Thursday, May 17, 2007

Community and activism.

I don't buy the central premise of this post at POGGE, namely that activism is fading/failing in Canada (and the US, too) because we don't have real communities. I think part of the problem is that the poster -- Purple Library Guy -- conflates a necessary and a sufficient condition. His claim should be, if read literally, that real communities are necessary for activism (if you don't have one, you don't have activism), but, reading through the comments, it seems that he finds it sufficient (if you have one, then activism will follow) -- possibly it's supposed to be necessary and sufficient, but it's not clear.

To the point, community is really neither necessary nor sufficient for activism. That it's not sufficient is obvious (or, at least, I thought so). If a community has no (significant) problems, then activism will not result. That it's not necessary is not as obvious. Consider this, though: in order for activism to really take hold and have genuine impact, what's required are a goal (the whatever it is that the activists are trying to achieve), a plan (how they're going to achieve it) and coordination (to follow the plan). All three can arise without a community -- I can conjure up the first two just sitting here, and I can coordinate action across large numbers of people with a couple of guns -- so, for community to have a role to play, it must be that all three can only simultaneously exist in a real community. But, as just suggested, that's not true either: a guy with a purpose and a plan and a couple of guns can engage in a kind of activism.

Of course, it would be objected that this is beside the point. Good or lasting activism comes out of community involvement, not out of dominance by a gun-wielding maniac. Maybe (although it looks like an empirical, not an armchair a priori, point now). However, once it's admitted that what activism, of any kind, needs is a goal, a plan and coordination, it then follows that lack of community is the least of the problems facing the left in Canada (or the US).

First, there's no goal. Or, rather, there's a bunch of goals and no one really knows which one is more important. I believe Jon Stewart mocked this at one point, playing a clip of a speaker at a rally who reeled off a series of leftist points (from "End the war!" to "Free Tibet!") without direction or organization. It's pretty clear -- at least to me -- that if you don't have a pretty good idea of what you're trying to achieve, then you're not going to be able to figure out how to get it; and, if you can't figure out how to get it, you're not going to get it. The right seems to have grasped this one, but the left seems unable to articulate a single vision.

Second, there's no plan. Say the goal is getting the NDP elected to a majority government. (I'm no Dipper; it's just an example.) How do we do that? Say the goal is reforming healthcare. How do we do that? I've previously articulated the difference between goal and plan as the difference between principle and policy: it's not enough to know what you want to do and why it's good to do it, you also need at least some understanding of how to pull together all the various people and organizations that currently exist and could be brought into existence in order to achieve the goal. Without that, you're flailing; and it seems to me that the left is doing just that. (So, I suppose, there's two levels of flailing: in search of a goal and in search of a plan. I have this image of a guy carrying an armload of signs, all with different slogans, standing at a crossroads and spinning.)

Third, there's no coordination. This is primarily a Canadian problem. The left in other parts of the world seems to have its shit together, and can organize demonstrations (for example) in pretty short order. When was the last time there was a leftist demonstration of any significance on Parliament Hill? We bitch on blogs, but we don't get together to actually do anything. It's easy to blame this on the size of the country and the physical distance between us, but Washington, DC is pretty far from most of the US, and Americans seem to be able to get together every once in a while. While we're at least not flailing with regard to coordinating our activity, that seems only because there isn't much activity to speak of.

I'd suggest, further, that once we solve these three problems, then we would be creating a community. That is, while community may be necessary for good and lasting activism, it's a necessary consequence not a necessary condition. Having a goal, a plan, and coordination is what makes a community exist.

(And, for what it's worth, if I had any ideas on how to solve any of these problems I wouldn't be writing this, I'd be out implementing them.)

3 comments:

undergroundman said...

My main problem with this entire post is that you take a parochial view of activism and then argue against that when it's obvious that he's talking about community activism (and beneficial activism, at that).

Given that, your argument kind of falls away. (Even without it, "activism" as you seem to define it - that is, actions affecting a group of people - seems to require a community. So a community is necessary.

But then I argued that the community is doing fine and, of course, the poor liberal doesn't know statistics - activism is at an all-time high. And activism is high, especially among young people and internet users.

On the whole goal-plan-coordination thing - yeah, liberals don't have a clear goal. They're mostly allergic to statistics and hard facts and can't seem to grasp the concept of opportunity cost (that is, resources spent in one area aren't able to be used in another area). So they try to do everything, and do everything in the most inefficient way possible (i.e. universal healthcare, an idea which has many Americans worried, and rightly so, although it is possibly an improvement over our current system). They get all worked up about things like gay marriage and lose elections. They also by and large reject and disdain Christians instead of utilizing them - this is why I like Barack Obama. He's the only liberal bright enough to realize that you can very easily use the Bible and Jesus Christ to promote liberal ideas, and make the Fox News nutcases look like idiots in the meantime.

It is possible for us to use our resources very efficiently, but it requires liberals to grasp the idea of economics, which doesn't seem very likely right now. Scandinavians do an OK job at it (Sweden has been implementing school vouchers with some success). Quite frankly economics is all you really need to study if you want to implement good policy.

Then again, Bill Clinton knew economics. That's why he implemented pretty reasonable policy. Could have done better, of course, but not too shabby. And it's encouraging that Hilary Clinton will be influenced by him, and that Barack Obama is advised by Austan Goolsbee.

ADHR said...

My main problem with this entire post is that you take a parochial view of activism and then argue against that when it's obvious that he's talking about community activism (and beneficial activism, at that).

Given that, your argument kind of falls away. (Even without it, "activism" as you seem to define it - that is, actions affecting a group of people - seems to require a community. So a community is necessary.


Necessary as a condition or necessary as a consequence? What I was arguing my way towards is, however you define "activism", it needs a goal (principle), a plan (policy) and coordination (practice) -- and these three create communities. So, looking around for communities is cart-before-horse thinking.

But then I argued that the community is doing fine and, of course, the poor liberal doesn't know statistics - activism is at an all-time high. And activism is high, especially among young people and internet users.

That's a slippery statistic, isn't it? "All-time high" could still be pretty low.

On the whole goal-plan-coordination thing - yeah, liberals don't have a clear goal. They're mostly allergic to statistics and hard facts and can't seem to grasp the concept of opportunity cost (that is, resources spent in one area aren't able to be used in another area). So they try to do everything, and do everything in the most inefficient way possible (i.e. universal healthcare, an idea which has many Americans worried, and rightly so, although it is possibly an improvement over our current system). They get all worked up about things like gay marriage and lose elections. They also by and large reject and disdain Christians instead of utilizing them - this is why I like Barack Obama. He's the only liberal bright enough to realize that you can very easily use the Bible and Jesus Christ to promote liberal ideas, and make the Fox News nutcases look like idiots in the meantime.

I was with you up until the Christian thing. You're right that in the contemporary US, you have no choice but to engage Christians. I'd rather it was done by appealing to their better natures, though, not their beliefs in fairytales.

It is possible for us to use our resources very efficiently, but it requires liberals to grasp the idea of economics, which doesn't seem very likely right now. Scandinavians do an OK job at it (Sweden has been implementing school vouchers with some success). Quite frankly economics is all you really need to study if you want to implement good policy.

Then again, Bill Clinton knew economics. That's why he implemented pretty reasonable policy. Could have done better, of course, but not too shabby. And it's encouraging that Hilary Clinton will be influenced by him, and that Barack Obama is advised by Austan Goolsbee.


Economics is certainly necessary for the policy side. It can't be the be-all and end-all, though. After all, the principles guiding the policy have to come from somewhere else.

undergroundman said...


Necessary as a condition or necessary as a consequence? What I was arguing my way towards is, however you define "activism", it needs a goal (principle), a plan (policy) and coordination (practice) -- and these three create communities. So, looking around for communities is cart-before-horse thinking.


Necessary as a condition. I certainly agree that it's not sufficient - as you said, a utopia will have no community "activism."

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying - but I suppose that a goal-plan-coordination+a community is necessary and sufficient for community activism.

Looking back at your post, yeah, I can definitely see why you would say that the biggest problem facing activism is not community (we mean that warm & fuzzy sense of community, I'm assuming) but the goal and plan.

However, there are plenty of goals, plans, and coordinations going on. There's plenty of activism. That poster is just whining because his activism doesn't seem to be particularly successful, or perhaps because he doesn't see a lot of activism personally. Behavioral economics claims that people tend to assume a lot out of what they experience personally, and it leads them to faulty conclusions. I would argue that this is an example of that.

Even if you have clear goals and plans, success is hardly guaranteed. Activism can only influence people (and through them, institutions) who are capable of being influenced. Activism influences policy indirectly in a democracy. Meh...I'm just rambling.

I'd rather it was done by appealing to their better natures, though, not their beliefs in fairytales.

Well, yeah - that's what Barack Obama does, by drawing at least some attention to the way Jesus actually acted and spoke (i.e., embracing prostitutes and outcasts, telling people to give all their possessions to the poor, ect. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.)

That's a slippery statistic, isn't it? "All-time high" could still be pretty low.

Certainly. And of course I'm exaggerating - I don't even know what I'm talking about. There has been lots of activism throughout history, most often during times of controversy. Perhaps the all-time high was during the Revolution, or in the time preceding the civil war. All I'm really saying is that I don't see lack of activism as the problem. Maybe the weakness of activism is a problem - that is, it doesn't influence the people in power that it needs to influence the most. But then again, we're quickly undergoing an environmental revolution while environmental activism is huge. Does that mean activism per se is pushing all of this growth? I don't know - I guess I'm an activist, as I harassed my school about their food and pressured them to become more sustainable, and we have made a difference.


Economics is certainly necessary for the policy side. It can't be the be-all and end-all, though. After all, the principles guiding the policy have to come from somewhere else.


Yeah, that was an exaggeration. Economics and political/legal philosophy are all you need. :)

If you divorce them you end up with an ugly mess, but economics without philosophy is better for society than philosophy without economics, I would argue -- at least on the policy side.

Economics, ideally, doesn't mean zero restrictions on business at all - it accounts for all areas where the free market is not good. That means you account for external costs (pollution) and external benefits (education) and treat everyone equally within the market system. It also ideally recognizes when a free market system does not maximize societal welfare (monopolies) and when asymetrical information leads to problems (leading to allergen labeling, warnings, ect).

There are already principles embedded in economics.