Twenty years ago today…

It was twenty years ago today that….  How do you finish that sentence?  There are plenty obvious ways:

…that the wall came down.

…that the Cold War ended.

…that Communism failed.

…that capitalism (or was it democracy?  or are these even interchangeable?) triumphed.

blah blah blah

Okay, it was some of all of that, though with Slavoj Zizek I agree that it wasn’t the last thing on that list.

What I think changed that day, along with the weeks that led up to it and the cushy and technicolor revolutions that followed, was the notion that politics is about what governments do. Of course it is true that governments engage in politics; but it also became true that politics and political power are what peoples can engage in and create. This is “the politics of small things” that Jeffrey Goldfarb talks about in a book of that name.  It’s what happens when a group of people who have no official power get together and make a plan, as Harry Boyte and the civil rights movement he has studied discovered.

Of course, the immediate cause of the fall of the wall was some bumbling bureacrats fumbling a speech, and then people heading to the gate, and a series of coincidences that let first a trickle and then a flood of people breaching and then tearing down the wall. And behind that cause was the weakening of the Soviet Union, perestroika, Gorbachev, and all that.  But a more fundamental cause, one that could capitalize on the others, was the rise of new civic movements in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the long tradition of Poland’s Solidarity movement, that gave lie to the idea that all power rests with the state. These movements created a kind of lateral or horizontal power, webs of power that Hannah Arendt had noted, the power of solidarity.

Before November 1989, for at least three decades, almost all political activists of all stripes on either side of the “iron curtain” focused on the state in their attempt to bring about political change. The new civic movements of 1989 showed the power of nongovermental action and civil society for creating change. Before 1989 the language of civil society was slowly entering back into the lexicon of political theory, after dusting off lots of old copies of Hegel texts. But after 1989 the language of civil society flooded into every crevice of academic, philanthopic, and development activity.

It was twenty years ago today that THAT change happened.

Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock on doors to turn out votes.  Does it have a place in an administration?

Harry Boyte of the Humphrey school at the University of Minnesota seems to think it should.   But should it?  Does the buck stop at the President’s desk, or do we all share some deep responsibility to change this country?

Here’s a snippet of Boyte’s recent op-ed on the topic:

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from “we” to “I.” The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration’s potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out “yes, we can” in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that “all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.” He had learned a philosophy of civic agency — that we all must become agents of change — from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. “I’m asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I’m asking you to believe in yours,” read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign’s field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, “The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance.” Field director Temo Figueros explained, “We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves.”

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already,” he laughed. “I’ve got more than enough to do.”

The change has partly reflected the administration’s adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama’s words about citizenship and involvement “were just throat-clearing.” Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government’s role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are — deliberation, community service, advocacy — fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship — that democracy is the work of us all, that government is “us,” not “them” — have sharply eroded.  [read more]

If we all had a role, what would that be? I want to agree with Harry, but I’m not sure how to “operationalize” that on day-to-day matters, including waging and ending wars.

My guess is that we can still be the ones we’ve been waiting for if we realize the importance of public will and civic capacity.

When I was a kid, my family adopted a retired, champion Afghan hound.  The owners said that she could jump our eight-foot fence, but not to worry — she didn’t know she could.

Likewise, I think that there is tremendous power that the public has to create or block change, but generally we seem to be oblivious to this power, even though it has tremendous effects large and small.  I’m referring to the power that Hannah Arendt noted that is created when people talk and act together — the capacity that is created to create and transform a public world.

As for how to operationalize this, we need practices and spaces to make this real.