Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Statement begins with these words: “We are people of this generation…”
During a public messaging training that I recently led for a student group, I reflected back to the group my observation that members often referred to themselves as activists — in both internal conversations and external messages. I asked them what purpose it served to label themselves as activists as opposed to students.
Students for Democratic Society might have begun their historic Port Huron Statement with, “We are student activists…” But instead they began, “We are people of this generation…”
Interestingly, the label “activist” appears in the over 25,000-word document only once, where it is one label listed amongst several that refer to types of participants in the “broadest movement for peace in several years.”
…it includes socialists, pacifists, liberals, scholars, militant activists, middle-class women, some professionals, many students, a few unionists.
The word “activism” also appears just one time. And here it is fully contextualized:
…the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism.
And I’m back to posting very rough notes…
(1) Conceptual shift over past half century from civic/political framework to hobby/elective framework (i.e. “activism”). (2) In concert with broader cultural and structural shift away from “the commons”, toward individualism. (3) The implosion and fragmentation of the Left in the early 1970s. (4) Consolidation of radicals across issues. (5) Marriage of radical remnant and counter-culture. (6) Narration of a common radical constellation of shared meanings and reference points. (7) Signaling behavior oriented toward the center of the radical constellation. (8) Alienation of radicals from broader social bases. (9) Normalization, institutionalization, and ritualized performance of this alienation.
Not to mention the role of non-profit organizations in relation to entrepreneurial framework, self-selection, marginal differentiation, and fragmentation.
I recently argued that there is a common thread that connects (1) Marx’s analysis of material world and superstructure, (2) his prediction of the inevitability of communism, and (3) his underdevelopment of subjective political strategy. Now I want to suggest that these three themes are connected to a fourth: Marx’s treatment of the state as an incontestable apparatus.
Marx’s view of the state is complex, inconsistent, and in a process of development over the course of his writing. Above all, though, he sees the state as the bourgeois state. The state emerged to serve the interests of a particular economic class (the bourgeoisie) and it is folly to entertain hope of it serving the proletarian class or ameliorating the inequality, exploitation and suffering caused by capitalism.
To understand this assessment of the state, we must examine Marx’s treatment of bourgeois and proletariat as neatly bounded categories. He details complexities and contradictions within each class, but he mistakenly believes that as capitalism proletarianizes more and more people, their conditions will become increasingly similar and, as a result, proletarians will come to recognize their structural commonality and begin to act self-consciously as a united class. As Cihan Tuğal explained, “The general trend in capitalism, according to Marx, is this increasing simplification of polarized classes. [my notes from a recent talk]” Contra Marx, history has instead shown how capitalism often achieves the opposite: a continuum of stratification within “the proletariat” and between classes, a popular orientation toward upward mobility, and fragmentation of class identity. Continue reading
He who is active in politics strives for power either as a means in serving other aims, ideal or egoistic, or as ‘power for power’s sake,’ that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives. —Max Weber
The “crisis of our times” is that those driven by ideals and those driven by ‘power for power’s sake’ have self-segregated. They have specialized, but their respective specialties hold vastly unequal shares of influence on society’s direction. The result for those who strive for power for its own sake is that they tend to get it (as a category of self-selectors; obviously to varying degrees and not in every individual case). For the sake of a short post, I’m going to skip those who are serving egoistic aims (for the moment) and discuss only those who are serving ideal aims (but, of course, the two are not neatly separable). In this pattern of self-segregation, these folks get to surround themselves with others who share their ideals. They get to express those ideals together, often punctuated with creative collective rituals, but without much realistic hope—perhaps not even the desire—for ever arming their ideals with power.
One category gets to play the field, while the other gets to critique the game from the sidelines.
Of course, this is a simplification. Weber might call these two categories (i.e., power-seekers and idealists) “ideal types”. Many shades between exist in the real world. We need more of those shades between, i.e., more ideal-driven people who refuse to cede power to the powerful.