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.
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]