On the Fetishization of Expression

February 15th, 2012

Published on ZNet, by Paul Streeet, February 12, 2012.

  • A handwritten note stuck on the message board of an old Occupy site I know reads as follows: “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”
  • The message is clear: plans are for chumps.
  • How sad. That message is part of how the 1% rules.

From “Strategicism” to “Expressivism”:  

The New Left of the early 1960s was informed by the American Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and sought to build on its experiences. And the early CRM was highly strategic, particularly during the time when it was led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It picked concrete material targets and worked with masses of black southerners through black churches to carefully choose those targets and plan a broader campaign to bring about a definite outcome – the end of legal segregation in the South. The result was a significant improvement in the lives of southern blacks and the soul of the nation.

A generation before, American working class organizers did something similar. They worked carefully and patiently through existing labor, neighborhood, ethnic, and workplace structures and networks to develop operational tactics and strategies – shop-steward systems, coordinated work stoppages in key industrial departments (ie, packinghouse kill floors, auto plant foundries), sit-down strikes, community campaigns and more – to bring about the emergence of a durable union presence and collective bargaining to the American industrial sector. The labor militants of the 1930s and 1940s knew what they wanted and how to get it. The result was a significant improvement in living standard and political power of the American working class.

This legacy of rational, planned, deliberate and strategic progressive left activism was largely blown up in the late 1960s. In his 2003 book The Postmodern Prince, the left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu describes the rise of a not particularly effective “politics of expression” that was more about giving voice to one’s anger, alienation, and identity than about achieving any specific ends or changing mass consciousness. Here is how he describes this unfortunate development in an interview conducted in 2010 by the left writer and radio broadcaster Sasha Lilley:

In my book I describe ….a tension in the praxis of the New Left from strategicism, which is grounded in a reasoned approach to thinking about social change, and expressivism, in which the need or even compulsion to express one’s rebellion against established values… trump[s] longer-term planning and the careful articulation of tactics to strategy….with the New Left we see a key transition from a more strategic politics to a more expressivist one, i.e., a politics in which concrete thinking about how to achieve a desired objective was not considered  as important as that primordial moment of giving expression to speech – ‘letting speech run wild in the streets.’ While there were intimations of this shift in the early 1960s, for example, in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, the expressivist impulse only came to full flower in 1968. In a famous interview with the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, Daneil Cohn-Bendit – or Danny the Red, one of the leaders of May ’68 – said, to paraphrase, ‘people say now that the speech is running wild in the streets, and you, know, people say crazy things, but that’s necessary.’ What I argue in my book is that while this was a very important moment in our political practice, there’s no reason to fetishize expression today. And in fact, perhaps it’s gotten in the way of efficacious politics.” [1]

“The Right to Express Ourselves”: … //

… Some modern-day “radicals” could take a lesson from Depression-era Communist union organizers, who knew to dwell on specific issues and grievances rather than ideology and expression. As one brilliant Left sparkplug militant from that period recalled in an oral history interview, more experienced Communists “referred to how the Russians did it. First you fight for the hot water for tea, then you right for the tea for hot water, then you fight for sugar for the tea….”[10]

Ultimately, of course, the fight is, yes, for a new and different kind of genuinely democratic and participatory society. That fight requires a mass base won through dedicated work on issues and needs that matter to millions of everyday people, needs that ultimately cannot be meaningfully addressed or reliably and durably met under the rule of the profits system.

God knows we need to turn the world upside down – to take our society, government, politics, land, space, cities and culture back from the wealthy 1% masters. We need to do it as soon as possible, while there’s a still a livable planet worth inhabiting and inheriting.[11] We do need to make a revolution. But there’s no revolutionary movement without wide popular support base and we will not cultivate that support by engaging in (or apologizing for) juvenile exhibitionist confrontational-ism, transgressive expressivism, and pseudo-radical hyper-radicalism. And we cannot mobilize masses of workers and citizens with excessively abstract demands that do not connect with the real needs and lived experience of working class Americans. That’s the way it is and it’s not my fault … (full long text).

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