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Posts Tagged ‘social action’

Simply could not have said it better than Neal Gabler [ht:cr],

Some may see this obsession with perfection as the culmination of a long trend; tiger moms have been pushing their children to be intellectual decathletes for generations. But it may actually be a reversal of an even longer trend. At the turn of the last century, the influential philosopher John Dewey saw education as a democratizing force not just in its social consequences but in its very process. Dewey believed that education and life were inextricably bound, that they informed each other. Education wasn’t just something you did in a classroom to earn grades. It was something you lived.

The modern corporate university hardly resembles John Dewey’s vision of education as a democratizing force. Gabler’s depiction (in the rest of the article) hits the nail on the head. I often get the impression that academia is no place for activists, but Gabler demonstrates wonderfully the importance of reflection on the role of higher in our society and the roles of students, educators, or administrators, and then changing those aspects that do not harmonize with our vision of education. So, who is with me in the revolution?

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Every year, when MLK day rolls around, it’s always enjoyable to read the retrospectives on this great man. His gripping rhetoric and willingness to speak truth to power obviously inspires across party and ideological lines. Yet, as many progressive historians note, we cannot simply put King in a racial justice box. He died on a trip to Memphis where the goal was economic justice, namely for the sanitation workers on strike in the city. Howard Zinn noted this in an interview in late 2009, only a few months before his death. Zinn said that if Obama were to follow King’s example,

We’re going to take our immense resources, our wealth, we’re going to use it for the benefit of people. Remember, Martin Luther King started a Poor People’s Campaign just before he was assassinated. And if Obama paid attention to the working people of this country, then he would be doing much, much more than he is doing now…

King had a much more fundamental critique of our economic system. And certainly more fundamental than Obama has because a fundamental critique of our economic system would not simply give hundreds of billions of dollars to the bankers and so on, and give a little bit to the people below. A fundamental change in our system would really create a greater equalization of wealth, would I think give us free medical care. Not the kind of half-baked health reforms that are being now debated in Congress…

[people at the top are] willing to let people think about mild reforms and little changes, and incremental changes, but they don’t want people to think that we could actually transform this country into a peaceful country, that we no longer have to be a super military power. They don’t want to think that way because it’s profitable for certain interests in this country to carry on war, to have military bases in 100 countries, to have a $600 billion military budget. That makes a lot of money for certain people. But it leaves the rest of the country behind.

Thinkers like Zinn have been less successful in changing the world because the injustices that currently plague it are less obvious. However, they were evident to King, and they should be evident to anyone who has seen our economy collapse on itself amid rising inequality and low job growth. In King’s Memphis speech, he said,

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…

That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.

His words are still gripping, true as they’ve ever been. Who will be the MLK of the working class, the impoverished class, the jobless class? It’s likely that there is no such person. Instead, we’ll have to organize ourselves to make the world as it is into the world as it ought to be.

The mural above was painted by a member of my church and installed this weekend. Here is a link to our senior pastor’s dedication.

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Daniel Little makes a good point in this discussion of social justice movements:

One of the constraints I mentioned on social change in an earlier post is that we need to test proposed new institutions in terms of how they would work, given people as they are (post). But this is slightly questionable, in that it takes existing social consciousness as a given rather than being itself an object of change.
In particular, a successful outcome of either of these struggles entailed changing more than laws and institutions; each required a change of consciousness and morality in the white population of power-holders. If the majority of the white population had remained violently racist, then democratic racial equality may not have been a sustainable social order…So a strategy for change required changing both structures and consciousness. And this means that we have to be reflective about what sorts of factors we take as fixed rather than changeable.
This also implies a change of emphasis in the analysis of social progress argued previously. Some crucial advances in social justice have been anything but continuous and gradual; but have rather been daring, improbable, and crucial. Being deliberative about strategies of social change does not imply being slow to act or reluctant to take on large challenges.

This also implies a change of emphasis in the analysis of social progress argued previously. Some crucial advances in social justice have been anything but continuous and gradual; but have rather been daring, improbable, and crucial. Being deliberative about strategies of social change does not imply being slow to act or reluctant to take on large challenges.

This sentiment undoubtedly applies to economic change as well. The assumption of a homo economicus, even where it has a grain of truth, is rooted in an economic system that encourages such behavior. Marx was well aware of this, as his notion of materialism put material conditions as the primary cause, and social consciousness as their consequents. Reshaping social consciousness does not necessarily require revolutionary change, though. In church this morning (it is a sunday after all, so forgive me for the religious interlude), my pastor pointed out the conflict between a belief in the social gospel and a belief in scarcity. The solution, she argued, is to build institutions that “promote generosity.”

We can imagine other characteristics we want our social institutions to promote as well. Being willing to re-imagine social consciousness, rather than take it for granted, is indeed a key element of achieving progress. There are a number of radical institutions that have attempted this sort of program (the Catholic Worker movement, the Mondragon cooperative, and others)- linking these efforts through things like the World Social Forum is key to form a more coherent and progressive consciousness.

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Work to rule

Most people who complain about High Fructose Corn Syrup and the pervasiveness of corn derivatives in our food are worried about the human health effects of consumption and the unsustainable nature of corn mass-production. In Staley: The fight for a new American labor movement, Steven K. Ashby and C. J. Hawking remind us about another perspective on corn syrup: labor conflicts in the processing plants. The authors report on the events at the Staley corn processing plant in Decatur, Illinois in the early 1990s.

The Staley plant was founded 1909 by Gene Staley, who had very good relations with the workers:

He would talk to his employees. He would ask them what they needed. Sometimes it would be pay advancement, food, or coal, and when that employee got home, he had his food and coal delivered.

Gus Staley inherited the company after his father’s death, and although he had a different style of management, he still viewed the company as having a social responsibility to Decatur, and the company remained profitable. The Staley family’s relationship with the company ended in the 1975, however, with Gus Staley’s death. Thereafter, the working conditions began to deteriorate and reached a nadir when Tate & Lyle bought the company in 1988; their disregard for safety standards lead to the death of a worker in 1990.

In response, the workers utilized innovative labor tactics, called “work to rule,” where workers use their power on the shop floor to take control of the labor process. These legal tactics include slowing down the production process and following safety standards. Production was slowed, but the company reacted by locking out the workers for 30 months.

The book has a unique inside perspective because the authors spent significant time living with and interviewing the Staley workers and community members. The worker’s courage and creativity offers hope for the future of American labor, despite the immense decline that the movement has experience since the 1980s.

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The Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, one of the only accredited Buddhist academies in the US, is in jeopardy. [ht:jh]

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, has thrived in the tradition of the Beat movement as a center for avant-garde and experimental writing. But recently, the University has been facing financial difficulty, and as a result of restructuring and layoffs, the future of the program is uncertain.

Students, who have largely been left out of any decision making processes, are demanding their voices be heard by the administration while trying to keep the program intact. They are demanding greater transparency and a role for student input. “Save TKS” has been using social networking sites including facebook to spread their message.

This issue is not just about Naropa. It is about student involvement in US higher education. Should students be treated simply as consumers of this product called education? Or, in the rich tradition of student activism at Naropa and other US campuses, should students be able to take charge of their education? I hope that educators and administrators learn to treat students as the stakeholders that we are in the institutes of higher education, and truly hold us to being intellectually curious when they encourage us to be so.

Maybe students might even have a role in designing programs of study and course syllabi ;)

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Costas Douzinas has a lengthy (understatement) article in the Monthly Review that provides another take on humanitarianism and human rights. Weaving together moral philosophy, geopolitics, and much more, Douzinas offers a critique that would make Bono weep. I don’t feel nearly erudite enough to comment much more; you need to take 30 minutes out of your day to read it for yourself. Here are a couple key quotes:

The westerner used to carry the white man’s burden, the obligation to spread civilisation, reason, religion and law to the barbaric part of the world.  If the colonial prototypes were the missionary and the colonial administrator, the post-colonial are the human rights campaigner and the NGO operative. Humanity has replaced civilisation.  ‘The humanitarian empire is the new face of an old figure’ one of its supporters admits.  ‘It is held together by common elements of rhetoric and self-belief: the idea, if not the practice, of democracy; the idea, if not the practice, of human rights; the idea, if not the practice, of equality before the law.’ The postmodern philanthropist, on the other hand, does not need to go to far-flung places to build clinics and missions.  Globalisation has ensured that he can do that from his front room, watching TV images of desolation and atrocity and paying with his credit card.  As Upendra Baxi puts it, ‘human rights movements organise themselves in the image of markets’ turning ‘human suffering and human rights’ into commodities.

The stakes of humanitarian campaigns are high.  Positing the victim and/or savage other of humanitarianism we create humanity.  The perpetrator/victim is a reminder and revenant from our disavowed past.  He is the West’s imaginary double, someone who carries our own characteristics and fears albeit in a reversed impoverished sense.  Once the moral universe revolves around the recognition of evil, every project to combine people in the name of the good is itself condemned as evil.  Willing and pursuing the good inevitably turns into the nightmare of totalitarianism.  This is the reason why the price of human rights politics is conservatism.  The moralist conception both makes impossible and bars positive political visions and possibilities.  Human rights ethics legitimises what the West already possesses; evil is what we do not possess or enjoy.  But as Alain Badiou puts it, while the human is partly inhuman, she is also more than human. [...]

We should reverse our ethical approach: it is not suffering and evil which define the good as the defence humanity puts up against its bad part.  It is our positive ability to do good, our welcoming of the potential to act and change the world that comes first and must denounce evil as the toleration or promotion of the existent, not the other way around.  In this sense, human rights are not what protects from suffering and inhumanity.  Radical humanitarianism aims to confront the existent with a transcendence found in history, to make the human, constantly told that suffering is humanity’s inescapable destiny, more than human.  We may need to sidestep rights in favour of right.

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Daniel Little has an excellent post on the “subsistence ethic,” tracing the moral values of peasants that can lead to widespread social action. You should read the whole thing. Little writes,

Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice–a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.

Little then analyzes how James Scott, who theorized about this ethic, links this ethic causally to rebellion:

We may now formulate Scott’s causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)

As Little points out, this explanation makes no account of organizational features that lead to rebellion. I think that the idea of subsistence ethic emphasizes the challenge of social action in the developed world. We are no longer a country with pitchfork rebellions. In fact, most everyone I know (and obviously this is a function of my upbringing), who has engaged in social action has first engaged at an intellectual level. Can there be massive transitions from this- will enough people engage that way? I wonder if we can come up with a parallel ESM for American society and determine the conditions necessary to move it to widespread action. Of course, these questions might be better answered by a budding anthropologist- cough (Sean) cough.

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