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Is action always preferable to inaction?

+2 votes

I have a definite reason for posing this question that I am hoping will become clear in the ensuing discussing: when faced with all of the messed-up things going on in the world today, is acton always preferable to inaction? While action-for-its-own-sake has always been a defining feature of radical social movements, the perceived sense of urgency to "just do something" seems to have become even more pronounced in the United States since the election of Donald Trump. I don't want this to turn into a discussion of whether the election of Trump signals the rising tide of fascism in America but whether, in their haste to respond to the changing political climate in the U.S., a large number of anarchists have been allowing the need to develop a systemic critique of the global socioeconomic order fall by the wayside. Thoughts?

asked Sep 21 by Matt Dionysus (540 points)
this is a funny question. it seems like it would be easy to answer, or at least comment on, but there's something about your explanation that is off putting somehow.

for what it's worth, on this site you're unlikely to find someone to argue that action is particularly important, at least as "action" is usually defined in political circles. most of the folks who comment here are pretty seriously post-left in that way. and the last thing that any of us would do would be to bring up trump, except maybe as you do, as a sign of changing times in general.

i wouldn't myself say that anti-fascist organizers are not developing, or even working from, a systematic critique (although maybe the "global socioeconomic order" is not exactly how i would put it, but that's probably a quibble), but that the critique and their activities are not in synch. maybe that's a quibble too? i guess my point is that people can have sophisticated analyses and not act on them.

to take more of a try at your title question, action is definitely not always preferable, but also a broader understanding of what action is, would be another approach to this topic...

(How to Complicate Matters 101! lol)

"when faced with all of the messed-up things going on in the world today, is action always preferable to inaction?"

this is a very tempting thing to say, because i think we all want to do something (and when i say "we", im talking about a lot of people, not just anarchists) about how miserable modern society often is.

But i'm also very strongly of the position that politics is hopelessly fucked up, and we just might as well try to have fun. If that would involve some sort of political action for someone, then based on that alone i can't criticize them

There's always going to be a big bad that "we" need to urgently take action against (whatever that's suppose to mean) because reasons according to folks. I don't think that right now there's more of a sense of urgency to "do something" (not sure what is meant by that either) compared to priorly. What qualifies as taking action and doing something? 

human it might be nice for you to answer the questions you asked? what would make a sense of (more) urgency for you? what qualifies as taking action (and not taking action) to you?

i get frustrated when folks talk about action as if reading and talking are not action, but then if i make "taking action" that broad then perhaps it becomes meaningless? one thread in me definitely thinks that there is no such thing as not acting. not standing against something is taking a position for something else. but the intentionality, the commitment, is worth *some*thing too... eh. it gets very philosophical at a certain point, and i lose interest in trying to put it to words. or at least this morning i do ;)

Well, if I take action to mean an organized act at completing a goal/task that one or a group set out to do and inaction as being similar to inertia or idleness. Then I would say that action isn't always preferable to inaction for me. Urgency for me is an immediate issue that directly affects me. I don't feel a sense of urgency regarding today's political environment in the US vs a few years ago or prior.

I wonder if the off-puttingness of my question might be due at least in part to the particularity of my vantage point. From where I sit up here to the north of the arbitrary and illegitimate Canada/US border, I feel like my understanding of the changing political climate down South since Nov. 8, 2016 is largely that of a spectator watching from the sidelines. If you're living it on a daily basis, I can understand how hearing the name "Trump" mentioned in any context whatsoever would get tiresome after a while. However, as someone who has only visited the States a few times in his life and who's understanding of its current political situation is largely derived from the mass media, I often find myself asking, "what the holy hell is going on down there!?"

When it comes to events like what took place in Charlottesville, VA or shutting down the Milo Yiannopoulos talk at UC Berkeley, it all looks incredibly reactive to me. I'd like to understand the situation a little better and I'd be interested in hearing dot explain why she doesn't think that "anti-fascist organizers are not developing, or even working from, a systematic critique." Having never spent any time around any anti-fascist organizers in the States, I have nothing to go on that might lead me to such conclusions other than what I see on CNN, as well my own prior experiences of interacting with similar people up here in good ol' Canuckistan. ;)

I also fully acknowledge the inadequacy of such terms as "the global socioeconomic order" and find myself cringing a bit whenever I use them. They seem to suggest the existence of a self-contained "social totality" that can be localized and understood in an exhaustive fashion when, in actual fact, it just isn't that simple. However, whether you opt to use this term or swap it out for a different one, the underlying connotation usually remains the same. With that said, if there is any alternate terminology that doesn't fall into this trap, I'd certainly be open to hearing it. :)

Anyway, I'm not going to prattle on longer than is absolutely necessary. Between the comments here and the answer posted by ingrate below, I think my initial question has been adequately addressed. I also wasn't really sure of the prevailing sentiment on this website, so I guess my question was partially an attempt "read the room," so to speak. I would, however, be interested in hearing any first-hand experiences that people might have of interacting with the current "Anti-Fascist Movement" in the US and what your impressions of it are as a post-left-leaning individual? Do you feel outnumbered when you're around them and do you feel that you can openly express disagreements with their preferred courses of action?   

I'll leave it at that for now. Cheers.

"I also fully acknowledge the inadequacy of such terms as "the global socioeconomic order"..."

It may be an inadequate term, but at the same time you are trying to describe the very real global capitalist system that's very strongly influenced by US politics. 

However, as someone who has lived in the US his whole life, I feel like a lot of the anti-fa stuff is just spectacular nonsense. Despite all the ranting and raving, he's really not that much different than the more left wing options that are available to americans. The democrats have an urban friendly anti-racist facade, but they fuck over and deport just as many under privledged people as the republicans do.

I'm really very clueless about what might be the best thing to do to combat openly racist fascists, but as someone who has witnessed a lot of the back and forth stupidity between right wingers and leftists, I'm of the opinion that anti-fa is just another brand of moralism and an attempt to suppress thought crime. I don't have any direct experience with anti-fa (except reading some of their blogs), but they seem to be exactly the same as the general social anarchist movement, call out culture and identity politics.

.."who's understanding of its current political situation is largely derived from the mass media, I often find myself asking, "what the holy hell is going on down there!?"

Yeah, the mass media actually put donald trump into office just like they basically do with every other president. The major news organizations benefited financially from trumps "over the top rhetoric", and they are still benefiting from him while they simultaneously talk about how he's a terrible president. It's definetly and interesting thing to fallow at times, but I feel as an anarchist I need to mostly just understand that donald trump is a pretty trivial person to me.

always nice to get more background on the question, thanks MD.

i don't travel outside of (or talk much to people outside of) the u.s. but it seems like the u.s. is going through a fairly normal reaction to economic hardship, a failing economy (aka becoming third-world-ized), and what some consider the failed experiment of a first black president. as someone who occasionally listens to liberal media, i cannot fathom how they keep saying "this isn't normal" as if that's an indictment, for example, when it's THE WHOLE PRINCIPLE that many voted for trump on.

but all that stupid electoral politics aside,

to me the deepest issue with action-is-always-better, is that that argument assumes that we know what makes change in people's minds and in the world.  an extremely hubristic and western mindset, among other things.
"...becoming third-world-ized"

This is what I've been saying to people I know, is that the USA is going to become a third world country one day, because I don't see any trends whatsoever in politics that may keep the rich from stealing increasing amounts of money from the poor (or the not-rich however you look at it...)
I don't think I'd go so far as to call it "normal," but I do agree that this lack of normality is not an indictment in itself. What anarchists want certainly isn't "normal" either, but for entirely different reasons than the Trump admin isn't normal. What interests me, I guess, is the collective post-election trauma that seems to have enveloped a large segment of the American Left, and I don't think that this dynamic can be fully understood by viewing the broader political situation as entirely banal.

Based on what I'm seeing, it appears that even the superficial veneer of "civil liberties" that existed under Obama is being thrown out the window by Trump. It goes without saying that the mass media is just a propaganda machine designed to maintain some version of the present social order, but the antagonistic relationship between Trump and the media is still worth looking at insofar as it illustrates an internal rift within the liberal-democratic process itself. Not only is it a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing, it's like each hand of a two-headed monster is repeatedly slapping the other in the face.

Couple that with the recent news about the Department of Justice requesting the personal information of Facebook users that are critical of the president and it seems apparent that, while there may be no categorical difference between Obama and Trump, the latter has less qualms about more overt and heavy-handed displays of authoritarianism. None of this is to suggest that there's cause for alarm but that, if you want to understand the context in which you as a post-left person in the US are operating, it's worth examining how the shifting dynamic might be causing people on the Left to react in the ways that they are.

Anyway, none of this is intended as a criticism or to build up the electoral dog-an-pony show into something that it isn't, but to offer an outsider's perspective on how, in the words of Bob Dylan, "the times, they are a-changin'." ;)
"...I don't think that this dynamic can be fully understood by viewing the broader political situation as entirely banal."

Yes, the general political situation of nation states has a LOT of relevance to anarchists. I just choose to ignore a lot of it because I get pretty overwhelmed by digesting and processing large amounts of information. I want to live in a world where I'm free to feel like an animal, but that's some pretty fucking utopian thinking....

One thing I want to add to my previous thoughts is this: my critique of anti-fa is that they're methods aren't actually an attack on the state or worker exploitation. While they are very militantly attacking racism, I don't think that the state needs racism to carry out its tyranny, if everyone in the US stopped thinking black and latin american people were more likely to be criminals, then it would just start punishing a broader array of people, or make more laws. Hence, anti-fa attacks the means of the state that it has been conveniently using for hundreds of years, but does absolutely nothing to cripple the state itself.
antifa doesn't even act against all racism, just one particular kind. there're a million more relevant and brutal and endemic racist (state) actors that antifa doesn't pay attention to and in fact distracts from. part of the "lowest common denominator" problem, that in less trumpian times was apparent in people's anti-cop struggles.
Matt Dionysus -

You are absolutely correct that there are differences in how the state functions under Trump who (without falling into alarmist rhetoric) seems far more capricious in his day-to-day decisions, as well as being openly racist (his response to Hurricane Maria vs. Irma and Harvey are the low hanging fruit. I could go on, but why?). This is causing multiple reactions on the left (and even among folks who are post-left). Some are galvanized into action at every single opportunity (I think about liberals and progressives marching against _________, but also my various friends who have been fully swept up in the antifa moment), some are paralyzed and withdrawing or dropping out.

It looks eerily similar to the galvanization that happened in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan (and later, Iraq), while also having some very distinct differences. In that case, a bunch of people went really hard (hard in terms of the amount of energy expended on fruitless protests and organizing) and then burned out, withdrew. Other people got so overwhelmed that they stopped engaging at all. Still others jumped on the voting train and rode that boxcar all the way to liberaltown. Hopefully it is obvious that none of these is desirable, rather I would argue for a strategic and measured response.

Like dot and Nihilist, I am critical of antifa as being the overarching focus of anarchist activity. I am not anti-antifa however. I am willing to be connected to antifa when it feels appropriate (the area I live in has been a place where it has been somewhat appropriate recently), but I also know that it is sucking all the energy from that building of infrastructure into projects like confronting a particular racism which (as dot points out) isn't even the primary form racism takes in out society.  This is reactionary. Sometimes totally necessary, but reactionary. For the most part, we are acting from a defensive posture, as opposed to an offensive posture, and I would prefer to save my energy for attack, while not dropping out entirely.

2 Answers

+5 votes

In a word, no. As dot, Nihilist and human alluded to, there are times where the urge to "just do something" (do anything?), is counterproductive. There are times where our enemies are baiting us to act and knowing they have the upper hand, in those cases to choose to act is to play in to their hands. Specific examples from my lifetime, if not necessarily my own lived experience, include protests against various wars (Gulf 1 & 2, bombing Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc.), the anti-globalization summit-hopping era, Occupy, and the current antifa tide.

This is not to be mistaken for doing nothing, but sometimes the best choice is to bide our time, to grow connections and affinity, and to build infrastructure. All of these are ways of doing something, but they are not likely to be the things that appeal to someone incensed by whatever the latest social atrocity happens to be. They aren't geared at necessarily dealing with specific temporal conflicts, but at looking at the long game.

Anarchy as chess.

At the same time, I don't think that looking at the long game means not showing up and acting in the moment as is appropriate (what is appropriate for each of us is a conversation for a different question, or, probably more appropriately, for you and your friends). Sometimes bodies need to be in the street. Sometimes the best propaganda is the sound of a plate glass window dropping. Sometimes "attack" actually means attack. I love those times. What I don't do is delude myself that those times are somehow more valuable than other more slow and deliberate work. 

Sure, I can read some old communiques and feel a sense of how great certain moments of open rebellion were. That is not a false memory or a reinterpretation of the past, they were fun,exhilarating, character-building, and, sometimes, even politically effective experiences. What I don't do (or try not to do) is chase replication of the particular aesthetic those moments as spectacle.

By all means, wreck some shit and burn a thing or three, but don't think that because it felt good to wild out on the prole stroll with your comrades this time, that next time you should do it the same, or that you should even necessarily respond to provocations.

Our enemies aren't as stupid as we think, they have more people dedicated to thinking through strategy of the chess game than we do. Sometimes the best action is waiting.

answered Sep 30 by ingrate (20,420 points)
edited Sep 30 by ingrate
0 votes
Action is so often simply reaction; a limited action within the constraints of the perceived problem. Stepping beyond the problem is the way beyond the problem. So, a new action is called for, an actual action.

Every problem is merely a need for clarity, for understanding. If we eat a food which makes us sick, we never eat it again. The only action called for is no action.

We cannot do anything about the state of the world, and it is a world wide problem not just America. All the protests simply fall on deaf ears. Oh sure the governments may promise change, but where is the change? Governments have always followed the dictates of those with the real power, the big businessmen.

The only thing we can do is create the life we live. So it is a case of dropping out, of being a non-participant, of being the alternative. That is the only way we can change things. So the real change must begin with ourself.

We all have to eat, to have shelter, etc, so we have to begin a new way of doing so, one which will contribute to actual change. One which is not a reaction to capitalism but one which is the natural way of this planet... co-operation.

* Edit was to correct a few minor spelling errors!
answered Oct 7 by edclear (480 points)
edited Oct 10 by edclear
Hi edclear, welcome to @101.

I appreciate what (to me) seems like a degree of Buddhist influence in your answer. Granted, I'm not a Buddhist, so I might be misreading, but I appreciate parts of that general worldview quite a bit.

Here are a couple places where I have a harder time with ideas of acceptance/letting go and with your answer that I am hoping you can speak more to (because, well, dialogue is actually part of the point of this site):

What do we do when we can't just step away from a problem? You write about dropping out and non-participation, but given the global reach of capitalism, industry, civilization, et. al. how do we effectively drop out? Is our dropping out complete or partial? Can we even realistically do so at this point (an aside, I used to have a short list of places I knew I could go to escape civilization when the time came, they are all now compromised)?

Sometimes problems are complicated, and clarity is not so simple. In anarchyland, I have situations where multiple people are doing (and not doing) things because of reasoning that is entirely understandable and yet find myself in positions where I am in the middle of conflicts. Not against cops, or big business, or the state, but between my comrades. How do you see the search for clarity & understanding work in those cases?

In a lot of ways i like this answer, but I have a big problem with this section:

"The only thing we can do is create the life we live. So it is a case of dropping out, of being a non-participant, of being the alternative. That is the only way we can change things. So the real change must begin with ourself."

There isn't a way to simply "create the life that we live", and as ingrate pointed out dropping out of techno-idustrial-authoritarian civilization is extremely difficult. Total independence isn't even desirable by most people.

Never studied Buddhism, just impartial life as it is.

What could possibly stop us from stepping away?

By stepping aside we put a bit of distance which gives a greater perspective.

I've yet to encounter a problem which is actually a Problem. All depends on our perception of whatever situation/circumstance. That's where no action comes into play. If we are busy with whatever we consider to be a problem, we are the problem aren't we?

Stop being the problem, then it's... what problem?

But we may say, "it's not me, it's other people, it's society, it's capitalism, etc,etc, etc". However, that is simply a lack of clarity.

Clarity of what really is rather than what we think is, or wish things were, etc. Are problems anything other than the reaction of memory; thoughts churning away, emotions getting entangled?
When we say "there isn't", there never will be.

We are all inter-related, inter-dependent... no one is an island as someone once said. It's not about breaking away from others nor rejecting technology, etc. Everything in life about about the why and the how, isn't it? The why and the how is the way.

Take money for example. Money is a nothing... a no thing... a notion. Money is an approach to create a form of order, but what that approach has become is something more than ever intended. Unnecessary complexity, and even more so, unnecessary adulation. Money can be anything, just as people used to use beads, cows, whatever. So money can be anything. In itself it is not a problem nor problematic, it's all how it is used, and more importantly the why behind the how.

So we can still use money, we can still make money, all without being a contradiction or hypocrite. That is why the why is all essential. It is also why groups of non-participants have to get together and live for one another not just with one another.

We can't completely isolate ourselves, nor do we need to, but we have to show working solutions. I can see a world beyond money, beyond power, beyond ignorance.

Just imagine a world without money, where we all lived together, for one another. Technology would have absolutely no limits, as financial restriction is just that. So inventors/experimentalists would have everything within their reach.

All it takes is complete co-operation.
"Stop being the problem, then it's... what problem?

But we may say, "it's not me, it's other people, it's society, it's capitalism, etc,etc, etc". However, that is simply a lack of clarity."

Like you, i reject the notion of blaming other phenomenon/people for "the problems of the world", I never implied in this whole question that I wanted to just blame other people for techno-industrial-civilization and abdicate myself, but I also reject the notion that there is some clear set of problems that can just be fixed through lifestyle changes. It's definitely possible to become a wood hermit who uses little to no technology, but that won't do anything to get rid of the rampant destruction of the modern society we live in, and it would imply cutting yourself off from all possible resources! But by all means, i would support anyones desire to cut themselves off from society.

"All it takes is complete co-operation"

I think you are on the wrong forum! To an anarchist complete co-operation is a completely ridiculous idea, and sounds extremely ideological and imposing.

I also think that the idea to "eliminate problems" is also rediculous, this is not the goal of anarchists, the idea behind anarchy is accepting the fact that there will be conflict and not trying to suppress it as current nation states do.
Hello Nihilist, there seems to be a bit of a mix up somewhere along the line. My reply from where you took the quote was addressed to Ingrate, and within the context of his/her reply. I never accused you or anyone of blaming others. Nor do I suggest that we take off to the woods, or encourage any form of isolation from humanity.

Above you spoke of getting "rid of the rampant destruction". How on can this be achieved without co-operation?

Co-operation is in no way a form of co-ercion, far from it. Co-operation is a natural outcome of living together, of community. That is not ideological, that is simple basic fact of daily life.

What happens when there is a disaster of some sort? Everyone springs into action to help one another, that is direct co-operation without any motive for gain. Simple humanity.

To transform this world from one of complete self interest with all its offshoots of inherent destruction and idiocy to one reflecting our true humanity will simply take a shift from conformist compliance to co-operation.

Problems are simply misunderstanding, lack of understanding, are they not? Therefore problems can cease with ease.

Anarchy is present, not some distant dream. As for anarchists, any ist, ism, etc, is the exact same as we have with the "problem" capitalist, capitalism, etc. Isms, ists, these are attempts at a fixed state, anarchy is fluid as anarchy is life itself. Needs no definition for the definition is corruption, is it not?
I find what you are saying now to be better than what I read before, before I thought you were just presenting some sort of simple solution to all the worlds problems. I also admit I didn't try all that hard to read into what you were writing, even though I still find some of it unclear.

Also, what you say about -isms resonates with me, the desire to have an -ism is a desire for some continuous state.
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