days. This was a time where populism, he argues, was often understood as ‘progressive’ or ‘grassroots’ across the Americas, if not in Europe with its ties to fascism. Like Laclau and Revelli he critiques the efforts to define populism by the content of the struggle, and looks rather to its form, as is made clear in the definition above and this:

Populism…is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified–but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional–people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (19-20)

The critique of elites is not in itself enough for populism to exist, it is rather that in opposition there is a ‘claim that a part of the people is the people–and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people‘ (22). It is not the content of the moral critique, but the existence of this moral authentic people in opposition to those who are immoral and outside.

Content is of course required, and usually consists of a ‘singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy‘ (25).

Just how this content comes to stand in for a multitude of demands among a multitude of groups to construct a unified opposition is, of course, a massive part of Laclau’s work. For Müller, this combination of belief in ‘the people’ and belief in the chosen representative are seen as above democratic politics, leading to passive participation and power invested in the leader. He doesn’t engage in the same kind of critique in the current form of our democratic system itself as a cause of passivity and goad towards this kind of populism as Revelli does.

He notes the rise of the internet as giving a new sense of direct democracy and communication, where everyday Americans can have direct contact with those in power that no longer require intermediary institutions and democratic forms. That’s quite an interesting thing to think about, particularly in relation to the US’s alt right.

Chapter 2: What Populists Do

I won’t get into his arguments around Chavez, surely it is the violent and well-funded attempts to depose a leader that do more to define their response than ‘populism’ per se? But anyway, he explores ‘three populist techniques for governing and their moral justification’. Again, they attempt to ‘colonize’ or ‘occupy’ the state, transforming civil services. They openly trade mass material and immaterial favours for support. The act harshly to critics in the 3rd sector and elsewhere

Müller usefully ends with 7 theses on populism summarising his argument:

  1. Populism is neither the authentic part of modern democratic politics nor a kind of pathology caused by irrational citizens. It is the permanent shadow of representative politics. There is always the possibility for an actor to speak in the name of the “real people” as a way of contesting currently powerful elites. There was no populism in ancient Athens; demagoguery perhaps, but no populism, since the latter exists only in representative systems. Populists are not against the principle of political representation; they just insist that only they themselves are legitimate representatives.
  2. Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. In addition to being antielitist, populists are antipluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.
  3. it can often seem. that populists claim to represent the common good as willed by the people. On closer inspection, it turns out that what matters for populists is less the product of a genuine process of will-formation or a common good that anyone with common sense can glean than a symbolic representation of the “real people” from which the correct policy is then deduced. This renders the political position of a populist immune to empirical refutation. Populists can always play off the “real people” or “silent majority” against elected representatives and the official outcome of a vote.
  4. While populists often call for referenda, such exercises are not about initiating open-ended processes of democratic will-formation among citizens. Populists simply wish to be confirmed in what they have already determined the will of the real people to be. Populism is not a path to more participation in politics.
  5. Populists can govern, and they are likely to do so in line with their basic commitment to the idea that only they represent the people. Concretely, they will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. These practices find an explicit moral justification in the populist political imagination and hence can be avowed openly Populists can also write constitutions; these will be partisan or “exclusive” constitutions designed to keep populists in power in the name of perpetuating some supposed original and authentic popular will. They are likely to lead to serious constitutional conflict at some point or other.
  6. populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy (and not lot to “liberalism”). But that does not mean that one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
  7. Populism is not a corrective to liberal democracy in the sense of bringing politics “closer to the people” or even reasserting popular sovereignty, as is sometimes claimed. But it can be useful in making it clear that parts of the population really are unrepresented (the lack of representation might concern interests or identity, or both). This does not justify the populist claim that only their supporters are the real people and that they are the sole legitimate representatives. Populism, then, should force defenders of liberal democracy to think harder about what current failures of representation might be. It should also push them to address more general moral questions. What are the criteria for belonging to the polity? Why exactly is pluralism worth preserving? And how can one address the concerns of populist voters understood as free and equal citizens, not as pathological cases of men and women driven by frustration, anger, and resentment? The hope is that this book has suggested at least some preliminary answers to these questions. (101-103)

Revelli on The New Populism

Writing an article — very behind on an article — for an issue on populism and trying to get my head around what it is, where we are in this current moment. Because of course, as a community organiser looking to the Global South and particularly Latin America for inspiration and examples of massive and transformative social movement, populism did not seem a terrible thing. Europe, of course, might be another matter. And here we are today, Revelli captures quite nicely the discourse — and realities — we are facing:

“one government after another has been conquered by political forces that can be classified – or in any case, have been classified – as ‘populists’. And, here, this means a ‘populism’ riddled with xenophobia and strongly hostile to the last generation of civil rights measures.

Everywhere in the West, political systems have been shaken.”

And of course it is this brand of populism that raises huge challenges for anyone who believes in the slogan ‘all power to the people’ and direct democracy.

“The truth is that democracy and populism are interlinked by an unbreakable connection….we will discuss populism first of all as a ‘symptom’ of a deeper illness – even if one we are too often silent about – of democracy itself. It is the outward manifestation of a sickness in the contemporary form of democracy – the only one that has established itself in modernity, erected over the ruins of participatory utopias – that is, representative democracy. Whenever some part of ‘the people’, or an entire people, does not feel represented, it returns to one or another kind of reaction that takes the name ‘populism’…Today, it manifests itself as a ‘senile disorder of democracy’. For the thinning-out of democratic processes and the return of oligarchic dynamics at the heart of the mature democracies marginalise or betray the mandate of a people whose ‘sceptre’ of power has been taken away. Post-twentieth-century populism is, in a sense, a ‘revolt of the included’ who have now been pushed to the margins. In both cases, what we might call the ‘populist syndrome’ is the product of a deficit of representation. For this reason, one recent scholar of populism used a particularly felicitous expression when he defined it as ‘something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy’.4”

I like this. The problem is not democracy or the evil nature of the masses, but a broken system that has betrayed its promise. Populism as symptom…but what actually is it?

“It is not an ‘ism’ like the others that we have scattered over the course of modern history, in the manner of socialism, communism, liberalism, fascism and so on, which we either identified with (through belonging) or fought against (through opposition). It is a much more impalpable entity, less identifiable within specific confines or labels. It is a mood. It is the formless form that social malaise and impulses to protest take on in societies that have been pulverised and reworked by globalisation and total finance – what Luciano Gallino has called ‘finance-capitalism’ – in the era in which there is a lack of voice or organisation. Which is to say, in the vacuum produced by the dissolution of what was once ‘the Left’, and of its capacity to articulate protest as a proposal for change and an alternative to the present state of things.

This demands a focus on what this book defines as a ‘populism-as-context’. This constitutes, so to speak, a problematic defined by the ‘zeitgeist’: the political-cultural climate of our time, which impresses its own changing pattern upon the political life of whole national or even transnational communities…Then we will seek to define the other level of populism, what we could consider its – less generic, better-delimited – ‘inner circle’. This is what we could define as ‘populism-as-project’: the populism embodied in a more recognisable ‘political subject’ endowed with its own ‘political culture’ and which works not only to give voice to protest, but also to contend for government (and the exercise of power).”

This is a beginning that will be fleshed out further through the book. Populism as mood and as context, and then populism as project. I like this distinction, this allows attention to be paid to broad social forces as well as to those who work powerfully to shape and channel popular discontent into very specific forms. With the shifting of mass and social media, this is a visible process.

Characteristics of Populism

Revelli identifies three characteristics by which populism is defined: 1) idea of an entity known as ‘the people’, 2) who stand in opposition to the abuse or betrayal of a ‘them’, 3) who are working for an upheaval, a levelling to restore the will of ‘the people’.

A little more on each of these. First:

the supreme, paramount centrality assumed therein by the reference to the people, understood in its ‘warm’ dimension as a living community, almost a sort of pre-political and pre-civic entity, a Rousseauian ‘natural state’. An organic entity, which thus does not allow distinctions within its ranks – for they would be seen as damaging and reprehensible divisions. … a vertical one in which the logic of ‘above and below’ instead prevails. Indeed, in this spatiality, the protagonists in the conflict belong to different levels and, in some senses, opposed and self-referential life-worlds.

Second:

the idea of betrayal: with some abuse, some undue misappropriation, some conspiracy organised at the expense of the honest citizens. This conforms to a style of thinking that reframes conflict not only in political or social terms but also, primarily, in ethical’ ones: as the moral counterposition of the righteous and the ungodly, the honest and the corrupt, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’… “connected to some moral construction of the antithetical ‘other’, in the conflict in which the constitutive values of the community of reference are ultimately revealed.”

Third:

the imaginary of upheaval: chasing out the usurper-oligarchy – i.e., removing the ‘foreign body’ – and restoring a popular sovereignty that is finally recognised. This sovereignty is no longer exercised through the mediation of the old representative institutions, but thanks to the action of the leader (who tends to be a charismatic leader or in any case emotionally linked to ‘ordinary folks”

Where these three characteristics exist, there continued to be the distinction made earlier between populism as context and populism as project:

populism as a generic (and generalised) mood – attached to a still-vague attitude of distance from, and hostility toward, institutional actors and the establishment – and, on the other hand, populism as a true and proper political culture unto itself, determined to seek power in a strategic manner, on the basis of a specific political programme. With this second, less generic sense of populism, awareness has grown of the sharp divergence in the various ‘souls’ of this phenomenon. Or, if you prefer, between ‘political families’ that are so distant from one another (and essentially, counterposed) that they can no longer be brought together under the same term.”

I quite like this distinction between left and right wing populism drawn from John B. Judis – The Populist Explosion — he’s not often cited among references to Müller, Mudde, Kazin and Laclau on populism but from reading this he sounds quite interesting:

“Left-wing populists’, Judis writes ‘champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top.’ Conversely, ‘rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.”

More from Judis (via Revelli of course) on the ‘family of the Right’, the entanglement of race and borders and segregation…exactly what I have been working on for so long:

that component which…constructs the unity of the people conceived ‘as a whole’ using techniques that are particularly dear to organicist and, in general, nationalist political cultures. These latter tend to favour an ethnic, racial or in any case strongly identitarian connotation of ‘people’ and its ring-fencing or ‘spatialisation’ within societies that are enclosed behind strongly drawn borders and boundaries. This connotation does apply to political phenomena like Trump in the United States; Orbán in Hungary and the political formations on the rise in the Visegrad region more generally; Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; and the AfD in Germany – but certainly not to movements like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. This book will focus especially on this former group, those in which what we have called ‘populism-as-project’ is most evident.

While he focuses on populism-as-project, which I confess I also find most interesting, the context cannot be forgotten. He describes the changes between today’s populisms — what he calls the ‘populism of the new millennium’ — and those of earlier periods in terms of the new post-2008 financial crash (discussed also by both Judis and Müller). That moment we thought everything might come down but instead things have been shakily taped together even as this swing to right (and left) has intensified. The difference is

its ‘genetic’ relationship with an unprecedented systemic crisis. This is a crisis of representation and, at the same time, a crisis of the legitimation of contemporary political systems, which have suddenly been left without any ideology to justify them. They seem incapable of keeping faith with their own promises or remaining true to the fundamentals that convinced their respective citizenries to trust in their mechanisms of government, beginning with the first foundation of ‘democratic government’: popular sovereignty.

For Revelli, Andrew Jackson was the first US populist as founder of the Democratic party and known by the nickname of ‘King Mob’. There is a lot more to be thought through here connecting his project of genocide to open up lands for the poor and rebellious whites of the colonies with current populism, but I will think that through later. Or maybe return to Roediger who details all of this so beautifully in relation to the formation of white and working class identities. The forms populism takes surely follow some of these ruts laid down over the centuries. But the actual populist movement in the late 1800s offered some hope for a little while.

Anyway, like for Laclau, there is needed an antagonistic frontier, a struggle between two Americas. For Ravelli on the one side is Trump’s countryside, of peripheries and old industrial towns, rust belt, abandoned by the Left. These aren’t perhaps explored as much as I would like — what are these geographies, how does class and privilege work within them now? The numbers show, and Revelli states very clearly, that this is not a revolt of the poor. Instead it is a revolt of the middle and upper classes of whites, who feel not just loss, but that others have actively divested them of key aspects of their lives and identities: male privilege, income, social status, recognition of work, respect for faith and country, their place in the world. Lumped together as ‘them’ are the worlds of finance and banks, the forces of globalisation, the swamp of Washington, LGBT activists, Hollywood celebrities, people of color. As Revelli writes, those who mobilised for Trump the winners of the previous era now increasingly facing hard times. This curious collection of ‘others’ along with more traditional cleavages of race and gender help explain what I still find slightly hard to understand.

The fact that the rage of the deprived could identify with a billionaire – his wealth built on rent – is in a sense the watershed between the original populism and the populism that follows the end of the twentieth century. Such is the oxymoronic clash between ‘on top’ and ‘down below’ that has risen from the ashes of the twentieth-century Left/Right pairing.

I know far more about the US of course than the UK, an next to nothing about the populism now rising in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere. This was a great introduction to these even if I still need to do more reading to see whether I fully agree. But he is pursuasive that most of these follow much of the same pattern with their own historical and geographical constellations of factors. The geographies of Brexit show the strength of feeling within the same industrial heartland, rural periphery and areas of greatest social suffering. Immigration is, of course, a key politics in both.

What is interesting for the UK is that the most important indicator in terms of the distribution of the vote turned out to be the provision of public services and policies for balancing the public accounts. In UK, where cuts had come the hardest, the vote for Brexit was strongest.

What lay behind the polarisation of the British referendum, then, was not ‘political cultures’ that had already clustered together. It was not driven by hardened and stable identitarian blocs, or by loyal electorates massed in solid political containers. No: there was a diffuse mood and a generalised sense of discontent (or instability). Above all, there was a fragmented society that struggled to find the words, the language, to express and identify itself.

As a geographer I couldn’t fail to love this:

“It provides further confirmation of the fact that if we want to ‘read’ the populist phenomenon in the new millennium, maps are more eloquent than tables of statistics: not only the socio-economic map, but also the historical one. As we already saw in the American and British cases, the longue durée dynamics tend to re-emerge over the ruins of the political cultures of the twentieth century, revealing older dividing lines. Revealing, in the Polish case, is one such dividing line that dates back to the period immediately subsequent to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the territorial partition of Poland among the Empires.”

A brief look at Italy, which is perhaps the most fascinating:

“In fact, in Italy, populism appeared not in one variant but three, which followed one after the other in (relatively quick) succession. We could call these three ‘forms’ and three ‘figures’ of neo-populism by the names of their eponymous ‘heroes’: Berlusconism, Grillism and Renzism. The three differ in terms of the timing of their ‘rise’ and their ‘period of hegemony’, as well as in terms of their ‘political culture’ – if such a weighty term can be applied to such phenomena. But they are also united by certain traits they have in common, and not only at a formal level.

With Grillo’s M5S to the left and ‘encouraging participative citizen democracy, defending a universalist welfare state, and protecting and championing common and/or public goods (citizens’ income and standing for investment in school and public healthcare)’ while the other two are very different indeed. Yet all populist, and all with another characteristic:

All three of these political experiences are characterised by a strong personalisation.

So to summarise. The geographies of populism:

This map of malaise, which takes account of the reduction in both ‘disposible income’ and ‘market income’, can almost entirely be traced onto the map of the insurgent political phenomena classified as ‘populism’. And this malaise applies to both ‘capital’s side’ (in particular financial investment and productive activities) and ‘labour’s side’. The former was hit by the conjunctural effects of the crisis and the latter was already heavily penalised relative to capital by structural transformations which had been taking place during the long gestation period that preceded the subprime explosion.

Altogether, they form a multitude of the dissatisfied and enraged – above all, the ‘betrayed’, or those who consider themselves as such – transversally distributed across Western societies, extraneous to the traditional political cultures since none of them still represent the new conditions of the masses. These latter are themselves out of place, as they find themselves in the unprecedented condition of the politically homeless. Humiliated by the distance that they see growing between themselves and the few who stand at the top of the pyramid (despite their small numbers, the only ones visible in the media space that has replaced all previous public spaces). Lacking in a language suitable for communicating their own stories, or even to structure an account of themselves, they are thus consigned to resentment and rancour.

It is these characteristics, and perhaps that across the board this is emerging from those who were ‘winners of the previous era’, that characterises what still for me remains so paradoxical:

Almost everywhere, the neo-populist agitation from below is openly exploited by those who in fact stand up above, without any seeming contradiction. And perhaps this explains the reason why Europe’s governing elites, and with them the greater part of the ‘system’s information system’, in fact dedicate themselves much more energetically and effectively to fighting and destabilising the only experiences that have proven a convincing and credible factor for combating this type of contagion.”

That would be the left and its alternatives.

[Revelli, Marco. (2019) The New Populism: Democracy Stares into the Abyss. London and New York: Verso]

Housing Protest, Göttingen

The housing struggle is alive and well in Göttingen, it cheered my heart.

Göttingen
Göttingen

Bitches against borders! I laughed out loud.

Göttingen

A sadly folded view of Lisa Simpson, also in protest

Göttingen

Paint splattered bank, that also happened to be home to August Herzog von Sussex (!) and Adolf Friedrich Herzog von Cambridge (!)

Göttingen

And Rock’n Roll Revolution

Göttingen

After the nauseas of Bavaria I was worried, yet Göttingen was quite lovely, This was not just because of its banners, though they set a tone. It is full of lovely old homes with their carved painted wood and names of illustrious men of past ages drawn here by the University (Bismarck, Coleridge, Humboldt) and a most wonderful bear. Also, people who smiled despite my terrible grasp of the German language.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

Introduction:

In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.

SAJE

SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi

Methodology:

Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.

Conclusion:

The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.

Notes

i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]

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Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]

 

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William Gamson: Pluralism and the Strategy of Social Protest

William Gamson The Strategy of Social ProtestReading William Gamson made me feel like we’ve come a long long way in thinking about social movements — but then I realised I am speaking from a non-academic viewpoint. This book is really a conversation with pluralism (think Robert Dahl) and the modifications made to it to account for elites. It is an indictment of ‘collective behaviour’ theories and part of the fold of ‘resource management’ theories of movement. Exciting stuff? Not so much, but some good summaries of things that continue to shape how people think — I recognized so many of these concepts in things I read today, and had forgotten that they had a label and a fanclub. There is an exciting (and disturbing) finding about unruliness, but I shall save that.

So. Pluralism. I dimly remember some of this from as far back as the Federalist Papers:

an image of of a highly open system with free access for would-be competitors…A democratic political system must be able to handle two great problems if it is to continue successfully: the danger of tyranny or domination by a minority, and responsiveness to unmet or changing needs among its citizens. (5)

This fits well with ‘Collective Behavior’ theories, which see riots and unrest and violent conflict as

abnormalities or pathologies arising from the gap between an always imperfect reality and an ideal, abstract model In other words, the occasional, admitted failures of American democracy to produce orderly change are caused by departures from the ideal conditions of pluralism.’ (5)

To operate properly, pluralist political institutions require an underlying pluralist social structure and values as well. So what are these ideal conditions for an ideal democracy capable of change?

Procedural consensus: There is acceptance of the “culture” of constitutional democracy. One operates within the rules, the rules are considered generally fair, and defeats are accepted because of the strong legitimacy. (6)

Cross-Cutting Solidarities: Individuals have strong identifications and affiliations with solidarity groups at different levels below the total society… [that] overlap and cut across each other… (7)

Open Access to the Political Arena: There are no barriers to a group getting a hearing.

Balance of Power or Countervailing Power Operation: There is a sufficiently large number of groups that no one group can dominate. (7)

Flaws? This was a good short recap of the basis of pluralist thinking, I have dipped in and out of Dahl and don’t feel the need to return to it because my. sweet. jesus. Dahl wrote Pluralist Democracy in the United States and argued all of this in 1967. I know I’ve just been reading about the civil rights movement, but this is written when people are still being assassinated for trying to register to vote. No poor person, no woman, no Black person or Native American or immigrant could ever fully have believed this. This belongs to an establishment that doesn’t really listen to those kinds of people, and this kind of thinking pushes blame for being locked out of such a system on people themselves.

Gamson writes:

“The flaw in the pluralist heaven, is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (quoting Schattschneider, 1960 p 35, p 9).

A white male accent as well. It ignores the existence of an elite, which many a critic broadened the theory to include, but William Gamson argues it also is overly sanguine about the issue of ‘permeability and openness to efforts at change. I’m glad he debunked some of these theories.

He looks at two main assumptions of pluralism (the ‘play nice because we are all civilized here’ ones):

  1. Only those groups whose objectives leave intact pluralist social structure and values will be “successful” Participation and success is denied to those who attack and try to change the pluralist order itself.

  2. Only those groups which use institutionally provided means will be successful — in particular, the electoral system and the political pressure or lobbying system. those who resort to the tactics of the streets will be unsuccessful. (12)

Part of me is so frustrated that the huge amount of work going into this study is focused on those ideas, which seem so obviously wrong. But I am glad it is done. William Gamson and teams of undergraduates made a list of all of the ‘challenging organizations’ they could find — came up with between 500 and 600 between 1800 and 1945, of which they did a sample of 53. Their focus:

The central issues concern the permeability of the political arena by new participants and how their success or failure is influenced by their strategy and organization. (22)

I am almost as interested in the groups they excluded — this in itself says so much about narrow ideas of citizenship in a pluralist society and who is excluded from that:

We also exclude groups whose members are neither American citizens nor striving for such citizenship. In particular, we do not include the various Indian nations, which have engaged in numerous wars and conflicts with the federal government, as challenging groups. (18)

How they measured the answer of permeability and success:

— to what extent was there ‘acceptance of a challenging group by its antagonists as a valid spokesman for a legitimate set of interests.’ (28)

…whether the group’s beneficiary gains new advantages during the challenge and its aftermath. (29)

Interesting. What a narrow, if important, measure of success this is! Another thing I don’t like so much about this kind of study which requires such quantifiable measurements. But some of the findings are really interesting.

Particularly Chapter 6, ‘The Success of the Unruly’ (72) Because William Gamson (and that large team of students) unexpectedly found that yes. ‘The violence users, it turns out, have a higher-than-average success rate.’ (79)

So ‘Does Violence Pay’?

Yes, yes it does.

‘Specifically, the data undermine the following line of thinking: violence is the product of frustration, desperation, and weakness. … Violence should be viewed as an instrumental; act, aimed at furthering the purposes of the group that uses it when they have some reason to think it will help their cause. This is especially likely to be true when the normal condemnation which attends to its use is muted or neutralized in the surrounding community, when it is tacitly condoned by large parts of the audience. In this sense, it grows from an impatience born of confidence and rising efficacy rather than the opposite. it occurs when hostility toward the victim renders it a relatively safe and costless strategy. The users of violence sense that they will be exonerated because they will be seen as more the midwives than the initiators of punishment. (81)

The example he uses here is of the ‘Night Riders’. Klan I was thinking, white council? But no…or at least, their main activity as a secret fraternal order was to ‘force all growers to join the [Planters Protective] Association’ and to force companies to only buy tobacco from members. I bet they engaged in some extracurricular activities, but it is a fascinating terrifying history of violence that succeeds in gaining quite a lot by taking over entire small towns and burning a couple of warehouses to the ground.They fought against a large corporation (the American Tobacco Company) attempting to take their livelihoods (there is more on their history here, and I imagine a number of other places). They are hell of scary and evoke a very different kind of violence, their fame emerged from the ways they turned this against white planters and townspeople.

blackpatch_riders

This is really interesting when turned around to think about how oppression and domination have worked, how white privilege has been secured at the grassroots level.

William Gamson continues:

I am arguing, then, that it is not the weakness of the user but the weakness of the target that accounts for violence. (82)

Chilling, very chilling. And what does it mean for those on the other end?

The groups that receive violence…are threatening and vulnerable, and most fail to survive the physical attack to which they are subjected. (82)

The examples he gives are the First International, abolitionists, National Students League, miners in Cumberland Gap. Threatening because they look like they might succeed in their aims, vulnerable because they consist of, or are fighting for, the groups of people I argue fall outside the pluralist heaven — women, youth, people of colour, working class and poor.

The amount of violence always present in our society, and upon which it is founded, makes such a mockery of pluralism to me.

Gamson looks at other tactics beyond violence, disruptive tactics that he calls ‘constraints’ such as boycotts and marches that he found also improved success rates. In summary in writes:

Unruly groups, those that use violence, strikes, and other constraints, have better than average success. (87)

Chapter 7 he calls ‘Combat Readiness’. Interesting again, as a metaphor. It looks at how success rates matched the level of bureaucracy (‘keeping an organization in a state of readiness to act’) and resolving internal conflicts. (92)

He writes:

Each of these variables — bureaucracy, centralization of power, and factionalism — makes a contribution to success, and there is a substantial interaction between centralization and factionalism. A centralized, bureaucratic group that escapes factional splits is highly likely to be successful; so, in fact, is a decentralized, bureaucratic group that escapes factionalism, but it is less likely to escape than its centralized counterpart. (108)

But again, this kind of work cannot capture larger ideas of social change and how those are embodied in the ways that you work, the possibility you could succeed by his criteria, but fail in a deeper sense. Gamson isn’t unaware of these complexities, they simply lie outside what this kind of study can look at.

Chapter 8 – Historical context? This is the weakest chapter I think. His hypothesis is that ‘challenging groups should enjoy relatively greater success in times of general crisis than in quiet times.’ (112) But they don’t, he finds, not really. Established groups sometimes get further on their agendas. That is somewhat interesting in itself, but approaching it from this angle kind of misses the point I think,  by not focusing on the kinds of change attempted and achieved — the quality of changes achieved in certain periods and the level of mass movement that made them possible. Landmark shifts in ability to organize unions and a social safety net were made after the great depression, the civil rights movement achieving political and voting rights through the crisis period of 1960s upheaval… surely that is important, though perhaps many other kinds of challenge groups failed to advance. My old boss use to always bang on about the ‘political moment’, and she was almost always right.

It ends with Limits of Populism, and a very brief look at the new ‘resource management’ paradigm as an alternative to the ‘collective behaviour’ one. I have to read Tilly I know. It all fills me with distaste, the idea that social change is about resource management is quite infuriating. But I do like this final thought:

The pluralist image, then, is a half-truth. It misleads us when applied to the relations between political challengers and members of the polity. The appropriate image for this political interaction is more a fight with few holds barred than it is a contest under well-defined rules. (142)

[Gamson, William A. (1975) The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press.]

Meyer & Tarrow: The Social Movement Society

946055I confess, there are a lot of angry notations in the margins of The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, edited by Meyer and Tarrow.

I won’t burden you with all of them. I suppose books are meant to provoke as much as inspire.

Their introduction opens the book, frames the book, is essentially a hypothesis put forward which other authors are all responding to. Their idea of a movement society advances three main points:

  • First, social protest has moved from being a sporadic, if recurring feature of democratic politics, to become a perpetual element in modern life

  • Second, protest behaviour is employed with greater frequency, by more diverse constituencies, and is used to represent a wider range of claims than ever before.

  • Third, professionalization and institutionalization may be changing the major vehicle of contentious claims–the social movement–into an instrument within the realm of conventional politics. (4)

Here is their definition of social movement:

We begin from the assumption that the social movement is a historical and not a universal way of mounting collective claims. Movements, in our view, are best defined as collective challenges to existing arrangements of power and distribution by people with common purposes and solidarity, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities. (4)

A bit broad, right? Also doesn’t capture much about scale, number and diversity of organisations, groups and individuals involved.

I don’t think this is entirely useful, this idea of social movement. I lean more to the idea that what is happening now is as much protest as caring people can manage in the absence of mass movement. I love much more the work of say Aldon Morris, who studies a concrete movement and looks at what is built and nurtured in hard times to serve as a foundation for when the spark comes and mass movement makes more structural and meaningful change possible. I think what Meyer and Tarrow define as  social movement is simply protest — and in this world of growing inequality, war and climate change, there is a lot to protest. That it is becoming less contentious though more widespread…that’s not too provocative:

In general, the evidence from both Europe and the United States suggests that the amount of highly contentious forms accepted and actually used by citizens seems to be more circumscribed than it was two decades ago. (8)

But what follows takes the decades following the sixties as a one-way and universalised trajectory rather than a cycle or spiral or any of the other potential forms (more likely trajectories based on my own research). It is in great part divorced from history despite their claims of historicity, from the wider social context of intensive repression, red-baiting, backlash, end of the cold war etc etc. that has taken place in the intervening decades:

A paradox is inherent in the professionalization of social movement organizations. Whereas the movements of the 1960s were animated by a democratic ethos that encouraged and legitimated participation at the grassroots of society, the following years demonstrated that the skills and resources for mounting the efforts that comprise a social movement could be, in fact, concentrated, reproduced, and professionalized. Those who developed those skills, taking them from one movement to another, may lose a connection with the groups they purported to represent. Professionalization is about drawing boundaries (Moore 1996) between accredited persons and others. Although the fuzzy boundaries between professional activists and their constituencies may support the ethos of democracy, they may also undermine the prospects of sustained and effective mobilization. Ironically, a movement organization concerned with effecting democratic reforms in the polity may be most effective by abandoning certain democratic and amateurish political practices. New technologies and forms of social organization have complicated this picture further. (15)

I don’t think this question makes much sense divorced from previous decades and centuries of protest and struggle preceding the 60s, all of which themselves come between periods of repression and greater conservatism. How does this match what happened to unions and activists drawn into bureaucracy and organisation after the Great Depression? While I think it’s important to look at professionalization and the changes modern protest groups have gone through in reaction to changing times, the questions the editors end up asking generalise from a very small period in history. They are also divorced from what drives social movement, divorced from questions on injustice, from the life and death issues many social movements engage with and do the best they can to address in widely different circumstances.  Those are the questions I am most interested in, and I missed them.

But, to return to what they do do, they argue institutionalization occurs through:

  • the routinization of collective action (familiar scripts)
  • inclusion and marginalization — those willing to play ball get access, others more easily shut out
  • cooptation – ‘challengers later their claims and tactics to ones that can be pursued without disrupting the normal practice of politics.’ (21)

Again, more interesting in a wider context, but still good things to analyse. So ‘How do ongoing changes in contemporary institutions affect the process of institutionalising dissent?’

  1. ‘social movement activists have learned to move between conventional and unconventional collective actions, and even to employ both sorts of strategies in combination’
  2. ‘police practices increasingly encourage the routinization of contention by cooperating with protestors in planning their events, avoiding provocations, and allowing them a public but circumscribed hearing.’ (23)
  3. ‘the tactics used by movement organizations and those used by more institutionalized groups increasingly overlap. (24)

These seem a bit common sense, especially in light of activists and organisations hunkering down through a period of more limited engagement, though I do think that we are seeing discourses and tactics of activism being coopted by those traditionally on the other side. That is interesting, but not really what they are getting at here…nor are they getting at what people think they can win through making these decisions to move towards institutionalisation that they can’t through more combative struggle — and why.

‘… because of the increasing incentives to engage in socially controlled collective action in our societies today, can we still regard the social movement in its classical form as a major player in the political struggle? (25)

I noted here, ‘everything about this sentence is wrong’. Nothing has ever been won for the poor and the oppressed without a struggle involving a whole lot of people. Perhaps this is not in evidence today, but I sure as hell hope it is not dead entirely. Does socially controlled collective action diffuse some of this anger, make this harder? That is a good question, but not exactly one answered here. Does it mean we’re back to armed revolution, to riots? Or is this the end of all opposition? Who can tell.

Finally, if states have become adept at institutionalizing movements and activists are becoming both more professional and more interchangeable with interest groups in their activities, what will happen to those actors who refuse the blandishments of recognition and legitimation? Will they profit as free riders from the institutionalization of protest? Will they simply fade away…? (26)

Sweet baby Jesus. Free riders? Really? I think there is no single phrase in the English language (that is not abusive) that I hate more than the term free rider. Technically free rider as a term includes babies and small children, people suffering from mental illness and physical disability, the elderly, all those people that for whatever reason can’t face down police to make a better world. Technically that word destroys the concept of a movement that cares for and works towards a better future for the entire society, not just ‘our’ people or the ‘deserving’. And then to question will they simply fade away? Not until the issues driving them to change the world do because movements arise out of real injustices, real suffering. No sign of that ending.

I plowed through the rest of the chapters, but given my feelings about the usefulness of the hypothesis, it wasn’t that useful.

I liked some of the content from ‘The Institutionalization of Protest’ by John McCarthy and Clark McPhail — yet it compares protests at the 1968 and 1996 Democratic National Conventions in Chicago without really acknowledging the immense differences in political moment. A time of insecurity and fear and mass movement in 1968 after over a decade of intense civil rights protest with real threats to the power structure and a growing move from non-violence to the Black Panthers and Black Power — and how does that compare to 1996 again? How does that shape police response shifting from ‘escalated force’ to ‘negotiated management’ (96)?

This article — and all of these arguments due to the framing —  separate the content of injustice from those protesting, it often (though not everyone does this) conflates social movement with ‘social movement organizations’ yet often fails to recognize the broad range of organisations still fighting, the interlocking array of tactics…doesn’t recognise that anti-racism struggles, homeless rights struggles, women’s and immigrant rights struggles aren’t just something that can be picked up or let go but mean life and death for many, and determine the strategies and tactics of groups and institutions closest to them accordingly. And those decisions are entirely about political moment and context.

Everything here is so tidy.

The police, for example, are seen as monolithic, but really they form a complex bureaucracy with many different (and disagreeing) parts — and one that continues killing black and latino people let’s not forget.

But Public Order Management Systems are interesting, defined as:

…the more or less elaborated, more or less permanent organizational forms, their guiding policies and programs, technologies, and standard policing practices that are designated by authorities for supervising protesters’ access to public space and managing them in that space. (91)

They quote a few stellar things, like this 1989 statement published in the journal of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

[The Police] are…the first line of defense for the First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully and speak freely. Few unpopular ideas would ever get a public hearing unless the police were on hand to ensure the speaker’s safety and maintain order . . . The recognition of the police role as guardians of civil liberties and civil rights is one of the welcome fruits of the professionalization of law enforcement over the last several decades (McCarthy  & McPhail p. 89 quoting Burden 1992, p. 16)

They are not as astonished (or angered) by it as I am however. Break out the Don Mitchell and analyse how the opposite is true. Then there is this, from the City of San Francisco crowd management manual:

Pre-event Planning: …If event sponsors do not come forward to obtain needed permits…the Event Coordinator will … attempt to locate them and set up meetings. (94, quoting SFPD 1989, pp. 8-10)

Another nugget — these courses in public order management were developed by the U.S. Army Police School. There’s a whole lot to be done with that. But then it is all ruined with a line at the end about the police and protestors wishing to reduce the extent of ‘unintended violence.’ (109) Jesus. As though it were unintended.

These are the lines of lived experience often separating the poor, people of colour, and activists from researchers. No one where I grew up or ever worked with would believe it to be unintended — at least, not by everyone. Maybe there’d be a couple of people that saw it as a PR disaster, or even as morally wrong. But honestly, police brutality against certain communities and the ‘social movements’ working around those issues happens every day.

Then there are discussions of protest movements in Latin America with no acknowledgment of what they are up against: US military intervention, the IMF and World Bank… this happened in several chapters, and how can you properly discuss international and transnational strategies and coalition building without that understanding and analysis? And just for the record, I cannot respect the argument that the US Congress and Treasury Department or the World Bank are the people to lobby to tell Latin American states to protect indigenous rights. They are the people to lobby to demand they stop telling other governments to violate indigenous rights.

I will end with a shout out to what was good — I did really like Mary Fainsod Katzenstein’s ‘Stepsisters: Feminist Movement Activism in Different Institutional Spaces’ and the different struggles of women in the military and the Catholic Church over time. That was quite fascinating, firmly based in women’s experience and their own words, and nuanced. Yay.

Anyway, this raised good questions in my mind about institutionalisation of protest, how this shapes organisations and everyday experience of protest and what it can (and can’t win), and how this will shape what is possible for the future, but I’m not sure that’s where most of this was heading.

[Meyer, David S. and Sidney Tarrow (eds) (1998) The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.]