The source of collective hope

Published online 2 July 2012.

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”-Emma Goldman

This diary is about three things:1) Hope.  One of the responses to my last diary was a discussion of collectives:

I’m not optimistic that our species can think collectively, can decide collectively, nor can it take action on the scale necessary to save everyone.

This is the thing, though — society can and will think collectively!  As I suggested at the end of my last diary:

I think that it’s safe to say that once world society can break the psychological double bind, and make a proactive solution its priority, the world will itself look different.  Until then, we get doom and denial.

So the vision I have in mind is that of a world in which significant changes in social structure can occur in a relatively short period of time.  This has indeed happened historically — think, for instance, of the significant and lasting impact of the French Revolution upon French social life, or of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s upon social life in the US and in other countries.  One can point to the reversions to the status quo that occurred thereafter — but not without noticing the changes.  France after the reimposition of the Bourbon monarchy, for instance, was significantly different from France before the revolution, and social life in the US changed significantly in the 1960s.At any rate, we will need another such period of relatively quick social change if we hope to do anything significant about global warming.  This quick social change doesn’t have to be violent — but it does have to change patterns of human action.  It’s because of the way we behave now that we so need hope.

2) Collectives.  Human society forms a collective, but this collective operates under a social structure.  Significant changes in the social structure are a group activity, even though changes in law or great symbolic acts may facilitate the process.  Some examples: The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, both of which were important as individual pieces of legislation.  But both of these acts were preceded and followed by revolutionary demonstrations, celebrations, and be-ins that cemented change in many aspects of social life.

Street theater to change the world.

I suppose that to a certain extent I am bringing this into my diary here because I feel obliged to respond to a participant who thought that “it all starts with individuals.”  Technically the respondent is correct: it all starts with individuals.  Yet individual action is often only effective when it reaches a “critical mass” — i.e. when it becomes group action.  We could say, for instance, that the Tahrir Square uprising of last year was the product of “individuals,” but anyone who viewed the al Jazeera broadcasts of the uprising could see what a trivial consideration that would be.  Humanity forms collectives; these collectives have a social structure; and we will know the success of our endeavors in dealing with our most pressing problem (“global warming”) when our social structures become more egalitarian, more attuned to “nature.”  Usually the process by which this happens is one of upheaval, of people “taking to the streets” to demand change.

3) Victor Turner.  Turner (1920-1983) was a renegade structural-functionalist anthropologist.  Turner’s importance (for the purpose of our hopeful and collective project here) is to help us see how social structure is something that is not set in stone.  If we need change soon, then we can’t be imagining that change will be something that will “take decades,” which it would if we just let the social structure do it.  If the social order is to be changed, the change must first be imagined, and too little of what counts as “Left” writing takes the powers of the imagination seriously enough.  Saving the Earth is too often regarded as a mechanical process — that if we all recycled or gardened or gave up our petroleum vehicles for cars that ran on vegetable oil we could do something significant.  But remember what David Roberts said in the video from my last diary: if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re doomed.  Thus we must imagine our society doing things differently, and this difference can’t be a trivial one.

I think that if the “Left” is to have any serious hope of solving the world’s social problems (especially as regards global warming) that it ought to immerse itself in an understanding of writers such as Victor Turner.  Turner argued that society was upon occasion engaged in what he called “anti-structure,” in which aspects of the dominant social structure were collectively abandoned for special states of social being.  These special states of social being were and are codified in terms of magical symbols, to be sure, but also performed in great collective shows, which I will attempt to describe below.  Performances of anti-structure are the source of collective hope.

Now, what counts as “performances of anti-structure” in a particular society can be a number of different actions, not all of them strictly speaking “liberatory,” but all of them with potential.  So, for instance, you have parties, orgies, festivals, pilgrimages, movements, rebellious subcultures, religious rituals, rites of passage, uprisings, and so on.  There are various degrees of “antistructure” in each of these, some which are completely anarchic and others in which only some of the social rules are suspended.  Some of these events can inspire social change, others not so much.  Turner suggests two phenomena associated with “antistructure”:

1) Liminality: this is a state of being “outside” of the normal structure of human affairs.  Think, for instance, of being in an Occupy encampment.

You’re resting day and night on land that is used for “business as usual,” whether this business be dealings with city government or banking with Chase or B of A.  With your fellow human beings you’ve created a miniature society of your own, with the purpose in mind of changing the mainstream society outside.  You’ve certainly chosen the right place to advertise the alternative society — you’re right there in the middle, where the mainstream does its dirty deals.  Occupy encampment, then, would be an example of what Turner called “liminal ritual” or “liminoid ritual,” using a distinction that Turner never quite made clear.  Man, I miss the encampments.

2) Communitas: this is a state of spontaneous togetherness, without hierarchy, typically motivated by a concept of the utopian or sacred.  Turner: communitas is a social state of being “as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders” (The Ritual Process, page 96).  Sometimes there are wise wo/men or religious figures performing in a state of communitas as masters of ceremony; but they aren’t essential to the process.  Imagine, for instance, huge street protests in world-changing situations.  Nearly everyone in a particular protest location is there for the same reason (for instance to oust Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak from power) — and each individual constitutes part of an undifferentiated mass of humanity which anticipates a specific moment, when —

Now there’s some ripe-and-ready communitas for you!

Liminality and communitas constitute aspects of what Victor Turner called “ritual antistructure.”  The social structure is dissolved or at least partially abridged at certain points in what Turner called the “social drama,” in order to reconstitute itself in a different form.  Social structure does not always, then, carry the day: after the social drama the old social structure will often give way to different, more versatile, ritual forms.  Ritual antistructure is, as its identity as ritual suggests, something to be performed: it’s no coincidence that scholars in performance studies (Richard Schechner, for instance) are into Victor Turner.

Ritual antistructure has an ambiguous relationship to protest, movement-formation, and revolution.  Turner’s overarching concept of “social drama” is important in understanding why.  Social drama is the overarching metaphor in which “anti-structure” can be described as part of a revolutionary (or not revolutionary) process.  What we want is a social drama that revolutionizes society, that ends up with a society that recognizes its roots in ecology and has the ecological discipline to avoid creating further environmental disasters (e.g. with the acceleration of global warming, droughts, heat waves and so on) or to at least to adapt to those disasters with a minimum of carnage.  Generally, I want to see a minimum of carnage — I want to end the emergency that our current society has become.

Here is how “social drama” fits into my plans.  For Turner, there were four stages of social drama, of which the first two were “breach,” when the status quo is disrupted, and “crisis,” in which society enters “moments of danger and suspense” (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, page 39) with respect to social change.  After crisis came “redressive action,” in which crisis was resolved, and “reintegration,” in which social structure takes over again, perhaps this time in a different form.  Various scholars have noticed that “social drama” doesn’t need to involve social change at all.  Nor, for that matter, will “liminality” or “communitas” necessarily produce transformative states of social being.  A protest, for instance, can be quite festive or chaotic — but then at the end everyone goes home and resumes their normal lives.  I saw plenty of that in my adventures with Occupy Los Angeles.

Richard Schechner’s essay “The Street Is The Stage” (The Future of Ritual, pages 45 through 93) analyzes various modes of “antistructure,” from Spring Break at Daytona Beach to the Tienanmen Square uprising in China in 1989.  There are all sorts of great pictures in this essay.  In it, Schechner describes the multiplicity that is liminoid street theater, and concludes:

The popular street carnival-demonstration is actually a utopian mimesis whose focused, idealized, heated, magnified, and transparent clarity of consciousness dissolves once the show is over.  But those involved in a festival of political desire too often deceive themselves in to believing their utopian show will run forever.  It is not only the tanks of Deng Xiaoping which enviously and with terrible clarity destroy the fun, but the only slightly longer process, when the revolution is successful, of postrevolutionary jockeying for power.  This decay of festival into “dirty politics,” the inevitable end to spontaneous communitas, is what the Chinese students now underground or in exile have learned, a lesson most American radicals of the 1960s and 1970s never studied.  The carnival, more strongly than other forms of theater, can act out a powerful critique of the status quo, but it cannot itself be what replaces the status quo.  (85)

At the end of every big political festival, Schechner reminds us, the social structure takes over again.  The street protests all over Egypt in 2011, for instance, got rid of Mubarak.  But then the military took over.  Still, and as I’ve suggested in previous diaries, there needs to be a new society if we are to avoid super-disaster, and the best way to start thinking about it is to imagine what sort of collective performance will be necessary to get the process of social change going.  There will have to be a ritual process that transforms our society into a society that will enact social change.  Let’s think in performance terms: what kind of show, what type of street theater or celebration or rite of passage, will be powerful enough to entice people to create the new society?  See below the fold for further discussion of this puzzle.

In modern, 21st-century society, it’s easy to imagine social structure everywhere and anti-structure conforming to the social structure itself.  The landscape is laid out as a big social structure for the domination of cars and trucks, with roads and parking lots everywhere.  People spend lots of time driving to and from equally unrebellious places.  Consumer anti-structures such as shopping sprees and rock concerts do not change the world.

American politics is rigorously structured to produce a single outcome.  “Liberals” vote for the D, “conservatives” vote for the R, and policy is structured to favor the 1%.  This is no doubt Margaret Flowers noted in her response to the most recent Supreme Court decision:

We also might imagine that liberals now support warfare (specifically, drone warfare) because the D politicians support it.  Glenn Greenwald told us back in February:

The Post‘s Greg Sargent obtained the breakdown on these questions and wrote today:    The number of those who approve of the drone strikes drops nearly 20 percent when respondents are told that the targets are American citizens. But that 65 percent is still a very big number, given that these policies really should be controversial.

And get this: Depressingly, Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35. Those numbers were provided to me by the Post polling team.

Perhaps polls like the one referenced in Greenwald’s article explain the near-total disappearance of the antiwar movement, once a very important source of politicized antistructure.  When I read stuff like this, I see the political structure (and the social structure surrounding it) as a big trap, a dead end.You can see the difficulty we’re in, then.  Any movement to change the world will certainly need a support structure, and an agenda, to be sure.  Our movement will be accompanied by a declaration of rights or a list of demands or some type of prefiguration of the hoped-for future.  But the next movement must also have a “street theater” project of some sort.  Will we enact massive global warming “die-ins”?  Will it be like Occupy, except with a strong “move to the countryside and practice self-sufficiency” component like they have in upstate NY with Occupy Farms?  Will it be like some of the mass actions promoted by  Somehow I have a feeling that what we’re doing is not enough and that our world-changing ritual must be more inclusive than it has been so far.

Two issues might be highlighted in the coming movement:

1) Global warming.  It’s hotter than hell right now in most of the US, and in future decades much of the country stands a chance of becoming downright uninhabitable.  I’m sure that the global warming issue can be diffused a bit in our actual celebration of its coming-into-being, with the ultimate goal of bringing people back to nature whether they live in cities or in the countryside.

2) Education.  We need an education for the future; what we have is an education that profits the owners of educational institutions and the manufacturers of test-prep materials.  The education issue can also be made more diffuse — “school” is anywhere there are people who can teach and people who can learn.  Let’s hold massive “teach-ins” in the streets.

Perhaps, as I suggested above, this will all have to wait until the election is over.  But something will have to budge, and I would rather it happened before the next disaster strikes.


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