(This is the grown-up version of “Spreading the Creep.”)
THE UPHILL BATTLE OF IDEAS
The marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote a lot about “hegemony,” or the cultural influence of Leftists. Basically the idea is that, in developed countries, the Left begins in a weak position. Obviously it has no ability whatsoever to stand up to the physical strength of the state, though the ultimate goal is to get to such a position. Since any such scenario would inevitably involve a majority coalition of people pissed off over various things, and NOT an organization of guerrilla warriors which would fail hard, the Leftist quest is therefore to build that majority movement.
This is the often-missing link between thought and action. As Marx said in The German Ideology, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace the criticism of weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it grips the minds of the masses.”
The trouble is, how do we go from tiny to huge? To solve this problem, I’m using an analogy from nature.
THE GROWTH CURVE IN NATURE AND POLITICS
Our cells have a bunch of micro-fibers which help shape and move the cell. Some of these micro-fibers are made of tiny little pieces which are constantly deconstructing and reassembling, which they call “dynamic instability.”
So you have “monomers” of actin, which we could pretend are sort of like individual people. They form into small, weak “unstable oligomers.” These things appear and break up frequently – that’s why the first arrows is a two-way arrow. I’m sure in our cynicism we can think of a lot of social formations which are unstable oligomers, forming and dissolving like bubbles.
The Steady State is the goal. That means that, while there is a revolving door of new particles in and old particles out, the overall balance is generally neutral or even positive growth. In our dynamic environment, it is the Steady State that has the best odds of accumulating to the point of becoming our dreamed-of critical-mass majority-faction capable of real social change. (A debate – are most US leftist groups steady state fibers, or unstable oligomers?)
The growth has different phases:
This is really important: the first phase, nucleation, is also called a “lag phase.” Nucleation is when several oligomers come together and form something big enough to be stable and serve as an anchor for steady growth. It is my contention that this is where the US Left currently resides — in the lag phase, before nucleation is achieved. There are some good organizations out there, but even the best of them do not number much more than a thousand (1,000) people. Let’s face it, in a country of 330 million people, that is unforgivably pathetic. (A million is a thousand thousand, for all you normal people out there who don’t study demographic statistics and have no reason to think in epic numbers.)
The beginning of the curve is of the exponential shape, where the more you have already together, the easier it is to build it bigger and bigger and head toward critical mass. Of course it also works the other way – the less you have together already, the harder it is, and the more likely it is that new recruits will just scoff at the whole project as a pointless fantasy. That’s one of the greatest frustrations of organizing – when it is needed the most, it is the hardest to do. The next chart may provide an answer to that:
You can do something called “seeding” in biology. You accelerate the growth of the filaments by having chemicals which act as a sort of substitute nucleation. You give the monomers and oligomers a pre-existing base to build from. In essence it skips the long, slow, random cycles of accumulation-and-dissolution-in-hopes-of-leaning-toward-overall-accumulation, and just goes straight to the stable growth phase. (In US history, the old Socialist Party of Debs was actually started in such a manner, when Marx exiled the First International to the USA because he thought it was henceforth useless. From that nucleus came the SP.)
One important thing to keep in mind though, is that in human organizations, collapse can happen at any time if the group loses quality, even after the lag phase has been beaten and growth or steady-state has been attained. If it starts blatantly ignoring the original mission for which it was founded, not only has it lost its purpose, but it can also lose a lot of members. Sometimes it can survive as a zombie with lots of members, but betraying its purpose.
This is why seeding is a tricky issue. In politics, the equivalent of artificially creating a group would be hiring a bunch of paid organizers, or getting people to show up to your meeting by giving out free pizza. (The opposite would be the bottom-up, grassroots construction of a movement through the lag phase.) Seeding is a gamble. It can easily turn your group into a zombie that loses its real purpose, but then it can also be a way to expose people who otherwise would never have given you a chance to your full ideas, to find out that they really love it and want to stick around. In the International Socialist Organization they use(d?) a related practice called “instant recruiting” and have a whole love-hate relationship and history of experiences with it. (To be honest they are more self-aware about instant recruiting than most groups, and they try to avoid it, but the temptation is always there.)
In the past I have often despised instant recruiting, for either creating a revolving-door membership, or filling a group with people who are either clueless or too obedient. Oddly enough, now I think some kind of “seeding” is exactly what the Left needs.
OCCUPY: FLAREUP, CRASH, UNTAPPED POSSIBILITIES
A few years ago this thing called Occupy Wall Street happened. There was a lot right with it and wrong with it.
The main problem was that the USA needs some form of enduring resistance to the very problems (capitalism) and groups (the 1%) that Occupy was pointing out. Not just enduring, like the tiny left groups, and not just massive, like Occupy, but BOTH massive and enduring resistance. It would have been fantastic if Occupy had become a formal group which served as the nucleation of that resistance. This didn’t happen. The reasons why it didn’t happen are fairly obvious to anyone who is a grown-up and not a roleplayer pretending to be an anarchist; they mostly boil down to consensus, and the insistence on making the encampment-communes into the center of the movement.
But what Occupy proved is that big things are possible. If a fairly shallow plan to create a mob scene in the financial district actually WORKED, actually flared up into a national resistance with a chapter in every major and many minor cities, it’s not because of the genius of the planners. It’s because we have reached a social boiling point that allows chemical reactions to happen. It’s the sort of time that you can light a match and expect it to turn into a fire, or as they said in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”
SEEDING IS THE ANSWER
We need forward motion NOW, for these reasons.
We need both a formal, nationally coordinated resistance coalition (tax the rich, single payer, fight cuts) and we need an American Syriza or united socialist party, and I think people like Kshama Sawant are leading the way in that department. We need these things badly, with caution thrown to the wind, and I believe in “seeding,” or using artificial methods to jump-start past the lag phase into growth. I think we should recruit anyone and everyone to a socialist party, even people who are new and only know what’s going on at an instinctual level. I think we should contribute funds and hire temporary organizers, because a party with a little bureaucracy in it is better than not having a party at all. Besides, the pressure from below is so strong right now that any such party would immediately cave to the demands of its membership. Occupiers have gotten pretty good at taking over spaces and disrupting bureaucrats; it would be even easier to do in our own house.
We seem to be having a hard time in the USA. We have lots of anger but little organization. 39% of Americans are now favorable to socialism but we have no socialist party. We get floods of loose filaments that quickly destabilize and dissolve (Occupy, Trayvon Martin). We have a bunch of little semi-stable oligomers that never get too big, different socialist groups, anarchist scenes, and groups of activist friends, all of varying political quality. Overall the problem is that WE NEVER NUCLEATE, and NUCLEATION IS THE RATE-LIMITING STEP, or, if you don’t nucleate, you’re gonna crawl slowly in the lag phase. Because life is a dynamic process with continual forward-and-backward motion, crawling usually doesn’t even mean inches of progress, it usually is just cancelled out entirely.
So let’s cut the crap and nucleate by any means necessary.