Orthodoxy of Radicalism

Orthodoxy of Radicalism

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April 25, 2012

A while back, I recounted how my political science curricular proposal, Communication for Change, had been hijacked by a washed up professor trying to hold on to his prestigious teaching position, but plagiarism is the least of the damage he apparently wrought. I subsequently encountered some of the graduates of the Activism and Social Change program he stole, and was sadly disappointed at the orthodoxy of radicalism associated with what I call the moral theatrics industry they were involved in.

At the heart of the problem, I am convinced, is activism as a career, as opposed to activism as a civic or moral duty. Those who view civic involvement as a way to make a living will naturally adopt doctrinaire tactics oriented toward philanthropic marketing, rather than painfully examine strategies for achieving a public benefit. Unfortunately, for those absorbed in pious posturing, this distinction is largely lost in the rhetoric.

One of the habitual tactics of this corporate-sponsored activism is the perpetual building of paper coalitions –- frequently described as supporters, allies, or affinity groups -– supposedly to convey a working combination that wields political clout. Usually unexamined or fictitious, these combinations mostly signify delusions of grandeur, and are illustrative of a fairly common desire to appropriate a sense of cohesion that doesn’t exist—often expressed as solidarity within a vaguely defined movement. Mostly, it serves as a fetish or pointless distraction.

Coalitions, like other tools of community organizing, should be used when they help make you more effective. Same with non-profit corporate status, litigation, or lobbying. When they simply drain limited energies and other resources, they should be avoided.

Having managed litigation for a coalition of non-profits for five years, I know from experience how much energy goes into keeping a real coalition together. Better for each organization to work individually than to add to already demanding administrative tasks. Of course, if they’re just paper allies, the whole exercise is just another fruitless distraction—something career activists seemingly spend a lot of time on.

Careerism is certainly a draw to political activists, but an even greater appeal, I think, is the prestigious identity associated with activism. What I find fascinating about this (and it very much applies to my alma mater and the plethora of Bay Area producers of moral theatrics) is that they simultaneously conform to the capitalist framework of social discontent-–a very predictable, very controllable, very ineffective commodity.

It takes a long time for people to unlearn useless information and ineffective practices, especially when they learned them as part of an alternative education they believed to be avant-garde learning for social change. In the meantime, they mostly get in the way.

Careerism is likewise a draw to political non-profits. Radical NGOs, as opposed to conventional non-profit social workers, even identify spiritually with the image of organic anti-authoritarianism exemplified by autochthonous autonomies like the Zapatistas. What I find fascinating about this is that they actually believe they inhabit the symbiotic universe of the indigenous movement.

Our TV-programmed nation, or, as Guy DeBord described it in his quintessential book, The Society of the Spectacle , is now poised to consume the massive self-destructing apocalypse presidency while simultaneously witnessing his deathwish psychodrama enacted in the armageddon of American empire.

Whether or not this choreographed insanity is allowed to run its course unhindered by either law or morality, the fact that media-brain-damaged Americans are incapable of withdrawing themselves from the spectacle’s spell, is cause for considerable worry. For those who value life, it’s the challenge of a lifetime.

Allowing oneself to be herded from panicked horror to panicked horror does nothing to end the cycle of destruction; for that one needs to keep one’s cool, and to devise means of disrupting the seamless spectacle that shadows us through our daily lives. Only then, can the awakening begin.

As I noted previously, the two things needed to develop a pro-democracy movement in the US are literacy and logic. Political illiteracy and cognitive illogic lead people to participate in dysfunctional systems with delusional expectations; frustration then contributes to cynicism, and can lead to panic and despair.

Literacy and logic in politics is built on research and analysis, which can then be used in education and organizing, that in turn can lead to community action. Failed tactics are often the result of defective strategies, founded on faulty analysis or lacking research.

Engagement in activities that make people feel good because the activities allow them to express their emotions while communing with like-minded others is OK, but it is not the same as engaging in effective actions based on a strategy for diffusing concentrated power. Strategy is determined by an estimate of the situation, which is in turn determined by analysis of information produced through research, and strategic research is not something obtained from secondary sources like media stories or advocacy propaganda.

A pro-democracy strategy would produce a very different guiding narrative than a moral theatrics strategy; it would also produce different results.

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