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Thinking Before Doing: In Defense of the Armchair Activist

Thinking Before Doing: In Defense of the Armchair Activist
Thu, 11/15/2012 - by Frank Smecker

Now that the presidential election is a thing of the recent past, we find ourselves in the wake of an American political hangover, with many now asking a critical question: “In a post-Occupy environment, what are we going to do, and with what means, intentions and strategies?”

Every successful political project begins with questions. So we are off to a great start. So what's next?

It is true that Occupy Wall Street is not something you support; rather, it’s something you do. But we are missing a crucial element to this dialectic, which is the obligatory framework that sustains the opposition between supporting something and doing something. In other words, we are missing the ideas that precipitate political actions. And it shouldn’t go without saying that today’s “pragmatic activism,” an ideology often championed by many activists, tends to overlook the theoretical value of ideas in general.

We are all very familiar with the commonplace epithet “armchair activist”: one who gets lost in theory, and thus never arrives at that determinate moment when action is required. The injunction often addressed to this specimen of activist is: “Don’t think, just act!” Hence today’s slogan of “pragmatic activism.” And this is dangerous, I believe.

Before we make any concerted effort to act, we should situate ourselves in this proverbial armchair, for the very sake of putting under analysis the ideas that prompt us to political action. Here, it is crucial that one not overlook the importance of the fundamental principle associated with the fable, "The Belling of the Cat": that an idea always, by necessity, divides into two, which is a message not dissimilar from the Leninist/Maoist claim that if one has an idea, split it in two and contemplate its opposite, for the idea contains within it its opposite.

The underlying notion is that an idea is always already internally fractured; fractured between the ideal, desired outcome upon which the idea itself is formulated, and the real action needed to attain the ideal outcome. These two facets of an idea, in point of fact, never quite meet up with each other. And it is only through analyzing, theorizing, speculating over our influential ideas as such, that we can arrive at a real alternative to the world of capital in which we presently reside.

The difficult work is therefore not to be labored through direct action, but through collectively thinking about the very ends we want to place our actions in accord with. Acting directly will follow. Without much difficulty.

One of the easiest things that one can do these days - and philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed this out on many occasion - is to look at an old philosophy from the vantage point of our time, and answer the questions this perspective presents to us. For example, “How does Hegel’s philosophy hold up to today’s dominant culture and its ruling ideology?” The difficult thing to do, however, is to answer this question in its inverse: “How does today’s dominant culture and its ruling ideology appear from the vantage point of Hegel’s philosophy?”

And the most difficult thing to do is make sense and meaning out of the volatile effect that occurs when you let these two questions come into contact with each other. It’s like a short circuit; sparks fly. And here we arrive at the proper starting point of analysis. So let’s try an exercise.

For illustrative purposes I’d like to stick with the topic of Hegel’s work, specifically his notion of “tarrying the negative.” When Hegel refers to “tarrying the negative,” what he is essentially getting at is precisely the theoretical work we should be employing in today’s world of political activism. This is the only way, I believe, that we can determine what is and what isn’t a possible, viable alternative to today’s capitalist world.

And so what does it even mean to “tarry the negative?” It means that, in order to arrive at the truth of something, it's best to begin with the “wrong choice.” By choosing the negative option - that is, by choosing the worst option possible - this “wrong” option (if it truly is the wrong option) will ultimately fail and thereby undermine its entire capacity for being an alternative, thus allowing us to overcome its terms and create something new to assume its place.

On the other hand, if we were to go with what we intuitively feel to be the “right” option, in theory, nothing new would emerge, for we are merely sustaining the same old thing—that established order which influences our “intuitive” choices.

Does this not speak directly to the recent presidential election? Obama was the majority’s first choice; what was, for most, the intuitively “correct” choice. And everything remains virtually the same, aside from the conservative estimate of $2 billion spent on two campaigns: the House is still controlled by Republicans, the Senate is still run by Democrats, the administration is essentially the same, save for the potential rearrangement of knicknacks in the cabinet. And capitalism will certainly continue to determine our political economy, though now under the threat of super-egoistic austerity measures.

But let’s play with imagination for a moment. Maybe the most radical thing we could have done on November 6 was to go with the wrong choice: elect Romney. Not that I supported him, but it’s essential that we at least play with dangerous ideas. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

And so maybe it’s time that we, the 99%, employ the very thing that Wall Street has used to create the economic upheaval we find ourselves now dealing with: speculation. As Wagner put it, “The wound can be healed only by the spear that smote it.”

So let’s speculate for a moment about what Romney-as-president would look like. It’s at least possible that this alternate reality would have sped up a destabilization that would have inevitably led to a sort of political “zero-point,” a situation which would have potentially “electrified” the popular majority of the country into actually being politically motivated beyond the parameters of election time. I mean, if Roe v. Wade were to be obliterated, if Romney’s and Ryan’s fiscal policy were to be enacted, if same-sex marriage were to be a federally denied right, if America’s roguish geopolitical behavior were to be put on steroids: many in their right mind would not stand for this, mainly due to the atrocious and detrimental repercussions it would engender.

The idea of full-throttling into a GOPish Ayn-Randian crusade for pure capitalism, hell-bent on both “venture” and “risk,” as Thomas Frank wrote in Harper’s, would not catapult us back into some laissez-faire-era-type shit, but rather into an unknown future that has no historical coordinate whatsoever to measure itself by; an era in which federal services would be outsourced, social insurance programs gutted, and oversight agencies “sabotaged.”

It’s a nightmare that, sure, has the appeal of an Applebee’s ad for most of the rightwing. But now that it’s post-election, we know that that isn’t a popular vision for this country. And so Romney as president would have perhaps been the best option in terms of stimulating more than half the country out of sleep, and into a dimension in which a real alternative to today’s corporate-capitalist condition could have been fought for.

And yet Romney-as-president could entail a different problem all together: as a friend of mine put it, the problem would potentially lie with "the shortness of people’s attention spans and their relentless self-interest. A disastrous, destructive Romney presidency would probably stimulate people’s interest in moving in the right direction…for about a minute," my friend continued, "until the immediacy of how horrible Romney fucked things up faded, until the media muddied the narrative about why things are so fucked up (Was it even Romney? Was it progressives in the Senate? Obama’s legacy? God?), until their taxes or their biases became more important to them again."

And he makes a good point. From this angle the problem of popular complacency, and/or libertarian populism, in a time of severe social problems is a real problem; not necessarily the problem of an administration per se, but a truly political problem.

Of course a President Romney would have been nuts. But it is playing with ideas as dangerous as this, not necessarily acting on them, but really splitting them in two and examining them from the armchair position, that is the initial work we should begin doing in this post-election period - before we act.

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