Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Every inch won should lead us to demand more

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One of the most important concepts for understanding politics is quiescence. The great political scientist Murray Edelman placed the production of quiescence and arousal at the center of his approach to politics.

Government affects behavior chiefly by shaping the cognitions of large numbers of people in ambiguous situations. It helps create their beliefs about what is proper; their perceptions about what is fact; and their expectations of what is to come. In the shaping of expectations of the future the cues from government often encounter few qualifying or competing cues from other sources; and this function of political activity is therefore an especially potent influence upon behavior.

To make this point is to deny or seriously qualify what may be the most widely held assumption about political interactions: that political arousal and quiescence depend upon how much of that they want from government people get. Political actions chiefly arouse of satisfy people not by granting or withholding their stable demands, but rather by changing the demands and the expectations. (Emphasis in the original. Politics as Symbolic Action.)

For Edelman, the key to understanding politics is the ways the demands made by the public are managed, not how they are fulfilled. Often this is done through the use of symbols.For example, think about how in response to the Fight for 15 protests, Democrats have embraced a $10.10 minimum wage, including voting on it in the Senate, even though it has zero chance of making it even through that body. This has included the president imposing it on federal contractors, with the caveat that it would only apply to new contracts (making his earlier feet dragging consequential). Similarly we see states like Maryland enact $10.10 but limit its scope and extend the timeline for when the full new minimum should be imposed. The long timeline will make pushing for additional raises more difficult, although not impossible. In Seattle, where activists have successfully pushed the 15 dollar number onto the agenda, the mayor’s proposal has all sorts of loop holes, even as he claims to be leading the 15 dollar cause. The top number is the symbol, while the details are used to limit its impact.

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Written by David Kaib

May 23, 2014 at 9:09 am

Racecraft – Additional Readings

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We just finished the Racecraft reading group. Here are some additional readings.

“Ideology and Race in American History” by Barbara J. Fields

“Political Contingencies of Witchcraft in Colonial Central Africa: Culture and the State in Marxist Theory” by Karen E. Fields

Revival And Rebellion In Colonial Central Africa by Karen E. Fields

Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century by Barbara J. Fields

Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century by Dorothy Roberts

Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race by Patrick Wolfe

The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control by Theodore W. Allen

The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America by Theodore W. Allen

’There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’ The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation by Paul Gilroy

Written by David Kaib

March 20, 2022 at 4:13 pm

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Telling People Things Are Bad Is Not Enough

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I keep referencing this quote from Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements, so I thought I would put it here and explain why.

It comes in a discussion of those rare but all important moments when people–who always have plenty of reason to resist or rebel–move from quiescence and generally playing the roles they are supposed to play in the institutions in which they are enmeshed, to widespread defiance.

The emergence of a protest movement entails a transformation both of consciousness and of behavior. The change in consciousness has at least three distinct aspects. First, ‘the system’ –or those aspects of the system that people experience and perceive–loses legitimacy. Large numbers of men and women who ordinarily accept the authority of their rulers and the legitimacy of institutional arrangements come to believe in some measure that these rulers and these arrangements are unjust and wrong. Second, people who are ordinarily fatalistic, who believe that existing arrangements are inevitable, begin to assert their ‘rights’ that imply demands for change. Third, there is a new sense of efficacy; people who ordinarily consider themselves helpless come to believe that they have some capacity to alter their lot.

The change in behavior is equally striking, and usually more easily recognized, at least when it takes the form of mass strikes or marches or riots. Such behavior seems to us to involve two distinguishing elements. First, masses of people become defiant; they violate the traditions and laws to which they ordinarily acquiesce, and they flaunt the authorities to whom they ordinarily defer. And second, their defiance is acted out collectively, as members of a group, and not as isolated individuals.

Simply put, a great deal of political energy goes into convincing people of that first step (the illegitimacy of the system) as though that alone will radicalize people. But people often are perfectly willing to conclude that things are bad. This position is often held by people who also hold very naive notions about the automatic impact of public opinion on policy, about the function of government to solve the public’s problems, the virtues and ‘leadership’ of public officials, etc. People often vacillate between the naive idealism and totalizing cynicism. This ensures any outcome is easily explainable, which is often what political language is designed to do (as opposed to helping one act politically, which is what political language ought to do.)

How to break out of this? Piven and Cloward provide some guidance here. The making of demands and efficacy are what is required, and they are only partly linguistic. It is through action that that these notions are instantiated.

Written by David Kaib

March 26, 2021 at 11:07 pm

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Poor People’s Movements and The Movements of 2020

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I organized multiple reading groups of the classic book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail, by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, over the past year. The book has perhaps never been more relevant given the the historic protests over police brutality, the coronavirus pandemic, and economic inequality of late. I was recently on Left Anchor and we talked about what lessons might be drawn from the successes and failures of these protests, and how we should think about movement strategy going forward. Check it out.

Written by David Kaib

March 26, 2021 at 10:20 pm

Poor People’s Movements – Additional Readings

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I am currently in the middle of multiple reading groups of Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. Here are some suggested readings to follow up on that.This is not meant to be comprehensive. Suggestions welcome in the comments.

More Piven and Cloward

Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward

Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward

“Disruptive Dissensus – People and Power in the Industrial Age” by Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven

Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America by Frances Fox Piven

Great Depression

Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by Robin D.G. Kelley


No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey

“The Barren Marriage of American Labour and the Democratic Party” by Mike Davis

Civil Rights Movement

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne

Welfare Rights Movement

Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States by Premilla Nadasen

Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty by Annelise Orleck

Written by David Kaib

February 13, 2021 at 1:27 pm

Podcasting, again (again)

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Forgot to post this when it happened. Talked with Left Anchor about abolition and political education.

You can hear our conversation here.

Written by David Kaib

October 24, 2020 at 10:30 am

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Nothing is a Panacea

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A rather common rhetorical move is to announce that some action that others wish to take is “no panacea.” This move has the upside of literally being true, all the time. The downside is that this, alone, isn’t very useful.

‘Panacea’ is defined as “a remedy for all ills or difficulties.” The point is that nothing is. There is no cure-all. Many of courses of action are helpful, or even necessary, without being a panacea.

That doesn’t make the word useless. But it requires us to use it with more care. The issue is not whether a thing is a panacea (it’s not!) but rather whether someone is acting or talking as it if is.

Unlike the statement “X is not panacea” which requires no evidence (because it is definitionally true), “you are treating X as a panacea” requires some evidence or argument. Ideally, this evidence would go beyond pointing that someone has talked about or even started to take a course of action, or simple assertions of what we believe the other person believes. The latter is a fairly common trope in political arguments, despite being largely unknowable. To the extent that it is knowable, it is usually because of a pattern of behavior, which is observable. We might best skip the middleman and focus on the patterns of observable activity over unobservable mental states.

This shift encourages more productive conflict. It is no panacea, of course, but it tends to increase thinking that is more rooted in the facts.

Written by David Kaib

October 22, 2020 at 5:54 pm

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The point is to attack the whole foundation

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Here then lies the final significance of a mass political movement to expose the prisons and free the prisoners. The issue is not only reform, but also to mount a struggle to abolish the present functions and foundations of the prison system, an effort which can finally succeed only with the abolition of capitalism. For, as Engels observed more than a century ago, the prison system under capitalism is overwhelmingly a repressive institution, an appendage of its state apparatus employed to maintain exploitative and oppressive social conditions. Of course, what reforms can be won in day-to-day battle on the legal and political front will be important concessions. But the point is to attack the whole foundation–all the assumptions–involved in maintaining a rehabilitative prison system which must assume the moral and mental defectiveness of its victims, in the midst of a morally bankrupt, racist, defective and generally deteriorating social order.

– Bettina Aptheker, The Social Functions of the Prisons in the United States

Written by David Kaib

October 20, 2020 at 6:26 pm

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Podcasting, Again

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Recently I had a chance to be interviewed by my friend Chris Oesteriech on the Wicked Problems and Circular Systems podcast. We talked about the dumpster fire that is US politics, police and prison abolition, political education and socialism.

You can hear our conversation here.

Written by David Kaib

October 17, 2020 at 1:33 am

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Her Emails

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A Hillary Clinton mug, that says ‘but her emails.’

In 2016, many prominent Clinton supporters kept repeating the word ‘emails’ thereby focusing on emails and reinforcing the idea that something bad was in ‘her emails.’ They simultaneously decried all the attention paid to something they insisted was a non-story, and that was getting in the way of the “real issues,” without actually talking about something else. I remain unclear on what the issues were they wanted to talk about.

You could instead object to coverage that gives credibility to those who spectacularly lack it. You could challenge the coverage without the reinforcement. You could simply talk about other things. And yet.

People are still doing it. The repetition of “but her emails” continues. Today it’s used to rebuke the media. We also see it in the discourse around the mystery Biden computer. It seems often paired with the exasperated claims “the media didn’t learn anything.”

I am skeptical of ‘the media didn’t learn anything’ frame. They got ratings, they got attention. The people who own and run major news outlets got tax cuts. The better question is did “we” learn anything?

Written by David Kaib

October 16, 2020 at 5:10 pm

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Anti Racist Struggle and Socialism

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Metro DC DSA’s Socialist Night School presented by Bill Fletcher.

Written by David Kaib

May 20, 2019 at 9:19 am

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