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Skillful Goal-Oriented Activism: a middle way between reactive activism and debilitating myths?


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At the end of 2020 the Secular Buddhist Network published an interview with David Edwards of Media Lens that includes a critique of leftwing organising. The interview was also sent out in early 2021 as a Media Lens cogitation. As a long-time supporter of Media Lens, it was as a cogitation that I first became aware of the interview. Perhaps I should also point out that I have some familiarity with secular Buddhism – I have discussed the topic with Stephen and Martine Bachelor, for example. For those of you who are not familiar with either of these organisations, a little background information might be helpful.

The Secular Buddhist Network was set-up to help people develop a “secular understanding and practice of the dharma” which could contribute to both an “individual transformation and a fundamental realignment of our society’s priorities”. Media Lens was set-up to show how “mainstream newspapers and broadcasters operate as a propaganda system for the elite interests that dominate modern society”. Although Media Lens was inspired by Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, Edwards’ approach to activism is also informed by the teachings of the Buddha.

The interview is made-up of seven questions, which explore a lot of interesting topics and cover quite a bit of important ground. This includes; the relationship between the Buddhist teachings on greed, hatred and ignorance / delusion and the consumerist culture generated by corporate capitalism, the accomplishments of Media Lens, the importance of meditation for effective social change, the difference between traditional religion and humanistic religion, and, of course, secular Buddhism.

It is, however, Edwards’ critique of leftwing activism – which is raised explicitly in the third question but also touched upon throughout the interview – that I want to focus on here. Whilst I find myself agreeing with some of what Edwards has to say about the ineffectiveness of leftwing activism I also think that his explanation for this – his characterisation of the left – is incorrect. More importantly, I have serious concerns about his proposed solution to this very important problem. It seems to me that Edwards is promoting what I think can only be described as a debilitating myth.

For Edwards, left activism is better understood as “pro-establishment activism”. The common factor for Edwards is what he refers to as the”head-trapped” / “goal-oriented” mode of operating:

“The corporate system … needs us to be …. Goal-oriented.”

“… left activism is all about goal-oriented action.”

The problem, according to Edwards, with being goal-oriented is that it restricts us to our thinking system:

“People trapped in their compulsive-thinking heads … are not in a position to ‘make the world a better place’ – they will bring their madness to whatever sanity they are trying to create.”

“… ’left activism’ … has made a massive contribution to capitalist noise pollution drowning out the divine melody of the heart, and promoting egotism and antagonism.”

This line of thinking leads Edwards to conclude:

“I believe a big reason we’re in the extraordinary mess we’re in is because ‘left activism’ is not, in fact, as imagined, a counter-force to goal-oriented, state-corporate capitalism – it is part of the same head-trapped, goal-oriented stance … In other words, the supposed opposition to the madness of corporate capitalism is often one of its allies.”

Edwards captures his position poetically with a question posed by Tolstoy: “What is the point of a revolution, if our hearts remain the same?”  This, I think, is a valid point. There can be no successful revolution without a simultaneous and complementary transformation at both the level of human consciousness and social institutions. I also agree that the left tend to be “head-trapped”. In fact, I would argue that the left is typically more obsessed with compulsive-thinking than the right. And like Edwards, I think that this mode of operating is inherently problematic as it tends to generate a sense of self that is very needy and vulnerable.

I therefore feel that the “head-trapped” aspect of Edwards’ analysis of left activism is essentially correct and has some important implications for organising. However, Edwards seems to collapse “head-trapped” and “goal-oriented” into one problem. I think that this is a mistake. Whilst he is right to characterise the left as “head-trapped” I think Edwards is way-off in describing the left as “goal-oriented”.  Left culture, it seems to me, is essentially reactive. The egotism and antagonism that Edwards mentions is better understood, I think, as a fear driven reaction to the politics of the state-corporate capitalist system. Furthermore, this reactive culture is fuelled, not by a goal-orientated mindset, but by the left’s obsession with analysis of what is wrong with the world.

It could be argued, therefore, that it is precisely the lack of a shared goal or vision that keeps the left trapped in a vicious circle of cynical reactivity.  If the left had a shared vision then it could be much more goal-orientated – but in a proactive manner. From a purely spiritual position such activism may still constitute “noise pollution”. However, it could also mean less antagonism, less egotism and a step towards a social system more in tune with the “divine melody of the heart” – i.e. a set of institutions that generate a social logic that perpetuate international peace, systematise environmental sustainability and foster general wellbeing. If that would not constitute an expression of radical-secular-compassion then I do not know what would.

What most concerns me, however, about Edwards position is captured in the very last sentence of the interview:

“And the tremendous irony is that all goals are achieved when goal-orientation is dropped.”

Just as there is no goal-oriented left there is also nothing tremendous or ironic about this claim. It is simply wrong. Worse, it constitutes a debilitating myth.

Consider, for example, the economy, which Edwards draws our attention to throughout the interview. According to the logic of the above claim, all we have to do to achieve economic justice is to drop goal-orientation. Nothing else is required. There is no need to conceptualise an alternative to competitive markets or the corporate division of labour, for example. On the contrary, according to Edwards’ argument, imagining such alternatives – regardless of how transformational – would automatically constitute “pro-establishment activism” on the grounds that it is “goal-oriented”.

It is also worth considering the actual implications of this line of thinking. For example, what would happen if the current economic system was, in some way, dismantled but was not replaced by an alternative system of production, allocation and consumption of goods and services? Similarly, we may also wonder about another topic close to Edwards’ heart, namely the media. What would happen to the democratic process if the current media system was, in some way, made redundant but was not replaced by an alternative system?

Whilst I think that Buddhist insights, and perhaps a secular understanding of these teachings in particular, may have some important contribution to make to progressive left activism I think it is a mistake to (1) describe the left as “goal-oriented” and (2) identify “goal-oriented” as inherently problematic. As I have argued, it seems to me that both of these claims are false. Like any activity, when done unskillfully, being goal-oriented will prove problematic. When undertaken skillfully, however, goal-oriented activism has the potential to free left activism from its current fear based reactive and cynical mode of operation. Skillful goal-oriented activism can also help us avoid the dreadful consequences of not having an alternative social system to construct as we dismantle the existing one.

But what might skillful goal-oriented activism involve? One answer is that it would recognise the benefits of developing vision whilst also being mindful of the perils of goal-oriented activism – including those highlighted by Edwards. These advantages and potential dangers are discussed as part of the introduction to Occupy Vision as follows:

“Our claim is that having a shared vision of, at least, the defining features of what we are trying to attain, is critically important to three key needs we have: generating and sustaining motivation, collectively getting somewhere desirable, and even effectively understanding the present.”

  • Vision Counters Cynicism
  • Vision Guides Practice
  • Vision Informs Judgement

“The core of their [those who reject having, using, or even caring at all about vision] legitimate and sensible concern about vision is a worry that seeking vision will overextend our capacities into domains we cannot know. It will risk elitist intellectual and operational calamity, and it will immorally violate our activist mandate.”

  • Overextension
  • Intellectual and Operational Calamity
  • Immorality

Simply dropping goal-oriented activism isn’t going to avoid the ghastly future that Edwards describes so well in a recent Media Lens alert. I have argued, contrary to Edwards’ suggestion, that adopting this position does not represent a sane alternative to the madness of much of contemporary left activism. Rather, for the reasons given above, we need vision. We do, however, also need to be mindful of the potential negative aspects of developing vision and being goal-oriented. Here Edwards has a point. Taking the above six factors into consideration represents skillful goal-oriented activism, which, I suggest, constitutes a middle way between reactive activism and debilitating myths.

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Marxsen February 8, 2021 8:11 pm 

    Lots of good thoughts and sorry to go off on a tangent, but do we have anything to learn from how the far right became a deciding factor in republican party politics over the last 20 years? They seem to drive alot of republican policy and the party seems to bow to them.

    • avatar
      Mark Evans February 9, 2021 10:55 am 

      Thanks Elizabeth!
      Your question is off topic but it does relate to the article in one way.
      The way I think of extremism is in terms of identification with a belief system – the stronger the identification, the more extreme a person tends to be. Regardless of ideology, this creates a sense of self that is highly sensitive and vulnerable. Needless to say, this makes organising for a better world all the more challenging. Here I think Edwards has a point.

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