Review: DREAM By Stephen Duncombe

Flip The Script: Spectacular Dreams and Politics in 2007
A Review by Daniel Tucker and Todd Tucker

Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy By Stephen Duncombe New Press, 240pp., $15.95

Review printed in Lumpen Magazine.

Any progressive activist in recent years would be familiar with the following scenario: a group that has a history of working together is plotting out upcoming actions and campaigns. As they seek feedback on their plans from a wider circle of friends and colleagues, they run into someone – perhaps a public relations leader, perhaps a political communications professor… let’s just call them “framing gurus” for short – who vigorously insist on the centrality of messaging, sound-bytes, and narratives. While any activist group worth its street cred would undoubtedly concur with the importance of adequately representing your platform, such tactical considerations – when pushed to the extreme – can obscure longer term goals and strategies.

A related debate is taking place on the national level, where one of the most influential books for the Democratic Party in recent years has been George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” In it, he argues that Democratic candidates could gain support by describing their platform in terms of broad social values that would activate “frames” in voters’ minds, rather just reacting to the GOP. A whole host of Democrats did just that, for instance by describing their opposition to Bush’s “free trade” policies in terms of being “for the future of the middle class.”

But activist Stephen Duncombe argues that much more than just framing exercises is needed if progressives are going to move beyond a few electoral victories and ad campaigns into a vibrant and sustainable movement capable of checking corporate power and pushing elected officials further to the left. In his book, Dream, Duncombe takes the Oscar Wilde maxim that “the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings” as evidence that progressives have for too long demanded that their core activists be idealized, selfless monks who are far too clever to value trashy celebrity gossip rags or violent video games – in other words, things most people enjoy.

Of the left’s obsession with reason, Duncombe writes: “The problem, as I see it, comes down to reality. Progressives believe in it, Bush’s people believe in creating it.” Similarly, corporations build power, through the powerful associations created between their products (i.e. Bud) and people’s desires (i.e. sexy ladies).

In speaking only to people’s heads, progressives are falling behind in the battle for people’s hearts. He argues that progressives need to spend less time preaching reason, fact, and authenticity and a little more time imagineering. This is the terrain of the spectacle, the place where disbelief, imagination, manipulation and possibility coincide. This is something that the rightwing has mastered with its highly staged photo-ops and code-word memes that intervene in popular vocabulary and imagination. This is where Duncombe argues that because fantasy and spectacle are the “lingua franca” of our time, we have no choice but to use them and understand how they work and what they mean in people’s lives.

Duncombe, a veteran of global justice and anti-war movements and a son of civil rights leaders, understands that a typical protest situation is highly scripted: “Leaders organize a ‘mass’ demonstration. We march. We chant. Speakers are paraded onto the dais to tell us (in screeching voices through bad sound systems) what we already know. Sometimes we sit down and let the police arrest us. We hope the mainstream media puts us on the news media for five seconds.”

This awareness is, in large part, what informs Duncombe’s proposal that unless the left starts taking seriously the role of irrational emotional attachment to seemingly frivolous things like Paris Hilton and cheesy and clearly fake scenery in Vegas then we are “doomed to political insignificance.” Essentially the argument boils down to this: people are not buying what the left has been selling and so the left needs to pay attention to what people are buying and why that is. And unlike PR analysts, who look only at the “product” (i.e. policy package, media campaign, electoral candidate) of “politics,” Duncombe argues that people must also buy the left’s “process” if a sustainable movement is ever to be achieved.

A menu of consumer culture spectacles structure Duncombe’s theory: Grand Theft Auto video games, McDonalds’ ads, celebrity gossip rags, and the city of Las Vegas. He argues that the popular appetite for change can be located – even if it’s disguised – in these examples. Witness the appeal of Grand Theft Auto, where players put themselves into the shoes of a poor black man. At the surface, this is nothing more than blaxploitation. At the same time, Duncombe argues that identifying with the hero of the game is “embracing difference,” as opposed to the “banal respecting difference of the multiculturalists.” Furthermore, the rebelliousness and player involvement in shaping the path of the game (through “gamer mods”) are also important impulses for the forming of activists. Rather than call to regulate the game – as Hilary Clinton recently did – progressives should seek to translate and channel these impulses into something politically potent.

The left wasn’t always so averse to spectacle, nor were corporations so keen to manipulate it, finds Duncombe. Ivory Soap ads used to tout the modest tagline “an agreeable item of toilet use,” while soap ads of today appeals to people’s desires to not stink and thus get laid. Similarly, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower once wrote that, “should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security… you would not hear of that party again… There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Their number is negligible, and they are stupid.” Today’s GOP dreamed the unthinkable, won elections, and came damn close to privatizing Social Security. Similarly, liberals used to be masters of imagination and narrative, turning complex policy issues into emotional appeals – recall FDR’s fireside chats, or more fittingly, Huey Long’s appeal through song that “every man is a king.”

Indeed, from the professionalization of movement politics to the passivity of listening to boring speeches at anti-war marches, Duncombe argues that most political practices on the left are no fun and even disempowering.

While much of Dream focuses on the ways that the left has not been keyed into spectacle, Duncombe does spend time exploring a few of the promising exceptions. He cites the work of Reclaim The Streets, a UK originated movement that eventually found wings and landed in U.S. cities. In New York, the group’s actions would go down like this: a harmful institution would be targeted for activist attention, say, a police department or a corporation. Next, a core group of activists would spread the word about a mass action on the target through flyers distributed at parties and through word-of-mouth.

It wouldn’t be a typical protest, however: the gathering would seem to happen spontaneously at the drop of a hat, seeing people flood the streets, block the traffic, turn their radios tuned to the same pirate radio broadcast of fast and energizing dance music, creating a coordinated stunt that would facilitate many different forms of engagement from passing out flyers explaining the action, to dancing, to fire-breathing. It was the openness of this activity that characterized another feature of Duncombe’s “ethical spectacle”, for it was open enough to engage people in many different ways. The actions often responded to quality of life laws that involved increased policing and control of public space, which strangled the social imagination in manifold ways. Reclaim the Streets was not a traditional “cause,” yet still found acceptance from the kind of unlikely alliances of community organizations, ecologists, ant-police brutality organizers and dancing anarchists that are needed to address contemporary urban impediments to the kind of public gathering and democratic space that fosters dissent as well as visions for better or fairer society.

Another example Duncombe explores is the Billionaires for Bush group’s satiric bird-dogging of political candidates. The group would often stand opposite the “real” protest, dressed in campy over-the-top top-hats, pearl necklaces and tuxedos associated only with an imaginary elite of Monopoly game boards. They would confuse the typical scene of an anti-war protest through advocacy for even more control by the rich of electoral politics, thereby unmasking the corporate control of elections. This theater of the absurd was clearly and transparently a performance – something Duncombe argues is essential for an “ethical spectacle” to be different from the manipulative and deceiving spectacles that we often encounter in our daily lives.

To be sure, many of the examples of movements that have harnessed “dreampolitik,” as Duncombe calls it, have remained on the margins of political power. His descriptions of the Billionaires for Bush or Reclaim the Streets make no apologies for that.

But he argues that even mainstream liberals should embrace the dream aesthetic. Rather than disdain corporate advertising as “the seduction of eloquence,” in critic Neil Postman’s words, why no co-opt it to create positive associations between paid time off policies and sunny days in the park? In reference to the classic McDonalds’ commercial, Duncombe writes, “I have yet to come across an explanation of how a hamburger can give me free afternoons, bring me closer to my children, or make the sun shine on a clean and free public space.” Progressive public policy – and the organization of people into movements capable of demanding and receiving it – on the other hand, can do all of these things. Indeed, advertising, especially through the classic “before and after” commercial, emphasizes transformation – as does political practice, at its best.

It is a generous and thoughtful intention that drives Duncombe’s latest contribution to contemporary progressive politics. Jumping from Walter Benjamin to Martin Luther King Jr., and Umberto Eco to Alexander Hamilton, Duncombe breaks down some of the intellectual prayer curtains that have separated academics from practitioners, historians from futurists, protestors from policy wonks. And while he lauds some of the successful “framing” exercises of the last few decades, he goes beyond Lakoff and PR gurus in his argument for a spectacular reconstitution of social movements’ modes of collective action. Rather than firm prescriptions, his is an innovative synthesis of a variety of streams of thought and a creative exploration of the terrain of today’s politics. There is no doubt that this book will be influential in many kinds of work in the years to come.

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