My very smart Canadian friend (no, not you, Cameron – I have another very smart Canadian friend) just sent me an interview conducted with a researcher/activist called Marcie Smith, by a chap called Branko Marcetic. It’s title is Gene Sharp, the Cold War Intellectual Whose Ideas Seduced the Left and it is brilliant (as in Smith is on the money, and the right questions were asked).
I think I may have to adjust/expand my thoughts around the emotacycle, which I am doing a presentation about at the end of the month.l.
I will deal with this more in the second part of the essay, which will come out soon — it’s about how Sharp’s ideas spread and migrated throughout the Left, how they show up. One of the things I began to see, and others have commented on — and this was not just in the climate movement but in the US protest scene more broadly — was a kind of instrumentalization of protests. By which I mean, elevating protest as an end in itself as opposed to recognizing it as a means to specific political outcomes. This idea that if we do protest, good things will happen. If we perform righteousness, power will notice and we will get the justice and freedom that we demand, whatever that means. Protest gets elevated way above other skills, like organizing, political education, intellectual labor, debate, the skills of alliance building, i.e. diplomacy, etc.
I myself am implicated in this. I was a college climate activist and it’s a very heady thing to get involved in protest movements, to connect and cathect in the street with others who are rightly outraged at the injustice of our current state of affairs. But always we need to be clear, what are we demanding? And who or what are we demanding it of? And is this the best, most strategic use of limited time and resources, is it informed by history and the dynamics of class struggle? And I think intergenerational movements are essential if we are going to answer these questions well. I don’t think it’s coincidental that many Sharpian movements have been driven by middle-class, urban university students, young people with lots of energy, so-called moral clarity, but who are still negotiating their relationship to authority, have few or no bills to pay, etc., and may be “cosmopolitan provincials” in their worldview.
So, we are operating with these very moralistic categories that don’t offer much in the way of specifics about what kind of world we want, what kinds of productive relations we want, and what would it actually take to achieve them in the face of extremely powerful opposition.
That’s dangerous. It puts protest movements in a position where they can be easily co-opted, where they can serve as a kind of battering ram, and then the neoliberal experts with the “good ideas” come rolling out and with the content.