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.

Seeing through nonsense

Historically, African social movements have had a mass character. They were struggles engaged with the masses and concerned with structural conditions. The present effort is to present farce as movement that is concerned with hypermediated symbolism (ex., hashtags), hyperindividualism, and more recently micro-nationalism.
 
If we have ever wondered what movement would look like under the aegis of neoliberalism, then we have been graced by its presence throughout this decade. It is a masquerade, dense with ideologically-weighted jargon, yet devoid of the potency or potential of past struggles.
 
In a day best exemplified by personal branding, bathroom selfies, ubiquitous marketing via incessant data-mining, and an anti-intellectualism that masks itself as vehement conviction for all manner of lately contrived causes, propaganda is the very fabric of this epistemic reality.
 
It is therefore ironic, that we are counseled to “stay woke” in a time where the communal infrastructure that sustained critical ways of seeing the world has become increasingly fragmented. Thus, our “wokeness”, our vaunted critical consciousness, is fed by an unending stream of conspiracy-laden commentators or other content (that is mere nanometers in depth) from the most well-known (though not necessarily credible) social media personalities.
 
This is why I have said and continue to say that confusion and alienation are the spirit of this age. It is a time for those who have sia, that is exceptional insight and susununya, knowledge born of reflection and contemplation to deploy these tools for the good of others. As Mwalimu Shujaa says: “Throughout human history, truly educated, critically conscious people emerge who demonstrate the capacity to see through nonsense, grow in wisdom, and share knowledge with others.”

Being on the path: Meditations on Living and Re-Africanization

I am convinced that when we are on the path, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to be doing, we are consistently presented with reminders of the correctness of the direction in which we are moving. I received three such reminders in the last two days.

Reminder one: Today while working at my wife’s community training farm, a six year old boy asked me, “How do Africans fight?” I found his question intriguing, not only that he asked it of me, but that he posed this question at all. I am not entirely sure why he posed this question to me. Maybe he overheard me talking to his mother about teaching Capoeira at his school years ago, and understood what I was talking about. Maybe he presumed that as an African man I should know something about this. I did start to build on his existing knowledge base of Kiswahili, so maybe he figured that I might know something about fighting too. In any event, I deeply appreciated his question, a question that I did not think to pose until I was a young adult.

I told him that there are different ways that Africans have approached fighting and that I could show him some. I asked him if he wanted to know something related to kicking, punching, or stick-fighting. He said punching, so I showed him something. If he’s serious, I may teach him some basic elements of the arts whenever we see one another in-between farm work.

Reminder two: Similarly, a brother who attends my Capoeira class with his daughter told me that he intends for her to be a fighting arts practitioner, and wants for her focus to be specifically on Capoeira, given that it is an African art. I was intrigued by this. He has studied multiple arts, and sees Capoeira as not merely a matter of technical application, that is the process of fending off violent attackers, but also as a matter of affirming one’s cultural identity. In this way, Capoeira can be understood as a combat art that also embodies the kinesthetic dynamics of several African cultures, thus it is the embodiment of a distinctly African philosophy of movement. It also represents the sprit and tactics of African resistance in the Americas.

Reminder three: A brother who attended the mdw nTr conference in October told me that he had been so inspired, that he intended to teach his then unborn daughter mdw nTr. Today I saw him and his young daughter. He told me, consistent with his earlier statement, that he speaks to her in mdw nTr and proceeded to speak do so. I also spoke to her in mdw nTr. My wife claims that she perked up when she heard the mdw nTr, but I can’t confirm this.

That this would happen the day after African Languages Day was most inspiring for me. While I do study African languages regularly, I have struggled to find time to study of late. However, yesterday my studies were inspired. While riding the train I read about and practiced (silently) two African languages. African Languages Day gave me the opportunity to affirm something that I know I am capable of, using our languages on a regular basis to communicate complex ideas. To my understanding, the greatest challenge that we face is one of transmission, that is of creating new speakers of these languages in our communities in the African Diaspora. Solving this problem is one to which I will continue to devote my time and energy, as we cannot truly communicate about an African worldview if such a discourse is mediated in an alien language and from a culture characterized by fundamental alienation.

Our people once they know that they are an African people, they subsequently want and desire to ground themselves in African things, to understand their reality from the paradigms of their ancestors, to reclaim our languages, to practice our fighting arts, and to—in all areas of life—be African. This is more than just a matter of identity, but is one of solving the paradigmatic problem implicit in liberatory struggles—that is one of decolonzing the minds of the people as a means of enabling them to win the physical struggle which is for land, their lives, and the future.

The spirit of an age: Confusion and alienation

In his writings, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to the “spirit of an age” at least once explicitly, and numerous times implicitly. The “spirit of an age” is the essence, energy, or character that characterizes a particular time period. It is the prevailing mood or personality of a given historical moment.

One might argue, for instance, that the spirit of the age of the mid-1950s to early 1970s was one of mass-struggle, as movements for self-determination or social justice were being waged in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. These movements ran parallel to the state manifesting varying degrees of reform and/or suppression, as these struggles challenged its basic legitimacy.

Similarly, the 1980s and 1990s, and to some extent the 2000s–in the U.S. in particular–were characterized by the ascendance of acquisitiveness, consumerism, and materialistic impulses. All of this was paralleled by a reconfiguration of the state, greater economic insecurity, globalization, and the rapid ascent of technological revolutions in the areas of telecommunications, finance, and commerce.

I would argue that our present moment, the 2010s, is characterized by abounding confusion and alienation, as the “progressive” politics of our day reinforce an untenable status quo in the forms of appeals to reform, despite the fact that we have reached a point in the development of the U.S.’s political-economy where reform is wholly insufficient to move progressively from the current state of things to a truly emancipatory order. In fact, and in many instances, the politics of identity, are advanced as if they were the apex of critical discourse. While appeals to identity may be viscerally appealing to some, liberatory movements must ultimately offer both a critique of and alternative to the existing order. Thus even the most aggressive, seductive, or irrepressible movements of our time are generally insufficient to either disrupt, dismantle, or problematize an increasingly dangerous neo-liberal capitalism, a recalcitrant white racism, or the fratricidal violence of communities that function as almost de-facto sites of “internal colonialism”. This is because, I ague, that these movements, and much of what comprises this cultural moment reflects “abounding confusion and alienation”, and that this myopia is, generally, inescapable and endemic.

Duplicity in the opportunistic embrace of Black motherhood

Send in the moms

As if America has ever had any regard for Black folks or Black mothers. The subtext of this is that the current Baltimore rebellion and protests are devoid of legitimacy, and that the participants are unruly thugs bereft of sound parenting. That “safe negroes” would patiently wait for the proper authorities to deliver justice for Freddie Gray (something that we all know will not likely occur). I’d love to see the mother of one of Gray’s violent killers berating him or her publicly. But of course we’ll never see that. Agents of the state, even when they are murderers, are always given the benefit of the doubt. Their violent actions are dismissed as “lapses of judgement”, or worse, they are portrayed as isolated actors, aberrations of an otherwise functioning system.

This cover suggests that order needs to be restored. Rather than positing that the true source of disorder is the state, which daily meets out physical and psychological violence against Black people, it invokes the image of Black youth. This is why I argue that Black youth are viewed as a social malignancy. We see this in the schools, the streets, the media, and prisons. This mother then becomes the imagined antidote for that condition. She is juxtaposed to the unseen, but still symbolically present “bad mother” who supposedly births violent criminals.

I won’t weigh in on the debates that either champion, critique, or explain this mother’s actions. I will say that this event, and those that have proceeded it teach us that youth are the makers of revolution. We need to seize the fervor of this occasion and direct it towards both confronting this social order and actualizing a new emancipatory one. Therein this young man’s energy would be well served, and perhaps this mother’s love/fear/anger might be purposefully directed toward building a better world, rather than simply attempting to shield our children from the existing one–the one that seeks to obliterate them simply for existing.