April 15, 2013

The importance of "vision" in activism

My apologies in advance for being more vague than usual in this blog post. The names have been scrubbed to protect the innocent and not-so innocent.

Some years back, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who would be described as "left of center" and who has been active in political efforts. In this conversation, we talked about the role that vision plays in political activism. Then as now, I consider it a necessary guide to activism -- a map, a compass, whatever metaphor you choose, you need a destination in order to avoid the risk of running in circles. This friend I was speaking with, with whom I would agree otherwise on nearly everything political, disagreed with me on this point to my surprise, saying that work on vision should be postponed until after the revolution (those words weren't used, but that's my paraphrase for what was meant). The objection that was raised was: You wouldn't want to muddy the waters for letting people decide about the society they want by trying to suggest it to them in advance. (My attempts to try to convince this friend otherwise didn't work.)

Some years after this conversation, I had a conversation with another person whom I would characterize as a passing acquaintance. I only met this person once, but we did have the chance to talk at length, and in this conversation the topic of vision in political activism came up. The main difference this time was that this other person might be best characterized as "right of center", but curiously the rationale for political vision was rejected, and for the same reason: activists in the here and now shouldn't color the potential of imposing the workings of a societal structure until the status quo has been abolished and a new societal blank slate has been won. "After the revolution", in other words.

I quite agree that dogmatism, whether on the "left", "right", or "center", has no place in political vision. If ideas turn out to be bad, then those ideas shouldn't be pursued. And I think it is better to find that out sooner than later by putting those ideas to
critical scrutiny and (where possible) experimental verification. Likewise, vision should not be imposed on anyone, but rather brought for consideration and allowed to convince adherents and advocates on their merits. If a vision is found lacking or shown to have problems, by scrutiny and/or experiment, then by all means, that vision should be ignored.

But to dispense with pursuing vision altogether is irrational, ridiculous, and counterproductive. If you don't have a destination, you stand the reasonable chance of going in circles, wasting time and energy and effort that we frankly don't have anymore. It's probably a big reason why activism has been (justly) accused of what we might call "randomism" -- that is, positive actions of activism aren't the result of a coherent plan with a goal, strategy, and tactics, and so they seem to outsiders as random, with little overall coherence and little actual follow-up.

One can understand why vision remains a largely taboo topic, across both the political right and the political left. Many times in history, those who did have a coherent vision and chose to articulate it have been repressed. Indeed, many of those with a vision still today are considered persona non grata in many fora and in many communities, even in those with a dissident bent. I can personally relate, in that my review of the book ~Parecon: Life After Capitalism~ went unpublished despite my attempts to get the review published in various "dissident" fora.

Vision can sometimes be thought of as restricting and dogmatic (the proverb "To a hammer, everything's a nail" can apply), and yes, some visions can be exceedingly harmful. There's no question about that. But some positive visions can also be a threat, not only to those in unquestioned power but also in "dissident" communities. I suspect that my review was squelched because my review may have opened a can of worms that they don't want to have to address because they may not like what they see in the mirror.

I guess this would be a call for common sense on vision. Yes, we need vision to provide positive goals to work through, lest we flail away randomly forever. Yes, we should not be dogmatic about our vision, but judge its merits carefully and refine as needed. And some of us have more freedom in this day and age; the purges of ages past and years past are less of a threat. If all that's standing in the way is a taboo, then we have no excuses to act. Even if it means blogging about it every day.