The Trouble with Movements
by Antonio Dias
The student protests in Britain have captured our imaginations. It’s been a long time since a movement of social protest has occurred in the West. Many of us hunger for the imagery and the projected trajectory such events seem to prophecy.
As soon as the conversation moves beyond the righteousness of the calls to reject injustice however, the talk quickly moves to finding ways to take advantage. Either to “leverage” the power of the few, or to “market” the “message” so as to bring more people “on board.” As soon as this happens we leave the realm of talking truth to power and enter fully into scrapping after our share of power by whatever means necessary. That this is something we decry as an injustice when others do it seems to fade into the background, we, or “our guy,” would handle that power wisely and not fall into the traps….
I’ve said that ideology is dead. There is something fundamentally wrong with cooking up an idea, then finding ways to gain physical momentum behind “The Plan” it has inspired so as to bring as many people as possible under its dominion. What’s wrong with this goes beyond any special pleading for exemptions. The world – not a geopolitical/financial/economic construct that likes to call itself “the World,” and labels its ways as “worldly;” but the world as the sphere on which we engage with whatever reality might be, as we live out our roles in a dance of existence, observation, and interaction. This world does not behave in any way that is met with any efficacy by notions that can be encompassed within ideology. It doesn’t work. Its supposed “ends” are never reached – probably because a search for “ends” to be achieved by “means” is a reductio ad absurdum whose consequences we are beginning to feel.
This critique of ideology attempts to remain outside ideology. I’m not sure how successfully, but the attempt stands on my unwillingness to allow it to become ossified and to have the thought behind it become a recipe for a plan. Ideology does not “own” thought. It owns the reduction of the world to quanta that can then in its hubris be dominated by holding minds enthralled to its “principles.” Thought exists outside ideology. Its commodification does not.
But, but…! We feel the tug of optimism and the yearning to use force to bend the world to our will! We find ways to convince ourselves that this wished for bargain is more important than life itself! Whether our enemy’s, our own, or even all life. This is the siren call of ideology. This has been the tool for every megalomaniac since the start of the Age of Ideology as well as in the time of its precursor, the Age of Faith. They have both warred against the world and against each other. They have found willing adherents whenever and wherever the urge to dominate has taken hold. They each insist on their claim to power and see life as a contest over dominion. The one advantage we have today that no one ever had before, a shoal hope indeed, is that we are on the verge of the melt-down of all these gambits. Their bankruptcy threatens to bankrupt everything that makes our world what it has been for so long and what makes it distinct from other rocky orbs spinning through space devoid of life. The possibility this gives us, unique to our time and circumstances, is potent precisely for the pause it should trigger in us to make us reluctant to fall for old tricks, one more time.
To those who argue that there have been countless moments of decision before and that it is naive to consider our position in any way more valid in its concerns for the continuation of life, they can’t have it both ways. While using the argument against the human perspective’s inclination to see our own singular death as the end of everything, they continue to use an argument that boils down to a greedy narrow exceptionalism as justification for risking it all. The difference in degree between the Collapse of Empire when that empire was regional and its destructive powers, while consequential did not hold nuclear and climatic weapons in its arsenal; and our situation today when there is a race to see which single or synchronistically augmented cocktail of factors will bring into legitimate question earth’s capacity to sustain any complex life beyond the time of our passing. This moment might be measured in decades or even centuries, but it is our moment, the defining character of our time. It is our burden, but also our sole opportunity to break out of cycles of complacency and habit that have never challenged us all in such horrific ways over a span of time that can be fit into a single life-span’s awareness spread across the globe to filter into the awareness of most if not all who are alive today.
Afghan villagers paying the price for our War on Terror may not have ever heard of the World Trade Center, or even of their purported mastermind, the mythic Bin Laden; but they are aware that their world is afflicted by powers that can reach beyond the horizon and rain down death from a clear sky. Pacific islanders, the ones on the less photogenic islands not swarming with our vacationists, may not have cell-phones or toothbrushes, but they see their coral reefs dying and the sea converted from a soup of life into a soup of plastic with bits of cell-phones and toothbrushes – some recognizable, some merely motes and specks of weathered petrochemicals that mimic the plankton they have displaced and now outnumber. Their children may suffer from ailments resulting from the use, over a half century, of their “empty” part of the world as a test site for nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, their low lying islands now the test sites for our ongoing experiments with geoengineering earth’s climate. It’s not just the western consumer of culture who has an awareness of what’s at stake, look at the Kogi people of the Colombian jungle. They are aware.
If this moment is to be engaged, it requires that we not let ourselves remain blind to what is truly unique for our time, both the threats and the opportunities it presents us with. Ideology cannot be overcome by a “movement.”
That an alternative seems hard to formulate, even harder to grasp, is not an excuse to shy away from our challenge. Clarity is always hard won. There are no shortcuts. A series of crises and systemic challenges like what we face today is an environment that could be conducive to clarity. Let’s not mistake reductivist oversimplifications for clarity, let’s not fall into all the same old traps when everything points to the need to hone our awareness and develop habits of thought and action that might take us beyond the usual traps.
I’ve always been fascinated by old technology. I guess I might have been a proto-steam-punk in a way. The machines of war of the Victorian Age – they were all machines of war, either against the natural world, the “primitive savages,” or the gentlemanly foe sharing in the Grand Game – were interwoven with anachronism. Some “advanced” aspect side by side with an archaic decoration, or some fantastic ability squandered on a trivial use. They put the lie to the progressive, futurist call that life is a grand climb and that progress is our stairway, no, elevator, no, escalator, no, transporter to an ever grander future. Technique, more accurately, the minds who focus on its elaboration, are enmeshed in the social framework of their day and cannot conceive their constructions independently of the baggage they unwittingly carry.
This is true of us all. There is only one slight space for a potentially telling difference to develop. Not a way to resurrect the progressive wheeze, that is as much a fantasy as the Manichean opposite favored by the regressives. Hubris brings about Nemesis. The Promethean urge rushes on as if enough force will allow some sort of escape velocity to be achieved so that pride can soar clear of any impingement. This is Ideology’s supreme failing. By refusing the traps of hubris, we don’t avoid error, we don’t avoid falls, what we might avoid are the self-inflicted wounds of those who draw down their Nemesis. It may just be a simple result of numbers, but all of the truly terrible outcomes we face today are self-inflicted. With so many of us out there all so eagerly inflicting that shouldn’t be surprising.
We are surrounded by distractions, the spectacle seeks to consume us. There is so much to take in, so much that is hard to see clearly from among the tangle of confusion around us. An important first step is to identify the false promises and to clear away what may appear to loom large but is no more than a trap for our attention and our capacity. This process isn’t a simple keeping of lists. We can’t just say a particular manifestation can be ignored and wipe it from our contemplation, but we can develop a fluid scan that gleans the significant from out of the noise while willing to make a fresh judgement on the matter the next time our eyes fall on that particular manifestation. The key is not to be looking for old patterns with a longing to plug ourselves into their itineraries of behavior, to say, “Oh! There’s a demonstration, let’s join them on the Barricades! On to the Bastille!” That does not mean that there is no potential in these demonstrations. They could be the first stirrings of something significant, but we won’t see what that might be if we are clouded by a yearning for old forms.
When “The People” numbered thirty-five, with “The Others” maybe a few hundred in some distant valleys far beyond “our world,” it might have been a good idea to form “teams” and compete for who we could get to join us on “our side.” I don’t think this scales up to our world, beyond sport perhaps, an outlet for this urge.
If we are in a game, that game is evolution, the ongoing interplay between life and its surroundings. In this game we don’t declare winners, we are just the medium through which the ebb and flow is carried on. It does us no good to treat life as if it were a game we organized, where we can gather our teams, make up the rules and celebrate our victories. Dissensus is an idea outside Ideology. It hints at the advantages of a myriad of viewpoints and outlooks and modes of action working within a medium of mutual respect – even when some of the parties refuse to acknowledge the underlying medium and act out in ways we might vehemently disagree with. It’s a different way of counting. It’s not vital that our “team” is bigger or stronger than the rest. It’s not essential that all the “players” agree on the ground rules. It only requires that a mobile and fleeting balance of participants respect the “game” for what it is and act to work towards its continuance.
This may be the way nature works to use an old terminology. This might be what evolution is made of, not “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw!” as those Victorians would have it that wanted nothing more than to see their accidental existence and immensely self-satisfied and narrow view made universal. The predator doesn’t “hate” its prey, or vice versa. They don’t seek to “win.” They seek to get by, to get on, and they do so immersed within structures and interactions they do not need to “own.” They are immersed in a Dissensus and that dissensus carves out a space in the universe for them to have a world.
At the end of this year this is where my thinking stands on the subject. It is a tenuous hold on a few scraps of insight and a faint, yet growing sense of understanding – standing under, where the most we can ask from life is to have a place to stand and to have some inkling of what is over and around us.
Here’s to the energy of youth! To the return of a sense of outrage at injustice – if only it can spread beyond a mere reflex against “our” injustice “inflicted” on us, towards a wider appeal to greater injustice and its widest spread of victims.
I lived through a youth in which my own energy and impulses were not met by any guidance from “elders” who may have helped me grow and challenge myself and my impulses. I witnessed another generation of “hope” join the list of fractured and broken movements that have littered the last few centuries in the thrall of Ideology.
This pattern must be broken.