From Protest to Power

Issue 226

A review of "Hegemony How-to: A Roadmap for Radicals" By Jonathan Matthew Smucker (AK Press, 2017).

Steven Sherman Jul 6, 2017

Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-to: A Roadmap for Radicals (AK Press) is part of a rapidly growing body of literature that seeks to harvest concrete organizing lessons from social movements’ recent experiences. Whereas Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s Rules for Radicals does this from the perspective of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts culls lessons from labor struggles, Smucker is most deeply influenced by the anti-corporate globalization movement of the early 2000s and Occupy Wall Street.

He draws conclusions quite critical of those movements, to the point that his publisher distances itself a little from the text in the preface. Nevertheless, this is not the familiar story of a repentant radical documenting his journey rightward in public. Instead, Smucker is thinking through the flaws, mistakes and limitations of the movements he has enthusiastically participated in, trying to come to grips with why they have not changed the world as much as he hoped and how they might do so in the future.

The central tension he struggles with is that people become radical activists out of a desire to change the world, but often find the subculture of radicalism to be an attractive refuge from the unjust world. This undermines their capacity to connect with people outside their small subculture — but it is only by aligning themselves with substantial portions those outside people that they can actually hope to change the world. Instead of this work of connection and expansion, activists often focus on winning the approval of their peers; for example, by engaging in “militant” acts of property destruction that clearly demonstrate one’s commitment to the cause, but often alienate much of the public.

Similarly, Smucker delivers a withering critique of the “prefigurative” theories that floated around the Occupy movement — that the movement’s central goal was to enact utopian social relations in Zuccotti Park and its other encampments around the world. These theories, he argues, were deluded about both what was happening in the encampments and what was politically possible, and led people away from trying to connect with organizations and constituencies that were receptive to Occupy’s position but operated through very different structures.

Smucker is influenced by theories that the prosperity of the decades after World War II led to an emphasis on psychological fulfillment rather than political struggle in social movements but then inserts the interesting idea that perhaps this tendency has already peaked due to the deterioration of that prosperity.

Moving Out of The Radical Clubhouse

The slogan “We are the 99%!” indicated a desire to move past the radical-subculture mentality, but Occupy wasn’t quite ready to think out all its implications as events raced forward. Smucker clearly believes that such groups must orient themselves to the wider world and develop alliances and ways of talking to the “unusual suspects” who don’t necessarily show up for radical actions at first. But he also acknowledges the need to build solidarity within groups through language, rituals and the like. This is a different perspective from those armchair Marxists who simply wondered why Occupy didn’t organize the working class, as if conjuring such a force arose from having the proper theory rather than the work involved in producing and maintaining an innovative tactic like the encampments.

Rather, Smucker is arguing that having conjured such a force, Occupy let its belief in prefiguration get in the way of organizing for a broader societal alignment. Much of the book lays out his alternative to prefigurative politics. Rather than speaking truth to power, he argues, social movements must pose power to power. To build that power, he offers a five-category chart — active opposition, passive opposition, neutral, passive support, active support — and suggests that social movements map out where different forces in society sit on that scale and concern themselves with moving those groups one notch closer; for example, turning passive supporters into active ones.

An important element of this is developing new ways for people to demonstrate support for social movements. Smucker describes the way the interracial Freedom Rides during the 1960s civil-rights movement afforded white activists in the North the opportunity to demonstrate active support by participating or helping out, while pulling many of their peers and family members from the neutral category into passive support.

Better Forms of Leadership

Smucker also argues that leadership is important in order for social movements to act more strategically. Leaders, he says should work to undermine the cliquishness that develops in movements, enable the inclusion of more marginal members, and develop strategies that better connect the movement to other constituencies in the passive or neutral categories. Rather than fostering an anti-leadership mentality, movements should promote themselves as “leaderful,” encouraging all members to develop their capacities to perform these tasks and more.

His advice on how to build wider alliances draws from such unlikely sources as dating and corporate branding. He insists on the need to craft powerful narratives, to create a “we” that can expand to include more and more people against an isolated “them.” But he insists that beyond the symbolic contest over who defines society’s common sense, there is also the institutional contest over who has power and how it is exercised.

Here, however, Smucker is much vaguer. He never really addresses the challenges posed by the electoral system, or the matrix of power progressives would confront were they to win electoral office. He encourages the left to take attaining and exercising power more seriously, citing the Chavista movement in Venezuela. That project now appears to lie in ruins, even as it remains in power. Similarly, Greece’s Syriza coalition, which did everything Smucker calls for and produced a broad enough alignment to win a national election, was unable to release the country from the vice of austerity.

Although I agreed with much of the advice Smucker offers, it is difficult not to wonder whether in a world of rapid capital flows across borders a Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn or a President Bernie Sanders might encounter similar difficulties. Anarchistic emphasis on building “prefigurative” relations in the here and now developed out of a pessimism about the liberatory potential of attaining state power. The first few years in this period of renewed interest in the state-oriented approach haven’t exactly proven them wrong. The “road map” gets very fuzzy depicting the terrain beyond building a coalition large and deep enough to compete for the state.


Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.

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