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

sacrifice in movements (and ritualistic tactical hierarchies)

lunch counter sit-in

Sacrifice is a collective value typically esteemed in social movements (as well as in human societies), one that can profoundly benefit movements (and societies). Personal sacrifice can be a dramatic expression of collective values, such as sharing, solidarity, and mutual aid. A movement participant’s willingness to make a personal sacrifice or take a personal risk speaks profoundly to the world we are trying to build – one in which individuals are willing to give of themselves for the good of the whole. And the value of sacrifice is not only expressive (of values). It’s also a practical necessity. To succeed, movements need a lot of time and energy; we need folks who are willing to give up other parts of their lives—and to sometimes endure hardship—if we’re to build our collective capacity to make change.

However, there can be downsides to sacrifice as well. Half of the concept of sacrifice is cost; the other half is some greater benefit (group benefit, future benefit, etc.). So, sacrifice for its own sake—sacrifice that only expresses and reinforces the group culture, without benefit to the group’s external goals (or to its capacity to achieve future goals)—can hardly be counted as a good. Giving up one’s time, safety, or freedom for a cause should be tied to at least an educated bet that the sacrifice will help the cause succeed.

In my post when ritual replaces strategy, I discussed an action-planning meeting, where risk and levels of risk were repeatedly emphasized: “The levels were represented by color codes, safest to riskiest: green, orange, red. The large group later split into smaller planning groups corresponding with these color codes.” I wrote that, “This emphasis on risk is important as it relates to a ritualistic hierarchy of sacrificial behavior — and the difficulty of honestly critiquing this group pattern from within the group.” I said that I would save elaboration on this point for a future post. This would be that post.

I used to be part of a network of activists who gathered several times a year for reflection and protest against militarism and other social injustices. This group was part of what is known as the plowshares movement: activists who hammer on military machinery (missile silos, fighter jets, etc.) to symbolically convert “swords into plowshares”, as referred to by Isaiah in the Bible. The first plowshares action was in 1980 in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where eight activists—including Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the radical Catholic priest brothers who raided draft boards, burning the files in the late 1960s—entered General Electric with household hammers to destroy nosecones of nuclear weapons. This action happened in the context of numerous anti-nuclear campaigns and a growing anti-nuclear consciousness in the United States. Since then many plowshares actions have been carried out around the world, but mostly in the United States. Cumulatively, plowshares activists have served decades of prison time, with individual sentences ranging from probation to over ten years. This is a group where sacrifice and risk clearly play a big part in the group. Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 1)

Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist.

First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post:

A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically some particular group also exercises a form of hegemony (i.e. predominance, leadership) within the alignment itself.

A populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system. In other words, elite interests can and do align into hegemonic alignments, but these do not constitute populist alignments.

A faux-populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment dominated by elite interests that styles itself as populist. It accomplishes this most effectively by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example of a faux-populist alignment. The so-called “Tea Party” is another example. The use of faux- is admittedly something of a value judgment; both faux-populist alignments and genuine populist alignments have to engage the same mechanics of hegemonic contestation.

A floating signifier (also called an empty signifier) is a catalyzing symbol whose meaning is ambiguous. Floating signifiers are essential for catalyzing broad hegemonic alignments in a heterogeneous society. The signifier frames the alignment itself, and is necessarily ambiguous—its meaning is floating, its content “empty”—as all of the groups that comprise the alignment must see their values and hopes reflected in the symbol. The signifier can be a politician (quintessentially Juan Perón), a group (e.g. public school teachers in Wisconsin), a slogan (e.g. “We are the 99%!”), or a brand (e.g. the “Tea Party”), among other possibilities. (More on floating signifiers here.)

I believe that hegemonic populist alignments are “the only game in town” if we want to accomplish big social, economic and political changes. The powers we are up against—especially when it comes to Wall Street, corporate power, and capitalism—are so entrenched, have so consolidated their control of the economic and political spheres, we have no option except to organize a truly broad-based counter-force.

Continue reading