File Under: “Unintentional but Beneficial By-Product Effects,” Or, “The Resuscitation of Prefigurative Politics” *
In today’s Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler has an inspirational and incisive piece on the “do-it-yourself” approach of the youth today to progressive political change, an approach which has as its axiomatic premise the belief that the social transformation one wants to see take place, begins with oneself, in concert with others, such that the “means-ends” formulas typically intrinsic to conventional power politics are in some sense transcended. The aim, with Gandhi, is to “be the change we want to see in the world,” or with the anarchist tradition (at least its more philosophically-inclined tradition), to build the new world within the shell of the existing—and decaying—order. As Richard D. Sonn writes in his introduction to the doctrine and movement of anarchism:
“Anarchists hoped to make the services of the state redundant by performing them themselves. People needed to form alternative communities, businesses, schools, newspapers, cafés, marriages, libraries, and so on that were nonhierarchical, nondominative, nonexploitive. In a negative sense the anarchist doctrine might imply sabotaging the boss’s factory or not paying the rent to the landlord; in a positive sense, anarchists wished to form mutual aid societies and credit banks, personal relationships that could be terminated by mutual consent, schools featuring what anarchists like to call ‘integral education’ of both manual and intellectual skills. The anarchists tended to believe that a change in attitudes must precede any large-scale social transformation. Power-mad people would simply institute new regimes of power. To destroy rather than replace relations of power, new anarchist values had to predominate.” See Sonn’s book, Anarchism (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992)
Another way to think of this is along the lines Gandhi conceived of the relationship between means and ends:
- It is enough to know the means. Means and ends are convertible terms.
- We always have control over the means but not over the end.
- Our progress toward the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means.
- Instead of saying that means are after all means, we should affirm that means are after all everything. As the means so the end.
“Welcome to the DIY generation”
“Barack Obama wanted to be a transformational president, and as we head into the general election, he may have gotten his wish — just not the way he or his supporters might have thought.
Obama seems to have transformed the cohort of 18- to 29-year-olds, a whopping 66% of whom preferred him over John McCain, from passionate voters who thought Obama really did offer change they could believe in, into people feeling, in the words of veteran political analyst Charlie Cook, ‘disappointment and disillusionment.’
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently found Obama leading Romney among these same voters just 55% to 43%. And focus groups of young undecided voters in Ohio and North Carolina, conducted by the Republican organization Resurgent Republic, found them unhappy with the direction of the country, skeptical about an improving economy and deeply disappointed with the president. He ‘promised the moon,’ one young voter told pollsters, ‘and couldn’t even deliver the upper atmosphere.’
Disillusionment with partisan politics is certainly nothing new. Obama’s fall from grace, however, may look like a bigger belly flop because his young supporters saw him standing so much higher than typical politicians. Yet by dashing their hopes, Obama may actually have accomplished something so remarkable that it could turn out to be his legacy: He has redirected young people’s energies away from conventional electoral politics and into a different, grass-roots kind of activism. Call it DIY politics.
We got a taste of DIY politics last fall with the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, which were a reaction to government inaction on financial abuses, and we got another taste when the 99% Spring campaign mobilized tens of thousands against economic inequality. OWS and its tangential offshoots may seem political, but it is important to note that OWS emphatically isn’t politics as usual. It isn’t even a traditional movement.
All of this is perhaps best defined as a consciousness — a way of thinking about change rather than a schema for it. That’s one reason the Occupiers could collect so many disparate elements. OWS has spoken to a mounting sense among the disaffected that nothing quite works in America and that you can’t really fight politics with politics anymore. In fact, you have to forget about traditional institutions, power and systems entirely. Americans typically don’t think this way.
OWS is only the most visible manifestation of this consciousness; there are many other subterranean components. Their adherents find one another on the Internet or in community meetings or in groups like the 99% Spring. Though many of the young seem to have given up trying to change the establishment frontally, what they are doing, though they may not realize it, is slowly creating a melding of minds that could eventually result in a new kind of politics in which traditional political institutions are basically irrelevant.
The DIY impulse seems to start with the most basic politics of all: individual agency. If it takes hold it will be from the bottom up, translating a way of thinking into a way of doing. Already you can see DIY politics in action, not just in young people camping outside City Hall but in their joining service organizations and NGOs where they can do good and seemingly apolitical — or at least extra-governmental — work. They don’t abide endless debate and tit-for-tat strategies that result in gridlock.
I have seen this firsthand in my family. One of my daughters has spent the last few years in the developing world working in healthcare and will be returning to this country this year to attend medical school. My other daughter spent a year in American Samoa in the World Teach program, another year in AmeriCorps, and is now in graduate school in social work. Neither cares one whit about the political system generally or electoral politics specifically. When we talk about their lack of interest in the current campaign or about legislative initiatives, they tell me, ‘We live our politics.’ [….]
There is a scathing irony in the fact that some attribute the rise in civic commitment to an ‘Obama effect,’ by which they mean Obama has kindled this idealism the way President Kennedy inspired young people to join the Peace Corps. (Of course, many more attribute it to the economy and the lack of jobs for recent grads.) Unfortunately, none of these surveys investigates reasons for increased volunteerism, but the data suggest another possible Obama effect: that he has driven them out of politics and into service.
Many longtime politicos find that outcome troubling. They fret that if young people abandon the system, the system will abandon the public good. Of course, to many of the young, it is the system that has abandoned them. If the polls are accurate, most of them will still vote for Obama but with less enthusiasm than in 2008 and with fewer illusions about what he will accomplish. Instead, they will assume the social burden themselves, opting out of organized politics to ‘do it themselves’ with a politics of one that adds up to millions of ones.”
* Further reading (toward an understanding of radical, nonviolent, and democratic prefigurative politics):
- Bahro, Rudolf. Building the Green Movement (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1986)
- Bahro, Rudolf. Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation (Bath, UK: Gateway Books, 1994)
- Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989) [The term ‘prefigurative politics’ is first used by Breines in this book, although the concept it identifies pre-dates the New Left and is found in the anarchist tradition and is also central to Gandhi’s political philosophy.]
- Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981)
- Case, John and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, Co-Ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979)
- Cheney, George. Values at Work: Employee Participation Meets Market Pressures at Mondragon (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1999)
- Clastres, Pierre (Robert Hurley, tr.) Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology (New York: Zone Books, 1987, French edition, 1974)
- Clave, Pierre. The Progressive City: Planning and Participation, 1969-1984 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986)
- Coy, Patrick, ed. A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1988)
- DeLeon, Richard Edward. Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992)
- Dolgoff, Sam, ed. The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 (New York: Free Life Editions, 1974)
- Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
- Erasmus, Charles J. In Search of the Common Good: Utopian Experiments Past and Future (New York: The Free Press, 1977)
- Flacks, Richard. Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)
- Galston, William A. Justice and the Human Good (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980)
- Gendron, Richard and G. William Domhoff. The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008)
- Iyer, Raghavan, “Means and Ends in Politics,” in his book, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983; 1st edition, Oxford University Press, 1973)
- Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972)
- Kazin, Michael. American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
- King, Sallie B. Socially Engaged Buddhsim (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009)
- Lakey, George. Powerful Peacemaking: A Strategy for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1987 revised ed.)
- MacLeod, Greg. From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development (Sydney, Nova Scotia: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1997)
- Morrison, Roy. We Build the Road as We Travel (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1991)
- Nichols, John. The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism (London: Verso, 2011)
- Payne, Charles M. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995)
- Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker Movement and the Origins of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1982)
- Pitzer, Donald E., ed. America’s Communal Utopias (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997)
- Queen, Christopher S., ed. Engaged Buddhism in the West (Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000)
- Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995)
- Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS (New York: Random House, 1973)
- Santos, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ed. Democratizing Democracy: Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon—Vol. 1 of Reinventing Social Emancipation: Toward New Manifestos (London: Verso, 2007)
- Santos, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ed. Another Production is Possible: Beyond the Capitalist Canon—Vol. 2 of Reinventing Social Emancipation: Toward New Manifestos (London: Verso, 2007)
- Taylor, Michael. Community, Anarchy and Liberty (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982)
- Thomas H. and C. Logan. Mondragon: An Economic Analysis (London: Allen and Unwin, 1982)
- Whyte, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte. Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988)
- Wright, Erik Olin. Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010)