Action Will Be Taken
Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents
Featherstone, Liza; Henwood, Doug; Parenti, Christian
Date Written: 2004-11-11
Year Published: 2004
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX11804
Marxism's decline isn't just an intellectual concern -- it too has practical effects. If you lack any serious understanding of how capitalism works, then it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that moral appeals to the consciences of CEOs and finance ministers will have some effect. You might think that central banks' habit of provoking recessions when the unemployment rate gets too low is a policy based on a mere misunderstanding. You might think that structural adjustment and imperial war are just bad lifestyle choices.
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)? Socialist? Mostly not - too state-phobic. Some actvisits are anarchists - but mainly out of temperamental reflex, not rigorous thought. Others are liberals - though most are too confrontational and too skeptical about the system to embrace that label. And many others profess no ideology at all. So over all 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 Activismists.
That's right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.
Though embraced by people who imagine themselves to be radical agitators, that thoughtless compulsion mirrors the pragmatic empiricism of the dominant culture
Marxism's decline (but not death: the three of us would happily claim the name) has led to wooly ideas about a nicer capitalism, and an indifference to how the system works as a whole. This blinkering is especially virulent in the U.S. where a petit-bourgeois populism is the native radical strain, and anti-intellectualism is almost hard-wired into the culture. And because activistism emphasizes practicality, achievability, and implementation over all else, a theory dedicated to understanding deep structures with an eye towards changing them necessarily gets shunted aside.
Marxism's decline isn't just an intellectual concern - it too has practical effects. If you lack any serious understanding of how capitalism works, then it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that moral appeals to the consciences of CEOs and finance ministers will have some effect. You might think that central banks' habit of provoking recessions when the unemployment rate gets too low is a policy based on a mere misunderstanding. You might think that structural adjustment and imperial war are just bad lifestyle choices.
Nonprofit culture fosters an array of mind-killing practices. Brainstorming on butcher paper and the use of break out groups are effective methods for generating and collecting ideas and or organizing pieces of a larger action. However when used to organize political discussions these nonprofit tools can be disastrous. More often than not, everybody says some thing, break out groups report back to the whole group, lists are complied - and nothing really happens.
What is to be done?
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. This implies a more democratic approach to the life of the mind and creating spaces for ideas in our lives and political work.