Building a Movement: Strategy vs. Insularity

To be political, then, is not merely to hold or to express political opinions about issues, either as individuals or in groups. Rather, to be political, requires engagement with the terrain of power, with an orientation towards the broader society and its structures…
Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Today, we present a piece by UC Berkeley sociology doctoral student Jonathan Matthew Smucker, passed along by Laurel Dykstra, that is more wonky than the usual radical discipleship fare. In “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?” Smucker argues that “prefigurative politics,” the importance of a group’s internal life and the sense of community, in North American socio-political movements, has the dangerous tendency of trumping the goal of strategically changing society in tangible ways. As an active participant in Occupy Wall Street, Smucker draws on personal experience along with the political philosophy of Antonio Gramsci & Jürgen Haberwas. We excerpt his summative concluding paragraph, but, of course, encourage readers to digest the entire article while enjoying a hot beverage.

If prefigurative politics has its basis in attempts to construct a particular lifeworld—i.e., in expressing values and affirming the life of the group—and it eschews engagement and contestation in the larger common realm of power and politics, then we might ultimately view it as a project of private liberation. A private endeavor need not view itself as such in order for it to be functionally so; if the benefits of its efforts are limited to its own participants, it is functionally private. To be clear, my intention here is not to diminish the value or meaningfulness of these internal benefits to group participants, but, rather, to argue for balancing this with a broader political orientation. All of this points to the need—perhaps greater than ever before in history—to intentionally ground our projects of liberation in concrete political goals and accompanying political strategies. We have to acknowledge and be strategic about “what’s in it for us,” in terms of our sense of identity, community, and wholeness (i.e., the life of the group). We have to navigate and find a balance between the expressive and the instrumental aspects of collective action; between within-group bonding and beyond-group bridging; between the life of the group and what the group accomplishes aside from its own existence. Because, frankly, we (i.e., social movement participants in advanced capitalist nations) have material circumstances and a disposition that incline us towards self-involvement to the point of insularity.

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