Two Wrong Kinds of Unity

Progressive movements are prone to radicalization, which invariably makes them splinter, self-marginalize, and reduce their effectiveness to zero. As such, some movements have tried coming up with ways to prevent splintering and marginalization, which in most cases cause more problems than they solve.

Broadly, the focus in these would-be solutions is on unity, which can take two forms – the egalitarian kind, and the hierarchical kind.

The egalitarian kind of unity is based on very high levels of solidarity, and on demanding members to suborn their personal differences to the grand agenda. That kind of unity fails more often than not, because unless the members themselves think the movement focuses on the right issues, asking them for solidarity will only increase the likelihood of a schism. Not coincidentally, movements that require more solidarity – usually the more radical ones – split more, and governments that tolerate less dissent are more prone to a violent revolution.

But lately, progressive movements go the other way, that is hierarchical unity. Whereas egalitarianism is based on high levels of solidarity, hierarchy is based on enforced solidarity, which expresses itself in asserting control over all avenues of activism. An organization like NOW or the NAACP would like to have a large network of organizations and sub-movements totally subordinate to its leadership’s wishes. Not coincidentally, NOW only associates with other hierarchical organizations and distances itself from what it can’t control, like blogging.

Ideally, this sort of hierarchism increases efficiency, by letting a stable circle of movement leaders use their knowledge to spend political capital wisely. In practice, that’s what they say about dictatorships, too, and yet authoritarian governments fall behind democratic ones in increasing their residents’ standard of living.

First, hierarchical organizations are skewed toward the views of older people, who are likely to fight the battles of yesterday. NOW spends most of its political capital on abortion – how could it not, when its leaders grew up in an era when abortion was illegal? Although officially its platform is broader, in fact it worries too much about abortion and too little about equal pay and family-friendly workplaces, to say nothing of daycare.

Second, a hierarchical structure is bad when it comes to listening to groups of constituents. The Democratic Party brushes off feminists; NOW brushes off young feminists and has just discovered the existence of low-income women. I don’t think there’s a single liberal organization whose leadership is truly representative of its constituents; pretending that individual constituents don’t matter unless they hold leadership positions is enough to skew the agenda.

Third, liberal movements with a hierarchical structure fail to recognize why the left developed its atomistic movement structure in the first place. Left-of-center parties have learned the hard way that a group whose agenda is equal rights for various marginalized groups can’t do any kind of issue triage without alienating large numbers of voters. Individual left-wing organizations have just narrow enough a gamut of issues to not need to learn this lesson to survive, but just broad enough a gamut to need to learn it to be politically effective.

And fourth, hierarchism throttles any increases in political capital that might come from grassroots action. It’s not a coincidence that no liberal movement in the US has seriously allied itself with bloggers. Bloggers are an annoying people who are hard to control; Kim Gandy doesn’t have and won’t have any way of forcing Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti to write about what she cares about.

The focus on the hierarchical kind of unity here might predispose you to think the answer is egalitarianism. It isn’t, at least not until egalitarian groups manage to get a single platform plank written into law. Instead, it’s individualism, of the same type that has helped Dean almost win the 2004 primary and the left to stop being a circular firing squad of feminists, labor liberals, antiracists, and civil libertarians.

I wrote about the need to reduce expectations of solidarity in my first non-fluff post on this blog. I’m not going to repeat what I said; what I will note is that there already exists a fairly successful formula for progressives.

Left-wing political parties have largely given up on exciting people over specific issues, instead derogating that responsibility to movements like feminism and civil rights. Individual movements can do something similar, that is let sub-organizations deal with specific issues and become umbrella organizations instead. The AFL-CIO works fairly successfully that way. NOW can and should devolve along similar lines, letting separate organizations take over the task of agitating for reproductive rights, equal pay, and so on, and shrinking its responsibility to supporting these organizations.

At the same time, a more relaxed attitude toward what the movement’s leaders can’t control should also help the movement take advantage of new forms of communication. It’s not a coincidence that although opposition to the Iraq War was nearly universal among liberals almost from the moment Bush first trumpeted it, the coordinated protest of 2/15 was organized by ANSWER. Liberals are squeamish about surrendering the limited level of power they have; radicals have no power to surrender, which is why the net has been inundated with them since the days of USENET.


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