- Time for Introspection? The Problem with Left-Wing Exceptionalism
In his Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009), the anarchist and intellectual David Graeber recalls an interesting discussion among anticapitalist activists preparing for demonstrations in Quebec City in 2001. The anticapitalists were discussing an activist group from Montreal that they felt had a very different ethos than they did: it was called Operation SalAMI. The group’s members were “not anti-capitalists,” just “the usual anti-corporate types,” and they were Gandhian pacifists who preached absolute nonviolence—no swearing, no graffiti, no vandalism, no aggressive gestures whatsoever (5). The anticapitalists had little time for the SalAMI self-righteous types, who seemed to think their supposed moral superiority gave them the right to micromanage the organization of actions. One activist speaks up to denounce the whole concept of pacifism as “fundamentally elitist” (6). This sparks more denouncements: What good to poor people is the moral superiority these activists display by passively accepting a police beating, especially when it is poor people who have to face the rough end of state force on a day-to-day basis? What good does pacifism do except encourage the underprivileged to endure their lowly place in the system’s hierarchy? But Graeber finds the whole conversation “a little pat and one-sided” and decides to challenge those present, asking: “What about the poor people’s groups that critique militant tactics as a product of middle-class white privilege, that real oppressed groups would never be allowed to get away with?” The response to Graeber is perhaps rather predictable: “Someone changes the subject” (7). [End Page 381]
It is precisely this type of unreflective discussion within the alter-globalization movement—the movement seeking a radical alternative to the current form of neoliberal globalization—that Hoofd’s Ambiguities of Activism attempts to address. Hoofd implores activists to reflect upon their own position within the neoliberal order and to recognize that they are not detached from it—in fact, they are inextricably tied to it. As a result, they carry within their activism the ethos of the system they so deplore, and they inevitably help reinforce and further the ethos of capitalism through their actions. Hoofd’s argument is not that alter-globalist activists have nothing valuable to say about social justice and liberty (the above criticisms of Gandhian pacifism clearly have some merit), nor is it that activists have a secret agenda to promote the capitalist system. Nevertheless, Hoofd attempts to deconstruct alter-globalist discourse to demonstrate that well-meaning alter-globalists are unwitting accomplices in the accelerating production and reproduction of the neoliberal order. For Hoofd, it is only by slowing down and reflecting upon their own arguments that alter-globalists can hope to throw a spanner in the works of the capitalist system. If they blinker their vision, ignore criticism, and plow on with an agenda of more and more connections, expanding networks of resistance, and proliferating activism, they can only hope to contribute to a capitalist system that actually favors their emphasis on proliferation, that is, on a certain form of productive action and accelerating growth. Alter-globalism, then, is complicit in the runaway overproduction inherent in the neoliberal order that is driving our civilization to burnout and catastrophe.
Like Graeber, Hoofd is well positioned to comment on the dynamics of alter-globalist activism, having spent two decades as an activist struggling against what she perceives as the injustices entrenched within the process of neoliberal globalization (and, like Graeber, she focuses on the type of activism she is involved in, what she calls “viral” activism [4–5]: loosely organized, anarchistic, radically anticapitalist action, as well as the intellectual political ideas that support it). Her aim is not to destroy alter-globalism by picking it apart and dismissing it as an illusion; rather, her well-intentioned critique of the movement is designed to refresh the “quest for global justice” (x). She informs us that she was driven to this critique by her own experience...