Pitfalls for Activists

August 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm (Uncategorized)

A friend wrote this insightful commentary on Occupy Wall Street


It’s not easy, in between periods of upsurge, when there is not much open struggle going on, to keep a group of activists, inspired by the earlier struggle, together; to agree on a common mission and strategy. I believe there are several pitfalls to avoid.


My anti-virus program spotted the following:

ACTIVITIS: The tendency to focus exclusively on actions, on doing things, impatience with talking, even when clarity is sorely lacking. One of the possible outcomes of this tendency may be charity-work. Not to deny its value, but that’s not the function of a political group or movement.

SUBSTITUTIONITIS: The tendency of a political minority to do what really can be done only by the people (or the 99%, even though the percentage is exaggerated, or more precisely, the working (and unemployed) population). To take decisions in its place, to undertake actions in its place, to take power in its place. Revolution can only mean something when it engenders a real democracy, based on the involvement of all, to take over society. Short of that, if a third party or a more left-wing Democratic party takes power in the name of the people, nothing changes. The sheep remain sheep and the wolves remain wolves, promising to be less corrupt than their predecessors. When there is no mass action, the tendency to substitute one’s own actions for the lacking collective struggle is fed by the hope that one’s example will spur others into action. But that’s not how it works. We cannot voluntaristically force events.

IMMEDIATITIS: The understandable desire to see immediate results of our efforts. That may lead to a focus on where immediate change is possible, on small changes (like replacing one politician by another) that have no impact on the big picture. I think Occupy was/is really about the big picture, the larger threath to our future.

These three pitfalls easily combine. They may result in either burn-out or recuperation. Burn-out because after months of efforts in scores of actions with little result to show for, some get exhausted and discouraged and give up. Recuperation because if you want results in the short term, and you want to settle for small, symbolic gains, the existing political system is the way to go. When Occupy is absorbed by the system, working for election and trade-union campaigns, the recuperation will be accomplished. So this is connected to another pitfall:

INCREMENTALITIS. The belief that real change is impossible, that the best that can be hoped for are incremental little reforms that go in the right direction. I think this underestimates the potential acceleration of history. The change of the overall context –the deepening crisis of the socio-economic foundations of society and the obstacles it throws up for human survival- can have a profound effect on the collective mindset and open the possibility of real change. Working for incremental change sucks you right back in the system which will change you, not the other way around. It is based on the belief that our problems are caused by bad leaders, so that they will disappear when we get good leaders instead. This underestimates the internal logic of the system, to which all its participants are forced to obey.

ACADEMICISM: discussing for the sake of discussing, with no desire to outreach to other people. The opposite of that is anti-politics, the disdain for discussion as empty talk, a waste of time. See Activitis.

INDIVIDUALISM: not feeling any responsibility for the collective. Hopping off and on the fence, withdrawing without any explanation like John D did, or being too focused on one’s own specific issues . Of course in this society, nobody can really be immune to that virus; we can only try to be aware of it.

TEACHISM: to see ourselves as teachers, owners of the Truth, who need to educate the people. This is not entirely wrong, as we do have insights that we need to communicate. But, first of all, we need to be more humble: there’s a lot we need to learn ourselves. We need to listen as well as speak. Secondly, what we’re really after, is a different relation between people. There’s a split that runs throughout society that’s based on a division of labor: bosses and workers, politicians and voters, those who make the rules and give orders and those who follow them, those who get richer and those who become poorer, pastors and flocks, union-bureaucrats and rank&filers, jailers and prisoners, teachers and pupils and so on and so on: this relation, based on power and submission, reproduces itself in countless ways, including in sexual and racial discrimination, and cements the status-quo. Occupy movement arose in opposition to this relation and proposed, in its way, an alternative to it, the hope for real change of the content(‘people’s needs in stead of profit’) and the form (direct democracy) of society. So we should not see ourselves as teachers adressing schoolchildren but instead favor collective discussion where it is possible.

COMMISIONITIS: the tendency to keep a movement alive by creating a multitude of working groups and commissions. Here too, burn-out and recuperation are major risks.

FETISHISM: fetishism means attributing (magical) powers to things that in reality don’t have them. People do it all the time, it’s deeply engrained. Examples, in the context of our movement, are:
– a fetishisation of democracy: thinking that direct democracy is some kind of miracle cure that will put everything right; thinking that it’s all about the process (the form) which will make the right content follow automatically;
– a fetishisation of the party: the belief that a political party, under the right leadership, will have the magical power to force change. The consequence is that all efforts go to organisation-building which is then done for its own sake;
-a fetishisation of violence: for instance the belief of black bloc-people that vandalism is a magically powerful message that will raise people’s consciousness;
– a fetishisation of non-violence: thinking that refusing to use violence in all circumstances, even for self-defense, will somehow, magically, convince our opponents to disarm.

I may forget some. But I want to end with a positive statement. What can a movement, or rather, a circle of activists remaining from the last movement and longing for the next one, accomplish? The Occupy movement was the result of the ruling class (not just in the US but worldwide) pushing us down, empoverishing us to keep capital profitable. Occupy was pushing back, that was what was seen elsewhere, that’s why it became so popular. Now things are relatively calm. In part because of the election season. Now is not the time to launch another harsh attack on the common people in this country. But I bet you the next president will do so, whoever wins. The pressure will again increase, and with it, a heady mix of anger and fear and hope…who knows what it will produce? I think it will again create a massive desire to push back. Maybe that movement will go further than OWS. We can’t know. But I think that we should use this lull to prepare ourselves, so that we can make a meaningful contribution to that next wave. In that wave, the same questions will arise as did in OWS. How did we get in this mess? How can it be fixed? What’s the alternative? What unites us is the desire for a society based on people’s needs and on real democracy, not the sham that we live in today. Now we have to say what that means.



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