The Story of the Righteous Few, Exhibit #1: “a very solitary journey”

A friend just brought this meme to my attention:the activist

I’m elaborating on problems with the (relatively new) concept of activism and also about the story of the righteous few in my manuscript. For now, here’s an excerpt concerning the latter (from my chapter in AK Press’ book We Are Many):

Too often we get stuck in a story of the righteous few. Radicals tend to become radicals because we become disillusioned with aspects of the dominant culture. When you feel like you’re up against the culture, it’s easy then to develop an inclination to separate yourself from that culture. When we begin to become aware of the destructive impacts of capitalism, racism, sexism, and whatever other social systems we encounter that we see perpetuating oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. We feel a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.

However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society more generally. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from the mainstream of society. With the mainstream seen as bad, we begin to look for ways to distinguish ourselves and our groups from anything mainstream. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate, and develop distinctions between ourselves and the mainstream, because these distinctions reinforce our radical identity. The distinguishing features go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive.

Radicals may start to adorn themselves with distinguishing features to express separation from society, and also to flag other radicals . . . In the story of the righteous few, success itself becomes suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been “watered down.” It seriously messes with radicals’ heads when some of our ideas start to become popular! We are so accustomed to being the most radical kid on the block, and suddenly people we’ve never met are coming out of the woodwork, marching in the streets with us, and spouting some of the lines we’ve been saying for years. Frankly, it can lead to a bit of an identity crisis.

The full article can be read here.

dissent and resignation

With the relatively recent invention of the activist as a special category, non-activism becomes the implied norm. Non-activists—i.e., normal people—are excused from having to wrestle with the content of pertinent political issues and what remedial collective action might be taken, as activism is treated as a distinct realm unto itself—an elective activity in some ways equivalent to football, Burning Man, or World of Warcraft. Its political impotency is a general unstated assumption, and so its members are seen as value-expressive rather than political-strategic. Too often activists themselves feed this perception.

An example that epitomizes the tendency is the bumper sticker slogan “I’M ALREADY AGAINST THE NEXT WAR.” Hardly a political intervention, this sad message proudly proclaims resignation to a future in which there are inevitably more wars, while the individual dissenter can celebrate their moral commitment to be there protesting tomorrow’s wars as fervently and impotently as they protest today’s.

My point is bigger than this one bumper sticker. Its message epitomizes the problem of settling for—even celebrating—a resigned self-expressive dissent. One of the biggest constraints any challenger movement has to overcome is widespread resignation; the belief that meaningful change is simply not possible, that the forces we are up against are far too powerful. To overcome popular resignation in our particular cultural context—I’m talking about the United States, especially since the 1970s—we have to recognize and strategize about negative stereotypes about “activism” itself; especially that “activists” are often seen as the righteous few crying out in the wilderness and, whether you love them or hate them, you’re not going to bet the farm on their victory. Unless they can demonstrate that they have enough savvy to navigate the severe constraints before them; that they have a fighting chance of success.

We are people of this generation.

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.

Continue reading

“ORGANIZE” as buzzword

I’m always interested in how some activists throw around the words “organize” and “organizer”. The words are often used as mostly undefined buzzwords. As Matt Bruenig Tweeted today, “If I didn’t [know] better, I’d think some people are in it for social status, and attaching the label ‘organizer’ boosts status.”

I think that’s part of it. But sometimes there’s just an honest lack of clarity. Many mistake event-planning for organizing. To organize, in the political sense, is not to organize an event or even a protest. It is not just a creative project. Political organizing may very well involve all of the above activities, but its essence is not itself these activities — all of which can be carried out without necessarily building or being accountable to a substantial social base.

Organizing, in the sense we mean here, is to organize a social bloc into a political force. It is to name, frame and narrate the formation or progression of a group; to articulate its goals, grievances and targets; to move it into strategic action; to align other social forces in a common direction; and to leverage this force for political ends.

Organizing is not a call out for individual self-selecting volunteers. Organizing entails starting with what already is (as opposed to trying to build everything from scratch) and engaging with people as they are.

Organizing is a mess, not a refuge.

Activists in Google’s N-gram viewer

I learned about Google’s N-gram viewer from reading Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble. The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books — 5.2 million books in total… [Pariser].” So you can see how often different phrases have been used in print, over many years.

I was just wondering whether an N-gram viewer search might seem to support my claim in What’s wrong with activism? — that activism as we conceive of it is a pretty new thing. What’s wrong with activism, I argue, is how it has become such a thing unto itself — such a specialized identity — that “non-activists” can easily be inoculated against; how it extricates active politics from the fabric of everyday life.

Here’s what comes up searching the word “activist” 1912-2012 in N-gram viewer:

Usage of the term takes a dramatic upturn in the 1960s and continues to climb steadily up until the turn of the millenium. It’s declined a little since then. Does this mean anything? All sorts of phrases come and go all the time, but that this coincides with the cultural trends of specialization and self-selection in U.S. society (discussed by folks like Ronald Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, etc.) is interesting.

What’s wrong with activism?


Over the years I have often been asked how I became an activist. The question of how individuals as individuals become involved in social change movements, fascinating as it may seem, can carry equally fascinating assumptions about activism itself. It may imply a voluntary and self-selecting enterprise, an extracurricular activity, a realm of subculture, and a differentiating label; that an activist is a particular kind of person. When people refer to me as an activist, I have taken to correcting them: “I dislike the label activist,” I politely explain, “because it lets everyone else off the hook. We all have civic responsibilities. Social change happens when whole communities are in motion.”

This kind of individualistic thinking about collective action is mostly a recent phenomenon. In the past half-century our imaginations have been colonized and severely limited by the individual rational actor paradigm. This capitalist dogma gained currency in concert with tectonic cultural shifts in social identity and organization. In the past half-century, society has become more individualistic and self-expressive, as civic involvement demonstrably declined. It is little wonder that collective action itself has come to be popularly viewed as an essentially individualistic endeavor.

Examining these tectonic cultural shifts has profoundly changed how I understand political struggle. I have come to view much of what is today called activism as more self-expressive than instrumental. This is foundational to my paradigm, and a brief presentation of the relevant broad trends is necessary here. Continue reading