A Theoretical Chilling Effect for Grassroots Intellectuals

Although it makes me feel a little weird to claim it, it’s fair to say that I’m a grassroots intellectual. That is, I do a lot of thinking and theorizing about the world, and particularly about social movements, social analysis, and revolutionary strategy, but almost all of it is rooted in either on-the-ground experience, interpersonal communication, or just the rattlings of my own head. I have a very rocky relationship with institutionalized education, and like I said in a previous post, I actually read very little in the way of books or any kind of scholarly literature.

This is all fine, and frankly I have a wee bit of stubborn pride about it. I feel like I’ve come to the views I have through years now of tough experience, and especially in these last few years my feet have really been held to the fire and my more radical views and aspirations have been tested. I’m happy about how I’ve been able to hold onto those politics by actually sharpening them, rather than letting them get dulled out. On the flip-side, this has made me ever more impatient with really, really abstract thinking about politics unless it has real implications for practical work. “So, how do we actually use this in the movement?” is an increasingly common refrain for me.

But I’ve got a problem, and that’s the fact that I’m insecure about how non-academic I am. Even though I usually understand academic folks quite well (though sometimes with a little more work in the case of Antonio Negri or Foucault type writing), I feel intimidated by their language, and by their positions within movement discourse. It’s actually a strong disincentive for me, and a big reason why my writing almost never goes beyond this blog…my little intellectual sandbox of a blog.

Fact is, I harbor a deeply internalized belief that my ideas aren’t valid beyond this space. For awhile this was about overshooting my identity guilt–that as a white middle-class sex-gendered man I didn’t have a right to take up theoretical space. That’s mostly gone now. Instead, it’s a much longer-standing feeling that I’m just not good enough as a thinker and especially as a researcher to make valid points. I feel like I’m just playing with the toys of revolution while my more academic comrades are getting to work with the real thing. I know that this isn’t true, intellectually, but this is what I feel regularly.

So, for example, when my friend asked me to help write a piece for a book project about the politics of radicals traveling, I so wanted to do it, but I froze. When I read a piece in Upping the Anti that makes me want to respond or push the thinking further, I immediately write myself off that I’m not a good enough anarchist thinker to be published there. And oh, how many times have I visited the page for the Institute of Anarchist Studies with an exciting idea that I want to apply for a grant for…only to wither away a few clicks into the pages.

It’s a chilling effect, and I know that I’m not alone. I know lots of great radical, grassroots workers who are brilliant but who wouldn’t dare put things out for publication. It’s not our place, we think, we feel. We’re not intellectually disciplined, articulate, or well-read enough to share those spaces with other thinkers. This is sad, because these folks have a lot to contribute. I think I have a lot to contribute, as well.

There is another piece to this discussion, too, and that’s the feeling that I’m outside of the discourse…not just insecure, but just plain not participating in the conversation. So I read less, and thus benefit less from all of the lessons that other people are learning on the ground. This shows in that I rarely link or reference other people’s blogs. I rarely talk about other people’s writing or even organizing. This blog is like the me-show, and that’s partly intentional–I need a space to reflect on what’s going on for me, right?–but it’s also a consequence of this intimidation, this feeling of being outside the conversation. In fact, I’m writing this post now because immediately after I wrote my little post about Joel Olson’s article, I wanted to delete it. I doubted my ability or right to comment on such a clearly smart person’s thinking. I thought that clearly if I’m disagreeing with him I’m just not understanding him well enough…which always is a potential, but it’s still really chilling. How can I blog as part of a discourse, and not as a lone thinker in my bedroom, when that discourse scares the shit out of me and makes me feel dumb?

How do we break through all of this? I know it was discussed at the US Social Forum, and I was excited about that, but what I heard was mostly from the perspective of radical grad students. What I’m curious about is less how we keep the academy connected to the grassroots, but rather how do we make the grassroots more intellectually robust? How do we break down the many actually useful tools of scholarship and democratize them so they can be used in the daily practices of working people within the struggle?

I love the proliferation of study groups in other parts of the country, and I see it starting to take seed in Seattle. That’s exciting. I think the new accessibility of media is allowing for a lot of neat stuff with oral histories, storytelling, and participatory research. That’s really neat. But I’m even more curious about tools for democratic theory-building, and of the popularization of theoretical tools for mass use. This is popular education at its core, right? Sure, it really has been transfigured into this other, grotesque sort of thing which is just like a long list of “pop-ed” workshops, but there is still a lot of potential for going back to a richer form of popular education.

And for individual political writing and sharing? I’d love to be in a radical writing group with folks, maybe with the goal of putting out an online publication every 3 months or something. That could be cool.

I know personally that I want to confront the intimidation head-on, because really there is a lot more that I want to write, to extend a lot of strategic questions further, but once again I already feel myself freezing up like I usually do on this blog. Come on, Jeremy, not this time!

Update: The more I think about this, the more neat ideas I’m imagining about ways to get grassroots, mass-based spaces involved in theory generation and authentic praxis. There are so many great lessons from past and current movements about this, and with modern technology it could be so cool, and so, so fast compared to the old days!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi