Archive for October, 2009

The antiwar movement in the large, and measuring it

I read this article and thought it was interesting. I had some comments on it, which pertain to the antiwar movement at large, so I thought I would share them. Make of them what you will.

1. Measuring is good when possible!

Being a scientist (and a mathematician at that), I like data. Observing and measuring is good. If you can find things to measure, more power to you.

However, I can see some difficulties in the context of the antiwar movement. In particular, some things are hard to measure; and more, some important or essential things that an activist group should be doing, might have completely zero short-term measurable effect. Some details follow.

2. The scale of antiwar goals.

To stop, or even prevent, a single war is a massive, world-historic event. To reduce the US national military budget, say to a level comparable to the rest of the world, even more so: that amounts to a total restructuring of the economy. To stop militarism, more so again: that is a culture and an economic and institutional inertia written deeply into american life. And, to stop jingoistic patriotism — the insane loyalty to a single geographic region with some arbitrary boundaries denoting the fates of long forgotten kings, emperors and imperialists who once carved up the earth for themselves — indeed amounts to a complete change of american life: so that every wave of the flag is met with curiosity or stupefaction, rather than with cheers and tears; so that the “american” in american life it more or less ceases to exist, to the extent it denotes anything more than a geographic location.

Make no mistake, the antiwar movement has these as goals, and not just in the US, but everywhere. They are not complete goals — a world with all these achieved might still be one of rank inequality, authoritarianism, and thwarted human life. One might argue they are best pursued alongside others — perhaps it can only be done along with a restructuring of the rules of international trade, greater international economic and political integration, debt forgiveness, the satisfaction of humanitarian and economic needs and so on; or more radically, the restructuring of the global economy, economic democracy, north-south reparations, finding a better economic alternative to capitalism, etc.

Nonetheless, the broad antiwar goals are goals for the long term. They chart a course for human history. Their time-frame is measured in centuries — even as the insanity and potential for catastrophe is so great as to demand that they be achieved now. Thus, one expects progress to be slow, even negligible; but one wishes, and needs, it to be done now.

Of course there are more local and immediate goals too, but the big picture must always be kept in mind, where measurable progress can be expected to be indistinguishable from zero even in the best possible case.

3. Sometimes vast changes happen unpredictably — in the meantime, ideas are important.

Events like the founding of the United Nations and the end of the cold war were world-changing — and entirely unpredictable a few years beforehand. Nobody would have advocated the second world war, or (say) the invasion of Afghanistan, in order to achieve these goals. The end of the second world war was indeed the impetus for the founding of the UN, but it is a superficial reading of history to regard that as the sole cause. These were not mere elite decisions, not merely the brokering of power by beloved leaders.

The creation of the United Nations built upon a century of pacifist organising and activism, the advocacy of various schemes of international integration, agitation for the outlawing of war (achieved in 1928 by the Briand-Kellogg pact, and today binding on all nations as customary international law), and the work of organisations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom. Nobody could have measured any progress whatsoever towards international integration until the first world war led to the League of Nations; and after its demise, again, until the second world war led to the UN. History is unpredictable, but the course of history depends upon the ideas and institutions that are in existence; the power of those ideas; and the balance of forces those ideas and their supporting institutions have at their disposal. By measurability standards the WILPFs and the Bertha von Suttners of the world are clearly zero or close to it. By the standards of history, they are monumental.

The conclusion must be that in political activism, the mere propagation of ideas — perhaps even the mere existence of active organisations working for those ideas — is of value in itself. Having an organisation, having people willing to meet regularly, putting time into the cause, in itself is something. Of course, the more people doing it, the wider the ideas spread, and the more clearly they are formulated and powerfully they are expressed, the better. Some of this may be measurable. But much of it surely cannot.

In any case I think, in the activist context, the proposition that no measurable effect implies no political effect is not always true.

4. Sometimes vast changes happen after long struggles — at the beginning, nothing was measurable.

An insistence on measurability would have stopped people speaking out against the Vietnam war for many years — as I recall, Kennedy first sent troops in around 1963 but the protest movement did not pick up until the end of the decade. Recall the stories of Chomsky and fellow activists going to speak every weekend, I think at the Boston Common — with a significant police presence, not to beat up the antiwar protestors (as we see more usually today!), but to protect Chomsky and company from being beaten up by pro-war onlookers. An absolutely hopeless situation — and disorganised at that — but without this sort of persistence, the later massive movement could never have arisen.

More generally, the situation for most serious activists — those antagonistic to power, to received ideology, and not subservient to some faction of power (like the CAP Shwarz refers to) — almost always seems hopeless. Power is strong by definition, it has legions of unthinking supporters, and no shortage of subservient academics, pundits, and intellectuals. Challenging a political and intellectual hegemony is tough work! The best approach however seems clear: have a realistic analysis, but do what is required for the cause and for the good. As Gramsci put it: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

History shows that it can be done. And, often it is drastic. The pace of change can quicken, dramatically. Ideas can be widespread, and regarded as good, just as impractical. Many people are not prepared to act until they believe that others are prepared to act. Political action is self-referential, at least at first, its philosophy is logically circular, as with much of social life — but it happens. And it cannot happen without an impetus that is non-measurable up to the instant it occurs, collapsing the nesting of logical brackets, and making a reality of the common knowledge that we think other people think we think they think.

5. The local situation may also make measurability hard.

None of this is to say that measurable effects should not be noted where possible, just that good work may not always have short-term measurable consequences. For campus organising, I can think of some sorts of measurements that could be made. But thinking about it, the same problems seems to apply even to goals local to a single campus. Getting the local war criminal prosecuted would be monumental in US history. Stopping, or placing further institutional limits on, military research would be a massive shift in the direction of the whole university — one can well argue, at least to a first approximation, that Stanford built itself into a world-class institution precisely by taking government money for military-related research. Moreover, current military research on campus is institutionally protected by white-washed reports and “academic freedom” and runs together with the vast sums of “defence”-related money supporting the economy of not just Stanford, but the entire country — military Keynesianism.

In addition, arguably the low-lying fruit (no classified research on campus, no ROTC on campus, for example) have already been won by movements long ago (well, the 1970s!).

But, the general idea seems fine. Activist groups should have identifiable goals, visions, and so on. And activist groups should not be wasting their limited time and resources by doing things which do not help their cause — or by not helping their cause as much as they potentially could.

I would just say to be on guard that too much of a focus on short-term measurability could potentially detract from the sort of cultural and ideological change that is, in the long run, central to any antiwar, or anti-imperialist, or pacifist mission, and which seems nigh impossible to measure objectively.


Written by dan

October 31st, 2009 at 11:20 pm