The Internal Life of Social Movement Groups and Grassroots Organization

Jonathan Smucker has spent more than two decades organizing and formulating strategies for grassroots social movements. He is a doctoral student of sociology at U.C. Berkeley and the director and co-founder of Beyond the Choir, an organization that capitalizes upon Smucker’s experience, crafting strategic messaging and campaigns for social justice groups. In his book, Hegemony How-To (AK Press, 2017), Smucker provides practical tools and advice for the next generation of grassroots organizers and changemakers based upon his depth of experience and research. The following excerpt is from the book’s third chapter.

Bioneers is excited to welcome Jonathan Smucker to our 2017 conference, where he will be speaking on a panel about resistance and belonging.

“Intuitively speaking, not all social groups involve the current pursuit of a goal or end, in spite of the impression given by some writers.”
—Margaret Gilbert

“Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.”
—David Riesman

The personal is political

When Carol Hanisch published her classic essay “The Personal is Political” in 1969, she was pushing back against critics who had been dismissing women’s caucuses and discussion circles as being merely “therapeutic.” The essential argument of the criticism—which was coming from within social justice movements—was that women were indulging in “navel-gazing” retreats to talk about their “personal problems,” distracting themselves and others from the “real work” of challenging systems and structures (like capitalism). If a woman was doing too much of the cleaning, cooking, or childcare at home, or if she was dealing with an abusive husband or boyfriend, the problem was a personal one, for her to either get out of or to figure out how to deal with. Maybe she should just be more assertive. Hanisch rejected this view. She argued that while individual women were facing innumerable everyday forms of oppression on their own, isolated from one another, this oppression was structured and common across a category (i.e., women). Hanisch asserted that to address these problems women needed to come together as women—as a group—in order to articulate their grievances together and ultimately to enter into the political field with enough force to make structural changes: “One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

Thus, the phrase the personal is political was originally intended to mean that the oppression you experience as an individual is patterned—that there are structural factors underlying your experience, and so there are probably others experiencing similar things. The personal is political encouraged individuals who were experiencing oppressive situations—a woman abused by her husband, or a worker exploited by her employer—to view these situations not as personal problems, but as political problems, and to realize that remedial action requires coming together with others to address the issue in the public sphere. It is no small irony that the phrase the personal is political is now often used to mean something almost opposite of its original meaning. While it once meant that personal problems are not really personal, inasmuch as they are structural problems and collective action is required to address them, now people use the phrase to advocate uncoordinated individual action (e.g., buying organic shampoo) as somehow constituting a political intervention. This morphing of meaning may say something about the rise of individualism in the culture—even within social movements—as the tendrils of neoliberalism penetrate more and more of social life and its individualist logic makes the logic of collective action less and less intuitive.

But with its original meaning, the phrase the personal is political spoke to the process of fragmented and isolated individuals coming to identify as a group with common—or political— grievances and goals, rather than merely personal problems or shortcomings. This is the process of politicization in a nutshell. Articulating such a basis for common identity is precisely what Antonio Gramsci meant by the word articulation.

Recently, such a process has been unfolding across the United States as police killings of our black and brown brothers and sisters are now being articulated popularly as a pattern, a structural problem, and a political problem—recognized as such by more and more people. Of course some voices have been saying this for decades and organizing consistently around these issues, but only recently has this analysis and mobilizaton broken through into a nationally-recognized movement. This means that each needless death and each instance of excessive force is now understood as part of a bigger moral narrative. Victims’ families and communities no longer have to struggle on their own, isolated from each other. There is now a stronger sense, at least, that “you are not alone.” This articulation of a common story about structural racism and economic inequality in relation to America’s police departments provides a stronger basis for the collective mobilization it will take to change this intolerable situation.

However, it is not easy to get people to recognize as a political problem what the prevailing common sense has told them to see as a personal shortcoming. Struggling homeowners in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, tended to struggle in isolation. In the American Dream narrative, homeownership is a source of individual pride. Foreclosure and underwater mortgages have thus been implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, framed as personal problems and even reason for shame. Thus, struggling homeowners often worked extra jobs to make payments on underwater mortgages, or they went quietly when facing foreclosure and eviction. However, as the banks got bailed out to the tune of a trillion dollars, but no relief was extended to struggling homeowners— and as banks’ predatory lending practices started to face scrutiny—the political nature of the housing market crash began to come into focus. At the height of Occupy Wall Street, Monique White went to the public park where Occupy Minnesota had set up and asked the occupiers to help her fight to save her home. By joining with others to take collective action, she was able to fight the bank and eventually save her home. In similar fashion, Occupy Homes campaigns kicked off all across the country, successfully saving many homes along the way. Still, most homeowners who joined the effort did not start out as ready as Monique White. Tim Franzen, an organizer with Occupy Homes Atlanta explained how “The biggest barrier was getting homeowners to fight—to believe that it was right and just for them to fight, instead of just suffering alone in the shadows.” Individual homeowners had to confront the intuitive shame they often felt—a product of seeing their situation as their own personal problem or shortcoming—in order for the personal to become political.

Belonging and “therapy”

Jose Vasquez served fourteen years in the United States Army. As he watched the George W. Bush Administration exploit the political capital it had been awarded following September 11 to launch a war of choice in Iraq, Jose became disillusioned. Eventually he successfully petitioned to become a conscientious objector. Exiting the army, he hit the ground running by joining Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), where he has over the past decade served in several leadership roles, including President of the IVAW NYC Chapter, Co-chair of the national board, and Executive Director of the organization. I first met Jose in the office of the War Resisters League (WRL) on Lafayette Avenue in Manhattan’s Lower Eastside, when I started working for WRL as their national field organizer.

Jose described to me how he had met a fellow veteran at a public event that IVAW NYC had organized. The veteran, who would soon join up to become an IVAW member, had found out about the event from a professor at his college. The event was actually Iraq vets reading from their memoirs, so it was people telling their stories…

[quote format]Then he came out and hung out with us afterwards and was just really excited and animated and said, “Man, I’ve been kind of like holed up in my apartment for the last six months.” He literally said, “It’s so fucking good to meet you guys. I just thought I was, like, going crazy. I thought I was the only one who thought the whole war was fucked.”

So yeah, I think it’s empowering to identify with other people, to find likeminded individuals, to have that outlet, to do things with others—sort of taking that negative energy and turning it into something positive. A lot of people come home from war with their whole worldview shattered and it leaves them in a very fragmented place, but being able to talk things through… it’s therapeutic to just be able to tell your own story and not be judged. And I think people begin to then rebuild a new worldview for themselves… They start to then take their own very individualized experience of combat and place it in the larger context, and then bounce it off of other people’s… “Oh, yeah, this happened to me over here. I was in Fallujah. I was in Ramadi.” And so they understand that like, “holy shit, this kind of stuff was happening all over the place!”[end quote format]

Jose provides us with yet another powerful example where what felt like personal and isolated experiences were discovered to be widespread phenomena, and thus articulated as political matters. Yet Jose sees this realization as not only politically necessary (in order to organize a force to pressure a change in US foreign policy), but also as therapeutic. For him the two purposes get mixed up with each other. There’s no clear line separating them and there’s no reason to diminish the one in order to elevate the other. On another occasion, Jose went into even more detail about the therapeutic aspect of IVAW members’ organizing work together: “The camaraderie is a huge asset. It’s probably saved a couple of people’s lives actually—people on the verge of suicide. They meet up with other IVAW members and realize, ‘I’m not alone. It’s okay for me to be against what I just did.’ That’s enormous for some people.”

How are we to square this with Carol Hanisch’s pushback, four decades earlier, against the charge that women’s groups were merely indulging in personal therapy? Hanisch’s important and necessary intervention has to be interpreted partly in relation to the narratives she was pushing against. She never argued against the value of individuals finding in each other’s company a sense of belonging and a space for healing. Rather, she rejected the notion of stopping there.

It is important that we recognize the necessary therapeutic subtext that is always operative in social justice struggles. Yes, we come together with others because there is political strength in numbers, and we are aiming to accomplish instrumental goals. But we also come together with others because it feels good to do so—because we find a deep sense of community and belonging that accomplishes what could be described as “therapeutic” purposes.

In modern US society, many of us suffer from a lack of adequate community in our daily lives. Indeed, social alienation and psychological strain seem to be endemic to late-stage capitalist societies. As such, we are both psychologically and politically motivated to participate in protest and collective action. In other words, the social, economic, and political structures that are the source of our political grievances are also a major cause of psychological strain. Why then should we count psychological motivation as something that is not political? If psychological strain is produced by an alienating underlying social structure, then psychological and political motivations can be one and the same (which is not to say that they will never operate in tension with each other).

Add to this the particular sense of alienation that can accompany political radicalization. We who hold progressive or radical values often feel an acute lack of representation, if not outright repression, of these values in the dominant culture. Many of us, during the process of our politicization, come to feel isolated within our communities of origin, and often for good reasons. As I came of age in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I encountered resistance to my newfound radical notions of social justice, and I felt isolated. So I went out looking for likeminded people. Finding them and communing with them has been and continues to be both inspirational and therapeutic. It contributes to my well-being.

When we look at the state of the world we may understandably feel frustrated, angry, and heartbroken. Besieged by a dominant culture in which destructive values and politics seem to reign supreme, we may feel isolated. We can find community—a sense of sanity and belonging—by coming together with likeminded people to express our alternative values boldly, loudly, and, most importantly, collectively. The explicit purpose of coming together with likeminded people is to affect change, more effectively by joining together in greater numbers. A second, less explicit purpose is to surround ourselves with community and also with reflections of the values that we hold dear. Together we create projects, spaces, culture, and ritual that cultivate a strong life of the group.

Collective ritual and strategic engagement

As we have seen, achieving our political goals and fulfilling our psychological needs can be mutually reinforcing and positive processes. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. These two purposes can also operate in tension, and can even undermine one another. While the “therapeutic” motivation may be an inherent and even necessary part of social change work, it is also deeply connected to self-defeating patterns that can undermine our political efficacy.

Before proceeding, a clarification of the term “therapy” must be raised, as the term can conjure a picture of individuals pursuing their own psychological health as individuals, often in order to personally adjust themselves to the structural causes of psychological strain, as opposed to joining with others to confront these causes. The form of “therapy” that I have been discussing here is fundamentally a group process, essentially about community and belonging. The longing for meaningful community— which, unfulfilled, is indeed a major source of psychological strain for so many—can be fulfilled in social movements through the life of the group (a term I will use throughout this book). Motivations that pertain to the life of the group overlap substantially with what is often referred to in the academic social movement literature as expressive motivations. I prefer the term life of the group, because expressive can imply an individualistic self-expressive motivation. My view is that a collective dynamic is the main driver of the patterns I have observed, which I hope to illuminate here.

The life of the group is cultivated through collective ritual. By collective ritual I mean collaborative expressions of shared values that serve to further a sense of community and belonging. Ritual can describe acts that affirm our sense of community, our collective narratives, and the values contained therein. In Christianity, collective ritual may include church attendance, group singing, and Eucharist, but it can also be found in far subtler aspects of everyday life. In social change groups and subcultures collective ritual may include protests, events, gathering places, music, fashion, publications, specialized vocabulary, and much more. Collective ritual is hardly distinct from culture itself. We can find a layer of collective ritual in any word or deed that affirms the group or subcultural identity and narrative. This is not to say that a protest has no instrumental political purpose other than affirming a group’s identity—or an individual’s sense of belonging to the group—but rather that this affirmation is always part of what motivates protest participants. And without conscious awareness of this layer of motivation we run a greater risk of our protests and collective action truly having no instrumental value; that it will accomplish nothing other than making us feel good.

Ritual is important—vitally so for collective action and social movements. Our rituals partly represent the survival of alternative values within a dominant culture that under-represents and represses such values. Through collective ritual we gather strength and build solidarity by surrounding ourselves with reflections of our alternative values and visions. However, expressing values and living principles is not the same as strategically engaging society and political structures in order to win systemic change. Even though these expressive and instrumental aspects intermingle in messy reality, it is nonetheless important to draw a conceptual distinction between collective ritual and strategic political engagement—between the life of the group and what the group accomplishes beyond its own existence (i.e., the work of engaging with social and political structures in order to affect change). Strategic engagement overlaps with collective ritual, but the two are conceptually distinct, and it is advantageous to develop a consciousness about when and how we utilize one or the other or both. Both agendas are essential, and social change movements suffer when either is neglected. Collective ritual serves as a remedy to the paralysis caused by isolation. It provides connection, community, a sense of belonging—and there can be no politics without this collective sense. However, strategic thinking and action in social movements is hampered when participants pursue insular ritual to the neglect of broader strategic engagement.

Author and grassroots organizer Mark Andersen describes the distinction in terms of subjective and objective:

…if we are to really contribute to change, much less revolution, we must distinguish between the “subjective” (internal: seeking personal identity, meaning, purpose) and the “objective” (external: actually helping to change power relations, structures, and values that uphold oppression of the many by the few) aspects of our activism. …Both the subjective and the objective are critical, at different times and in different ways. They are even interconnected— i.e., I begin to feel personal power, which enables me to take actions that might help striking workers get better pay and working conditions or, more fundamentally, help to build power to alter social structures. However, the two are not the same.

While both are important, these two motivations for participation in social change efforts often operate in tension with each other. A group that focuses only on instrumental goals and neglects the well-being of its members will likely burn out its core while repelling potential newcomers. The opposite problem is when groups become content to functionally operate as little more than therapy, losing interest in questions of political efficacy and strategy.

I have seen the latter situation play out an embarrassing number of times. Let’s be frank. I suspect that anyone who has meaningfully participated in contemporary social movements in the United States would have a hard time denying that movements often attract some very alienated individuals who sometimes arrive with overwhelming psychological needs. There is even a logic to the pattern: by publicly challenging aspects of the status quo, movements may unsurprisingly become a kind of “magnet” that attracts people who feel especially alienated from that status quo. And movements often provide a space where such individuals can meaningfully participate and feel empowered. It can be highly problematic to psychologize the motivations of individual participants in political movements, but given that we have to practically navigate—toward political ends—the consequential social psychological level within social movements, it behooves us to candidly assess this level, including the pathologies. We might lean toward structuralist explanations for social, economic, and political problems, but if we want to build functional political vehicles run by actual human beings, we cannot afford to be disinterested in the psychological level of collective action. This level is an important part of the terrain that we have to learn to navigate.

By understanding our own psychological motivations and how they are connected to our political grievances, we will be better equipped to act effectively on both. And by developing an analysis of how collective ritual and strategic engagement often operate in tension, we might get better at making sure they operate symbiotically instead. We can become more discerning about when and how we fulfill each purpose. We can act more effectively, while also building a beloved community together.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Hegemony How-To by Jonathan Smucker, published by AK Press, 2017.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.