May 2017Personal

Inside, outside: communicating our socialism

We've had some wonderful conversations in Metro DC DSA, in these first months of 2017, about communicating our socialism. Implicit in all the discussions -- accelerated by the equally wonderful gallop at which our organizational growth has taken place -- is the question "how do we communicate our socialism while doing it at the same time?"

That continues to be the first -- yeah, I'll call it that -- dialectic among the many that we encounter continually in this communication problem set. It is reflected in the recent experience at our regular monthly Salon, where the April topic was "Socialist Education." Almost ironically, the Salon's usual role of convivial social space (with a meal, in a restaurant) that welcomes new folks who are interested in DSA or just joined, was flipped. This time we talked, in effect, to ourselves instead of consciously projecting out to a tier of potential activists who were kicking the tires of socialism.

Yet we have, of course, the same phenomenon inside -- a variety of real or perceived individual needs for more steeping in the classic canon of socialist thought and history. The members who attended that April 20 Salon were avid for more "Socialism 101" presentations in a sequence that could also include Socialism 102, 201 dot dot dot and (as one member elaborated) "503 and 706." The appetite for internal education through various modes -- several reading groups, the newsletter, more Salon presentations like the recent ones on Universal Basic Income or Socialist Feminism -- was strong. At the same time all participants realized that if we don't strategically express our socialism -- theory, practice, excitement, everything -- effectively to people outside who could and should join us, we will cease to grow.

We have the capacity to match that need. Communication, to ride a personal hobbyhorse here, has to be understood as transmission of information compounded of both routine and non-routine. By that I mean that the basic information we understand and use to conduct our lives and increase our collective and individual agency is constantly under construction, the new elements being the non-routine. We call that non-routine, the unusual, "news," and it is the unusual quality of the event or narrative that we can only clearly discern in the light of, contextualized by, the everyday information we already possess.

People, including both ourselves and those we are trying to reach, are accustomed to this process of resolving the conflicts between "news" and the everyday world-picture on which we operate. As we educate ourselves internally and reach out communicatively to our potential fellow socialist-activists, we have to work both sides of that equation. The "non-routine" critique on which we insist is not the easy, digestible chunks of news our intended audience is used to. The practices of capitalism make the everyday outrages of class and inequality "routine" information and it is one of our tasks to ensure that the non-routine underpinnings of those everyday outrages are made plain. Capitalism and its practices are neither natural nor inevitable, but we as communicators of socialism have to counter that existing false narrative.

Do we have that need inside our own organization? Sure. Because all of us live and struggle to manage agency in this everyday world, all of us need the reminder. It never hurts to reinforce this. I have an undeveloped theory that the cascade of joking and ironic references we casually make to one another about our shibboleths of socialism -- a little labor theory of value here, a few class fractions there -- are essential to keep ourselves oriented to our socialism in the smother of capitalist practices we have to navigate every day.

That, I think, brings us to the question of how we juggle our internal and external communication. They have distinct audiences and discourses, as we have seen. Are there dangers in overthinking this distinction? I'll refer to a book that many of us have been reading, including our book group recently -- Jonathan Smucker's Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. (see reviews in this and the April issues). The management of communication for effect inside and outside radical groups is a large part of his discussion and it points up a number of dialectical pairings that illustrate the perils that can emerge as any group seriously plans to gain power. Smucker's participation in Occupy Wall Street -- focusing on communicative work, radical publicity -- seemed hampered to him because "we often seemed more preoccupied with the purity of our political expression than with how to move from Point A to Point B. It felt as if having the right line on everything was more important than making measurable progress on anything."

This raw critique, which Smucker applies more broadly to movement contexts other than just OWS, gets more tempered as he moves through a quite nuanced account of how to maintain a radical stance (his seems implicitly though seldom explicitly socialist, as much anticorporate as anticapitalist) while speaking in the tones and textures that get listened to in the not-yet-radical populace outside the organization.

Faulty communication strategies, in his plausible account, not only cut down on the organization's effectiveness and growth but damage the group. As the group's effect is dampened by poorly managed outreach, he says, the static group membership can take on a "Righteous Few" identity, satisfied with the correctness of its perspective despite its inability to have an effect in the wider society.  And to some extent, this comes from making too strong a distinction between our internal discourse and the way we reach out to the socialists-in-potential whom we hope to include as comrades.  Inside discourse and outside discourse should not be mutually unintelligible.

OWS in Smucker's account fell into the "Righteous Few" identification, using "group ritual" to strengthen that identification and, even as the wider left woke up to what was happening and rushed to participate, held off offers of aid to preserve that internal cohesion. Seen as communication strategy, it was a disaster. Instead, looking ahead "we have to orient ourselves to connect with others, to notice commonalities, and to embrace being embraced by society." And instead of hewing to a line, organizations should "test political messages with people outside of the group" to "guard against groupthink and insularity." Smucker argues that a dual communication strategy of "within-group bonding" and "beyond-group bridging" -- hard as it can be to manage -- is critical.

DSA's long history as a big-tent socialist organization has, I think, been absolutely generative to our appeal to the many who have been radicalized by the government's takeover by gangster capitalism. Our communication strategy has to maintain that self-representation, and actuality, of flexible response to new, bizarre conditions while retaining the well-articulated core critique of capitalist practices.

Our communication strategy -- certainly as I've seen it from inside the burgeoning Communication Committee, carrying our messaging capacity and understanding of audiences well beyond the text-heavy newsletter with which I for one have been preoccupied -- still has a few things on the unfinished list.

  • We are good at appeal to individuals, but still learning to work with ally organizations that may not share our total critique. Some of us have to keep re-learning what our great comrade Dorothy Healey used to acerbically remind us, "In coalition work you are never going to get your maximum demand."
  • Learning or refining our grasp of the power of narrative. Smucker points out that OWS, despite eventually flagging, created with the tale of the 99 percent "a powerful counter-hegemonic narrative" that has persisted, illuminating the inequality that (he observes) Thomas Piketty provided in data but not in the stark gut-punch of the OWS formulation.
  • Avoiding our seductive radical jargon through aphoristic simplicity: Paolo Freire's "What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?" (Smucker p. 56) is a sound one-sentence narrative that answers the non-socialist's question, "What can I do?" and provides a different, and absolutely critical, pronoun.
  • Narrative, in discourse, is an expansion of the image into an action sequence. If we are to solve another problem that was raised in the Salon discussion, we have to harness that narrative to provide and communicate a vision -- necessarily incomplete -- of what a post-capitalist socialism would look like.
  • We need to learn the lesson that communication is almost always a campaign with a beginning, middle and end. When we are putting on an event -- like the highly successful Racial Justice intersectional town meeting of a few weeks ago -- we need to remind ourselves of the communication-sphere size and scope of events, not just succumb to the exhausting needs of putting it on and then gratefully walk away. That event lingers in the mind and has to linger in our discourse as well; participants need to memorialize it with newsletter accounts so that it gets its full extended-life impact and enriches the overall lifestream of our local and of the DC progressive community. Communicating our socialism is, after all, a campaign not a one-off even if the public events we create are, in their way, one-offs. Each should be part of a stream of advance work, event and follow-up that not only highlights the event but also contextualizes it in our wider scope of socialist practice. This is labor-intensive at first, but then like all teamwork gets insensibly easier. It is the inside game, outside game practice that keeps us effective and growing.

These are the ways we resolve that continuing inside-outside dialectic. Every event, and every issue that flares up and becomes one of our action items, naturally propels us in the direction of the specific. Each specific struggle also needs to be constantly recaptured (and ordered) in the overarching rainbow of socialist perspectives and practices. Without pushing the metaphor too far, the rainbow provides a near-infinite variety of specific colors but they all resolve into one, not "white" as often suggested but clear in its absence of color.

Our socialism is transactional -- must be transactional -- because it has to dynamically conform to the contours of everyday forms of oppression and inequality -- which are themselves, by (evolutionary) design, dynamic. Capitalist practice, with the blind genius of centuries of canny growth, riffles those waters continuously and new forms of oppression and inequality are devised, nicely masked to allow those entrapped in them to blame themselves, or some Other -- anything but the capitalist practices that are their actual shackles. Stripping off those masks is a never-ending struggle, and one that we as socialists are uniquely qualified for and tasked with.

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