“Movementism,” “Complainism,” and “Magicianism”


Emanuel Pastreich


The rate of the economic, institutional and cultural collapse in the United States increases, so that today almost everyone can sense something is fundamentally wrong in our country and that the newspapers and TV stations are incapable of doing anything besides presenting us fairy tales. We seem powerless to stop the transformation of our country into a moral desert, to be reduced to the status of slaves servicing a handful of the powerful.

But why, if that many people are aware of the profound contradictions in our culture, of the loathing beneath the surface, why do we remain paralyzed? Why are we so convinced that no action can be taken? Why do so many talented young Americans have trouble organizing, making sure that every action is focused on transforming our society, working together with neighbors to create a better society?

There are several reasons for this paralysis. We have been soaked in a saccharine consumer culture created by advertising firms for the last seventy years. That sickly bath has stripped us of our powers as citizens, rendering us consumers of images and feelings.

We watch on TV authority figures talk about everything except what is critical to our country as part of a macabre carnival.

Suffice it to say that our nation suffered a grievous wound twenty years ago that turned to gangrene. Rather than bravely cutting off the infected finger and halting the rot, we covered it up with a band aid and let the poison course through our veins, unseen and unheard, until the infection reached every corner of the body politic.

That is where we are now. For those who still have a job, you can go to Starbucks and have a pleasant conversation with a friend about family life.

Most of us, however, are returning from a long day of trying to do something, anything, working but getting no pay. We barely have the strength to cook supper for our kids. We feel hopeless and so does everyone around us. We hear stories that the lock-down will end soon — but no one really believes it.

My most urgent role as candidate is to bring you some hope and to sketch out a road forward which is proactive, and not reactive to increasingly unrealistic demands from moneyed interests, and the parts of government that they control.

I want to talk about the three trends in America that have contributed to this sad state, one in which we feel we have no freedom, no power, and so we end up being tossed and buffeted by invisible forces; we sense the flow of obscure power behind the surface at the mall, in our living rooms, and in our offices.

The three trends that have robbed us of our freedom, stripped us of any confidence in our actions, are “movementism,” “complainism,” and “magicianism.”

These terms are unfamiliar and perhaps a bit jarring. They are supposed to be unfamiliar and jarring, because we want to wake people up, to shake them out of the current slumber so that we can once again think for themselves, so that we can believe that we can actually change this world.

It is far more important for me to shock you than it is for me to recount platitudes about how things can be just great if we make a few minor corrections.

The first problem is “movementism.”

“Movementism” refers to the organization of large movements involving public gatherings, fund raising and campaigns to promote the signing of petitions and the collection of endorsements for a perspective or a policy.

Movementism focuses on exposure, on image making and demands attention from a depressed and discouraged population via for-profit newspapers and for-profit social media.

The leaders of these movements are promoted in the corporate media where they publish books and meet with famous politicians, popular singers, royalty and other celebrities.

The best examples of movementism can be found in the failed opposition to the Iraq War in 2002, the effort to address the sexual abuse of women through the “Me Too” movement, and the drive to increase awareness of climate change as seen in the activities of Greta Thunberg.

These activities take up an enormous amount of time, they fill up thousands of Facebook postings, and they require huge budgets. The movements give the impression that something is being done, but they deliver measly results, serving often to draw attention away from more committed people who are more capable of effective organizing.

Those caught up in “movementism” are often sincere and unaware of the ineffectiveness of their actions.

The protests against the United States’ plans for war with Iraq, starting in September 2002, were classic movementism. The anti-war protests were certainly impressive, forming the largest coordinated mass demonstrations around the world in history — or so we are told. There were also hundreds of government officials, and even a couple of politicians, who bravely stepped forward to oppose the Bush administration. But none of these inspiring efforts was effective in stopping a pointless war to enrich a handful of the elites. The bombings went forward unimpeded, and the conflict continues to this day.

What went wrong? How could you have that many people protesting and still a tiny number of the rich and powerful were able to make such a dangerous decision with impunity?

Why has there been so little serious discussion of the reasons that those protests failed so miserably?

We have been completely seduced by the idea that getting attention in the media is critical. The core assumption of “movementism” is that if lots of people know the truth, that somehow that will impact the decision-making process of elites. No one even considers the possibility that the super-rich may have value systems that are fundamentally alien to us.

The media suggests that a cause must get sufficient attention and endorsement from celebrities to be a legitimate movement. But we forget that celebrity-hood is the commodity that the media sells.

Movementism is process by which citizens are convinced that their actions are valuable by media and social networks run for profit, and not to save the world. Money is generated based on promotional activities that increase engagement. Success is not of any interest to these media conglomerates.

The activities that are widely reported by the corrupt for-profit media cannot be activities that undermine their profits. That means that the movements reported on cannot be economically independent, and they cannot draw attention to how the heroes promoted by the media derive profit from those corporations.

“Movementism” is part of the promotion of a consumer culture and the cult of the self. The goal in “movementism” is self-realization, and not the formation of organized groups with a deep moral commitment to a cause.

Many of us assume that a movement must have lots of money, media recognition, and the backing of famous people before we can support it. That is what we were taught to believe.

Remember that you are not the user of Facebook or of Twitter, but rather the product that is being sold to corporate clients.

What do the corporate clients serviced by Facebook and Twitter want from you when they purchase you? They want you to think you are doing something very important but to have no real impact.

So what might a true movement look like?

Let us consider the anti-slavery movement of the 1850s which led to a transformation of the economy and improved the living conditions for many people. Anti-slavery was a massive movement that engaged people in local organizations where they met in person to debate policy and to promote radical action. It involved actions, like the underground railroad, in which members of the anti-slavery movement risked their lives repeatedly in dangerous efforts to smuggle African Americans out and to aid them as they organized a terrible struggle inside the plantations. Few of those sacrifices were even recorded, but the organizations grew only more powerful.

The members formed participatory institutions and bonds for life. They were not obsessed with voting in elections, or with circulating petitions to sign. They knew that such harmless activities would do nothing to end the profitable crime of slavery. For them, their strongest card was not the support of wealthy philanthropists, or likes on Facebook, but rather their willingness to die for the cause.

The leading anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass wrote about why African Americans had to struggle, whether they wanted to or not. He noted,

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Whether Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson, or the strikes against the oppression in private prisons, such struggles are going on right now. No celebrities are present. No kind opening remarks by supporters in the business community.

The second problem in American politics is “complainism.” Complainism is the practice, especially in journalism, but also in our conversations with friends and family, of complaining incessantly about what is wrong in the United States and about how unfair things are, but not offering any deep analysis, any concrete alternatives to the current situation, any suggestions as to what the listener can do to help.

Such journalism, and political debate, discourages citizens. We are presented with catastrophes and convinced that we have no option but despair. One cannot help suspecting that the powerful are delighted by this relentless “complainism.”

The political crisis is worsened because the alternative media does not present opportunities to take action either. It may offer more accurate reports, but the alternative media offers no suggestions as to where you can go in your neighborhood to discuss issues and move forward with collective action. You are not taught how to become independent of monopolies like Amazon, Facebook, Viacom, or Microsoft.

“Complainism” journalism focuses on a few “bad apples” like Donald Trump, George Soros or Jeff Bezos, often suggesting that if these individuals were more caring, or more enlightened, the problems could be solved.

There is no analysis of how the structure of the economy encourages greed and exploitation or of how the control of finance, manufacturing, or trade by the few determines our economic reality.

The process by which the waging of war, or the promotion of fossil fuels, creates profit for those who offer criticism of the policy remains an taboo topic. “Complainism” journalism never describes how profits go to the retirement accounts, or to the stock portfolios, of the upper middle class intellectuals who are quoted in the media as thoughtful critics.

This incestuous relationship between the educated people who are supposed to be standing up for the public interest, serving as a watchdog and corporate profit is precisely why they cannot present honest analysis.

If we organize into effective groups committed to each other and to achieving our goal, we can start to change the economy and the political system. That approach is never suggested as a response in “complainism” journalism.

Complainism in the media cannot be separated from the radical degradation of intellectual discourse in America. Analysis in the media, in universities and in think tanks is completely devoid of any serious consideration of history. If we talk about the White House or Congress, there is no discussion whatsoever of the institutional history of those organizations, or even a description of their functions. The CIA or Google are described as if they are the same organizations that they were ten or twenty years ago without a single word about their internal organization or about their financial interests.

This lack of historical context leaves the reader with only piles of negative information. Without an understanding of deeper issues, or a roadmap, we have no idea where to go next.

The last problem is “magicianism,” or the promotion of magicians in politics.

The assumption in the discussion is that we need to elect, or to follow, someone special, and that if that person has sufficient power, then our problems will be solved.

It is assumed that our only role as citizens is to vote for this magician in November and then go back to our lives and leave it up to that magician to solve our problems for us.

Such “magicianism” rhetoric was employed to great effect in the presidential campaign of Barak Obama, which pivoted around the slogan “change” and was aggressively promoted by the advertising firms paid for by the Democratic Party.

Corporate funding pushed the message that if we just supported Obama, this brilliant and articulate political figure would transform the United States. In other words, all that was required for real change, after the massive criminality of the late Clinton and Bush years, was for a Democrat to be elected president.

This was a bald lie. Any real solution to the corruption of institutions had to involve citizens at all levels and to put forth a plan for required dangerous, but essential, housecleaning.

But for Obama it was all too easy. All we needed to do was vote for him and to tell others about what a great job he would do.

But then, low and behold, Obama, the agent of “change,” cool and collected, rushed to bail out corporate banks and lent a ready hand to gutting financial regulation as a reward to his supporters — the financial interest groups who bought him media coverage.

The Bernie Sanders campaign had some appeal for citizens, but he was similarly sold as a magician who would solve problems for us. His election campaign used the dollars sent in by working people to pay companies to run expensive ads in the primaries. He may have meant well, but Sander’s campaign did not invest a single penny in building long-term organizations of citizens on the ground. Such organizations could allow ordinary citizens to become politically self-sufficient so that they could continue to work for reform. If anything, the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, cultivates dependency. That is what they do. To ask them to do differently is like asking a tiger to become a vegan.

Professor Theda Skocpal’s book “Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life” describes how Americans moved away from regular participation in local organizations, like the YMCA, the Masons, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or the Lion’s Club, where they practiced democratic administration in their daily lives.

Over the last five decades, however, a political culture of management has taken the place of participation, causing a catastrophic drop in democracy and transparency. That loss of participation by citizens ushered in the unaccountable and opaque political culture of today.

I ask you, have you ever been invited by the Democratic Party, or by the Republican Party, to attend an event in which they ask for your opinion, or allow you to participate in the process by which they determine their policies?

We will not defeat the superficiality of political engagement in America by writing Facebook posts or by complaining about how corrupt Donald Trump is. We cannot create a healthy political culture by buying TV commercials for politicians.

We must build powerful institutions that are made up of people at the local level and that work daily with those people. We must engage in transformation. That means turning off the internet, knocking on the doors of our neighbors, and getting back in the habit of talking with friends about real issues. No one can do that work for us.

The Japanese philosopher Ogyu Sorai wrote,

“In the game of chess, there are two ways to become a master. One way is to learn all the strategies of chess, all the openings and end games, and to have a deep understanding which informs every move. That mastery is most familiar to us. But there is another way to become a master and that is to make up the rules of chess.”

The moments when it is possible to make up the rules, to create a new political culture, are few and far apart. But the current political crisis in the United States is so profound and so complete, the horrific dangers it poses are so clear, that it offers the rare opportunity for complete transformation. I would even go so far as to say that we have no choice but to throw ourselves into the battle.

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