Saturday, February 11, 2012

This bears repeating

t at Pink Scare sez:
Finally, direct participation of the masses in intra-movement democracy is essential because of the collective learning process that it makes possible. This brings us to the question of how consciousness changes and how people are radicalized.

According to some, the best way to radicalize people is through provocative, small-scale actions that suddenly shake ordinary people from their "dogmatic slumbers". By witnessing daring examples of the "propaganda of the deed", people are radicalized and drawn into participation in struggle.

Now, I think it would be abstract and unhelpful to say that small-scale, bold actions have no progressive effect on consciousness. Everything depends on the form and content of the action and the context in which it occurs. But if there are examples of successful political interventions of this kind, there is also a long list of examples in which this approach resulted in spectacular failure. And even the most successful examples of the "propaganda of the deed" pale in comparison with the radicalizing effect of direct participation in collective struggles against the 1%. People are radicalized in the course of actively fighting back in concert with others. In a society in which people are bombarded everywhere they turn by advertisements and injunctions to buy this or that, it is unreasonable to expect that a mere slogan or image will be enough to win people to joining the fight for their own liberation. Drawing people into participating in struggle is the key to changing consciousness.

But how are people drawn into mass action and participation in struggle? Worsening material conditions and discussion/direct-engagement are essential here. Peoples daily lives are being shaken by brutal austerity from above, worsening living standards for the 99%, mass layoffs and unemployment, foreclosures and school closings, etc. They don't need a small clique to tell them that something is wrong with society. What they need is someone to engage them critically, to talk to them, to challenge them in discussion to link arms with others in struggle. Radicals need to talk to people in their own communities, to meet them half-way and engage them directly. This is all the more important if the Occupy movement is going to successfully collaborate and integrate itself with communities that face racial oppression, residential segregation and police intimidation. It's not enough to pull off creative political stunts that, in effect, fly the flag and demand that people rally to it. Direct political discussion with the 99% is essential to building mass movements.

Importantly, political discussion has to begin from where people's heads are at; if it abstractly sweeps in from elsewhere it is unlikely to get any traction. What's more, this dialogue has to draw on people's concrete experiences. Take the question of the role of the police. It would have been abstract to aggressively scold and berate new activists who were sanguine about the police in the early days of the movement. To be sure, raising objections to their attitudes toward the police was necessary, even at the beginning, because the cops never have been, and never will be, on our side. But things have changed drastically since then. After all of the repression from the police that the movement has faced, radicals are now very well-positioned to draw on those people's experience in arguing that the cops aren't on our side. Without a democratic forum for debate and dialogue that can draw on the collective experience of the movement, we can't expect to win fellow occupiers to the perspective that the police aren't a force for social justice. People's views are not set it stone; they are liable to change rather quickly on the basis of political debate and concrete experience through struggle. There's no substitute for engaging people in critical political dialogue in a way that draws on their own experience and concerns.

Now, critical dialogue doesn't mean that activists should leave people's existing views intact or simply pander to what they already think. This would be conservative and ultimately antithetical to the entire spirit of activism itself. Activists try to change the world, not merely interpret it as it is. Critical discussion and dialogue should be a combination of listening to people's concerns and questions, on the one hand, and challenging them to be more militant and active on the other. In the context of escalating attacks on the 99% from above, people's consciousness can develop extremely quickly. Seeing others engaged in mass struggles is a radicalizing force as well, which is all the more reason to build a mass, vigorously democratic movement from below.

This kind of critical discussion and debate can only flourish in the context of a democratic mass movement. If everyone simply does their own thing, without discussing among one another which way forward is best for all, these discussions may never transpire. If some groups, under the guise of a "diversity of tactics", simply opt out of democratic deliberation when they feel they won't get their way, this thwarts the capacity of the movement debate out and discuss tactics effectively. As a result, we can't generalize from each other's experience or learn from each other's mistakes.

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