Occupy Theory: Chapter 5

The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore. 



Chapter 5: 
Participatory Theory

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards a ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may arrive.”
- Leonardo Da Vinci

What Is Social Theory?

“Even for practical purposes theory generally 
turns out the most important thing in the end.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes


Theory is a mental construction we use to explain, predict, and also guide. Examples are a theory of gravity, language acquisition, or baseball. 

A social theory is a theory, as defined above, but about some part of collective human activity and engagement. It could be a theory of markets, law, bureaucracies, or families. 

In our case, the theory – and, again, we prefer to call it the toolbox of thinking aids, but we will bow to popular usage and for concision say the theory – addresses societies and history in general and also specific types of society or epochs of history, or even actual instances of either. 

The components of a theory are called concepts. They can come in groups or sub theories bearing on some particular part of the whole. For example, we may have a theory of gravity, with concepts like force and mass. But we may also then have sub theories like black holes or gravitons. Or if we are theorizing baseball, we might have concepts like player and coach, ball and bat – and sub theories on hitting or pitching. 

Concepts can be more general and encompassing such as player or fielder, or more specific, such as shortstop or stolen base. They are just names for patterns or things that we usefully and frequently highlight in our thinking about the overall topics we consider. 

Theory also contains assertions about relations among its concepts. How do the basic concepts – elements or aspects – fit together and influence one another or impact systems more broadly, and change over time. Here, too, the theory highlights recurring patterns we can usefully be alert to and think about. In the sports case, an example would be the relation between certain hitting or pitching styles and possible outcomes in the game.

The components of the social theory used in this book are at the broadest level:

  • humans and institutions
  • people’s consciousnesses and preferences and roles
  • the four functions and associated spheres of social life and their influences 
  • the two encompassing contexts and their influences
  • the social center of people and their attributes 
  • the boundary of institutions and their roles
  • the two relations, accommodation and co-reproduction. 

Getting more specific we have additional concepts bearing on each of the four spheres – like family, religion, legislature, market, and workplace, among many others – and regarding the effects of the four spheres on people and groups via the roles they offer – such as mother and father, workers, coordinator, and owner, and so on – up to, arguably a sub theory for each sphere.

Theories are typically about specific domains – such as gravity or cosmology, baseball or sports, society or history – and they are better or worse insofar as they accurately address the domain we wish to consider and deliver the type of insight we are seeking for that domain. This could be an explanation of its operations, prediction of its future reactions to different choices, or informed guidance in our actual choices of actions to pursue or aims to seek, or all of these. 

For example, baseball theory is supposed to help us understand past and upcoming games and seasons. But suppose we are not just spectators or even historians of the sport but also want to predict likely outcomes in particular situations in order to win bets. Or, we are not just betting on games or seasons, we are playing and coaching and we want theory to guide actions we can take. 

In this book, our theory is similarly meant to explain past societies and historical events as if we were historians or spectators, to predict likely outcomes of particular situations as if we were betting on outcomes, and also to help guide us in formulating viable and worthy aims and in making choices to attain them because we are activists – all of which will become more obvious as we proceed in volumes two and three of Fanfare.

Finally, the validity of a theory rests on how accurately its insights correspond to what occurs in its domain – whether the domain is planets hurtling through space, stars collapsing, players competing, or societies chugging along or sometimes dramatically altering. And the theory’s worth to us, even beyond its technical validity, corresponds to how well it helps us accomplish whatever our particular agendas may be – such as understanding, predicting, and/or acting. 

But so what? Does any of this have any relevance for us? Well, it can at least demystify theory a bit, and that is important. As to more, let’s see.

The Language Of Theory

“Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain.”
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

David Hilbert, one of the most successful and brilliant mathematicians of the twentieth century, said, “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.” Albert Einstein said the same thing about physics, except he referred to a “barmaid” as the person who would have to understand. What were these great theorists trying to convey?

I think it was that when you technically understand a theory – the concepts and their relations – and you become so immersed in it that you make it totally your own in general and specific terms, you ought to be able to convey the essence of it for others to broadly comprehend. 

Hilbert and Einstein thought this was true even for theories whose discovery and use necessarily utilized very technical tools of mathematical analysis and had highly unfamiliar, and even counter intuitive attributes, because those theories explored deeply and precisely into relations very far from our familiar experience. 

When we switch back from math and physics to looking at society and history, our comprehension is far less deep and precise, requiring only a few new terms to highlight things we don’t typically talk about but need to give a name so we will focus on them. It certainly involves no really complex tools of understanding, like complex math. More, history and society are familiar to everyone’s experience. 

So, here is the point we take from this. Social theory, like all theory, should not be made unduly obscure even in its creation, much less once it is developed. Even more so, a theory has to be assessed not only by its bottom line ability to explain, predict, and guide when it is employed by the best trained practitioners who have made the theory totally their own, but by its utility for accomplishing whatever agendas it is meant to aid. 

In that light, please consider a theory which is meant to guide efforts at social change. 

Who is supposed to engage in such efforts? 

Well, this is jumping ahead a bit, but it will come as no surprise that in this book we have in mind that broad populations are meant to engage in such efforts. This is, however obvious it may be, a major observation. 

It means that the only people who really need to be able to creatively and efficiently utilize the actual concepts of gravity, or biology, or even baseball, are the practitioners within those domains. But in our case, dealing with society and history, the practitioners of social change include essentially anyone and everyone aroused to participate. 

And that tells us that obscure social theory, no matter how insightful it may be, is, for our purposes, horribly flawed. To be successful at guiding normal people living in normal circumstances with normal prior experience, social theory must be highly congenial and accessible. 

A random person doesn’t have to be able to just pick up and run with social theory in five minutes. That’s asking too much. It can reasonably take more time than that, say a few hours or even days, and some practice, to comprehend and become adept with a worthy social theory. But picking it up to use it should not require learning a whole new language and entail a vast amount of training. Everyone learns to ride a bike. It isn’t and can’t be trivially easy, but nor is it out of reach. Similarly everyone needs to be able to learn to understand, make predictions about, envision, and act on social situations in pursuit of a better future. This need not be trivially easy, but nor should it be out of reach.

In the toolbox of aids to social thought that we have offered in this book we have opted to include just a few new words to label new concepts. Hopefully we won’t have to add too many more as we proceed further. The meanings of these new words are also, hopefully, clear, and in most instances correspond to things we already intuitively recognize from our experience. Even the relations of our concepts to one another that we have only begun to display, we hope will present no insurmountable obstacles. 

However, if some purported “big thinker” for social change claims to be for a bottom up and highly participatory future, but then presents an utterly incomprehensible framework of arcane terms – very few of which he or she can even define – and which he or she cannot explain clearly enough for the proverbial “man on the street” or “barmaid” to understand, and which he or she then routinely stitches into incredibly convoluted sentences and paragraphs that defy logical interpretation, then you should question the person’s motives or methods, or both. 

Arcane inaccessibility is not only unnecessary for social theory, when it exists it is typically a creation for purposes of appearance, not communication. If the “big thinker” gets defensive and calls you anti intellectual for questioning him or her – you should redouble your critical efforts. Such defensiveness is typically additional evidence of a wrong-headed approach. Neither Hilbert nor Einstein doing math and physics would resort to such a stance. Certainly an advocate of participatory social change theorizing societies we all live in shouldn’t.

To Be Sectarian or To Be Participatory…

“Woe betide those who seek to save themselves the pain 
of mental building by inhabiting dead men's minds.”
- GDH Cole

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” This is a problem to address, often called dogmatism, but is not necessarily what we mean by being sectarian, which is typically dogmatism on steroids, plus with anger toward others. 

For one thing, the whole point of having a theory is to use it, so we can’t reject using theory. Jefferson’s highlighted problem is having an orientation that assumes the theory is without flaw, and, even more, having an orientation that is prone to ignore or even hide flaws. Of course this tendency can get excessive or even grotesque or it can remain subtle and muted – the difference being on the one hand a robotic and totally reflexive application of one’s concepts, and on the other hand a more patient and thoughtful application. But, either way, the process is harmful when it takes for granted its own worth and rules out that which contradicts its own worth.

We have all seen this attitude often enough. It exists with conspiracists, with fundamentalists, and with all manner of political ideologies. It can even arise among scientists. Rather than provide specific examples, let’s ask, instead, why does it happen? Why do I see the world through my theory, my concepts, which is okay, but then also refuse to notice that which calls my concepts into question? Or worse, even deny the possibility of questions and, worst of all, even react adversely and antagonistically, indeed even violently, to any questions that are raised?

Jefferson is talking about a relatively benign but not unimportant part of this problem. We inevitably use theory to think with, much like using a colored filter to see through. And when we do this, we inevitably emphasize theory-highlighted or theory-sanctioned thoughts and downgrade theory-neglected or even theory-denied thoughts. We will even have a tendency to perceive or not perceive facts based on their supporting or denying our theory. This type of more or less inevitable bias arises from using theory. It can be countered and tamed, or it can be ignored and become a foundation on which far more aggressively dogmatic and sectarian traits grow. But, luckily, the means for combatting the worst tendencies will serve nicely to offset the more benign tendencies as well. So the next question is, what are the worse tendencies rooted in?

Here is a hypothesis. 

A person has a perspective, a conceptual toolbox, a theory. If the person tends to see this perspective not as a flexible and transitory tool, used for utilitarian reasons, but, instead, as an extension of self – almost like a personality trait, or even a physical attribute – this is typically a recipe for disaster. 

Joe or Sue is an anarchist, feminist, nationalist, leninist, conspiracist, fundamentalist or whatever. If Sue sees the concepts and beliefs she holds as aids to accomplishing important aims – but mutable and potentially temporary and thus to be refined and improved or even replaced if need be – then aggressive dogmatism and sectarianism, I maintain, are unlikely to be present. But if Joe feels these concepts and beliefs to be a part of his identity – to be who he is – to be a part of his very being, then aggressive dogmatism and sectarianism are highly likely to be present.

Joe or Sue encounters someone who questions a view they hold or a concept they employ. In the first case, where Sue sees her views simply as aids to accomplishing important aims, this critic may or may not be right. If right, then Sue wants to know it, so she can fix her view. If wrong, okay, Sue needs to explain why, calmly. 

In the second case, where Joe sees his views as composing his own identity, his reason for being, who he is, then the critic who raises a question seems to Joe be attacking him. The claim that his view is flawed is heard as an attack indicating that he is, himself, flawed. Joe gets as defensive as if he was called nasty names. He strikes back as he might if he had been lied about, maliciously. The critic, under assault, replies in kind. The discussion barrels toward disaster.

The logic and pattern of dogmatism and sectarianism is the tendency to assume that one is right, that others are wrong, and that everything thereafter should flow from those quite obvious truths, including hostility toward anyone who even remotely differs with them. But the foundation of the problem, I claim, often derives from people making their beliefs into their identity and then reacting to criticism of the beliefs as if those criticisms were personal assaults. Of course any degree of insecurity about self only adds fuel to the inferno.

We have been developing a conceptual toolbox for social change. We advocate using that toolbox. What, then, do we offer, as the alternative to dogmatic and even sectarian tendencies which are intrinsic to using theory?

Being Flexible

“‘Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can't be all right all of the time.’
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
`I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.’”
I said that.
- Bob Dylan

Individually, what, if anything, can we do to prevent sliding into sectarianism? It is easy to say we should listen, we should be mature, we should have patience. But in practice it doesn’t accomplish much to offer these instructions. We each think we are listening, being mature, and having patience, even when we are not. We think it is others who are not hearing us, respecting us, taking time with us, rather than vice versa. So, what can we do?

There is probably no magic policy, no magic stance. Certainly there is no choice that will always, automatically, work. Everything one might suggest to an individual to do to avoid being dogmatic or sectarian is subject to dismissal in practice – just like listening, being mature, and being patient are – on grounds the individual is, after all, doing all that has been suggested more than enough, which is even sometimes true. 

Still, here is a possibility. Suppose you manage to get your sense of self not from the tenacity of your beliefs but instead from your flexibility about your beliefs. Rather than avoiding being dogmatic after having identified self with a set of views and making your perspective into your identity, suppose you avoid being dogmatic by changing the connection between your identity and your views in the first place? 

The advisory to avoid sectarianism becomes advice to see yourself, respect yourself, and even admire yourself, in precise proportion as you not only have what you think are worthy views, but as you are eager – given good reason – to refine, alter, or even replace those views. 

Suppose, in other words, that the anarchist, feminist, or whatever else, sees him or herself not as an anarchist, feminist, or whatever else, but as a flexible, thinking, caring, listening person, who has a point of view, but is always eager to hear others propose different views. 

Suppose one is even more excited at the prospect of changing views than keeping them unchanged. Suppose one’s attitude is that there is always room for improvement. Suppose I feel like if I stand pat I am not improving, but if I change intelligently, I am improving. And suppose that who I am and who I want to be is a person who is always improving.

This is not an easy mindset, but if a person sees him or herself in this way, then the person automatically hears others and continually reassesses and hopes to refine revered views. A listening and assessing pause occurs before pouncing – and in fact replaces pouncing – with exploring because this is the key to one’s self respect. Attacking – unless really, really warranted – violates rather than protects one’s self respect. 

I suggest, pending lots of evidence, that this growth-oriented approach to theory ought to be another feature of the toolbox of concepts and methods of the effective social change activist. 

Collectively Participatory Theory

“The people will feel no better if the stick with which 
they are being beaten is labeled ‘the people’s stick.’”
- Mikhail Bakunin

Personal solutions to problems arising in personal behaviors are worth trying to enunciate and employ, as above. But collective solutions and even institutional solutions, are better still, precisely because they are less subject to individual error and emotional violation in the heat of the moment. 

We have identified that any frequently utilized perspective has a tendency to protect itself partly by how it bends perceptions (which is a nasty by-product of a key virtue, highlighting what is important and setting aside what isn’t important), and partly by how it co-opts personal identity and then propels aggressive defensiveness of self. We have also noted that perspectives can be modestly or even fundamentally flawed and need to be regularly reassessed in light of experience and reasoned challenge, and very likely updated periodically as well with additions, refinements, or perhaps even more fundamental changes. 

What would it mean to have a participatory growth oriented theory in institutional practice? It would mean that one’s institutions – and now we are presumably talking about the organizations aimed at social change, which we will think about in book two and three of Fanfare – should continually assess and reassess theory and all other components of political beliefs and practices.  

This means, in turn, that there should be roles in our social change institutions that compel actors to engage in continual challenges, to seek out doubts and concerns, to give skeptics space and resources to make a case, to take all such cases very seriously – and to even hope that they prove successful in inducing changes. Rather than always feeling vindicated and uplifted if a criticism is wrong, individuals, and even the collective population of the organization, instead feel a bit let down when criticisms are shown to be wrong, because it means a chance at improvement led nowhere new. 

Again, as with personally rebutting tendencies to sectarianism, this collective stance is not easy. We will see the kinds of internal structures it implies later in book two and three of Fanfare, when we have a better picture of vision and strategy and thus of some of the organizational requisites for carrying through a strategy to attain a vision.

Contending Extremes

“Experience without theory is blind, but theory 
without experience is mere intellectual play.”
- Immanuel Kant


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” His meaning was that theory is in texts, it is uttered, and it is often abstract. If you want to see outcomes, however, you must act. And of course his observation is in some respects apt and accurate. 

However, there is another meaning one could attach to his wisdom. Forget theory, let’s get on with doing things. This is a widespread sentiment which also has at least some, but now much less, validity. Theory is, we cannot deny, often just a lot of noise, empty blathering, and even when theory is sound, one can bandy it about well beyond what insight requires. However, this reasonable observation often gets taken beyond rightful applicability to a feeling that theory is just plain junk. In this view, thought is little more than a brake on action. We must go go go. 

When one author, Michael, was first becoming socially and politically active back in the 1960s, we used to have a name for folks with this inclination. We called them, and I was sometimes pretty close to the stance myself, the action faction. Get moving, dammit. “Do it,” as the wondrously clever Abbie Hoffman put it. 

But here is the thing. If you act without concepts and ideas considered carefully – then you might as well be a tractor as a person. Our most prized asset, when trying to do things, is our minds. Getting so frustrated as to turn our minds off or ignore them, diminishes prospects for success. The action faction needs to slow down, just a little, to legitimately exercise the mind.

Erma Bombeck, an American newspaper columnist/satirist who was often more insightful than most highly schooled academics, once wrote, “I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up.” My guess is she was venting about show off intellectuals who would parade fact after fact, while nothing ever got done. In the sixties we called this syndrome the “paralysis of analysis.” It often took the form of beating a topic into dust even when one didn’t actually have the knowledge, tools, or insights – and in fact nobody did – to get much beyond a serious but reasonably rapid assessment and judgement. It also typically embodied much preening and prancing by people with lots of training, which is to say lots of vocabulary, but not necessarily with much on the ball. This was the opposite pole to the action faction. Slow down. Slower. Slower still. Wait. Reconsider. Let’s debate that again. I must have my say, again. The paralysis of analysis.

As an antidote to mindless action, excessive debate goes from the frying pan into the fire, and the same goes for mindless action providing an antidote to excessive debate. Both extremes miss the real point. If you have theory, okay, good. But theory isn’t everything. Combine it with experience, don’t bury experience. If you are eager to act, okay, good. But action isn’t everything. Combine it with theory. Think and act. Act and think. Either of these without the other is a recipe for disaster.


“Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.”
- Isaac Newton

We can summarize our thoughts about theory quite quickly, not least because they are all utterly obvious once enunciated. The issue with these observations isn’t difficulty of conception, but difficulty of implementation. 

First, we realize that theory is good. We need it to get at relevant truths, aims, and methods. Thus we develop and continually utilize and refine diverse concepts. 

We do not get caught up in posturing about concepts and their relations, making believe they are more subtle or complex than, in truth, they are. Rather, we put a great premium on making our thoughts as clear as we can by making our concepts and the relations among our concepts congenial to people. Indeed, we mistrust obscurity in the realm of social change comprehension and action.

We use our theory – our conceptual toolbox – but we do not abuse it. We assume it always can be and needs to be better. We welcome critique and hope for wise and valid improvements. Personally we admire ourselves not for our views but for our willingness to hear contrary views, truly understand them, and when need be, to adopt them in place of, or as refinements of, what we thought before. To be right is nice. To become more right is nicer. In the words of the French philosopher Joseph Joubert, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

We believe in analysis. We believe in action. We combine the two without unduly privileging either. 

With the above postures in place (as best we can implement them), and with our concepts of societal functions, four social spheres, two contexts, institutions and roles, institutional boundary and human center, familiar critical constituencies for change (and the new three class rather than two class conception), adapted insights from prior feminist, nationalist/intercommunalist, anarchist, and anti capitalist stances, and the added ideas of accommodation and co-reproduction, all in hand, we are ready to proceed to issues of vision and then strategy.  

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