Kermit Snelson on Tue, 23 Jul 2002 15:12:31 +0200 (CEST)

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RE: <nettime> how to defeat activism

It isn't news that protest movements are being simultaneously intimidated
by violence, bribed into submission with money or perquisites, slandered
in the media and infiltrated by police and intelligence agencies.  It was
ever thus, and so will it ever be.  My favorite thought concerning this
problem was Lenin's.  He was once asked in the early days what he did when
the Czar's secret police managed to infiltrate his organizations.  He
replied, "We put them to work."  Not yet in command of Siberia's prison
camps, "work" to Lenin then meant passing out leaflets in the street.

Are successful activists themselves innocent of sharp-elbowed political
tactics?  Of course not, nor should they be.  Violence?  Seattle is famous
precisely because the military tactics of the demonstrators defeated those
of the police (and also of rival demonstrators.)  Bribing with money and
perquisites?  Look how far Bono gets with the Washington and Davos crowds
simply by flattering those congenitally hankering geeks with his star
presence and glamour.  Slandering opponents in the media?  That's the
raison d'Ítre of most activist groups these days.  Infiltrating opposing
groups? If activists aren't doing much of this, they damn well should be.

Political struggle is political struggle regardless of which side you're
on. The winners tend to be those who grasp the facts quickly, persuade
successfully and organize appropriately.  On the other hand, there are
those who let themselves be convinced by thick, incoherent "movement"
bestsellers that facts are not something to be grasped, but invented; that
the purpose of political writing is not to persuade, but to mystify; that
disorganization and mob rule are not political weaknesses, but strengths;
and that name-calling, body piercing and rioting comprise "cultural labor"
and effective political resistance.  Are we suddenly so eager to find
examples of how corporate interests are turning activism into slacktivism?
Why look further than the Harvard University Press?  Or Duke University's
Joe Camel Center for Marxist Studies?

But my aim here isn't to load the thread with illustrations of how "they",
even the best-selling "Marxist" superstars in tobacco-funded US
universities, are undermining "our" movements.  That's not to say they
wouldn't be correct.  It is indeed an example of the success of their
tactics, and the ludicrous failure of ours, that the world's protest
movement now amounts to not much more than yet another Americanized,
Starbucks-style, middle-class lifestyle choice based on the consumption of
aggressively marketed fad products.  But I think it would be only an
exercise in resentment to complain about the tactics directed against our
clueless selves in a class struggle which is, after all, not only a fact
of life but even a sign of health.  And to speak of its potential news
value, such a complaint could just as easily have appeared in 1886.

What I'm arguing, instead, is that changing the world means embracing the
Great Game and playing to win.  This means not only that you must enter
the same brotherhood as your opponents, but even that such a brotherhood
of opponents is perhaps the only true one.  "Napoleon died on St. Helena.
Wellington was saddened."  It is indeed impossible to resist without being
attacked, and (worse, in the eyes of some) without becoming part of the
game itself.  Anybody who has ever made it onto the world's stage, whether
the name was George Bush or Martin Luther King, has known that.  But what
is so horrifying about this?  And what on Earth is so appealing about
"negative critique" ideologies that glorify permanent marginalization,
permanent poverty, permanent failure?  That refuse to advance any positive
recommendation for fear that one may actually succeed through
"co-optation"? That view even being called to the negotiating table by
one's opponent as a destructive act of hostility that must be refused?  
That in fact glorify "The Great Refusal" as an end in itself?

History has occasionally given us saints, but their probability is so
vanishingly small that only a few generations can boast of one.  So
barring that, the only real alternative to struggle, negotiation and
compromise with the real world is a retreat into suicidal insanity and
destruction.  Having read both Hamlet and Thucydides, the only reason I
claim news value for this observation is that we recently seem to have
entered a period in which such an ethos of negation and inward-looking
despair, previously only a sad but private personal neurosis, is again a
dangerous world-historical force. Even when disguised as religious fervor
(bin Laden) or as a pseudo-revolutionary mania of desire (Negri), this
utterly sick but growing resentment and refusal of rough-and-tumble
reality is something activists should fight, not embrace.

Kermit Snelson

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