Doug Henwood, Liza Featherstone and Christian Parenti, writing in Lip Magazine, pick away at one of my favorite sore spots: how too much of the activist Left has confused strategy with tactics and just plain can’t and wont think strategically. Given the reticence of the Left to much face up to this fact, and given the lefty credentials of these three writers (much purer than yours truly), it’s an important essay. Take a look at this excerpt:
So what is the ideology of the activist left (and by that we mean the global justice, peace, media democracy, community organizing, financial populist and green movements)? Is the activist left just an inchoate "post-ideological" mass of do-gooders, pragmatists and puppeteers? No. The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the "trainings" and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are activistists.
That's right, activistists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hypermediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a 19th-century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous. The activistists seem to borrow their philosophy from the factory boss in a Heinrich Böll short story who greets his employees each morning with the exhortation "Let's have some action." To which the workers obediently reply: "Action will be taken!"…
How does activist anti-intellectualism manifest on the ground? One instance is the reduction of strategy to mere tactics, to horrible effect. Take for example the largely failed San Francisco protest against the National Association of Broadcasters, an action that ended up costing tens of thousands of dollars, gained almost no attention, had no impact on the NAB and nearly ruined one of the sponsoring organizations. During a postmortem discussion of this debacle one of the organizers reminded her audience that: "We had 3,000 people marching through [the shopping district] Union Square protesting the media. That's amazing. It had never happened before." Never mind the utter non-impact of this aimless march. The point was clear: We marched for ourselves. We were our own targets. Activism made us good…
The antiwar "movement" is perhaps the most egregious recent example of a promising political phenomenon that was badly damaged by the anti-intellectual outlook of activistism. While activists frequently comment on the success of the growing peace movement—many actions take place, conferences are planned, new people become activists—no one seems to notice that it's no longer clear what war we're protesting. Repression at home? Future wars in Somalia? Even in the case of Afghanistan, it turned out to be important to have something to say to skeptics who asked: "What's your alternative? I think the government should protect me from terrorists, and plus this Taliban doesn't seem so great." The movement failed to address such questions, and protests dwindled.
These points are right on the money, accurately reflecting the non-thinking narcissism that peppers so much of today’s self-conscious activism. I read those last lines and I can just see Global Exchange’s (and CodePink’s) Medea Benjamin running fitfully from camera to camera, in a hundred different actions over as many days—never stopping, perhaps, to read a book or figure out what if any of it means.
The arguments broached in this essay are taken much further in a new book I’ve just read. Canadian profs Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, in their new Nation of Rebels : Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (quoting now from the publisher’s promotional material ) “shatter the most important myth that dominates much of radical political, economic, and cultural thinking. The idea of a counterculture -- a world outside of the consumer-dominated world that encompasses us -- pervades everything from the antiglobalization movement to feminism and environmentalism. And the idea that mocking or simply hoping the "system" will collapse, the authors argue, is not only counterproductive but has helped to create the very consumer society radicals oppose. “
Both authors identify themselves as being on the left and, indeed, as being engaged in a battle to save the left from itself. They raise (and answer) the hard question: how much activism today is thought-out, strategic and effective? And how much of it is rather just a lifestyle option, a hobby that makes its participants feel better about themselves while accomplishing nothing?