A very basic breakdown:
- We join with others to take collective action in order to achieve measurable goals. Our actions are tactics within strategies, which we hope will result in tangible successes/gains/improvements to people’s lives.
- We are concerned with results. We evaluate whether our actions are moving us toward making substantial change.
- We also join with others to take collective action because it makes us feel good. Our actions express our values, our identities, and our sense of belonging in the group or the movement.
- Expressive aspects of collective action and movement participation are important — this is what feeds us, makes us feel like we’re not alone, and keeps us going.
- WARNING: you can fulfill your expressive motivations without ever winning anything!
A longer elaboration of this dualism, authored by Joshua Kahn-Russell, Zack Malitz, and yours truly, is available at BeautifulTrouble.org.
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.
This Monday during Cihan Tuğal’s comparative analysis of revolts in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Turkey—part of the Berkeley Sociology Colloquium Series—he offered this gem about the occupation of Gezi Park:
Even though a non-commodified space monetarily redistributes resources among its participants, it does not result in an egalitarian world beyond the revolt itself. [from my notes of Tuğal’s presentation]
Cihan discussed multiple motivations for several kinds of participants. One key motivation that struck me—which I think relates to the above quote—was pleasure. Many bourgeois participants were motivated negatively by “the impoverishment of social life” caused by increasing commodification and positively by what Cihan described as “pleasure”. All this reminded me of Slavoj Žižek’s warning (to Occupy Wall Street) about “one of the great dangers the protesters face:”
…the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the fun they are having in the “occupied” zones. But carnivals come cheap— the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed. This requires difficult and patient work— of which the protests are the beginning, not the end.
And both quotes remind me of a much older text, The Lonely Crowd, in which David Riesman et al discuss what they saw as a newly predominant character structure, embodied in the other-directed individual:
Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.