The Ice Bucket Challenge: A few notes on activism

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It is indeed a vicious side of nature which comes out in motor neurone disease, so it makes sense to donate to any cause attempting to cure it and help those who have it. It makes you wonder though why so many of the ice bucket challengers never lift a finger when far more vicious forms of man-made, and not just natural, disasters occur, like the ongoing British-backed bombing of northern Iraq or the massacre of the impoverished Gaza strip, strongly supported by numerous MPs. There are no sophisticated neurological advances needed to end the bombing of Gaza, or northern Iraq, or Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, just the familiar kinds of anti-government protests, occupations, petitions, lobbying, boycotting, and the rest of it.

These charity-based arguments basically claim that if we all just keep on giving money away, constantly, then we won’t have to worry about the existing structures and hierarchies of power in government, finance, education, etc. This is misleading for lots of reasons, one of the more neglected of which is the fact that firms involved in the coalition government’s workfare schemes (forcing some on benefits to work for zero cash) include the selfless and empathetic Barnardos and RSPCA (whose distress over the four-legged doesn’t seem to extend to mere humans). More generally, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rarely address the unjust structure of corporations, and ‘accept the ideological premise that corporations can be persuaded to act benignly’ (David Cromwell, Why Are We The Good Guys?: Reclaiming You Mind From the Delusions of Propaganda, Winchester: Zero Books, 2012, p. 130). Mainstream NGOs are overwhelmingly characterised by their neoliberal tinges. They often replace state welfare provisions, and so although individuals working for specific NGOs may be well-intentioned, NGOs still function as ‘Trojan horses for global neoliberalism’ (T. Wallace, ‘NGO Dilemmas: Trojan Horses for Global Neoliberalism?’, Socialist Register, 2003: 202-19). They also tend to be unaccountable to anything beyond their donors (in this sense mirroring the unaccountability of corporations to anything except their stakeholders), and are typically elitist, hide their agendas, and through their holier-than-thou rhetoric presume to speak on behalf of those who’d rather speak for themselves and not have their interests defined for them. We should perhaps think of Oscar Wilde’s hope in ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ of living not in a richly charitable world, but rather in a world in which charity was unnecessary (hence why many activist groups and autonomous spaces refuse to accept tips): ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible’.

But it’s unfair to just criticise ice bucketers and NGOs – placing ‘fun’ and consumption above all else is often even detected in, for instance, certain anti-imperialist and anti-austerity activism. I’ve lost count of the number of small anti-war meetings I’ve been to in which most of the speakers at the meeting were genuinely concerned people, thinking up creative ways to undermine Britain’s militarism, but there are always a couple of invited speakers who get up on the podium and give a big speech about how much they love the people of Afghanistan, want to invite them round for a pint and offer them their favourite chair, and how they ‘stand in solidarity’ with them, before proceeding on home and never being heard of again. Short-term grandeur, like videoing yourself being covered with iced water, all too often takes precedence over long-term objectives and tactics.

There must be a reason then – or probably a shed load of them – why we all don’t just collectively organise and participate in sit-down strikes, occupations, boycotts, or even do really teeny tiny forms of Activism like writing ‘Dear MP, what do you plan on doing about Britain’s support of this, that, and the other?’ kind of emails, or handing out flyers for upcoming marches/strikes/film screenings in support of local groups attempting to stop the privatisation of vital state institutions, stop arms firms selling high-tech equipment and weaponry to violent states, end ongoing military occupations, or end the exclusionary practices of the country’s top universities and their hiking tuition fees. Chris Hedges wrote about these issues a while ago for Truthdig, in a piece called ‘The Careerists’, who are those who ‘carry out minute tasks. They are docile. Compliant. They obey. They find their self-worth in the prestige and power of the corporation, in the status of their positions and in their career promotions. They assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. They sit on school boards. They go to Rotary. They attend church. It is moral schizophrenia.’

Similar concerns were aired by Fred Branfman when he recently wrote about his journey to Laos in the 1970s with Noam Chomsky, during Washington’s bombing raids, in an eloquent piece for Salon (‘When Chomsky wept’, 17 June 2012):

‘If enough of us had worked like Noam to try to force American leaders to stop killing and exploiting the innocent these past 40 years, after all, countless people would have been saved, and America and the world would not only be far richer, more peaceful and more just. It would not be presently heading toward the collapse of civilization as we know it from climate change. Noam believes the major responsibility for this lies with a short-term driven corporate system that regards climate change as an ‘externality,’ i.e., a problem for someone else to worry about. But it is also clear that the fact that not enough of the rest of us, certainly including myself, respond appropriately to civilization’s looming death is a major part of the problem as well. And, I thus finally realized, the important question was not why Noam responds the way he does to the suffering of the innocent around the planet. It was why so many of the rest of us do not.’

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