Monday, July 12, 2010

Social movement Zhdanovism

One last thing on the US Social Forum 2010. Why is it that progressive social movements so often adhere to regressive aesthetics? The logo for the US Social Forum in Detroit was professionally done, clean but too literal. It depicts diversity and grassroots activism in the form of a person with a disability (specifically in a wheelchair), a man with an upraised fist, two women, one holding a placard and the other a child, and another small child standing in front of a tree. The work was done by the Oakland, Calif.-based Design Action Collective. I'm reminded of the Soviet Socialist Realist doctrines implemented under Andrei Zhdanov, secretary of the Central Committee under Joseph Stalin and also his son-in-law. As opposed to the avant-garde, Zhdanovism proposed that art in service of the revolution was about content not form.

This follows the tradition of Marxist aesthetic theory as influenced most especially by Georg Lukacs. In History and Class Consciousness and also in works of literary theory such as The Historical Novel, Lukacs set out the idea that, following the tenets of historical materialism, it was social conditions that influence consciousness not vice versa. Thus subjective literature and art coming down from Romanticism to the modernist experiments of expressionism, surrealism, etc., were actually reinforcements of the false consciousness of bourgeois ideology not liberations from it. It was instead through realism that the conditions of class relations and hence opportunities for the emergence of class consciousness were revealed. Another example would be Sigfried Kracauer's study of German expressionist cinema From Caligari to Hitler.

The US Social Forum logo reflects several of the values of Zhdanovism:
  • Narodnost ("people-ness") maintains that cultural representations be accessible to "the people." The simplest way to do that is through stereotypes. The USSF logo attempts to represent essential "others" but in its specificity must perforce fall short -- someone will always be left of out of the picture as it were.
  • Klassnost ("class-ness") is the idea that cultural representations reflect class interest. In the case, the idea of solidarity is being represented in the USSF logo by the gathering of people who are depicted. Again, the specificity of the design must leave someone out. There are no "suit guys" in the logo, for example. And it's just as myopic to project a monolithic Caucasian-paternalist oppressor as it is the undifferentiated masses. (For example, I worked in a fairly high level capacity in banking and always had the feeling, when in the presence of the top executives, that as an Italian-American from a working-class background I was at best near-white.) I don't care if you wear Armani to the office and drive a BMW to get there, if you have to go into work every day in order to pay the bills you are part of the proletariat. Just ask any of the white-collar folk who are getting bounced out of their once-cushy jobs these days.
  • Ideinost ("idea-ness") is the doctrine that cultural representations must deal with concrete ideas and current issues. The USSF logo evokes some of the issues that the global justice movement addresses: the social fabric represented by the various character types and the need to accommodate their needs, the environment, etc. But where is debt-forgiveness? The tragedy of the commons? and so on.
  • Partiinost ("party-ness") expresses faithfulness to the ruling order. In this case we have to stretch a little bit, but again by attempting to represent the above Zhdanovian principles, the USSF logo buys into the idea that "the people" need to be led by a visual culture that is not unlike the Stations of the Cross -- images of devotional faith meant to instruct not inspire. (It's no accident that our term propaganda comes from the Counter-Reformation. In 1632, Pope Gregory XV established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, to defend Catholicism from iconoclastic Protestants and other infidels.)The argument against this, of course, comes to us from Walter Benjamin, in particular two essays, "The Author as Producer" and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In the first essay, Benjamin calls on authors (which means cultural producers of all disciplines) to align their work with the struggle of those working against oppression and for liberation, which he saw as being fulfilled ultimately in communism. The second advocates the use of modern aesthetic techniques to get the work done. The inspiration for Benjamin's observations were in part the political and aesthetic avant-garde represented most directly by the Russian Constructivists, who at the time were coming under attack by the rising influence of Zhdanovism. (Most were ruined by the experience, forced into exile of one sort or another.) In particular it reflects the Constructivist notion of how are we to think new thoughts if we use old mechanisms to do so?
In a very real and important sense, the Design Action Collective is adhering to those principles by using graphic design and mass-production techniques to"get the message out." But there are more impactful tools available with a little more out-of-the-box creativity. I'm thinking particularly of the peace symbol. Designed in 1958 by the British graphic artist Gerald Holtom, the peace symbol was originally used in a march for nuclear disarmament. (The inverted "V" and "I" are taken from the semaphore code for "N" and "D," respectively.) It soon found its way across the ocean to eventually be taken up by US anti-war protestors and then as a symbol of pacifism around the world. It's still around, used most recently in campaign materials for Barack Obama. I wonder how many people will remember the 2010 US Social Forum a year from now?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Further reflections on USSF

This week, besides the article on the Kresge fellows, the Metro Times also did a cool-down on the US Social Forum, which took place in Detroit recently. Curt Guyette, MT news editor, did his usual good job of reporting on events that the mainstream media too often overlooks. One of the questions that always gets asked about these things, and indeed the subtitle of Guyette's piece, is "But what did accomplish?"

Guyette reports on a generalized "feel good" quotient, which needs to have a little more conceptual framework put around it. People who study social movements (and I'm one of them) recognize a longer-term process at work in the social forums than just the affectation of goodwill among attendees that often gets written off as ephemeral at best or at least self-congratulatory. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, in their important book Civil Society and Political Theory, set out a four-step process of social change that civil society institutions, such as the USSF, help to bring about.

The first step is identity construction. That is, social movements help provide a mechanism for people who heretofore thought they were alone in the world to realize that they are part of something bigger, that who they are and what they believe in is nothing to hide from. (This is what C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination means by turning private troubles into public issues.)

The second step is fostering inclusion. By bringing previously hidden social identities out into the light, social movements build solidarity among people and groups that once felt themselves to be marginalized. (The second-wave feminists called this consciousness-raising.)

The third step is exerting influence. Once a certain critical mass is attained, new social movements can begin to affect policy. This is certainly the case with the global justice movement, of which USSF is a part, in that decision-makers are now bound to take social equity into consideration when attempting to implement policy on a global level. The so-called Doha round of free trade has pretty much been dead in the water since the Battle of Seattle. The emergence of the G-20 as the de facto global political authority (as opposed to the World Trade Organization) also reflects impulses of democracy from below. Several Noble-prize economists are now advocates of fair trade.

The fourth step is enacting reform. In American history, we have the example of the civil rights movement we can look at. It took a hundred years to go from abolition to enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Abolitionism was at work for a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation. And, of course, the job still isn't done. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle in term of the USSF's perceived mandate. There isn't a global polity at this point outside the purview of market globalization, which is still pretty much operating under the guise of neoliberalism. The nation-state has provided the venue for democratic political action and anything that may be accomplished will have to proceed at this level. (A useful tool in this regard is Sydney Tarrow's idea of "rooted cosmopolitans," that is, locally based actors who operate under global concepts of which class consciousness is a prime example.)

The other, important thing to recognize is that nothing of true social importance ever gets done through official channels. By the time the institutions of the state catch up to civil society, an issue is basically a fait accompli in terms of public opinion. (As Cohen and Arato say, "Laws are frozen politics.")

It's a mistake to look at the Closing Ceremony of the 2010 USSF as a culmination of anything. It's only the beginning, and if history is any indication, there's a long way to go.