Anti-intellectualism/ paucity of ideas on the left

Anti-intellectualism/ paucity of ideas on the left

This article is from a while back, but raises some excellent points.

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.

A constant frustration I had at college was that many who would identify themselves as progressives or even leftists had a very superficial understanding of the things they were critiquing. Often, this was because they just couldn’t be bothered. Capitalism is bad, and so is globalization, and pretty much everything can be blamed on them in matters ranging from race to sexuality. And while this is often true, there was seldom any attempt to explain how these systems worked to create those effects. In fact, I suspect many would struggle to adequately explain what ‘capitalism’ is, or ‘markets.’  (I’m not immune from that critique; I think a point can be made here about the sort of education we got but I’ll leave that for another day).

Anyways, back to the article. There are practical reasons why there should be more systemic thinking:

 without an analysis of what’s really wrong with the world – or a vision of the better world you’re trying to create – people have no reason to continue being activists once a particular campaign is over. In this way, activist-ism plus single-issue politics can end up defeating itself. Activistism is tedious, and its foot soldiers suffer constant burnout. Thinking, after all, is engaging; were it encouraged, Jiramanus pleads, “We’d all be enjoying ourselves a bit more.”

But that’s not what is happening. Especially in the US,

 a petit-bourgeois populism is the native radical strain, and anti-intellectualism is almost hard-wired into the culture. And because activistism emphasizes practicality, achievability, and implementation over all else, a theory dedicated to understanding deep structures with an eye towards changing them necessarily gets shunted aside.

This has many detrimental practical effects on radical politics, which the authors talk about.

But isn’t intellectualism elitist? Isn’t a more practical approach better, because it doesn’t exclude those who haven’t had the privilege of higher education? Well, theory doesn’t have to mean complicated intellectualism. In fact,

We’re not calling for leadership by intellectuals. On the contrary, we challenge left activist culture to live up to its anti-hierarchical claims: activists should themselves become intellectuals. Why reproduce the larger society’s division between mental and physical labor? The rousing applause for Noam Chomsky at the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre was hardly undeserved, but ideas don’t belong on pedestals. They belong in the street, at work, in the home, at the bar and on the barricades.

Indeed. And if everyone thinks more on a systematic level, they write, that allows us to rephrase our goals. Rather than protesting against certain things, we can agitate for better systems, more just societies.

Solid advice, I think.

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