Rejection and Difference II: ‘Bros’ and ‘Highschool Brats’

[ This post builds directly from and is meant to follow the previous post: Rejection and Difference I: ‘Centrists’ and ‘Children’ ]

 

Rejection and Difference II: ‘Bros’ and ‘Highschool Brats’

While authenticity continues to be a theme in prefigurative scene members’ difference-making, the basis for this rejection becomes more subtle and complex as we move fully into the scene and focus on interactions between scene members. The individuals discussed here share a greater number of prefigurative patterns of everyday life (i.e. deeper within the scene), though this does not mean they share political orientations. While they may hang out at similar places, eat and shop at the same places, and know many of the same people, this apparent ‘closeness’ obscures deep divisions in their understanding of what prefigurative politics are supposed to ‘do.’

For example, in the opening vignette, the Punk outside the bar who reminded me that ‘the 60s were over’ hints at one of these divisions in the scene, a particularly hostile one, between the scene groups seen in the first example and what, to use a recently created invective developed in a widely read local zine, could be called ‘Bros.’

This zine, titled Bros Fall Back, was written in May of 2013 and quickly spread throughout Philly’s radical-DIY scene; it is difficult to overstate the impact this zine had on conversations and interactions across the scene. It appears as part of a rising critical voice within the scene aimed at pointing out how supposedly Punk and radical spaces and scenes actually harbor racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and classist ideas, particularly when people come to the defense of someone accused of one of these demonstrating one of these behaviors (i.e. ‘he’s not a bad guy, he was just drunk’). From the zine:

A bro is someone who assumes that any space they enter is meant to cater to augmenting their personal experience. they “don’t give a fuck,” even at the expense of everyone around them. regardless of the presence of oppressive and problematic behavior, a bro will tirelessly try to appear aloof….interesting things, to a bro, are shocking, ironic, edgy, but vapid activities…a bro is too cowardly to express anything sincere.

            …Booking [Punk] shows isn’t a righteous, revolutionary pursuit. I just don’t want to have to tolerate the racist, patriarchical, queerphobic bullshit that I have to tolerate in most other spaces. I’m about alienating my enemies, not embracing them. If you’re thoughtlessly policing someone’s behavior or making fucked up jokes you’re acting like my enemy…claiming you didn’t have ill intent won’t save you and is not a thoughtful, thorough apology…

            When we have punk shows we are expressing a sentiment of ownership and belonging to the neighborhood, an entitlement to impose our culture on a specific geography. When we have punk shows we are paving the way for artists, hipsters, university students, and yuppies to feel safe and welcomed…We are the warning signs of gentrification…When we have punk shows we are inviting a historically white population [i.e. Punks] to take up space and make lots of noise in neighborhoods that are currently experiencing or already have experienced a certain degree of gentrification…

            …There should be more space to self-criticize ourselves, our friends, our scenes without a defeatist attitude. Instead we can utilize our politics for more than catchy song lyrics and patches, and try to employ them for uses that lend themselves to more valuable conversation.

The perceived problems with ‘bros’ are laid out with relative clarity here. In many ways, the zine is representative of a broader effort to reclaim or stake out a new understanding about what Philly’s Punk spaces should be. However, despite the very real and very important issues raised in the zine, the ensuing debates and discussions (many occurring online, where linked personal networks create a sort of ‘punk public’) were far messier and far more personal than the zine appears to have envisioned.

On one side, ‘zine supporters’ made repeated efforts to highlight how Punk spaces can not only be exclusionary but even hostile to those who do not fit the ‘traditional’ Punk archetype (i.e. white, nihilistic males). This is an issue that has been widely discussed in the literature on Punk, a long-term problem that has garnered intense debate over the past three decades. In interaction, however, these points were often made in a tone that suggested that ‘you are either part of the problem or part of the solution.’

Thus, while the zine does highlight significant problems facing this community, the tone of the writing and, more importantly, the tone taken by many of its supporters in online and real-life discussions ended up becoming the focus of debate and contention. In fact, the phrase ‘high school bullshit’ was an extremely common comment made by those who were made to feel alienated in these arguments. As one person put it to me after a show that featured physical altercations over this zine, they felt those rallying in support of the zine and it’s content were

…like snotty teenagers who think they know everything, like they’re the first to write about this, and that if you don’t know them personally, like hang out with them, then you’re automatically a racist patriarch who is ruining everything. And when you try to talk to any of them about it, they act like you’re too stupid to possibly get it, you haven’t read the right stuff, you never will, and you’re just not cool, or a punk, or radical enough or something. It’s fucking high school shit!

Online trolling, physical altercations, refusal to interact or discuss in scene spaces, and a great deal of gossiping appeared to infect this important discussion about the manifestation of racism, sexism, queerphobia, etc. within the radical-DIY scene, leading many people to remove themselves entirely from any discussion on these issues. This is clearly not an ideal outcome for the zine’s authors who, at least nominally, were seeking ‘valuable self-critical conversation.’  However, it is inline with what a supporter (and possibly one of the zine’s multiple, but anonymous authors) told me the ‘real goal’ was: to be an explicitly trolling text, meant to incite anger and discontent. This again pushes us to reconsider what prefigurative, identity-based lifestyle politics are suppose to do in these situations. Was the prefigurative thrust in the zine’s development aimed at modeling the values of a new world, or, was it aimed at the selective, particular and even opportunistic deployment of identity in pursuit of starting arguments and ‘getting in their faces and kicking them out for the new crew,’ as one supporter claimed it was?

In fact, this confrontational tone quickly mutated into an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic that pushed even small, tangential discussions into heated and contentious arguments. The very definition of a ‘bro’ became a key point of contention as interactions across this scene gulf became more hostile; some were clearly interested in determining whether others considered them a ‘bro,’ while others wanted to point out perceived hypocrisies in the positions of those defending the zine’s arguments.

The latter, often took the form of simple rejection of the authors and their approach to these issues as being ‘self-involved,’ ‘written by graduate students,’ ‘too PC,’ ‘written by people who haven’t been involved in the scene for decades like I have,’ or ‘classist in its very use of big words and theory.’  Another major problem for many of those who felt alienated or targeted by the zine was the refusal of the authors or their supporters to further explain their positions or the issues raised, with the consistent refrain: ‘It is not the job of the oppressed to explain their oppression to their oppressors,’ or ‘read a book.’  It was this response that usually led to explosive confrontation, with one bro commenting to me as she walked away from an argument at a show,

“Who the fuck do these people think they are?  Of course there are problems. I’m a goddamn woman who plays goddamn punk, you think I don’t know about these problems, you act like I DON’T KNOW [shouting back toward argument]. But I don’t get all bratty about it, I actually work against it, where it lives. But to just sit there and complain and say people are being awful to you and then refuse to explain yourself further and only say ‘figure it out yourself’…I don’t know, its just so fucking self-righteous. I mean, I honestly don’t know much about this stuff and I don’t know where I’m supposed to start…I never went to college, I don’t know how to dig into this theory or whatever.”

In fact, the direct responses of ‘bros’ to these sorts of accusations are equally interesting given our interest in authenticity. Perhaps the most telling example comes from the many, many discussions and exchanges that revolved around issues of privilege. Over and over again, when white male bros were accused of not recognizing their white privilege, their responses could be consistently summarized as ‘I don’t have privilege, I grew up poor.’  Here, the recourse to class (‘I grew up poor’) is a return to the working-class aesthetics and ideals that form a fundamental part of Punk’s overall mythos. In fact, many of the most visible symbolic cultural markers of Punk in general could be read as an exercise in down classing, or even living without class privilege – dirty clothes, dumpster diving, train hopping, squatting, cheap alcohol, etc.

In the examples given above the theme of authenticity rises again, in two forms. First, the responses of bros consistently rejected the notion of privilege by emphasizing their ‘authentic’ Punk self as being ‘in the scene for over a decade,’ ‘the kind of person who actually does the work of punk like setting up shows,’ exuding nihilistic irony, and (at least symbolically) living a working-class life. Further, the more personal criticisms and invectives lobbed at the zine’s authors and supporters generally either tried to frame them as inauthentic Punks (‘new kids in the city who just want attention,’ ‘graduate students,’ ‘just want to destroy the community’), or, as hypocrites and, thus, inauthentic in their own self-presentation.

Second, it also possible to see issues of authenticity at work the behavior and discourse of zine supporters, particularly in sense of in/out-group dynamics . Here the complex radical politics presented in the zine appear to speak in terms of essentialized identities, particularly in the sense of reifying systems of oppression into specific, particular people and actions rather than viewing these people and actions as manifestations of much deeper and more complex systems of oppression).  By using essentialized identities to do the work of rejection and difference, these individuals can also be seen as constructing their own identities as more authentic radicals than the Punks who were not “welcome in the cool club” as a zine supporter phrased it in a screaming match outside a Punk show.

My project is built around a series of questions about what this sort of political culture offers or means in terms of collective projects of social change.  It seeks to raise some concerns that in reifying power within individuals and actions, power remains obfuscated.  The leftist-radical obsession with lifestyle choices as the self-directed and self-conscious construction of political identity not only encourages the commodification(as fetishization) of political identity [i.e. the assumption that we are free to choose and make identities however we want; that we are not limited in this endeavor, or, that the ability to do so may be a privilege many do not enjoy; wherein the process of the selection and display of a radical identity mirrors the process of self-creation via commodity consumption], buuuut, the flip-side of this views ‘bro’ individual and ‘bro’ actions not as manifestations of power, but as oppression itself.  Again, this is not to discount micro-level impact of individuals’ actions (saying fucked up things is fucked up).  Rather, it is to suggest that this line of thinking means that as long as the individual-reified-as-oppresion, bro, can be targeted/avoided/estranged/removed, then power too goes with them; however, power remains lurking in the corner.

DrunkPunks who self-construct as ‘outside of capitalism,’ and those who self-construct as ‘outside/above bros’ are doing similar things. Just because you start every Punk show or event noting that (an elusive) ‘we’ are “against -isms of all kinds,” does not mean that the -isms aren’t at work in the room.  Unfortunately, the politics themselves, the Western left-radical-DIY politics of identity and prefiguration, imply otherwise and they lack the tools to pursue systems (not manifestations) of oppression and power any further than the gates of the marketplace of ideas.

Social Movement Theory Primer, Pt. II

This is Part II of a Social Movement Theory primer…part I here.

21st Century Movements: Civil Society and the Movement of Movements

As the 1990s got underway, and the New Social Movements (NSMs) described in the previous post multiplied in form and location, social movement studies fell into a kind of disarray, in part due to an inability to fully comprehend the source of and experience of these movements, a problem tied to the cultural bias noted above.  However, given that this movement-academic relationship was being forged in the tumultuous post-Soviet era, the chaos is perhaps not surprising; theorists suddenly had close to an entire continent’s worth of social systems to observe and they were keen to develop frameworks for understanding what was happening in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, radical communities throughout the West were making their first appearances in forms later subsumed under the antiglobalization or ‘movement of movements’ (MM) label.  In many ways, the story of the MM is a story of the state of the SMS discipline since the late 1990s.  The fact that the MM spent a significant portion of its early career distancing itself from the 1960s and 70s is telling.  In the analytical disorder of the 1990s, these movements were, to a certain extent, ignored, handled with the theoretical and methodological practices of the past.

Indeed, though criticisms of both the American and European analytical traditions produced some important changes and some significant improvements, the ultimate result was not refinement but multiplication.  In some ways, it is as if many of the criticisms discussed above were not truly heard; the problems of Western liberal democratic bias and scholars’ tendency to impose their own cultural perceptions on movement actors persisted.  The discipline continued to appear unable to actually listen to movement participants, to engage with movements’ own self-understandings of who they are and what they do.

Instead of listening, the literature tended to frame the MM within the then popular trend in movement analysis, ‘transnational movement networks,’ or ‘global movements,’ which should be seen with a broader trend in the social sciences towards ‘global’analyses.  Indeed, ‘global civil society’ became a buzzword in the social sciences in the 1990s and the term was used in multiple, slippery, and sometimes conflicting ways.  Consequently, the transnational aspect of the MM became the focus of study, despite the fact that international organizing was hardly new (cf. Olesen 2005).  Further, the MM was commonly framed as a fragmented collection of single-issue networks that happened to be organized internationally (della Porta et al. 2006), rather than seeing the interactions between these movement and networks as the real core of the MM.

Here, analysis of the MM continued to reflect a similar Western liberal democratic politics bias that earlier literatures had been criticized for.  Richard Day (2005) framed the problem of state-centered thinking within contemporary Marxist and liberal discourses as a ‘hegemony of hegemony,’ which “deeply conditions our present understandings and possibilities” and is so ingrained in these theoretical traditions that they are incapable of theorizing about the newest activist practices (Day 2005: 13).  Practices not aimed at taking state or corporate power, Day argues, cannot be understood within the hegemony paradigm.  He argues that the assumption that effective social change is achieved simultaneously and en masse, across an entire national or supranational space, is antithetical to the ideals of the MM and, apparently, Day himself:

I see myself as contributing to a small but growing body of work in post-anarchism and autonomist Marxism that seeks to recover this impulse, by articulating how a non-reformist, non-revolutionary politics can in fact lead to progressive social change that responds to the needs and aspiration of disparate identities without attempting to subsume them under a common project. (Day 2005: 10)

As noted above, scholars’ inability to analyze the MM reflected broader problems within the social movement literatures at the time, problems that appear to have persisted since the 1970s.

It would seem that Piven and Cloward’s thirty-year old critique remains pertinent here; the institutional-political reductionism of traditional models simplistically views movements as occupying a particular level of the political system (Ford 2003).  This top-down approach relies on a priori assumptions about the irrelevance of movements’ creation and participation in long-lasting social institutions, a crucial dimension in the development of the MM.

These issues were no better addressed by theorists of the ‘cultural turn’ in social movement studies that appeared in the 1990s (Jasper 1997; Johnston and Klandermans 1995; McKay 1996; Polletta and Jasper 2001; Hall and Jefferson 1975 as inspiration), or even the attempts to ‘synthesize’ all of these traditions (e.g. Meyer and Minkoff 2004; Goodwin and Jasper 2003; McAdam et al. 1996).  As Cox and Nilsen succinctly put it, this cultural approach all too often treated these movements as simply “one lifestyle among many in postmodern capitalism” and, more broadly, these and the synthesis approaches tended to drown the movements in so much relativism so as to produce “an unsatisfyingly vague theory of everything” (Cox and Nilsen 2007: 430).

 

New Directions

Halfacree (2004) notes that while many of the cultural turn authors such as George McKay have written widely published and well-respected books and articles dealing with radical culture, the work often receives hostile reception from precisely those groups it is attempting to engage with.  In one particularly scathing review in the Do or Die zine, McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty is described as lacking the “joy, fun and creativity” an ‘insider’ would have produced; the reviewer “dismisses McKay as an outsider, the only evidence really being that he is an academic” (Halfacree 2004: 70).  The McKay example is one of many (cf. Shukaitis 2003); a quick read of the Infoshop.org ‘reviews’ section quickly demonstrates that activists remain wary of literature that is produced by a perceived ‘outsider.’

Activists are understandably frustrated with academic social movement literature.  A significant source of this resentment stems from analysts’ repeated return to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s for reference and comparative analyses.  McAdam, Sampson, Weffer, and MacIndoe (2005) write:

The movements of the 1960s and 1970s greatly increased interest in the [social movement] field but their own particular forms and processes have tended to dominate contemporary social movement scholarship and theory.  The danger is that the disproportionate attention accorded the struggles of the sixties has created a stylized image of movements that threatens to distort our understanding of popular contention…(McAdam et al. 2005: 2)

Indeed, McAdam and his coauthors go on to note a “close association in the minds of most researchers between movements and extreme forms of protest” (McAdam et al. 2005: 9).  This association has, among other things, allowed megaprotests to become a central empirical focus for study of the new transnational activism.  Worse, the specter of the movements of the 1960s and 70s has a power beyond the realm of the academy.  In the words of George Katsiaficas:

“The aura of the sixties is being used against the antiglobalization movement…an exaggerated sixties diminishes contemporary movements.  Movements today are written off as shadows, imitati ons or lesser beings.  Seattle is recognized as highlysignificant, but movements between the sixties and the present are forgotten.  Glorification of decades (or of great events and individuals) diminishes the importance of continuity and everyday activism in the life of social movements.  As a social construction, the myth of the sixties functions thereby to discourage people from having authentic movement experiences now, in the present.” (Katsiaficas 2006: 9)

Thus, distrust of an ‘outsider’ like McKay should not be read as simple anti-intellectualism or cliquishness.  Rather, it is a learned reaction, a defensive move by communities that have been continually misrepresented and even exploited by social movement analysts.

Douglas Bevington and Chris Dixon (2005) have noted that “rather than reading the dominant social movement theory, [activists] are generating theory largely outside of academic circles” (Bevington and Dixon 2005: 186).  The reason, these authors argue, is that “activists do not find such theory useful” because, in the words of Barbara Epstein, “[m]uch of current theory is so detached from the concerns of social movements that it is little if any use to those engaged in these movements” (Bevington and Dixon 2005: 230).  Thus, social movement literature is not being read by the very movements that it seeks to illuminate.

Cox and Nilsen (2007) further dissect this problem, arguing that despite its innovative claims, the field of social movement studies continues to ‘fall short:’

…it stands at a considerable distance from the theories of the movements themselves and (while they draw on it in unacknowledged ways) fail to pay serious attention to movement theorising as a valid source of knowledge (Cox and Nilsen 2007: 429)

This gets to the heart of the issue; the problem is that the social movements literature seems unwilling or incapable of recognizing activist theorizing as equal, or worse,

…the social movements literature in its academic form may exploit activist theorising (while claiming the credit for itself), suppress it (when it challenges the definition of the ‘field’ that the literature ultimately seeks to assert), or stigmatise it as ‘ideology’ (rather than analysis grounded in practical experience)…Even when challenged in its own terrain [i.e. within academic literature]…the critique is heard, and then ignored in practice as researchers return to ‘business as usual’. (Cox and Nilsen 2007: 430)

Because it appears incapable or unwilling to work with movement theorizing, because it doesn’t listen, Cox and Nilsen argue that the literature suffers in multiple ways.  At the most basic level, it is unable to historicize the movements as part of a larger progression of radical politics and culture, blind to the MM’s roots in 19th century anarchism or Punk, for example, and the insights the connections offer are lost.

A more distressing problem arises from the literature’s lack of attention to the actions of dominant groups, of elites.  As noted above, the consistent liberal democratic bias seen throughout the literature’s evolution effectively masks the actions of elite groups.  Consequently, scholars have often been unable to understand or accept what Cox and Nilsen call “the most basic point” of activist theorizing: that neoliberalism is a choice, not a fact; it is a particular political project of coordinated elites that is subject to challenge (Cox and Nilsen 2007: 430).  In other words, the literature is unable to theorize the MM’s contention that ‘another world is possible.’

Outside Voices

Unfortunately, perhaps now more than ever, activists recognize that there is a real need for relevant theory.  Richard Flacks has observed,

…activists are hungry for insight into the practices and experiences of organizers, into how collective and personal commitment can be sustained, into relationships between day to day activism and ‘long-range vision’, into problems of intra-movement contention, organizational rigidity and democracy, etc. (Flacks 2004: 146-47)

Activists are doing their best to tackle many of these issues on their own.  Discussions range from explorations of on-the-street tactical and organizational issues to self-critique, exploring the ways in which racism, sexism, classism, and other systemic forms of oppression are currently hindering movements (Martinez 2000).  One activist’s sweeping call for “a theory to go with one’s practice, a theory that can think the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ simultaneously, seeing them in all their mutually-conditioning relatedness” underlines the weight and complexity of these debates (Kellstadt 2001 in Bevington and Dixon 2005: 197).

Recently, there is also an emerging body of academic literature that is documenting, developing and, importantly, theorizing contemporary activist experiences (Crossley 2003, 1999; Day 2005; Mertes 2004; Moore 2009; Munro 2005; Wood and Moore 2002).  Further, both activists and academics are uncovering older (and some newer) works that stand somewhat outside of these SMS traditions (e.g. Gould 1995; Scott 1990; Thompson 1966).  This literature sets itself apart from the majority of academic literatures in that it lacks the tendency towards ahistorical, ethnocentric analysis and that they seek to reveal and elevate activist perspectives rather than imposing an assumed (and highly economistic) form of rationality upon these actors (Maeckelbergh 2011; Haenfler 2004; Wettergren 2009).  These works bring to light activists own understanding of their present activism as the latest step in the evolution of contemporary radical politics: an early focus style and direct confrontation with political institutions blossoming into a body of communities, organizations and institutions that appear deeply focused on developing lasting cultural, intellectual and social resources (cf. Jordan 2002; Hardt and Negri 2004; Halfacree 2004; Klein 2004; Cornell 2011; Cherry 2006; Ruggero 2009).

Further, there is a parallel and growing body of scholarship that is transforming what was once a somewhat polemic academic critique into a workable methodological agenda, taking as its foundation the radical/activist perspective, as opposed to relying on the ‘top-down’ traditions. (cf. Boykoff 2007; Graeber and Shukaitis 2007; Bevington and Dixon 2005; Cox and Nilsen 2007; Flacks 2004; McAdam et al. 2005; Halfacree 2004; Gordon 2007; Haluza-Delay 2008; Cox 1999; Cox and Fominaya 2009; Russell 2005).

Given the diversity of today’s radical activism, this is a somewhat delicate process that involves deep critical reflection on existing and dominant approaches to the study of social movements.  Mustafa Emirbayer argues that traditional, “substantialist approaches” focus on static substances, pre-formed entities that “remain fixed and unchanging throughout such interaction, each independent of the existence of the others, much like billiard balls or the particles in Newtonian mechanics” (Emirbayer 1997: 285).

The words and actions of contemporary radical activists suggest, instead, something akin to a ‘relational approach’ that embeds the social actor in dynamic, processual relationships that shift over space and time (Emirbayer 1997).  This approach is gaining popularity, particularly in connection with the study of networks; the role of fluid networks in contemporary radical activism has been well documented and has produced insightful examinations that have helped breakdown the static movement form that was initially applied to the MM (Juris 2008; Grewal 2008; Rolfe 2005).  Further, some scholars have called for more qualitative analyses of social networks that can “show how networks operate rather than simply showing that social ties and collective action are linked” (Cherry 2006: 158).

For example, Cherry’s study compared the varying practices and definitions of veganism among twenty-four self-identified vegans, particularly in relation to respondents’ subcultural affiliations.  Interview respondents were divided into those that claimed affiliation with the Punk subculture and those that did not (non-punk).  The interviews revealed that punk-vegans tended to be more strict in both their definition and practice of veganism while non-punk vegans tended to have more lenient definitions and practices, including the use of dairy products and honey.

Cherry argues that substantialist interpretations – that the results relate to individual strength and willpower – are insufficient given the subculture affiliation correlations.  Further, arguments based on collective identity (Melucci 1989; 1985) fail given the diversity of respondents’ practices and definitions.  Taking a “relational approach to the data,” Cherry compares three aspects of respondents social networks – discourse, support, and network embeddedness – to “demonstrate that maintaining a vegan lifestyle is not dependent on individual willpower, epiphanies, or simple norm following: it is more dependent on having social networks that are supportive of veganism” (Cherry 2006: 157).

This particular sphere of literature – qualitative approaches to collective action and network analysis – may be one of the most promising avenues in existing academic literature for scholars build new tools for analyzing these new movements.  The key to understanding contemporary radical activism lies in understanding the ties between participants and the complex networks these form.  Again, the prefigurative politics of contemporary radical activism “attempts to preview what social change may bring…activists begin to act as if the world they want to live in has come into existence” (Jordan 2002: 73).

The central importance of prefiguration in these movements cannot be understated, particularly as it presents a significant challenge to the literature, which, as noted above, has had difficulty developing robust analytical tools that can synthesize issues of culture, structure, networks, and action (Maeckelbergh 2011).  Prefigurative politics, in the most general sense, can be understood as an attempt to link the present and the future in the pursuit of social change; it is a linking of means and ends, of the struggle and the goal, through acting as if the world activists want to live in has already come into existence.

 

Closing Remarks: Occupy and the Future of Social Movement Studies

I noted in the introduction that the emergence of the Occupy movement presents SMS with a unique chance to critically examine the state of the discipline.  Indeed, even the most superficial assessment of the OM, it is easy to see characteristics that don’t fit well with many of the discipline’s basic assumptions and theoretical buildings blocks.

Thus far, the primary thrust of emerging academic engagements with the OM has been to connect the OM with its antecedents in the MM.  While this link offers some insight into the OM case, this link is relatively self-evident and, in and of itself, actually tells us very little about how and why the OM has appeared.  While the OM shares many organizational, tactical and strategic characteristics with the GJM, the OM enjoys a far greater level of popular support and engagement than the GJM.  The OM is popular uprising and, comparatively, the GJM was definitely not.

Beyond simply pointing to shared organizational forms or political identities in the past, research should seek to understand how and why the past has made its way to the present.  However, as previously noted, the SMS discipline has increasingly moved away from investigations of how political identities are formed, a crucial dimension of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind the OM.  Thus, a key step in rectifying this situation involves giving greater attention to the appearance of politics in daily life, the practice of politics in daily life, and, crucially, the formation of political forms and political ideologies in daily life.

This brings me to the final point I’d like to discuss: methodological considerations.  As noted earlier, over the past three decades, the SMS field has increasingly turned away from questions of movement ‘contents and contexts’ and towards a preoccupation with the dynamics of mobilization, with an increased emphasis on quantitative analysis.

This trend has had a number of significant impacts on how social movements are studied, including: a tendency to study movements ‘after-the-fact,’ evaluating tactics and strategy in terms of success and failure; a tendency to overlook the practice and experience of politics outside of mobilization and ‘success-or-failure’ contexts, that is, in daily life; a tendency to engage in a form of comparative study that removes movements and their mobilization strategies from the specific contexts in which they actually existed; and, a tendency to take the political orientations of movement participants for granted, overlooking the processes by which they come to be formulated (cf. Crossley 2002).  Further, the field’s declining interest why particular groups adopt particular political orientations has tended to distance researchers from the movements they study (Cox and Nilsen 2007; Bevington and Dixon 2005).

I have been arguing that SMS should see the unexpected and complex emergence of the OM as an opportunity to reinvigorate and reshuffle the discipline’s own sedimented theoretical paradigms and research programs; I have promoted the notion of moving below the canopy of activism manifested in the OM to get at the diversity and multiplicity of the trees that, together, form this canopy.  I’d like to suggest that greater attention to and use of qualitative methods, particularly the ‘participant observation’ tools of ethnography, would go a long way to advance the detail-oriented, ‘content and context’ goals of the critical reevaluation of the discipline I am promoting here.

Put another way, at the risk of belaboring the canopy metaphor, not only must SMS carefully consider the diverse population of individual trees, but also strive to walk amongst them, to live on the forest floor.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that social movement research must always be done as a participant.  That said, the OM presents SMS with a unique chance to capitalize on the detail-revealing virtues of ethnographic, participant-based research, potentially opening up important new theoretical directions in a discipline that is in serious need of innovation.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Amenta, E, N Caren, E Chiarello, and Y Su. 2009. “The Political Consequences Of Social Movements.” Annual Review Of Sociology. 35:393–412.

Benford, Robert, and David Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment”. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 611–639.

Bevington, D., and C. Dixon. 2005. “Movement-relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism.” Social Movement Studies, 4(3): 185- 208.

Boykoff, J. 2007. “Limiting Dissent: The Mechanisms Of State Repression In The USA.” Social Movement Studies, 6(3): 281-310.

Cherry, Elizabeth. 2006. “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach.” Social Movement Studies, 5(2): 155-170.

Clemens, Elisabeth. 1993. “Organizational Repertoires and Institutional Change: Women’s Groups and the Transformation of U.S. Politics, 1890-1920.” American Journal of Sociology, 98(4):755-98.

Cornell, Andrew. 2011. Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Cox, L. 1999. Building Counter Cultures: The Radical Praxis Of Social Movement Milieux. Unpublished Phd Thesis, Department Of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Cox, L. and A. G. Nilsen. 2007. “Social Movements Research and the ‘Movement of Movements’: Studying Resistance to Neoliberal Globalisation.” Sociology Compass, 1(2): 424-442.

Cox, L., And C.L. Fominaya. 2009. “Movement Knowledge: What Do We Know, How Do We Create Knowledge And What Do We Do With It?” Interface: A Journal For And About Social Movements 1(1):1–20.

Crossley, Nick. 1999. “Working Utopias and Social Movements: An Investigation Using Case Study Materials from Radical Mental Health Movements in Britain.” Sociology 33(4): 809-830.

Crossley, Nick. 2002. Making Sense of Social Movements. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Crossley, Nick. 2003. “Even Newer Social Movements? Anti-Corporate Protests, Capitalist Crises And The Remoralization Of Society.” Theory, Culture & Society 10(2):287–305.

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Social Movement Theory Primer, Pt. 1

When I describe to people the nature of my academic work, I usually encounter some mild confusion about what ‘social movement theory’ means.  This is understandable, especially given that even the most seasoned academics working in the field aren’t sure what ‘social movement theory really means.  So, below you will find my take, Part 1 of a primer on social movement theory’s development over the course of the 20th century.

!!If anyone would like anything clarified or more references, etc.  let me know!!

Introduction

Seen from above, the canopy of a dense forest appears as one undulating mass; indeed, ecologists describe a canopy-specific ecosystem, one quite different from those found below.  However, when only viewed from above, it is impossible to comprehend the particular role individual trees play in that ecosystem because the subtleties of the canopy’s construction are obscured.

We might think of most scholarly assessments of the recent history of radical and progressive social movements, particularly the global justice movement, in a similar way.  Pervasive throughout social movement literature, top-down perspectives of this canopy of activism mask the diversity of its constituents.  The literature collapses marching anarchists and union workers under the same label: ‘activists.’  To be sure, these individuals share a physical space during some street protests, but it is unlikely their similarities go much farther.  They are like different species of tree standing near one another in the forest.  Though they both reach into the canopy, they have distinct root systems, differing evolutionary paths and quite disparate wants and needs.  Yet, seen from above, the multiplicity and diversity of the trees is literally overshadowed by the apparent singularity of the canopy.

While there are likely a number of reasons why this top-down perspective is so pervasive in the academic literature, within the field of social movement studies (SMS), the most influential reason is undoubtedly the discipline’s three-decade shift away from an interest in movements’ political orientations, for example, their aims, ideologies or motivations.  Instead, SMS’ focus has narrowed to questions of ‘mobilization,’ that is, how groups recruit members, mobilize resources, and negotiate social and political environments in order to grow and succeed.  As Andrew Walder notes,

The puzzle that had long preoccupied political sociology rapidly receded from view – how to explain the political orientation of mobilized groups and the aims and contents of movements.  Along with the decline of interest in this question was a parallel decline in curiosity about the relationship between social structure and politics, something that defined the sociological tradition…Analytically speaking, the action was in the process of mobilization, not in the formation of political orientations. (Walder 2009: 398)

The turn to this mobilization focus has proceeded gradually, beginning with an interest in movements’ organizational capacity and their access and ability to muster various kinds of resources.  Later, attention turned to the political environments in which movements operate, the framing of movements’ appeals, the modernizing habitus of participants, and the role of emotions in movement mobilization.  Despite this apparent diversity of approaches, Walder notes, it is essentially a “false sense of intellectual breadth, obscuring the enduring narrowness of the focus on mobilization” (Walkder 2009: 394).

With respect to the experience of contemporary radical movements in the United states – the focus of this discussion – the mobilization bias can be clearly seen in how the literature has engaged with the collection of movements often subsumed under the ‘movement of movements’ (MM) label, particularly in scholars’ continued focus on observable and easily quantified movement markers like megaprotests, massive alter-summits, and policy ‘success’ (Amenta et al. 2009).  However, as noted above, it cannot be assumed that the thousands who share experiences in these physical spaces also share a common set of beliefs or intentions.

A further problem is posed by the dominance of the mobilization research paradigm: it overlooks the practice and experience of radical politics outside of mobilization contexts, that is, in daily life.  This should be a crucial component of the study of contemporary radical politics; for example in the case of anarchist politics, the envisioned project of social change does seek its goals through appeal to authoritative decision-making structures like the State.  Further, and more generally, political action in authoritative decision-making structures is not always a principal source of social change.

Thus, in focusing on the dynamics of mobilization of the MM, scholars have taken as a given its internal consistency and relative uniformity.  Further, the quantitative demands and process oriented lens of mobilization studies has led to a assumption of movement goals, specifically, that they lie in engagement with centers of economic and political power.  While elements of the MM, and many other movements, do seek such engagement, this analytical focus has undermined scholars’ ability to fully appreciate the range of activity that lies outside of such engagement.  Indeed, in the case of movements that explicitly reject engagement with such institutions, a focus on the build up to and moment of engagement is explicitly ‘irrelevant’ and in such a paradigm there is no way to see or understand the rest of these movements activity or relate it to movement content and ideology.

As analysis and debate over the Occupy Movement (OM) begins to emerge, it has become all the more pressing to critically examine the discipline’s theoretical traditions and analytic tools.  Indeed, even in the most superficial assessment of how the OM currently looks, it is easy to see characteristics that don’t fit well with many of the discipline’s basic assumptions and theoretical buildings blocks.

At this early stage, the most glaring example is how the OM complicates the notion of movement ‘success.’  Not only is it difficult to speak of the OM’s goals or envision what OM ‘success’ would look like, but the many ways in which scholars theorize movement behavior in terms of ‘success’ are further problematized by the multi-dimensional and constantly changing ways in which ‘success’ is understood by OM participants, shifting in response both to internal movement debates as well as shifts in the wider social context in which the OM operates.  Further, this fluidity operates differently across the national OM landscape as well as across the landscape within particular OM sites.

Though this is only one example of the complexity embodied in the OM case, it suggests that during this early stage of engagement with the OM phenomenon, scholars should strive to understand the specificity of OM experiences instead of proceeding directly from the analytical directives of preexisting theoretical paradigms and research programs.  This is not to suggest that there is nothing of value for the OM within the SMS discipline; rather, I am arguing that the starting point for OM analysis should be very close to the ground, among the trees on the forest floor, rather than at the level of the canopy.

The following discussion is geared toward making the most out of the current confrontation between the OM and the SMS discipline, with a particular focus on US scholarship in relation to US movements.  Further, though it begins with an overview of the late 19th and early 20th century roots of social movement analyses, the weight of the discussion will be skewed toward more recent scholarship, particularly the literatures surrounding the MM.  This contemporary bias is partially justified by the fact that many of the approaches and critiques seen in earlier eras have persisted and can still be seen in this MM literature.

The paper begins with an overview of the historical development of the dominant approaches to social movement analysis that helped establish the discipline in the 1960s and 1970s.  It then moves to consider some critiques of these approaches, as well as the 1980s encounter of American scholarship with the ‘new social movements’ tradition that had been developing in Europe.  The following section introduces the MM and its academic coverage.  Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of promising ‘new directions’ found among the voices of activists and radical academics in response to the failings of the dominant academic approaches to social movement analysis; these new pathways are among the most promising sources of innovation at this extremely important moment of OM emergence.

 

Roots of Social Movement Studies

The term ‘social movement’ was synonymous with social change more generally until very recently.  At first used to characterize collective efforts at changing and improving the material and social conditions of large portions of the population (as against the control of the state and private property by a small elite), ‘social movement’ later indicated the broad collection of progressive democratic and labor mobilizations (and/or the socialist movement) that appeared in late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Significant here is the conflation of the term with the rational pursuit of a collective interest in progressive social change.

Thus, while the foundations of social movement theory can be traced to the work of Marx,

Frame Breakers - 1812

Durkheim, and Weber, it is in late 19th century psychology that we find the clearest catalyst in contemporary social movement theory’s tumultuous development.  The psychological analysis of social movements as a form of (usually irrational and deviant) collective behavior persisted until the 1960s, when the shift towards the mobilization paradigm began.

Prior to this, three general traditions in social movement analysis can be found: Marxist informed class analysis, Durkheimian structural-functionalism, and the concept of ‘relative deprivation,’ grounded in late 19th and early 20th century psychology.  Marxist class analysis was focused on analyzing movements, and radical politics more broadly, in terms of class conflict, relating it to the modes of production in which radical movements emerge, drawing on Marx’s discussions of collective action in The Eighteenth Brumaire (Marx 1852).  The Durkheimian tradition developed from the notion that rapid changes in society are likely to impart greater social and psychological strain are certain portions of the population, making them more likely to be radicalized and, eventually, mobilized (Smelser 1962). The psychology-based relative deprivation thesis argued that individuals’ and groups’ perceptions of their social standing as well as the hardship they experience, relative to other social groups, serves as a source of psychological frustration and aggression, thus making them more prone to radicalization and mobilization (Gurr 1968).

I have chosen not to go into much detail with regards to these earlier schools in the interest of space and referencing later developments in the discipline.  What should be made clear, though, is that these three traditions share an interest in explaining movements’ and actors’ political orientations, as related to variations in social strcutres, not their capacity to mobilize.  This traditional research focus began to fade in the 1960s, with the emergence of the mobilization paradigm.

 

Mobilization

In the 1960s and 1970s, the SMS field began to open up dramatically as critical engagement with work in these three traditions blossomed into new schools of thought.  Earlier forms of Marxist class analysis were attacked for the rigid centrality of radical working-class movements, particularly in light of the failure of such movements to appear in large parts of the world; further, when such movements did appear, there was significant variability in the circumstances. Similarly, both the relative deprivation tradition and the Parsonian tradition suffered from a serious lack of strong empirical support (Tilly 1964).

There also arose a more values-based critique of the Collective Behavior models; in particular, a counter to the notion that protest behavior is the irrational, emotional and violent expression of frustration.  In the context of the increasingly turbulent context of the 1960s, a growing number of authors (particularly younger intellectuals and academics, many of whom had personal experience in the movements of the time) promoted a view of social movements as rational political activity, the result of people’s attempt to redress real and significant social ills through means outside of the limited mechanisms offered to them by the state (Gamson 1968).  The influence of scholars’ personal contact with, and implicit sympathy for, these movement projects on the state of the SMS disicpline should not be underestimated; consider, for example, the overrepresentation of left/progressive movements in SMS analyses.

The Resource Mobilization (RM) School, as the nascent paradigm came to be known, broke with the grievance-based conception of social movements.  Further influenced by the rising prominence of the field of economics within American social sciences in particular, RM scholars reframed collective action participation as a fundamentally rational choice, importing analytical tools used by economists to study economic decision-making by individuals (rational-actor theory).

Thus, the emerging RM school emphasized a focus on movements’ processes of mobilization, that is, “the dynamics and tactics of social movement growth, decline, and change” (McCarthy and Zald 1977: 1213).  RM theory argued that movement success or failure could be explained by its ability to mobilize various resources, understood broadly, including for example, funds and equipment, popular and mass support, and influence or leverage with authorities and those in positions of power.

Early work associated with the RM approach can be loosely divided into two camps, based largely on their relative emphasis on rational-actor models: 1) political process models and, 2) organizational models.[1]

The ‘organizational’ trend in RM’s early manifestations drew heavily from McCarthy and Zald’s early attempts (1973, 1977; Zald and Ash 1966) to formulate and refine RM theory more broadly.  Again, these authors broke with the grievance-based model and instead focused on mobilizing processes and, in particular, the formal organizational manifestations of these processes.  McCarthy and Zald developed a three-part analysis to describe changing movement landscape they witnessed in early 1970s America:

A social movement organization (SMO) is a complex, or formal, organization which identities its goals with the preferences of a social movement or countermovement and attempts to implement these goals…that have as their goal the attainment of the broadest preferences of a social movement constitute a social movement industry (SMI) – the organizational analogue of a social movement…The social movement sector (SMS) consists of all SMIs in a society no matter to which SM they are attached. (McCarthy and Zald 1977:1218-20)

It is important to remember the context in which McCarthy and Zald developed this approach.  The American movements that emerged during the 1960s were becoming increasingly professionalized, many transforming into lobbying groups, asking supporters for donations, not an extra hand.  There also emerged an off-shoot of these RM approaches that focused on how movements’ ‘framing’ of their aims and appeals can help to mobilize greater support (Benford and Snow 2000; Snow et al. 1986; 1995).  This approach reintroduced elements of the earlier grievance-based models, but linked it with elements of the McCarthy and Zald’s RM analysis above, arguing that SMOs should strive to ‘align’ their frames with those of potential supporters in order to secure the support – and other resources – of those constituents (Snow et al. 1986: 476; Diani 1996).

Political Process approaches, focused less on individual decision-making processes and more on the political environment in which movements operate, seeking to establish the link between structures of institutional politics and social movements and understand how these environments structure opportunities for collective action.  The work of authors such as Charles Tilly (1985; 2009) and Sidney Tarrow (1983) were influential in developing concepts such as ‘cycles of contention,’ ‘political opportunity structures,’ ‘repertoires of contention,’ and more generally in promoting the study of movements in connection with politics, an approach embraced by numerous authors (e.g. Kitschelt 1986).  However, it was Doug McAdam’s (1982) study of the American civil right movement that managed to fully synthesize and extend of these multiple approaches under the ‘political process perspective’ label.  Sidney Tarrow summarizes this approach:

…[P]eople engage in contentious politics when patterns of political opportunities and constraints change and then, by strategically employing a repertoire of collective action, create new opportunities, which are used by others in widening cycles of contention. When their struggles revolve around broad cleavages in society, when they bring people together around inherited cultural symbols, and when they can build on or construct dense social networks and connective structures, then these episodes of contention result in sustained interactions with opponents – specifically, in social movements. (Tarrow 1998:19)

These early innovations, as might be expected, came under significant criticism throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly for the limited forms of movement the concepts were suited to study.  Indeed, both the organizational and political process models were criticized for political reductionism, explaining movements by their interactions with the polity regardless of how important this is their ideologies, actions, motivations, etc.

In the context of research on poor people’s movements in America, Piven and Cloward (1977; 1995) argued that these populations do not usually possess the economic and political resources stressed by RM theorists; further, the focus on organized movements ignored the emergence of grass-roots movements outside of the organizational structures promoted by the RM model.  They also argued that movements become less contentious as they institutionalize – though this point has been countered (Clemens 1993).  Thus, because such phenomena do not fit within RM’s image of organized and rational politics, Piven and Cloward charged that,

…[l]ike many malintegration theorists before them, resource mobilization analysits have also reduced lower-stratum protest politics to irrational and apolitical eruptions.  (Piven and Cloward 1995: 162)

Additionally, it was argued, RM approaches assumed that movement success should be measurable, either in concessions from those in power or in the achievement of concrete goals.  This left little room for “the transformation of consciousness, in society or in the movement, or the building of community as a significant movement goal” (Epstein 1991:231).  Further, there is little available within RM approaches to help understand the sources of political engagement, that is, the origins of the ideologies and passions that shape movements.  In short, the RM approaches were seen to take movement purposes, contexts, and the nature of participants for granted, reducing social movement analysis to a description of the ‘rules of the game’ within existing (Western) democratic politics.

New Social Movements      

It is important to recognize that the development of the critical response to RM approaches occurred as American and European scholars began to have increasing contact with one another.  Consequently, building on these critiques, subsequent American innovations were heavily influenced by the central issue in European social movements studies at the time: the question of ‘new social movements’ (NSM).  In contrast to the RM studies of the time, which analyzed the ‘how’ not the ‘why’ of social movements, the European tradition was more focused on relating movements with large-scale cultural and structural changes in society.

The NSM term is meant to signify more recent movements’ break with ‘old’ movements for the power of workers and other categories that had fallen out of relevance.  The new movements, a broad and ill-defined cluster of movements that emerged out of the 1960s, include the peace movement, second-wave feminism, the environmental movement, animal rights, the peace movements and more.  Jasper refers to these movements as ‘post-citizenship movements,’ composed of actors already integrated into their society’s economic, political, and educational systems, now making demands for issues beyond basic rights (Jasper 1997:7).

In some ways, the NSM ‘turn’ should be understood less as an empirical argument about clear observable properties of these ‘new’ movements than as the result of a shift in thinking among Marxist European intellectuals; it is an attempt to move beyond the tendency to privilege the working class in social movement analysis.  In many ways, NSM analysis is about broad changes in modern societies, particularly the ways in which movements seek to change in cultural, symbolic and sub-political realms.

An early pioneer in this European context was Alain Touraine (1981).  Touraine linked movements with the dominant conflict or struggle within a given society; he defined social movements as: “the organized collective behavior of a class actor struggling against his class adversary for the social control of historicity in a concrete community” (Touraine 1981: 77).  The term ‘historicity’ connotes the “overall system of meaning which sets dominant rules in a given society,” somewhat analogous to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony (Touraine 1981: 81; Gramsci 1971: 245; cf. Morton 2007).  Thus, it is in the changing fault lines of core social conflict that NSM gain their ‘newness.’

Alberto Melucci (1980) elaborated on Touraine’s core thesis when he coined the NSM term.  One of Melucci’s key efforts was to emphasize the importance of cultural factors in movement analysis, which would allow a better understanding of these new movements and the central importance of identity in their struggles which, significantly, did not seek to take state power.  He writes:

The movement for reappropriation which claims control over the resources produced by society is therefore carrying its fight into new territory.  The personal and social identity of individuals is increasingly perceived as a product of social action, and therefor as that which is at stake in a conflict between the exigencies of the various agencies of social manipulation and the desire of individuals to reappropriate society’s resources.  Defense of the identity, continuity, and predictability of personal existence is beginning to constitute the substance of the new conflict.   (Melucci 1980: 218)

Numerous authors developed other versions and elaborations around this idea (Offe 1985), sometimes to rather pessimistic and ethnocentric ends (e.g. Laclau and Mouffe 1985); however, Habermas’ (1981; 1989) discussion of NSMs as a response to the ‘cultural impoverishment’ wrought by the ‘colonization of the life world’ is notable for its clear and detailed account of the structural transformations that gave rise to the NSMs.  That said, one important criticism that could be leveled at many of these authors is the tendency to impose cultural meanings on movement actors, rather than examining how the actors themselves construct meanings, shared definitions, and goals.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will pick up with ’21st century movements’

 

 

 


[1] This division, it should be noted, is made largely to aid the conversation here.  The field of social movements studies grew rapidly in this period and, unsurprisingly, there are numerous versions of the story of its development.  Thus, in an effort to cut through conflicting (and at times petty) academic narratives, I have chosen the categorizations presented here based on their ability to aid the discussion of the field research rather than their accuracy in the perceptions of the researchers discussed.

 

Energy Gluttony

This post deals with the seriously under-theorized issue of the energy-society relations embedded in the development of renewable and carbon-neutral energy systems in response to the problem of climate change.  You can watch a video of me presenting a version of this discussion here: Political Economy of the Environment discussion at Occupy Philly’s Dissecting Capitalism series.

 

Technophilic Futures

While belief in the reality of climate change has declined significantly in recent years, the threat remains clear to the majority of the world’s population and even a not insignificant portion of the American population.  But ideas about what our response should be vary wildly.

However, whether the response to our energy and climate challenges should be wind, solar, nuclear or some other option, contemporary debates about these issues have almost entirely focused on them as technology questions. With a looming climate crisis caused in large part by the energy sector, one might hope that social concerns would rival technical ones. But so far, this has not been the case. Instead, technology fixes of various kinds appear to have the momentum.  For our purposes, we can divide the techno-fix support into two camps: nuclear options and industrial-scale renewables, the latter being an alliance of middle class mainstream environmental groups and renewable business lobbies such as the American Wind Energy Association.

For many, this picture is a cause for celebration.  Regardless of which camp wins, a low-carbon future sustained by green jobs and a green economy of consumption and production awaits. Indeed, these corporate-led visions are rapidly crystalizing, their momentum burgeoned by an urgent call-to-action and a near-desperate sense that without an immediate response akin to a Green Manhattan Project, collapse is certain.

One might think such urgency and fatalism would lead to some expectation of social sacrifice.  However, the middle class roots of the call-to-action instead shift attention to technology as the source of salvation.  Indeed, for all the celebration, there is a disconcerting undertone: the vision summoned by the optimistic appears to proceed without serious social change. Both visions indicate a preference to simply alter energy supply inputs rather than transform society-energy relations. Both schemes, nuclear power renaissance and mega-scale renewable energy development, suggest that modern society will receive a rising stream of less CO2-rich kilowatt-hours, so that increased energy consumption and economic growth can continue.

In many ways, though, the prominence of this vision of continued growth is not surprising.

Since the industrial revolution, social progress, particularly in the West, has been measured by material affluence.  In turn, assuring wealth and its increase has been the responsibility of a set of institutions charged with planning for and delivering a boundless frontier of expanding production and consumption.  Indeed, living well in modern times means a constantly rising flow of goods and services delivered conveniently and, ideally, at low cost. Growth without end is, in this way, insti¬tutionalized as a permanent goal of modern society.

Additionally, a life involving less and less interaction with the natural world has quickly become a hallmark of living well.  Separation from the natural world is facilitated and reinforced by technological advancements that collapse the boundaries of space and time enabling social transac¬tions without natural limitation.  In fact, the middle and upper classes of wealthy societies have little or no need to venture outside.  The resulting social alienation from nature leaves mostly the poor to witness the environ¬mental consequences of endless growth.  Only their livelihoods are immediately and significantly threatened by the “normal pollution” of modernity.  And this is (partly) why middle class environmentalism seeks redress through techno¬logical positivism.  The everyday of indoor life is pro¬tected and nourished by technology; so why shouldn’t this work for the outdoors as well?

Energy Gluttony

That said, the clean technophilic vision of the future remains bound to the real material constraints of the production process and, consequently, relies on one essential ingredient – energy.  For modern life, energy is the one commodity always needed to make and use anything. In this respect, energy supply is what enables the pursuit of boundless growth; because of modern energy, we can aspire to produce and possess everything.

Indeed, the modern energy system epitomizes its age. For decades, thinkers such as Amory Lovins and others roundly criticized its evolution on the ground that its scale and volume are poorly matched to the often much smaller scales and volumes of energy use.  But the criticism misses a key point: the mismatch is, in fact, by design; it is essential for modern society to reproduce itself.  After all, the potential for incessant growth can only be exploited if an ever-present capacity to fuel such growth exists.  Having just enough energy presumes the nonsensical idea of just enough growth.

Modern energy systems only come in extra large sizes because quantity is the only imperative.  Volume and scale of output are the standard bearers of serious energy options because these are the shared metrics of the alliance of science, capitalism, and carbon power.  All three run on the prin¬ciple that more is better; more knowledge, more power, and more commodities are signs of progress.  Further, this is a self-sealing logic, a feedback loop, whereby massive energy systems support production growth, social norms foster increased consumption to match production, encouraging even further expansion of production, again, reliant on energy systems that continually expand to keep pace.

I refer to this ideology of relentless growth as ‘energy gluttony.’  Much like biophysical gluttony, energy gluttony is driven by the need to expand without regard to quality of life.  Its motive is the commodification of human life and the environment so that growth without end can be served.

Carbon-Free Gluttony

With gluttony as the modern energy system’s core design principle, the reaction to the ever-present condition of energy shortfall is to search for bigger and more machines.  Technologies that can deliver energy gluttony, abundant energy machines, have priority in modern life.  It is important to reiterate that this priority is not dependent on actual conditions of shortfall.  Rather, a forecast of future insufficiency of present machine capacity is all that is needed.

Because such a forecast is always available in a society seeking growth without end, the demand for bigger and more abundant energy machines is relentless.

And so, the search is on for a remedy of the problem of climate change.  Although the challenge has stimulated some rethinking of the underlying paradigm,presently two of the most warmly embraced options are solidly inside the box—nuclear power and industrial scale renewable energy.  Both share the qualities of history’s titan technology: they are very large in energy terms and in the scales of investment they require; they reinforce the centralist architecture of the modern energy system, adding high doses of supply to feed the system requirements of continuously growing demand; and both options are predicated on corporatist, technocratic politics that assigns power to the values of the energy system and its needs, with the expectation that society’s members will adapt.  Let’s briefly consider these two camps in more detail.

Nuclear

First, the nuclear option.  Nuclear power’s proponents cast climate change as a grave threat to modernity.  Responding to global warming will reverse centuries of progress unless a new furnace is designed which reduces carbon emissions while also accelerating global economic activity.  In this formula, it is the fear of social retrogression, rather than environmental protection per se, which motivates the argument.  When concerns are raised about the social and environmental consequences of living well with nuclear power, a dismissive response often follows.

Indeed, some do acknowledge problems of plant safety, weapons proliferation, and radioactive waste storage, but ultimately adopt what they believe is a necessary policy position in light of global warming.  This includes leading environmentalists.  In fact, one of the strongest endorsements by a leading environmentalist for a nuclear future is provided by Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, who admonishes critics of the technology, proclaiming that “if we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire.”  Indeed, he quit Greenpeace because of its unwillingness to embrace nuclear power when the world is in the midst of its greatest environmental crisis.

In sum, the threat of climate change is leading a growing number of activists and experts to justify restarting nuclear power development.  A key element of the effort is to paint nuclear power, once more, as a scientifically sound approach and, in this way, to harness modernity’s high regard for science and engineering, calling for trust in them to solve any outstanding problems.

 Green Titans

The threat of global warming has also advanced renewable energy as a policy priority.  Its impressive rise to prominence has been swift and, also, puzzling.  Power and profit projections once reserved solely for the global fossil fuel system now extend to include renewable energy markets as well.

Appropriating the symbols of nuclear power’s technology triumphalism, corporate renewable energy has launched a campaign for, fittingly, a “Manhattan Project” that can vault Big Wind and other renewables with extra-large size ambitions to a new level.  The new order is visualized with imagery suggesting, for example, the benign nature of giant wind turbines in pastoral settings.  To secure the support of technologically minded moderns, these same turbines are applauded for their complexity and scale—far larger than the Statue of Liberty, built with the exotic chemistry of composites, and aerodynamically designed with highly sophisticated computer models.

So, rather than questioning the underlying premise of modern society to produce and consume without constraint, contemporary green energy advocates warmly embrace creating bigger and more complex machines to sate an endlessly increasing world energy demand.

A final problem specific to an extra-large green energy project is the distinctive environmental alienation it can produce. The march of commodification is spurred by the green titans as they seek to enter historic commons areas such as mountain passes, pasture lands, coastal areas, and the oceans, in order to collect renewable energy. Although it is not possible to formally privatize the wind or solar radiation (for example), the extensive technological lattices created to harvest renewable energy on a grand scale functionally preempt commons management of these resources.  It is privatization through economies of scale, appropriation through unbalanced competition.

Considering that previous efforts to harness the kinetic energy of flowing waters (mega-dams) should have taught the designers of the mega-green energy program and their environmental allies that environmental and social effects will be massive and will preempt commons-based, locally-scaled approaches.  Instead of learning this lesson, the technophilic awe that inspired earlier energy gluttony now emboldens efforts to tame the winds, waters, and sunlight all to serve the revised modern ideal of endless, but low- to no- carbon emitting, economic growth.

Paradigm Shift

Shedding the institutions that helped create the prospect of climate change will not happen on the watch of the green titans or extra large nuclear power.  If institutional change is to occur, if energy-society relations are to be transformed, we will have to design and experiment with alternatives other than these.  Clearly, outside the box alternatives may not be sensible in the modern context.  However, we need ideas and actions that fail in one context in particular, here, specifically, the context of energy gluttony.  To that end, I want to discuss the concept and practice of the sustainable energy utility in this spirit.

The SEU was developed at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware, where I received my first Master’s degree.  It has been adopted a numerous states and some form of it in South Korea, but that is not really important.  I just want to be upfront that I am not promoting this model in particular, but it will allow me to talk about the ways in which we might begin thinking about transforming this situation we find ourselves in.

The sustainable energy utility (SEU) involves the creation of an institution with the explicit purpose of enabling communities to reduce and eventually eliminate their use of gluttonous energy resources and reliance on gluttonous energy organizations.  It is formed as a nonprofit organization to support commons energy development and management.  Unlike its for-profit contemporaries, it has no financial or other interest in commodification of energy, ecological, or social relations; its success lies wholly in the creation of shared benefits and responsibilities.

The SEU constructs energy-ecology-society relations as phenomena of a commons governance regime.  It explicitly reframes the preeminent gluttonous energy regime organization—the energy utility—in the antithetical context of using less energy.  In contrast to the cornucopian strategy of expanding inputsto endlessly feed the gluttonous regime, the SEU focuses on techniques and social arrangements which can serve the aims of sustainability and equity.  It combines political and economic change for the purpose of building a postmodern energy commons; that is, a form of political economy that relies on commons, rather than commodity relations for its evolution.  Specifically, it uses the ideas of a commonwealth economy and community trust to achieve the goal of postmodern energy sustainability.

I want to briefly discuss the meanings of commonwealth, community trust, and commons as they are relevant to the SEU concept, but with an eye to think beyond this basic example.

Commonwealth

To realize this antithetical context, the SEU creates the conditions for a commonwealth economy that can prosper only by investing in the sustainability of a community and its lifeweb. The commonwealth arises from an ongoing mutual promise to share the costs of building an energy scheme that uses less; and, when use is desired, it supplies energy from renewable sources organized locally, by and for the community. The economic benefits of needing less can be directly valorized and shared in the form of lower community costs deriving from less use.  In this manner, shared benefits pay for shared costs.

Further, the choice of renewable supplies enables preservation of local resources and ecosystem services. By paying together to promote sustainability, collective gains ensue: from improved public health and biodiversity to recovered natural experience. Using the same basic method as the case of conservation, the renewable energy case borrows from the benefits it brings in order to build an enduring commonwealth.

The infrastructure of energy sustainability is thereby built practically, in the everyday of shared savings/shared benefits transactions.  The utility in the new regime invests in less use, for example, by funding the entire difference in community costs between waste and conservation.  If it costs more to conserve (which is not always the case, by any means), the community’s utility draws from the commonwealth, composed of pledged community shared future savings, to cover the higher cost. Investments in renewable resources are likewise drawn from the commonwealth, which in this case can be in the form of pledged community-wide obligations to purchase renewable attributes.

In both instances of commonwealth investment—conservation and renewability—a community can forego the costs of endlessly building abundant energy machines (power plants, oil, coal, and gas extraction facilities, refineries, distribution networks, etc.), which harm human and ecosystem health. The community is also able to avoid endless construction of infrastructures of remediation and restoration that societies with gluttonous utilities require to cope with the consequences of energy gluttony.

Community Trust

As for the formation of community trust, the SEU emphasizes governance by community rather than technocratic institutions and values.  Shared use of and collective responsibility for the health of renewable energy and other ecosystems defines the politics of a new energy commons.  This definition conforms with two critical elements of a commons regime.  First, it offers a means by which energy decisions are based on streams of common benefits for the community; secondly, it emphasizes the social governance of energy in order to protect the community’s interest rather than the interests of energy producers.  In this way, community values, instead of commodity values, determine policy direction.

A community using an SEU to govern energy-society relations evolves differently from its modern counterpart.  It must earn the trust of members that sharing costs will improve their collective condition; that borrowing from future benefits will result in equitable and sustainable future development.  Unlike the producer’s utility, the SEU operates without mandatory participation.  Members decide whether to enter the sustainability space of the SEU.  In essence, an SEU is at the mercy of its community’s judgment.  This naturally leads to an emphasis on a social, not technical or economic, evaluation of the energy regime.  An SEU confronts the energy challenge by embedding decision making in the community itself.  Uses of the commonwealth are decided by community members, who govern the SEU in the institutional sense of setting goals, monitoring performance, and enforcing rules.  But there is also the personal and interpersonal sense of governance in which the meaning and practice of sustainability and equity are created and continually revised.  Members’ efforts to secure commonwealth commitments lead to the interplay of the institution, the individual and groups around practical problems of how to use less and how to match social needs and renewable energy availability.

A commons-based politics is by no means without conflict.  Differences inevitably arise and must be con¬fronted.  But in the case of the gluttonous energy regime, the remedy is always cornucopian: more will, eventu¬ally, resolve the conflict.  Of course, such a remedy destines modern society to travel unsustainably and inequitably through time.  In this regard, the differ¬ence between the politics of the commons and that of cornucopia is not the relative presence or absence of conflict, but the presence or absence of community trust. When conflict arises, resolution must come from a restoration of trust through sharing of resources and responsibilities.

Commons

Finally, the notion of ‘the commons.’  Unfortunately, contemporary notions of the commons concept are frequently draw from Garret Hardin’s famous paper, the Tragedy of the Commons.  He conceived of the commons as a natural resource bundle or physical area, and commons management was defined as the informal social scheme used to govern access and use of those resources.  He regarded the scheme as leading to virtually unregulated access and use because enforcement, due to the informality of the scheme, was weak.  Moreover, there would be little interest in enforcement for solely environmental reasons.  The fate of commons management, he concluded, would be environmental plunder.  He surmised that tragedy could only be averted by the conversion of commons areas to privatized commodities or publicly regulated zones with strong economic incentives and penalties to guide access and use.

A large body of research literature formed around this proposition, most of it confirming that commons management is an out-of-date idea.  However, the tragedy lies not in the commons, but in the modern idea of it and of the human personality that is regarded as normal or, at least, practical in these models.  The argument assumes the centrality of commodity-based relations.  It is presupposed that human beings who strive for wealth without limit are rational, leading many researchers to search for solutions to the tragedy by using sophisticated rational actor models.

However, diverse human populations have demonstrated that commons governance can provide for long-term environmental sustainability.  So, it seems then that such tragedy studies tell us more about what moderns would do if they fell on a commons than about ‘commons’ history per se. This begs the question: should we abandon commons governance because of the modern mentality, or should we work to change the modern mentality with one more suitable for commons governance?

I believe we should look for tools that make steps towards the latter.  Although commons institutions do not in and of themselves guarantee eradication of environmentally exploitive practices, they do offer a step towards the recovery of political agency in the formation of choices regarding energy and environmental futures and the normative reconstitution of the good life.

Closing

In summary, rather than relying on technical miracle-elixirs, even carbon-free ones, I’m suggesting that the onset of human-induced climate change wrought by 200 years of modern energy practice should spur us to try earnestly to shift the paradigm.  Tools such as the SEU have the potential to dismantle energy gluttony.  Through a resurgent community voice seeking to govern energy-ecology-society relations, it may be possible to render a very different energy future.

And there should be little doubt about the difficulty of the task.  Regimes develop through the interplay of technology and society over time, rather than through prescribed programs.  They alter history and then seek to prevent its change, except in ways that bolster regime power.  Of specific importance here, gluttonous utilities will not simply cede political and economic success to an antithetical institution—the SEU.  That is why change is so hard to realize.  Shifting a society towards a new energy regime requires diverse actors working in tandem, across all areas of regime influence.  Economic models, political will, social norm development, all these things must be shifted, rather than pulled, from the current paradigm.

By choosing community governance over technocratic orders, we have the chance to do something impossible in the era of energy gluttony: relocate energy-ecology-society relations in a commons space.  Using commons tools such as the commonwealth economy and the community trust, we can place new values above speed, quantity, extra large and growth.  Energy sustainability and energy justice can be secured as the desired and proper outcomes of energy-ecology-society relations.

 

 

 

Invisible Fences: US House of Representatives Passes Further Restrictions on Free Speech

Photo Credit: WNYC

In an earlier post, I pondered the question: Is the US Government Preparing for the Possibility of a Large-scale, Federal Crackdown on Dissent?

On Monday, I was given a little more fuel for my paranoia bonfire when the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 347, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011.  Despite its landscaping-tinged title, the bill radically expands the federal government’s ability to prosecute American citizens engaged in political protest, effectively turning Americans’ clear and unqualified right to free speech and protest into a privilege to be granted when and where the federal government sees fit.
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Punk as Public: Finding Radical Publics in Philadelphia Punk Houses (Proposal excerpt)

    The following is a selection from a recent research proposal I submitted. The proposed project aims to draw on ‘publics’ literature in order to ask:

    Is it possible to describe a contemporary radical ‘public’ and, if so, what is the nature of its internal form, its deliberative content, and how is it situated among and relate to broader cultural formations that are not considered, at face value, to be necessarily ‘radical.’

    As much as anything else, this proposal is aimed at interrogating the publics concept. I truly believe that, at times, it can lead us down a road of confusing formalized democratic politics with real democratic processes. Problems arise when we then come to expect all ‘real’ political action to conform to this image; it actually hijacks political power from everyday people and out everyday lives and serves to make us feel that democratic decision making is something that ‘politicians do.’

    Finally, the post references some authors that were discussed in earlier sections of the proposal, not included here. If you would like to see the full proposal, just let me know.

Hippies and Punks: Houses and Shows

In the introduction of his very recent book, Oppose and Propose, Andrew Cornell asks: where do the strategies, tactics and lifestyles of contemporary activists come from? Over the course of the text, Cornell explores how many of the practices and perspectives that have become hegemonic within contemporary movement culture, “frequently taken as transhistorical tenets of anarchist politics or radicalism more generally,” were pioneered by an organization called the Movement for a New Society (MNS) (Cornell 2011:15).

The MNS grew out of a Philadelphia-based Quaker antiwar organization in 1971 and, though it was dissolved less than twenty years later, in the course of its short life the MNS was the central innovator and force in promoting a wide array of activist tools and approaches, including: multi-issue political analysis, consensus process, network structure, internal antioppression work, and direct action, to name a few (Cornell 2011:55).

Additionally, and of particular interest here, the MNS was heavily influenced by the eco-anarchist philosophy of Murray Bookchin, a perspective that falls squarely into Dobson’s ‘ecologism’ category above. Bookchin’s ‘social ecology’ is built on the notion that the ways in which we interact with each other as social beings profoundly influence attitudes we are likely to have towards the natural world. Social Ecology ties man’s domination over nature to man’s domination over man. Drawing on anarchist, socialist and feminist perspectives, Social Ecology takes aim at systems of hierarchy and domination as key components of any understanding of ecological problems and any attempt to solve such problems must address these as well. This includes a wide-ranging set of social, economic and political institutions, for example, patriarchy, many forms of government, racism, and capitalism.

Though Cornell suggests that these ideological and strategic legacies of the MNS have made a “broader impact than the institutions it left in its wake”, I argue that this ‘institutional wake’ has also been extremely influential. In fact, I have personally encountered this institutional legacy both during the course of research I was conducting on Punk communities in Philadelphia (Ruggero 2009), as well as in my personal experiences as a member of this Philadelphia community.

As part of the research mentioned above, I explored how Punk culture has evolved since its early manifestation in the 1970s. Following a brief and rapid rise to the spotlight, by the early 1980s, the superficial imagery of Punk music and Punk culture – dyed hair and leather jackets – had receded from mainstream popularity.

However, after its popular death, Punk did not disappear; indeed, a new Punk began to emerge. The culture began to reevaluate itself and embraced its creative roots, particularly through the development of music industry counter-institutions. Bands and fans once again created their own record labels, performance spaces and network ties through homemade fanzines. This was the rebirth of the DIY ethic (Do-it-Yourself) of self-reliance and thoughtful action that had gotten lost in Punk’s commercial success.

By the early 1990s, the creative energy that initially fueled the reinvention of the Punk music scene had expanded into other genres of music and, importantly, into practices and institutions outside the world of music. It encouraged the development of a diverse set of social, political and cultural institutions including bookstores, infoshops, zines, bands, food distribution schemes, broadcasting stations, art and performance collectives, internet databases, libraries, cafes, squats, video networks, public kitchens, clubs, online message boards, record labels, bars, and more (cf. Halfacree 2004; Carlsson 2008; Dunn 2008; Gordon 2008; Spencer 2008; Ruggero 2009).

In Philadelphia, a central institutional component of what might be called ‘Punk life’ are ‘Punk houses,’ particularly those in West Philadelphia. These large Victorian-style homes, built in the early 20th century, house six or more people at a time and, often, the large basements serve as DIY venues for ‘basement shows,’ a key cultural institution of DIY/Punk culture in Philadelphia and across the world. At the time, I counted over thirty such houses in West Philadelphia alone, with names like ‘Trinity House,’ ‘The Twenty-Sided House,’ ‘Danger Danger,’ and ‘The Farm,’ each with their own household cultures and unique style.

Much like the strategic and tactical strategies pioneered by the MNS that, as Cornell noted, are now so ingrained within movement culture that they appear to ‘have always been,’ when I have asked interview participants what they believe the origins of Philadelphia’s Punk house culture are, respondents usually attributed it to Punk culture in general (and they rarely framed the practice in terms of radical politics or any political motivation). They are not unaware of the political dimensions, but this house culture has an air of ‘has always been.’

However, the ‘Punk house’ institution in Philadelphia has a specific historic legacy, one that, in fact, intersects with the MNS. A key part of MNS strategy was a form of prefigurative politics that, among other things, involved living collectively in order to save money to support further activism, promote solidarity and, importantly, develop and practice alternative forms of social relations. In his historical analysis, Cornell notes, “in January 1976…a ten-block area of West Philadelphia was home to nineteen collective households composed of four to eleven people each, with names such as ‘The Gathering,’ ‘Kool Rock Amazons,’ and ‘Sunflower’ (Cornell 2011:30).

The proposed research project, therefore, takes this intersection of the activist cultures of the MNS and DIY/Punk culture, embodied in the institutional form of collective houses, as a starting point for its exploration of contemporary radical publics.

I argue that one important reason social movement scholars’ analyses of contemporary radical politics are so narrowly focused on mobilization around protest is because they have missed a crucial dimension of how these politics are lived, debated, and deliberated over in daily life. However, utilizing the theoretical tools offered by the ‘publics’ scholars, we can begin to develop an alternative approach that is sensitive to these important aspects of radical political life.

Nancy Fraser’s analysis allows us to conceive of radical communities in Philadelphia, both in the past and in the present, as a sort of subaltern counterpublic, that is, a discursive arena that lies outside of the ‘official’ public sphere; crucially, this allows us to make an important first step away from a mobilization-based analysis of these radical communities. Ikegami’s network approach to publics pluralizes this conception, allowing us to develop a more nuanced analysis that can differentiate among different forms of radical publics.

Additionally, Ikegami’s view of publics as communicative sites that emerge at the points of connection among social and/or cognitive networks allows us to make the theoretical link with Punk communities. Though my previous research indicated that overtly radical, political groups and organizations were on the decline in Philadelphia, there is no shortage of radical political discourse in the city. Indeed, this discourse has, in a way, dispersed across a variety of cultural arenas, including Punk (Ruggero 2009). Thus, it seems that as radical networks began to intersect with other networks (Punks, Lancaster farming communities, unions), debates and discussions about radical politics similarly spread, creating a plurality of radical publics at the points of intersection.

With respect to Punks, Arendt and Goffman may help us to understand the dynamics of this radical-Punk public, and, importantly, locate it in the daily lives of individuals. As noted above, Punk shows are the cultural cornerstone of the culture; shows illustrate how this community “actualizes the ideal that anyone can (and should) be a producer of culture” (Spencer 2000:200). The DIY ethos devalues profit over experience, thus, show are usually set up in the basements of houses, churches or community centers to keep ticket prices cheap or free as well as to offer the most open and accepting space for all show-goers (i.e. those under the age of 21). Not focused on hitting it big, bands play for whatever they can gather at the door; further, bands usually set up their equipment on the floor and implore the audience to get as close as possible, aiming to breakdown the performative rules separating audience from performer, striving to instead ‘appear’ to one another as equals. Additionally, the overt political messages of some bands, the inevitable plethora of politically-oriented flyers and zines, and tacit rules regarding acceptable use of language further work to define the ‘rules of the game’ for interaction within this Punk social reality (i.e. language deemed sexist, racist, or homophobic is usually met with extreme condemnation and often physical expulsion).

Finally, Goldfarb helps us to explore in the context of daily life. Indeed, the persistence of collective living situations from the MNS homes of the 1970s to the Punk houses that exist today is a significant phenomenon. Indeed, preliminary research for this project has revealed that, in some cases, these are the same houses; however, none of the residents of the two MNS-Punk houses I inquired at were aware of this historic link, despite the massive amount of activist and politically minded artwork, posters and literature that was strewn around both houses.

Thus, while the specific content and form of radical political debate going on in these Punk houses may differ from that found during the MNS’ tenure, it is taking place in the same house. Indeed, while the ‘kitchen table’ debates and deliberations of present-day Punks and the now long-gone MNS may focus on different issues, take different forms, and happen around different tables, they are occurring in the same kitchens.

Sources Cited

Cornell, A. 2011. Oppose and Propose. Oakland, CA: AK Press
Ruggero, E. C. 2009. “Radical Green Populism: Environmental Values in DIY/Punk Communities” MA thesis U of Delaware, 2009. Dissertations and Thesis. ProQuest UMI.
Carlsson, C. 2008. Nowtopia Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Halfacree, K. 2004. “I Could Only Do Wrong’: Academic Research and DiY Culture” in D. Fuller and R. Kitchin. eds. Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Making a Difference Beyond the Academy? Kelowna, British Columbia: Praxis (e)Press.
Dunn, K. C. 2008. “Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication.” Review of International Studies 34: 193-210.
Gordon, U. 2008. Anarchy Alive!: Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.
Spencer, A. 2008. DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. London: Marion Boyars.

The Movement of Movements as a Canopy of Activism, Composed of Trees of Influence, with Roots in Reality

[The following is the latest iteration of how my work has morphed at the New School.  It is in proposal format because I have been trying to make my free writing take this form as it seems to be the most useful later on.]

Studying the Interrelationship of DIY/Punk Cultures and the ‘Movement of Movements’

SECTION ONE: PROPOSAL

Seen from above, the canopy of a dense forest appears as one undulating mass; indeed, ecologists describe a canopy-specific ecosystem, quite different from those found below.  However, when only viewed from above, it is impossible to comprehend the particular role individual trees play in that ecosystem and the subtleties of the canopy’s construction are obscured.

We might think of scholarly treatments of the ‘movements of movements’ (MM) or the ‘antiglobalization’ movement in a similar way.  Top-down perspectives of this activism are pervasive throughout the social movement literature, masking the diversity of its constituents.  The literature collapses marching anarchists and union workers under the same label: ‘MM activists.’  To be sure, these individuals share a physical space during some protests, but little else.  They are like different species of tree standing near one another in the forest.  Though they both reach into the canopy, they have distinct root systems, differing evolutionary paths and quite disparate wants and needs.  Yet, seen from above, the multiplicity and diversity of the trees is literally overshadowed by the apparent singularity of the canopy.

We must not mistake the canopy for the trees.  This project aims to initiate the much-needed dissection of the MM canopy, beginning with one particular tree: DIY/Punk culture and communities.  This project asks: what role have DIY/Punk communities and cultures played in shaping the canopy of activism commonly referred to as the ‘antiglobalization movement’ or the ‘movement of movements.’ To what extent, and in what ways, have their respective histories been intertwined; is the relationship reciprocal, and how does this help explain the activism we see today?  What are the links between the activism’s forms, goals and ideologies, and the cultural, ideological and institutional resources of DIY/Punk, over time and in different geographical contexts?

 

LITERATURE REVIEW: Punk, Movements, and Theory

By the early 1980s, the superficial imagery of Punk music and Punk culture had receded from mainstream popularity.  The stardom and subsequent implosion of the seminal band The Clash is frequently seen as the last nail in the coffin of the early Punk movement’s widespread popularity.  As Spencer succinctly notes,

The superficial image of Punk became well known, the dyed hair and leather jackets, and not the do-it-yourself ethos from where it began.  The accessibility of Punk, the attitude that anyone could create music, was, in the end, part of its curse.  It was seen as commercially viable and the whole attitude was packaged, marketed and sold back to young people (Spencer, 2008:216)

However, after its popular death, Punk did not disappear; indeed, a new Punk began to emerge.  The culture began to reevaluate itself and embraced its creative roots, particularly through the development of music industry counter-institutions.  Bands and fans once again created their own record labels, performance spaces and network ties through homemade fanzines, cultivating a DIY (Do-it-Yourself) ethic of self-reliance and thoughtful action.

By the early 1990s, the creative energy that initially fueled the reinvention of the Punk music scene had expanded into other genres of music and, importantly, into practices and institutions outside the world of music.  It encouraged the development of a diverse set of social, political and cultural institutions including bookstores, infoshops, zines, bands, food distribution schemes, broadcasting stations, internet databases, libraries, cafes, squats, video networks, public kitchens, clubs, online message boards, record labels, bars, and more (cf. Halfacree 2004; Carlsson 2008; Dunn 2008; Gordon 2008; Spencer 2008; Ruggero 2009).[1]

Meanwhile, as Punk was reinventing itself, the social movement landscape in many parts of the world was undergoing a wide reconfiguration, a shake-up that birthed the radical politics and communities that live on today, bundled up with many other groups and communities in the MM canopy.  Citing the “gay and lesbian liberation movements, the feminist movement, the antinuclear movement, the radical environmental movement and the AIDS activist movement, to name only the largest ones,” Kauffman notes how these groups “profoundly influenced both each other and the larger radical project and…created the new vernacular of resistance that has been demonstrated in the global justice movement of today” (Kauffman 2002: 35-6).

Though the ‘new vernacular’ Kauffman is referring to is a diverse set of practices and ideologies, it has two key features: decentralization and an embrace of praxis oriented direct action politics.  This new vernacular might also be described as a form of prefigurative politics that “attempts to preview what social change may bring…activists begin to act as if the world they want to live in has come into existence” (Jordan 2002:73).  In short, the articulation of radical politics evolved its early focus on style, moved past a focus on confrontation with economic and political institutions and blossomed into a complex network of communities, organizations and institutions.

It is here that the MM canopy begins to form.  This ‘new vernacular’ of radical resistance, and the prefigurative discourse that accompanies it, came into contact with an even wider variety of activist spheres, many of whom would shun the radical moniker: unions, peace groups, urban justice organizations, NGOs from many fields, and more.  Groups that did not have roots in direct action politics encountered it for the first time as they found themselves standing alongside radicals in the struggle against corporate globalization.  These ‘trees’ began to form an increasingly complex canopy, which developed its own ecosystem of tactics, ideologies and even its own history.  The ecological principle of emergence is helpful here, whereby novel and coherent patterns, structures, and properties arise during processes of self-organization in complex systems (Goldstein 1999).

Unfortunately, collective action and social movement literature has been preoccupied with the emergent properties, skipping over explorations of the individual constituents and their role in this process.  They are trying to understand the canopy ecosystem without an understanding of the individual trees.  The most prominent approaches, social movement theory’s structural canon, are plagued by an institutional-political reductionism that places movements in a particular level on the political system, sidelining their historical roots, creative organizational developments, horizontal social ties and daily forms of activism (cf. Cox and Nilsen 2007: 429; Cox 1999, Mayer 1995; Perrow 1979; Piven and Cloward 1995).  Of course, these crucial characteristics are difficult or impossible to see when looking only at the canopy that manifests during protest events or structured political engagement.

Alternatively, there is the ‘cultural turn’ in social movement studies (cf. Jasper 1997; Johnston and Klandermans 1995; Jordan and Lent 1999; McKay 1996).  However, these too take a top-down perspective, reframing behavior in terms of style, leaving the findings essentially static, unable to understand the moral or structural forces that actually shape (and expand) the canopy.  Finally, and most numerous, supposedly thorough and objective descriptive overviews of the ‘movement’ attempt to take in the canopy in its enormity, losing the ability to focus; they are little more than journalistic snapshots, devoid of any historicism or any understanding of actors’ own perceptions (cf. Cockburn et al. 2000; Schalit 2002; Shepard and Hayduk 2002; Klein 2002; Neale 2002; Starhawk 2002; Notes from Nowhere 2003; Mertes 2004; Solnit 2004; Kingsnorth 2004).

FRAMEWORK FOR STUDY:

Clearly, there is plenty of scholarship that deals with DIY/Punk and the activisms grouped under the MM label.  However, as has been discussed here, the movement literature it plagued by a lack of focus, inaccuracy and stagnation, while the writings on DIY/Punk culture have remained somewhat parochial.  Further, there have not been any concerted attempts to examine the intersection and relationship of these two social spheres.

Indeed, the activist resources and institutions and the emerging DIY/Punk networks and institutions pointed to above sometimes overlap one another and, in some cases, they are the same.  However, it is not enough to simply state that they ‘share members,’ or ‘cross paths;’ their relationship has been much more nuanced and substantial than that.  My research aims to fill this gap in the literature.  However, this requires the development of a theoretical and methodological framework that can avoid the pitfalls found in the current literature.  Though there is no room to detail these problem areas, there are two worth mentioning briefly.  The most obvious is scholars’ early focus on megaprotests in their search for something they could use in variable analysis, often passing over the actions and values activists esteem most in favor of more spectacular or easily quantified phenomena.  More significant, in my opinion, is the lack of analyses of ideology.  Without incorporating ideology, there would be no way to, for example, differentiate between anarchists and union workers that, seen from above, look essentially the same.  Further, analyses of ideological structures are necessary to reveal the actions and practices actors do value.

So, this project suggests a corrective for these problems by arguing for a method that sees the canopy for what it is and then attempts to dissect the canopy, using ideology, among other things, to guide the knife.

Preliminary research, drawing on interviews, surveys and discourse analysis, has already made some inroads towards these suggestions (Ruggero 2009).  Specifically, Punks’ and activists’ words and actions suggest a move away from event-based case studies and narrowly defined causal relationships in favor of a broader notion of what a movement and a subculture is.  To that end, recent developments in relational and network sociology offer the most potential for this project.  These approaches embed the social actor in “dynamic, processual relationships that shift over space and time” (Cherry 2006: 157; Emirbayer 1997).  Indeed, very recent studies of the role of fluid networks in contemporary radical activism have produced insightful examinations that have helped breakdown the static movement form that was initially applied to the MM (Juris 2008; Grewal 2008).  Armed with this theoretical framework, the points of intersection between these social spheres can be more easily accessed.

From here, the methodology attempts to weave a ‘middle way’ between macro- and micro-level approaches to inquiry.  The macro-level histories, theorizing and reflection found in the rich material archives offered by both entities will be combined with ground-level, personal perspectives of individuals.  This entails the use of archival materials (zines, newspaper articles, movement histories, meeting transcripts) as well as in-depth interviews, surveying and analyses of cultural narratives found in music and film.  The sources for these materials are already well known to me and I aim to expand upon this initial base, reaching beyond the US and Western Europe, into Latin America and Southeast Asia.  Though I already have a number of contacts for access to these sources in these locations, further communication and travel will be needed to expand this base.  Fortunately, the preliminary research on network ties in both spheres has already revealed a number of institutions and mechanisms through which this research can be expanded into these non-Western locations, saving a considerable amount of preparatory time (e.g. online message boards, zines, touring bands, activist summits, etc.).

In the following stage, the data and observations will be collected, transcribed and organized.  The goal at this stage is to develop a sort of temporal and geographical map of the evolution of both entities, following the spread of ideas and resources in both.  This will enable comparisons between different geographical and temporal contexts.

Through these comparisons, I aim to uncover those elements of the relationship between Punks and the MM canopy that are decisive in terms of the growth, decline, form and ideology of each social sphere.  By comparing the presence, relative size and ‘significance,’ form, and ideological character of these spheres within and across locales, I hope to get at the subtleties of their interrelationship.  Though it is difficult at this point to make conjectures regarding what direction this stage of analysis may take because it will be largely dictated by the observational results, as an example, it reveal the role persistent DIY/Punk institutions play in shaping movements’ form and ideology (e.g. anarchist and decentralized vs. liberal and NGO-based); or, it may be quite the opposite, where the persistence of activism of any stripe fuels the growth of DIY/Punk.  Regardless, the goal remains the same: to uncover the nature of the relationship between the DIY/Punk tree and the MM canopy ecosystem.

SECTION TWO: ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES

The project proposed here, as may be clear by now, not only aims to explore the DIY/Punk-MM relationship, but it also proposes alternative methods for carrying out this research.  These methods are suggested because those found in current social movement scholarship are unfit for this task.

Section two will expand on the brief theoretical and methodological criticisms made in section one, highlighting some of the more serious and imposing problems within existing scholarship while also suggesting how these issues may be avoided or remedied.

In section one, I argued that the tools scholars use are mismatched to the task, resulting in a body of literature that feels somewhat stagnant and adrift.  I believe this sense of stagnation emanates from the persistence of a rift within social movement studies (SMS).  Andrew Abbott’s discussion of ‘causal’ versus ‘narrative’ approaches to the study of careers is helpful here in conceptualizing this rift; he notes,

There are thus two ways of seeing careers, indeed two ways of seeing historical processes more generally.  One focuses on stochastic realizations and aims to find causes; the other focuses on narratives and aims to find typical patterns.  This dichotomy holds as clearly in other fields of research as it does in the study of careers.  Thus, one can imagine revolutions as the realizations of stochastic processes, in which case the history of a given revolution is actually just the listing of successive outcomes of some underlying casual process.  On the other hand, one can see revolution as having a complete implicit logic running from start to finish, in which case the history of a given revolution is a logical narrative with an inherent telos. (Abbott 1990:141)

While the SMS field may not be as dichotomized as Abbott’s example, it is a useful heuristic for conceptualizing the SMS rift.  On one side is literature that follows Charles Tilly’s legacy, generalizing across cases in search of patterns and causation.  In this discussion, this side of the rift will be referred to as ‘hierarchical,’ though it could just as easily be labeled ‘causal,’ ‘stochastic,’ or ‘structural.’

On the other side lies the ‘cultural’ or discursive turn’s celebration of variability over generality and interpretation over causal explanation.  In this discussion, this side will be referred to as the ‘narrative’ approach, though the label could have been ‘interpretive,’ or ‘constructivist.’

Of course, these labels are only meant to ease the discussion that follows; they are inherently limited in their ability to reflect the impressive breadth and valuable scholarship each one is meant to represent.

The use of Abbott above is instructive in another way as well.  The study of careers and the study of social movements are similar in that their subject is defined more by its form than its content; the type of career or the ideology of the movement are not necessarily what defines them as careers or movements.  If this discussion can be aided by Abbott’s contribution from another subfield, there are likely other areas we can turn to for further guidance.

Indeed, this rift is reflective of a wider body of critical debates across the sociology discipline.  However, they are particularly well represented within the field of historical sociology, for two reasons in particular.  The first is the close connection between studies of social movements and historical sociology; one immediately thinks of the work of Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and Doug McAdam.  Second, historical sociology’s own critical debates over its approaches to and uses of history, particularly its development of techniques for sociological abstraction, are useful in unpacking the details of the SMS rift, which is similarly related to the issue of abstraction and generalization.  Consequently, this discussion will draw on historical sociology literature for clarification and for help in finding a way out of SMS’ listlessness.

I should also note that the bulk of this discussion will focus on MM activism, with less space devoted to DIY/Punk.  This is primarily due to the fact that the problems facing MM scholarship are more complex and tangled than it is for DIY/Punk. As noted previously, the small body of DIY/Punk literature that does exist is sprinkled throughout many different disciplines and subfields.  In general, this literature remains largely descriptive, temporally bounded, and inward looking, offering little empirical analysis and almost no exploration of the culture’s links with the rest of the world.  Indeed, it does not seem to have even occurred to many scholars to attempt to trace these wider connections.  In this sense, studies of DIY/Punk may benefit from this lack of attention, possibly building on the suggestions made here, avoiding the tangled web that is SMS literature.

The following discussion proceeds from the claim that there is a real problem with the basic way in which scholars are seeing these subjects.  This ‘vision problem’ can be divided into two general issue areas.  First, the lens through which scholars study these subjects may be broken, or at least cracked.  These cracks cause the picture to refract in misleading ways, leading scholars to use inappropriate or ill-suited methodologies and to focus on irrelevant or misleading units of analysis, most commonly, megaprotests.  Second, and possibly due to this first methodological misstep, scholars have overlooked or avoided the incorporation of ideology in their analyses.  Not only is ideology important for understanding the ‘content’ of each sphere (goals, dreams, discourse), but the pervasive celebration of praxis in both means the careful dissection of ideology is essential for the process of mapping these entities and tracing the links between them.

Below, these points of critical engagement will be explored with specific reference to similar debates within historical sociology.  The goal is to develop a more robust foundation and justification for the steps I’ve taken to rectify these problems in the development of this research project.

Methods and Units of Analysis: Events, Narratives, and Contingencies

Recalling the metaphor used throughout the first section, I noted that the MM canopy began to form during the 1980s and 90s, when ‘new vernacular’ of radical resistance, and the prefigurative discourse that accompanied it, came into contact with an even wider body of activist spheres, many of whom would shun the radical moniker: unions, peace groups, urban justice organizations, NGOs from many fields, and more.

These ‘trees’ began to form an increasingly complex canopy, which developed its own ecosystem of tactics, ideologies and even its own history.  The ecological principle of emergence is helpful here, whereby novel and coherent patterns, structures, and properties arise during processes of self-organization in complex systems (Goldstein 1999).  SMS have been preoccupied with these emergent properties, skipping over explorations of the individual constituents and their role in the development of these emergent properties.  They are trying to understand the canopy ecosystem without an understanding of the individual trees.

This is, in no small way, the result of scholars’ early preoccupation with megaprotests, specifically those in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001.  This early focus is reflective of SMS’ general bias towards spectacular protest behavior.  However, in the most basic sense, the empirical focus on megaprotests simply overlooks the fact that, for the majority of MM activists, battling with police for media attention is not seen as an important step towards change.  In the words of John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society, ‘[t]o truly be radical, you’ve got to go for the roots, and the cops aren’t the roots’ (Sellers 2004: 185).

Seattle and Genoa – along with lesser-known demonstrations: Berlin88, Mardird94, and J18 – should instead be analyzed in terms of their transformative nature.  William H. Sewell’s phrase, ‘transformative historical event,’ is helpful here (Sewell 1996).  Sewell describes a historical event as one in which a “ramified sequence of occurrences that is recognized as notable by contemporaries…results in a durable transformation of structures” (Sewell 1996: 844).  In the present case, ‘structure’ can be understood as the reigning paradigm of contentious collective action (CCA) in Western countries at the end of the 1980s.  This includes activists’ perception of what is possible and desirable, political actors and authorities’ perception of what is acceptable and predictable, and the media and public’s perception of how political activism is ‘done.’

Following Sewell’s conception of structure, the CCA-paradigm structure has the following characteristics: (1) it represents “multiple, overlapping, and relatively autonomous” structures as opposed to a “single, unified totality of some kind;” (2) it shapes practices of activists, authorities, the media, the public – while also being shaped, constituted, and reproduced by those practices; (3) it is composed simultaneously of “cultural schemas, distributions of resources, and modes of power.” (Sewell 1996: 842).  Together, these facets serve to “reproduce consistent streams of social practice,” that is, CCA takes on a somewhat predictable character (Sewell 1996:842).

The protests in Seattle and Genoa were transformative events in that they represented a break with ‘routine practice’ under the previous CCA paradigm.  The ideological targets of the actions and the dynamics of the protests were altogether new.  Protests with union members side by side with environmentalists and anarchists were not something that political elites, the police, the media or the public were able to reconcile with the reigning paradigm of institutionalized, fragmented identity politics engaged in routinized demonstrations and political bargaining.

Importantly, and something scholars often miss, these protests were only one part of a sequence of rupturing events that culminated in the durable transformation of the CCA-paradigm structure.  Not only did the actual days of protest constitute a rupture, but so did the organizing that preceded it, the activist reflections and reorganizations that followed it, the narratives composed by the media and authorities and the subsequent interpretation of these narratives and reflections by the public and, in a feedback process, by activists, authorities and elites.

The result of this chain of ruptures was the transformation of the CCA-paradigm structure.  However, as is the nature of social structures, these new expectations and configurations eventually formed a new CCA-paradigm structure, again coming together in an “interlocking and mutually sustaining fashion to reproduce consistent streams of social practice” (Sewell 1996: 842).  Indeed, over time, the megaprotest form that initially represented a rupture has itself become somewhat routinized and predictable, evidenced both by coordinated and purposeful police tactics, declining activist attendance, and, often, a complete lack of media coverage.

Consequently, scholars should approach megaprotests as transformative events as opposed to accurate barometers for ‘movement’ activity.  These events were not the product of a transformation of global activism; they were both a part of it and an influence on it.  The idea that tallying and analyzing megaprotest events will reveal the internal dynamics of the MM is fundamentally flawed.

That said, the suggestion that scholars move away from megaprotests as an empirical focus is not to imply that it should simply be replaced with some other ‘more accurate’ unit for variable analysis.  Thinking about Seattle and Genoa as transformative historical events should be part of a wider shift away from static, ahistorical approaches to analysis and towards a greater sensitivity to process and sequence.

Indeed, these modern movements need to be studied in terms their process of ‘becoming’ rather than solely in terms of their states of ‘being.’  Philip Abrams’ discussion of the sociology of deviance is helpful in considering the benefits of applying this perspective to social movement (Abrams 1983).  He notes,

The problem of accounting sociologically for the individual in particular is really only a more precise version of the problem of accounting for individuals in general.  The solution in both cases lies in treating the problem historically – as a problem of understanding processes of becoming rather than states of being. (Abrams 1983:265)

The sociology of deviance is a handy referent here because, as Abrams claims, it is inherently historical in that it studies its subjects in terms of their histories.  By seeing the outcome (deviance) in terms of a sequence of contingencies, this sort of historicism forces us to see “social reality as process rather than order, structuring rather than structure, becoming not being” (Abrams 1983: 267).

Because SMS has not comprehended the historical development of these forms of activism, attempts to use variable analysis inevitably abstract from the temporal context in which the activism was formed and takes place.  This is akin to attempting to understand deviance by only examining the outcome, or, attempting to understand the development of deviance by only examining the final form: deviance.  Similarly, because it is not sensitive to time and sequence, variable analysis only exacerbates SMS’ existing lack of appreciation for the processes that worked to create MM activism and the processes that continue to shape it today.  Instead, SMS should approach MM activism as deviance studies approaches the individual: in terms of their experiences as they were experienced.

Importantly, the incorporation of individual experience should not be claimed as a victory for the narrative side of the SMS rift.  Indeed, a key asset of this approach to individual experience is that it does not require the exclusion of important structural factors, a serious deficiency in narrative approaches.  Indeed, if thoroughly constructed, such analyses can explain the experience of the individual in terms of the social and structural milieu in which the individual operates and the choices (agency) they make within that complex of opportunity and constraint (Abrams 1983: 268).

Further, this sort of process/sequence-oriented lens may allow for the possibility of multiple levels of analysis, from the individual to the canopy itself.  Indeed, comparisons of the ‘becoming’ processes of different activists may help to explain the formation, evolution, structure and internal dynamics of the movements themselves.  This is particularly important in this case because any dissection of the MM canopy must trace this formation process, from individuals to groups and sub-movements to the canopy.

In this sense, the incorporation of individual experience does not have to remain confined to individuals.  This may be an important step towards bridging the SMS rift.  Of course, opening to the experience of individual is largely a problem to be confronted by the hierarchical camp.  But they need to be met halfway.  We do not have to abandon attempts at generalization; indeed, this has been problematic for the narrative approaches.  The goal here is to craft a framework for studying the MM and DIY/Punk that fully captures the dynamics of these social phenomena; only then can we hope to proceed to look for patterns, both internally and between these and other cases.

Indeed, if SMS seeks to engage with the MM in a productive way, scholars must come to recognize that neither side of the rift is going to be able to do so alone.  Hierarchical approaches too often subjugate the uniqueness of individual cases in favor of finding similarities among them. Narrative approaches too often avoid helpful generalizations and become bogged down in a quagmire of disparate, unconnected individual experiences.

The approach I aim to develop out of these criticisms aims precisely to break out of this dichotomized field of study.  However, I do not claim a ‘more perfect’ third way, nor do I believe this is the right approach given the current state of SMS.  Many of these problems run so deep that scholars might be best served by dropping their guard and just taking time to observe, then, with an almost reckless abandon, grab the methodological and theoretical tools that seem appropriate and try them out.

Though this may seem like poor advice, it appears that as SMS continues to drift it is also becoming more rigid and detached.  Indeed, the MM or antiglobalization subject has all but disappeared from the literature.  When it does appear, there seems to be an almost mindless determination to make one approach or another work ‘best.’  This has sapped SMS of its creative energy and stalled novel thinking.  SMS may not need entirely new tools, but existing ones should be tested in new ways.  In short, things may be so bad that the only way to go is up.

Working with Ideologies

The second source of social movement studies’ MM ‘vision problem’ lies with the complicated issue of how (and if) to incorporate movement and activist ideologies into analysis.  In this section I will argue that, particularly in the case of the MM, the incorporation of ideology is not only helpful, but also essential.

Turning again to historical sociology for help in framing this issue, Sewell picks up the issue of ideology in a discussion of Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions.  While Sewell has “nothing but admiration” for Skocpol’s inventive combination of narrative and hierarchical strategies for dealing with the problem of multiple causation, he argues that “she has not made her causation multiple enough – that she has not recognized the autonomous power of ideology in the revolutionary process) (Sewell 1985: 58).  In turn, Sewell focuses on the case of the French Revolution and sets out to trace the autonomous dynamics of ideology and explore the role of ideology in the revolutionary process.

Though the specifics of the French case are not entirely relevant to this discussion, Sewell’s framing of ideology in his analysis is.  He notes that Skocpol prematurely rejects ideological explanations of revolution – indeed, she argues they have no explanatory value – because of her aim to provide a ‘structural’ explanation of revolutions.  But, Sewell argues, Skocpol has associated the incorporation of ideology with what he refers to as “naïve” voluntarist theories, not taking into account a ‘structuralist turn’ that has, in a sense, structuralized ideology.  This turn has sought to highlight the impersonal aspects of ideological formations, associating their coherence and dynamics less with the conscious will of individuals, but with “the interrelations of its semantic items and in their relation to social forces…Ideologies are, in this sense, anonymous, or transpersonal” (Sewell 1985: 60).

Further, in order to conceive of ideology in structural terms, it is important to recognize that, like all social structures, ideological structures are at once “constraining and enabling:”

Ideological structures undergo continuous reproduction and/or transformation as a result of the combined willful actions of more or less knowledgeable actors within the constraints and the possibilities supplied by preexisting structures. (Sewell 1985: 60)

So while ideological structures are prone to the influence of willful action, no individual actor has complete control – or even consciousness – of the entirety of an ideological structure.  Indeed, ideological structures can never be ‘complete,’ or even self-consistent; they are the product of myriad ongoing actions and interactions between numerous individuals or groups.  Thus, ideology can be conceived of as an “anonymous and collective, but transformable, structure” (Sewell 1981: 61).

Finally, and of critical importance here, Sewell argues that ideology must also be understood as constitutive of social order.  More than simple reflections of material class relations or merely the ideas of intellectuals,

…ideologies inform the structure of institutions, the nature of social cooperation and conflict, and the attitudes and predispositions of the populations.  All social relations are at the same time ideological relations, and all explicit ideological discourse is a form of social action. (Sewell 1985: 61)

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the importance of incorporating this view of ideology into analyses of the MM is through a brief example of its application.

I noted above that the MM label itself is misleading.  The top-down perspectives of both the hierarchical and narrative approaches masks the diversity of the MM constituents, collapsing marching anarchists and union workers under the same label: ‘MM activists.’  Of course, union workers and anarchists are hardly as similar as this perspective implies.

However, revealing this internal variance requires more than just a shift in perspective; understanding the role of individual trees in the canopy ecosystem is just as difficult to do from the ground if we continue to focus solely on the canopy.  Indeed, problem lies with the continued dominance of the singular MM label over the plurality of the activism’s reality, a problem Rogers Brubaker refers to as ‘groupism:’

[T]he tendency to take discrete, sharply differentiated, internally homogenous, and externally bounded groups as basic constituents of social life, chief protagonists of social conflicts, and fundamental units of social analysis. (Brubaker 2005:471)

The staggering diversity of the MM reality is obscured by the analytical imperatives of SMS, namely, the need to study a ‘movement’ as opposed to a more nebulous collection of networks and individuals loosely associated through multiple, layered ideological structures.

If SMS hopes to correct the problem of groupism in the study of MM activism, without losing analytical focus, it must incorporate analyses of ideological structures.  In order to differentiate between the influences of anarchists and union workers, scholars must map their respective ideological structures and mesh these with other forms of analysis.  This is likely the only accurate way to, for example, explain why the MM manifests as protests in one time and place and as reading groups in another.

Indeed, ideological structure analysis must be done before such comparisons can even be made.  The SMS ‘vision problem,’ is not simply one of perspective; scholars are missing entire realms of analytically relevant social action.  Analyses of ideological structures stand to reveal what MM actors consider as meaningful or relevant action, situating disparate forms (window-smashing v. lobbying) together in a more realistic and, importantly, a more productive framework for further analysis than currently exists.

Further, such an approach offers potential benefits for both the narrative and hierarchical approaches, drawing them together.  One on hand, incorporating ideology helps to work around a central problem in narrative based analysis: it is restricted to discussing causal factors only as they make themselves felt in the unfolding of the story (Sewell 1985:58).  Of course, many causes may never make themselves ‘felt’ in a clear or complete way; further, by only seeing their influence on the narrative, their autonomous dynamics remain hidden as does their impacts outside of the narrative.

On the other hand, incorporating ideology offers hierarchical approaches a way to open the field of causation.  However, incorporating ideological structures does more than another factor or variable to hierarchical analysis.  It alters the way in which the subject is analyzed from the start, broadening the field of relevant social action to include phenomena that lie outside SMS’ myopic and groupist traditional focus on ‘movements.’

In the interest of clarifying this point and in an effort to lend further support for the project, I will close this section with an example that directly relates to the DIY/Punk-MM relationship.

One of the best illustrations of the role of ideological structures in DIY/Punk communities is found in one of the culture’s core social institutions, the DIY/Punk show (i.e. musical or other performance).  Shows illustrate how this community “actualiz[es] the ideal that anyone can (and should) be a producer of culture” (Spencer 2005: 200).  Organizers, not focused on turning a profit, set up shows in the basements of houses, churches or community centers to both keep ticket prices cheap or free as well as to offer the most open and accepting space for all show-goers.  Bands tour through networks of such spaces that span multiple continents, playing for whatever they can gather at the door, valuing the act of performing, spreading their message and supporting the community over income.  Those attending bring flyers for political events, other shows or social gatherings and there’s usually a plethora of free literature tackling issues like sexism, racism, poverty, war, police violence, the environment, animal rights and more.  Some may bring homemade clothes, pins, artwork, zines or books to sell, often priced on sliding scale.

People open their houses, create and buy handmade artwork and throw bands they may not like a few extra dollars gas money because it supports the community and the Do-it-Yourself ideology.  Importantly, these show spaces persist over time, both in a strict material sense and in an ideological sense.  Though individual spaces may open and close over time, others replace them, creating a durable, if transient, network of cultural and intellectual institutions.

If, in an analysis of the MM-DIY/Punk relationship, we wanted to compare the possible influence of these durable community resources on the persistence of MM activism in Portland, London and Jakarta, there would be no way of even recognizing that these spaces may be relevant to the study without incorporating analyses of ideological structures.  Of course, to get beyond a mere recognition of relevance, incorporating ideological structures becomes even more crucial

Conclusions: Alternative Approaches and Conflicts Between Cohorts

This paper has been built around a project proposal that aims to answer: what role have DIY/Punk communities and cultures played in shaping the canopy of activism commonly referred to as the ‘antiglobalization movement’ or the ‘movement of movements.’ It has endeavored to present the project in two ways: in terms of its overall structure, background and methodological intentions (Section One), and in terms of its epistemological arguments and suggestions (Section Two).

Section one briefly discussed the history of both DIY/Punk and the collection of activisms referred to as the MM.  Both entities underwent dramatic and important changes during the late 1980s and the early 90s, yet, the connections between these evolutionary processes have remained largely unstudied.  I argued that this is due to a number of deficiencies in the methods and theoretical approaches employed to analyze them.  I then presented a methodological framework that aims to avoid these problems and to produce a useful and relevant analysis of the DIY/Punk-MM relationship.

Section two expands on the ‘deficiencies’ argument that was briefly explained in the first section.  Rather than implying that the deficiencies are those of individual scholars, I chose to reframe the problem as one of seeing; social movement studies have a ‘vision problem’ when it comes to this area of research.  Further, this problem is not confined to either narrative or hierarchical analytical approaches; indeed, it spans this intellectual paradigm rift.

I then explained the notion of vision problems in more detail through a discussion of how they have manifested on either side of this rift.  Scholars’ early focus on megaprotests is but one example of reductive analytical tendencies of hierarchical approaches.  Spectacular actions, while easily observed, quantified and analyzed statistically, are composed of many different actors, participating for many different reasons.  Further, different actors hold different views on the importance and role of such spectacular action in their activism project overall.  Because of this diversity of opinion and intent, megaprotests and other forms of spectacular action should be seen as transformative events that both shape and are shaped by the evolutionary processes of this activism.

The move away from megaprotests is one example of changes that must be considered as part of a wider analytical shift towards a greater sensitivity to process, sequence and individual experience.  However, this is not to uncritically extol the virtues of narrative approaches.  Indeed, narrative approaches too often avoid or discount the role of structural factors in their analysis.  Instead, efforts should be made to explain the experience of the individual in terms of the social and structural milieu in which they operate and in terms of the choices (agency) they make within that complex of opportunity and constraint.

Further, accounts of individual experience do not have to remain confined to individual actors; comparisons among and between activists may offer the potential for tracing the experience of groups, networks and possibly even movements.  The point here is to suggest that narrative approaches are not necessarily incompatible with the generalizing impulse of hierarchical approaches and that narrative approaches should embrace the opportunity to bridge the rift.  Narrative approaches aversion to generalizing is not only a hindrance to its analytical viability, but it quietly ignores the fact that the real difference between these approaches is the level of abstraction.  While narrative approaches do their generalizing ‘closer to the ground,’ they must still engage in some level of abstraction in order to produce analysis rather than biography.

In an effort to further demonstrate the points of convergence, similarity and shared failure between the hierarchical and narrative approaches, the paper then discussed the critical importance of incorporating ideology into the analysis of DIY/Punk and the MM.  Criticized by hierarchical approaches as too subjective for causal analysis and muddled by overly constructivist and particular narrative approaches, ideology is an excellent example of a useful tool that remains improperly applied.  The discussion of ideology ends with two examples of how a structuralized view of ideology is essential for accurate engagement with both the MM and DIY/Punk.

Finally, I want to suggest a third way in which the SMS ‘vision problem’ is related to the hierarchical-narrative rift while also encompassing both sides equally.

Many activists and activist-scholars speak of a ‘specter of the 60s’ that looms over them, undermining their efforts in the present.  A significant source of this resentment stems from SMS’ repeated return to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s for reference and comparative analyses.  McAdam, Sampson, Weffer, and MacIndoe (2005) write,

The movements of the 1960s and 1970s greatly increased interest in the [social movement] field but their own particular forms and processes have tended to dominate contemporary social movement scholarship and theory.  The danger is that the disproportionate attention accorded the struggles of the sixties has created a stylized image of movements that threatens to distort our understanding of popular contention… (McAdam et al. 2005: 2)

Reflecting on the scholarly impact of this distorting influence, McAdam and his coauthors note a “close association in the minds of most researchers between movements and extreme forms of protest” (McAdam et al. 2005: 9).  This association has, as discussed above, allowed megaprotests to become a central empirical focus for study of the new transnational activism.  Worse, the specter of the movements of the 1960s and 70s has a power beyond the realm of the academy.  In the words of George Katsiaficas,

The aura of the sixties is being used against the antiglobalization movement…an exaggerated sixties diminishes contemporary movements.  Movements today are written off as shadows, imitations or lesser beings.  Seattle is recognized as highly significant, but movements between the sixties and the present are forgotten.  Glorification of decades (or of great events and individuals) diminishes the importance of continuity and everyday activism in the life of social movements.  As a social construction, the myth of the sixties functions thereby to discourage people from having authentic movement experiences now, in the present. (Katsiaficas 2004: 9)

In my own personal experience I have found that many activists feel they are fighting on two fronts: against the systems and structures they wish to change as well as an entrenched notion of what ‘activism’ should be.

I wonder, then, is it possible that the personal connection many scholars (particularly within SMS) have with this past radicalism and activism has influenced the way activism in the present is viewed and studied?  Similarly, the lack of DIY/Punk analysis in SMS and its parochial appearance elsewhere may stem from a similar unintentional disparagement, not to mention a basic lack of familiarity or contact with the culture’s evolution over the past thirty years.  In a discussion of sociology’s epistemological shifts, Geroge Steinmetz reminds us: “intellectual paradigms are not simply intangible discourses but are embodied practices” (Steinmetz 2005:156).  As embodied practices, then, are intellectual paradigms subject to the same social forces as other embodied practices, specifically, careerism and the inevitable resistance of individuals to having their personal histories viewed in any way other than the one they themselves have constructed?

I recognize that this may seem like an unnecessarily polemic suggestion.  However, if it is indeed a factor worth considering, the impacts could be quite serious.  In any case, it does little good to pour salt on these wounds, if indeed they do exist, and risk igniting a pointless intergenerational war among sociologists.  Instead, the point is raised to further highlight the need for SMS scholars to reflect on the purpose of their work.  Is it to engage in an endless defense or critique of a particular method or approach to study, a dispute, I might add, that has not actually seen the debunking or retreat of either of the two main camps from the literature?  Indeed, the same Steinmetz article highlights the persistence of positivist sociology, despite decades of criticism and the rise of post-Fordist political economies (Steinmetz 2005).

Or, is the goal of sociological analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about human social activity that strives for both accuracy and coherence?  Further, do sociologists have a responsibility to acknowledge the ways in which their research may be practically applied?  With a particular concern for SMS, I would argue they do.  Social movement scholars are in a unique position, due to their training and time available for study, to develop case studies, indentify larger patterns, and develop theory that is relevant to movement experience.  While it may be argued that this invites bias, is there anything necessarily wrong with seeing social phenomena from the point of view of those engaged in it?  A careful scholar would be able to delineate between adopting a particular perspective and making unfounded claims in favor of a predetermined outcome.  Indeed, activists too are continually confronted by the need to defend their beliefs without blindly barricading them against all criticism.

In closing, I would like to emphasize this last point with a quote from the late Roger V. Gould.  In a discussion of the interpretivist approach to social action, he notes, “interpretive studies of contention operate on the premise that women and men do not merely make their own history; they also, by the power of interpretation, through which all objective conditions are filtered, make the circumstances in which their history is made” (Gould 2005:297).  I would argue that the core of this perspective – the power of interpretation – speaks to the issues I’ve rasied here in the conclusion.  Scholars of social movements and contentious action, regardless of whether they take an interpretivst tact with their analysis, must recognize that they too are interpreters; they seek to illuminate and understand particular social phenomena.  In doing so, they also affect the conditions in which those movements and actions are carried out.  Activists look to scholars for guidance in developing their own interpretations.  The sooner SMS scholars recognize this, the sooner they can overcome their damaging reluctance to engage with activists, a step that may help to steer social movement studies out of the stagnant doldrums in which it wanders today.

WORKS CITED AND SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Abrams, P. 1983. Historical Sociology. Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press. 1983.

Bevington, D., and C. Dixon. 2005. “Movement-relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism.” Social Movement Studies 4(3): 185-208

Brubaker, R. 2005. “Ethnicity without Groups” in J. Adams, E.S. Clemens and A.S. Orloff (eds.) Remaking Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2005. Pp. 470-492.

Carlsson, C. 2008. Nowtopia Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Cherry, E. 2006. “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach.” Social Movement Studies 5(2):155-170.

Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair 2000. Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond. London: Verso.

Cox, L. and A. G. Nilsen. 2007. “Social Movements Research and the ‘Movement of Movements’: Studying Resistance to Neoliberal Globalisation.” Sociology Compass 1(2): 424-442

Cox, L. 1999. Building Counter Cultures: The Radical Praxis of Social Movement Milieux. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Crass. 1981. Interview. Flipside 23 (March)

Dobson, A. 2000. Green Political Thought. London: Routledge.

Dunn, K. C. 2008. “Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication.” Review of International Studies 34: 193-210.

Emirbayer, M. 1997. “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology 103(2): 281-317.

Felix. 1989. “Professor Felix’s Very Short History of Anarchism.” Profane Existence 1: 13.

Goldstein, J. 1999. “Emergence as a Construct: History and Issues” Emergence 1(1):49-72.

Gordon, U. 2008. Anarchy Alive!: Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Gould, R.V. 2005. “Historical Sociology and Collective Action” in J. Adams, E.S. Clemens and A.S. Orloff (eds.) Remaking Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2005. Pp. 286-299.

Grewal, D. S. 2008. Network Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Halfacree, K. 2004. “I Could Only Do Wrong’: Academic Research and DiY Culture” in D. Fuller and R. Kitchin. eds. Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Making a Difference Beyond the Academy? Kelowna, British Columbia: Praxis (e)Press.

Jasper, J. 1997. The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnston, Hank and Bert Klandermans (eds.) 1995. Social Movements and Culture. London: UCL Press.

Jordan, T. 2002. Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Jordan, Tim and Adam Lent. 1999. Storming the Millennium: The New Politics of Change. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Juris, J. S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kauffman, L.A. 2002. “A Short History of Radical Renewal” in B. Shepard, R. Hayduk. eds. From ACT UP to the WTO. London: Verso: 35-40.

Kingsnorth, Paul 2004. One No, Many Yeses. New York, NY: Free Press.

Klein, N. 2004. “Reclaiming the Commons” in T. Mertes (ed.) A Movement of Movements. London: Verso:219-229

Klein, Naomi 2002. Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. London: Picador.

Mayer, Margit 1995. ‘Social-Movement Research in the United States: A European Perspective.’ Pp. 168-95 in S. Lyman (ed.) Social Movements: Critiques, Concepts, Case-Studies. London: Macmillan.

McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance in Britain since the 60s. London: Verso, 1996.

Mertes, Tom (ed.) 2004. A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? London: Verso.

Neale, Jonathan 2002. You Are G8, We Are 6 Billion. London: Vision.

Notes from Nowhere (ed.) 2003. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise Global Anticapitalism. London: Verso.

Perrow, Charles 1979. ‘The Sixties Observed.’ Pp. 192-211 in The Dynamics of Social Movements, in M. Zald and J. McCarthy. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.

Piven, Francis Fox and Richard Cloward 1995. “Collective Protest: A Critique of Resource- mobilisation Theory.” Pp. 137-67 in Social Movements: Critiques, Concepts,Case-Studies,editedby Stanford Lyman. London: Macmillan

Ruggero, E. C. 2009. “Radical Green Populism: Environmental Values in DIY/Punk Communities” MA thesis U of Delaware, 2009. Dissertations and Thesis. ProQuest UMI.

Schalit, Joel 2002. The Anti-Capitalism Reader: Imagining a Geography of Oppression. New York, NY: Akashic Books.

Sewell, W.H. 1985. “Ideologies and Social Revolutions: Reflections on the French Case” The Journal of Modern History. 57(1), Pp. 57-85. (March 1985).

Sewell, W.H. 1996. “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille” Theory and Society. 25, Pp. 841-881. (1996).

Shepard, Benjamin and R. Hayduk 2002. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalisation. London: Verso.

Skocpol, T. 1979. States and Social Revolutions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1979.

Solnit, David (ed.) 2004. Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World. San Francisco, CA: City Lights

Spannos, C. 2008. Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century. Oakland: AK Press

Spencer, A. 2005. DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. London: Marion Boyars.

Starhawk 2002. Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society.

Steinmetz, G. 2005. “The Epistemological Unconscious of U.S. Sociology and the Transition to Post-Fordism: The Case of Historical Sociology” in J. Adams, E.S. Clemens and A.S. Orloff (eds.) Remaking Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2005. Pp. 109-160.

Wood, L. J. and K. Moore. 2002. “Target Practice: Community Activism in a Global Era” in B. Shepard and R. Hayduk. eds. From ACT UP to the WTO London: Verso: 21-34.


[1] It is important to note that while there is no shortage of literature that deals with the history and philosophy of the DIY/Punk culture, this work is largely descriptive and bounded, that is, it remains focused inward and doesn’t attempt to trace the culture’s influence on a wider set social phenomena and institutions.  When DIY/Punk does appear in academic literature, it is usually relegated to the ‘subculture’ studies realm where it is interpreted in terms of style and, thus, made static with little to no investigation of the cultures wider social and political impact.


Research Proposal: “Linking Collective Behavior and Economic Sociology: Examining US and Western European Radical Activists’ Economic Behavior”

The following is a proposal I submitted in the Fall semester of 2009. This was submitted for a course paper, however, I think I will likely use it for an actual research plan, at least portions of it. The scope of this work, it seems to me anyway, is not quick extensive enough for dissertation work, though it is possible I am overestimating how much work that should actually be. It is something of a problem, creating projects that are larger than needed, though not yet larger than is helpful. Anyway, comments on the structure of the proposal and, of course, any glaring holes are greatly appreciated.

ABSTRACT

The research program proposed here aims to open an investigative pathway towards an understudied question in economic sociology literature: What is the nature of contemporary radical activists’ economic behavior? This question is important not only because answers are currently murky, but it also represents the intersection of economic sociology and a recent and promising ‘critical shift’ in collective behavior literature. Thus, the theoretical schema developed to approach the question links economic sociology with the new research directions emerging in collective behavior literature. The product is a ‘bottom-up’ approach to studying radicals’ economic behavior, a theoretical framework with radical perspectives as its foundation, further constructed with the work of Gramsci, Weber, Mead, Granovetter, Zelizer and others. Likewise, while the methodological schema focuses inquiry into a workable research design, it maintains a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, utilizing network and relational approaches.  Data collection (surveys, interviews and ethnographic fieldwork) is multi-staged, allowing for incremental reevaluations of the schema. Final analysis will address two overarching objectives for the project: 1) evaluation of the hypothesis and theoretical and methodological schema in terms of answering the central research question; 2) evaluation of the theoretical and methodological schema in terms of the intersection of collective behavior and economic sociology, assessing their value and relevance for this area of research in both fields. Lastly, this work is also expected to yield useful information for ‘activist scholars’ and the growing, critical economics discourse emanating from contemporary radical communities.

Introduction

There should be little doubt that contemporary collective behavior literature, specifically social movement theory, and contemporary Western radicalism suffer a dysfunctional relationship.  When this amorphous collection of radical individuals, activists and communities began to appear in its contemporary form in the early 1990s, political and social theorists were preoccupied with the events in Eastern Europe.  Consequently, when images of protesters in Seattle made headlines in 1999, the discipline was unprepared and rushed to capture the new subject.  Unfortunately, mainstream approaches generally only tweaked old models or forced a ‘fit’ with established theories.  Early literature frequently homogenized this diverse body under the antiglobalization label or, more recently, as the movement of movements (MM).  This analytical aggregation effectively sidelined the constituent submovements and communities; they were seen as peripheral, tangential to a more formal ‘movement’ that made headlines in Seattle; of course, there is no such static movement form.

Additionally, though these problems are not confined to the realm of collective behavior and social movement literature, it appears to be one of only a handful of sociological disciplines undergoing such critique.  In fact, most sociological literature that takes Western radicalism as its subject suffers from similar problems.  In many ways, this makes sense; the problems are the same because sources of error are the same: canonical theoretical approaches that are largely ‘top-down’ views of the field of social action, plagued by institutional-political reductionism that sidelines the bulk of radical behavior, vague cultural approaches that reframe all radicalism in terms of style, or historical overviews whose supposed ‘objectivity’ prevents any understanding of activists’ own perceptions and worldview, in some cases, unconsciously replacing it with the perceptions of the observer.  While there is no room here to fully detail the scope of these issues, fortunately, they have become the focus of some excellent activist and academic scholarship, a ‘critical shift’ in the literature, transforming what was once a somewhat polemic critique into a workable methodological agenda (cf. Bevington and Dixon, 2005; Cox and Nilsen, 2007; Flacks, 2004; McAdam et al., 2005; Halfacree, 2004; Gordon, 2007; Ruggero, 2009).

In considering the relevance of these critiques and recommendations for economic sociology, one finds, interestingly, the discipline has seen relatively little engagement with these radical movements and communities.  However, this delay may prove beneficial as future work stands to draw on both the excellent collective behavior critiques noted above, the relatively robust body of ‘radically oriented’ literature in economics and, of course, the diverse pool of economic sociology literature itself.

Further, opening economic sociology’s engagement with Western radicalism not only fills a literature gap, but it may also have substantial benefits for other disciplines’ study of these activists and communities.  For example, economic sociology stands to provide valuable insight into the interplay of economics and processes of social change, possibly shedding some much needed light on the fractured disarray of collective behavior literature discussed above.

Consequently, the research program proposed here builds on the above critiques, drawing on economic sociology’s diverse resources, towards the development of a workable methodology for the study of Western radicalism within economic sociology.  The first step is accomplished by linking two lines of research: 1) a ‘bottom-up’ approach to collective behavior that takes activist perspectives as a foundation, contextualizing movement thought and action in terms of this worldview and, 2) an understanding of the social ’embeddedness’ of economic action akin to Mark Granovetter’s call to see such action as “embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations” (Granovetter, 1985:487).  The resulting theoretical schema, as will be shown below, poses the following hypothesis: the economic behavior of Western radicals is directly linked the perceived ‘hegemonic context’ of individual economic actions.  A methodological agenda is then developed to allow for further examination and specification of the theoretical linkages implicit in the hypothesis and the types of economic behavior it encompasses.  Empirical work will consist of surveys, interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, to be done in two stages: (1) Broad but ‘shallow’ surveying aimed at further clarifying and focusing the methodological schema for use in a (2) second stage of detailed surveys, interviews, and ethnography focusing specifically on the economic behavior of radicals in the Philadelphia area.

Before continuing, it is important to note that there is no room in this proposal to develop a complete picture of the ‘worldview’ of contemporary Western radicals or, as noted above, the theoretical hurdles facing those studying them.  Consequently, these elements will remain brief and pointed with the understanding that they will be fully elaborated in the course of the proposed research program.  Examples of the ‘critical shift’ literature have been noted above.  It is also worth pointing to the growing body of literature documenting the evolution of contemporary radical politics, past its early focus style and direct confrontation with political institutions, blossoming into a body of communities, organizations and institutions that appear deeply focused on developing lasting cultural, intellectual and social resources (cf. Jordan, 2002; Halfacree, 2004; Klein, 2004; Augman, 2005; Gordon, 2007; Carlsson, 2008; Spencer, 2008; Spannos, 2008; Ruggero, 2009).

Clarifying an Economic Sociology Approach to Studying Radicals

In terms of economic behavior, Western radical activists and communities are in a uniquely peculiar position.  In many ways they are ‘in the belly of the beast,’ surrounded by some of the most institutionalized and long-lasting forms of the wider system of global capitalism they seek to change.  Consequently, they are constantly confronted with the need to reconcile their ideal and emotional imperatives with what are the frequently antithetical imperatives of, in Weberian terms, material interests.

Indeed, Weber provides an excellent starting point for applying the resources of economic sociology to the subject at hand.  Weber sets ‘economic social action’ (ESA) as the core unit of analysis for economic sociology; Richard Swedberg nicely summarizes Weber’s meaning:

Weber essentially views economic social action as (1) action by an individual, which is (2) primarily driven by material interests (but sometimes also by ideal interests) and to some extent by tradition and sentiments. Economic social action is furthermore (3) aimed at utility, and (4) other actors are always taken into account.

(Swedberg, 1998: 85)

Of particular interest here is the process by which actors balance material and ideal influences on the ultimate complex of interests driving their ESA.  Mark Granovetter later picked up the delicate nature of this balancing act in an article that re-popularized the notion of ’embeddedness’ in economic sociology.  He argued then that, in economics and sociology, attempts to incorporate social context and relationships into theories of economic action led to ‘under- and over-socialized’ conceptions, both of which fail due to a common “conception of action and decision carried out by atomized actors” (Granovetter, 1985: 485).  He argues, instead:

Actors do no behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations.

(Granovetter, 1985: 487)

Granovetter supports a Weberian approach to economic sociology, seeing economic action as a category of social action more broadly.  Thus, Weber’s view of economic behavior as ‘interest-driven action’ is particularly powerful because it views ‘interests’ as not being merely material.  If we take this Weberian approach to the ESA of radicals, we accept that the ‘interests balancing act’ they undergo is unique because their ideal interests are (frequently) directly at odds with the social-political-economic forces that govern the empirical, material base that sets the boundaries, dynamics, and possibilities of material interests.

Consequently, a key goal for radical-focused economic sociology should be to elaborate and clarify this interplay of material versus ideal interests.  Indeed, in the case of radicals’ ESA, it is not enough to simply say that ‘there exists’ some interplay, or that the balance of the ideal/material interests tradeoff is shifted more towards the ideal than for other actors.  Further, not only should the mechanics of the ‘balancing act’ be a focus of study, but both forms of interest should be individually examined with respect to the radical subject.  It is here that economic sociology stands to benefit from its sociological intellectual resources, potentially offering analyses not found even in the field of radical economics and political economy.  Specifically, Viviana Zelizer’s work on culture and consumption, elements of the ‘critical shift’ in social movement literature mentioned above, and portions of sociology’s history of theorizing power and domination appear as the most beneficial for taking the first steps towards engaging with contemporary radicalism

Culture, Consumption, and Hegemony

If we accept the ‘balancing act’ proposal above, the key questions for economic sociology center on the ‘ideal interests’ side of this equation.  Not only is economic sociology better equipped than many other disciplines to explore ideal interests, it is also the portion most in need of attention.  As previously noted, some branches of sociology are rethinking their approach to contemporary radicalism and economic sociology stands to make a significant contribution to this process, possibly offering insights not available to the fields of, most notably, collective behavior and social movement theory.

Indeed, though calls for a ‘bottom-up’ approach are relatively new to collective behavior literature, economic sociology has wrestled with this perspective issue for some time.  As mentioned above, Granovetter’s reinvigoration of the ’embeddedness’ concept can be seen as an attempt to move away from the atomistic conclusions of top-down approaches which viewed actors largely in terms of theoretical labels and values ascribed to them in broad stokes.

A similarly integrative approach is found in Viviana Zelizer’s work surrounding the study of consumption.  Zelizer was concerned about the ‘division of labor’ between economic scholars and those who study culture, noting that this academic division highlights a more important (and problematic) separation of these spheres in the minds of scholars more generally.  The consequence is a series of reductionist tendencies across the board, either seeing consumption as strictly belonging to one of two ‘Hostile Worlds,’ one of “rationality, efficiency and impersonality,” one of “self-expression, cultural richness, and intimacy,” or alternative ‘Nothing But’ approaches that see consumption as nothing but a “special case of economic rationality, a form of cultural expression, or an exercise of power” (Zelizer, 2005: 349; 336).  Instead, she argued for an approach that can contextualize behavior, connecting “continuously negotiated, meaning-drenched social relations with the whole range of economic processes” (Zelizer, 2005: 349).

Briefly, it is also worth mentioning that Clifford Geertz provides an excellent example of just this sort of approach (Geertz, 1978).  Though written before both the Zelizer and Granovetter pieces, and coming from the field of economic anthropology, Geertz’s study of bazaar economies is instructive for the task at hand.  Also looking to overcome polarized analytical approaches to the study of peasant markets, Geertz takes advantage of, then, recent developments in economic theory to approach his subject in a way that allows for the incorporation of socio-cultural factors, “rather than relegating them to the status of boundary matters” (Geertz, 1978: 139).  The Geertz example is particularly important here because his subject, bazaar economies, requires serious consideration of socio-cultural factors.

Similarly, the study of radicals’ economic action requires an understanding of the socio-cultural factors that influence their behavior.  This is where economic sociology can benefit from recent developments in the collective behavior field, drawing on the most promising developments for the purposes of the economic analyses sought here.

Looking at this pool of ‘critical shift’ literature, and based on this author’s previous and ongoing research, it is argued here that a theoretical framework woven from the work of Weber, Gramsci, Mead, Berger and Luckmann provides an excellent starting point for the study of contemporary radical activists and communities (see Ruggero, 2009; 2009a).  This theoretical stance seeks to conceptualize and contextualize radicals’ worldview with the understanding that any study of radical behavior and actions must be based in an understanding of the social relations that undergird them.  Further, its use of Weber and Berger and Luckmann offer significant points of contact with currents in both contemporary economic sociology and its historical roots (see Swedberg, 1998).  Again, there is no room here to fully elaborate the details of this framework.  However, a brief overview help to highlight the intellectual resources available to economic sociology as it seeks to understand radical economic behavior.

The radical-perspective framework pointed to here begins by looking ‘through the eyes’ of the subject, drawing on radicals own words and ideas.  This is a crucial first step as some of the most instructive arguments in the recent collective action ‘critical shift’ highlight that academic literature has been unwilling or incapable of recognizing radicals’ theorizing as equal, or worse,

…the social movements literature in its academic form may exploit activist theorising (while claiming the credit for itself), suppress it (when it challenges the definition of the ‘field’ that the literature ultimately seeks to assert), or stigmatise it as ‘ideology’ (rather than analysis grounded in practical experience)…Even when challenged in its own terrain [i.e. within academic literature]…the critique is heard, and then ignored in practice as researchers return to ‘business as usual’.

(Cox and Nilsen, 2007: 430)

Consequently, an effort is made at the outset to let neglected voices be heard with the hope that they can offer practical, experience-based reflections on the world from their perspective, helping scholars to better understand the basic elements of radicals’ social relations.

After internalizing observed radical perspectives, the work of Antonio Gramsci proves to be a particularly workable academic bridge.  However, in an effort to pull away from a ‘simplistic’ relation of Gramsci’s ideas and a history of academic infighting, his work is situated alongside that of Max Weber.  Weber’s theories of power and their appearance in his analysis of the Protestant sects in America support and, perhaps, influenced Gramsci’s thinking.  Gramsci appears to accept the Weberian view of the role of violence in domination, while recognizing that violence is not the most important source of power in domination.  Gramsci also appears to adopt a Weberian view of culture as a means of social consolidation, encouraging a sense of solidarity, through a shared institutional knowledge, among “all those who think of themselves as being the specific ‘partners’ of a specific ‘culture’ diffused among the members of the polity” (Weber, 1946: 172; Ruggero, 2009; 2009a).

However, Gramsci improves upon Weber in many ways.  While Weber clearly understood the central importance of domination’s perceived legitimacy, Gramsci’s exploration of the role of culture in creating hegemony is in many ways a more nuanced examination of the sources of legitimacy.  Gramsci’s hegemony speaks to the way in which domination is continually legitimized and reproduced through myriad individual acts.

For better elaboration of the specific mechanics of domination (and resistance), particularly at the level of the individual, Mead (1934) and Blumer (1966) help to step ‘behind the eyes’ of both the dominators and the dominated.  This is important not only because it moves away from the top-down theoretical approaches that have proved unhelpful, but it also forces us to recognize the dynamic and reflexive nature of dominator-dominated relationships.

Berger and Luckmann (1966) help explain how these relationships become cemented over time, taking on a perceived objective reality in the minds of those involved.  A key part of the cementing process is the development of a common stock of knowledge regarding the prevailing social order.  This knowledge is passed between generations, ensuring future stability of the ‘hegemonic social order’ institution, as the knowledge itself becomes an objective reality.

Conversely, it is through the development of alternative knowledge (Gramsci’s ‘common sense’) that hegemony can be resisted and countered.  The foundations for a radical project of social change informed by this perspective are: 1) identifying relationships between particular social problems and the hegemonic value system, and 2) identifying the mechanisms by which the hegemonic value system masks its relation to those problems, insinuates itself into the minds of the subordinate, and creates behavior that reinforces its primacy.  This careful analysis is vital in order to accurately design an appropriate cultural response, that is, a deliberate and shrewd articulation of an alternative institutional knowledge based upon an alternative system of values and norms, subsequently expressed through alternative social institutions and intellectual resources, aimed at dismantling hegemony by subverting it.  This is counter-hegemony.

Again, based on previous and ongoing research, this framework seems to provide an accurate theoretical conception of radicals’ worldview, as indicated by their analyses of reigning power structures and the stated rationale for myriad forms of daily activism (see Ruggero, 2009).  Further, the framework’s cultural ‘common sense’ concept appears useful for historicizing the movements as part of a larger progression of radical politics and culture, revealing the connection between in 19th century anarchism and 21st century Punk, for example.  This internalized radical culture – a ‘common sense’ – has served as a foundation for alternative social and intellectual resources that, in many cases, explicitly aim to replace their hegemonic counterparts in the lives of community members (Jordan, 2002; Halfacree, 2004; Klein, 2004; Augman, 2005; Gordon, 2007; Spencer, 2008; Ruggero, 2009).

Hypothesis and Methodology

In order to understand the influence of radicals’ ‘ideal interests’ on economic behavior, economic sociology should look to this counter-hegemonic ‘common sense’ for guidance.  The radical-perspective framework suggests that in seeking to balance material and ideal interests, radicals’ economic behavior is greatly influenced by their perceptions of the economic act’s alliance, complicity, or connection with the perceived ‘enemy’ hegemonic social order.  That is, whether in direct interactions with others (individuals, businesses, corporations) or more personal economic action (reuse, reclamation), questions of hegemony routinely impact behavior in a range of economic processes, from consumption and use to career choice, investment decisions, and living situations.

Methodology

The methodology proposed here consists of six stages (summary in appendix).  In the initial stage, the literature review and theoretical framework outlined above will be further developed to serve as a guideline for subsequent investigation.

Stage two builds on the methodological suggestions gleaned in stage one to construct a series of survey questions, referred to here as the ‘simple survey.’  It is ‘simple’ because the aim is broad, but not necessarily deep.  Given the sheer scope of possibility suggested by the theoretical framework, and for the purposes of a workable research program, there is a need to narrow the field of inquiry towards a specific set of economic behaviors.  The use of surveys is intended to ensure that the narrowing process does not lose sight of its subject’s perspective; the goal is to look to the subject for clues about the best way to proceed.

The method for conducting surveys at this level will build on the methodological suggestions of the ‘critical shift’ literature and other authors’ attempts to apply them (see especially Cherry, 2006; Ruggero, 2009).  This literature questions whether contemporary radical activism is best studied as a ‘movement’ at all.  Indeed, the words and actions of contemporary radicals suggest, instead, something akin to a ‘relational approach’ that embeds the social actor in “dynamic, processual relationships that shift over space and time” (Cherry, 2006:157; Emirbayer, 1997).  This approach is gaining popularity, particularly in connection with the study of networks (Juris, 2008; Grewal, 2008).  Thus, it is possible to conceive of the entirety of contemporary radical activism as a body of nested, interconnected and highly flexible networks of individuals, suggesting a focus on the ties between participants and the complex networks these form.

Consequently, the ‘simple’ survey methodology takes a relational, network perspective, focusing on these social-cultural ties.  However, it is not possible to take all of contemporary radicalism as a subject; indeed, a central fault with most contemporary collective behavior literature is the homogenization of an extremely diverse body of individuals and groups.  All radical activism is not the same; similarly, the values and experiences of all radical activists are not the same.

In order to narrow the field of inquiry while maintaining a focus on the social-cultural ties, this research will focus on DIY (Do-it-Yourself)/Punk communities as one social-cultural network nested within the wider ‘contemporary radicalism’ network.  DIY/Punk communities rely on informal, decentralized networks in the form of an anti-corporate network of performance and community spaces, zines, record labels, and businesses.  These institutions connect individuals around the world, the ties nurtured by touring bands, traveling performances or other events, various Internet resources and internationally distributed zines like Punk Planet, MRR, and Profane Existence as well as numerous national and local publication (cf. Dunn, 2008; Spencer, 2008; Ruggero, 2009).

Thus, sampling will focus on these social/cultural/intellectual resources as a key means for building and solidifying identities, influencing actors’ cognitive frames and connecting them to DIY/Punk networks.  Respondents will be sought through the use of small flyers which ask for participation in an ‘anonymous online survey regarding economic behavior’ for the purposes of graduate student research.  These will be distributed in numerous ways: album inserts, inside a day-planner printed by a Philadelphia-based, DIY screen-printing collective, at numerous DIY/Punk events (shows, performances, skill shares, etc.) in multiple US and Western European cities, through specific bookstores in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Amsterdam and on two popular DIY/Punk record-trading message boards.

Following Cherry (2006) and Ruggero (2009), the surveys will be in the form of an anonymous, online questionnaire, asking participants to discuss their history and participation with/in DIY/Punk communities, their feelings about the business practices of prominent international corporations, multiple choice scenario-based questions about consumption preferences, and questions about, in Weber’s terms, ‘economically conditioned phenomena’ such as reuse, recycling, reclamation and consumption of thrift/used goods.  The inquiry will seek both qualitative and quantitative data from respondents; however, a robust pool of quantitative data is not anticipated.

In stage three, these survey responses will be organized and coded based on respondents’ relative DIY/Punk network ‘tie strength,’ using ‘discourse,’ ‘support,’ and ‘network embeddedness’ as criteria, again following Cherry (2006) and Ruggero (2009).  The data will then be analyzed, with two objectives.  First, for the reexamination of the initial hypothesis and theoretical schema and any reformulations or reorganizations that need to take place.  Second, to help develop more focused questions for ‘complex’ investigation in stage four.

Stage four inquiry will be aimed at covering a range of economic behavior, in terms of the complexity of the balance between ideal and material interests and in terms of the type of economic behavior, following Weber’s classic typology.  These surveys will be conducted through similar means as the ‘simple’ surveys, however, they will be restricted to two cities: Philadelphia and Amsterdam.[1] This will allow the research to draw on concrete, local examples for questioning.  Ethnographic fieldwork will accompany the surveys, aiming for interviews when possible, and behavioral observation as well.  Again, the specific details of these questions and methods will depend on the results of the ‘simple’ surveys.  That said, initial speculation suggests that the ‘complex’ surveys will aim to control for certain preferences (e.g. consuming thrift/used vs. new), while pushing further into the hegemony-based hypothesis (e.g. consuming at a community-based, locally owned, religious thrift/used store vs. a national-chain, religious thrift/used store like Salvation Army).  Another example may be a comparison of preference for two local coffee shops, one recently expanding into two additional locations, the other maintaining only one location.

Stage five will consist of organizing and analyzing the ‘complex’ inquiry data, comparing this with the ‘simple’ inquiry data and with the overall theoretical schema.  These comparative results will be evaluated alongside the central hypothesis and, in stage six, the results will be organized and presented as a finalized document.

Conclusions and Objectives

The research program presented here aims to open an investigative pathway towards an understudied question in the literature surrounding contemporary radical activism: What is the nature of contemporary radical activists’ economic behavior?  This question is important not only because answers are currently murky, but the question also represents the intersection of economic sociology and the ‘critical shift’ in collective behavior literature.  Indeed, in seeking to answers to this central question, this research may also shed light on points of convergence, contention and potential collaboration between the two disciplines.  To this end, this research program links the vast resources of economic sociology with new research directions in collective behavior towards the development of a theoretical framework that can approach radicals’ economic behavior from the ‘bottom-up.’

The methodological approach focuses inquiry into a workable research design, without betraying the theoretical imperatives of maintaining a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, utilizing network and relational approaches to the subject.  Likewise, initial data collection aims to let respondents ‘shine through’ with the use of broad surveying, followed by a careful (if necessary) reexamination of the theoretical schema.  Subsequent data collection will build on these insights, further focusing both the substance and scale of inquiry.

The final analysis will seek to address two overarching objectives for this research.  First, it will use both stages of data collection to evaluate the initial hypothesis and theoretical and methodological schema to develop answers for the central research question.  Second, the final analysis will also evaluate the theoretical and methodological schema in terms of the intersection of collective behavior and economic sociology they represent, assessing their value and relevance for this area of research in both fields and highlighting any problems, progress or future questions that materialize.

Lastly, this work is not only expected to provide useful information for further academic research, but also for the world of activist theorists as well.  There is a growing body of theory being developed within these movements and communities, including robust economic theory (see especially Spannos, 2008).  In an effort to avoid the disturbing ‘exploit-suppress-stigmatize’ trend in activist-scholar relations discussed by Cox and Nilsen above, this research will also be evaluated and framed in terms of what it can offer these ‘activist scholars’ and the growing critical discourse emanating from contemporary radical communities.

APPENDIX A: RESEARCH STAGES OVERVIEW

Stage 1: Further review of literature, seeking more nuanced methodological guidelines for subsequent stages and refinement of ‘simple’ surveys.

Stage 2: “Simple” Surveys – Sampling DIY/Punk networks using flyers, distributed in multiple ways, asking for participation in online survey.

Stage 3: “Taking Stock” – Return to hypothesis and theoretical background, link with Stage 2 findings, and develop more focused interview and survey questions and ethnographic fieldwork guidelines.

Stage 4: “Complex” Surveys – Conduct more focused surveys, interviews and ethnographic fieldwork.

Stage 5: Organize ‘complex’ survey results, compare with ‘simple’ surveys, analyze comparative results and return to hypothesis and theoretical schema for final analysis.

Stage 6: Organization and presentation of results in final document.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Mead, G. H. 1934. On Social Psychology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Spencer, A. 2005. DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. London: Marion Boyars.

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Weber, M. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. eds. and trans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zelizer, V. A. 2005. “Culture and Consumption.” in N. Smelser and R. Swedberg, eds. Handbook of Economic Sociology, 2nd Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 331-354.


[1] Philadelphia and Amsterdam were chosen because of similarities in population density, physical size, and personal familiarity with DIY/Punk community resources in both cities, allowing for more in-depth ethnographic fieldwork

Framework Redux

So, so busy and sad I have not had time to share here. Below you will find a recent reworking of the ‘radical perspective’ framework I have been working on, here adding in Mead and Berger and Luckmann. Pending comments from some colleagues, and here, it will likely be cleaned up and sent for publication consideration. Thoughts are, consequently, much appreciated.

Introduction

The argument presented here is a response to the growing call for reinvigoration and reassessment of social movement literature, particularly with regards to its relationship with contemporary forms of Western radical activism and radical communities (Bevington and Dixon 2005; Cox and Nilsen 2007). The canonical theoretical approaches of social movement theory are largely ‘top-down’ views of the field of social action, plagued by institutional-political reductionism that sidelines the bulk of radical behavior, vague cultural approaches that reframe all radicalism in terms of style, or historical overviews whose supposed ‘objectivity’ prevents any understanding of activists’ own perceptions and worldview, in some cases, unconsciously replacing it with the perceptions of the observer.

The theoretical framework presented here is an attempt at a ‘bottom-up’ approach, one that takes the activist perspective as its foundation, striving to contextualize movement thought and action in terms of this worldview. It is important to state at the outset that there is no room here to develop a full picture of this ‘radical perspective’ using radicals’ own words and theory. However, there is a growing body of literature documenting and developing the perspective, the latest step in the evolution of contemporary radical politics: an early focus style and direct confrontation with political institutions blossoming into a body of communities, organizations and institutions that appear deeply focused on developing lasting cultural, intellectual and social resources (cf. Jordan 2002; Halfacree 2004; Klein 2004; Augman 2005; Cherry 2006; Gordon 2007; Carlsson 2008; Spencer 2008; Spannos 2008; Ruggero 2009).

As I will show below, the work of Antonio Gramsci is a particularly useful starting point for engaging with this radical project of social change. However, in an effort to pull away from a ‘simplistic’ relation of Gramsci’s ideas and a history of academic infighting, his work is situated alongside that of Max Weber. Taken together, Weber and Gramsci provide a broader picture of the encounter of socialism and modern sociology, yielding a particularly useful framework given our radical subject. Additionally, this framework is substantially bolstered with the incorporation of elements of George Herbert Mead’s and, subsequently, Herbert Blumer’s development of symbolic interactionism as well as facets of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s analysis of the sociology of knowledge found in The Social Construction of Reality.

A central goal here is to show that scholars need not recklessly abandon their rich intellectual resources; instead, it is more helpful to draw on them in a flexible way that incorporates the observed reality of radical communities within its wider social and cultural narrative, as told by the actors themselves. Finally, with the radical-perspective framework developed, this paper ends with a discussion of how the incorporation of these actors’ worldview alters the study their ‘movement’ form, actions and goals.

Failure of Social Movement Theory

There should be little doubt that contemporary social movement theory and contemporary Western radical social movements suffer a dysfunctional relationship. However, given that the relationship was initially forged in the tumultuous post-Soviet era, it is not surprising there is chaos and disconnect. On one hand, political and social theorists, largely caught off-guard by the events of 1989, suddenly had half a continent’s worth of social systems to observe and they were keen to understand what was happening in the East. Meanwhile, radical communities throughout the West were making their first appearances in the form now generally subsumed under the ‘antiglobalization’ or ‘movements of movements’ (MM) label.
Early, mainstream theoretical approaches generally only tweaked old models or forced a ‘fit’ with established theories. Early literature frequently homogenized the MM, sidelining its constituent submovements and communities; they were seen as peripheral, tangential to a more formal ‘movement’ that made headlines in Seattle; of course, there is no such static movement form.

The fact that this movement of movements (MM) spent a great deal of energy in its early career distancing itself from the 1960s and 70s is a telling example of this emerging dysfunctionality. McAdam, Sampson, Weffer, and MacIndoe (2005) write, “The movements of the 1960s and 1970s greatly increased interest in the [social movement] field but their own particular forms and processes have tended to dominate contemporary social movement scholarship and theory,” noting a “close association in the minds of most researchers between movements and extreme forms of protest” (McAdam et al., 2005: 2; 9). Consequently, though the movements were evolving, megaprotests became a central empirical focus in the study of new transnational activism, ignoring the changing reality of radicals’ experience, handling them with the theoretical and methodological practices of the past.

Instead of listening to activists, the literature has approached the subject of movement formation and behavior not from the perspective of the movements themselves, but from canonical perspectives, deaf to what the movements are actually saying and doing. These failing perspectives can be loosely divided into two forms, based on the foundational perspectives that inform the work: 1) statist approaches and 2) cultural approaches. The internal problems with each of these will be briefly discussed.

Forms of Failure: Culturalist

The ‘cultural’ approach to the MM has emerged as a curious milieu of British cultural studies, ‘movement as performance’ perspectives, soft network analysis, lifestyle and identity politics, and, most problematically, somewhat thin overviews of portions of the movement landscape, linked to traditional theory at the last moment (cf. Day 2005; Goodwin and Jasper 2004; Jasper 1997; Johnston and Klandermans 1995; McKay 1996 and others). As Cox and Nilsen note in their excellent critique of the discipline, approaches in this vein have all too often treated these movements and communities as simply “one lifestyle among many in postmodern capitalism” or, more frequently, drowned the movements in so much relativism so as to produce “an unsatisfyingly vague theory of everything” (Cox and Nilsen, 2007: 430).
The problem is that these approaches spend too much time looking in, rather than attempting to stand in the movements’ shoes, looking out. Despite efforts to speak to the movement perspective, such work frequently constructs this perspective from the outside, using tools and words alien to activist and community experience. It remains external, a top-down analysis that attempts to categorize according to academic directives as opposed to those dictated by reality.

Forms of Failure: Statist

On the other hand, the institutional-political reductionism of statist approaches tends to view movements as occupants of a particular level of the political system. Where culturalist approaches fail because they are trying to ‘look in,’ statist approaches ‘look at’ their subject from an even further removed perspective. This top-down approach frequently makes a priori assumptions about the irrelevance of movements’ creation of and participation in long-lasting social institutions.

For example, consider the massive body of ‘Civil Society’ literature produced during its ‘revival’ over the last decade or so. Those theories that purport to engage with contemporary radical activism generally either use MM examples to justify old models or use the concept to ‘dress up’ what are little more than overviews of the most easily observable movement behavior (see especially Kaldor et al. 2007; 2005; Kaldor 2003). Thus, despite populist undertones, Kaldor’s call for a theory of global civil society based on consent, one that is ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down,’ composed of “transnational autonomous association and institutions,” in the end, maintains a focus on statist, that is government, institutions:

…civil society thus consists of those groups and organizations through which individuals can influence and put pressure on the centers of political and economic authority, in particular through which they negotiate new social contracts or bargains at a global level. (Kaldor, 2003: 143; 146)

Again, the term’s statist bias remains because it is inherently a top-down theoretical perspective. There is an implicit assumption that citizens and movements can or wish to address ‘centers of political and economic authority.’ Further, any activity that does not engage with those ‘centers of political and economic authority’ falls through the cracks and remains, in a way, invisible. It is only one example, but the Civil Society case is illustrative of the discipline’s problems because of the sweeping nature of the concept itself.
Both the culturalist and statist approaches fail to engage with the MM, and Western radicalism more generally, because they remain tied to the directives of the discipline. It has been unable to understand or accept what Cox and Nilsen call “the most basic point of activist theorising” (Cox and Nilsen, 2007: 430). Namely, that our social, political and economic reality is a social choice, not a fact; it is not immutable and is subject to challenge. In other words, the literature is unable to theorize the MM’s contention that ‘another world is possible.’

This is an admittedly shallow overview of the literature-activism disconnect; however, there is no room here to fully detail the problem and, more importantly, to do justice to the growing body of scholarship that is transforming what was once a somewhat polemic critique into a workable methodological agenda (cf. Bevington and Dixon 2005; Cox and Nilsen 2007; Flacks 2004; McAdam et al., 2005; Halfacree 2004; Gordon 2007). That said, one important point should be drawn from the criticism above: the need to develop theory that is truly ‘bottom-up,’ taking as its foundation the radical/activist perspective, as opposed to relying on the ‘top-down’ traditions. In order to understand the most basic point of activist theorizing, that another world is possible, it is necessary to attempt to see the world through activists’ eyes.

Synthesis

Though the above suggests social movement literature needs to take activist and community perspectives as a foundation and guide for study, this is not to imply letting go of the discipline entirely. Indeed, there is also disturbing thematic trend of endless renouncement in the literature surrounding the MM, both academic and non; however, these calls for something new and forward looking are frequently constructed only of critiques of the past, deepening divisiveness and encouraging partisan debates largely irrelevant to the goal of engaged social movement scholarship.

An important and instructive example is found in Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead (2005), in which he asserts the source of the problems discussed above lies with the dominance of the concept of hegemony within contemporary Marxist and liberal discourses. This ‘hegemony of hegemony,’ as he puts it, “deeply conditions our present understandings and possibilities” (Day, 2005: 13). The newest activist practices are not aimed at taking state or corporate power and, Day argues, cannot be understood within the hegemony paradigm.

Day is not wrong in this statement. Unfortunately, Day’s use of Gramsci to represent hegemony discourse on the whole obscures many scholars’ misreading of Gramsci and, consequently, the actual nature of his core ideas. An issue common with renouncement literature, it is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, Day’s argument is, essentially, a Gramscian one. In the first paragraph of a chapter titled “Doing it Yourself”, Day posits that contemporary radical activism employs an “array of non-hegemonic tactics” including:

…dropping out of existing institutions, subversion of existing institutions …impeding existing institutions…prefiguring alternatives to existing institutions…and construction of alternatives to existing forms
(Day, 2005:19; emphasis in original)

As I will show below, this approach to radical social change is, in fact, modeled in Gramsci’s work. Like so much social movement literature, Day has perpetuated a top-down approach to analysis, whereby outside-in observation of movement behavior is used to evaluate established theory. To claim that ‘Gramsci is dead’ because these movements do not wish to influence or take state power ignores the other half of the equation: the collective behavior of elites. If we instead take a bottom-up analysis, guided by activists’ perceptions, we find that Gramsci provides a fruitful starting point for the (re)construction of a theoretical framework that analyzes these movements and communities in terms of the targets of their ire, the logic of their action and, most importantly, their understanding of how social change happens.

To get at those elements of Gramsci’s work that best reflect radical practice and perspective, we must slice through the maze of Gramscian discourse. The application of loaded phrases brings a history of academic arguments and risks a loss of focus. “Rather than simplistically believing Gramsci has the answers or holds the key to different historical and contemporary problems,” Adam David Morton argues, stress should be placed on “the importance of thinking in a Gramscian way” (Morton, 2007:35). The aim here is to internalize his method, adding to and modifying it as necessary, so as to approach contemporary radical communities in an engaged way. This means shaking off compromised terms, rebuilding and reclaiming them with the radical subject in mind. In short, we must start over. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, but we cannot begin with the car.

Appropriating Tools for Theory (Re)development

I introduce Gramsci’s writing with the understanding that his work should be reexamined in order to develop “a point of departure to deal with similar problematics in our own time” (Morton, 2007:36). The focus here will be on those portions of Gramsci’s thought most relevant to contemporary radical communities and those most commonly rendered in radical-produced theory: Hegemony, Domination, Civil Society and the State.
Further, in an effort to pull away from a ‘simplistic’ relation of Gramsci’s ideas, his work is situated alongside that of Max Weber. Taken together, Weber and Gramsci provide a broader picture of the encounter of socialism and modern sociology, yielding a particularly useful framework given our radical subject. Additionally, this framework is substantially bolstered with the incorporation of elements of George Herbert Mead’s and, subsequently, Herbert Blumer’s development of symbolic interactionism as well as facets of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s analysis of the sociology of knowledge found in The Social Construction of Reality.

State, Domination, Hegemony

Weber’s definition of the state is presented quite clearly in Politics as a Vocation. He views the state as a type of political association. It is the modern form in a historical progression and “[l]ike the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men…” (Weber, 1946: 78). Thus, individual forms of political association are defined less by their ‘ends’ – commonly, domination – than by the ‘means’ they employ.

It is possible to find similar themes in Gramsci’s work. In his sixth notebook, Gramsci makes clear his theory of the state:
For it should be noted that certain elements that fall under the general notion of the state must be restored to the notion of civil society (in the sense, one might say, that state = political society + civil society, that is, hegemony protected by the armor of coercion)
(Gramsci, 2007:75)

Immediately we can see that Gramsci, like Weber, understands the state as more than the common (and more narrow) definition of the state as government. From a Weberian and Gramscian perspective, the state is a complex of social relations, a particular social order that represents the domination of a particular social group over others. Here it may be helpful to further ‘de-situate’ the state term by using Mead’s argument that the social institutions of a society do not represent immutable facts, but “common response[s] on the part of all member of the community to a particular situation” (Blumer, 1966: 535; Mead, 1934: 249). Indeed, the organization of society, with ‘men dominating men,’ depends on the development of these common responses, here, the acceptance and participation in the dominant social order. It is also possible to think of the Weber-Gramsci state concept as an ‘institution’ as framed by Berger and Luckmann’s. They describe an institution as the product of “reciprocal typification of habitualized actions” by actors (Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 54). Here, the state term represents the shared typification of the habitualized mechanics of the dominant-dictated social order as ‘normal.’

Of course, this is a very broad conceptualization; however, it is purposively so. Not only does it enable us to remain flexible, but it also reflects the perceptions of radicals. The notion that ‘another world is possible’ is similarly broad because it is attempting to incorporate the many smaller institutions and mechanisms through which power operates. Further, if we understand the state as an institution a la Berger and Luckmann, we must also accept – as radicals and activists claim – that as an institution, it controls behavior “by setting up predefined pattern of conduct, which channel it in one direction as against the many other directions that would theoretically be possible” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 55).

In the case of the state-institution, this social control represents what Weber described as the ‘means’ to domination. The ‘means’ to domination are the forms of power exercised in order to overcome the resistance of another. Appealing to the self-interest of resisters, getting the resistance to willingly submit (legitimation) and the use of sheer physical force (i.e. violence) are the prime examples. Domination, though, is never a settled position. In Weber’s view, political associations must continually interface with the dominated through these power relations to maintain the authority they claim. In this process, though, legitimation is by far the most powerful means to domination; when subordinates believe in the legitimacy of their own subordination, the need to resort to the riskier means of violence, threat, or bribe is significantly reduced (Weber, 1946:79).

But how, Weber asks, does legitimacy persist? “When and why do men obey? Upon what inner justifications and upon what external means does this domination rest” (Weber, 1946:78). He describes three basic ‘inner justifications’ or ways of legitimizing domination: Charismatic, Traditional and Legal. Charismatic legitimation rests on the personal charisma of a leader. “Men do not obey him by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him” (Weber, 1946:79; Weber, 1946: 295). Traditional Legitimacy appeals to the notion of the ‘eternal yesterday,’ as Weber puts it. This form of domination appeals to the “belief in the everyday routine as an inviolable norm of conduct” (Weber, 1946:296). Lastly, legal legitimacy rests on the accepted validity of a particular set of rules. In this sense, for example, the state develops a set of rules for the appropriate and accepted use of violence, as in the social contract surrounding the conduct of the police. Thus, the state becomes the “sole source of the right to use violence” (Weber, 1946:78).

Similar to Weber’s ‘legitimation and violence’ means array, Berger and Luckmann note that the controlling aspect of an institution exists on two levels. First, and most importantly, it is inherent to the process of institutionalization; here, we might interpret this to mean the process by which actors’ perceptions of the elements of the ‘state’ social order come to be ‘normal.’ Secondly, institutions may also develop ‘additional control mechanisms’ that are specifically designed to support or protect the institution (Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 55).

If we turn back to Gramsci, his discussions of the means by which dominance is maintained echoes both Weber’s three-fold power array (appealing to self interest, violence, and willing submission or legitimation) and the two-fold mechanisms of institutional control seen in Berger and Luckmann.

Gramsci theorized that dominant groups maintain their position through a mix of sheer force (coercion through political society) and, more importantly, with the active participation of the subordinate groups (consent through hegemony in civil society).  The use of coercion in the process of domination is the domain of what he calls ‘political society,’ meaning “the armed forces, police, law courts and prisons, together with all the administrative departments concerning taxation finance, trade, industry, social security, etc.” (Simon, 1990:71). In Gramsci’s view, however, this is only a portion of the state’s domination framework. Indeed, the role of political society, the “apparatus of state coercive power,” is to enforce “discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent'” (Gramsci, 2003:12). The dominant group only turns to coercive tactics if efforts to manufacture consent fail. Similarly, Berger and Luckmann note, “outright coercive measures can be applied economically and selectively” when “socialization into the institutions has been effective” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 62).

Consent to domination, the second portion of Gramsci’s formula of power and similar to Weber’s notion of legitimacy, is developed within civil society. Gramsci refers to the realization of consent to domination through civil society as ‘hegemony,’ a social order where “a common social-moral language is spoken, in which one concept of reality is dominant, informing with its spirit all modes of thought and behaviour” (Femia, 1981:24). Hegemony, however, is not simply achieved through the alignment of the free choices of subordinate groups. Consent is actively manufactured within civil society; hegemony is pursued through “extremely complex mediums, diverse institutions, and constantly changing processes” (Buttigieg, 1995:7). “Through their presence and participation in various institutions, cultural activities, and many other forms of social interaction, the dominant classes ‘lead’ the society in certain directions” (Buttigieg, 2005:44). Hegemony operates through the social institutions of civil society: the church, the educational system, the press, all the bodies which help create in people certain modes of behavior and expectations consistent with the hegemonic social order.

Additionally, the power and influence of hegemony (as opposed to more coercive forms of control) strengthens exponentially over time. Through the continued control of social institutions between successive generations, consent to domination benefits from the inherited perceptions of ‘normalcy.’ In Berger and Luckmann’s terms, as the social order developed and maintained by dominant groups persists, it gains strength as it’s relative objectivity ‘hardens.’ The social order of the state-institution comes to be experienced by individuals as an objective reality:

The institutions are there, external to him, persistent in their reality, whether he likes it or not. He cannot wish them away. They resist his attempts to change or evade them. They have coercive power over him…He may experience large sectors of the social world as incomprehensible, perhaps oppressive in their opaqueness, but real nonetheless.
(Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 60)

The ultimate goal of domination is necessarily the attainment of such perceived objectivity, a situation where dissent and resistance are inconceivable because ‘it has always been this way and always will.’ Consequently, we must recognize the collective actions of elites as part of a process of reflexive action aimed at developing this ‘hardened’ position in the minds of the subordinate. This implies a process of ongoing modification and evolution of the mechanisms of domination; it requires dominant groups to remain responsive to the actions of the subordinate in order to consistently expand and universalize its control. Similarly, Mead argued that the successful organization of a community is directly linked to the degree to which that organizational force “is universal and makes possible a bigger community” (Mead, 1934: 255). Mead offers, for example, that Jesus’ gospel of neighborliness was an attitude that could appeal to anyone, giving it an element of universality that provided a foundation for its development as a universal religion. Similarly, in our own time, we see the definitions of neoliberal-capitalist norms like ‘free trade’ or ‘competitiveness’ framed so as to appear to represent the interests of all global citizens, instead of a few (Evans, 2000:230).

Thus, we can say that dominant groups interpret the actions of the subordinate and respond accordingly, engaging in a process of ‘give and take,’ sometimes ceding to demands or accepting behavior that does not directly threaten their dominance. Indeed, this symbolic interaction between dominant and subordinate helps to maintain a certain ‘base level’ of universality. Dominant groups pick their battles, developing calculated responses based on observed and predicted subordinate reactions. This allow the dominant to effectively mask the sources of their power, ceding harmless victories to shift attention from vital organs, while further aligning the subordinate’s perception of themselves with the dominant group’s hegemonic characterization of what is ‘normal.’ That is, subordinate’s pursuit and valorization of ‘harmless victories’ draws them further into the false objectivity the state-institution social order.

Consequently, empirically speaking, the social institutions through which domination is secured can and will vary between different societies and different times, as will the delineation between mechanisms of consent and coercion. For example, recalling Weber’s notion of the ‘right to violence,’ the police and courts – organs of coercion – operate with a high level of consent in many societies today. Indeed, in modern democracies, the overt use of force by the government has given way to more subtle forms of coercion. Buttigieg alludes to this in his discussion on the US-led War on Terror:

In the United States, both in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the buildup to the Iraq War, the Bush administration did not arrest anyone who opposed its interpretation of events, nor did it shut down any newspaper, television network, or radio station that questioned its views and policies. Instead, it invoked patriotism, national security, and the obligation to support ‘‘our troops,’’ and, then, left it to the most influential institutions of civil society to bring the overwhelming majority of the citizenry into line and to marginalize the dissenters through a campaign of vilification.
(Buttigieg, 2005:46)

In sum, the ‘consent-coercion’ process of creating ‘inner justifications’ for domination described above is primarily one of articulation, whereby dominant groups articulate their particular form of desired social order through an ongoing process of symbolic interaction. Dominant groups use a combination of consent and coercion to signal and induce the desired behavior. Dominant groups ‘lead’ a society by way of the educative mechanisms of consent, signaling appropriate behavior, organizing individual expectations and defining the parameters of ‘normal’ society. Similarly, coercion signals deviation from a dominant group’s desired ‘norm,’ impacting not only the behavior of the coerced, but the rest of society as well.

The framework of domination presented thus far speaks to activists’ perceptions of the collective actions of elites, a seriously under-theorized perspective. Of course, this is only one side of the equation; the framework must build on these observations in order to capture the ‘hidden’ forms of radicals’ collective action, essentially, alternative articulations of social order. This next step draws on Weber’s discussions of religion in The Protestant Sects and Gramsci’s development of the practice of counter-hegemony, again using Mead, Blumer, Berger and Luckmann to strengthen the framework’s correspondence with and relevance for the radical-activist perspective.

Common Sense, Culture, and Counter-Hegemony

In Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber discusses how religious affiliations and organizations in early America formed an integral social function within society and “the question of religious affiliation was almost always posed in social life and in business life” (Weber, 1946:303). Indeed, sect membership carried with it access to a host of social, business and, by extension, political opportunities. Once recognized by others as an upstanding and reputable individual (confirmed by membership), new avenues for credit, business opportunities and support in times of trouble are opened. Conversely, Weber notes, “expulsion from one’s sect for moral offenses has meant, economically, loss of credit and, socially, being declassed” (Weber, 1946:306).

Consequently, sect memberships served as “vehicles of social ascent into the circle of the entrepreneurial middle class. They served to diffuse and to maintain the bourgeois capitalist ethos among the broad strata of the middle class” (Weber, 1946:308). Here we see the Protestant sects as conduits for instilling capitalist values amongst a wide base of American society. Sect member’s interactions with non-members and secular institutions managed to spread these values far beyond religious communities. Over time, they became established as tenets of ‘good business’ or even ‘good Americanism,’ shaping the practices of the religious and non-religious alike, infusing themselves into the institutions of political and civil society. Indeed, Weber notes that without diffusion and maintenance of these principles through religious communities, “…capitalism today, even in America, would not be what it is” (Weber, 1946:309).

If we now approach Weber’s examination of religious communities through Berger and Luckmann’s ‘institution’ lens, we can understand the ‘goodness’ principles of the religious communities as a particular form of ‘knowledge’ about the social order embodied in the sect-institution. This knowledge is what motivates institutional conduct, defines the boundaries of its action, and controls conduct both within its own domain and at the borders. Importantly, Berger and Luckmann note, such knowledge exists at the ‘pretheoretical’ level: “It is the sum total of ‘what everybody knows’ about a social world, an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth…” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 65).

This analysis of collective institutional knowledge about social order is very similar to Gramsci’s notion of the ‘common sense’ of a particular social grouping, or culture. Gramsci’s use of ‘culture’ is built around this shared knowledge: “In acquiring one’s conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting” (Gramsci, 2003:324). This shared mode of thinking is the culture’s ‘common sense,’ not in the familiar English sense of the term but, instead, as shared conception of the social order; in Gramsci’s words:

Every philosophical current leaves behind a sedimentation of ‘common sense’…[it is] the folklore of philosophy, and is always half-way between folklore properly speaking and the philosophy, science and economics of the specialists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a given place and time.
(Gramsci, 1949: 144)

The shared knowledge within a culture is the wellspring from which the rationale and validation for innumerable institutions and practices flows. Like ripples in water, the existence, structure and behavior of the myriad facets of political and civil society can be traced back to this cultural knowledge.

Importantly, ‘culture’ does not indicate any particular group of values and norms. While it is possible to speak of a dominant culture, it is by no means the only culture within a society or even the only culture to which an individual belongs. Indeed, because the dominant culture seeks universality, its shared knowledge revolves primarily around only of those elements of social order important for maintaining dominance. In most modern cases, this revolves around the social relations of production and consumption and political power. However, for example, in a primitive theocratic society, these elements would revolve around issues of the divine. So, in modern liberal democracies, dominant groups do not (generally) concern themselves with the collective institutional knowledge (‘common sense’) of the various religious cultures of the subordinate. That is, unless, this subordinate religious common sense is perceived as a direct challenge to the dominant common sense, for example, in the case of anti-Catholicism in early America (i.e. ‘taking orders from Rome’).

Further, internally, cultures themselves are fluid arenas where “dominant, subordinate and oppositional cultural values meet and intermingle…vying with one another to secure the spaces within which they can [frame and organize] popular experience and consciousness” (Bennett, 1986:xix). It is important to understand this view of culture and knowledge as we begin to discuss Gramsci’s ideas about social change.

Gramsci conceived of two methods for challenging domination: a ‘war of maneuver’ and a ‘war of position,’ best understood as points on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive options. A ‘war of maneuver’ involves physically overwhelming the coercive apparatus of the state. However, the success of this strategy depends on the nature of the state’s hegemony, that is, its position within civil society. In a comparison of the state in Czarist Russia with that in liberal democracies (referred to as the East and the West respectively), Gramsci notes that the strength of the latter lies in a sturdy civil society [here Gramsci uses the term State to mean government, or political society, as opposed to his more broad definition used elsewhere and throughout this text (i.e. State= political society + civil society)]:

In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The State was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements.
(Gramsci, 2007:169)

In modern liberal democracies, direct confrontation (armed uprising, general strike, etc.) will not threaten the dominant groups so long as their credibility and authority is firmly rooted in civil society. Buttigieg notes, “civil society, in other words, far from being a threat to political society in a liberal democracy, reinforces it—this is the fundamental meaning of hegemony” (Buttigieg, 2005:41).

However, Gramsci does not give up on the notion of radical change in liberal democracies; he was a writer principally focused on a radical transformation of capitalist society. Described by Gramsci as “the only viable possibility in the West,” a ‘war of position’ is resistance to domination with culture, rather than physical might, as its foundation (Gramsci, 2007:168). Cox succinctly describes Gramsci’s ‘war of position’ as process that “slowly builds up the strength of the social foundations of a new state” by “creating alternative institutions and alternative intellectual resources within existing society” (Cox, 1983:165). For Gramsci, the common sense of a culture is what lies at the heart of any revolutionary project, it is “how class is lived,” it shapes how people see their world and how they maneuver within in it and, more importantly, “it shapes their ability to imagine how it might be changed, and whether they see such changes as feasible or desirable” (Crehan, 2002:71).

Thus, the complex program of radical social change in a modern liberal democracy, as suggested by this radical-perspective framework, depends on the development of a powerfully critical and progressive common sense, embedded in a strong and dynamic culture, with the goal of establishing the necessary institutions for a subversion of hegemony. Gramsci notes that it must be born of a popular, mass culture in order to create the shared vision necessary for challenging hegemony:

An historical act can only be performed by ‘collective man’, and this presupposes the attainment of a ‘cultural-social’ unity through which a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world, both general and particular, operating in transitory bursts (in emotional ways) or permanently (where the intellectual base is so well rooted, assimilated and experienced that it becomes passion).
(Gramsci, 2003:349)

Internalizing the Framework, Incorporating Radical Perspectives

Weber’s theories of power and their appearance in his analysis of the Protestant sects in America support and, perhaps, influenced Gramsci’s thinking. Gramsci appears to accept the Weberian view of the role of violence in domination, incorporating it into one side of his ‘state = political society + civil society’ formula while recognizing that violence is not the most important source of power in domination. Gramsci also appears to adopt a Weberian view of culture as a means of social consolidation, encouraging a sense of solidarity, through a shared institutional knowledge, among “all those who think of themselves as being the specific ‘partners’ of a specific ‘culture’ diffused among the members of the polity” (Weber, 1946: 172).

However, Gramsci improves upon Weber in many ways. While Weber clearly understood the central importance of domination’s perceived legitimacy, Gramsci’s exploration of the role of culture in creating hegemony is in many ways a more nuanced examination of the sources of legitimacy. Gramsci’s hegemony speaks to the way in which domination is continually legitimized and reproduced through myriad individual acts.

That said, the Gramsci-Weber framework calls out for better elaboration of the specific mechanics of domination (and resistance), particularly at the level of the individual. Mead and Blumer help to step ‘behind the eyes’ of both the dominators and the dominated, understanding their respective collective actions in terms of their perceptions of the field of action, that is, in terms of their worldview. This is important not only because it moves away from the top-down theoretical approaches that have proved unhelpful, but it also forces us to recognize the dynamic and reflexive nature of dominator-dominated relationships.

Berger and Luckmann help explain how these relationships become cemented over time, taking on a perceived objective reality in the minds of those involved. A key part of the cementing process is the development of a common stock of knowledge regarding the prevailing social order; this knowledge is passed between generations, ensuring future stability of the ‘hegemonic social order’ institution as the knowledge itself becomes an objective reality. It is this objectified institutional knowledge that Gramsci described as the ‘sturdy fortresses and emplacements’ of civil society, buttressing the more vulnerable institutions of political society.  Indeed, this framework argues that, in modern liberal democracies, power is maintained primarily through hegemony. While coercive tactics can be useful, domination is insured by hegemony within civil society.

This leads one to question how domination built on hegemony can be resisted and countered. The foundations for a radical project of social change informed by the radical-perspective framework are: 1) identifying relationships between particular social problems and the hegemonic value system and 2) identifying the mechanisms by which the hegemonic value system masks its relation to those problems, insinuates itself into the minds of the subordinate, and creates behavior that reinforces its primacy. This careful analysis is vital in order to accurately design an appropriate cultural response, that is, a deliberate and shrewd articulation of an alternative institutional knowledge based upon an alternative system of values and norms, subsequently expressed through alternative social institutions and intellectual resources, aimed at dismantling hegemony by subverting it. This is a contemporary radical counter-hegemony.

Directions for Future Work

I have argued here that the theoretical framework presented above provides a more powerful starting point for the study of contemporary radical activists and communities. By taking a bottom-up approach that aims to conceptualize radicals’ worldview and perceptions of the mechanics of power, this theoretical stance may offer a more engaged tool to explore their actions, forms and goals.  Of course, this must be tested. Further work with this framework should compare it with the words and practices of activists, ideally, as described by the activists themselves. Notable points for comparison will be: perceptions of power structures on a grand scale, subtle mechanisms of social control, power and control across cultures, appropriate responses and the concept of counter-hegemony.

However, based on previous and ongoing research, this framework seems to provide an accurate theoretical conception of radicals’ worldview, as indicated by their analyses of reigning power structures and the stated rationale for myriad forms of daily activism. Further, the framework’s use of ‘common sense’ appears useful for historicizing the movements as part of a larger progression of radical politics and culture, revealing the connection between in 19th century anarchism and 21st century Punk, for example.

In sum, the theory and practice of contemporary radical communities seem to be reflected in the framework develop here. Indeed, contemporary activists’ manifest behavior appears deeply focused on developing lasting cultural resources. The articulation of contemporary radical politics has evolved its early focus on style, moved past a primary focus on direct confrontation with political society, and has blossomed into a body of communities, organizations and institutions that closely mirror Gramsci’s culturally thick, passion-infused, counter-hegemonic base. An internalized radical culture – a ‘common sense’ – has served as a foundation for these alternative social and intellectual resources that, in many cases, explicitly aim to replace their hegemonic counterparts in the lives of community members. Further, this process has seen the refinement of intellectual resources as well; the culture is getting better at expressing its ‘common sense’ not only to ‘outsiders’ but back on itself as well (Jordan 2002; Halfacree 2004; Klein 2004; Augman 2005; Gordon 2007; Spencer 2008; Ruggero 2009).

In closing, it seems important to return to the impetus for this work, the scholar-activist disconnect. If the theoretical perspective presented here seems consistent with both the theory produced by radical communities and the actualization of those ideas, how does this impact academic observation and analysis? What sort of tools does this perspective suggest may be appropriate for analyzing contemporary radical communities? In the most basic sense, we can say that scholars should reconsider their approach to the actions, goals and form of contemporary radical movements and communities as follows:

1) Actions: Given that movements may not see spectacular protest or other easily quantified activities as important tools for change, researchers cannot only rely on counting events and numbers of participants. Instead, they must look for those mechanisms and institutions that articulate and reinforce the culture’s ‘common sense,’ and those that serve as counter-hegemonic alternatives to institutions radicals wish to emancipate themselves from.

2) Goals: While few scholars have suggested legislative victories, shutdown conferences, or police mobilizations as useful measurements, there also have been few discussions of how these movements gauge ‘victory.’ This framework suggests looking at lifestyle changes and altered normative assumptions as examples of the influence of an internalized counter-hegemonic ‘common sense.’

3) Form: Just as quantified protest events tell us little about the movements’ goals, the dissection of protest events is unhelpful for looking at internal dynamics. All that can be confidently stated about those present in Seattle or Genoa is that they showed up; this is a complex body of communities and movements and aggregating labels have only made it harder for scholars to see that. The importance of ‘cultural-social unity’ suggested by the Gramscian framework points to networks and relational ties as more useful tools in exploring form.

Hopefully, these new perspectives and directions for research can bring social movement scholarship closer to understanding the activist assertion that ‘another world is possible’ and, more importantly, shed light on the vastly understudied realm of everyday activism.

 

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Radical Green Populism: An Introduction

I mentioned previously that I planned to post the Introduction to my Master’s Thesis.  Here it is.  If any readers are interested in seeing the entire work, please email me or see the links on the ‘About Me‘ page.  Please comment and enjoy.

Introduction

This thesis proceeds from the following question: what is the nature of contemporary radical environmentalism, of radical green politics? However, this work is as much about how to answer this question as it is finding an answer. It joins the call of numerous scholars for a renovation of social movement literature and, further, it stands as an attempt to do just that, positing a theoretical foundation and analytical framework for engaging with contemporary radical communities on their own terms, using the reality of what they say and do as the basis for study.

In order to develop a clear picture of contemporary radical environmentalism I had to start at the most basic level. Chapter one begins with a discussion of the social movement literature surrounding contemporary radical communities, the roots of the anti-globalization movement, or the ‘movement of movements’ (MM). The literature suffers from irrelevance; activists aren’t reading it and are turning to their own theorizing instead. At times, the disconnect between the lived reality of activists and the literature runs so deep that many of the analytical tools and approaches it offers are utterly useless. Too often, the actions and values activists esteem most are passed over for more spectacular or easily quantified phenomena. Central to this problem is the literature’s apparent blindness to what movements and activists actually do and say. The literature is simply not listening and, consequently, misses a whole range of activist behavior and a massive body of movement theorizing. As Cox and Nilsen have suggested, when academic literature does come in contact with movement theorizing, it may

exploit activist theorizing (while claiming the credit for itself), suppress it (when it challenges the definition of the ‘field’ that the literature ultimately seeks to assert), or stigmatise it as ‘ideology’ (rather than analysis grounded in practical experience)…Even when challenged in its own terrain [i.e. within academic literature]…the critique is heard, and then ignored in practice as researchers return to ‘business as usual’. (Cox and Nilsen 2007, 430)

So, I begin this project by listening. I examine the words and practices of activists and radical communities, historicizing its traditions and culture, allowing reality to guide the formulation of my theoretical framework.

Laid out in chapter two, this listening process reveals a shifting, highly fluid world where conventional lines between politics and culture fall away. Born out of the collapse of the political left in the late 1980s, many strands of political, social and cultural movements have intertwined to create this new corpus of radicalism, that is, the radical communities that surround and feed the MM. There are two key binding factors among these diverse elements. The first is the development of a new vernacular of resistance characterized by decentralization and direct action. The second is a shared cultural history, with ties to 19th century anarchists, early 20th century radicals, Dust Bowl era train culture, the sitiuationalists, early Punk and Punk’s rebirth in the DIY/Punk culture, to name only a few. One reason social movement literature has been unable to fully engage these movements is that orthodox analytical tools are simply not capable of working with this complexity and history.

Consequently, throughout this text I use a number of terms somewhat interchangeably, particularly ‘radical activists,’ ‘radical communities,’ ‘contemporary radicalism,’ ‘the MM’ and simply ‘radicals.’ This is done as a conscious decision in order to remain as flexible as possible. The subject here is a massive group of individuals whose associations, networks, values and behaviors shift freely and frequently, not only over time, but also as individuals navigate between networks and associations as well. Rather than repeat the mistaken homogenization that plagues the literature, I choose to err on the side of flexibility.

With a picture of contemporary radicalism developed, there emerges a unique point of synthesis for someone in my position. As an activist and part of the culture, this is a familiar picture. However, in an effort to create usable knowledge for social change, I must build on this personal understanding, drawing on those resources that will allow me to develop the larger models and long-range vision the movements need. I must ask myself, what tools does the academy offer that allow for an accurate and engaged analysis of these conditions?

As I have pursued these questions, the work of Antonio Gramsci continually stands out. Gramsci argues that the complex program of radical social change in a modern liberal democracy involves – more than anything – the development of a strong and dynamic culture capable of establishing the necessary institutions for a subversion of power. The articulation of contemporary radical politics has evolved its early focus on style, moved past a primary focus on direct confrontation with political institutions, and blossomed into a body of communities, organizations and institutions that closely mirror Gramsci’s culturally thick, passion- infused, counter-hegemonic base.

Despite his potential usefulness, a clear problem with bringing Gramsci into the discussion is the volume of literature surrounding his work. His is hardly an uncontroversial body of ideas. In order to move past divisive debates of the past and loaded terms and phrases, I return to Gramsci’s own words, placing them alongside the work of Max Weber. The aim is to develop a Gramscian perspective, a way of thinking, as opposed to “simplistically believing Gramsci has the answers or holds the key to different historical and contemporary problems” (Morton 2007, 35). Armed with this Gramscian perspective, not only am I able to theorize movement complexity in a relatively systematic way, but I am also able to develop the tools necessary for diving into this complexity in an appropriate way. The movement-informed, Gramscian perspective suggests scholars move away from case studies and narrowly defined causal relationships in favor of a broader notion of what a movement is.

Chapter three builds on this suggestion, exploring a ‘relational approach’ that embeds the social actor in “dynamic, processual relationships that shift over space and time” (Cherry 2006, 157; Emirbayer 1997). This approach is gaining ground in the study of networks; the role of fluid networks in contemporary radical activism has been well documented, producing insightful examinations that have helped breakdown the static movement form that was initially applied to the MM (Juris 2008; Grewal 2008). Indeed, it is possible to conceive of the entirety of contemporary radical activism as a body of nested, interconnected and highly flexible networks of individuals.

A recent example of the benefits of this approach is activist and social movement scholar Elizabeth Cherry’s (2006) analysis of veganism as a cultural movement. Veganism is a strict form of vegetarianism; vegans not only abstain from eating meat, but any animal products including milk, eggs and common additives in processed foods (whey, egg whites, etc.). Cherry’s study compared the varying practices and definitions of veganism among twenty-four self-identified vegans, particularly in relation to respondents’ subcultural affiliation with Punk communities.

Cherry’s interviews revealed that punk-vegans tended to be more strict in both their definition and practice of veganism while non-punk vegans tended to have more lenient definitions and practices. Cherry argues that substantialist and collective identity interpretations are insufficient given the subculture affiliation correlations and the diversity of respondents’ practices and definitions. Taking a relational approach to the data, Cherry compares three aspects of respondents social networks – discourse, support, and network embeddedness – to “demonstrate that maintaining a vegan lifestyle is not dependent on individual willpower, epiphanies, or simple norm following: it is more dependent on having social networks that are supportive of veganism” (Cherry 2006, 157).

Cherry’s study is an example of social movement literature developed with engagement in mind. Her relational approach allows her to draw on the words and practices of vegans, linking them with theory that does not sideline their experiences, but instead takes them as a foundation for analysis. Because of this, I have chosen to approach my examination of environmental values from a relational perspective, borrowing from Cherry’s study. With the Gramscian perspective guiding a relational approach to empirical analysis, I am able to appropriately and productively engage with contemporary radical communities.

I cannot, however, presume to capture all of today’s radical activists, communities and movements when exploring the question of radical environmentalism. Again, a central fault with most contemporary social movement literature is the homogenization of an extremely diverse body of individuals. All radical activism is not the same; similarly, the values and experiences of all radical activists are not the same. The importance of shared cultural ties emphasized by the movement-informed Gramscian perspective suggests an approach that takes these cultural ties as its starting point. Thus, in asking my question, I focus on DIY/Punk as a network within the larger network-mass of the MM and contemporary radical activism more generally.

I stated above that contemporary radical activism and DIY/Punk are intimately connected, which is true. However, it is also necessary to understand that even though DIY/Punk was and is fundamental to the development of contemporary radical activism, DIY/Punk represents a particular (if popular) approach to radicalism. In short, though all DIY/Punk actors can be considered part of contemporary radical communities, not all radical communities can be considered part of DIY/Punk culture.

To survey this network, I follow DIY/Punk relational strands within contemporary radical activism, its particular shape delineated by the relationships that connect its various nodes (individuals, organizations). My analysis focuses on music and DIY events and resources as a key means for building and solidifying identities, influencing actors’ cognitive frames and connecting them to DIY/Punk networks.

I developed an anonymous, online survey that asks participants to discuss their history and role with/in DIY/Punk communities, the nature of their environmental value system (EVS), any lifestyle choices they have made based on their EVS and the role DIY/Punk networks play in participants’ decision to maintain (or drop) those attitudes or practices. Further, I asked respondents to discuss their opinions of radical and conventional environmental advocacy groups.

Flyers asking for participation in the survey were distributed in numerous ways: album inserts, inside a day-planner printed by a Philadelphia-based, DIY screen-printing collective, at numerous DIY/Punk events (shows, performances, skill shares, etc.), through bookstores in Seattle, Philadelphia and Amsterdam and on two popular DIY/Punk record-trading message boards. I also conducted face-to-face and telephone surveys with participants in Amsterdam, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C.; as with the online survey, no identifying information was recorded in these interviews.

Chapter 4 dives into the survey responses. First I provide an overview of the pool of respondents’ EVSs, weaving them into a timeline of trends in radical green thought that provides background for discussion. I then divide up the respondents based on their relative embeddedness in DIY/Punk networks; I use the labels ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ as an initial wedge and then break the ‘insider’ category into two smaller groups, those on the ‘fringe’ of DIY/Punk networks and those considered ‘strongly embedded.’ Using these categories, I compare the EVS, pro-environmental lifestyle choices and opinions regarding radical and conventional environmental advocacy groups of ‘outsider,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘strongly embedded’ respondents. These comparisons show that respondents with strong ties to DIY/Punk networks were more likely to espouse an EVS that represented a fusion of multiple strands of radical green thought, made more rigorous lifestyle choices and maintained them for longer.

Finally, these strongly embedded actors also stood out from other respondents in the way they envisioned green social change more broadly. Whereas all of the ‘outsiders,’ most of the ‘fringe’ and a few of the ‘strongly embedded’ respondents either offered dogmatic recitations of the views of a particular school of green thought or avoided the question entirely, those that did offer a vision were exclusively of the ‘strongly embedded’ camp. Further, a striking similarity can be drawn among these ‘visions,’ namely, they emphasize small-scale, personal and community based change. Indeed, it seems the intersection of DIY/Punk’s communitarian yet self-reliant ethos, the accumulated history of radical green thought and contemporary environmental problems has produced an organic marriage of theory and praxis I call Radical Green Populism. The chapter ends with an explanation of the Radical Green Populism label.

Chapter five steps back from the survey and evaluates the two models presented here: Radical Green Populism (RGP) and the Gramscian perspective. I return to the two overarching goals presented in the Preface – relevant, experience- based literature and usable knowledge for radicals – and assess how these models can be used to accomplish both of these. For the literature, the Gramscian perspective and RGP stand as examples of engaged analysis of contemporary radicalism. They are frameworks built from radicals’ words and actions; they are large-scale models with radicals’ lived experience as a foundation. Consequently, it is my hope that they will serve as a step towards increased relevance and engagement on the part of the literature.

For radical communities, the Gramscian perspective offers a framework for studying modern power structures and exploring what their transformation or overthrow might entail through a lens congruent with radicals’ past and present experience. Indeed, it’s greatest potential lies in its ability to serve as a base for more detailed analysis; it has helped me capture practices and theorize impacts other models could not. The RGP model is an illustration of this sort of focused analysis. It is way of theorizing environmentalism in radical lives in the terms of the Gramscian perspective’s analysis of power structures. RGP is a theory of radical power, developed to create discourse about what works and what doesn’t in terms of radical environmentalism.

The thesis ends with chapter six and a series of questions for both radicals and social movement scholars. If the Gramscian perspective is indeed useful in the study of contemporary radical communities, how might it be applied in other areas as it was with RGP? Further, what are the implications of a culture-based movement for change in terms of timeline, co-option, and intimidation? Radicals should consider, first, if these models feel appropriate? If so, what can be done to expand and strengthen the cultural influences that appear so important? Additionally, what are the limits of this form of change? These, and others, are important questions not only for the analysis of these models, but for developing a long-range, radical vision of social change, a project that I hope I can help initiate here.

[Full Thesis can be found here: Radical Green Populism: Environmental Values in DIY/Punk Communities]