On Collective Action and Naiveté

Yesterday, at a panel on Syria in New York, amidst all the talk about military strategy, literature on civil wars, whether Assad would “really go” or not, Lisa Wedeen, author of the book on Hafez Asad’s cult of personality Ambiguities of Domination, said something that no one really asked about or questioned but, nevertheless, really resonated with me.

First, she implored people to stop treating ISIS and the Assad regime as separate phenomena. Their military-oriented fascism are actually manifestations from the same “ecology of cruelty,” she said. The latest Der Spiegel article on the origins and structure of the Islamic State lends much credence to such assessments.

She then juxtaposed this to the uprising at its outset, where, she said, many Syrians cultivated “novel forms of togetherness.” The initial movement, its protests, its chants, its coordination committees, were no doubt revolutionary in method and in form.

But this romantic juxtaposition has always led to problems for me. Were we naive to think civilian coordination committees could win out against these ruthless authoritarians? Could such forms of collective action actually defeat tyrants with expert knowledge in torture and an endless supply of jail cells?

Yes, Wedeen suggested. We were naive to think that. Our present situation is a testament to that. But, she concluded, ‘without those attempts at collective action, nothing would ever get undone.’

For advocates of social change, a naive outlook can be devastating. Realistically assessing your situation and position relative to the powers that be is necessary for any social movement that wants to win and have a chance at making changes on more than a simply discursive level. However, there is only one attribute that guarantees that social change will never occur and that the status quo will forever be perpetuated—defeatism.

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