Rhetoric for Radicals:
A Call for Communicative Action
by Jason Del Gandio
Editors note: This essay is an adaptation from the Introduction of Jason’s book, Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for Global Justice Activists. The book is now in search of a publisher.
Twenty-first century global justice activism advocates for a single world composed of many realities. Different types of organizational structures, communicative approaches, and forms of life are being used as we try to change the world without taking power. Swarms of people, identities, orientations, wants, needs, desires are interlinked by our yearnings for social justice and more meaningful ways of being in the world. Our demands and actions are grounded in our experiences of hunger, discrimination, unemployment, bombing, occupation, brutality, and empire. Our social movements are likened to musical improvisations and performance art extravaganzas that reflect and proliferate local and global resistances, rebellions, revolutions, and liberations. Our methodology of revolution is simultaneously individualist and communal, supportive without suffocating, and expresses a non-reductive and non-universalizing solidarity 1. Such twenty-first century radicalism is both beautiful and handsome, both exciting and invigorating. But there has been an unintended residual effect: our twenty-first century radicalism suffers from a rhetorical crisis.
We continuously work, labor, act, and communicate for better realities, and we undoubtedly succeed in many of our efforts. But the general population is lacking a wide-spread sense of urgency and action; that is to say, our movement is lacking the critical mass necessary for radical social change. This is standard for most radical projects and most socio-political eras. We’re always working with limited resources and reaching beyond our presumed capacities. But each project is unique and each era is different. We must look at our own situation and ponder the efficacy of our efforts. For instance, our ideas, words, and arguments, while widely circulated among our own communities, are often absent from the wider sphere of public talk. Our activism and organizing, while helpful in altering micro-relations and alleviating immediate situations, seem to fall upon too many deaf ears and too many blind eyes. Our direct actions, while promoting global justice and self-empowerment, are too easily obscured by the media’s decontextualized accounts and too easily dismissed by political pundits. Our political philosophies and ideologies, while thought provoking and heart-felt, struggle for wider exposure, acceptance, and mobilizing force. Basically, there is a communicative disjunct between our efforts and the public’s reception of those efforts. This disjunct is a rhetorical issue needing attention and redress. If we are to change the world, we must remedy this situation. That remedy can begin with the communicative labor of our activism; that is, we must rigorously attend to the communicative aspects of our twenty-first century radicalism 2.
Activists traditionally concern themselves with material conditions; we seek to ameliorate and improve our own and others’ concrete living conditions. Thus, to change the world has meant to change the conditions in which we live. This is obviously important, but that reduction misses too much. Our world—the very thing we are trying to change—is not simply a material entity; it involves more than material conditions. In fact, the material conditions are a small part of our project. The world does involve material conditions, but it also involves our experience of those conditions. That experience is influenced, if not quasi-determined, by our languages, perceptions, stories, discourses, ideologies, psychologies, social relations and worldviews. In other words, we must consider both the material conditions and the immaterial rhetoric that surrounds those conditions. Activists always consider rhetoric to some degree; we continually argue over the look and design of demonstrations and direct actions; the wording of manifestos and speeches; and the usefulness of different ideologies, philosophies, hegemonies, and analyses. But these debates always seem peripheral to the physical and/or material conditions. This is mistaken and debilitating. Under-considering the rhetorical elements of our efforts drastically hinders our communication with, and our political efficacy within, the wider public arena. We are due for a paradigmatic shift that equally considers both the material and immaterial. To adopt the popular language coming from contemporary radical network-theorists/activists, we must fashion ourselves into the cognitariats and immaterial laborers of the general intellect 3. That is, we must become radical rhetoricians that engage and alter the perceptions and languages of contemporary living.
I believe that our rhetorical crisis is coexistent with, and unintentionally influenced by, our evolving anti-authoritarianism. Global justice activism operates from an anti-authoritarian perspective. This is not to say that all global justice activists are anti-authoritarian. Many are not. But global justice activism borrows from and is sympathetic to anti-authoritarian structures, procedures, and sentiments. It is commonly understood that the way we change the world influences the type of world we create. Thus, directly democratic procedures like consensus decision-making, spokes-councils, affinity groups, direct action, and assistance upon diversity of thought and discussion are commonly practiced. These tendencies highlight the anti-authoritarianism of global justice activism.
One of the best expressions of this new anti-authoritarianism is provided by global justice theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They argue that our radical era now depends upon and encourages decentered, autonomously acting groups, peoples, and affiliations linked together by the common—land, water, and air; information technologies, the internet, and post-Fordist production systems; labor transmigrations, hybrid identities, and international communication networks; global discourses, common dreams, and world social forums. The anti-authoritarianism of the common has set conditions for the possibility of a unique revolutionary class. Hardt and Negri refer to this class as the multitude 4. The multitude re-conceptualizes the more traditional concepts of "the people" and "the masses" and the “working class.” According to Hardt and Negri, the first totalizes us as a single body of unitary identity, the second reduces us to a uniformity of indifference, and the third refers to only specific types of work-related identities, thus ignoring a slew of activities that create power-relationships and social realities. The multitude, by contrast, acknowledges our multiplicity of differences, our common struggle for democratic forms of life, and the diversity of social actors and actions that create our communicatively constituted world. For Hardt and Negri, the dawn of twenty-first century radicalism rides the wave of the multitude.
The multitude’s anti-authoritarianism not only changes our understanding of revolutionary identities and movements, but it also changes our understanding of rhetorical communication. Take, for instance, the classic example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his charismatic leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s oration, speeches, and persona helped catalyze and mobilize the rights of mid-twentieth century African-Americans. Dr. King was the rhetorical face of that movement. That is an abstraction of course. He alone did not mobilize the Civil Rights Movement, but he did take on that symbolic force. No single person, face, or symbol exists today. We are thus left with a void of rhetorical leadership. But I argue that this void is simply a perceived void. Rhetorical leadership still exists, but in a different form: the communicative backbone of radicalism is now networked throughout the tiny capillaries of the multitude. Single individuals and/or groups are no longer responsible for mediating between our actions and the larger society. That rhetorical responsibility now resides with and through a plethora of people, ideas, and movements. Twenty-first century activism has decentered rhetorical leadership. Each of us now assumes the responsibility of rhetorical mediator. But we have not yet risen to this challenge. This is evidenced by the common press coverage: Anti-Globalizers: What are They For and What are They Against? Uninformed Activists Create Havoc, Not Improvement . . . A Million Messages and No Solutions . . . Anti-Globalization Activists Make No Sense. We are not solely accountable for such disparaging headlines—the biases of corporate media no doubt play a major role. But we must acknowledge the communicative disjunct and take responsibility for mending this gap.
I believe this disjunct is an unintended by-product of our evolving anti-authoritarianism. Focusing our attention toward the anti-authoritarian common has shifted our attention away from the details and crafts of our communication. This may be an unconscious consequence, but it is a consequence nonetheless. Somewhere along the line we have equated attention to communicative detail with the often arrogant, elitist, and power-driven politician who aspires toward fame. As a result, we no longer seek the great speech, the great essay, the great manifesto, and/or the great leader. In one sense, this is fine. But this does not avoid the commonly asked questions: Who are your great speakers, essayists, and novelists? Who among you can sway the masses? Who is the mobilizing face of your movement? Who and/or where is your leader? What do you actually stand for? What is your issue? What is your cause? Why aren’t you more specific and concrete? These questions are an issue of public expectation. People expect a certain type of radicalism, one that follows in the tradition of orderly constitutional democracy: a single leader on a well defined stage advocating for a single cause in some type of orderly fashion. But we are involved in a different type of radicalism: multiple voices simultaneously standing upon multiple stages, advocating for a plethora of interwoven causes, supported by self-facilitating affinity groups engaged in a ruckus of decentered actions and movements. Some of us may argue that this disjunct is fine—that we should simply remain within the fabric of our own radicalism; that we do not need to address the aforementioned questions of public expectation. In a sense, this is true. We do not have to do anything. But our refusal to respond to such questions and expectations does little for global justice. The public—and perhaps potential allies and participants of the necessary critical mass—will simply ignore us. And herein lays the root of our crisis. We have come to believe that our actions, and actions alone, will change the world. That is a mistake. Global actors and actions connected through the anti-authoritarian common is great, but it is not enough. Proliferating networks of global justice must entail effective rhetorical communication.
International wars, U.S. imperialism, condensation of global media, hyper-commercialism, compulsive consumerism, and an empire of capital demand that we devise smart, intelligent, and effective rhetoric. We must continue to say it and say it loud, but we must say it with craft, skill, and sensibility. We must become campaign advisors, political strategists, public mediators, and political pundits of revolutionary concern. This characterization may give us pause and force the question: Is this really our calling? Given the fact that our world is communicatively constituted, the answer is a resounding yes. Ignoring the communicative labor of our activism is antithetical to our goals of change. We must continue to act in the service of decentered revolutions, global empowerment, and the prefigurement of improved social realities. But we must do it through the lens of rhetorical work. And that rhetorical work must be carried out and accomplished our way—with openness, honesty, and transparency; with reflection, discussion, and critical debate; with bottom-up structures of directly democratic procedure; and with a willingness to continuously adjust to the demands and insights of new situations. Doing this neither undermines nor contradicts our embrace of the common. It in fact strengthens it. Proper rhetorical consideration can deepen and widen the multitude—more of us will come to understand the call of the common, embrace the struggle for local and global equality, and participate in twenty-first century global justice.
This essay is obviously highlighting the link between rhetorical communication and radical activism. At the most basic level, rhetoric can be defined as conscientiously crafted communication for the achievement of socio-political ends. It is not simply what we say, but also how we say it; it is not simply what we do, but how we do it. This may seem very basic, but we as activists too often rely upon “hard facts” or “the truth” to sway an audience, to win an argument, or to convince people that a particular course of action is most righteous. But hard facts—and even the truth—must be rhetorically packaged.
For instance, innocent civilians die everyday in Iraq. Should we refer to these deaths as collateral damage or murder? Our use of the word murder is fine when addressing a radical audience—that audience will accept that language without blinking. The word murder may be too strong when addressing liberals, but that depends upon their views of the war, of the U.S. military, of the Bush Administration, and of their own compliance with the war’s atrocities. And the word murder is definitely too strong when addressing a conservative audience—that word alienates rather than sways that audience. Thus, we have “the issue” of our discussion, and then we have the language we use to describe that issue and our analysis of and adaptation to our audience. There is more to rhetoric than these few things, but at a base level rhetoric involves communication, and how we communicate the issue drastically affects how people perceive the issue. There is no reliance upon “the facts and facts alone.” That is a myth. Instead, there are facts, and then there are ways to communicate the facts. In many ways the communication is more important because it shapes how we see and understand the facts. Communicate differently and people’s perception and reception will be different. Most of us are already aware of this to some degree. But we must go beyond mere awareness and actually approach activism as a rhetorical labor. We must situate rhetoric at the center of our activism and consciously fashion ourselves into radical rhetoricians capable of manifesting alternative worlds of communicative experience. Change the rhetoric and you change the communication. Change the communication and you change the experience. Change the experience and you change the world. This call and insight directly aligns with radical activism.
Take prefigurative politics, for instance. Feminists prefigure gender equality, matriarchal structures, and dialogical communication while existing within a sexist, patriarchal, and monological society. Racial-justice activists prefigure equal appreciation and opportunity for all races and racial backgrounds while existing within racist cultures and racists systems. And “freegans” prefigure non-capitalistic consumption while existing within a consumer-capitalist society. In each case, “prefigured realities” are evoked not simply by what we do or how we organize, but also by the words we use, the lifestyles we embody, and the everyday communicative choices we make. Those rhetorical considerations help us prefigure more socially just realities.
Social movements are rhetorical constructions, too. At the most basic level, each social movement conveys a grievance and/or demand to a wider public. This involves crafting messages for specific audiences that may alleviate the situation and/or join the movement. But the rhetoric of social movements runs much deeper. Social movements involve a world of orientations, values, beliefs, practices, and ways of talking, acting, and relating to one another. The lifeline of each social movement is rhetorically constructed through slogans, images, ideologies, experiences, and a shared articulation of how the world should be. The social movement participants come to understand themselves, each other, and their world through that shared articulation—i.e., through their rhetorical creation. Thus, rhetoric, when applied to radical activism, involves more than a well-crafted message; it involves the creation of a shared reality, and if we change the rhetoric, we change the reality.
Approaching activism as rhetoric also applies to revolutionary projects. Every revolution is surrounded by the discursive activities of both the proponents and opponents of the revolution. Over time, the differing discourses interact, take hold, and begin to shape people’s perceptions of the revolution. But again, the rhetoricity of revolution runs deeper. A revolution—if it is truly a revolution—involves more than replacing governmental, economic, or political systems. That’s important, of course; but new systems do not necessarily mean new realities. True revolutions occur when people begin to see and understand themselves, each other, and their world in radically different ways. Revolution occurs when people undergo a rhetorical shift that breaks with the past and creates a new framework for different actions, ideologies, and social relations. Such “revolutionary rhetoric” can occur on an individual basis, but it is obviously most powerful when it occurs on a mass level. Hundreds, thousands, and hopefully millions of people undergoing revolutionary shifts in their rhetorical orientations sets the conditions for the possibility of profound, long lasting, and sustainable social change. It’s the rhetorical shift that imbues us with the hope, drive, and healthy idealism that we can change the world. Such a revolutionary groundswell often leads to the creation and use of new languages, discourses, ideas, life-styles, social relations, and ways of being and acting. These are the concerns of radical rhetoricians and this is the domain of rhetoric for radicals: to rhetorically labor in the service of new realities that can appeal to the majority while staying true our own radicalism. This brief essay has neither the time nor space to delve into tactics, strategies, and suggestions for achieving these ends. But suffice it to say that rhetorical labor should be a preeminent principle of our radicalism—it can help us change the world and achieve a richer, more fulfilling global justice.