By Ryan McGreal
Published March 25, 2010
I recently read a great essay by Palestinian journalist and activist Ramzy Baroud explaining his view on activism. He starts by defining an activist as someone who "feels strongly about a cause and who is also willing to dedicate time and energy towards advancing and realizing this cause."
Then, drawing from his own childhood experiences growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza, he adds:
Activists in my refugee camp, whether they're identified as Islamist, secularist, socialist or any other name, ensured the community remained unified in the face of adversity.
Activism, as I understood it, was largely a unifying, pro-active force that kept the struggle and resistance alive. It was the ingredient that allowed the Palestinian people to maintain their relevance to the conflict, despite the brutality of their enemy and the self-serving nature of their elites.
I like this definition, because it recasts activism as an ongoing act of broad-based relationship- and community-building, not merely a campaign for policy changes. Debating policy is inherently fragmentary, because different people have different particular ideas about how best to move forward.
Add political ideology and partisanship (affiliation to interested organizations) to the mix, and opportunities abound for activists to expend their energy fighting each other instead of struggling for change.
Baroud explains it this way:
Over the course of the last 15 years, I have come across some of the world's most passionate, compassionate and sincere individuals. I can only express good things about that.
But I have also become disheartened and disappointed. "Leftist" groups insist on placing Palestine into its anti-imperialist campaign merely as a rally cry, as opposed to a substantively unique issue that needs a substantively unique strategy.
Disenchanted "leftists" endlessly quarrel. Some cannot even stand the sight of one another. [...] Different groups have their own meetings, petitions, rallies and merchandise, often competing with or rejecting each other. Take any issue [...] and you will find vastly differing factions that won't converge or meet.
Baroud is writing about his experience as an activist for Palestinians, but his conclusions have broad application.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at Sky Dragon on gentrification. It was organized by Common Cause, an Ontario organization of anarchists promoting nonviolent class struggle toward a social revolution that eliminates imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, sectarianism and all other forms of oppression.
Not surprisingly, the prevailing tone of the group was anti-gentrification, on the grounds that it marginalizes and displaces poor urban residents.
Conversely, I approached gentrification on the basis that suburban sprawl is an ecological, social and economic disaster-in-slow-motion that will become impossible to maintain as global oil production slides into permanent decline (not to mention a largely spent cultural force).
All doctrine aside, we simply need to find ways to integrate large numbers of people back into cities.
We also need to ensure that the people already living in cities - often poor and marginalized - aren't displaced and further marginalized by the influx of the more affluent. That is, we have to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits of re-urbanization - benefits that largely fall outside the scope of a class-struggle based analytical model.
Personally, I would much rather have to deal with the problems associated with urban property values increasing because of increasing demand than with the problems of urban property values falling through middle-class flight and disinvestment. (Unfortunately, when the definition of "value" itself is in dispute, it's hard to make such a case.)
It seems to me that ensuring people of limited means can still afford to live in increasingly popular cities is ultimately as simple (technically if not politically) as ensuring that everyone has a living wage - an argument I don't think I did a very good job of articulating at the meeting.
Naturally, my case for gentrification landed like a sperm whale dropped from low orbit. It wasn't just that my priorities were different from the priorities of the assembled panel and audience; ideology got in the way of reconciling our respective values.
I knew there were going to be some steep hurdles between my small-l liberal, progressive, urbanist world view and the overarchingly anarchist/marxist tenor of the group. Unfortunately, with such a big conceptual gap we often ended up just talking past each other.
Short of a petulant blow-by-blow, I'll just share one anecdote that captures the essence of my experience on the 'hot seat'.
An audience member commented that RTH doesn't do enough to understand poverty issues. I agreed with her and acknowledged that there are a lot of things we don't do or don't do well enough.
Our focus is on urban revitalization but there are big areas where that intersects with other issues and I think such groups should do a better job of understanding each other's concerns.
An inspiring example of such an interdisciplinary approach is the Low Income Energy Network (LIEN), which brings environmental and anti-poverty activists together to understand how to reconcile the goal of reducing energy consumption with the goal of ensuring universal access to adequate, affordable energy.
Another panelist responded that he hates it when activists say they aren't doing enough and criticized RTH for bothering at all if we can't get it right - and by 'right' he clearly meant: reinforcing his specific value system.
Think about that for a moment: if we can't get it right the first time (he used the phrase "half-assed" to describe our efforts), we just shouldn't bother saying anything at all because we're actually making things worse.
(Aside: I don't intend to beat up on Common Cause here. They're likely no more dogmatic than many other groups. I only cite the panel discussion because it's a recent anecdote that illustrates what I'm trying to argue.)
I came out of the evening with one overarching thought: this is why the left can't accomplish anything.
Activists on the left spend too much time critiquing the hell out of each other and highlighting violations of doctrine instead of finding commonalities and working together to make tangible improvements. As I've written in the past:
Instead of maintaining some kind of ideological purity, [we should] work at building relationships with people across the various divides (urban/exurban, liberal/conservative, business/labour, etc.) that cleave our city, trying to understand and respect everyone's values and priorities, and looking for issues and arguments on which you can all agree.
To be sure, there's danger in engaging the world of compromise with groups that have different values and priorities. It's a real struggle to determine which compromises are acceptable and which are not; which collaborations are in the spirit of common cause and which amount to the tacit endorsement of abhorrent practices.
Nonetheless, the solution is certainly not to reject all compromises and disavow all collaborations - either explicitly or, more common, implicitly through an impossible threshold of commonality.
The endless squabbling among the identity- and ideology-driven groups that collectively make up the left reflects the bankruptcy of intellectual precocity run amok.
While radical postdocs with MacBooks are busy organizing performance art demonstrations protesting clumsy efforts to make neighbourhoods safer or opposing bourgeois cycling advocates, the circumstances of people living in precarious conditions are not getting any better.
All the time activists spend scrutinizing each other is time not spent working together to achieve meaningful improvements in universal access to food, housing, essential services and basic human dignity. It's time not spent unifying across ideological divides and holding communities together.