April 2017Strategy

Smucker's "Hegemony How-To" plots a different path for change

Review of Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, by Jonathan Smucker (AK Press 2017)

The "Roadmap" in Jonathan Smucker's book is designed to lead radical organizations like DSA away from the isolation of "the righteous few" in our "moldy clubhouses" and into the risky, messy, political arena.  He says that radical organizations need to lose a comfortable "otherness," to engage actively in politics, and embrace strategic steps to gain the political power to win.  To that end he quotes Paulo Freire, who asked, "What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?"

Smucker bases his suggestions to radical organizations on what worked and what didn't work in his active experience with Occupy Wall Street (OWS).  A major OWS success was in basing Occupy on the 99% meme, a framework brand designed to project the members of Occupy as "mainstream and familiar." In effect, as Smucker says, the 99% brand helped to take the metaphorical "Dirty Hippies" sign off of Occupy's door and replace it with "Everybody Welcome."  On the negative side, however, as Smucker explains, "...Occupy Proper also saw itself distinctly individuated in the mirror. And it sometimes mistook itself and its bounds for the whole community of concern, rather than seeing itself as a symbol and special agent in the service of a much larger social unification." This retreat into the insularity of the "righteous few" rather than outreach to the larger community led to a rejection of support from potential supporters.  It was impossible for OWS to "arm its critique with political power" when a metaphorical sign went up: "Your support is not wanted.  This thing is ours."

A key point for radical groups to remember, according to Smucker, is that we can shout until we are blue in the face about what is wrong, but we won't change anything unless we exercise political strategy to gain the power to actually change what needs changing.  As Smucker says, "...knowledge of what is wrong with a social system and knowledge of how to change the system are two completely different categories of knowledge."  He fully understands how psychologically necessary it is to create what he calls "the life of the group" through collective rituals like events and protests.  But he emphasizes that as radical groups build and foster internal solidarity, they must ensure that the members don't become isolated from the society as a whole.  He calls this problem "the political identity paradox" that can lead to difficulties in ever achieving political goals.  To counteract this paradox, groups need to reach out to other groups and society as a whole to ensure "...both strong bonding and strong bridging" to become effectively politically.

To build those socially connecting, politically critical bridges, to reach out and attract new members, Smucker suggests that we need to "up our charm offensive" to "court" other groups and society as a whole. Don't overwhelm our target audience with so much data on our group that it seems like we are "proposing on the first date."  Branding ourselves as friendly, "mainstream and familiar" is critical.  And once the new members are on board, we need to get them involved; give them something to do, and appreciate their needs for different levels of involvement in group actions. Crucially, the group needs to ensure that proposed actions always have clearly defined goals and political strategies.  Leadership needs to look like it has a good plan of action. And groups shouldn't shy away from having leadership.  In fact the supposed lack of leadership at OWS was a myth, according to Smucker. The leadership goal for radical groups should be developing a multiplicity of leaders working together.  As Smucker says, organizing for political ends is "...not a matter of creating a liberated space that perfectly reflects one's utopian vision. Organizing is a mess, not a refuge."

Smucker urges the left to pursue "hegemony."  Hegemony?  Why should radical groups embrace hegemony?  The term "hegemony" in Smucker's title is deliberately provocative in that it "...suggests that hegemony is not in and of itself something to stand against, but rather something to attain."  He explains that hegemony is a compilation of accepted practices that become "common sense" via the process of constructing common ideas.  Given that definition, there is every reason to see how radical groups that obtain power could and should modify the prevailing hegemony:

"If a bottom-up movement -- an emergent power -- succeeds in defining its values as the popular common sense and also succeeds in translating this broad values-shift into concrete revolutionary transformations of power and wealth relationships in society, then that challenger has now itself become hegemonic, or at least powerful enough to contend within the polity and win important gains. The state is no longer an other that we stand in opposition to as total outsiders; instead we become responsible for it -- parts of it, at least -- as it is becomes a capacity of our operation. That is the political roadmap, in a nutshell. That terrifying thing, with all its challenges, messiness, and moral quandaries, is what victory looks like."

The radical group must write its own political narrative that gives a better unifying basis than the current political narrative written on the monetary capitalist fiction of human nature as solely individualistic.  The new, winning political narrative will emphasize the historically proven group-oriented behavior of individuals and the "dynamic life of the group" as the foundation for collective political action. As Smucker says, "...Politics is fundamentally about groups. It is about the collective. The whole. The society. The particularly framed premise for solidarity. Politics is all about the we."  And DSA is eminently suited to become an emergent power that will change the current capitalist hegemony by promulgating a political narrative that is all about the unifying "We."

Hegemony How-To was a selection of Metro DC DSA's Socialist Book Group, which discussed it in March.

See more in categoryReturn to Issue