On Doing Nothing

Put the kettle on. I’m going on about politics again.

If, like me, you are partial to a conversation concerning the overthrow of the current poisonous economic system and its replacement with a more humane, communist alternative, then you will, most likely, have come across two elephants vying for space in the same room.

One of these elephants is stained red by the seemingly inevitable bloodbath that seems to follow ‘successful’ historical revolutions. Whenever one occurs a Stalin pops his head up above the barricade or a reign of terror circumvents head popping via head chopping by the hundreds of thousands. Or both.

Hundreds and thousands

The other elephant, pressed despondently against the wall by the trumpeting blood-drenched one, is failing to even get his trunk up, so miserable is he with the conviction that any political action he takes is ultimately fruitless and ineffective. ‘Look at the march against Iraq’ etc, etc, blahblahblah

Revolutions don’t have a good record when it comes to achieving a utopian paradise for the common people on earth. They’ve achieved it about no times.

These two points of view can be underpinned or intellectually justified by a philosophical principle that the best course of action in highly charged political and social circumstances is no action at all.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger advised that you should avoid public affairs when the state is corrupt beyond repair. What’s that if not a description of our current political circumstances? It’s more sensible to wait for self destruction, so says Seneca. Seneca used to be a tutor and advisor to Emperor Nero who later ordered Seneca to kill himself after he was involved with an assassination conspiracy against him. So maybe he should have followed his own advice.

A couple of thousand years later and the contemporary writer John Gray has written several works about the futility and tragedy of humans aiming for progress. Such striving inevitably leads to disaster and horror, so says Gray, and advises that we should adopt a Taoist-like, dispassionate perspective. We should be like other animals. Never striving. Only living in the perpetual moment.

Which is all well and good and philosophically I can’t really argue against. I am intellectually squeezed between those two elephants. I can look at the history of revolutionary or progressive struggle and see how drenched in blood it is. And I can look at the recent banging of drums on an array of issues from climate to war and see Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the world and I can wonder and wonder at what went wrong.

Sometimes you can think through something so much though you grind to a halt but if there is one thing you can be sure of, while you’re gazing at your navel, the rest of the world will continue grinding on. At least for now. You may see nobility in rising above the milieu, loftily disengaging, but the fact will always remain that there are many others – most others – who will not. And if you don’t fight for your progress you should at least admit that someone else will be fighting for theirs and it’s they who will shape the world that you are sat there dispassionately witnessing. Even if the shape they think they’re sculpting is a surprise even to them, they are still holding the hammer and the chisel. Not you.

Not acting doesn’t have no consequences. The only way to avoid that is to go completely off grid and live like a hermit. Which is fine, whatever floats your boat, but I expect it would be really fucking boring and besides even that is less and less of an option.

The 19th Century proto-libertarian Henry David Thoreau advocated civil disobedience and direct action. He was heavily involved in the campaign against slavery and inspired Ghandi and Martin Luther King, however he considered himself beyond politics and championed a return to a life more attuned to the natural world. He wrote:

weird weekends

“most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less to alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine is dying out in the country and I might attend”

If he was true to his word, and his life gives us no reason to think he wouldn’t be,  you should find Henry Thoreau somewhere in the crowd the next time you get kettled by those defending you. He’ll be the one whittling sticks or milking a cow he’s brought along.

All precedent suggests attempts at radical change won’t work or will lead to disaster. But not acting is leading to no change and to disaster. In these circumstances isn’t trying and failing better than not trying at all? I’m British so inclined to think there’s even heroism and romance in failure. Like a doomed affair or unrequited love, in its failure the idea is kept alive.

Slavok Zizek talks about the film Titanic in these terms. The hitting of the iceberg that sinks the ship takes place at the precise moment that Kate Winslet declares that she is going to abandon her privileged life for a poorer but more authentic one with DiCaprio. The iceberg here serves a number of purposes. It punishes the couple for their sexual transgression and their social transgression. But it also ironically serves the purpose of rescuing the love of the couple. It enables the maintenance of the illusion that their love would last beyond a few weeks of passionate fucking in a flea and damp ridden New York apartment. The iceberg saves them from the miserable life she has actually just chosen and the idea of their love stays alive. In this sense all the progressive failures of the past only serve to keep the idea that fueled them alive.

So try, you’ll likely fail, it will likely be a disaster even if you succeed and you may not even want what you get anyway. This is absurd. But then, what isn’t? Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus talks about the absurdity of existence and uses Sisyphus, eternally pushing a stone up a mountain for it to forever roll back down again, as a noble hero, acknowledging and accepting the absurdity of his struggle and smiling anyway:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again… He too concludes that all is well…The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


And as a glimmer of hope (which Camus would most likely not have approved of) there is nothing that says a string of failures inevitably means the next attempt will be also. Many have argued the opposite. ‘From defeat to defeat to the final victory‘ as progressive human rights champion Mao Zedong said. Rosa Luxembourg argued that successful failures laid the groundwork for eventual success. Presumably before she was murdered by the state after the failed Spartacist Revolution. And you didn’t see Frodo Baggins giving up on the slopes of Mount Doom did you now? Well, actually you did but Samwise carried him the last few yards. Solidarity brother!

Despite the lessons of history it feels to me increasingly like we should be embracing the absurdity of acting in our own best interest. ‘Better fidelity to the disaster of the Event than the non-being of indifference to the Event’ as Zizek awkwardly paraphrased Badiou. I suppose he means, you’ll at least feel alive while you’re trying. I don’t think I’ve yet lived through a period so in need of us to smile while we, in the words of Sam Beckett “try again. Fail again. Fail better”

Oh boy!