3 Challenges to Artists Getting Politically Organized

Talking about an idea of coordination and realizing it are two very different things. Artists, like anyone, are faced with serious obstacles in coming together to form a political organization. There are three significant factors that impede the coordination of artists in the U.S. from developing coordinated efforts to change dominant forms of political and social organization. Those factors are the dominance of subcultures and social networks over other forms of organization; a general fear of ideology from self identified progressives; and the entrenchment of our labor in non-profit organizations and other structures that serve to depoliticize our work. It is not uncommon to talk of the “fragmentation” of social and political life today – but it is my goal to try to account for that fragmentation in some detail. My familiarity is with the context in the US, and so these concerns are very situated there.

The first factor impeding coordinated political efforts by artists in the US is the fragmentation that results from organizing via subcultures and social networks. While “sub-culture” is difficult to define, I am articulating it as a marginal culture which is pre-occupied with its own reproduction. Some subcultures are quite small, while others blur the lines separating them from dominant normalized culture. There are a number of reasons why political projects have turned towards social networking, especially via the internet, for organizing. One reason is that aside from work, people are primarily organized within social groups and communities. The vast majority of people have no connection to trade unions and do not closely identify with their specific workplace, much less their field or trade. This flexible labor market, combined with an absence of meaningful political affiliation (the two party system is an abstracted and crude form of affiliation), requires that people find other ways of creating identification with others. Increasingly people are part of networks that connect individuals through communities of interest, beyond the limitations of space (or even time!) – transcending the classic conception that community is inextricably linked to geography. So it is in the interest of political organizing efforts to tap into this complex web of subculture and social networking that dominates contemporary social life. Another reason for focus on these forms of organization is economic and pragmatic: the relative low-cost of distributing information online versus expensive mailings, the corporate monopolized traditional distribution systems of news/film/television/book publishing. It has been convenient for marginal cultural producers to view the internet as a democratized distribution tool while the conventional distribution channels are bought up and strangled by profit-motivated corporations. Still, we are left with a sense that meaningful ideas which we care deeply about, are circulating in small, narrow or pre-defined distribution channels – taking chance-encounters, points-of-entry and concepts of popular and “general public” out of the equation of our political ambitions.

The second fragmenting impediment for contemporary politics is a general fear of ideology for those with progressive ideas. The terrain that we currently operate on has a deficit of relevant ideological programs. Such programs might identify how we activate forms of political and social organization that can potentially dismantle competitive and oppressive social organization. Generally speaking, there is a severely underdeveloped capacity for combining an analysis of power and capital with a strategy for overcoming it. Attempts at overarching ideological approaches are often shot-down or dismissed without thorough consideration. Admittedly, most proposals for drastic or revolutionary social re-organization that I have encountered seem like impossibilities, as well as often undesirable from my perspective. Yet the disparity between a highly organized network of powerful institutions working in concert to advance right-wing neoconservative and neoliberal ideology and a completely weak and fragmented left is cause for concern. There was a time when a so-called left existed and there is no reason to think that we couldn’t return to some new version of that in the future. There was also a time before a left existed, and there is no reason to think we wont return to some new version of that moment as well. So what is it that scares so many of us about groups that articulate and advance revolutionary ideologies about how the world could work differently? Why is it that when they do come around, they have such poor delivery? Regardless of your specific experience or proximity to radical left wing thinking, this may be of concern to you because of how dire this historical moment is and how visions of a future you might want are lacking. There is something about that feeling of flailing – of knowing things must change but not having the capacity or the level of organization to do anything about it. That feeling is not going to go away unless we take a measured and careful approach to identifying an ideology, culture and politics that can reflect this moment, learn from the past and reach for a better and more livable future.

The third fragmenting logic impacting today’s political landscape is what some creative critics are calling the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. State sponsored welfare programs stabilized economic growth in the U.S. following the Great Depression (with significant growth occurring directly following the second world war). However, the neoliberal restructuring of the priorities and policies of the state has meant that the services of that welfare state and many of the gains won by previous generations of progressive social movements and reformers are being swept away through deregulation and privatization. In turn with these changes, the people who cared about the livelihood of their neighbors – people who in previous generations might have been a part of leftist labor unions or political parties – have had to pick up the pieces. This means that agencies, groups, NGOs, collectives, websites, magazines – the potential organizational infrastructure of a left social movement – started doing the work that was previously paid for and, even if only partially, implemented by the state. The movements became service providers in the “shadow state” of non-profits because that is what people needed. This is true for the cultural sector as well, which has organizationally been rallied around the logic of service-provision with the terms dictated by funding bodies such as foundations, philanthropy networks, and board of directors.

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