In discussing politics and writing history, we typically explain what people do by their interests. But interests are often in dispute; people are accused of doing things that aren’t in their own interests and failing to recognize their best interests-- when they vote, go to war or not, follow a particular economic policy, etc. “Interests” are the rhetoric of modern politics, not an accurate predictor of how people rise into action.

Of course there are other motives besides material interests: power, honor, prestige, sympathy, religious or ideological values. But even if we put these aside, and confine ourselves to material interests--- people seeking money, property, and the luxuries and necessities of life-- interests still do not predict very well what people will actually do in a specific circumstance. There are two main reasons: (a) interests are generally ambiguous; and (b) interests do not determine the tactics people will use to reach them.

If interests aren’t a good predictor, does this mean the political and social struggles of history are inexplicable, a chaotic fumbling in the dark? Not necessarily; a better theory is the success or failure of interaction rituals (IRs) in motivating collective action. As I argued in Interaction Ritual Chains (Collins 2004), IRs that focus group attention and generate high levels of shared emotion create emotional energy (EE)-- confidence and enthusiasm towards symbolically-defined goals. These shape the cognitive component of action-- how people define their goals; who are their fellows and opponents in seeking them; and what tactics seem appropriate. I am not arguing for a dichotomy between material interests on one side, and “irrational” or “emotional” forces on the other; I am pointing out that material interests by themselves are too vague to determine specific courses of action in most situations. Even the most hard-nosed material interest becomes a motive for action only when a successful IR focuses attention on it, making it a conscious goal with enthusiastic energy mobilized towards attaining it. Strong commitment to material interests does exist, but it has to be socially created, through interaction rituals.


Take for example the interests of the working class. Presumably these are better wages, better job conditions and job security. But who does one share these interests with? Possibilities include (a) class-wide organization of all workers; (b) a particular occupational sector, such as all skilled crafts, or just one particular profession seeking monopolistic licensing; (c) a local organization of workers in a particular place or business. Within each of these choices there are further sub-choices. Taking (a) again, what does the class-wide organization do: aim for massive strikes? for political influence to bring government intervention? for socialist ownership of production? All of these, in the abstract, can be said to be in workers’ interest; but the interest doesn’t determine which one to seek. Any program that claims to be in someone’s interest is a theory, better yet an ideology, that tries to persuade people this is the best way to attain their interests.

Ideology and organization thus become a crucial part of interests. Ideologies try to argue that this ( _______ fill in the blank) is the only way to truly secure your interest; but that is not true. The (a-b-c) list above is ordered roughly from the most inclusive to the least inclusive coalition, and the argument tends to be that bigger is stronger and will deliver more goods. But it is also in someone’s interest to descend even further on the continuum and pursue advantage for a small group of friends or kin, or just for oneself. We get the best-paying jobs and others don’t; I get the promotion and too bad for you. Ideologists trying to organize as a larger group condemn this as unethical, and organizers often claim that everyone will do better if they all stick together, even the token favorites; but that depends on other conditions-- the argument that going your own way is not in your interest is an iffy one. Enthusiasm for joining a larger organization does not typically come by rational calculation; strong unions don’t just try to persuade individualists that it is in their interest to join the union-- they establish coercive rules (if possible enforced by state regulation) to make individualists join. One reason white collar workers are hard to unionize is that they tend to think their careers have a chance of moving upward into management; they lack class solidarity because they regard their situation as temporary. I am not making an argument here for or against unions or individualists, but pointing out that it is not simply a matter of material interests. If everyone pursues what they think is their own best interest, all sorts of organization (or lack of organization) are possible.

Even with a union organization, a segment can pursue their interest over other members. Seniority rules protect older workers’ jobs while younger workers are laid off. Another variant is an ethnic/racial group that monopolizes jobs for themselves. This can be condemned as immoral, but it is certainly not against the interests of the ethnic group that can get such privilege. The argument for inter-racial solidarity has to be made by moralistic rhetoric, not by simple appeal to interests. A similar logic applies to racial tokens; a black man taking a position as a conservative Supreme Court justice, for instance, might be accused of selling out his people, but there is nothing irrational about it from the point of view of his interest. Similarly with gender. Feminists demanding equal access and equal pay in all jobs would seem to be in every woman’s interest; but there is nothing irrational about an individual woman who decides that her best career path is to marry a wealthy man, especially if she has the opportunity and the personal qualities to do well on the marriage market. This is not to say that a rich lady could not join a feminist movement (and in fact this is how the movement originated in England); but that comes from other conditions than their own material interests. Arguments for the widely inclusive, high-solidarity path cannot sway individual motivations just by appeal to interests.

The same problem of compatriots arises in every interest, in every economic class and sector. When declaring something is in your interest, who is included in the “you”? It cannot simply be decided by an abstraction: choose the course of action that has highest probability of benefits vs. costs. In real life, not only do you rarely know those probabilities, but the deciding conditions are much more in the tactics than in the goal.


The wider the scope of the organization, the more it can appeal to long-term interests. The party claiming to represent all workers is most likely to push a long-term solution to their interests, such as socialism. The trouble is, the more long-term the solution, the less certain that it will actually come about; if the event is a long way in the future, the present generation of members is not pursuing their own interests at all, but an altruistic dedication to someone else’s interests. The key to long-term commitments, then, cannot be strictly in the realm of interests, but must depend upon social mechanisms of moral commitment.

It has been a trope of moralizing ever since the ancient Greek philosophers that very short-term gains can be foolish diversions from your own interests, even in the not-so-distant future. True enough, but how far into the future is it rational to calculate? If you never enjoy anything in the short run, you will never enjoy it in the long run, since every moment of time arrives as another short run. Weber’s concept of the Protestant Ethic and similar theories of economic motivation solve this problem not by rationally calculated interests, but by religious and other emotional dispositions to work, invest, or consume. It is sometimes assumed that very short-run attraction to material benefits is due to being irrationally overcome by emotion; but one can argue just the opposite, that long-term self-discipline is also due to emotional forces. What I want to emphasize are two points: that viewing one’s interests in short, medium, or long-term perspective is an extrinsic condition, not contained in the interests themselves; and which time-frame persons happen to focus upon comes from outside themselves, from the social groups in which they experience emotional rituals.


Once an economic or political interest group has gotten organized, that is still not the end of it. Take the example of a working-class movement; or an ethnic/racial movement; or a gender movement. This history of modern politics, ever since parties came on the scene in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been made up of parties that defined themselves as representing a particular interest; but over time all parties twisted or split along lines of what tactics to use. Liberal/left parties have had the choice of being reformist, seeking small incremental changes where they could get them; radical and militant, using strong rhetoric, demanding big changes, and (another variant) using demonstrations, strikes, and disruptions instead of (or along with) electoral politics and courts; or revolutionary, seeking overthrow of government and property by violent means. This is a continuum, and factions could take up positions nearer or farther from the different main points (left and right wings of socialist parties, or of anti-clerical/anti-monarchist republicans, etc).

The key point is that the major splits and controversies of party politics happen along tactical lines within groups espousing similar interests. This is especially true of organizations identifying themselves as workers’ movements. In early 20th century Germany and most other European states, the labor party split into a parliamentary, gradualist wing, and a militant wing; a series of such leftist splits generated the Spartacists (whose uprising failed at the end of WWI), and the Communists. On the centrist side, liberal or Catholic parties from outside the working class might join the gradualist wing, supporting workers’ interests out of charitable motives or a concern for social peace. On the revolutionary side, another tactical split was between socialists or communists who aimed to change the property system through control of the state; and anarchists who aimed for the same thing but by avoiding the state entirely-- regarding parliamentary politics as a fraud that always worked against themselves, and the state as an instrument that would introduce new forms of inequality. The anarchists were mostly right on both counts, but their own tactics-- such as in Spain their violent seizures of local property, assassinations, and destruction of churches as their hated symbolic enemy-- were too uncoordinated to produce victory, and chiefly stirred up resentment. Although in the abstract it might seem workers’ interests would be stronger if held together in one organization, which organization this should be could not be agreed upon. Political organizations became passionately committed to their particular tactics, and often their most bitterly fought enemy was their former compatriots who split over just such tactical issues.

The terms Left and Right, since the time of the French Revolution, have generally been used to refer to the degree of militancy in tactics. But the usage is confusing-- Left/Right could also designate lower vs. upper classes; or it could mean change-oriented versus stability-oriented. None of these usages yield a clear and uncontradictory picture; revolutionary militancy could appear on the Right, with the Fascists, especially if the liberals or the Left held political power. The contradiction comes from assuming there is a perfect line-up between a social class, its interest both in economic matters and in stability, and its tactics. This is empirically wrong, and tactics almost always swamp the neater identities as classes and interests. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist falling into Left/Right terminology, and this is all right in particular historical contexts, provided we think through just what we are talking about.

Besides splits along the continuum of reformist-vs.-revolutionary, there is what might be called a meta-split between opportunists and principled ideologists. This is not merely the same thing as reformists (who are willing to make deals with parliamentary opponents to attain some of their interests) in contrast to more militant or revolutionary groups. Principled ideologists can occur at any point in the political spectrum. The Tea Party movement in the US since 2010 is an instance of a conservative single-issue movement, that refuses to make deals and regards consistent defense of their principle as the cardinal virtue. But unyielding ideologists vs. opportunists are found on the revolutionary left as well. The success of the Russian Bolsheviks in autumn 1917 came from willingness to appeal to peasants in overthrowing the government by endorsing their seizure of farmland; since the peasants were taking land as individual private property, the Bolsheviks were going against their own principle of collective organization of agriculture, although eventually once they got secure power they went back on their promise. The Bolshevik slogan “Bread! Land! Peace!” also was opportunistic about ending the war; this was a temporary expedient to stop the futile fighting against the victorious German army, but almost immediately the Bolsheviks resumed fighting in a 3-year civil war that lasted until 1920. The analytical lesson here is not that the Bolsheviks were especially perfidious bad guys. They were part of a spectrum of liberal and left groups that had been struggling against the Czarist regime for almost a century; broadening our perspective, they were part of a European family of squabbling reform-minded parties. The Russians were very familiar with the different options. Instead of regarding the Bolsheviks as genetically imprinted from the outset, we should regard them as the movement that happened to fill the opportunistic niche as it emerged at a particular moment. The Bolsheviks were not opportunists of the parliamentary type (like the Social Democrats in Germany of the 1890s, or later the Mensheviks in Russia); they were opportunists among revolutionists.


Opportunism has a bad name, but it is generally the most successful tactic, especially if it is employed by a militant, violence-wielding organization. The Bolsheviks triumphed in Russia because they opportunistically sought state power; their tactical line was to do anything that strengthened the cohesion of their own party and the strength of the state. Hence the creation of the Red Army, the security commissars, and all the other means of organizational discipline. This could be justified theoretically in terms of interests-- the strong state will get us to the workers’ interest-- but so could all the other tactics chosen by rival left movements. Russian-style Communists thus became the organizational identity embodying the left-opportunistic style. Their opportunism was a great advantage in struggles with other left organizations. During the Spanish civil war of 1936-39, the Anarchists’ scatter-gun tactics and extreme consistency of revolutionary ideals made them unpopular with most other members of the anti-Fascist coalition; the Spanish Communists burgeoned because they advocated social order and group discipline, and could opportunistically declare the defense of private property during the emergency of the civil war, thereby gaining allies both in the Republican middle class and in the army. A similar opportunistic line was taken by Mao’s Chinese Communist Party as it fought a guerrilla war in the countryside in the 1930s and 40s; theoretically they favored the landless peasants, but they were willing to make deals and protect the rich peasants if they needed them in a particular circumstance.

Of course, the Communists were lying when they publicly took one of these opportunistic stances, ostensibly against their socialist aims. They knew that their line was only temporary and tactical, and that they would go back on it when the opportunity came to push through full communism. Here we need to explain why there are different types of opportunists. Why didn’t the Communists become like the German Social Democrats or the British Labour Party, wedded to the parliamentary route and gradually becoming indistinguishable from a non-revolutionary party working inside the framework of capitalism? The Communists maintained more long-term consistency, even throughout their tactical opportunism, because they had a dual inner/outer structure not found in other leftist parties: a core of dedicated, career-professional revolutionaries organized in a hierarchy of small groups, holding secret meetings where they encouraged and criticized each other, renewing their commitment not only to doctrine but to discipline as a group. Philip Selznick (1949) called this The Organizational Weapon. What made the Communists strong was a conscious recognition that their organization was the key to victory, and that their ideological line was secondary.

These Communist cells, meeting frequently (often weekly or more) were also a discovery of political Interaction Rituals, carried out at the small-group level. They were successful IRs from all ingredients: the secret meetings excluding outsiders and keeping up a strong focus of attention; the shared emotions of revolutionary danger, of secrecy itself, and the immediate emotions of mutual criticism issuing in solidarity on their public line at the end of the meeting. This inner cadre organization had been created to fend off police agents, but it unexpectedly enabled the Communists to be successfully opportunistic. Where a parliamentary workers’ party might stray from their original interests by befriending bourgeois politicians and enjoying the perquisites of office (what Robert Michels charged against the German socialist SPD in his 1911 Political Parties), Communists did not pal around with their erstwhile allies, at least not on the backstage. The Communists had a superior backstage that generated much more emotional energy, along with more solidarity and more commitment to their sacred objects and beliefs. But this was a sophisticated, two-level belief: what we are really doing, and what we are pretending to do temporarily for practical reasons, and this sophistication was built into their organization. The Communists dominated in so many places because they consistently took the opportunistic niche in revolutionary political space; because they developed an organizational structure that supported this; and because they harnessed IRs not just at the level of mass public meetings, but in backstage small groups to keep up revolutionary dedication.

Opportunism vs. principled consistency is a fundamental, but generally unrecognized, dimension of politics. The opportunists usually win, in any part of the political spectrum, whether the deal-making center or the militant wings. (When opportunists lose we will consider later.) This dimension operates on the militant Right as well. The Nazis differed from other right-wing movements in Germany of the 1920s, not because their interests and ideologies were different-- there were nearly 100 movements calling for social order, invoking the solidarity of the Nation and the People, and spewing anti-Semitism. The Nazis gradually outcompeted the other movements, recruiting better and eventually absorbing the others, because they were opportunists of the violent revolutionary wing. The Nazis were not the type of opportunists fostered by parliamentary participation; the core of their organization were their street-fighters. As Stefan Klusemann shows, Nazis were innovators in political IRs, not only in their pageantry of uniforms and swastika-symbols and Heil Hitler! greeting rituals, but the tactic of using violence as a ritual, marching into workers’ neighbourhoods and taverns and provoking fights that they were better organized to win. Thus both Bolsheviks and Nazis were IR-innovators, although of different kinds.

Nazi ideology reflected their preferred tactics, “Action!” rather than decadent parliamentary discussion that never led anywhere. But once they dominated their rival Right-wing street-demonstration movements, around 1930, the Nazis violated a cardinal principle of their own ideology by running candidates for parliament. This shift in tactics provoked a split between the SA (street-fighters) and Hitler’s more political followers, and eventually led to the bloody purge of the former. But Hitler’s opportunism enabled Nazis to become a dominant faction in the despised parliament, enabling him to become chancellor and then to dissolve parliamentary government from above. The most important Rightist revolutionary movement, whose primary tactic and explicit ideology extolled violence, nevertheless took office legally through electoral process. This was also true for Italian Fascists, whose showily dramatic march on Rome in 1922 paid off with the King appointing Mussolini prime minister (just as German President Hindenburg appointed Hitler). On Right as well as Left, opportunism pays off more than intransigent ideologies.


So far I have argued that interests are too ambiguous as to compatriots and time-frames to guide action; and the spectrum of tactics is not determined by interests but is the main source of organizational splits and loyalties in the political arena. Here I add a third reason interests are poor predictors: whatever happens in a conflict is the resultant of all the different forces in play. A socialist or revolutionist line will not reach its aim if anti-revolutionary and capitalist forces are too strong. But neither will a reformist, parliamentary deal-making tactic necessarily yield much; with sufficiently strong political opponents on the right, and disillusionment from its own militant wing provoking splits on the left, reformists may simply become ineffectual or personally corrupt. Not only cannot the payoffs be predicted from the interests; nor can they be predicted from their choice of tactics alone-- it is always the tactics of each group as they stack up against each other.

And there are many other contingencies that affect which interest group will take power: economic crises; wars won or lost; religious, ethnic and other cultural controversies. Timing of a crisis is especially important. If a party is strong enough to be in office (possibly as part of a coalition) when disaster happens, it will get the blame for it. All over the world, elected parties in office at the outbreak of the 1929 depression were punished by being voted out, whether they happened to be right or left. The Russian government in spring 1917 that decided to continue a losing war thereby set themselves up for takeover, even though Kerensky himself was ideologically socialist. The best crack at revolutionary or deeply transformative power is to be a strong second, outside of office at the moment when confidence in government breaks down through a major crisis; the worst position is to be in charge during war defeat or economic collapse. On a milder scale, this is the problem of the Obama administration, which inherited an economic crisis peaking just after the 2008 election.

Electoral politics is a blunt instrument when it comes to making major policy changes. Voters essentially have a yes/no choice; either you take the incumbent government as a whole and keep it in office; or you throw them out. The non-controlling party (or parties) always tries to argue that the crisis (economy, war, social unrest, etc.) can be solved by their own ideology; this may or may not be true (and given multiple causality, can hardly be a very reliable predictor); so it may often be irrational for voters to get rid of the incumbents, since the policy of who will replace them could be even worse. This appears to be the case with the American national election of 2012. But the extent to which people vote by the “misery index,” indicates they are making a binary choice; they know what they don’t like, but they cannot articulate what they really want and how to get it. The structure of an election as an Interaction Ritual focuses attention on the binary, the ins vs. the outs; the more emotional the mobilization for the election, the more people brainwash themselves into believing that flipping the binary will make all the difference.

Another reason why interests do not predict outcomes is that politics often goes through enormous swings on rebounds. The all-out effort of one side to put their program into action can result in a massive conflict; a revolutionary’s best efforts can lead to a victory for the authoritarian right; this was a result of the anarchist mobilization in Spain in the early and mid-1930s. But also Fascists’ program of conquest provoked enough counter-mobilization in the world to destroy and delegitimate fascism both in Europe and Japan. Whatever your interests, no political pathway will predictably get you there.

Having an interest and a tactic doesn’t mean you will get it; virtually no one gets what they aim for. Conversely, almost anything you do can be construed as against your interest, on some theory in hindsight about what would have been the correct thing to do. Hindsight has among its advantages over real life that it is never experienced through the same emotions that prevailed at the time when the future was still unknown. History-writing in this mode is a retrospective game of blame or praise played by fantasy advisors outside the action. It is the chief fault of writing by journalists.

Who benefited from some particular policy does not show why it happened. Wars often cost much more than the victor gets out of them. Capitalists might think that a war is needed to protect property, or gain markets and materials, or just as a matter or patriotism or zenophobia; these become causal forces, not because they are true, but because of the fervor with which they are believed. Bad reasons are just as good explanations of what happens as good reasons (if we restrict that to mean economic calculation). In either case, the reasons people consciously give for whatever they do become powerful motives only to the extent that reasons are formulated in IRs, and thereby are pumped up with confidence, commitment, and belief.


Does the argument apply only against the left? Workers’ interests, tactics and calculations may be ambiguous but capitalists might be better at it. After all, Weber describes modern capitalism as the omni-calculation of all factors of production. But it is dubious that this applies to capitalists as political actors. As Michael Mann shows, whether a national economic policy succeeds or not depends on timing and what other economic powers in the world are doing. Interest-oriented policies only fit particular situations, and capitalists on the whole are not much better than workers at choosing policies that will pay off. Capitalist monetary policy during the Great Depression shows that capitalists do not necessarily have a clear idea of their own interests downstream; capitalism was rescued by liberal policies that capitalists resisted at the moment. One might assume that capitalists (or at least their economic advisors) become shrewder over time, but events since 2000 hardly bear that out. Empirically, the case for capitalists being more rationally calculating in political matters is far from proven; theoretically, all the generic problems apply as to time-frames, political tactics, and multiple forces bearing on outcomes.

To be clear: my argument is not about whether political people talk about interests-- they often do, although sometimes they also talk in idealized rhetoric. They may even believe what they say about their interests, and for that matter what they say about their ideals. Sincerity is not an important question in politics, because sincere belief is a social product: successful IRs make people into sincere believers. People become insincere and manipulative mainly when they go through a range of different IRs, switching from one camp to another; or in the case of the Communist back-stage organization, when they use one strong IR to anchor their beliefs against another more public IR which is not as emotionally intense. This leaves room for the cosmopolitan opportunist, who believes in nothing because s/he superficially surveys all factions but belongs emotionally to none. But such persons are rare in politics, probably because strong EE, which is so impressive in leading other political actors, comes from being deep into emotional IRs; pure manipulators are uncharismatic and off-putting. Yes, Hitler was manipulative; but he lived at the center of very strong IRs, and Nazi ceremonial made him a true extremist for Nazi ideals. In the end, he was so pumped up with self-confidence (EE) that he destroyed his regime by taking on overwhelming geopolitical odds. At any point in time, we can predict the lineup of persons with varying degrees of commitment to ideas and ideals, by looking at the degree of success or failure of the IRs they experience.

IR theory is an explanation of what people will think, as well as what they will do. At any particular moment, people are speaking certain words or thinking certain thoughts; the thoughts that go through one’s head are internalized from previous talk with other people; more innovative thoughts are assembled out of the ingredients of verbal ideas already internalized. The world is a network of conversations, and what people think at any point in it is a product of what has circulated in previous conversations. There is a crucial emotional component: ideas are better remembered, and make more sense, if they were associated with emotion when they were previously talked about. Thus even in spontaneous private thinking, it is those emotionally-laden ideas that spring to one’s mind. When persons strategise, or vent, or otherwise try to express their aims in words, these are the words that arise in one’s head, and on one’s tongue.

Put more fully: the world is a network of conversations that have different degrees of success or failure as IRs. Successful IRs are those in which the assembled group attains a high degree of mutual focus of attention, sharing a common emotion, and experiencing Durkheimian collective effervescence. Successful IRs in political life can be speeches and rallies, if they generate enough emotional high for everyone; especially dramatic are riots and atrocities; for some professional politicians, the most important IRs are their private consultations with other political devotées. What kind of IR it is will have an effect on what kind of political commitment it creates; the mentality of the street-fighter, the parliamentarian, and the campaign planner differ because of the contents of the IRs that are most successful for them. The important contrast is with IRs that fail, or are merely mediocre; rallies can be unenthusiastic, parliamentary sessions can be droningly routine or boringly gridlocked; riots and wars can end in dispersion as well as in solidarity. In political life as in everything else, each person gravitates towards the emotionally successful IRs and pumped up with their way of thinking; and we move away from the IRs that don’t work, and have little attraction to thinking in their symbols.

I have argued that material interests are ambiguous as to compatriots, time-frames, tactics, and estimates of success. But in the flow of real life, people who take part in political action-- going to public meetings, talking with their acquaintances, engaging in backstage planning, joining rallies, riots, wars, etc.-- become part of a discourse that defines what interests we think we are furthering, and who are in it with us. It is not the interests that holds us together, but our shared talk about interests: it is these symbol-formulated-interests that carry the Durkheimian solidarity of membership. For that reason, people in a political interest group can become committed to material interests in a moralistic way. (At one time in my life, I contributed regularly to an organization dedicated to lowering utility bills; eventually I realized that I was putting more money into the organization than I could possibly get out of it. That is typical of supporters of many, perhaps most, material interest groups. No researcher has yet shown empirically that most contributors to political campaigns-- including the candidates themselves-- make a profit on what they contributed. Some do; most don’t; we need a more refined theory of conditions.)

The same mechanism of success or failure of IRs determines whether people think of their interests in a short, medium, or long time-frame; on the whole, they need stronger IRs to sustain belief in long-term interests. Thus the more “fanatical” movements have the strongest IRs, including the greatest barrier to outsiders, to prevent contaminating their members’ attention. And the IR mechanism chooses which tactics people become committed to, and which tactics they reject. Tactics become a focus of attention, and often the most heated topic of conversation. Most political factions do not differ among themselves so much in what they are aiming for, as in their tactics for how to get it; and it is around these tactical issues that the most vehement splits have taken place. A political group’s favorite tactic becomes the basis of their identity; their opponents’ favorite tactic becomes the symbolic dividing line which emotionally frames their worst enemy.

A good example is the “struggle meeting” developed by Chinese Communists in their guerrilla strongholds of the 1930s. In a struggle meeting, the poor peasants of a village criticized the rich peasants and put pressure on them to mend their ways. Presence of armed communists gave the oppressed peasants confidence; but the meeting was not just an angry outburst or a lynch mob-- as in traditional uprisings-- because it was institutionalized, i.e. repetitive and official. The communists restrained the poor from killing their class enemies, and instead encouraged them to apply continuous group pressure, to make their change their views. This became the prototype of “thought reform” tactics-- really an application of small group psychology, in a deliberately manipulative mode-- that were used through the 1960s Red Guards movement, no longer purging class enemies but communist administrators themselves. Like the Russian Bolsheviks (and in a different way the Nazis), the Chinese Communists were both distinctive and successful because of their innovations in micro-sociology of group discipline. And it was these innovations that made them appear so sinister to their enemies.

Interests do not become conscious motives until they are socially defined. There is no basic instinct of private property, or of collective property, or gift-giving, or plunder; all these have been practices, in many variants, in different societies since human origins. People have to be taught to be capitalists, or union members, or reformers or revolutionists (or for that matter gang members), and the way they are “taught” is not so much by admonition as by their own experiences in IRs that give them emotional energy in talking about and performing these practices.

True, some material interests are easier to focus upon than others. If you already have a routine material practice, having it disrupted makes you pay attention, and that will generate a protest or a counter-attack if other persons gather with you to focus on the same grievance. Negative interests are easier to see clearly and easier to mobilize around than positive interests. Workers who are fired, or peasants who have their rents raised, can more easily see their interests than workers pondering what might they do in the future to give them higher incomes. Hence reactive movements-- responses to economic downturns, threats to property from the state or other political movements-- are easier to mobilize, and generally more emotionally aroused than positive movements seeking a better future. All this flows through the micro-mechanism of IRs. Negative interests-- losing or feeling a threat to one’s material resources-- tend to easily fulfill the conditions for successful IRs: assembling a group, focusing attention, enhancing a shared emotion about the object of attention. Positive interests, because they are more ambiguous and lead into a multiply branching future, are harder to focus on clearly; and emotions are harder to attach to them-- joy and hope has to be generated in the group assembly itself, whereas in a loss or threat to what one already possesses, the emotion is generated individually and then is amplified by the group process. Movements for transformation have to do more IR work than movements defending the status quo.

Defensive interests are not always unambiguous. If landlords are taking more of the peasants’ crops, that is clear; but if an anarchist or socialist movement threatens your property, the movement may not be as threatening as it appears-- their threat is pumped up by their rhetoric (which may be sheer ritualism), and they may be incapable of carrying it out. On the other side, an anti-leftist movement may be successful at generating emotional hysteria about the alleged threat-- one of the main tactics in conservative crackdowns. Property threat from the left is not always a myth; but at the moment of conflict it is hard to judge how serious it is, and hence there is a large element of social construction, via IRs, even in negative interests.

To summarize: material interests do not simply exist and thereby drive struggles among classes and interest groups. They must always be socially formulated, in words and symbols; and this is done when Interaction Rituals are successful in generating more focus of attention and more shared emotion around certain ways of construing interests than other ways. Not to say the material world doesn’t exist; of course it does, and our bodies (and the numbers of people who take part in one ritual camp or another), weapons, vehicles, money, and all the other economic and technological resources make a difference in how the action is mobilized, and who wins. But it all has to go through the eye of a needle, which is the social definition of what we perceive our interests to be, and that is done by the degree of emotionally shared focus in IRs. Material resources are inert and blind until they are put in action by focused networks of humans in full emotional/ cognitive communication. Different ways of organizing and focusing interaction rituals are the key to political action. It is not surprising that the most colourful movements throughout history, for good or for evil, have been those that generated the most political energy.

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Selznick, Philip. 1949. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics.
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