Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: Hegemony How-To

[Jonathan Matthew Smucker. Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. Chico CA: AK Press, 2017.]

We need more spaces and more opportunities to think through past, present, and future choices that we face in our movements and communities-in-struggle; this book is an effort to catalyze such things, so I'm glad to have read it. But my response to it is quite mixed. On the one hand, I think it raises some very important questions and has some good suggestions for how movements need to be approaching the task of organizing for change. On the other hand, there are some basic aspects of how the book does this that I find quite troubling.

There is lots about this book that draws me into affinity with it, or at least with elements of it. It doesn't hurt that the author and I are of a similar political vintage -- we're both white dudes who were more or less politicized in the era of the global justice movement, with sensibilities formed in the broadly anti-authoritarian current therein. We both, interestingly, grew up in small, conservative, Mennonite-majority towns, though in different countries and situated somewhat differently within them. The author's path, however, has much more centrally involved organizing, while mine has tended more towards movement-focused writing and media production, especially in recent years. Perhaps of most relevance to the contents of this book, during the Occupy era I was in a small city and I was a peripheral supporter of the Occupy process there rather than central to it, whereas Smucker was a core participant in Occupy Wall Street in New York City. This book seems in large part to be an effort by the author to use the resources of the academy to draw some lessons from the experience of Occupy, both its breathtakingly rapid impact on this continent's political culture in a crucial moment and its failure to translate that opening into a form of movement that might have been more successful in pushing for material political change.

Like I said, there's lots here to like. I'm all in favour of appropriating the resources of and knowledge produced in the academy for the benefit of movements -- that has limitations and isn't necessarily the most important way for our movements to be learning about the world, but I think it has value, even in a lot of cases when the knowledge in question does not initially seem to have direct relevance to movements. I like the fact that the book experiments with mixing story and theory. I don't necessarily like all of the specific choices made in the course of that experimentation, but trying to find a novel approach to weaving together lived experience and the informal knowledge produced in movements with more formal scholarly sources is a worthwhile endeavour.

I also broadly like the sensibility that the book brings to its concrete recommendations for movements. Not that I agree with every individual piece of that advice, mind you -- I don't. But I like the conversation that the advice will catalyze. Plus, I do like that the book's political recommendations are broadly focused on the need for combining radical vision with pragmatism, on overcoming our allergy to organization, and on contesting the mainstream of power rather than engaging in self-isolating practices of radical puritanism or purely non-confrontational building of supposed alternatives. I think we have some different ways of thinking about how all of that relates to the state form in the longer term, and likely how to apply it in some kinds of specific situations, but I don't mind those differences too much.

I especially want to name how much I appreciate the book's discussion of one particular organizing project that happened outside of the major metropolitan centres that usually dominate movement attention. I say this because not only did I grow up in a small town, but I spent over a decade in a small city, and it was a source of constant frustration that the movement-based left in the big cities that we worked and had relationships with really had no conception of how things worked differently where we were, and almost no interest either. The amazing success that the author and many others had in organizing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, could definitely have been a source of lessons for the small group I worked with in Sudbury, Ontario.

But I mentioned some serious misgivings. This doesn't capture everything, but I think a lot of my discomfort with the book rests in its conceptual middle, its way of connecting its beginning and its end, its problem and its suggested solutions. I think it sets out to address an interesting and important problem, and it ends up in a place that...well, like I said, there's lots I agree with, and lots more that I don't necessarily agree with completely but that I think will spark important conversations. And if the starting point for the book is interesting and useful and the suggestions it reaches are at least worth discussing, should my concerns about the middle count for much?

Let me talk about some of them, and you can decide.

I think the biggest problem with this book is that it does something that has been endemic to Western approaches to knowing the world for centuries: It centres something specific to the knower's experience and then fails to recognize its own specificity, treating it as general in a way that erases or devalues difference. For all that this book mentions other movements, and occasionally uses examples from them, it is a book that centres Occupy. I suspect the author's understanding would be that Occupy is a case study, and a good one to use because of his central involvement. And that's fine, as far as it goes. But a lot of what the book takes from Occupy doesn't always work very well as a stand-in for movements in general.

So, for instance, much of the book is premised on identifying some key faults in movements, broadly understood, which Occupy is taken to exemplify -- a resistance to recognizing that leadership is present whether you name it or not, and the value of formalizing it; a tendency towards self-isolation of movements and groups; a refusal to build organizations; a refusal to get involved in the nitty-gritty of the landscape of power; a tendency towards a sort of strategy-less prefigurative politics; and so on. All of these were central to Occupy, and I certainly don't deny that many of them have, to a greater or lesser extent, been present in a lot of movements in the last thirty or forty years. But that qualifier -- "to a greater or lesser extent" -- is a pretty important one. If you tried to do the sort of analysis in this book but instead of centering Occupy, you centred Black Lives Matter or Idle No More or the migrant justice movement, you might well end up identifying some of the same barriers and challenges, but you'd end up with some different ones as well, and the relative emphasis and the narrative would also be, I think, quite different. Plus, in my own experience of doing in-depth interviews with a few hundred activists and organizers from across Canada in the last four years for Talking Radical Radio, the problems that this book identifies in its analysis of Occupy are important for some groups and projects and broader political tendencies, but not so much for others. And I want to emphasize, I have no problem at all with an analysis that centres Occupy or any other specific movement -- the problem is when the analysis gets generalized and abstracted such that it stands in for movement experience in general, especially when what is being erased from movements-in-general through doing this is lessons flowing from or specifically relevant to activism and organizing among more marginalized people. Some people will read this book and say, yes, that speaks to what I'm facing, and other people will read it and not feel like that at all, and I think it is better to be up front about that landscape.

This tendency to erase specificity showed up in other ways as well. Take, for instance, the discussion of the rhetoric of "the 99%" in Occupy. The book is quite right in recognizing how powerful this was as a frame that allowed certain kinds of narratives about class to be told in a way that had not been possible in the mainstream in the United States in a long time, while being open enough to allow broad and differentiated identification with the figure of the 99% and to allow it to draw in a range of quite differently imagined political projects. As the book discusses, this sort of flexible or "floating" signifier can be really important in generating new kinds of political unity -- which Occupy demonstrated.

At the same time, the operation of any such frame is going to bump into limits in the real world, and "the 99%" was no exception. The book talked about some of those limits, like the tendency for self-isolating practices of many radicals to undo the broad "we" that the frame of the 99% helped make possible. However, it was strangely silent about others. So, for instance, it acknowledges that "many critics from the left and from the academy have taken issue with the meme of the 99%, arguing that it poses a false unity that obfuscates important heterogeneity and power concentrations within an absurdly broad category." It counters these critics by pointing out that what really matters is not the textual accuracy of the framing so much as what it can do out in the world. Which is very important -- I can think of a lot of cases where textual critique by academics or sectarian leftists protecting their own purity gets in the way of really understanding what a given image or figure or document is doing, and that was certainly happening around the genesis of Occupy. But nowhere does the book deal with the fact that it wasn't just academics and sectarians who saw problems with the figure of the 99%. If you're really serious about understanding what that figure could and did accomplish out in the world, and what it could and couldn't have done under different circumstances, how can you not talk about (or at least acknowledge) how the broad economic populism that it invokes may be a floating signifier that has the capacity to draw some constituencies in but it also enters into concrete histories which mean that other constituencies -- including some that must be a part, or even central, to any broad movement for collective liberation on this continent -- have much more complicated, even ambivalent, relationships with it.

I can think of two examples, and there are probably more, of how this is true of the frame of "the 99%": The first is perhaps less visible in the US than in Canada, though it shouldn't be, but there is a subset of Indigenous activists and organizers who may be cautious about or resistant to such a frame becaue it seems to have no space for their nationhood. This is not just me mounting a textual critique, it is identifying a material and fundamental political question that you can't just ignore when you are considering how an appeal to broad economic populism is going to work out in the world (especially in Canada), or how floating signifiers in general work (or don't) to generate possibilities for political unity. And more central to Occupy Wall Street's immediate context, there's a pre-existing history of waves of economic populism that have at least implicitly centred whiteness (as Occupy did) stretching back to Reconstruction that, each time, failed African Americans in one way or another. If you look at how Occupy unfolded (or more recently at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon), that history led to a different pattern of relationships to the blanket message of not-explicitly-anti-racist economic populism among African Americans than among many other groups. That difference isn't simple or direct, it varies a lot with things like location within the country and individual ideology and generation, and you can certainly make a case that it isn't insurmountable -- but it is real. And not only is it real, but to me at least it seems central to an analysis of what Occupy did and didn't, could and couldn't accomplish, and what it might have done to accomplish more. You can't, to put it in terms of this book, contest for hegemony without figuring it out.

Another problem that isn't quite the same but is, I think, related, is what kinds of sources the book draws on. On the one hand, if it ends up in interesting and useful places -- which it certainly does sufficiently to make me glad I read it -- then does it matter what sources of knowledge it engages with along the way? Again, my concern here is not enough to make me dismiss what I find useful in the book, but it is still a concern. Why, for instance, does its engagement with scholarship focus mainly (as far as I can tell) on social movement theory and on fairly mainstream sociology? There's nothing wrong with those bodies of knowledge per se, though I've never found social movement studies to be very useful myself, but why those and not scholarly work of other sorts that centre struggles for justice, particularly those produced primarily by scholars who are socially marginalized and politically radical? And why, even though the book acknowledges that things like informal conversations, movement debates, and interviews with activists and organizers were a part of the author formulating the knowledge presented here, was it not grounded more explicitly in the active debates happening in movement contexts? And I don't just mean mentioning these divisions to explain the reason for writing, but actually digging into their content, and perhaps even exploring on-the-ground experiments by groups that come to different conclusions. Why not, for instance, talk about the self-marginalizing tendency of Occupy and other movements by more explicitly drawing on the active discussions of exactly that, which I know full well were happening during and after Occupy? Why not talk about projects and experiments and examples of actual organizing practice on the ground that, for instance, deal in different ways with questions of leadership? Given that a big point of the book is intervening in such conversations, wouldn't that goal be facilitated by engaging more seriously with how they are already happening?

Take the chapter on prefigurative politics. It ends up in a place that I agree with in a broad-strokes kind of way, arguing that any understanding of prefigurative politics that poses building alternative spaces and practices as something we need to do instead of confronting powerful institutions to create broader social change (which it calls "strategic politics") is a dead end. I agree -- the book doesn't put it quite this way, but we need to "oppose and propose" simultaneously, as radical scholar Andy Cornell has described it. But I'm pretty ambivalent about the way the chapter argues for this. It does so by constructing a binary of "prefigurative politics" and "strategic politics" as ideal types, associates them with a number of other binaries that are based on the particular sociological analysis of the world and of movements that this book develops, and concludes we need the former and not the latter. This feels very divorced from how these conversations actually happen in movements and it doesn't feel like this particular instance of appropriation of scholarly knowledge for movement purposes adds much -- like it was written to pay far more heed than I think is warranted to certain poli sci or sociological disciplinary requirements.

Moreover, it felt like it was quite selective in how it engaged with the field of different kinds of politics that it is supposedly deriving its ideal types from. You could make a case that it bakes its conclusion into the way that it does this derivation, which felt pretty arbitrary to me. Among other concerns, it didn't recognize at all the growing presence on the far left of ways of doing politics that pay lots of attention to strategy but have no time whatsoever for any considerations that are even vaguely prefigurative. And at no stage of the conversation was there any recognition that a major strand of activity and thought that falls under the label "prefigurative politics" as it is often used is less about building little islands of utopian belonging a la Zucotti Park than about figuring out better ways for us to work together as we push for collective liberation in a world saturated with social relations of white supremacy and misogyny and so on -- maybe including that recognition would have changed the overall analysis, maybe it wouldn't, but it seems an awfully important element of prefigurative politics to leave out. And if your goal is to spark and contribute to conversations about these things in movements, why do it in a way that seems so detached from existing conversations and movement practices, and that employs abstraction in a way that itself might make some readers skeptical? Maybe it doesn't matter, but it just seems that there are more convincing paths to get to "oppose and propose" than the one taken in this chapter.

I could go into plenty of other examples to illustrate my concerns, and really I should probably stop here, but there's one more that I think is important enough that it warrants a mention. The final full chapter of the book is called "The we in politics" and talks in detail about the complexities of how we come to understand our individual and collective political identities. As with most of my other areas of concern, it's a chapter that has plenty of interesting and thoughtful things to say, some of which I would agree with and some of which I wouldn't. But after initially reading it, when I stepped back and reflected on what it had to say, it came as a bit of a shock to realize that this detailed chapter on the complexities of political identity in the context of social movements in the United States does not cite even a single piece of work from the Black feminist/radical women of colour tradition. And I don't say that in a shallow, liberal, identitarian way -- I say that because by far the most sophisticated political thinking done in North America in the last half century about the complexities of political identification in the context of struggle against oppression and exploitation has been done by radical Black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour. Even if you ultimately come up with an approach to such things that is grounded in other ways, it seems an odd choice not to engage with this important, powerful, diverse body of work at all -- it seems disrespectful, for one thing, but it also seems like an odd choices given that it's the kind of engagement that will only sharpen your own argument. And, again, if your main goal is to intervene in conversations in movements about these things, I'm not sure I understand the logic of ignoring a body of work that informs the political choices and self-understanding of an important subset of people doing radical, creative, and effective activism and organizing on the ground (again, particularly but far from only many radical women of colour).

So, like I said, quite a mixed response. I worry I'm not being entirely fair. But I think whether or not people might find it a useful read will vary a lot from person to person. There is, I want to stress, lots of good stuff in here, including some different ways of thinking about age-old movement questions, some sharp thinking about some of the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy, and some practical recommendations for movements that many people will be able to learn from. But its inadequate recognition of its own specificity, its silence on certain kinds of key movement questions, its choices about which sources of knowledge to engage and which to ignore, and its idiosyncratic decisions about how to discuss certain things mean that lots of other people will probably prefer to give it a miss.

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site]