Political philosophers have long taken inspiration from political movements when crafting their theories, which they hoped would address the universal problems of democracy. Political Philosophy and Political Action investigates the relationship between political practices of popular resistance and political theory.
The text demonstrates how the lived experience on political resistance can help us to analyse and interpret theory, and also reveals how concrete resistance movements can challenge the ideals of political theory generally. It begins by examining the universal aspirations present within the contextual particularities of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring. Political Philosophy and Political Action then turns to critical examination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, John Dewey, and Jacques Rancière, using novel interpretations of their philosophies of equality and democracy to construct a conceptual framework. More specifically, the chapters show how we can analyze resistance movements that incorporate the imperative to resist inequality in the name of democracy. The result is a novel means of thinking about important issues in contemporary political philosophy, including pluralism, oppression and domination, and the purposes and meaning of politics.
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About the Author
Adam Burgos is Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Bucknell University.
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Political Philosophy and Political Action
Imperatives of Resistance
By Adam Burgos
Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.Copyright © 2017 Adam Burgos
All rights reserved.
Resistance Movements and Political Identity
This chapter builds on the overview of themes important to an overall discussion and analysis of the relationship between resistance movements and political philosophy that is found in the 'Introduction' by giving a concrete and specific context to the more general themes already discussed by exploring three contemporary movements: the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. Together the 'Introduction' and this chapter serve as a broad contextual framework from within which to read the subsequent four chapters on Rousseau, Marx, Dewey, and Rancière.
It is important to make clear at the outset that neither this chapter nor this book as a whole is meant to provide an exhaustive and thoroughgoing account or analysis of all the facets of these three movements. The purpose of the present chapter is to highlight features of these movements that ask questions of political philosophy, posing challenges to how it conceives of itself and constructs its theories. This is, ultimately, a book of political philosophy, one that constructs an argument about democratic egalitarian political arrangements from successive lessons gleaned from a series of thinkers. The substance of that argument, however, directs it outside of theoretical concerns to real instances of popular attempts at political change. In other words, theory is directed to look towards instances in which a people attempts to wrest control of its political destiny from those in power in order to reshape them. At issue throughout is the meaning of the connection between theory and practice, and how that relationship can help us shape political philosophy as a theoretical exercise.
The picture offered of each of these movements, then, will be necessarily incomplete. My primary focus will be on their discourses of resistance, with a more specific emphasis on shifting the semantic public spaces of society and the way that these shifts offer visions of a reformulation of a democratic polity. While certainly only a partial view of all of the facets of these movements, the chapter provides three different lenses through which to evaluate the arguments made in the subsequent chapters in terms of the broad theme of the transformation of society through political action.
My interpretations of Rousseau, Marx, Dewey, and Rancière in these subsequent chapters each have a twofold structure: on the one hand, as internal interventions into those authors' texts and the debates surrounding them, and on the other hand, as potential external dialogues with the issues raised by the three movements that will be highlighted in this chapter.
It is also important to recognize not only the ways that these movements are dissimilar among one another, but the ways that they are internally contested as well; the meanings, motives, goals, and strategies are plural within as well as without. This is in fact one of the challenges presented to theorizing resistance within political philosophy generally: it can appear that once we begin to narrow down a theoretical conception of resistance so that it can make meaningful distinctions about events in the world, we won't be able to stop until different conceptions of resistance only pick out singular events, undermining the very notion that we have a theory in the first place.
Highlighting the messiness within these discourses and the disparate ways that new communities get articulated through them illustrates how real politics reveals the failure of theory to easily correspond with practices. In other words, from the point of view of theory such movements can easily appear to be 'incoherent' because they don't correspond to some element of a theory's schema. Rather than a conclusion, I am treating this point as a premise, using it to better understand how real political practices can pose questions and challenges to political philosophy's theorizing that cannot be ignored. Though there are certainly similarities and differences across vectors of analysis, each is a disparate and organic movement beyond the control of specific individuals or groups, resulting in dissonance within the movements as well as between them.
Furthermore, resistance movements are often confined to certain social classes or professions, which illustrate the fact that not only do different movements not necessarily share the same goals and values, even when they have common enemies, but even within these movements there may not be much agreement about what constitutes the movement in the first place. The disparate nature of contemporary resistance movements is at the heart of what I am calling their challenge to political theory, in that even non-ideal theory often fails to capture all of the details and nuances – and contradictions – within social movements. Consequently, political philosophy should be open to listening to these details, nuances, and contradictions even if there can't be the hope of ironing them all out theoretically. The upshot is that political philosophy should consistently be in dialogue with the discourses of these movements, evaluating their claims and actions and interpreting their relationship to its theoretical schemas.
And yet, despite clear differences between resistance movements across the globe, we do group them according to abstract and general principles that, when done attentively, still allow for their differences to shine through. One thing that may indeed tie these movements together, albeit loosely, is the fact that there are certain social and political realities that generally engender resistance, such as social, political, and economic inequality; physical violence; and forms of humiliation. It was in fact an instance of this last kind whose consequences sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia. We must also consider the fact that from the outside what might look like a vast number of people who seem like good candidates for revolt might not in fact do so for good reasons; there may be a tipping point beyond which the risk/reward calculus ceases to say, 'stay complacent, you have too much to lose and not enough to gain'. The case of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia certainly looks like one in which that line was finally crossed.
In order to consider the sorts of very localized and specific, and historical and contextual mitigating factors that go into the ways that movements develop and reach critical mass, democratic societies must develop institutions that seek to foster a sensibility of democratic equality, and inclusive civic pride and engagement that supports populations that care about the direction and definition of the common good.
The chapter will begin a brief summary of contemporary theories of social movements in order to frame the chapter as a whole. It will then proceed in two broad sections that are thematically connected through their focus on how the discourses of these movements get articulated and the meanings of that articulation. One branch of that discussion focuses on the notion of 'semantic spaces', a term that I use to refer to the public and common space of discourse within which social movements and the structures with which they engage in dispute exist. This is not merely the public sphere of society as opposed to the private sphere, but the overarching common space of potential dialogue and disagreement, a space that is the precondition for the demarcation between public and private in the first place. When the structure of semantic space shifts, the norms of discourse shift and new possibilities are opened up for transforming society; new ways of talking and acting, and of being understood as intelligible, are inaugurated. In other words, semantic shift occurs when the language and discursive norms that saturate and condition political discourse shift such that this discourse now admits and is able to understand new terms as givens.
The other branch argues for interpreting these discourses as calls for and illustrations of a re-articulation of 'the people' through action. This kind of re-articulation is one consequence of a certain kind of semantic shift just outlined. When the shift is one that enables new social groups and identities to be intelligible within the social given, then the collective that we call 'the people' of that society – those who are seen and can act as full equal members, as opposed to being so constituted in name only – is transformed such that it now includes these new identities. They have become legitimate from the perspective of the status quo insofar as they can be openly discussed in ways that make sense. In other words, they now are a part of the background against which discussions and actions regarding the social world take place.
Outlining these two connected ideas will entail emphasizing the semantic shifts that have taken place as the discourses of these movements have evolved, piecing together what I see as the re-articulations of 'the people' that the movements articulate through their discourses. In doing so I will highlight the importance of social media for the evolution of these discourses, as well as the dissonances between the movements and those internal to each on its own. I will also emphasize the global nature and reach of these movements through these discussions, highlighting their influence and effectiveness in new contexts, thereby drawing out the plurality of the democratic imperative.
The overview of these three very distinct yet thematically connected social movements that will emerge over the course of the chapter provides multiple concrete contexts against which the subsequent chapters on political theory can be read. As noted, the goal in this chapter is not to provide exhaustive accounts or analyses of these movements, but instead to outline two general ways that they can be interpreted against the background of how these movements articulate themselves: in terms of semantic shift and rearticulating 'the people'.
SECTION I: THEORIES Of SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
Four different theories have structured the academic literature on social movements. The first three focus primarily on political outcomes, such as changes in legislation or the creation of new sectors of government, while the fourth focuses on attempts to change attitudes towards different identities within society; my analysis of social movements in this chapter fits best within the latter. Each of these theories are ways of understanding social movements in terms of what they are, how they function, and what they hope to achieve, with new developments in the theories attempting to give a fuller picture of how this occurs.
The first theory understands social movements in terms of general grievances or collective social strains. Once these are recognized and identified, people can mobilize around them, which in turn allows for the creation of new political outcomes. The second theory, the resource mobilization framework, points out that there are additional factors specifically surrounding resources that further illuminate exactly how mobilization around these grievances occurs. Issues such as organization, budget, and connections, for example, can have a significant impact on how successful mobilization around a particular grievance is. The third theory, the political opportunity theory, accepts the idea of a general grievance as the central node of mobilization as well as the importance of resources. It then adds to them the importance of a social movement's awareness of changing structures in the political sphere so that the movement is best able to strategically identify the right time to act. Remaining cognizant of election cycles and predicting their subsequent shifts, or predicting the outcomes of certain lobbying efforts on related issues that could buoy the cause, for example, are ways that movements can take this additional strategic element on board. Such a shift makes it possible for a movement to gain increased visibility with the public, potentially raising awareness or pressure on politicians to take the movement seriously.
These three theories are not in direct conflict with one another, as each accepts the presuppositions of the previous and seeks to add additional considerations that deepen their analysis. All three also have the same goals in mind, which are the various political outcomes procedurally possible within society. The core idea of a general grievance that mobilizes a collective into a movement remains, with each addition aiming to improve the chances of achieving political outcomes. The fourth theory of social movements focuses on what are called new social movements, and is the first of the theories to break from the presuppositions that undergird the first three.
Scholars understand new social movements as focusing on changing attitudes towards identities within the social world rather than only focusing on movements as attempting to secure political outcomes. A distinction is thereby drawn between institutional outcomes, which are the focus of the first three movements, and social or cultural outcomes, which are the primary goals of the new social movements, even if institutional political outcomes are still part of the movement – they simply remain secondary. These movements work primarily outside the institutional political framework, and so view policy change as subsequent to the change in attitudes more broadly throughout society. The broader claim being made by these movements is that the efficacy of changes within the institutional political and legal realms relies on attitudes of support among the wider polity; affect a shift in attitude and then the political and legal shifts will be more secure and longer lasting.
Another way that the understanding of new social movements differs from the initial collective grievance model is that the newer model emphasizes that there are many different ways to navigate social change. Instead of asserting that mobilization around a single core issue is the primary way that movements can have success, in addition to conceiving of that success solely in terms of political outcomes, this more recent understanding of social movements affirms a diffusion of strategies. Movements should seek to become a part of everyday discourse in order to create broader awareness of the issues they care about; public actions and slogans should be able to take hold and capture the attitudes of people who hadn't been aware of the movement but are potential supporters. How exactly this happens is always going to be unique to specific movements and who they are trying to reach.
As a result of cultural rather than political outcomes being the primary focus of changes for new social movements, there arises a different manner of evaluating the success or failure of different movements, measured in terms of broader shifts in attitudes across the polity. This focus brings with it challenges for evaluation, as it is much more difficult to measure cultural attitudes across a diverse population than to see whether or not a specific piece of legislation has passed. Accordingly, new methods of measurement have therefore been developed to assess these different sorts of outcomes as well. Measuring mass media coverage of movements is one way to see how overall public discourse is changing with regard to their narratives: What issues occupy the attention of the news media, and how are those issues framed? Another is to track cultural production: what new cultural products have been produced alongside and in response to a movement or a movement's issues? One could look at, for example, the rate of production of labour novels during the US labour movement in order to measure one way that the discourse surrounding labour had become part of mainstream cultural production and consumption. Another way to measure the impact of social movements on cultural attitudes is through the development of new subcultures or identities that form around them. Do the movements inspire or influence new forms of expression? What identities can be discerned from that expression?
Each of these forms of evaluation stems from understanding social movements primarily in terms of being able to alter attitudes rather than being able to change institutional policy. The attitudes themselves are what enable political changes, but they are primary insofar as they are the foundation for political changes. In other words, once attitudes are changed and a culture has accepted the importance of a given issue, institutional structures can then be changed in order to, first, reflect the attitude shift that has already taken place, and second, foster those new attitudes to moving forward to ensure lasting change.
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Table of Contents
Introduction / 1. Resistance Movements and Political Identity / 2. Between Nature and Society: Resistance In Rousseau's Social Contract / 3. Resistance Not Revolution: Species-Being and Social Emancipation in Marx / 4. Defining Community: Resistance and Constructing Public Problems in Dewey / 5. The 'Incoherence' of Resistance: Subjectivity and Identification in Rancière / 6. Conclusion