Dissertation Distillations 1

Im almost done.
I'll be posting sections and pieces,abstracts and selections; follow along for a shorter read of the lumbering beast.

Transcripts of fieldnotes recorded the night of Occupy Philadelphia’s eviction from its two-month encampment at the doorstep of City Hall:

At around 11pm on November 29th, 2011, I began to receive emails, texts, tweets and Facebook updates about rumors of an impending eviction of the Occupy Philadelphia encampment at City Hall. I was chatting online with a friend, checking out bands for a benefit show he needed help organizing, when he shared word of police confirmation of the eviction, passed on to him by a friend who works for the local NBC affiliate. I suited up for the cold, wet night and hopped on my bike to alert a few friends before heading downtown.

I passed a local bar, where a Metal and Punk dance party was being held and shouted to Kathy, Jim and the other people smoking on the steps, most of whom I didn’t know. Though both Kathy and Jim had been working regularly with Occupy, neither seemed interested in leaving the music or the booze. The information moved quickly through the small crowd and, as I turned to leave, three people I didn’t know nodded at me as they hurriedly unlock their bikes. As I rode away, I heard a boy in a leather studded jacket loudly shout, “Who the fuck cares about that shit, [feigning a ‘hippie’ voice] the 60s are over man!” as the Dead Kennedy’s opined about Reagan on the stereo inside.

I turned north and headed to Mika’s house, a large Victorian duplex typical of this part of West Philly, where six self-identified ‘Queers’ were living collectively. Inside, I found twelve people, meeting to discuss plans for a series of events aimed at fostering Queer solidarity. When I shared the eviction news, blank stares told me quickly that the events at City Hall mattered little to this group. A person to my left commented, “Good, we weren’t made to feel welcome there, they deserve it” and a few others nodded. As I was leaving, a recent acquaintance, smoking on his porch across the street, waved me over; he helps out at a radical autonomous space in the area that has been around for decades. Though I knew he had not been involved with Occupy, I asked if he wanted to come along. “No,” he replied, “I haven’t been in the street since the RNC [Republican National Convention in 2000] and I’m pretty much done with that…Besides,” he chuckled, “someone has to keep the space running when y’all are all in jail or until you get bored fighting with the cops.”

When I arrived at City Hall, a close friend called me over and others made room in the locked-arm sit down the group was using to stall being moved by the police. She turned to me and said, “Of course, Tim, Mike, Sally and those kids aren’t here.”  I knew whom she was talking about, and I’d seen a few people from that group of friends once or twice in Occupy’s first few days, but I asked what she meant by her snark. “They’re just worried about not looking cool and, you know, they’re into being ‘grown-ups’ now, buying houses and starting businesses and [making a face] ‘serious’ politics…they go on and on about ‘community’ but I think it just means their community, vegan coffeeshops and all that. A few minutes ago, I saw Tim posted something on Facebook like ‘good luck kiddies’…what an ass.”

When the police finally moved us out of the street, we joined the much larger crowd that had formed on the sidewalk over the past hour. I was surprised to see a boy who had told me a week earlier that he was “done” with Occupy because of an interpersonal conflict he had had with a friend over organizing a march. He had felt that his friend hadn’t considered her own class and racial privilege when she argued that the march should try to get the cops to chase them. I smiled and said, “I thought you were done.” He replied, “Yeah, but I can’t pass up a chance to fight with the cops!”

That bike ride, quite literally, weaved through what can be described as the concrete, physical manifestation of radical-DIY culture in terms of networks of people and places, referred to here as Philadelphia’s ‘radical-DIY scene.’ The scene represents a combination of physical/spatial and sociocultural networks, linked via their radical-leftist political orientation and/or symbolic and cultural markers and practices that draw heavily from radical-DIY political culture (Leach & Haunss, 2009).

To most outside observers, many of these people and places would appear similar, and in many ways they are. They share a culture in the sense of shared ways of doing things, as patterns of speaking and acting that people practice in everyday situations; they share political convictions, styles of dress, tastes, social norms, signs and symbols, and specialized knowledge.

However, this passage also points to important differences, variations in what and how much is shared. Here we see not only significant variation in people’s opinions about Occupy Philly (they deserve it), but also variations in opinions about others’ opinions about Occupy Philly (60s are over), and political opinions about others’ lifestyles (buying houses) and how it relates to OP participation. Occupy Philly’s particular transect into the life of the radical-DIY scene reveals certain differences in political orientation, expressed here via the participation of some and the objection, disinterest, or even hostility of others. Indeed, as I continued research within the scene, I surprised at the variety of political orientations I encountered.

That said, despite differences in what and how much of the radical-DIY culture is shared by individuals throughout the scene, there is a striking similarity in the ways people talked about politics and expressed political belief. In the example above, while the reasons or justifications for nonparticipation varied, the manner or form in which these were framed, formulated, and expressed was surprisingly similar; here too we see the sort of rejection and difference expressed via moralizing talk.

As I continued my research, I found these forms of political talk and expression throughout Philadelphia’s radical-DIY scene, appearing in moments and around issues far afield from the concerns of Occupy. Years after Occupy, at Punk shows, in online discussions, at parties, at other protest mobilizations, and throughout the everyday world of the radical-DIY scene, I encountered forms political talk and expression replete with themes of rejection, difference-making, and moralizing.

Significantly, these wider patterns of rejection, difference, and moralizing actually hint at some of the concerns about the tactical and strategic viability of lifestyle or prefigurative politics that have been raised in debates among activists and academics since the 1970s. Of particular concern here is the possible tendency for lifestyle practices to “become targets of self-righteous moralizing and other forms of social policing,” or what Laura Portwood-Stacer calls “politicking over lifestyle,” and that this politicking over lifestyle “can fracture bonds of solidarity among activists who make different lifestyle choices” (Brown, 2001; Hill-Collins, 1998; Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 9). Further, the notion that one’s lifestyle is completely malleable via choice ignores (or at least downplays) the many issues of power and privilege at work in the formation of political identities and movements. Wendy Brown (2001) further suggests that such moralizing is not simply an issue of solidarity rupture, but that such moralizing represents an underlying political stance that actually “misleads about the nature of power, the state and capitalism; it misleads about the nature of oppressive forces, and about the scope of the project of transformation required by serious ambitions for justice” (Brown, 2001, p.37).

Brown’s argument in regarding moralizing behavior deeply influenced the development of this project and my initial guiding question – how does this happen? – began to make more sense reframed as “should this have been expected?” How can we explain these similarities, even in spite of the differences? How can we explain the behavior and its pervasiveness? Is the rejection, difference, and moralizing (RDM) I saw in OP and in the scene indicative of something about these politics and/or this culture more generally? If so, what might that be, and what are the implications for collective projects for social change built around these radical politics?

Many questions develop from this general line of investigation: when and around what issues do these RDM forms of political talk and expression appear, or appear more strongly; how is the discursive work of RDM done in interactions among individuals and groups; can a generalized basis or explanation for this behavior can be found within the political culture itself and its radical prefigurative political ideology; what are the implications of these findings for radical politics themselves and for movements and other collective projects of social change built around radical prefigurative political ideologies?

It will be argued here that explanations can indeed be found within the radical prefigurative political ideology itself, in the way in which it understands itself, the radical project of social transformation in which it is engaged, and most importantly, in how it conceives of and understands the forces of power and oppression it aims to confront in that struggle. This radical, prefigurative, lifestyle-based political ideology promotes a view of social change that places the individual and individual choices and actions at the center. But the same thinking that encourages individuals to ‘be the change you want to see’ also leads to a similar (though inverse) personification of the forces being struggled against, a reification of systems of power and oppression in their effects. Sources of injustice, systems of oppression, and histories of injury remain obfuscated as the focus is instead placed on their effects as manifested in specific remarks or events, embodied in individuals and their actions.

Thus, in the research presented here, we find endless accusations and condemnations of individuals and their ‘privilege,’ instead of a radical analysis of the systems and sources of racism, sexism, and economic inequality that actually create and sustain that privilege in the lives of individuals. We find two people accused of being ‘party operatives’ and ‘encouraging participation in an evil system’ through voter registration instead of any radical critique or analysis of the systems of power and oppression at work in that ‘evil system,’ and what participation actually means and looks like. Perhaps most ironically, we find a seemingly endless supply of ‘gentrifier’ invectives and condemnations, but an almost outright refusal to acknowledge the complexity of the systems of power and injustice at work in processes of gentrification, let alone a willingness to admit radical-DIY culture’s own significant role in shaping and even accelerating it.

The following chapters will further develop and elaborate this argument.

 

Brown, W. (2001). Politics Out of History. Princeton University Press.

Hill-Collins, P. (1998). Fighting Words: Black Women and the Fight for Social Justice. Minneapolis: Univerity of Minnesota Press.

Leach, D. K., & Haunss, S. (2009). Scenes and social movements. In H. Johnston, Culture, Social Movements, and Protest (pp. 255–276). Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Portwood-Stacer, L. (2013). Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

 

 

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.

Rejection and Difference I: ‘Centrists’ and ‘Children’

[As the dissertation work takes real shape, I find nuggets and sections like this that I can share without need to preface it with an entire history of everything]

In the final sections of Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism, Portwood-Stacer argues that questions about the effectiveness of prefigurative lifestyle politics (or any political action) can only be asked in relation to specific historical and spatial contexts. She is echoing Robin Kelley’s (1996) observation that “certain forms of resistance create their own limits,” and that these are “limits that can be understood only in specific historical and spatial contexts. It is hoped that this historical and spatial specificity can be achieved here through the application of scenes to the concrete reality of everyday life for today’s Punks and radicals in Philadelphia.

My project aims to explore a number of interrelated issues within this specified context. It asks after issues of power and privilege at work in the formation of prefigurative political identities and how this relates to the tendency for lifestyle practices to “become targets of self-righteous moralizing and other forms of social policing,” or what Laura Portwood-Stacer calls “politicking over lifestyle” (Portwood-Stacer 2013:9). Further, the project investigates how, in this case, such politicking can “fracture bonds of solidarity among activists who make different lifestyle choices,” with dual interest in fracturing within the scene itself and in relation to Occupy Philly, thus taking up Leach and Haunss’ call for research into the “negative effects scenes may have on movements ” (Leach and Haunss 2009:21).

Therefore, the project takes issues of solidarity and rupture as a means to approaching its empirical work, with the understanding that rupture or ‘distancing’ can occur in a variety of ways. Indeed, because identities “are constructed through, not outside, difference” and can “function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside,’ abjected,” the project is interested not only individuals’ conscious rejection or dismissal of other groups or people, but also the rejection and difference embedded in the very formation of prefigurative political identities (Hall 2000:18).

Rejection and Difference I: ‘Centrists’ and ‘Children’

My first encounters with the rejection and difference work done by scene members in and around Occupy Philly (OP) were difficult to ignore. In fact, the high tension and strong emotions expressed in these moments were what inspired the focus on rejection and difference work in the first place. While it was easy to see the obvious points of contention between radical leftists and, say, the Ron Paul supporters who maintained a significant presence at OP, the divisions and distancing that occurred between prefigurers and more moderate leftists was surprising and, at times, entirely unexpected.

One example stands out in particular; the following passage is from my fieldnotes taken at a GA held in January of 2012:

Two middle-aged men brought a proposal to a sparsely attended GA asking if OP would support voter registration drives in Philadelphia, particularly in the poorer sections of the city where voter registration and turn-out is incredibly low. They were not asking for material support or even door-to-door help; he asked to use the OP logo on the voter registration materials. They ended their presentation by asking, “Is the GA going to vote in line with the interests of disenfranchisement?”  It is important note that Pennsylvania is at the center of a nationwide push to make voting more difficult through ID requirements other hurdles.

Scene members seem to outnumber other groups at the GA (plus they are all sitting together, on a bench in the back of a huge mostly empty room). Their response was overwhelmingly negative. They began ganging up on the presenters and accusing them of, among other things, ‘trying to trap people in a broken system,’ ‘using guilt to and shame to make us [the GA] do things,’ and ‘being Democratic Party operatives.’  This finger-pointing quickly escalated as one or two older, white Quakers commented that ‘people died to get the right to vote’ and were immediately met with middle-fingers and accusations of ‘classism,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘privilege’ by the bench full of scene members. The scene members, at this point, were standing on the bench, getting in people’s faces, and some were crying. I’ve written ‘everyone is being awful’ four times in a row in my scribbled notes.

I followed the two men who brought the proposal back into the hallway and encountered them telling the facilitator leading the GA, “We don’t care so much about the ‘no’ vote, but the disrespect we felt was ridiculous. We are two black men trying to raise political consciousness in poor black neighborhoods in this city and we were shouted down and accused of all kinds of things by a bunch of radical kids…I mean, they were acting like children.”

It was clear in this moment that the focus of the scene member’s ire was the act of voting as an element of formal, institutionalized politics. This was a message repeated across the Occupy movement; further, the movement’s resistance to engaging in formal politics (by supporting candidates or shaping clear demands into a platform) was frequent point of criticism of Occupy, as suggested by Pickerill and Kinsky’s observations. In later interviews and online discussions, many scene members (both those involved in OP and not) made it clear that they thought voting didn’t encourage people to ‘think for themselves,’ and only helped to ‘support’ and ‘justify’ a ‘corrupt’ and ‘evil’ political system.

However, when asked for examples of work OP was doing that did encourage people to ‘think for themselves,’ people found it difficult to specify anything beyond the basic existence of OP as a visible form of resistance. To be sure, the spectacle of OP certainly spoke to and encouraged some people to ‘think for themselves.’  But as reflection in the years following OP have revealed, it seems that for many Philadelphians, this message-via-presence wasn’t so clear for everyone.

While this position vis-à-vis formal politics is expected and manifested itself in interactions throughout OP (e.g. resistance to dialogue with city government, tensions with unions engaging with OP), what is most interesting for this project is the manner in which this political orientation was commonly expressed. This example highlights the deeply personal way in which prefigurative perspectives tended to be set against those of more mainstream leftists. One person’s suggestion that registering to vote might ‘help people start thinking critically about politics in ways that you [scene members] already do’ was met by shouting, jeering, and what can only be described as scene members ganging up and forcing this person into silence and, eventually, early exit from the GA.

Indeed, it is not hard to hear scene members’ statements about voting as something akin to: ‘I don’t vote because I’m smarter than that.’  In fact, in many situations, the ways in which individuals’ critical opinions about formal politics were presented in interactions with others were deeply imbued with condescension. Crucially, this condescension is intimately tied with notions of authenticity, the idea being that authentic radicals don’t vote. A deeper look into the scene helps us tease out these authenticity struggles from what looks like simple condescension.

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]