Against Activism

I was an activist once. Sometimes, I suppose I still am. Tends to mean taking issues “to the street.” And after years of activism, I’m suggesting that this version of “activism” is largely sterile.

Comprised as it is of a collection of narrow movements centered on some aspect of society, activism typically culminates in large street demonstrations, within which each narrow movement gets a bit of time on the platform and has its own collection of clever rebellious placards, with various revolution-aspiring grouplets circulating through the crowd handing out publications that end up in the waste cycle by sundown. These demonstrations — once effective when they were novel — can be safely ignored by the powers, then everyone has to go home. The media gives it some play if it is safely within the bounds of the same petit bourgeois discourse that soothes and strokes the media-civil society class; and if not, the media ignores it, too.

There is that persistent echo of the French Revolution — “to the barricades! — that mobilizes the fractured imaginations of activists, and with it the magical thinking that envisions temporary disruptions in car traffic and plenty of police overtime transforming itself into suddenly wakened masses flocking to (one of) the (many) revolutionary banners.

Tactically, this is a nightmare. Millions are spent, hundreds of thousand miles traveled, untold hours of preparation and coordination, for an event that lasts a few hours and leaves things substantially the way they were found. Strategically, it is idiocy. Yes, it worked once upon a time, in a particular context. So did Napoleonic battle drills.

If you have people, you can’t keep your people in the street for very long. Occupy made a heroic effort, but it always eventually becomes a heavily subsidized project yielding returns that diminish with each passing day.

Morally, it is ineffective, because the effort and the people are largely disconnected except during their time on the street. It serves an expressive purpose; and that is valuable in itself, I suppose, but without sustained contact between people, where they have to work out how to live together, no real discourse occurs except in the abstract.

Intellectually, we are pre-stunted, glassed-in by the very epistemological assumptions of the era against which we rebel. We aren’t rebelling against social engineering, even though this kind of macro-management has proven our inability to macro-manage and control the plethora of inevitable and unpredictable ramifications.

We are against their social engineers . . . our social engineers are the correct social engineers.

Pre-stunted, and pre-tribalized. Abstracted to a point that we treat our own abstractions as if they have flesh and bones. The elephant in the room at “street action” (that sounds so macho and adventurous!) is that any actual conversation lasting more than five minutes between the various narrow movements represented will devolve into a knock-down, drag-out shouting contest between variant and thoroughly incompatible intellectual and moral premises.

We are all Cartesians. We are all Hegelians. We separate theory from practice to subordinate practice to theory; and we all believe in a phantom called “the future.” Even the Marxists, who lay claim to the hirsute one’s causal reversal of Hegel’s idealism, themselves prioritize ideas over practices because they have no actual practice of their own, unless the “practice” is endless debate.

The exceptions are where people have, as Wendell Berry suggested, “put land under their feet, that they use,” and dug in. Dakota Access Pipeline. Black Lives Matter. Flint. If activism is to live it has to live on the ground, in the neighborhood. Because people aren’t paying out the nose to sustain short-term symbolic actions, but defending what they already have. They stay. They survive. And they learn how to adapt using their home-court advantages. They fight to be left alone by the settlers. They fight to restrain killer police. They fight for safe water for themselves and their children.

Practices have their own internal, mutually reinforcing logics and tools, whether that practice is woodcarving or washing clothes or playing tennis. Practices correct wrong ideas and aim at less-wrong ideas because practices test ideas. I fish. If my selection of bait, location, and presentation are right, I put fish in the boat. If they are wrong, I don’t. The debate is settled before it starts. The same cannot be true of disconnected people with disconnected ideas trying to determine the “correct” ideas through debate sans some practice.

The last thing I’ll say about this topic is about fear and hope. Narrow-movement, fly-by-night activism is fundamentally based on fear. Fear is mobilized to instill a sense of emergency and symbolic solidarity — but it is the solidarity of bunnies huddled together in a hutch as the housecat circles. We are all afraid of the same thing; and this is “solidarity.” But when the source of that fear is altered or forgotten, that solidarity evaporates, because it was always a mist. Practices present us with a roadmap, and a roadmap aims at something, something hoped for, but with a clear practical path to achieve it. Practices inhere with hope, and hope is a virtue that requires practice in both senses of the term.

What would happen if “activists” suddenly decided to commit the lion’s share of their time, effort, and resources to three simple practical goals?

Put land under your feet. Find somewhere, and begin by caring about the very soil upon which you stand. Begin there. Fall in love with that land under your feet, feed it, mend its wounds, and care for it.

Use that land. Any land. Urban or rural or in-between land. Use it with the aim of self-provisioning. Use it to incrementally shift yourself and others away from our dependency on the capitalist grid. Use it to learn how to use it.

Dig in — don’t move, never move, and allow the bonds of care and affection to develop with other people, and then you have the wherewithal and sustainable passion to defend what you have. These won’t be the bonds of ideological affinity, but the bonds of long familiarity and working together — even people with whom you may disagree about many ideas.

One of the reasons many of us feel powerless in the face of so many crises is that we’re cut off from the social cohesion that can only happen in small, intimate groups. Parachute-in “street activism” substitutes secondary (weak) bonds for primary (strong) ones. By strengthening primary bonds — by that I mean personal, lasting relations — we not only develop a greater capacity to take effective action on our own behalf; we also increase our capacity to creatively respond to the forces that seem so threatening as abstractions.

Does anyone know why my old alma mater, the US Army, organizes its fighting units into teams (four people), squads (nine people), platoons (40 people), and companies (around 150 people)? Because long experience of war has taught them that when one is in grave danger, one is not thinking about patriotism and other high-flown notions, but about caring for their friends. Soldiers are not taught to fight for their countries, or none of them would. Combat can be too terrifying for such vaporous drivel to penetrate that in-your-face awareness of death. Soldiers are taught to fight for one another.