Friday, November 9, 2012

there has to be more to critical practice than criticism

I complain a lot about mainstream liberalism/progressivism's various problems, but never let it be said that the real left-wing can't drive you crazy. (I could write a book, really.) Now, this is gonna be a bit tricky to write, because what I'm writing about is self-implicating: the endless ability of the left-wing to criticize its own practice.

I'm inspired to say this by this recent effort by Occupy types to purchase debt at a lower price than what is owed (a common practice) and then freeing the indebted from their obligation. I saw a familiar pattern among the Facebook and Twitter set, now sped up to the point of self-parody: people get excited by some new idea or campaign, people want to deflate that bubble of enthusiasm and start poking holes, and before you know it everyone is shitting on the new idea. I understand: this is never going to happen at a wide-enough scale to be a feasible solution. I also get, I guess, that buying the debt drives up the price of the debt-- although doesn't the former complaint undercut the latter? Personally, I find this effort to be a smart fusion of symbolism and practical solution: symbolic because it helps call attention to a the debt problem, an area of genuine and extreme need (and not at all limited to student loan debt), and practical for the direct beneficiaries, who will have their lives helped considerably. Is that really something to immediately begin looking down your nose at?

I love the fact that the left-wing is self-critical. Contra Thomas Frank, I don't think caring about theory and getting practice right is a failing. In fact, I think it is the only way for true left-wing practice to endure, to matter. But there's a difference between an appropriate critical skepticism and a constant shit-eating "look at how clever my critique is" nihilism, and I'm sorry that the online space is absolutely full of the latter. Our problems are huge. Our enemies are many. Our efforts and our resources are limited. But with integrity and determination, good things can happen-- but only as long as we aren't busy tearing down every proposal before it gets off the ground.

To put it more bluntly: what are you doing to fix things?


Gerry Canavan said...

The larger point is right, but I think Rolling Jubilee is a pretty poor example. Assuming the heart is in the right place -- a big assumption given the total lack of transparency about this effort available so far -- it's not clear at all how this is supposed to be effective. The bank gets money for debt that they've already written off as worthless; the market for the worthless debt is thereby propped up; and the recipient of the forgiven debt likely gets hit with a immediate tax hit to the IRS.

If the point is to oppose debt, training people in avoidance and nonpayment, or helping them declare and survive after bankruptcy, would seem to be the way to go about it. This is more like sending Wells Fargo my spare change.

If David Rees hadn't blogged about this on his Tumblr, this would be basically indistinguishable from a generic Internet scam. I know this misses the post's forest for its trees, but I've been trying to find information on anything that makes Rolling Jubilee credible for the last hour and have completely come up dry.

Nony said...

I strongly agree with what Frank says here:

"But for all its intellectual attainments, the Left keeps losing. It simply cannot make common cause with ordinary American people anymore.

Maybe this has happened because the Left has come to be dominated by a single profession whose mode of operating is deliberately abstruse, ultrahierarchical, argumentative, and judgmental—handing down As and Fs is its daily chore—and is thus the exact opposite of majoritarian. Maybe it has happened because the Left really is a place of Puritanical contempt for average people, almost all of whom can be shown to have sinned in some imperialist way or other. Maybe it is because the collapse of large-scale manufacturing makes social movements obsolete. We do not know. And none of the accounts under review here get us any closer to an answer."

The left talks to the left, relatively well-off, well-educated individuals who may have grand ideas about remaking society but little interest in speaking to the rabble essential to building that broader grassroots movement. And as you've pointed out before a lot of the youthful discontent is focused on their own sizeable burdens, debt and the so-called job mkt. but not on issues resonant to a greater portion of the 99% who've never been lucky enough to go to college at all.

Socialist movements the world over have always had a vanguard which presents all manner of risks for the long-term health of their movements should they succeed. But at least their labor activists, Marxists and revolutionary cells knew they had to go village by village preaching the gospel, often to the very people who loathe your elitism and education and often facing risks to their very lives. Of course, we know many working Americans' anger is misdirected, their schools and media are shit and they sure as hell don't read lefty blogs. So, how to reach them--I mean, doesn't the very thought of entering a Walmart give you the shudders!?

Not to worry though, I'm sure the dems will clone FDR by 2016.

tongorad said...

If you want make a case against ritualistic and counter-productive criticism, it doesn't help to end your plea with the most accusatory and ritualistic refrain loved by passive-aggressive gatekeepers everywhere: "Well, what are YOU doing."
But thanks for the link to Frank's article, it was spot-on as usual.

Freddie said...

Sorry, but no-- that doesn't fly here. I'm asking people who are being critical what they're committing to. There's no contradiction in that. And considering that this is probably the first time I've ever raised that criticism in going on six years of blogging here, there's no sense in which that is ritualistic. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Other than blogging which is no > than commenting, how would you answer that question Fred?

tongorad said...

What a weird response. Seems to me that you're saying that the proprietary "here" and your blogging history should matter how one responds to what your trying to say in this piece.
Sorry indeed.

Freddie said...

The "here" means "in this instance." I'm sorry if you find that harsh. It wasn't intended that way-- at all.

Other than blogging which is no > than commenting, how would you answer that question Fred?

I really don't understand why people make this assumption about me-- I have been an on-the-ground activist since I've been an adult. I don't have nearly the time to invest that I once did, but it's still a part of my life. This idea that you can intuit my life is so word.

Secondly and more importantly-- it is exactly the dismissive attitude towards other efforts that invites that question. Anyone is free to comment on whatever they want in whatever way they want. What I am responding to is people who both claim to be part of a political movement and yet dismiss any actual instantiation of such a movement. It's that which invites the question, as should be clear to anyone who reads carefully and doesn't come in with an agenda.

I cannot conceive of being so sensitive in political argument as 90% of the people out there seem to be.

Alexios said...

Or rather, 90% of those commenting are especially sensitive. Or perhaps 90% of the people who comment, specifically at the moment(s) they are driven comment, are especially sensitive (bad day?)

In any case, I would like to ask if anyone has a resource or list of ways to contribute to the change being sought -- or perhaps a list could be created sui generis right here. One way to redirect energy and focus from self-limiting criticism to proactive, productive efforts at change is to, you know, do just that.

I understand the point of arguing what methods are more/most effective, but then again, as Odysseus Elytis wrote, "each to his own weapons." Let's at least lay some fucking weapons on the floor and get to battle. Better to start fighting and switch weapons along the way than to dither about debating which weapon to use.

Freddie said...

Very good point, Alexios. I'm searching myself.

And tongorad-- I am sorry if that came across as harsh. That was not my intent. I have tone problems. But you knew that.

tongorad said...

Got it, thanks.

BTW, I agree with this piece.
I admire your stuff & keep up the good work.