The Trump regime manifests the emergence of an uncanny new fascism with twenty-first century characteristics that we are only beginning to grasp. As we sketch elsewhere, one feature of this mode of power is the intensification of a kind of shock politics. Unpredictable, unaccountable communications and actions perpetually disorient and undermine efforts to organize opposition while provoking resonant fear, anger and violence on the extreme right. This new fascism is not only antithetical to the survival of democracy in the U.S., it also threatens planetary ecological collapse. We need new surges of radical democratic creativity that can generate alternative solidarities and political modes to defeat the regime and move in hopeful directions. Building democratic power today hinges on generating a complex ecology of democratic sensibilities, political modes, and relationships. The day after the Trump inauguration, over three million people gathered in streets around the United States in what was perhaps the most impressive protest in U.S. history. However, the next day, no one had a clear sense of how to build on that energy to create transformative power. As we saw a week later in the massive flash protests in airports in response to Trump’s immigration ban, civic power to assemble and disrupt appears to be growing. In the days and months to come, we must turn that energy into resilient and robust forms of powerful democratic action to both target the regime and engage more and more of the polity. To that end, we sketch the following six theses:
- Whereas much grassroots democratic politics often resembles Nietzsche’s sarcastic image of a huge mouth on a feeble stick of a body with atrophied senses, we need to cultivate a robust, full-bodied politics. Radical politics is often represented today by a bullhorn in the hands of a protester speaking truth to power. Similarly, the accent in much progressive politics is on honing and amplifying a clear and powerful message. So many political actions focus entirely on amassing numbers to shout louder and carry ever more poignant signs. While we take the politics of voice to be very important, we must respond to today’s fascist assault with other modes of political becoming and action as well. Our call for a full-bodied politics is a call that includes — in addition to voice — a rich array of receptive senses and practices, a heart capable of opening vulnerably and extending toward others across difficult differences, and manifold muscular powers to act together to defeat the worst elements that threaten democracy and commonwealth. In contrast to the more common tendency to separate these dimensions (as in a politics of love devoid of militancy or in a politics of the militant posture drained of receptivity beyond the bounds of one’s ideology or identity), our call for a full-bodied politics means a radical democratic politics that holds together the mutually reinforcing relations between muscle, heart and receptive senses.
- We must rapidly and creatively shift toward a modulating, multi-modal politics — out of the ruts of rote protest in which our gatherings become often boring liturgies of outrage, defeat, impotence, and the minimalist solace of having at least raised our voices. Radical democratic politics hinges on cultivating myriad interrelationships among surprising and formidable modes of action that converge to generate a constellation that is far greater than the sum of its diverse sparks. Toward that end, we suggest two guiding principles for creative action. First, never perform ourselves as publics the same way twice unless repetition itself seems, on consideration, to be integral to generating power. And second, never rely on protest politics divorced from a rich ecology of muscular and receptive political actions.
- If we are to pull the emergency brake on the current regime of power (with or without Trump at the helm) we must quickly devote ourselves to imaginative and historically informed muscular, militant-nonviolent, actions that target the worst aspects of the regime with the goal of defeating it. Returning to bodily metaphor, we might say that a powerful grassroots politics is one that can interweave muscle fibers that have different abilities in order to enable the dynamic movement of collective democratic bodies that can bring the aggression of the regime to a halt. Consider the example of the constellation of intersecting actions that made the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham so powerful. Daily protests were combined with militant nonviolent civil disobedience that went on week after week, boycotts, a voter registration drive, sit-ins at lunch counters and libraries, carefully crafted media strategies, and more. The combined effect of all this was to render the city dysfunctional. Equally important, there was serious planning around how to sustain and escalate the struggle through an extended wave of disruptive actions, so that the characteristics, intensities, numbers, and consequences repeatedly resisted normalization and drew the attention of the press. If we add to this the rich tradition of experimentation with blockades, strikes, sanctuary initiatives, and free city movements, a muscular ecology begins to appear. The powers of which are absolutely necessary if we are to avoid the entangled collapse of planetary ecosystems and democracy in the narrow window of time that remains to us. Yet, these powers are largely a pipe-dream unless we reimagine the ways we appear and act publicly both in large dramatic contexts and in everyday organizing.
- A democratic body — like all bodies — requires the cultivation of receptive sense organs that are vital to building power and using it strategically and wisely. By receptive sense organs, we mean collective and individual ears that can listen capaciously to others around us, eyes with widening peripheral vision that remain open to seeing that which currently lies outside our frames, supple empathetic hearts that resist hardening in fear and implacable hostility, flesh that touches and is touched by others with a certain sensitive curiosity; noses that can sniff out emergent political possibilities. Sadly, such expansive empathetic sensibilities and militant political muscularity are often thought of as antithetical. Particularly in times of crisis the slower and more vulnerable crafts of caring for relationships beyond one’s readily-available alliances — ideological, identitarian, religious, historical — are quickly abandoned as they seem to compromise the need for a radical and coherent stance that can cut into the heart of the order. But without expansive and expanding receptivity this kind of militancy will tend to remain relatively sectarian in ways that succumb to a certain powerlessness and rigor mortis. On the other hand, receptivity and empathy divorced from questions of power and muscularity tend to remain sentimental and apolitical. We need to build a radical democratic politics that realizes how these different dimensions of political life are intertwined in generative ways — both as part of dramatic action and quotidian organizing.
- Beyond the frame of the bullhorn, we need to reimagine and enact dramatic political action in ways that are shocking and magnetic precisely insofar as they engage people in highly receptive ways. Protest politics typically confines itself to a drama in which those protesting are actors projecting their message, while the rest of the polity are spectators to be persuaded and moved. Holding carefully-worded signs on street corners beseeching the supportive honk of passing cars, marching in front of Trump Tower surrounded by passive tourists, bystanders and media spectators; orchestrating dramatic actions by a few with the hope of being broadcast across Facebook. Too many of today’s protesters accept barriers that diminish possibilities for increasing power by drawing people into actively receptive engagement. Efforts to scramble the division between spectators and actors can create surprising and proliferative relationships and draw increasing numbers into co-creating new political awarenesses, knowledges, and possibilities for realizing democratic power. The Brazilian theorist-activist and theater director Augosto Boal long experimented with such insightfully daring and creative theatrical processes through which activists would break down the actor-spectator division to provoke critical interactions that literally and figuratively brought spectators into the drama as active participants in dialogues and improvisations on social challenges and conflicts. In this way, political drama becomes catalytic. What is enacted is less a scripted performance and more a magnetic process in which people are swept into new dynamics of questioning, critical reflection, solidarity building, and democratically generative agonisms and antagonisms. Just as Trump-shock and neoliberal shock politics use extreme unexpected events (communicative, natural, political, economic, etc.) to break down existing barriers and reconfigure the coordinates of possibility, we urge a politics of receptive alter-shocks that would be similarly transformative. The power and gravitational force of such alter-shocks would stem precisely from the unusual, even extreme, ways that differences would be receptively engaged, from the promising depths of questions and dialogues, and from the dynamic practices of vulnerability and attentiveness exhibited. We might imagine receptive alter-shocks as waves that break through personal and intersubjective barriers through invitational invigorating intensities that erode defensive habits, deferences, and default anomies.
Briefly consider a few suggestive starting points. What if the protesters in those post-election marches began inviting “spectators” and even some opponents into various theatrical dialogues and scenes to solicit active engagement around key issues? Thus, spectators would find themselves bodily inside of the process of searching for political responses instead of remotely witnessing — thereby expanding the number of people involved in, and intensifying the qualitative touch of, the action. Or, take another example from our own experience, the example of a demonstration that broke into hostile shouting between environmentalists and loggers. Eventually, the protesters halted their flatbed truck and invited the loggers to speak at their microphone, utterly changing the dynamics, relationships, and power potentials in promising ways. Yet again, we might recall the powerful Adbusters campaign “we are the 99%” that solicited diverse photographic testimonials of economic suffering and culminated in the Occupy movement.
- Nurturing robust and resilient transformation needs to occur more frequently and more consistently than episodic protests allow. It must be woven into everyday processes of organizing and public work. The future of democracy hinges upon rapid and widespread appropriation of the best arts of broad-based relational community organizing in the United States. This tradition is perhaps best exemplified by such organizations as Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools, Highlander Center, Ella Baker’s SNCC, and Saul Alinsky-inspired broad-based community organizing. Each of these focuses on cultivating grassroots leadership (especially among those on the bottom sides of power) by proliferating one-to-one meetings and small house meetings in which people attentively engage each other and identify issues of common concern; assemblies in which they exercise civic muscle that begins to hold those in political and economic positions of power accountable; action-research teams in which we develop citizen capacities for knowledge and expertise; regular trainings on strategy, outreach, power mapping, cycles of organizing, and direct action. These arts draw people into relational webs across lines of race, religion, ideology, and more in order to generate radical democratic change in which people collaborate together to co-create public goods and contest unjust powers. When they are at their best, and transformatively woven into the fabric of everyday life and institutions, they create daily practices that become, in Tocqueville’s words, “schoolhouses of democracy.” People not so “schooled” generally lack the capacities for the kinds of imaginative and disciplined action described above. Much has been written on this organizing tradition, which we lack space to flesh out here. We suggest that in the deepest registers it generates democratic energy, active hope and a sense of public selfhood. When we connect these to the arts and energies of dramatic receptivity and militant-nonviolent action, we just might form a democratic matrix capable of overcoming the anti-democratic and anti-ecological forces of our time.
We are aware that there is a history of tension between proponents of quotidian organizing and those who embrace dramatic action. Nevertheless, just as we think the dichotomy between empathetic love and militancy is impoverishing, so too is this division. Actualizing these possibilities will take creative syntheses of the best of what our predecessors have bequeathed to us — as well as quite a bit of daring improvisation on our own part.