Mel Evans and Kevin Smith interview US-based organiser and author Jonathan Smucker, whose new book Hegemony How-To offers a practical guide to political struggle for a generation that is still ambivalent about questions of power, leadership and strategy
Can you tell us what you want people to take from the book?
There are two big interventions. One is that politics is not a clubhouse. Politics is messy. It is meeting everyday people where they are. It’s not an enclave. It’s not being the enlightened, ‘super‑woke’ people together, learning a special vocabulary, shaking our heads and wagging our finger at all these backward other people. That is a manifestation of the same social elitism that is actively structured by neoliberal society. Instead, politics needs to be woven into the fabric of all of our lives.
The other intervention is that we need power. Which is not remotely an assertion that power does not come with its own problems, or that those problems are insignificant. Any person of conscience should be terrified about the moral dilemmas of political power.
But if we are involved in politics, that is what we are signing up for. We are signing up for building, holding and wielding political power, and wrestling with all of the questions and quandaries that come with that. Broadly speaking, the project of the left is expanding who has political power. It’s saying political power should not be concentrated in the hands of the few, the wealthy, or an elite technocratic class.
We have to breach the gates of politics. My big takeaway in the last year here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is that the tactic of knocking doors and talking to neighbours and strangers is one of the most important tactics for movements and organisations if our aim is to build the political power of working people. For actively and constantly recruiting everyday people, you have to actually be talking with them.
Every emerging leader needs to do it because it makes the experience of ordinary people their primary point of reference, and the project of bringing people into a popular political vehicle their number one goal. It takes you psychologically out of the little lefty clubhouse. You stop caring if your super-woke radical friends like your Facebook status or re-tweet you.
If I’m honest, a couple of years ago, that was a pretty big part of how I oriented myself, my focus and energy – toward a small and insular left. Now my primary point of reference is a growing social base here in Pennsylvania. That’s what I care about and that’s what grounds me. Part of the leadership role in organising is to create mechanisms that put your most active and dedicated core of folks into ongoing relationships, dialogue and feedback loops with a broader base of people.
You’ve written about your experience with Occupy – how it presented a symbolic challenge to power but fell short of institutional challenge. How do you think it could have turned out differently?
Occupy Wall Street accomplished a tremendous amount in a short period of time. I don’t know that it was going to become the vehicle that could wage an institutional challenge to power. By changing the narrative, profoundly, what Occupy did was incredible.
The hegemonic narrative for decades in the United States had been ‘greed is good’, ‘Reaganism’ and ‘the end of history’. Every time you talked about economic justice you were accused of class warfare, as if class warfare wasn’t happening and we weren’t losing badly. Occupy changed that. ‘We are the 99%’ created a broad populist, super-majority ‘we’ that people identified with. Naming the culprit was part of that – ‘the 1%’, ‘Wall Street’, ‘banks got bailed out, we got sold out’. That narrative shift created the foundations for subsequent organising and built a popular mandate. That’s very important.
It was also incredibly frustrating being part of a movement whose loudest elements and predominant ethos was an allergic reaction to power. I was part of the PR (press) working group, and hardly a week went by where somebody didn’t try to disband the group because ‘we shouldn’t be talking to the mainstream media’. Which is how people get their news.
In its DNA, Occupy was pretty allergic to political power, but that wasn’t the only story. There were many people who saw the need to build institutional power, and we had some victories. Occupy Homes carried out campaigns across the country to confront the mortgage crisis, save people’s homes and change policy. It wasn’t all or nothing. The occupiers who were allergic to institutional power weren’t the only occupiers. They weren’t even the majority. But it was a constant uphill fight to get people to value having formal organisation in any capacity.
We’ve been thinking about the differences in the legacies of the 15 May movement in Spain and Occupy. What do you think has been done differently?
I think we’re on the same trajectory, but we have a very different system of government. The most serious veterans of Occupy who stuck with it are leading electoral fights. Many of them were involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign and are involved in building long-term governing power at the state or national level.
Bernie Sanders represents a shift towards a broad left in the US having real political agency again. There were a few weeks in March 2016 where the predominant common sense in the US left changed overnight, and hardly anybody remarked on it. A few decades ago, progressive movements and organisations treated the Democratic Party as a terrain of contestation. That shifted in the late 1960s, for a number of reasons, including the actions of the Democratic Party, especially its part in the Vietnam war and specific events like the refusal to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party [at the 1964 Democratic national convention, when delegate rights were instead given to the segregationist Mississippi delegation].
Left movements stopped treating the Democratic Party as a contestable terrain and started treating it like an impenetrable monolith. It became morally reprehensible for young radicals to associate with it. We were the righteous few standing on the outside, holding our candles in the wind. That mentality held for decades.
Then, in a span of three weeks, Bernie Sanders became not just a protest candidate, but, holy shit, he could win this thing! Suddenly many of my long-term anarchist, or Green Party, or socialist friends who wanted nothing to do with the Democratic Party were shifting their orientation. It was like, oh, game on! That’s pretty profound. Even though the Democratic Party’s leadership is still in denial and doubling down on centrist politics, there are centres of power popping up all over the country, including in an exemplary way, here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where we are waging institutional and electoral contests. We’re bridging this chasm, between social movements, organising for power and electoral politics.
Since we’re talking about party-political power and structures, how does what’s been happening in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum compare to what you’ve been doing in Pennsylvania?
The broad strategy is very comparable – building a faction in relationship to an existing political party to shape it, push it and contest its direction. The strategy is grounded in organising and movements. Any time you actually build power and are contending electorally in a big way, you are going to have all sorts of new dilemmas and problems, questions about how far to compromise and missteps, and there’s a whole new level of scrutiny. But I would argue that those are very good problems to have, much better than the problem of having zero power. I’ll take those problems any day.
Lancaster Stands Up has reshaped the common-sense narrative here in Pennsylvania – and is fast changing what is possible at the electoral level. We recruited a candidate to run for Congress and she’s got one of the smartest, most enthusiastic congressional campaigns in the country. We’re in a hard district. We don’t know for certain that we can win, but we’re serious about winning.
Those of us with grassroots organising and social movement skills are running circles around what has been done at the electoral level, just by working hard and giving a damn. The consultant class that has been running elections in areas like ours has been phoning it in for decades. They’re focused on ‘very important people in Washington’ and winning big donors. They’re absolutely not focused on inspiring enthusiasm and talking to people at the door and to having their strategy and their rhetoric informed by everyday working people. By embracing the opposite of the consultant class, we’re totally changing the game.
Can you unpack what some sections of the left’s resistance to power is, and how that’s come about?
One of the profound problems of late-stage capitalism is an overwhelming breakdown of social fabric and community. There’s a desire to be part of something and a desire for belonging, and that combines with a deep sense that the dominant political discourse does not resonate with people’s experience, politically, economically or socially.
At Zuccotti Park, the home of Occupy Wall Street, people felt part of something bigger than themselves, part of a community. There was a free library and a free kitchen, there were meetings where everybody gets a voice and can participate, which created an exaggerated dramatisation of ‘beloved community’ which was very meaningful for people.
That’s great. That’s motivational. It gives people the fuel that they need for the fight. The problem is, you can accomplish that sense of ‘beloved community’ without accomplishing anything else politically. People became preoccupied with defending the physical space of Zuccotti Park. They became more attached to the physical manifestation than the strategic value of the symbol in a broader political fight.
If the prize is having our beloved community, you can see how that can easily morph into a purism that questions why we would talk about strategy or politics proper, or talking to the press, or anything else that’s tactical. That is all seen as part of the filthy rotten system that we’re disgusted with.
That’s where some of that tendency towards purism comes from. There are all kinds of social-psychological dynamics. People can start to outdo each other about how radical they are, their total disaffection from politics proper, in sometimes ridiculously exaggerated ways.
You have a problem with the word ‘activist’. Can you tell us why?
I examined the word activism and its use in history. It doesn’t start to appear until the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it starts to be used more widely. We think about abolitionists and suffragettes and people who worked on labour rights as ‘activists’, but they didn’t have that word.
I think there is something different about modern activism that is detrimental to long-term power-building and to progressive politics. ‘Activism’ is a reflection of the social-niche specialisation that emerged through neoliberalism. Instead of politics emerging from the fabric of our lives – people in communities articulating shared grievances and taking collective action – activism is this special space that people leave their lives to self-select into with other like-minded activists, where they do activism together in an enclave. It’s very different from organising, which requires meeting people in their existing social spaces and politicising those spaces, with a strategy to accomplish something with an engaged and organised community.
There is a class element to this picture of activism too. Activism has lived primarily in the middle and upper-middle classes. That class-based insularity is preventing us from building the power of working people. From radical subcultural circles to non-profit organisations to the Democratic party, the leadership of the broad left over the past 40 years has become concentrated in the top 20 per cent of US society.
We all know about the 1 per cent problem, but we also have a 20 per cent problem. There is a class insularity at the top that affects all kinds of institutions, particularly political institutions. It has made many of them into clubhouses. There are a lot of people for whom the activist identity stands between them and taking action on the issues they care about, because in order to take action on climate or labour or whatever, they have to take on this niche identity which involves them assimilating into a subculture and becoming someone else. And they don’t want to do it.
That should not be a requirement for taking political action. People should be able to come as they are, not having to figure out how to fit into this radical, or liberal, or whatever it is, activist clubhouse.
How do we need to think about organising for far-reaching societal change?
There’s a ninth chapter that didn’t make the book that digs into something that my organisation, Beyond the Choir, leads workshops on. We focus on politicisation at three levels: the level of the group, the movement, and broad political alignment.
The level of the group amounts to ‘My house is being foreclosed on, I think of it as a personal problem’, and an organiser helps me understand that there are culprits and my grievances are patterned and structured and the solution is not individualistic. It requires me coming together with other people to take political action.
At the movement level, consider a group in one part of the country dealing with racist police brutality. Then the same thing happens in cities across America and suddenly a storm materialises as individuals like Michael Brown and Eric Garner become focal, and Black Lives Matter is born. Groups start identifying with a broader movement because they can’t win on their own. Movements tend to focus on a single issue, or a coherent set of issues.
Then maybe the hardest level of politicisation is broad political alignment. That spans many issues and distinct social bases. It’s hard because even if you care about all these different issues, there are only so many hours in the day and our organisations and movements are structured to constantly send emails saying ‘This is the most important thing this week.’ We’re not structured to say, ‘This week the most important thing is this other issue that we haven’t been working on.’
Movements are not really structured to be in active solidarity with each other. I don’t mean statements of solidarity – I mean actively mobilising a base to add capacity. That’s hard. Radicals get self‑righteous about that, but it’s a structural dilemma.
Political parties, or campaigns for who is in office, are the primary mechanisms through which broad political alignment is forged, because there is an intuitive sense of why to work across issues. People understand that for the fate of the issues they care about most or the interests of their community, it matters who is in power, who is elected. Elections, political parties, or occasionally revolutions, are the only things that make active politicisation across issues make sense beyond a small cadre of radicals.
Our problem with broad political alignment is when progressives don’t have a political party. The Democratic Party in the United States has not been the container for those progressive issues because it has been captured by the political class and big money. What we’re trying to do is to build a coherent political faction that has independent power but is not a third party proper – that doesn’t work in the US because of our winner-take-all non-proportional system.
What that looks like in Lancaster is that we have an anti-fracking movement, we have an anti-pipeline movement, we have racial justice groups, we have peace groups, and we have community groups. Until the 2016 election we just had siloed groups and now we have a hybrid, quasi-political party called Lancaster Stands Up. You need that because there is no opportunity to concentrate forces other than a political party, or something like a political party. We’ve been organising mass demonstrations, we’ve been organising capacity, and we’ve been building a massive canvas that works on issues, and building the organisation and supporting candidates. Now every Democrat wants our endorsement because we’ve shown that we have capacity to help win elections.
What gives you hope?
Since the 2016 US election, there are all sorts of experiments in democracy. In Lancaster it took three weeks after the election before I could leave my house without someone stopping me on the street, because they know I’m an organiser, to ask me, ‘What can I do?’ The floodgates have been opened.
I was giving a talk with L A Kauffman, who presented evidence that there has never been this level of political participation in the history of the United States. There are a lot of things I’m hopeful for. A lot of groups are still at the fledgling stages, and a lot of the dynamics that I warn about in the book are coming up, but there are also a lot more people involved and a lot less of the subcultural dynamics.
The experiments that make me most hopeful are in places like Lancaster that are off the beaten path of the left. It really hurts my heart to say this, having spent over 20 years entrenched in the US left, but I think that one of the biggest factors for the success in Lancaster was the fact that there was not a left here before we started organising. There was not a significant left with all its baggage and special vocabulary.
I would estimate that two thirds to three quarters of our base was not involved politically before the 2016 election. My goal is to help build political power alongside these folks in my community, and in other communities across the country. Frankly, I’m only interested in building a left to the extent that it is more of a help than a hindrance to that overall goal.
Teaser photo credit: A 15M assembly in Barcelona. Photo: Víctor Manuel Espinosa.