Part one of this essay series is about what was done to the activist movement to stultify it. Part two points out broader trends in culture and in activist subculture itself. Both have isolated activists and made change more difficult to achieve.
Successful movements often grow out of existing communities and coalitions. The labor movement drew from a large pool of industrial workers; the civil rights movement took from historically black colleges and the black congregations; the Gay Liberation movement drew from homosexual groups in major Metros like New York, London and San Francisco; and the Moral Majority brought together baptists and Evangelicals across the south and Midwest.
The language of leftist activism recognizes this: workers, collectivism, solidarity, brotherhood/sisterhood, comrade.
Why then is activism such a fringe activity?
Journalist Jonathan Matthew Smucker posits that activism has been pigeonholed because of a broader social pattern:
This clustering of activists into silos fits into a broader trend in advanced capitalist nations toward greater individualistic self-expression and less civic participation. With this backdrop, it is as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby—something akin to being a skier or a theater person or a foodie—rather than a civic or political responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific microaggregations, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such little niche—that activism would become its own particular community of interest that self-selecting individual activists join. The problem is that, when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches and selfselectors. We need much larger swaths of society.
This decline of social capital (essentially the interconnectedness of people) was discussed by sociologist Robert Putnam in his 2001 book Bowling Alone. Even in the early days of the internet, there were measurable declines in bowling leagues, clubs, civic participation and gatherings. We used to depend more on our friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Technology has given us entertainment, knowledge and self-sufficiency, but it has also isolated us from our communities.
This creates a dual problem for activism: the communities that were once the basis of an activist coalition are now less close-knit and less populous, and the activist community itself is more drawn to an individualist “activist” identity.
The internet, which is often understood as a tool for connection, actually serves to further individualism in the manner that Smucker describes. In the 1990s Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT media lab, coined the term “the daily me” as a way of describing an increasingly personalized internet experience. News, business, search engine queries and ads are all personalized to serve your specific interests. Embrace your inner weirdo, find your own subreddit for it, then click the ads and buy the things marketed to your specific brand of weird. Who wants to subsume themselves into the collectivism of movement politics or grassroots organizing when they can have their own digital utopia?
A generation of young activists will be taught that to be an activism is Twitter skirmishes and Thinkpieces pointing out how problematic the world is. And there’s room for that. Criticism is activism. But this approach has left us less tolerant of differing opinions, more stuck in our filter bubbles, more specific in our identities. We police the borders of our identity, splinter into factions and blame our pet villains as the primary reason for the injustices of the world.
The caricature of the activist as the young person with blue hair who shouts on college campuses is exaggerated, but it gestures at something real. Activists themselves have embraced their own insular modes of dress, jargon and lifestyle. Smucker again:
Naturally, social justice-oriented people gravitate toward safe spaces where they feel appreciated. The slow work of contesting and transforming messy everyday spaces is, however, the essence of grassroots political organizing. When we do not contest, from within, the cultures, beliefs, symbols and narratives of the existing institutions and social networks that we are part of, we walk away from the resources and latent power embedded within those institutions and networks. This is not a winning trajectory. In exchange for our own shabby little activist clubhouse, we give away the farm.
We’re more willing to engage with out Twitter bubbles than with the people in our immediate surroundings. We must get our hands dirty, work with people we don’t like, expand our circle of influence. It’s not ideological purity, but engagement with the broader world that makes for a successful movement.
I’m reminded of this exchange from the 2001 film Ghost World:
John: [noticing Enid’s green hair and leather jacket] Oh, my God. Didn’t they tell you?
Enid: Tell me what?
John: Punk rock is over.
Enid: I know it’s over, asshole, I’m not even—
John: You really want to fuck up the system? Go to business school. That’s what I’m gonna do. Get a job in some big corporation and, like, fuck things up from the inside.
I like to think John had a hand in the 2008 financial crisis, trying to accelerate the contradictions of capitalism, no doubt.
While getting a haircut and going to business school is probably not the answer for most would-be activists, but it hints at something deeper. The title of “activist” is just another cultivated identity to be bought and sold. Don’t mistake an appearance for effecting real change.
Because the label of “activist” doesn’t really mean anything. It just says “fight the power” in some generic way for some unspecified reason. It’s much better to be a “vegan” or a “labor organizer” or “civil rights activist” than to simply adopt this blanket term, which is more of statement of opposition than a specific ethos.
Here are my key takeaways:
1 Smucker’s recommendation, to do away with the word and elements of the identity, of “activist,” is well founded
2 Build a big tent; remind people of their unity and listen to them
3 Leverage existing groups, to the extent that this is possible, digitally and IRL
4 Purity testing is counter-productive
5 Have specific goals attached to specific causes