Saturday, June 27, 2009


Harry Targ

Social scientists and literary theorists in recent years have used the term “discourse” to suggest a way of thinking and talking about a subject. For some, a “discourse” sets the boundaries around which acceptable communications can occur. Some subjects can be part of the “discourse” and others not. Subjects which are excluded get excluded for a variety of reasons, but politics and social control reasons are primary. In short, people can talk about some subjects and not others.

We can say that what we can legitimately talk about is shaped by the distribution of political power in society, so class, race, and gender are important. Also, powerful institutions, such as governments, churches, corporations, and media, through their exercise of power in society, can determine what is talked about.

With the onset of the Cold War whole bodies of thought, sets of ideas, policy proposals were defined as beyond the discourse because they were “communist” or “socialist.” Policy recommendations that might redistribute the wealth could not be discussed for example.

With the political and cultural ferment of the 1960s, the boundaries of legitimate discourse broadened and young people demanded that we discuss the hitherto undiscussable-US imperialism, the military-industrial complex, building community, participatory democracy etc.

The Reagan revolution clamped down on the broadening discourses of the 60s. In fact, discussions about politics, economics, and culture were reconceptualized in such a way as to assume the primacy of the individual, the sanctity of private property, the hegemony of religiosity, the particular virtue of profit making, and the diabolical role of government. Discourses concerning public problems narrowed dramatically. Today we live with the consequences of the narrowing discourse of thirty years of the Reagan revolution.

No question our problems today concern political economy and the struggle for power. But our problems also reflect our inability to engage in broad-ranging discourses about public problems. We need to learn to think and talk again about alternative ways of organizing society. Many of these were commonly discussed in the 1960s but were purged from the Reagan era discourses.

For starters can we discuss and debate the following:

-a guaranteed annual income for all who engage in productive labor
-decentralization of political institutions based on principles of participatory democracy
-urban, city, and neighborhood planning
-creating public spaces for socializing, performances, artistic display
-free schools for all who want to teach and learn subjects
-community medicine (and single payer health care)
-redesigned communities that maximize the sharing of conveniences (from televisions, to washing machines, to garden tools, to vehicles)
-creating bicycling communities and cultures
-building urban gardens
-prioritizing creating equality among all peoples

These are just modest ideas derived from 1960s discourses (and some of these ideas have become policy in various places already). We demanded that they be talked about. We didn’t let corporate media, politicians, and ruling elites tell us what we could talk about and what visions for a new society were legitimate or not.

It is time to revisit these discourses. It is time to “think outside the box.”