On February 1st we had the second meeting of our Hegemony How-To reading group and talked about the second chapter of the book. Comparisons with our experiences @DiEM25 came up in the discussion inevitably, as at least five participants were formerly (or still are) aligned with DiEM25. We decided to embrace this tendency as it fleshed-out the debate with some RL experience. (Note to myself: We have to be careful to not alienated future newcomers, tho.)
+++ Chapter 2 Summary +++
In the beginning I did my best to give a brief overview about the contents of the short but insightful 2nd chapter „The 99%: The symbol and the agent“.
In this chapter Jonathan Matthew Smucker (JMS) elaborates on his affiliations with the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) that he decided to use as a key study to guide his readers through this book. In his own words:
„Occupy succeeded in introducing a popularly resonant populist narrative about economic inequality and a rigged political system. How it did so is instructive and foreshadows key concepts that I will keep building upon in later chapters.“
When he first heard about the movement in September 2011 he couldn’t help to be a bit sceptical about the similarities of the OWS tactics (occupying a public space) with the events that took place during Arab Spring and Tahrir in the preceding years. It stroke him as a „lack of appreciation for context“. Soon enough JMS was proven wrong by the success of the events in New York and joined the movement.
He realized that the actions struck a nerve with many Americans and resonated with broader parts of the public. The tactic of occupation and the appearance of „the 99%“ as a powerful symbol changed a decade old moral narrative about economy and democracy. The clue was to identify the Wall Street brokers (or more generally the national elite) as the „bad actor“ (instead of e.g. „unruly“ workers on strike). The „99%“-narrative became what JMS calls a „floating signifier“, a symbol that connected with values and hopes across a vast ideological spectrum. It managed to include nearly everyone and thus sent a strong, inclusive message.
Unfortunately – according to JMS – the movements core, the „occupy proper“, thwarted this powerful move by their exclusive behaviour. During the weeks of occupation they developed a particular group culture that was eventually used by their opponents to identify them as „the other“. This apparently is a familiar tactic of the political opponent. In a one-two punch the OWS people were initially branded as special people („occupiers“) with special demands. Later on this „otherization“ served to pit the broader public against these peculiar people, „to frame occupiers as dirty and to use sanitation as a ruse to evict us from Zuccotti Park“.
So while OWS began with a powerful meme – the „99%“-narrative – that served as mirror in which society could see its own reflection, it ended up being just a reflection of „a particular person doing a particular thing“. In JMS analysis the particular group fashion of OWS played an important part in the demise of the movement. The more the occupiers circumscribed themselves, the more they impeded the growth of the movement. By spectacularly rejecting support by celebrities and famous politicians they sent out a quite different message:
„Your support is not wanted. This thing is ours.“
How did this happen and why did the „occupy proper“ – as JMS calls the core group of OWS – couldn’t see the the danger of „Otherization“? JMS promises to elaborate on that in the next chapter: „Life of the oppositional group“.
+++ End of Summary +++
The first discussion we had afterwards was about the usefulness of an excessively inclusive framing like e.g. „the 99%“. It apparently plays down and obfuscates „important heterogeneities and power concentrations“ in society. In Germany, one participant said, this 99% would include a large amount (10-20%) of people who have voted for fascists in recent elections.
In defense some people brought up the fact that conservative and right factions use those kind of „universal narratives“ all the time and that the left shouldn’t self-restrain itself to a narrow group of class-conscious people. In fact the „99%“ seems to be more a narrative device for strategic communication and not an actual political coalition.
DiEM25’s sloganeering about „Democracy in Europe“ also appealed to a lot of people outside of the left spectrum. One could argue that it served more as a narrative device as well and not something that was taken seriously by the movement leaders. It surely worked for DiEM25 to get famous. But it also keeps alienating a lot of active members that can’t seem to find much democracy in the movement itself.
At this point we switched away from DiEM25 and pondered the question on how to use the books insights to help the various climate movements some of us are part of. I mentioned a book by Anatol Lieven „Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case“ in which the author proposed to use the nation states as vehicles for bipartisan cooperation (an elaborate summary/critique of the book can be found here).
One of the books arguments goes as follows: Right wingers or hardcore conservatives are not against caring for the environment per se, they just don’t see themselves as the „type of people who care about the environment“ or „Ökos“ in DE or „eco-warriors“. So one strategy would be to frame eco-policy as conservative and a matter of national security to ensure effective counter-measures.
We couldn’t help to feel a bit uncomfortable with this approach, but we had to concede that you can’t easily dismiss it neither. Give the short time span we are dealing with one cannot afford to be blinkered by the despise of new strategics and tactics.
The last topic we discussed was Community Organising – as proposed e.g. by Jane McAlevey
In DiEM25 we locally failed to substantially grow as local groups due to our own group rituals and idiosyncrasies and globally failed to grow the movement through a compelling narrative. XR apparently did a far better job by onboarding and organising locally in a very inclusive and effective way. While the narrative framing of the „Rebellion Wave“ in 2019 could have been better and more inclusive there is much to learn about XRs way of organizing communities. Their „floating signifier“ did not fly as good as the „99%“. By circumscribing themselves as „climate activists“ they failed to engage parts of the broader public that doesn’t identify as such. But XR surely is and was an experience we can learn from.
We’ll agreed to meet again in about 3-4 weeks.