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An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 166-170.

Give up Activism: Postscript

Many of the articles printed in the Reflections on June 18th pamphlet repeated almost to the onset of tedium that capitalism is a social relation and isn't just to do with big banks, corporations or international financial institutions. It's an important point and worth making, but 'Give up Activism' had other fish to fry.

Therefore the conclusion reached by these other articles was the point of departure for this one - if it is true that capitalism is a social relation based in production and in the relations between classes then what implications does this have for our activity and for our method of attacking it? The basic kernel of the piece and the initial idea that inspired the writing of it is the 'Form and Content' section. It had occurred to many people that there was something a little odd about a 'day of action against capitalism'. The original inspiration behind the article was an attempt to pin down what it was that made the idea appear a little odd, incongruous, contradictory.

It seemed there was a similarity between the way we were carrying on acting like liberal activists campaigning against capitalism as if it was another single issue, another 'cause', and Vaneigem's critique of the leftist militant, whose politics consist of a set of duties carried out on behalf of an external 'cause'. It is true that the activist and the militant share this common factor, but it is about all they have in common. I made the mistake of carrying over all the other characteristics attributed by Vaneigem to 'the militant' and assigning them also to the activist, when they largely weren't appropriate. As a result, large sections of 'Give up Activism' come across as far too harsh and as an inaccurate representation of the direct action movement. The Situationists' characteristic bile was perhaps more appropriate when directed at leftist party hacks than as a description of the sort of politics involved around June 18th. The self-sacrifice, the martyrdom and guilt that Vaneigem identified as central to the politics of 'the militant' is much less a feature of direct action politics, which to the contrary is more usually criticised for the opposite failing of lifestylism.

As has been very neatly drawn out by an excellent critique in the American publication The Bad Days Will End!,[1] the original idea that motivated the writing of the article and this rehashing of Vaneigem, translating the critique of the leftist 'militant' into that of the liberal 'activist', are incongruously roped together to produce an article which is an unwieldy amalgam of the objective (What social situation are we in? What forms of action are appropriate?) and the subjective (Why do we feel like activists? Why do we have this mentality? Can we change the way we feel about ourselves?). It is not so much that the subjective aspect of activism is emphasised over the objective, but rather more that the very real problems that are identified with acting as activists come to be seen to be mere products of having this 'activist mentality'. 'Give up Activism' can then be read such that it seems to reverse cause and effect and to imply that if we simply 'give up' this mental role then the objective conditions will change too:

"[Give up Activism's] greatest weakness is this one-sided emphasis on the 'subjective' side of the social phenomenon of activism. The emphasis points to an obvious conclusion implicit throughout [the] argument: If activism is a mental attitude or 'role', it may be changed, as one changes one's mind, or thrown off, like a mask or a costume... The implication is clear: cease to cling, let go of the role, 'give up activism', and a significant impediment to the desired change will be removed."[2]

The article was of course never proposing that we could simply think ourselves out of the problem. It was intended merely to suggest that we might be able to remove an impediment and an illusion about our situation as one step towards challenging that situation, and from that point that we might start to discover a more effective and more appropriate way of acting.

It is now clear that the slipshod hitching of Vaneigem to a enquiry into what it was that was incongruous and odd in having a one-day action against capitalism was an error, prompted by an over-hasty appropriation of Situationist ideas, without considering how much of a connection there really was between them and the original idea behind the piece. The theory of roles is perhaps the weakest part of Vaneigem's ideas and in his 'Critique of the Situationist International', Gilles Dauvé even goes so far as to say: "Vaneigem was the weakest side of the SI, the one which reveals all its weaknesses".[3] This is probably a little harsh. But nevertheless, the sort of degeneration that Situationist ideas underwent after the post-1968 disintegration of the SI took the worst elements of Vaneigem's "radical subjectivity" as their starting point, in the poorest examples effectively degenerating into bourgeois individualism.[4] That it is this element of Situationist thought that has proven the most easily recuperable should give us pause for thought before too-readily taking it on board.

Revolution in Your Head

This over-emphasis in 'Give up Activism' on the theory of roles and on the subjective side of things has led some people to fail to recognise the original impetus behind the piece. This starting point and presupposition was perhaps not made clear enough, because some people seem to have assumed that the purpose of the article was to make some kind of point concerning individual psychological health. 'Give up Activism' was not intended to be an article about or an exercise in radical therapy. The main intention of the article, however inexpertly executed, was always to think about our collective activity - what we are doing and how we might do it better.

However, there was a point to the 'subjectivism' of the main part of the article. The reason why 'Give up Activism' was so concerned with our ideas and our mental image of ourselves is not because I thought that if we change our ideas then everything will be alright, but because I had nothing to say about our activity. This was very clearly a critique written from the inside and thus also a self-critique and I am still very much involved in 'activist' politics. As I made plain, I have not necessarily got any clearer idea than anyone else of how to go about developing new forms of action more appropriate to an 'anti-capitalist' perspective. June 18th was a valiant attempt to do just this, and 'Give up Activism' was not a criticism of the action on June 18th as such. I certainly couldn't have come up with anything much better myself.

Although the piece is called 'Give up Activism', I did not want to suggest at all that people stop trashing GM crops, smashing up the City and disrupting the gatherings of the rich and powerful, or any of the other myriad acts of resistance that 'activists' engage in. It was more the way we do these things and what we think we are doing when we do them that I was seeking to question. Because 'Give up Activism' had little or nothing to recommend in terms of objective practical activity, the emphasis on the subjective made it seem like I thought these problems existed only in our heads.

Of course, thinking of ourselves as activists and as belonging to a community of activists is no more than a recognition of the truth, and there is nothing pathological in that. The problem I was trying to make clear was the identification with the activist role - being happy as a radical minority. I intended to question the role, to make people dissatisfied with the role, even while they remained within it. It is only in this way that we stand a chance of escaping it.

Obviously we are constrained within our specific circumstances. During an ebb in the class struggle, revolutionaries are in even more of a minority than they are in any case. We probably don't have any choice about appearing as a strange subculture. But we do have a choice about our attitude to this situation, and if we come to ditch the mental identification with the role then we may discover that there is actually some room for manoeuvre within our activist role so that we can try and break from activist practice as far as we are able. The point is that challenging the 'subjective' element - our activist self-image - will at least be a step towards moving beyond the role in its 'objective' element also. As I said in 'Give up Activism', only with a general escalation of the class struggle will activists be able to completely ditch their role, but in the meantime: "to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible - to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints." Which was precisely the point of the article.

For if we cannot even think beyond the role now, then what hope have we of ever escaping it? We should at the very least be dissatisfied with our position as a radical minority and be trying to generalise the struggle and make the necessary upturn happen. Doing away with the activist mentality is necessary but not sufficient for doing away with the role in practice.

Up the Workers!

Although 'Give up Activism' neglected to recommend any actual change in behaviour outside of saying that we needed one, perhaps now it would be appropriate to say something about this. How can we bring 'politics' out of its separate box, as an external cause to which we dedicate ourselves?

Many of the criticisms of the direct action movement revolve around similar points. Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our 'days of action' and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it. These points are repeated again and again in criticisms of the direct action movement (including 'Give up Activism' but also in many other places).

The problem is not necessarily that people don't understand that capital is a social relation and that it's to do with production as well as just banks and stock exchanges, here as well as in the Third World or that capital is a relation between classes. The point is that even when all of this is understood our attitude to this is still as outsiders looking in, deciding at what point to attack this system. Our struggle against capitalism is not based on our relation to value-creation, to work. On the whole the people who make up the direct action movement occupy marginal positions within society as the unemployed, as students or working in various temporary and transitory jobs. We do not really inhabit the world of production, but exist largely in the realm of consumption and circulation. What unity the direct action movement possesses does not come from all working in the same occupation or living in the same area. It is a unity based on intellectual commitment to a set of ideas.

To a certain extent 'Give up Activism' was being disingenuous (as were many of the other critiques making similar points) in providing all these hints but never spelling out exactly where they led, which left the door open for them to be misunderstood. The author of the critique in The Bad Days Will End! was right to point out what the article was indicating but shied away from actually mentioning: the basic thing that's wrong with activism is that it isn't collective mass struggle by the working class at the point of production, which is the way that revolutions are supposed to happen.

The sort of activity that meets the criteria of all the criticisms - that is based on immediate needs, in a mass on-going struggle, in direct connection to our everyday lives and that does not treat capital as something external to us, is this working class struggle. It seems a little unfair to criticise the direct action movement for not being something that it cannot be and has never claimed to be, but nevertheless, if we want to move forward we've got to know what we're lacking.

The reason that this sort of working class struggle is the obvious answer to what we are lacking is that this is THE model of revolution that the last hundred years or so has handed down to us that we have to draw upon. However, the shadow of the failure of the workers' movement still hangs over us. And if this is not the model of how a revolution might happen, then what is? And no one has any very convincing answers to that question.

A Vociferous Minority

So we are stuck with the question - what do we do as a radical minority that wants to create revolution in non-revolutionary times? The way I see it at the moment, we basically have two options. The first is to recognise that as a small scene of radicals we can have relatively little influence on the overall picture and that if and when an upsurge in the class struggle occurs it probably won't have much to do with us. Therefore until the mythical day arrives the best thing we can do is to continue to take radical action, to pursue politics that push things in the right direction and to try and drag along as many other people as possible, but basically to resign ourselves to that fact that we are going to continue to be a minority. So until the point when some sort of upturn in the class struggle occurs it's basically a holding operation. We can try and stop things getting worse, have a finger in the dam, try and strategically target weak points in the system where we think we can hit and have some effect, develop our theory, live our lives in as radical a way as possible, build a sustainable counter culture that can carry on doing these things in the long term... and hopefully when one day, events out of our control lead to a general radicalisation of society and an upturn in the class struggle we will be there ready to play some part and to contribute what things we have learnt and what skills we have developed as a radical subculture.

The flaw in this sort of approach is that it appears almost like another sort of 'automatic Marxism' - a term used to poke fun at those Marxists who thought that a revolution would happen when the contradictions between the forces and the relations of production had matured sufficiently, when the objective conditions were right, so that revolution almost seemed to be a process that happened without the need for any human involvement and you could just sit back and wait for it to happen. This sort of idea is a flaw carried over into ultra-left thinking. As is explained in The Bad Days Will End!, many ultra-left groups have recognised that in periods of downturn, they are necessarily going to be minorities and have argued against compensating for this with any kind of party-building or attempts to substitute their group for the struggle of the proletariat as a whole. Some ultra-left groups have taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion and have ended up turning doing nothing into a political principle. Of course our response would not be to do nothing, but nevertheless, the point remains that if everyone similarly just waited for an upsurge to happen then it certainly never would. Effectively by just waiting for it to happen we are assuming that someone else will do it for us and maintaining a division between us and the 'ordinary' workers who will make this happen.

The alternative to this scenario is to stop thinking of the ebb and flow of the class struggle as like some force of nature that just comes and goes without us being able to effect it at all, and to start thinking about how to build class power and how to end the current disorganised and atomised state of workers in this country. The problem is that over the last twenty or so years, the social landscape of the country has changed so fast and so rapidly that it has caught us on the hop. Restructuring and relocation have fractured and divided people. We could try and help re-compose a new unity, instead of just being content with doing our bit and waiting for the upturn, to try and make this upturn happen. We will probably still be acting as activists, but to a lesser extent, and at least we will be making it more possible for us to abolish activism altogether in the future.

One way of doing this is suggested in the critique in The Bad Days Will End!:

"Perhaps, then, the first steps towards a genuine anti-activism would be to turn towards these specific, everyday, ongoing struggles. How are the so-called 'ordinary' workers resisting capitalism at this time? What opportunities are already there in their ongoing struggles? What networks are already being built through their own efforts?"[5]

A current example of exactly this sort of thing is the investigation into call centres initiated by the German group Kolinko, which is mentioned in The Bad Days Will End! and was also contributed to in the recent Undercurrent No. 8.[6] The idea of this project is that call centres represent the 'new sweatshops' of the information economy and that if a new cycle of workers' resistance is to emerge anywhere then this might just be the place.

It is perhaps also worth considering that changing circumstances might work to our advantage - the restructuring of the welfare state is forcing more and more activists into work. For example the call centre enquiry project mentioned above could represent a good opportunity for us as call centres are exactly the sort of places where people forced off the dole end up working and exactly the sort of temporary and transient jobs in which those involved in the direct action movement end up working also. This certainly could help make the connection between capitalism and our own immediate needs, and perhaps might allow us to better participate in developing new fronts in the class struggle. Or the increased imposition of work could just end up with us even more fucked over than we are at present, which is obviously what the government are hoping. They are attempting to both have their cake and eat it - trying to turn the clock back and return to days of austerity and privation while gambling that the working class is so atomised and divided by twenty years of attacks that this will not provoke a return of the struggle that originally brought about the introduction of these amelioration measures in the first place. Only time will tell whether they are to be successful in their endeavour or whether we are to be successful in ours.

In conclusion, perhaps the best thing would be to try and adopt both of the above methods. We need to maintain our radicalism and commitment to direct action, not being afraid to take action as a minority. But equally, we can't just resign ourselves to remaining a small radical subculture and treading water while we wait for everyone else to make the revolutionary wave for us. We should also perhaps look at the potential for making our direct action complement whatever practical contribution to current workers' struggles we may feel able to make. In both the possible scenarios outlined above we continue to act more or less within the activist role. But hopefully in both of these different scenarios we would be able to reject the mental identification with the role of activism and actively try to go beyond our status as activists to whatever extent is possible..

Notes

1) 'The Necessity and Impossibility of Anti-Activism', The Bad Days Will End!, No. 3. p.4. I highly recommend this article, and the magazine contains some other good stuff too. Send $3 to: Merrymount Publications, PO Box 441597, Somerville, MA 02144, USA. Email: bronterre@earthlink.net Web: http://www.geocities.com/jkellstadt/

2) The Bad Days Will End!, p.5

3) Gilles Dauvé (Jean Barrot) - 'Critique of the Situationist International' in What is Situationism? - A Reader, Ed. Stewart Home (AK Press, 1996), p.35

4) See 'Whatever happened to the Situationists?', Aufheben No. 6, p.45

5) The Bad Days Will End!, p.6

6) The Kolinko proposal was recently published in Collective Action Notes No. 16-17 and is also available on the web at: http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/index_e.htm [ Updated 4 March 2002: http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/engl/e_koidx.htm ]


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