Theorizing movements: dissipation, co-option, and revolution

During the Occupy Movement, I speculated that the movement would likely move in one of three directions. I based my premise on my observation of social movements in the context of history as well as the synergistic relationship between social conditions, social movements, and political consciousness. I have decided to revisit these reflections in light of recent occurrences.

Succinctly stated, movements for social change can move in three directions. First, they can dissipate due to insufficient momentum and political consciousness on the part of the movements’ actors and the masses. Poor social conditions coupled with certain forms of political consciousness are the fertilizer for movements. Where the movements’ goals fail to gain traction in the consciousness of the masses or where the requisite levels of critical consciousness are lacking, movements may decline with various degrees of rapidity.

Further, in contexts where reforms are sufficient to pacify a masses’ yearning for a better society, movements may cease to seem relevant. It should be noted that the perception of reform may be as effective as the actuality itself, at least in the short term. That is if the masses accept the viability of reform as a signifier of social progression, then the movement itself–given its oppositional nature–may fade into irrelevance. Hence reforms, as a process of signification, may effectively blunt the further progression of a movement. Of course, when such reforms prove illusory, there is always the possibility of new movements of opposition forming–which may be further animated by the conscious awareness of the failed reforms of the past.

Further, insufficient social consciousness, that is limitations in the political education of the masses and a movements’ core actors can also lead to its eventual dissipation.

Second, movements can be co-opted by the establishment. This typically takes the form of them merging with, being absorbed by, or having their core platform adopted by the dominant political parties or other structures of the mainstream political apparatus. This differs from dissipation in that the aims of the movement continue, albeit within the dominant system. Such co-option may be represented by a range of structures such as the appointment of movement leaders to key positions in the government or private foundations, the provisioning of funds to movement actors by the state or civil society, the creation of policy platforms based on movement objectives, as well as the creation of institutes focused on the development of movement aims in some form or another. Often the latter may entail connections to major universities, and with this the provisioning of monetary resources, social status, and–necessarily–a degree of legitimization by the existing system.

Of course, co-option may result in movement fragmentation, as certain movement actors opt to continue on a more independent basis, perhaps due to differing forms of political consciousness or a striving towards different end goals beyond those symbolized in the supposed gains afforded by co-option. In any event, this suggests that the progression of movements themselves may also be characterized by bifurcations.

Third, movements can also become more radical wherein they look beyond reform as the solution to the existing system.

Returning to the above formulation–social conditions and political consciousness, in addition to a rejection of the legitimacy and viability of the existing system is the conceptual basis for revolutionary movements. In fact, the difference between reformist and revolutionary movements is largely based on the latter factor, as those who have rejected the dominant order may be less inclined to hold out hope in its redemption. One additional critical element which serves to concretize revolutionary movements is a vision of a new future possibility–that is the movement is ultimately animated by its pursuance of a new society, one whose birth requires the dissolution of the present one.

The latter stage necessarily entails three sub-stages: proto-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. However, these will be discussed in another essay.

Of course, these three possibilities are predicated on the movements’ self-conscious evolution. They do not focus on a fourth possibility, destruction by the state–a common fate of many movements, though perhaps less common than the first or second. Also, given that all movements do not form for the sake of achieving revolution, it must be stated that many do form for short-term, limited objectives–thus making dissipation inevitable. Further, others may come into being with the express goal of moving the establishment in one direction or another. Though such reformist movements may engage in various forms of  “militant” performance including, among other things, vociferous rhetoric, such movements must never be confused with revolutionary movements–which posit the necessity of fundamental social change, not reform.

Adaptation in the martial arts

Years ago, while watching videos of Kung Fu practitioners sparring against each other, I noticed that many of these arts tended to look like kickboxing during sparring. Sometimes this was a rather rough transition. At other times, depending on the art, it was more seamless.
My take on this is that some of these arts are difficult to apply in real-time against a resisting opponent due to the manner in which they are traditionally trained. Some arts have footwork and stances that may only works under certain rare conditions. Others, due to training with insufficient resistance, fail to acquaint their practitioners with the proper approaches to apply them in real-time in a self-defense or combat sport situation. Others styles have strayed from the combative and reside firmly within the realm of the ritualisitc–wherein the combat theory of the art becomes a matter of religious conviction and the mythic history of the art’s past glories and champions becomes the basis of its legitimacy as a fighting art, rather than the ability of its living practitioners to “show and prove” that their progenitors’ skills are alive and well in the current generation. Some stylists train to fight against low-skilled opponents and are unable to apply their training against high-level opponents. Finally, too many arts only train against practitioners of the same style. This may not be a problem if the parameters of one’s fighting (in tournaments or in the street) is limited to one’s fellow practitioners of this same art. However, it become an altogether more complicated matter when faced with stylists of other arts with which one may have limited familiarity.
My thoughts are that this problem of translation, that is of transiting from training to combat, can only be satisfied by building the combative into one’s training–that is of (1) training with varying degrees of resistance, (2) by regularly sparring against various styles or approaches to fighting, and (3) of relinquishing doctrinaire mindsets that prevents one from thinking critically or analytically about one’s art, its combat theory, its strengths and weaknesses.
Interestingly enough, those arts renowned for their effectiveness, particularly in the context of sport, such as Western Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, or Judo reflect the principle of training in a manner that approximates combat application. This is achieved via training with varying degrees of resistance. These arts are key parts of the skill set of mixed martial artists due to their interoperability with and effectiveness against other styles. Finally, these arts’ histories evidence various changes and adaptations over time as new knowledge and technique came into play. It is not to say that this has not occurred in many other traditional arts, but often quasi-religious commitments prevent such adaptation. However, where it has taken place, such arts continue to demonstrate their relevance as combat arts.

Re-Africanization: Two perspectives

Re-Africanization can be thought of as a process of decolonization, wherein people of African descent seek to reconstruct their cultural practice in ways that augments the core elements of traditional culture, deconstructs the vestiges of cultural disruption, and adapts these reconceptualized cultural forms to the modern exigencies of the African world. Discourses of Re-Africanization, whether from continental Africans as Amilcar Cabral, or from diasporan thinkers such as Dr. Maulana Karenga, are focused on the conceptualization of culture as an engine of social transformation. Herein culture is understood as a deterministic structure instrumental in shaping human cognition, actions, and modes of organization. Culture then is conceived as a terrain of struggle, wherein the capacity of the people to extricate themselves from systems of oppression is not only contingent upon victory over structural forms of oppression, but also relies upon the dismantling of those cultural patterns that have been derived from processes of foreign domination, and thus focused on reinforcing the domination of the oppressor. There are generally two perspectives on the process of Re-Africanization: one approach which emphasizes the importance of cultural specificity, and another that advocates the utility of devising a cultural composite.

Advocates of cultural specificity emphasize the importance of our immersing ourselves in the culture of a specific ethnic group (often Ashanti or Yoruba). Emphasis is typically placed on the value of adopting the cultural practices of extant ethnic groups given the relative accessibility of living practitioners. Other advocates of cultural specificity also include Kemet (the ancient Egyptian civilization) as a viable cultural model. Contrary to the notion that Kemet is a dead civilization, proponents for the reconstruction of Kemetic culture argue that the abundance of textual, iconographic, architectural, and other data make Kemet highly accessible for those seeking to fully understand its culture. Moreover, many argue that Kemet’s culture legacy is evident in the language, cosmologies, and other practices of modern African ethnic groups.

Generally, advocates of cultural specificity will adopt the names, spiritual practices, language, dress, family/social structure and other elements of this particular culture. Baba Agyei and Mama Akua Nson Akoto discuss this approach extensively in Sankofa Movement: ReAfrkanization and the Reality of War.

The cultural composite approach emphasizes the importance of us developing a new African culture (though some might say a Pan-culture) that embraces the best elements of traditional and classical African culture, in both its continental and diasporic forms. Thus it advocates that we seek to be critically engaged with African cultural production in its totality, and from this seek to analyze, critique, interpret, and adopt those elements that best informs our attempts to liberate ourselves and to transform the world.

Generally, advocates of the cultural composite approach will draw from a variety of traditions for names, spiritual practices, languages, dress, family/social structure, and other elements. Dr. Maulana Karenga elaborates on this philosophy in his writings on Kawaida Theory, the most comprehensive treatment being his 1980 outline from the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies.

Though these paradigms are presented as binaries, much of the actualization of processes of Re-Africanization reflect varying degrees of both. It should be noted that no culture can be adopted by any group without some degree of transformation and adaption from its original to its new form. Therefore even in contexts of cultural specificity there are composite elements that are inextricable. Furthermore, many proponents of a cultural composite may draw more heavily from one particular cultural context than others, this may even be more salient in specific domains of cultural knowledge and practice, thus producing areas of specificity within a larger composite framework.