The blog Orchestrated Pulse recently published this essay picking apart certain ideas about social change that dominate certain liberal-progressive circles. Specifically, the essay targets the “theory of momentum” described in This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (2016) by Mark and Paul Engler. The “theory of momentum” appears to focus on public opinion as the key marker for success, and thus centers organizational efforts that generate media attention.
For the Englers the currency of politics is “attention,” especially that of the news media, which allows activists to reach their audience. They constantly use the language of spectacle, speaking of how activists can dramatize or expose some unjust aspect of the social order, and use getting in the mass media as a forum to reach this public audience.
The focus on “attention” and “spectacle” should be familiar to those of us interested in radical social change and non-electoral politics. We see this theory in action across wide swathes of the activist world, via various forms of protest theater: small street marches, die-ins, public skits and stunts, and the occasional sit-in/occupation that is usually peacefully resolved with the cops “arresting” the participants via cite-and-release.
The main problem here, from a Marxist perspective, is that this is entirely an idealist conception of history and politics, rather than a materialist one, that assumes that struggle must take place entirely in the realm of ideas, debate, and imagination.
What’s missing here is any theory of class, or really of any other kind of structural system of power reproduced in everyday social relations. The Englers see civil society as a public debate about collective values, not as a sphere of class struggle where ruling groups materially dominate and organize social life. This means that for them, an uprising is a spectacle, a method to change hearts and minds, not a society-wide struggle to overturn deeply material structures of repression and exploitation. In this vision, people are recruited to movements on the basis of their values, not the ability of the movement to deliver concrete gains.
The alternative, materialist view:
The most politically successful disruption is a disruption to the relations of dominance and privilege that are essential to the preservation of a stratified society, like obedience to bosses, fear of the police, deference to a dominant race or ethnic group, respect for property. When social movements succeed, it is not because they are especially persuasive, but because they discover strategies that allow people to break from these ordinary scripts of social life and transform their immediate conditions by force.
The essay makes some other excellent points, particularly on issues of non-violence, the nature of the Civil Rights Movement, the relationship between the “theory of momentum” and the centers of US power, and the need to bring labor organizing back into the picture.
I would say that its important to not throw out everything that the Englers argue. The kind of protest theater that they advocate does have an important place in an overall movement–but the key problem is that endless acts of spectacle, protests, and theater isn’t grounded in any sort of self-sustaining mechanism that delivers concrete, tangible benefits. Thus participation tends to be largely restricted to middle-class professional activists. At best, you have the occasional mass protest that slowly dies out as most people have to return to work, school, and family. The only way that protest theater can be sustained is if it is grounded in a material base, in day-to-day activities and organizing–largely hidden from the gaze of mass media–that helps alleviate and overturn the pressures of capitalist life, sustain the social and economic lives of members/militants/participants, and forges new autonomous institutions. Or in other words:
Prominent revolutionary movements typically follow the strategy of delivering immediate and concrete benefits to the masses, while simultaneously developing institutions parallel and opposed to those of capitalism.