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“Hegemony How-To”: Rethinking Activism and Embracing Power

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Occupy Wall Street insider Jonathan Smucker’s recently published Hegemony How-To: a Roadmap for Radicals (AK Press, 2017) is the post-Occupy guide for how to be smarter about politics. Smucker, a long-time grassroots organizer, does not dismiss what Occupy did right but is honest about its failures. The 99% remain just as powerless as ever, and we still have endless wars, corporate control, and increasing social and economic injustices.

In the tradition of Saul Alinsky and Antonio Gramsci, Smucker points out that “knowledge of what is wrong with a social system and knowledge of how to change the system are two completely different categories of knowledge.” Before touching on how Hegemony How-To speaks directly to my own experience, a feel for Smucker’s punches.

Smucker spares nothing and no one—including himself—in his passion to achieve political victory. Smucker asks himself: “How many times, I wondered, had I favored a particular action or tactic because I really thought it was likely to change a decision-maker’s position or win over key allies, as opposed to gravitating toward an action because it expressed my activist identity and self-conception? How concerned were we really, in our practice, with political outcomes?” Smucker concludes, “We often seemed more preoccupied with the purity of our political expression than with how to move from Point A to Point B. It felt as if having the right line about everything was more important than making measurable progress on anything.”

Smucker does not ignore what Occupy Wall Street did well. “Occupy Wall Street,” for many Americans, was a way of saying “Fuck Wall Street” and standing up to it. Through its language of the 99% and the 1%, Occupy compelled the mainstream media to talk about class injustice, and so Occupy helped restore some sense of class consciousness. Occupying public space gave powerless people a taste of power and gave many alienated people a taste of community.

However, Smucker is frustrated that Occupy couldn’t move to the next level and actually accomplish political goals such as creating greater economic and social justice. And so Smucker, like a good coach, replays the game film to see how his team caught the 1% by surprise, gained an advantage—but then lost the game.

Failed social movements, Smucker tells us, often don’t overcome the political identify paradox. Specifically, social movements need to foster a group identify and have a dedicated core willing to put in many hours. But fostering this group identity can lead to isolation and failure to connect with others outside the group. The group that only cares about cohesiveness and maintaining its identity is not going to accomplish anything but just that. Focusing exclusively on creating a strong identify can “create a wall between them and potential allies.” Smucker observes, “Building a community, for example, is a worthy pursuit. But these motivations become a problem when they trump our motivation to accomplish our ostensible political goals.”

One byproduct of focusing too much on group identity is being dismissive of potential allies because they were not radical enough. For Smucker, “Every time a prominent supporter was snubbed, a message was sent to all potential supporters: ‘Your support is not wanted. This thing is ours.’ ” Successful social movements build a large base of support “outside the choir,” and they put great effort into actively courting influential supporters. Smucker tells us, “Occupy Wall Street had an incredible opportunity to do this—indeed, many influential supporters were courting us—but too often we did precisely the opposite.”

While most people would label Smucker as a major “activist,” Smucker disdains the word activist, and he encourages people to abandon it. He proclaims, “I dislike the label activist. . . It lets everyone else off the hook!” This “activism” self-identification simply sets you apart from the broader society that you need to engage in. Smucker reflects that activism “has morphed into a specific identify that centers on a hobby—something akin to being a skier or a ‘theater person—rather than a civic or political responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests.” When activists seek only mutual validations from likeminded activists, Smucker points out, “some of the most idealistic and collectively minded young people in society remove themselves voluntarily from the institutions and social networks that they were organically positioned to influence and contest.” If people want change, they must continue connecting with the greater society.

At a deeper level, the Occupy movement, and many radicals, fail because of what Smucker calls their “humanistic ambivalence toward power”—they are uncomfortable with power, while their opposition is not. Hegemony refers to leadership or predominant influence, and Smucker tells us, “I am well aware that the title of this book may be read by some of my comrades as a provocation, insofar as it suggests that hegemony is not in and of itself something to stand against, but rather something to attain. To be clear, it is intended to be a provocation.”

Smucker reacquaints us with Martin Luther King’s observations about power, “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose . . . And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” King concludes, “It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.” One reason that the civil rights movement in the 1960s was successful was that movement members across its spectrum, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, while differing on the strategies for acquiring power, embraced the need for power.

Smucker’s book provides some much needed “linguistic-political therapy.” For example, he points out that the phrase “the personal is political” is now often used to mean something almost completely opposite of its original meaning. He reminds us that the phrase was first used by Carol Hanisch in 1969 to mean that when we talk among ourselves, we realize that what we may have considered to be our individual personal problems are societal and structural problems that require collective political actions. However, today, the phrase has come to mean that individual actions, such as consumer ones, are political actions; and the phrase is used to justify not being involved in collective political actions. Buying “green” is not a bad thing, but the loss of the true meaning of “the personal is political” is one other way that we have become politically impotent.

In addition to providing linguistic therapy and not pulling any punches in his analyses, Smucker’s book is replete with “how-to” specifics in the areas of building a larger base, creating a “leaderful” (not leaderless) movement, organizing, and teamwork.

Hegemony How-To speaks directly to my own experiences on a couple of different levels. For the last twenty years, I have been involved in the social justice movement for truly informed choice in mental health (the “go to” publication for this movement is Mad in America). Despite our movement having been repeatedly proven scientifically correct (for example, our claim of psychiatric diagnosis invalidity is now affirmed by the National Institute of Mental Health), we continue to lose the political battle to giant drug companies and their allies in psychiatry. We are losing the political battle for exactly the reasons that Smucker addresses in Hegemony How-To.

Smucker’s book speaks to me on another level. Like Smucker, I also have been frustrated by progressives’ exclusive focus on what’s wrong with the system while neglecting the real politics necessary to change it. In the “pre-Occupy era,” I observed how many progressives were behaving as if the general public was not politically engaged because they were ignorant of political realities. However, the polls showed that the majority of people did get how they were being screwed. In that era, it appeared to me that progressives were neglecting the reality that many Americans had become politically “broken” and demoralized; that the truth was not setting them free to act; and that a psychology of oppression had been created which required a liberation psychology. I wrote about this in Get Up, Stand Up, published in the spring of 2011; and in the summer of 2011, I was happy to hear some Occupy organizers were reading it. When Occupy Wall Street took off in the fall of 2011, my publisher donated 100 copies to the Occupy Wall Street library. However, within a few months, these books, along with the rest of the library and the encampment, had gotten thrown in dumpsters by the New York City Police Department during its Zuccotti Park invasion. After that, it appeared to me that all that we—myself included—had accomplished were our own ego trips.

But now owing to Smucker, I am happy to say that we can gain more out of the Occupy movement than ego trips. We can learn something from what Occupy did manage to pull off but we can learn even more from the movement’s mistakes, and we can learn to embrace power, become politically smarter, and focus on what it actually takes to win.

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Bruce E. Levine,  a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect.  He is the author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). His website is www.brucelevine.net

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