Activistism

by Daniel on February 6, 2004

Fully aware that I haven’t written that review of “After the New Economy” that I said I would, here’s an article by CT favourite Doug Henwood and some of his mates on the subject of a worrying tendency toward mindlessness on the part of some activists on what we laughingly call “the left”. Just to provide some context, the article was written after the Afghanistan war and before the Iraq one, which is why some of the references look a bit weird.

For what it’s worth, I think I don’t agree with a single word of it; I don’t think that the lefties are as anti-analysis as the authors suggest and I don’t think that there would be many benefits to their getting into more theory since a) it would tend to create “party lines” and we all know how well they work b) it would just mean a switch from being dismissed for having no positive ideas to being dismissed as closet Stalinists and c) I don’t think that people relate to single-issue politics in that kind of way anyway. I also question whether the anti-sweatshop movement is really a good model, as my experience of it has included a lot of people with such a vehement obsession over particular branded sports goods companies that I ended up suspecting it was largely populated by foot fetishists. On the other hand, Doug spends more time in the company of the American Left than I do, and his professional responsiblities as a contributing editor to the Nation probably mean that he has fewer opportunities to steer clear of its loonier element than I do, so here we go. To link to the article as part of a general exercise in condemnation of “The Left” would b unsporting, by the way.

{UPDATE]: Rereading it, “not one single word” is a silly exaggeration on my part; there are some points that are very good. In particular, it is an entirely valid criticism of certain types of activists that they don’t think systemically; they honestly believe that Nike are running sweatshops just to be nasty, or as Doug says, that Greenspan creates recessions when employment is too low by accident. This is the type of thinking which gave us the single-company anti sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s, which today have resulted in a Southeast Asian clothing industry consisting of a few lovely air-conditioned palaces making clothes for Nike, in the context of a rest of industry that has hardly changed at all.

{ 10 comments }

1

bad Jim 02.06.04 at 10:20 am

a lot of people with such a vehement obsession over particular branded sports goods companies that I ended up suspecting it was largely populated by foot fetishists

A phenomenon which I have often noticed.

2

Matthew 02.06.04 at 10:44 am

A related question I would put to the good CT people: is it really necessary to provide a full “alternative” system when you criticize some aspects of one? i.e. do you absolutely need to have an alternative to ‘capitalism’ in your side pocket to be qualified to protest against some of its excesses?

Because that is the stick used to beat the “Activismists”, by the article you quote and most mainstream media reports: they are protesting against XXX, but what are they for? Isn’t it ironically quite a Marxist point of view? I think you can be against sweatshops or plundering ‘free-traders’ without having to come up with global socialism (which would be dismissed anyway). What do you think?

3

dsquared 02.06.04 at 10:57 am

I think there’s more to the Henwood et al piece than that; his real bugbear appears to be that the young ‘un protestors are just caught up in the act, and refuse to think about the sort of systemic issues you’re talking about. I’m gonna update the piece accordingly.

But your central point is quite right; there is no obligation on me to explain how London’s streets might best be cleared of snow, for example.

4

Scott Martens 02.06.04 at 11:03 am

I think they have a point, especially this:

Our point is not that there should be less activism. The left is nothing without visible, disruptive displays of power. We applaud activism and engage in it ourselves. What we are calling for is an assault on the stupidity that pervades American culture. [..] We’re not calling for leadership by intellectuals. On the contrary, we challenge left activist culture to live up to its anti-hierarchical claims: activists should themselves become intellectuals.

I think the broad single-issue and limited scope movements are useful and necessary, and I think that it is probably appropriate that they be “big tent” movements uniting people with very different theoretical motivations. And, it seems reasonable to me that disucssions of theory might take place within such movements, even though the whole movement need not come to any theoretical conclusions.

People in the US have a great deal of difficulty relating to activism in part because activists often don’t offer up larger reasons for their actions. There is an episode of The West Wing where a member of the White House staff is dispatched to talk to an anti-globalisation group, and they are protrayed as lacking any meaningful reasoning behind their position – they are just a bunch of college kids marching against something because that is what they do. Or a movie from the early 90′s that Comedy Central used to play all the time – PCU – portrayed campus activists as a clique who protested something different every week, without any underlying principles.

These portrayals are not necessarily very accurate, but there was a grain of truth to it on my campus. That really is the image most Americans have of activism and it is damaging very serious and heartfelt causes. The recent anti-war marches may have changed that, but I’m not in the US, I don’t know.

But, I think you’re right that analysis isn’t quite as dead as all that. I think Henwood feels – probably rightly – that since the decline of Marxism there hasn’t been a respectable, well-accepted intellectual framework for political activism. The (anti-)(alter-)(whatever-)globalisation movement is seriously hindered by this lack of a coherent response to their opponent’s ideology and the apparent belief that no compelling alternative ideology needs to put forward.

5

Scott Martens 02.06.04 at 11:04 am

Ah – now that I post I see that Matthew covered some of the same stuff.

6

Matthew 02.06.04 at 2:25 pm

My comment was a related side issue that has been bugging me, but I could agree with the conclusion you quote, Scott.
It’s funny because I have the opposite perception: that single-issue campaigns (effective) are ruined when they are overcome by some marxist sect that has a plan like:
1) protest against issue X!
2) ????
3) Revolution.

7

drapetomaniac 02.06.04 at 7:40 pm

To link to the article as part of a general exercise in condemnation of “The Left” would b unsporting, by the way.

it is always unsporting to say the emperor has no clothes, isn’t it?

i think “laughlingly call the left” is well said bc any group that counts henwood as a member deserves no better.

8

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.06.04 at 9:02 pm

“A related question I would put to the good CT people: is it really necessary to provide a full “alternative” system when you criticize some aspects of one? i.e. do you absolutely need to have an alternative to ‘capitalism’ in your side pocket to be qualified to protest against some of its excesses?”

Nope you don’t need a full alternative system. But what you need and do not have is a remotely plausible system. And you can protest against some of its excesses without even that, but not the excesses which are typically attacked. The outsourcing pseudo-debate seen recently all over the web is a classic example. The typical ‘remedy’ (not openly voiced) would be hugely damaging protectionist measures. If you want such measures you have to deal with their implications. If you don’t you need to tell us what the hell kind of measures you would take.

This appears constantly in the debate about Islamist terrorism. The US, of course, should be ‘building alliances’. To do what? Oh, ‘fight terrorism’. How? The alliances will do that of course. Really? Well that is what alliances will do. Of course…..

Fair trade. Trade should be fairer. How? Protectionism which raises prices for the protected market and starves out third world countries in the only areas where they can compete–unskilled labor (or everyones favorite subsidy FARMING)? The fairness is washing over me. Oh you have something else in mind? No, just critiquing capitalism.

That is the kind of activistism that is being decried. And it is perfectly appropriate to make fun of it. And don’t bother accusing me of straw-man argumentation. If you don’t know vocal leftists who are very close to the above you aren’t looking very hard.

9

limberwulf 02.06.04 at 11:03 pm

I think the reputation of activism as being unprincipled is tied heavily to its dependence on emotion. Most activists I have seen are very passionate about their cause (not a bad thing per se), but they have based this passion on an emotional reaction to something. This something may be a fact, a statistic, a peice of propganda, etc. There is little rational thought by many of the activists. The leadership may have thought action through, and as part of their strategy, roused a lot of support through emotional appeal. This tends towards large numbers, but not towards a group with any foundation or alternative thought.

Emotions are great, but they are a lousy way to make important decisions. Let your passion drive you to think deeper, not to think less.

10

wbb 02.15.04 at 1:50 pm

Activism was shown to be emotionally over-wrought and ineffectual one hudred years ago when the unions regularly manned the barricades over the single issue of their wages.

They did not have a business plan for how their employers could come up with increased revenue to fund the wage increases. No, they just pig-headedly demanded it. The unions did not appoint Oxford economics stars to lead them on the picket lines, they ignorantly went with local lads with big fists.

Activism – yes – it needs to be denounced for the boorish and simple-minded affair it is.

If somebody can’t make a case for the landless laborers of the third world with gold-plated intellectual cogency then they merely affront those of us whose porcelain delicate minds must feast only on higher matters.

I mean third world laborers? Which 18th Century Great could I turn to for my introductory quote on that issue? There’s just no rigor to be had on these declasse topics.

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