the Disillusioned kid: ABCs of Activism
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Sunday, January 09, 2005

ABCs of Activism

I've written before that it is my opinion that a useful way of thinking about social change is to break down activity to acheive it into three parts: information, vision and action. Information refers to knowledge about what is wrong with the activity or system we are concerned with, vision to what we want instead and action to what we do to acheive that vision. Like the three factors of the fire triangle, all must be present or we end up with nothing but a damp squib. This blog has tended to focus very heavily on the information element, exposing the many things which are wrong with the way the world today is organised. While the issues I have focused on are no doubt worthy of the atttention I am very much in agreement with Marx here (if not elsewhere) that the task is not to understand the world, but to change it.

Which is a roundabout way of introducing today's topic for discussion: this article by Stan Goff, which I found via the Killing Train. The article sets out a strategic direction for the American left over the coming years. The article makes many interesting suggestions and is well worth reading. While it is very heavily focused on the American context it makes a number of points which generalise and could apply either directly or in a slightly altered form in the UK.

Central to the action plan Goff sets out is a massive increase in public education efforts in order to delegitimise the current system. Clearly this demonstrates a blurring of the information and action 'arms' of my 'fire triangle', revealing one of the major weaknesses of my 'fire triangle' idea, that the elements are not as separate as it suggests. Nonetheless, I think my conception still has value and helps to elucidate thinking. Returning to Goff's suggestion, there is no doubt that public education is vital, but questions arise as to how we go about doing it. Organising meetings is fairly easy (I've done it enough times) but getting new people to turn up, rather than simply the same old faces, is much more difficult.

Goff also sets out a list of issues he thinks should be priorities for education efforts, which, broadly speaking, I agree with: Anti-racism; anti-sexism; domestic violence; environment and energy crisi; gay marriage; guns; immigrant protection; labour - all labour; national self-determination; Palestinian self-determination; prison; and reproductive rights. I particularly appreciated his inclusion of domestic violence and reproductive rights which I think the left has a tendency to neglect and his thoughts on guns are interesting, although I'm not sure the logic would apply in the UK. I do have a few concerns, however. I would have been tempted to make global waming an issue on its own given its importance and think that, in the UK at least, the left must think long and hard about how it handles issues of immigration. Too often the way we have conducted ourselves in this area has served to alienate the "white working class". Additionally I am always dubious about the way the Palestinian struggle is raised above that of other oppressed nations, often without any reasons being given, but there is little doubt that it is one of the issues of our age and, therefore, something we cannot avoid taking a strong position on, although I'm far from sure I agree with Goff's analysis here.

Goff sees education as part of a three phase plan. Phase I is about delegitimising the prevailing institutions, hence the importance of pedagogy. Phase II would see the beginnings of a campaign of disobedience "that includes the old tactics of the Civil Rights era, but also non-violent hit-and-run tactics that reduce the probability of arrest and are not perceived as inimical to the public interest--like banner drops. Billboard 'corrections,' and other creative actions." Finally Phase III is disruption which includes "the kinds of actions that close things down businesses, governments, transportation." He argues that actions in this phase require at least 25% support amongst the wider population, but fails to explain where this apparently arbitrary figure comes from. I am not entirely sure about this system of phases. How are we to know when to move from one phase to the next? I think it is more useful to constantly seek to use a diversity of tactics, expanding these as and when we can.

Another element of Goff's plan, which I think applies particularly well to the UK is his argument for "a campaign to bring down the Democratic Party from the left." He opines, "The argument that we must build an alternative before we tear down the Democrat fortress is singularly unconvincing." In the context of the UK I believe the same applies to the Labour Party which some porgressive types still insist we must support for fear of the return of the Tories. I disagree and tend to see the Labour Party as a barrier to positive social change which we must sweep aside if we're serious about building a better world.

Goff also makes a number of further points, emphasising, for instance, the potential importance of military veterans in anti-imperialist efforts (Goff himself being a former special forces officer), which seems entirely accurate and while some of his vaguely Marxist turns are a little off-putting I think that article merits reading and careful thought. For too long those involved in activism, whether against the war or global warming or the capitalist system as a whole, have allowed themselves to become ritualistic and unthinking in their activity. If we are serious about changing the world, rather than simply feeling good about ourselves, we must think long and hard about what we do and whether it is really effective.

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