Political conflict, or even just political activity, typically has three broad types.
1. Activity aimed at changing occupants of positions of power.
This personal approach is typically conservative or liberal. It preserves social relations rather than altering anything that matters. Its goal is changing the occupants of unchanged positions. Victory is measured in vote tallies or appointments.
The personal approach makes sense for its advocates because personality activists feel it is better to keep everyone's eyes on who fills existing positions and not on anything more substantive. Addressing policy, much less institutions, would risk their political constituencies moving away from intended pursuits to deeper concerns. Thus American electoral politics becomes a giant con game based on financial finagling, personal posturing, and endless lying, without ever attuning the public to substantive policy issues, much less institutional possibilities.
2. Activity aimed at altering specific policies such as ending stop and frisk or preventing bombings.
This policy approach is often social democratic. It seeks to pass a new policy or to obstruct or end an existing one. Advocates often pay attention to people in office or in appointed positions but only due to the way they are expected to affect policy. Victory is measured in policies enacted or blocked.
The policy politics approach makes sense for its advocates because they don't mind concerns about people in office or appointed positions and they actively want constituencies aroused by policy possibilities, but they either do not believe in or do not want to risk a drift toward deeper institutional focuses and the radical aspirations that might arise. They think such aspirations are futile distractions from really attainable possibilities or dangerously promote feared changes. Thus we have diverse movements that seek worthy changes, but reject more radical endeavors.
3. Activity aimed at changing institutional structures such as creating new movement organizations, or establishing a new university to provide and experiment with a model of possible future relations, or altering existing corporations by changing critical or even defining features.
This institutional approach is typically radical or revolutionary. It seeks to redefine institutions, or to establish new ones to facilitate activism or compete with or replace old ones. Advocates may address elections, appointments, or policies, but do so in context of seeking more fundamental change. Concerns about people and policies arise in the context of institutional priorities, not vice versa. Victory is measured in the transformation of existing institutions or the creation of new ones.
The analogy between the three approaches now unravels. One variant of institutional politics makes sense for its advocates, but there is a second variant that does not. Why?
Whereas the personal and policy approaches take the overall system we live under as a given, the institutional approach conceives its actions in light of fundamentally transforming that system. Additionally, as I wish to talk about advocates who want a new system that is more self managing and more participatory than what we have known, there arises a second priority alongside altering or creating new institutions: developing popular awareness and commitments sufficient to comprehensive, highly informed participation.
It follows that an approach to changing institutional structure that doesn't attend to both institutions and also to popular mindsets, and that isn't about the present moment, but also the present moment's connection to changes leading to a better future, doesn't make a lot of sense. An approach, however, that is strategic regarding consciousness, commitments, and means of continuing forward, does make sense. And now comes the rub.
Some advocates of the institutional approach are so worried about and so prioritize their criticisms of the limits of the other two approaches, that they simply reject outright giving any attention at all to who holds office or appointed positions, and even to immediate policies, calling such concerns reformist. Other advocates of the third approach do pay attention to officeholding and position filling, and even more so to policies, though always in the context of trying to change institutions and people on a trajectory toward a new society. Who is right?
Well, suppose for a minute we had, say, 100 million highly conscious advocates of a new type of social organization for society. In such a situation one could imagine that paying any attention at all to office holding, or to position filling, or even to immediate policies, might be distracting. Its primary, or perhaps in some cases even its sole, effect might be pulling people into relating to the system as it now is, rather than transforming it. Attention to office holding or immediate policies could, in such a situation, be a drain on and distraction from the rightful agenda of the day – winning a whole new social system. But what about when only a tiny fraction of the population share this desire for a new future that they collectively define and desire? In that case, we have a different situation in which not only are far less substantial institutional gains all that can be immediately won or enacted, but also in which the population still needs to travel a path toward higher awareness and commitment. In such a situation – which of course we still inhabit – for institution-prioritizing activists to reject, outright, any attention to elections, appointments, and policies would be literally suicidal. These are the domains most people – if they are politically and socially inclined at all or can be aroused to be so – must engage with to become more aware and committed.
The point is, the institutional approach to activism doesn't make sense if it a priori rejects attention to office holding, position filling, and policies enacted. Rather, it needs to relate to those in the context of raising consciousness, developing commitments, and making institutional gains paving the way for still more gains.
Assuming we are now talking about the institutional variant that makes sense given the aims of its adherents, how is victory measured for institutionally guided activity? 1. In terms of changes in consciousness and commitment. 2. In terms of lasting institutional alterations that pave the way for more alternations to follow - which could be changes in existing institutions or the creation of new ones (including movement institutions, competing institutions, etc.).
Should advocates of the institutional approach never get happy about and even celebrate some election or appointment? Should they never get happy about some policy alteration that benefits a deserving constituency? No. All such results can and should, when worthy and significant, be reasons for happiness and even celebration. But for activists of the institutional orientation, in assessing the road to a better future, their eyes need to be mostly on other variables. Is consciousness and commitment in various constituencies moving in a positive direction? Are positive changes occurring not only in who occupies particular offices or positions, and not only in particular policies, but even more so in the definition of the offices and positions themselves, or in the institutional relations that propel and delimit policies, or in the means of marshaling growing popular energies, insights, and desires for change?
What happens if we take the above typology and apply it to movement reactions to the recent events surrounding Syria? Or to reactions to U.S. election campaigns? Or to organizing around stop and frisk policies? Or to the choices of left organizers in trying to create, or to not create, new movement institutions? Or to what is published by left media, or not? Or how finances are handled on the left, or decision making? Or to left approaches to Facebook and Twitter? Or, to get beyond the bounds of the U.S., to the choices of the Bolivarian Revolution – electoral, policy, and institutional – or those of other international projects? More broadly, what do the reactions and choices – what is highlighted or celebrated and what is ignored or denigrated - of individual activists and writers, particular organizations, left media, and even whole progressive movements, tell us about their thinking on these matters, about their priorities, and thus about their aims? It is worth considering for what we can learn, and to clarify our commitments.