“A bunch of anarchists hold a two-hour meeting with ten people. They decide it’s counter-revolutionary to give people less than 15 minutes each to speak”
-- Joke from 1980’s peace movement
You can have too much of a good thing. Believe me! And this is confirmed by thousands of years of traditional and indigenous cultures. Like consumption. But I also like “justice”. The greatest spiritual error is to assume a finite entity is infinite. Only the infinite is infinite as such is indescribable. Yes, you can spend a lifetime tangling yourself around that paradox.
The upshot is that the essence of practical wisdom is to “know when to stop” and it is no surprise that young people (we were all young once) have a big problem working that one out. And this applies to politics as much as anything else.
This youthful “enthusiasm” since the Enlightenment has been aided by its religion of rationality – the prioritising of “logic” over intuition, sensibility and plain old “common sense”. This fetishisation of reductive reasoning underlies the destruction of the biosphere and the oppression of colonised people. Not entirely of course. Good old-fashioned greed – a constant of all cultures – certainly plays its part. But it does not help that western culture has this thing about following things through to absurdity because there is no “logical” point on where to stop.
I have been involved in radical politics for 40 years and, in my view, the single biggest reason for the failure of collective action has been its sabotage by the “logical” attacks from various forms of purity politics. For example the far Left/Maoism in the ’70s and early ’80s. Animal rights extremism in the ’80s and 90’s. The horizontality fetish post-1989. And the “justice/vulnerability” obsession of the 2010’s up to the present moment.
In retrospect, these attacks look extremely silly but at the time they are massively destructive because of the addictive attraction of their core proposition – that logic overrides everything else. But as history shows a million times – extreme rationality leads to extreme irrationality. And extreme moralising leads to extreme immorality – outright sadism.
Two moves are raging at present, engaging in the following logical progressions.
The first: Racism is bad – sure. Racism is not just rooted in institutional and economic relationships but in personal relations – well I guess so. So if you made a racist comment a while back then you are a racist – I guess, though that “feels” a bit much. And if you were friends with someone who made a racist comment a while back then you are a racist – well that’s going a bit far but hey, I have agreed with everything so far and although I “know” that’s just silly, I am bound to go along with it otherwise god forbid I am being “illogical” i.e. “racist”.
Purity has just created chaos as everyone is desperately accusing each other of being racist. In the meantime the real racists – i.e. the corporate elite grab the cash.
Then there is the duty of care fetish. It’s bad that people are oppressed – sure. So it’s bad that these people have more bad things happen to them – well yeah. So nothing bad can happen to them – I guess so. So they should not be involved in any activism that could hurt them – er I sort of don’t agree but I’m caught in the logic.
Purity again creates chaos as everyone accuses each other of hurting those who have already been hurt. Civil disobedience projects collapse in a heap and yep, the corporate elite grabs even more cash.
The age-old “No enemies to the Left” slogan becomes the greatest aid to the Right.
This difference this time round of course is that the (real) bad guys don’t just run off with all the cash but get to kill humanity forever via ecological collapse. Purity politics then objectively becomes the single biggest aid to the greatest evil. And no this is not logic – it’s physics – the meteorite is real and it will kill everyone. That’s just the way it is.
How to deal with this? Well, that’s a subject of another post but let’s finish with, in my view, the greatest response to an interviewer’s question over the past century. A black girl involved in the children’s march of 1963 is asked why she is involved in civil resistance – going out each day onto the streets and risking injury and jail. “Aren’t you going to get hurt?”, the interviewer asks. She looks at the camera and says: “We’re gonna get hurt anyway”.
My advice to today’s young people is to make the same reply. And then do the most moral thing – focus on the job of building a mass movement of civil resistance and don’t sweat about all the messy compromises that involve.
To contact civil resistance groups around the world: firstname.lastname@example.org