Voyou Désœuvré

Saul Alinsky apparently used to ask new recruits to his organizing efforts, “what are you organizing for?” And they would respond by saying that their goal was to help the poor, or get housing for the homeless, or whatever it might be. Alinsky would shoot down all these concrete goals, insisting that “you are organizing for power.” I like that; but Alinsky wasn’t terribly clear about what power actually meant, and this failure to think about power has had some pretty terrible consequences for the American left, especially in the very particular way they’ve adopted or adapted Alinsky’s methods.

This confused me when I first moved to the US; looking for the left in the Bay Area it seems at first like there’s no there there. The general left-wing sentiment in the area doesn’t seem to be matched by the existence of left-wing organizations. It turns out that that’s not quite right; it’s just that these organizations aren’t political organizations but are, rather, community organizations and non-profits. Some of these have radical rhetoric and a revolutionary pedigree, but they all share the weakness of the Alinskian (non-)understanding of power, where power is not conceived of as something that could be appropriated collectively and used creatively to common ends, but where power is something someone else (the state) has, and the limit of collective action is to force concessions from those who do hold power.

The limitations of this lack of understanding of power were starkly illustrated in an event in last week’s walkout at Berkeley. Read more↴

As the University of California gears up for tomorrow’s day of action, I’ve been hearing one argument against the walkout that deserves a little further attention. This argument proposes that there is a contradiction in a protest in favor of education that proceeds by students and academics halting education for a day. This argument is, of course, deeply moronic; it’s not, I suppose, entirely surprising to hear it from students, but it’s extraordinarily depressing to hear it from some of my colleagues in, of all places, a political science department, or from an actual politician, Robert Reich, who admonished us, at a teach-in this evening, to address our efforts to persuasion.

The problem with this argument is the incredible poverty of its understanding of politics. The suggestion seems to be that the only possible meaning of an action can be purely symbolic, an entry in a process of debate. The horizon of any conceivable action is “awaring” people. What this misses is that the staff, student, and faculty walkout might be a political action, an attempt to exercise power, or at least make a threat of exercising power. The very idea of politics has gone missing.

Poetic as it is, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” is surely quite false, both as an empirical description of history and as a summary of Marx’s broader theory. For the same reason in both cases, in fact. It’s not true that, throughout history, “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another,” because, as the Marx writes a few lines later, “in the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank,” while “our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps.” The direct confrontation of oppressor and oppressed is not something actually visible in history, but an underlying tendency that has yet to be fully realized. And, indeed, the way in which class struggle is not simply visible is an important feature of Marx’s theory. Read more↴

Cheryl Cole’s new song is really quite incredibly good:

It reminded me of something about pop music that occurred to me when The Saturdays’ album came out. I thought, while listening to the album, that it sounded like the Sugababes, which then struck me as odd, as there are obvious ways in which the group are more like Girls Aloud. But while their may be some stylistic similarity between Girls Aloud and The Saturdays, there’s what seems to me to be a more important difference of affect, adds some further distinctions to the concept of cold pop. Read more↴

I didn’t watch Mad Men when it first started, which in hindsight is surprising, as I’m a big fan of both the advertising industry and the style of high Fordism. However, all the buzz I heard at the time amounted to a shocked “OMG THEY SMOKE AND ARE SEXIST,” and there are few things less interesting than minor differences between contemporary and past mores, the ruffs and fardingales of the past.

On the strength of Adam’s recommendation, I’ve been making my way through the show over the past month. Although from the beginning it was clear that the show looked beautiful and was marvelously acted, some of my initial concern remained: was the show’s 1960s setting anything other than window-dressing? Read more↴