Guilt, Shame and Coercion plus a little Gramsci (Re: Intellectuals and working class movements

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Wed Oct 21 00:01:29 PDT 1998

(I'll skip the discussion on how intellectuals talk to "regular" folks, since both the divisions and how it happens is, in my experience pretty contingent. Sometimes being sensitive is condensending and sometimes being in-your-face propagandist is the most authentic position- and sometimes the reverse. One of the mysteries of organizing is the truly amazing skill of those who always know the balance and the right approach on different people. It's what makes organizing an art and not something that can ultimately be articulated by any written set of rules.)

I think the interesting issue is what you said was an aside:

>(As an aside: Do you *really* want people to only
>do something because they'll be embarassed if they
>don't. Do you really want people to not cross
>the pickett line because they'll be jeered at or
>embarassed and not because they truly understand
>why it's important? Now that's PC)

The simple answer is, yes, if the choice is honoring the picket line out of embarassment or crossing it, I go with embarassment. Actually, I rather liked your teasing out of the difference between shame (knowing the wrong) and guilt (made to feel bad about action because of social sanction). I would add coercion (threat of harm) as a third part of social solidarity.

Referring back to my weekend work on fighting off this corporate intimidation suit against the sweatshop workers, the absolutely best precedent case was a 1982 Supreme Court case called NAACP v. CLAIBORNE HARDWARE CO. It is possibly the best court defense of street action protest that ever was handed down by the court. It's on the web at

The case also references these issues of shame, guilt and coercion, since all three were involved in the campaign being evaluated by the court. The campaign in the case started in 1966 as a boycott against white merchants demanding a comprehensive change in both local government policy and individual merchant racism. The boycott would last for seven years and lead eventually to a massive court judgement against the NAACP by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on the lost profits of the boycotted businesses. The Supreme Court reversed the Mississippi decision.

Part of the Mississippi decision was based on occasional violence throughout the boycott. That court held that any violence tainted the boycott and rendered it unprotected by the First Amendment. Similarly, a lot of folks cringe at actual coercion used to enforce social solidarity. The Supreme Court noted that violence was not directed by the main boycott organizers and was not the core of the protest, so they dismissed liability on that basis.

But the interesting part of the judgement was the non-violent part of the boycott.

On one hand, you had what you would call the "shame" aspects of the boycott: "it is appropriate to note that certain practices generally used to encourage support for the boycott were uniformly peaceful and orderly. The few marches associated with the boycott were carefully controlled by black leaders. Pickets used to advertise the boycott were often small children. The police made no arrests - and no complaints are recorded - in connection with the picketing and occasional demonstrations supporting the boycott."

On the other hand, you had the "guilt" approach: "One form of "discipline" of black persons who violated the boycott appears to have been employed with some regularity. Individuals stood outside of boycotted stores and identified those who traded with the merchants. Some of these "store watchers" were members of a group known as the "Black Hats" or the "Deacons."34 The names of persons who violated the boycott were read at meetings of the Claiborne County NAACP and published in a mimeographed paper entitled the "Black Times." [T]hose persons "were branded as traitors to the black cause, called demeaning names, and socially ostracized for merely trading with whites."

Now, lower courts had seen such social ostracism as unprotected speech and unfairly coercive. The Supreme Court argued (and it's too bad they forget this in a lot of other cases): "Speech does not lose its protected character, however, simply because it may embarrass others or coerce them into action...The First Amendment is a charter for government, not for an institution of learning. `Free trade in ideas' means free trade in the opportunity to persuade to action, not merely to describe facts."

Forgetting the issue of legality, the point applies to moral and practical use of social sanction. In the ideal, you want consent, but consent is a tricky concept that may involve threats of social ostracism to even create enough power for the oppressed to make a strategy credible enough to make sense to those living in fear. Because until a protest is successful, many people reject it as (you noted) not worth the extra costs when they are already poor. But once the boycott is successful (partly because of the social sanctions applied), many people may retroactively "consent" to the sanctions because the protest was successful.

Catch 22- since they would have rejected the "fact" of the possibility of success initially, they would have rejected the boycott, thereby undermining it and thus never have learned of the possibility of success and ever consented to it. But because they were socially coerced into supporting it, they could then learn "facts on the ground" that would later illicit consent.

So shame and guilt are not so mutually exclusive as you make them out to be (and violence can even play a role at times).

Which brings us to Gramsci and social struggle:

>am personally a fan of Gramsci's view of the
diffusion of ideology through
>common sense and everyday institutions - but that
is exactly the kind of
>emotional absolutism that you found condescending
by Mike.

-Really? Absolutism? The beauty of a Gramscian -perspective is that it opens up spaces for -resistance against what, on some models of marxist -theory, might appear to be a self-enclosed -seamless system from which no one can escape the -Juggernaut of capital and so, instead, they -prostrate themselves willingly in front of it. On -Gramsci's view, consent must be continually won -and so power is *never* absolute.

I said moral absolutism, not power absolutism. But Gramsci is also not the sweet Foucaultian "resister" that some make him out to be, either. This is the same theorist who compared the Party to Machiavelli's Prince. Gramsci was not a Leninist, but only because Lenin was not broadminded enough in understanding how flexible and thorough the Party had to be in dealing with the range of civil society needed to take and hold power in advanced industrial states.

I actually find Gramsci a bit too hardcore as a power-politician in many ways, but Gramsci without question saw moral sanction as a key weapon. His historical model for the Party was the Jesuits in the Counter-Reformation who used every tool available, from intellectual education to social sanction to physical violence when needed to win people ideologically away from Protestantism. Gramsci put high value on discipline within the party and given his military metaphors (war of position, war of maneuver), he is clear that this is not all voluntary at all times, even as he does stress achieving consent/hegemony over time among the people. What makes Gramsci different from most Marxists is his contingent use of such coercion, in his declaration that consent over time must be won by progressive leadership, that democracy must be used as a central element of that consent, and that the "voluntarist" elements of life must be reflected in the Party for it to fully reflect the aspirations of the mass of people.

Gramsci's point is that coercion specifically does not equate with disrespect for individuals, but must be used carefully and with the consciousness that it cannot be so abused as to prevent the building of consent over time. The Prince is his metaphor for good reason, since unlike the stereotype of "might makes right" and "the ends justify the means", Machiavelli always recognized that power based only on coercion is ultimately based on sand- consent is the ultimate weapon of any leadership. Gramsci just advanced this concept from an unelected Prince to the idea of the democratically centralist Party.

Now, what Gramsci's Party means in the individualistic, organizationally balkanized community we sometimes identify as the (optimistically singular) Left in the US, I don't know.

But I think Gramsci would approve of a few snide guilt-inducing comments about people's wine-drinking choices :)


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