Olaf Palme, 1964, on theory’s role in political and social change

“Politics, comrades, it is to want something. Social Democratic politics, it is to want to change because change provides promises of improvement, nourishes the imagination and energy, stimulates dreams and vision.

But naturally will must have a focus and a change must have a goal. We socialists are presumptuous enough to want something because the idea is the driving force of will, and we are bold enough to want change because change may make utopias into reality.

This is fundamental. Often we encounter the claim that ideologies are dead, that their capacity to pierce reality has decayed in withered phrases that could possibly be used to distort the perception of people, but that have lost their ability to innovate, initiate and stimulate. People rail against ideological superstition with a frenzy that would have blown Don Quixote’s mind and made his windmills leak.

To a certain extent, one can go along with this. The grandiose imaginations of the 1800s, their efforts to find a unified formula for explanation and a solution for all social problems have been corrected by an inexorable reality. Yet we are all strongly influenced by those ideologies, and we have much to learn from them. We cannot escape the allure of logic and symmetry, the thought’s stature and the imagination’s power of illumination that we encounter in their bold blueprints. We find an analysis of the social and economic conditions that remains viable to this day.

But we no longer believe in any unified theory. We cannot beat the scriptures and find absolute answers, and we experience ourselves not as participants in a destiny-bound process. There is no longer any absolute truth, but at least  two or three alternative truths, depending on the values assumed and how we interpret a complex reality. School children in communist states may rattle off quotations from Marx and Lenin with the same studious frenzy that our children recite hymn verses, and American industry associations may divulge writings that with basically the same narrow vision expound private capitalism’s gospel. For us, free debate has funneled into the place of nailed theses. Our fate is constantly asking questions and surely to try again, to doubt authority and distrust authority. Our responsibility is to deepen our knowledge, refuel independently and anchor our ideas in a personal conviction. It is perhaps less grandiose. But that is our freedom and our honor.

But the attack on ideologies is driven even further. Sometimes ideology is dismissed with a sigh of relief and deliverance. Finally, they say, we can free ourselves from “the dead hand of the past” and from “the suffocating hand of the future”. Finally, we can proceed to evaluate each issue on its own merits, for the special circumstances existing in each case.

We can be practical, realistic, and grounded. “All theory, dear friend, is grey. But the golden tree of actual life springs ever green,” we recite from Goethe’s Faust. Let us toss theory in the waste basket, let us value life.

Perhaps that can be hard hitting. I may dare to wreak havoc in response: when you remove the long direction of will provided by a foundation of theory and value engagement, you remove the emotional conviction, leaving cold, raw power and politics, as democracy fades to gray. Without theory, possibly one can make things a little better, but one can never change society. Possibly one can do something else, but one can never make something different. If you go ahead with the nose to the ground, without perspective, and without looking at a future that lasts beyond the next quarter, you can never do harm in society, and you are equally unprepared for the problems that the future offers. The historical experience clearly tells us that the ascendance of the practical man drives ideas out of the political arena, promulgating a vigorous decay of democratic policy.”

(To be continued, from P. 6 of “Politik ar att vilja” 1964.)


The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Left Hegemonic Strategy vis-a-vis the Right

This long discussion may provide some clues as to how some members of the non-elite Right can be won over by the Left.

Left Gramscian considerations for a reorienting organization of non-elite conservatives
Generally: Understand that most non-elites, especially in Anglosphere societies, have been socialized (in the workplace, in the church, in the patriarchal family) primarily as feudal serfs, not ideal liberal workers. To organize them Left requires a Freirean approach.

The conservative ideological system–narrow boundaries of moral exclusion, aversion to democratic politicization (qua change), god-affirmed feudalism–is self-reinforcing in its parts and founded in institutionalized solidaristic incentives.

Tactical consideration 1:
a) Well-educated Left can make alliances with non-elite conservative intellectuals, focus on broadening their circle of moral inclusion
b) Left organizers create organizations with solidarity incentives to engage non-elites, focus on broadening their circle of moral inclusion

I consider that one opportunity lies in understanding and addressing the non-elite Right’s struggle to come to terms with their boundaries of moral exclusion. Conservatives seem to feel overwhelmed at the extent of humanity. The Right reflex seems to be to see the human world as very small, with a big old throng of sub-humans outside the boundaries–so, broadly, the conservative’s relationship to that sub-human throng is properly, reflexively, simply to use/exploit that sub-human mass, like you might eat vegetables.

Yet in the context of modernity (which the Right labors to destroy), and with Left critical mass delegitimizing this cognitive ordering, perhaps the non-elite Right can be convinced to broaden their boundaries of moral exclusion. The very well educated Left might best be situated to move well-educated, non-elite conservatives, who probably believe in intelligence hierarchy.

…But moral boundary expansion will be hard to accomplish when elites with control over the surplus can just pay non-elites to keep the boundaries narrow. Still, it helps to increase the cost of repression and, in organizing, the Left can work solidarity incentives. Existing resource: Easing young people through broadening boundaries of moral exclusion is what many liberal arts scholars do as educators; so liberal arts scholars can have a role to play in social movement.

Tactical consideration 2:
a) Model not getting overwhelmed by politicization, understanding politicization structurally, not taking politicization too personally. Train conservatives into politicization desensitization, not abjection.
b) Prioritize and rationalize your organization’s politicization agenda, in anticipation of coalition building. This can be different for different groups, and can change over time with collective consideration. But affinity groups with solidarity incentives should reduce anarchic politicization, by for example, using the same people who craft group principles to execute principle-based agendas.

Business Insider’s Dougherty points out that non-elite conservatives become exhausted with and abject the Left tendency to recognize “all” areas of life as subject to political debate between equal humanities. Although they may enjoy political warfare, conservatives yearn for social settlement, social contract settlement, containment of politics-qua-change (but on high-inequality, feudalistic terms that at least somewhat privilege themselves).

Would rationalizing politicization help move conservatives, if they were simultaneously helped to widen their moral exclusion boundaries? I think there is potential for Leftists to help non-elite conservatives, rather than disengage, either learn to relax in the face of politicization aimed at decreasing socio-economic, health, and political inequalities and increasing freedoms. Though such learning is probably more feasible with stronger Left institutions to socialize people. Or Leftists can collectively prioritize and order politicization in time and space.

This is an interesting question, and a point of co-optation vulnerability for the Left, because just about everybody, conservatives, liberals and Leftists included, is exhausted by and hates anarchic politicization–it can be a social capital / trust destroyer. Humans are limited, not gods, and do not have the capacity to live in absolute aporia. But under favorable conditions, we can live with more freedoms-broadening politicization than conservatives are willing to allow. Existing resource: Easing young people through politicization is what many social scientists do as educators; so social scientists can have a role to play in social movement.

Tactical consideration 3:
a) Demonstrate to non-elites that order is not secured by a god-principle, but by fallible humans.
b) Build organizations and institutions that value and can develop democratic order, in order to short-circuit conservative loss passion.

For conservatives, the good society engages people in a romantic / mystified struggle for what they  were already socially-given. Conservatives’ elite ideal is the feudal warlord; their subordinate ideal is the feudal serf. Conservatives yearn for people to earn / demonstrate the assets / virtue that they have been assigned / ascribed. Conservatives ache for order confirmation, to see the face of God, necessity behind power, its lack, and order. In their view, rulers need to be provided the opportunity to demonstrate their vigor to rule.

…But this demonstration is always underdetermined–What does the face of God look like?; and so elites can be shown to be undeserving of their privilege.

With aforethought, and in system contradiction and crisis, I think Left critical mass can use this particular conservative psychology of desire to divide non-elite conservatives from elite conservatives. It’s a potential wedge.

But obviously, non-elites then need to be weaned from the psychological compulsion for unassailable order confirmation.

Failure example:
Such weaning was one of postmodernists’ projects, I think; though they failed at it because they took the liberal view of automatic progress (even though they were cynical about it) at its word, and they tried to wean before anyone had managed to divide serfs from their feudal lords. (Consider feudal workplace law.)

(I think that’s why postmodernist language became so insular; they had to just keep on chastising the Left “modernist” academics–the only people sort of capable of hearing the demand to wean, though they didn’t need it very much because they didn’t have much of the conservative compulsion for divine confirmation. Again, we settle for the path of least resistance and fail to get stuff done.
…And now, with that, I will quit blogging today.)

Tactical consideration 4:
a) Build humanist “churches” (communities)

One of the strongest themes that emerges from the conversation with Dougherty is the cementing role of an institution in Dougherty’s management of his own psychology of order-confirmation compulsion and his compulsion to contain freedoms-expanding politicization, and in providing solidarity incentives. For Dougherty that institution is the authoritarian Catholic church of his father. The Left needs to be able to design and offer sufficient (modified) replacement for many of the mobilizing, social, and coordinating functions of religious churches.

To support broadening moral inclusion, politicization navigation, and critical thinking, the Left needs to build new solidarity institutions that can provide sacred solidarity incentives (where unions have been effectively legislated out of existence, where universities have lost the capacity to provide solidarity incentives, and where universities are too exclusive).

In essence the Left could build humanist community churches that provide many of the same cohering, intergenerational social functions religious churches provide: social interaction; collective opportunities such as supportive social networking, solidarity incentives, collective coordination and action, a cohering discourse about working for a higher good, a collective, sacred experience of the sublime via culture–including creating a beautiful building together to house the humanist church, singing, music, dancing, raising food and cooking and eating together, collective public-oriented actions, and collective retreats to sacred, sublime, semi-natural environments (absent from most people’s lives).

The current state of the Anglosphere Left is woefully undersocialized, and so far more ineffective than it needs to be or has been in the past or elsewhere. We sit and watch AIPAC with our mouths open in disbelief–How does 2% of the US population accomplish all that?, when we should be analyzing AIPAC’s political, economic, networking and cultural tactics, and adapting them to a Left (low capital) initiative. Part of what we should be learning is that everybody, including the Left, can be moved to cooperation by a combination of solidarity incentives, the sublime (culture, nature), the sacred community, and collectively fashioning a greater good. This combination needs to be rigorously designed because the Left lacks the most important “solidarity” incentive in capitalism: ownership of the surplus, and the prestige it confers.

Existing resource: Apprehending, learning from and appreciating (regarding as sacred) the sublime natural world is what some biologists do as researchers and educators; some artists, craftspeople and women tend to attend to aesthetics and collective creation and appreciation; so biologists, artists, and women can have a role to play in social movement.

Tactical consideration 5:
Cultivate external support, especially where domestic elites will not support the Left.

AIPAC has Israel. The North American Left needs external allies as well.

Tactical consideration 6:
Oppose austerity culture.

James Livingston argues that tactically, the US needs a pro-libidinal, anti-austerity cultural revolution, starting with affirming consumerism and environmental exploitation.

Sigh. OK, I understand it’s not within Anglosphere culture to understand Epicureanism. Let’s just try to get there, OK? The most direct route starts with Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain). Also, I think that where it might appeal to anti-intellectual suburbanites and marketeers, Livingston’s cultural revolution is going to clash unstrategically with environmentalism.  Can pro-libidinal culture be modified to jibe with environmentalism? (See Magdoff’s modest proposal.)

Livingston’s argument is a little like the suggestion that social democracy was reinforced by Scandinavians’ 20th-century bonobo-style feminist free love culture, whereas chimp-like, ascetic, violent, authoritarian, militaristic cultures involve the concentrated accumulation of sexual access and withholding sexual libidinal release from the majority of young men.

Pro Bloc v. Pro Monastery: On the Application of Social Movement Techniques

When pundits say they don’t understand what OWS is about, what that means is that OWS is a cross-(99%) stratification coalition of liberals and social democrats and the extremely marginalized and anarchists and socialists who are refusing to deny each other. That is to say, OWS is a functioning social movement bloc.

The unity of the opposing bloc of the 1% + its loyal hairy old man Teabag minions + its militarized police has probably helped to make the OWS bloc comparatively robust.

On the applicability of social movement techniques: 
Process-oriented communication

Barbara Epstein wrote a crucial book based on her study of the late twentieth century peace movement in the Pacific Northwest, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 80s, and Paul Lichterman wrote a study examining how social movement organization practices, such as a hierarchy-less organizational structure of empowered individuals, can put off key coalition partners and snuff out mobilization. Together these studies suggest that, under some circumstances, process-orientation can be at the root of social movement organizations’ ineffectiveness. The Epstein book in particular is a necessary read for people interested in social and political-economic change because it offers insight into the limits of prefigurative politics, and process-oriented communication social movement tactics–insight which corrects for the contemporary-era progressive community’s a-contextual idealization of these tactics.

Some cities’ Occupy movements this past fall have provided some support for the claim that perhaps the tactical innovations–including process-heavy communication techniques–can, in the context of adequate critical mass, effectively facilitate a coalition bloc. Elite concerns with predicting and managing social movement organizations are going to color how elite scholars look at social movements–for example in a too-short time frame. Perhaps the story is that it took people 40 years of practical R&D to innovate a social movement technique that can secure a bloc, but requires an adequate degree of preexisting critical mass to function as bloc glue and to ignite further mobilization.

This is to say that communicative process-orientation is a social movement technique that requires critical mass (cross-community participation) before it can be employed effectively. Without the critical mass precondition, communication process-orientation is not an effective social movement technique, see Epstein & satellite Occupy demonstrations without critical mass. Without adequate critical mass, process becomes counterproductive overkill as a social movement technique.

Without adequate preexisting critical mass, you’re left with a small, rather repulsive, and ineffective  assemblage of personalities that tend to get furiously frustrated in their failed efforts at micromanaging other people’s communication. But perhaps such a group can be more generously regarded as a sort of small monastery–not capable of mobilizing a movement, but monks of a social movement technique or two.

Confidence Game

‎”The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true…(Y)ou should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about” Daniel Kahneman, “Don’t Blink!“, October 2011.

Chris Hedges Smacks Down Corporate-whore Media

Chris Hedges knows who he is and what he’s seen; he has the steadying background to summon the strength and call down liberal corporate-whore media. Watch him, on his feet, control this interview:

CBC: Called down, smacked down, served, pwned.
If you’re going to employ crude meat, do what the American and Latin American media does and at least get it fresh out of the sorority house.