Yawning Emptiness

Just after the Washington Demos, the NY Times, Washington Post, and many other mainstream media outlets did “evaluative” pieces on the events. The Seattle and DC demonstrators don’t know what they want. The activists offer nothing beyond capitalism. The pundits sought to de-legitimate dissent, of course, but unfortunately that doesn’t falsify their observation.  

A couple of weeks ago, diverse local leftists gathered in Chicago for a two-day symposium, titled “Beyond the WTO and Corporate Globalism: Economic Visions of a New Society.” Each panel had the word vision in the title. Each panel participant was urged to discuss long-term aims and program. The intent to address vision was exemplary, in my view, but attendees reported that none of the panels even perfunctorily fulfilled the stated agenda. Instead, panelists discussed what’s wrong with existing conditions, but not substantive positive aspirations. I wasn’t there, but I wasn’t surprised by the report because this result isn’t confined to conferences.

  • Activists discussing prisons and police repression rarely explain how the problems of crime, anti-social behavior, adjudication, and incarceration ought to be dealt with differently.
  • Activists lamenting subordination of women to men and violations of women’s dignity, safety, or security rarely explain how socialization and nurturance could promote gender justice rather than gender hierarchy.
  • Activists rejecting racism rarely reveal how race relations could/should be differently organized to honor diversity rather than subordinate some for the gain of others.
  • Activists decrying poverty, alienation, and economic powerlessness rarely elaborate how production, consumption, and allocation could/should advance values we hold dear rather than subordinate most to the very few.

In other words, regardless of venue, activists rarely put forth even the barest hints of a vision, much less a compelling, well-worked out formulation that could inform strategy and provide hope and orientation.

And more, not only isn’t there a widely-shared flexible and adaptable vision of what we are fighting for, for the critical sides of life we care about, for the most part there isn’t even debate about such a thing, nor disagreement over it, nor notions bearing on it – beyond at most a very few folks. I live in the U.S. and the problem is certainly all around us here. Is shared vision any less problematic in South Africa, the Philippines, Haiti, France, Australia, or Bolivia?

We need to face facts:

(1)  Critics of existing social relations most often lack shared aims for alternative social institutions beyond short-term reforms (and often we lack even that much).

(2)  Even when there are attempts to get leftists to take this problem seriously, little happens. Even if there is an exemplary effort, as in the Chicago conference noted above, still participants ignore the instruction/exhortation to “please provide some vision” and instead provide analysis mainly of what is, perhaps including some short-term program detached from long-term aims.

Ask any average person what critics of male supremacy, racism, ageism, authoritarianism, capitalism, heterosexism, ecological destruction, or war want in the way of new institutions that would structurally ensure better outcomes, and you will get blank stares. Ask a leftist the same question, and when you pare away the admittedly admirable but nonetheless unsubstantial rhetoric, you won’t get much more.  In my experience this is widely true in the U.S. Is it less the case in Thailand or Turkey, Mexico or Mali, Poland or Paraguay, Italy or Indonesia, Nigeria or Nicaragua, Canada or Colombia? Is the situation better outside the U.S.?

Looking at it from the point of view of ideologies, if we discount attachments to dead visions that have been tried and failed, absence of serious shared vision also typifies socialists, anarchists, greens, feminists, nationalists, anti-imperialists, health activists, education activists, and pretty much any other left constituency you want to name, it seems to me.

Am I obsessing?

Am I exaggerating?

Have I lost perspective?

Maybe the above tirade is somewhat over stated due to obsession, exaggeration, or loss of perspective…but still, isn’t the near universal absence of compelling shared social activist vision a clear-cut case of collective failure shrouded in mutually reinforcing self-denial? Regarding vision, are we any less naked then the fabled emperor? And are we any less oblivious to our uncovered state than he was, in the fable.

How can we organize our efforts to accord with our aims if we don’t have aims? How can we choose our campaigns and demands to lead to aims we don’t have? How can we discern problems by their contrast to aims we don’t have? How can we sustain our hope much less inspire hope in others by the light of aims we don’t have? We can’t.

Among some, I should note, there is a rumor that aimlessness is somehow anarchist or otherwise a step forward. But aimlessness is the antithesis of the anarchist priority to modulate process to fit goals, and is certainly not a virtue.

Is aimlessness the only problem on the left?

No. Not at all. We have lots of other problems. For example:

·         We don’t build movements that retain people as well as they ought to, largely because our movements don’t meet enough of people’s needs to sustain their continued involvement.

·         We don’t build movements that are sufficiently welcoming and empowering to diverse constituencies to attract and hold them, particularly working people, largely because our movements tend to ignore and even denigrate working class norms, values, and culture.

·         We don’t handle money well: not only do we not have enough, but we also hide from the difficulties that money raising imposes and we share what exists insufficiently.

·         We have made considerable important progress on being multi-issue, multi-tactic, and mutually supportive, yes, but we have more ground to cover.

And of course these and many other ills deserve attention at least as much as aimlessness does. But still, the ill of aimlessness is certainly also quite important, even if not singularly so.

Does our gaping absence of aims imply that every person on the left should concern themselves with generating proposed vision about some important side of life?

No. Of course not. But it surely implies that quite a few folks ought to do so, and that pretty much everyone else on the left ought to critically support the effort, trying to push whatever is proposed toward relevance, coherence, clarity, acceptability, and toward being convincing.

Consider any group of leftists you want. The core organizers on a campus or in a city, say, or the central figures across the country — writers, speakers, organizers, organizational staff and leaders or whoever else — and send them all a letter asking for their vision and their aims, or send them an invitation to do a panel at a conference about vision, or to give a talk in some public venue about structural institutional goals – whether economic, political, social, or cultural — and you will get back next to nothing of substantive relevance to the request, as in Chicago, mentioned earlier. Make the invitation even more explicit and simpler. Ask for how they would answer a normal citizen wondering what the hell demonstrators want in the way of new, seriously different institutional relations, whether about race, gender, power, economy, or whatever else, and still you will get almost nothing. In fact, it’s a good bet that those who do answer will more likely provide analysis of what is wrong than provide long-term vision anyone else explicitly shares.

Even if this bald and extreme prediction is false, which I doubt, it is not so far from true as to negate the underlying concern. It would be bad enough if we asked, “what do you want?” to hundreds of leftists and got back dozens of coherent formulations, each different and in their own language. That wouldn’t be useful diversity for a movement to have, but at least it wouldn’t be a yawning emptiness, and it might lead toward shared aims.

But in fact, regarding vision, the pundits are largely right.

A yawning emptiness is what we now have.

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