Psychology of Activism: 2011
There is a general consensus that the left is not in good shape. Indeed, we are outspent, outgunned, out-broadcast, outvoted, at every turn. We can easily point to vast corporate wealth, unfair election laws, sellout leaders, and a hostile media, to explain our plight. Indeed, there is truth to all this. So what else is new? Some go further and blame it on an ignorant and brainwashed public. But frankly, that’s a shuck, even if it contains grains of truth. After all, how did WE let it get that way.
Certainly there is comfort in blaming the masses for being too stupid to realize the wisdom of our solutions. But such is cold comfort. Better to examine ourselves, work out what it is that WE need to do, to mobilize those benighted masses. But I believe that self-examination has to go beyond our programs, our battle cries, our bold solutions. I believe it requires examining HOW we think, HOW we plan, HOW we understand our world, It requires examining some of our most basic assumptions.
For instance, every day, we find ourselves talking past each other. Is it because we are cantankerous know-it-alls that don’t listen to each other? Don’t really care what the other is saying? Perhaps to some extent. But I also believe that there is something in the way issues are framed from the outset (electoral politics vs. street action, work in the Democratic Party vs. independent politics, as examples) that sets up this unfruitful dynamic. (In the 60’s, we also had these debates, but we in fact fought on all fronts, and they reinforced each other.)
But method is very, very difficult to discuss. The problem is that we to some extent have to employ the very same assumptions and conceptual tools that need to be examined. Sort of like trusting the Israel Defense Forces to examine their own war crimes. But sometimes we can sneak up on ourselves through certain oblique approaches. That’s what I would hope to try.
About a year ago, I wrote a piece called Towards a Psychology of Activism which tried to address this. It was well received. However, there have been developments since then that render it partially dated.
Specifically, last year we were infested with a deadening passivity as we helplessly watched the Obama healthcare fiasco unfold. But time heals. Our ongoing wars abroad and the war at home against the social safety net have given us a new urgency. Events from Egypt to Wisconsin have given us new inspiration. Yet in too many ways, we are having the same old discussions, and given changed circumstances, that should be an obvious sign that something is amiss in our collective ranks.
So I present below a new version, Psychology of Activism: 2011. It provides more questions than answers. It is far from complete, and for many issues before us, I hope to go into greater detail in the coming months. Part of what follows remains unchanged, and much is wholly new, or has different meaning in new circumstances.
An ordinary beautiful San Francisco day in 1979.
Home from work, flicked on the tube, the announcer droned that the jury had just convicted ex-cop Dan White of manslaughter for the carefully planned murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. People were gathering at the Civic Center.
I immediately hopped in my car and headed downtown, parking several safe blocks from the scene. Thousands were gathered before the Civic Center steps, mostly silent in stunned vigil. The prosecution had horribly botched a slam-dunk case. Many thought deliberately botched. A nervous line of cops surrounded the building, and 13 police cars were parked alongside the mall across the way.
Nothing happened. The crowd swelled. One man began tugging on a parking meter along the sidewalk. Its moorings loosened, he kept rocking it until the meter came free. He took the meter and smashed in the windshield of one of the cop cars, then ran for the cover of the crowd. The crowd only watched. The police only watched.
Another man — or the same man — approached the car with a crumpled newspaper, lit it, tossed it through the gaping windshield, and the inside of the car began to slowly burn. The crowd watched. The police watched. I watched.
Mass production. Several men began dislodging parking meters, going down the line, smashing more windshields, nervous, angry, ready to flee if the police moved. The police didn’t move. Some in the crowd gestured for the men to stop, but didn’t press the matter. By now, the crowd had somewhat sorted itself out. Most, stage left and center, were distinctly peaceful, in silent vigil. Those stage right were more visibly angry.
The evening darkened. Gas tanks began to explode. It’s not like in the movies, no mighty blast. Just a dull crump and the flames a bit higher. Black smoke started pouring out of the cars, and as the flames shorted out the wiring, the horns started howling in a steady scream.
A fire truck began making its slow way down the street towards the fires. The crowd, the peaceful crowd, parted before it, parting ever more slowly.
Then the moment. I was about 10 feet from the truck’s path, but I somehow knew what was about to happen. I saw the people in front of the truck twitching, their bodies positioned to move aside, but their feet not moving. The moment seemed frozen for just a few seconds, then it seemed like everyone at once took a step, watching their neighbors, two steps, toward the fire truck, closed solid around it, and the truck stopped dead. Waited a minute for instructions. Then slowly backed away not to return.
13 police cars burned that night, screaming like banshees as black smoke billowed as though from a war zone. Which in a way it was.
The police finally tried to force the crowd to leave, but the park was in darkness, the lights all smashed, and a hail of paving concrete flying out of the darkness drove them back. It was late, people had jobs, had to get up next morning. They went home. (The Wikipedia account differs in significant ways from what I saw. The Wikipedia account is wrong.)
Yes, there was leadership present. But the action was not led by them. A crowd of largely strangers came together, took collective intelligent action, skirmished with the police, went home having made their point. The moment that sticks with me is the moment when they stepped in front of that fire truck, the brief glances they shot each other, the final determination in their eyes.
Hold that moment.
Flash forward to now. We have a blogosphere of at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions. We are outraged. We are intelligent. We are well-informed. (Lord, are we well-informed!) Events happen, and we know about them usually in less than a day. We are politically sophisticated. We are organizationally experienced. We are politically impotent.
In some ways the disconnect between our potential and our practice is astounding. In very particular ways, we act collectively as dumb as posts. Now some folks like to go around calling other people stupid. I don’t. Gave that up years ago. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when intelligent people act dumb, the issue is not IQ, it is that there are emotional and psychological and methodological problems.
I also wrote last year Towards a Method of Activism in which I tried to examine progressive methodology and its discontents:
1. We need to stop just talking to each other about what we already know. Who wouldn’t disagree with this. But there is comfort in sharing our powerlessness with OTHERS.
2. First we need to unite the left. Never in history has the left united. At best, segments of the left unite, usually around a specific course of action. We could do something if only OTHERS got it together.
3. Labor has to lead. It was a driving force in the 1930’s, made Roosevelt “do it.” Plays a large, but never radical, role in today’s progressive politics. When I point out to proponents of this that labor won’t lead, advocates of this position always back off. Yet they cling to it even as they deny it. Again, we could do something if only OTHERS take charge.
[In Wisconsin, labor has taken the lead. I still maintain that labor is limited as a leadership force. If put up against a wall, it will fight. But will it fight for others? Thus in last year’s healthcare fight, they opposed Obama’s measures regarding Cadillac healthcare plans, plans that were “too rich.” They succeeded in changing that for their own members, then went along with supporting the fill, even though many others such as seniors and those needing expensive treatments were hung out to dry. In Wisconsin, they are still trying to elect more Democrats.]
4. We need big money to do anything. Big money would be good. But of course, the central conflict is between the rich who run things and the poor who don’t. Yes, progressive sugar-daddies and sugar-mommas will come along. But they never put up money blind. They wait until something gives signs of getting off the ground, and then they kick in. People know this. But they prefer to perpetuate this dependence on OTHERS. (We can’t, until …)
5. Important progressive leaders must step forward. See the above. We would follow if only important OTHERS take the lead. We see this cry for leadership and at the same time a resentment of anyone among their peers aspiring to lead. No one has the right to tell ME what to do, we proudly proclaim. Thus the paralysis is maintained. Those we would follow won’t lead, those who might lead we won’t follow. All opinions are equal, and even if the differences are small, the difference is more important than the level of agreement.
6. We need media coverage. You know, the corporate-owned media that feeds us lies every day. See the above. More OTHERS.
The above was gleaned from the posts and comments on FDL and Docudharma, and I believe accurately reflects where the left was at. It is still a thread running through much commentary. But there has been a significant change. These days, increasingly over the past year and especially since Egypt and Wisconsin, there is a new emphasis on what WE need to do. There is more and more a call for revolution, however vaguely and inconsistently this is understood.
But every call to battle is addressed to the urgency for individuals to do this or do that. Even as the word “we” arises in every call, the mode is still overwhelmingly individual-based. If you and you and you (ad infinitum) and I would do the following (take to the streets, vote green, reject the system) we would effect change. We are reduced to a collection of individuals. And it is doomed to fail. How do you get everyone out of the pool at the same time? For without it being simultaneous, we each know that we will get picked off one by one.
I would be insane to take to the streets without some assurance that others would be doing so. At the same time. In the same streets. Heroic individuals may be willing to martyr themselves. But our success depends on the mass, and we lack the means to generate that mass.
This individualized mode of understanding is bourgeois to the core. It was manifest in the reporting from Egypt, which posed the gathering in Tahrir Square as individuals suddenly motivated, spreading the word via Facebook and Twitter. But it is telling from the one story that received no mainstream media coverage. On the night after the thugs on horse and camel back tried to ride down the protestors, the Mubarak goons attacked again with rocks, Molotovs, and sniper fire, driving the protestors into a narrow perimeter. The protestors sent a call for help to the Muslim Brotherhood (whom the media minimized as much as possible), and the Brotherhood sent 3,000 fighters who drove the Mubarak forces from the square and secured the entry-ways. (From Counterpunch, couldn’t find exact references.) Had the protestors been driven from the square, the entire outcome might have been very different, more like Bahrain.
Organized force is decisive
You might ask, doesn’t the San Francisco story cited above reaffirm the importance of the individual? No. The San Francisco gay community was highly organized, and played a major role in getting people to the Civic Center, setting the stage for subsequent events. And there is a postscript. The police countered later that night by rousting the bars on Castro Street. Supervisor Harry Britt, Harvey Milk’s replacement, went into the street, people gathered around him, and they forced the police out of the Castro. And San Francisco settled back into Democratic Party business-as-usual.
The way to change this is both ridiculously simple and exceedingly difficult. Instead of stating that we must protest this, take to the streets over that, abandon the Democrats, the call should be that we need to form an organization to “protest this, take to the streets over that,” etc. That’s the easy part. The hard part is then actually building the organizations to do this and that. This requires more discussion.
Now, some smart person might say, “Gee, we already have an organization for independent politics, the Green Party, and things ain’t so great!” Well, I said it was the hard part. Having just any organization doesn’t win the trick. This also requires a separate discussion for, as Kermit the Frog said, “It isn’t easy being Green.”
So I wrote last year, “look to your neighbor. Is there the equivalent of a raised eyebrow? Or are they waiting for you to raise yours? The turn of the shoulders? What’s that mean on the blogosphere, what can you do to turn yours? And that frightened small lunge forward.” We’re starting to see some of that. Can’t build something from nothing. But now, how do we turn those eyebrows and shoulders into organization?
To be continued.