The Importance of Culture & Community-Building in Radical Politics

Over the past year I have been trying to reconcile two things that are of critical importance in my life: political activism as rooted in struggle against systems of oppression, and engagement in a variety of small-scale projects and events that help us imagine and (perhaps only temporarily) create a better world, and feel part of something beautiful. The tension became more obvious when last spring I joined Solidarity and became involved with political organizing for the first time. Later that summer, my husband and I launched a project in Baltimore City which had been fermenting in our minds for years, growing and being nurtured by our exchanges with others who shared our insights and vision, and finally coming into fruition in August of this year.


Collaborative live artwork at Hive Mind 2013.

The project, which we call Hive Mind, is an attempt to create a space where radical politics and festival culture1 can meet in a synergistic way. It is meant to become a space that seamlessly bridges activism and radical communities with cultural spaces made by visionary artists and artistic types, spiritual folk and festival kids. Combining culture, sociality and politics are at the crux of what Hive Mind is about, and it is also something I believe the broader Left should be much more engaged in.

Although I am new to socialism (its historical legacy, theories, and praxis), I am no stranger to radical politics or politics of social justice. Having been raised by two intellectuals in Bolivia, the promise of revolution always filled the air. My mother worked as a psychologist within a feminist organization for years and different government programs to help better the conditions poor women’s lives, and my father committed his life’s work to helping indigenous people self-determine against Western imperialism through various NGOs. They both set a great example of what a genuine commitment to social justice means.

The pull I always felt towards endeavors of this nature only got stronger as I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology at University of Maryland (focusing on stratification and inequality of course). However, something else that helped transform my consciousness on a different level as I finished college was my engagement with cultural and artistic spaces in Baltimore. These spaces contain a few subcultural groups which include ravers, burners (those from the tradition of the Burning Man festival), visionary artists (from the ilk of Alex Gray), creative people who nurture a DIY culture, and spiritual/New Age people.

I became involved with festival culture before I ever attempted to become an activist, and within it I experienced deep and wonderful personal growth. The radical spaces I was engaging with aimed to foster alternative lifestyles and positive action as immediate solutions to some of the current problems we face. More importantly, however, they foster community. The emphasis is placed on elevating our consciousness through art (painting, digital, music), and on the connections between people. In a society that isolates individuals and that mass produces junk for consumption, nurturing bonds of reciprocity as well as cultivating a genuine sense of aesthetic become crucial.


Boom Festival 2012.

Unfortunately, what I came to notice over time was that these spaces and these people are also starkly apolitical. Other than a stance against hyper-consumerism and a disdain for mass-culture, there is no shared political consciousness. Even though the people in these communities can feel that there is something wrong with society on a deep level and are taking steps to create better life-experiences for themselves, they tend to fall short of connecting their fight with a larger socio-political struggle. The deep malaise they might otherwise feel if it weren’t for their engagement in these spaces is not placed in a larger context of sharp awareness.

Why are these radical spaces so divorced from politics? There are many reasons for this, but in particular I want to highlight how the political has been divorced from virtually every facet of American life. Currently there are very narrow scripts and avenues through which to engage in with politics (which, to most people, only seem to include voting and demonstrations). Activism and political organizing tend to happen in an isolated space, separate from the larger social world that most people usually inhabit. As everything in our society has been compartmentalized, politics and culture happen on often opposite ends of the larger social context we live in. Furthermore, the true nature of oppression has been more and more obscured from view even as its impact has worsened.

Yet, the problem is not just that people are unaware of how implicated they are in political issues and systems of oppression. Another major problem is that the radical activists who are attempting to build a large-scale movement to challenge this oppression have themselves fall into the culture/politics dichotomy trap. Many political activists I’ve met do not engage with the music/art subcultures in the city. I sometimes even get a sense of dismissiveness that these subcultures are rooted in culture and spirituality and not in politics.


Copyright Pablo Machioli.

These activists fail to realize that these are powerful mechanisms shaping people’s lived experiences and sense of identity. For instance, music in these subcultures is not only a tool of expression, but also one of consciousness expansion, opening people’s minds in ways that are non-rational. Music aids in creating collective effervesce and strengthening social bonds. Fluid communities are enriched by these encounters, in a society characterized by isolation of its individuals and the mystification of oppression. Visual art, music, and the transformation of one’s environment through art installations or lighting, are all transformative tools which the Left as a whole is currently sadly missing out on.

Furthermore, culture and art nurture community-building, which is of critical importance in a postmodern, fractured society. Without community building as a central priority, I am convinced the Left (as a small number of individuals or a small number of isolated groups left of center) cannot be effective in building a massive movement.

The more I inhabit the worlds of radical politics and festival culture, the more I am convinced that a synergy of these two worlds would be extremely beneficial for a revolutionary movement seeking to transform society. The community spaces that are rooted in festival culture are fertile ground for radicalizing people, especially if the political education is delivered utilizing the wonderful forms of art, beauty, and social bonds that characterizes these subcultures. People in these communities are carving out spaces where connection, expression, and a visionary outlook guide projects and shape personal relationships. These cultural places give people a voice to express themselves and what they think is possible.

That is why we activists on the Left need to become allies with people who are fighting on a different front, but for the same reasons and against common enemies. Radical politics should find ways to bridge with visionary artists to spread its message, be more accessible, and gain replenishment and strength. This can only be accomplished by engaging with other subcultures and other people in personal ways—not simply to organize but to socialize, create, and celebrate in unison.

Along with a socio-political movement, I am convinced that we also need a consciousness-expansion movement with a grassroots, unique culture based on creativity and spirit. We must move away from the rational/positivist ideology and cultural values espoused by Western capitalist culture, and build a political movement that is embedded in the relationships between people, as well as artistic expression. The revolution will surely be something beyond what we can imagine because it will take political awareness as well as a wonderful sense of ingenuity to guide the struggle.

1I use the term “festival culture” as an umbrella term and shorthand for a variety of communities and their practices which exist all across the United States. These communities are heterogeneous and dynamic, but they share some similarities which unify them into a cultural movement. These shared characteristics include engagement in shamanic spirituality and Eastern spiritual practices, an emphasis on art (both visual and musical) as a tool for consciousness expansion, fostering strong interpersonal bonds and forms of reciprocity, as well as an emphasis on creative self-expression, ritual, and celebration within the context of intentional gatherings and music and art festivals. The prevailing ideology (although not always coherent with their practices) is anti-consumerist and strongly environmentalist. Mysticism, emotion, and collective experiences are highly valued by people in these communities as a direct response to Western capitalist values.

Ibalu is a member of Solidarity in Baltimore working on the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign for single-payer. She is also a community organizer working to create radical spaces that integrate political consciousness and activism with the communities of visionary artists.

Folk Festivals as the Radical Relay

The synergy between a few short hours where any alternative seems possible and the apolitical nature of some festival dynamics and attendees, has in many ways been overcome by the participatory folk festival model developed by Mitch Podolak and his partner Ava Kobrinsky in Canada.

They are the founders of the Winnipeg, Vancouver, Stan Rogers, and Owen Sound festivals, the driving force behind the West End Cultural Center in Winnipeg; and presently Mitch is the Executive Director and Ava is the General Manager of HomeRoutes, North America's only organized house concert circuits of folk and classical music.

Both have been involved in one way or another in revolutionary Marxist politics since their teenage years, and the model they developed was based on democratic centralism and volunteer commitment. When I say democratic central-ism, I am here taking about a model which has a centralized organization but within which the volunteer committees have the greatest freedom to provide real input as to how the different tasks should be organized.

Consequently, the volunteers themselves, numbering in the thousands, develop a relationship to the festival and to the other volunteers which provide continuity, capacity, commitment and respect.

To take the festival beyond the level of entertainment for an apolitical mass of cultural consumers, the folk music festival format, where the artists through their music and their intimate audience interaction in the smaller workshop settings, provide avenues for challenging prevalent ideas and low levels of class and political consciousness.

This is facilitated and mediated by the way in which the volunteers, performers and audience interact with one another, and by placing the artists and their music at the center of the dialogue.

These festivals have tens of thousands of audience participants who return each year and bring their children, and now grandchildren, to the festivals to experience the sense of liberation and feeling of possibilities which these festivals engender.

The Winnipeg Folk Music Festival, which Mitch and Ava helped co-found and for which Mitch served as Artistic Director, celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year. Forty years which reflected the struggles of the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism and the struggles of LGBTG people, the international struggle for liberation of the Cubans, Nicaraguans, the Salvadorans and now the Honduran peoples of central America; and a platform for the voices of those suffering repression at the hands of the dirty dictatorships: from Pinochet's Chile to the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Israel.

In order for festivals to be more than spectacle, in order for festivals to help subvert the perceptions of what constitutes normality, there needs to be conscious planning for that to happen, for that bridge between the present consciousness of the masses and the socialist society to come, to be built.

Wow the Winnipeg Music

Wow the Winnipeg Music Festival sounds fantastic! I think I had heard about it in the past, but would def like to learn more and ossibly attend. :)

"To take the festival beyond the level of entertainment for an apolitical mass of cultural consumers, the folk music festival format, where the artists through their music and their intimate audience interaction in the smaller workshop settings, provide avenues for challenging prevalent ideas and low levels of class and political consciousness."

I think that folk music lends itself particularly well to transcend simple entertainment for consumption because of the nature of the genre, as well as its history.
Electronic music festivals, I see as having a similar potential, but of course the music itself and the crowd it draws is qualitatively different.

Could not agree more

Love this. Could not agree more with your statements, and I think you do a great job of synthesizing the festival attendee's into ideas which place them into groups. The first step to organization is understanding the group that you are trying to organize. I would love to collaborate/converse/and brainstorm with you!

Thank you! And I agree that

Thank you! And I agree that the first step is understanding the group you are trying to organize, which is why I talk about electronic music festivals, because that is the group/subculture I am a part of.
I would love to collaborate/brainstorm with you as well!
Please feel free to e-mail me to: ibalu.alba@gmail.com or find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/azul.amanecer

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