Friday, March 17, 2017

Hegemony How-To: a review

A Review

Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals
A review by Robert Brashear

As one who was profoundly occupied by the Occupy movement, both literally and figuratively for years, I jumped in to Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To…with great anticipation.  The book is both a critical analysis of that moment in US social history and also a valuable road map to organizing for broad based social change. For those of us who not only want to imagine a better world but actually help create it, this book is a very valuable tool. More explicitly, for those who understand that we must not only remove a President but an entire infrastructure that runs through the cabinet and congress, this may be the most important book you may read right now. 

First, the word hegemony has for most of us negative connotations.  While I suspect Smucker is being playfully provocative, for him in this book, hegemony is defined as  leadership or predominant influences exercised by one group within national, regions or local political spheres. For those of us who are experienced in classical community organizing, Smucker provides a potential bridge from the local to the national. And therein is the value.  Smucker’s analysis comes not only from a close look at Occupy, but at the 60’s movements Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). 

As a trained organizer, Smucker begins with stating the importance of power. He reminds us, that as Dr. King said, …power is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose…and that the refusal to use power is both political suicide and the abdication of moral responsibility.. He likewise makes us take a closer look at coercion as an appropriate tool, rightly pointing out that from strikes to community organization actions, change is achieved through coercion. What is critical is the content and practice of that coercion. 

Smucker also critiques the idea of the righteous few, that is the tendency towards insularity and self-selection that can lead inevitably to encapsulation, e.g., how SDS ultimately left behind the thousands who were being attracted to it and morphed into the Weather Underground. At less dramatic levels, progressives can be drawn towards that same tendency, viewing ourselves as the righteous few. 

What is missed is Pablo Freire’s  question: What can we do now in order to do tomorrow what we cannot do today? Or the responsibility to improve real people’s lives, mitigate real suffering and oppression in the here and now.. (That debate that we engaged in around Bernie vs. Hilary vs. non-participation. A debate that now feels like a luxury.)  That responsibility is the main motivator of most organizers I know. 

Smucker appropriately points out the difference in tasks of achieving moral legitimacy vs. political legitimacy, the symbolic contest vs. the institutional contest. For example, Occupy succeeded in winning the symbolic contest by introducing the inclusive concept of the 99%. A potentially large we. The political opportunity, the potential to realize actual institutional change was squandered. 
To build real power, it is necessary to move beyond self-selected groups like OWS and learn how to incorporate already existing blocs, as the SCLC did in the Civil  Rights Movement. As Alinskyite like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizations do at the local level by being an organization of organizations. 

It’s also helpful to consider how we recruit people to demonstrations, for example.  Most progressives continue to argue the moral point even with people who already agree with them. The most important question get me to show up is what will  be  accomplished? Most of us have the 3-6 people who if they ask us to show up we’ll be there,no questions asked, because we know they will never waste our time as we will  not waste their’s. An organizer needs credibility on the outcomes side. Moral Mondays works because it’s moral grounding has actual political demands. It also works because MM shares a common moral language with the North Carolina legislature.

The leads to a conversation about shaping the meta narrative, or put another way, shaping what is understood to be, what Smucker calls  common sense. The everybody knows…Smucker looks at this as an achievable task. There is a spectrum of positions related to what is important to us: active opposition, passive opposition, neutrality, passive support, active support. The goal is to, through the use of dialogue and conversation, not debate, seek to find common  moral values, getting someone to shift just one position to the left on the spectrum. That is enough to bring about meaningful change. It’s what Smucker calls narrative insurgency, changing the narrative, the common sense,  from the inside out. 

As many progressives have come from a post-modern philosophical perspective, Smucker raises a caution as to the problems in finding moral common ground in a post-modern society. (That’s what makes New York a more complicated environment than North Carolina for a Moral Mondays type movement to be effective.) 

Related to OWS, Smucker believes that the allergy to leadership and refusal to be political along with its paralyzing commitment to hyper-democratic concensus decision-making were fatal flaws. I would, for the  most part, agree. 

Smucker connects the emergence of OWS to the preceding anti-World Trade Organization protests, the Battle of Seattle, etc. And that is his background. But there were other streams as well, e.g., disaffected Obama campaign volunteers who felt their hope betrayed and brought passion and highly developed social media skills with them. There was always a constant tension between anarchist and movement politics that became paralyzing, in my observation.  (I continue to be curious as to how the Occupy culture came to be. Who proposed the working groups, spokescouncil structure, facilitation methods, etc? That will be someone else’s book…)

Likewise, I have tended to be defensive about the accepted wisdom that OWS was a failure. I sincerely appreciate Smucker’s assessment that changing the common sense around income inequality was a significant victory. His critiques are equally valid. But I would add what is not so directly visible:

  1. The radical success of Occupy Sandy that will have long term political effects in Staten Island and Rockaway 
  2. Occupiers who remained and embedded themselves in New York City politics and had a real impact on City Council elections.
  3. OWS veterans providing broad based logistical support for the Climate Change march. 
  4. OWS veterans providing logistical support for Black Lives Matter 
  5. OWS veterans in the heart of the Bernie Sanders campaign                                                                           There is a through line there that can’t be ignored. We are at a moment when a broad based national movement not only to resist but to reshape and reform needs to come into being. In that regard I appreciate his criticism of the word activist. It is a contentless word describing activity, not commitment.  What is clear  is that a class of professional activists…and accompanying 501c3’s… has emerged whose livelihood depends on  the continuation of their own issue situation within a system of dominance and privilege, i.e. the status quo. We need to ask what churches, and/or communities of faithful resistance, are called to be and do. What we need are values driven communities of mutual accountability and commitment that can begin the organizing work. Jonathan Smucker has given us a valuable tool for that project.

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