Regressive activism at the recent Toronto G-20 conference

An excellent piece by Ashley Weger of Platypus provides a desperately-needed critical reexamination of the latest round of anti-globalization protests, which took place at the G-20 Conference in Toronto a couple months ago.  Unsurprisingly, the same predictable scenario of spectacular, ineffectual “resistance” played itself out there yet again.  In some ways, it’s a continuation of conventions established by ’60s and ’70s radicalism.  The newer element, noted by Weger in her article, is the peculiar hodgepodge of unrelated and even contradictory tendencies within the Left that have shown up at these events ever since they were first held back in 1999.  Any notion of a common goal toward which these disparate groups are working, under which they are united, is, however, completely lost on the protesters.  Their “courageous” acts of defiance and non-conformity all too often amount to nothing more than empty displays of a vague, generalized discontent with the status quo, however inadequately they understand it.

Whether or not the riots were provoked by undercover police agents posing as Black Bloc members is irrelevant to an investigation of the fundamental premises of the G-20 marches.  This is so no matter what the excesses committed by the police might have been, since these are matters of purely legal and ethical consideration.  Though many of the accusations of police brutality against innocent protestors might be well-founded, this does not in any way retroactively justify their tactics, goals, and antics.

The characteristics exhibited by the demonstrations in Toronto in late June are nearly all symptomatic of what Theodor Adorno termed “actionism” in his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and in his final published essay, “Resignation” (1968).  His evaluation of this phenomenon was as follows:

Actionism is regressive.  Under the spell of the positivity that long ago became part of the armature of ego-weakness, it refuses to reflect upon its own impotence.

Adorno was here responding to the new wave of mass social activism that was first beginning to emerge in the 1960s, culminating in the widespread protests, demonstrations, and university takeovers of 1968.  When he expressed his misgivings about these protests, Adorno was accused of turning his back on the students’ revolutionary struggle.  To this he responded:

We older representatives of that for which the name Frankfurt School has established itself have recently had the reproach of resignation leveled against us. We had, it is stated, developed elements of a critical theory of society, but we were not prepared to draw the practical consequences from this theory. The objection raised against us be states approximately in these words: a person who in the present hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who for that reason neither takes part in nor recommends spectacular, violent action is guilty of resignation. Thinking activists [claim]: among the things to be changed is that very separation of theory and praxis. The trouble with this view is that it results in the prohibition of thinking. The often-evoked unity of theory and praxis has a tendency to give way to the predominance of praxis. Today…one clings to action because of the impossibility of action.

At the present point no higher form of society is concretely visible: for that reason, anything that seems in reach is regressive. The Utopian impulse in thinking is all the stronger, the less it objectifies itself as Utopia whereby it sabotages its own realization.

Repressive intolerance toward a thought not immediately accompanied by instructions for action is founded in fear. Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant pseudo-reality within which activism moves. This activism is tolerated only because it is viewed as pseudo-activity. Only thinking could offer an escape. It is the responsibility of thought not to accept the situation as finite. If there is any chance of changing the situation, it is only through undiminished insight.

Adorno witnessed the anti-intellectualism of popular protest movements firsthand.  This character of unthinking has been more recently addressed by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, in their 2003 article “Action Will be Taken”, written in the context of the (now largely forgotten) antiwar movement.  Activists and protesters, they observed, would rather not “get bogged down in analysis.”  Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti thus asked: “So over all is the activist left just an inchoate, ‘post-ideological’ mass of do-gooders, pragmatists, and puppeteers?” To which they promptly answered:

No.  The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore.  The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed.  They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists.  This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade.  In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists.  And the one who acts is righteous.

Those who participate in events such as the recent G-20 protests often leave with the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have “done their part” in order to somehow “make a difference” in the world.  The danger for the Left is not police repression, but rather its own thoughtlessness.  Or, as Weger puts it, in a magnificent line: “[the current crisis for the Left is] not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.”