What’s wrong with activism?

Originally published at BeyondtheChoir.org.

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.

Americans have literally been migrating into values-homogenous social spaces since at least the late 1960s. We have been rearranging our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do — phasing out folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes. We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance.

Political Scientist Ronald Inglehart’s explanation for this trend is based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: once our basic survival and material needs are provided for, we then focus more attention on social networks and individual expression. This explains why dramatic outbursts of self-expressiveness hit every industrialized society in the world simultaneously in the late 1960s. According to Bill Bishop (in The Big Sort), a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.” And apparently, self-expressive people prefer to express themselves in like-minded company, activists included.

The very concept of a group of activists is an example of this trend of self-segregation. It is as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby—like being a skier or a theater person—rather than a civic responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a way, the very label activist—its individualizing, identifying affects—excuses everyone else from civic responsibility. I may or may not have an opinion about a given issue, but I can’t be expected to do anything about it because, well, “I’m not an activist,” or “I’m not political.”

In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific micro-aggregations, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such little niche. But when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches. We need huge swaths of society bought in. Thus, the consequences of this kind of opt-in thinking about social change (i.e. that activism is for self-selecting individuals) have been profound, both inside and outside of activism, resulting in all kinds of wrongheaded thinking and cultural constraints. A fledgling movement that attempts to attract only individuals as individuals, one at a time, will never grow fast enough to affect big systemic change. Throughout history, the big progressive changes worth a damn have been achieved when whole swaths of already-organized people (i.e. existing institutions and social networks) are set in motion.

Instead, activism itself often becomes its own community of interest, which self-selecting activists join. When activists enter a special cultural space, where “activism” takes place among likeminded “activists”, some of the most idealistic and civically minded young people in society essentially remove themselves voluntarily from the institutions and social networks that they were organically positioned to influence. While most activists may not fully extricate themselves from “non-activist” spheres of their lives (e.g. family, workplace, etc.), still the framework that activism occupies a special space unto itself—that it is an activity disembedded from the day-to-day lives of the masses—encourages activists to check their activism at the door when entering non-activist spheres.

The latter spheres are certainly not always easy to engage. There are perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons why many of us gravitate toward spaces where we feel more understood and choose the path of least resistance in the other spheres of our lives. But when we do not contest the cultures, beliefs, symbols, narratives, etc. of the existing institutions and social networks that we are part of, we also walk away from the resources and power embedded within them. In exchange for a shabby little activist clubhouse, we give away the whole farm. We let our opponents have everything.

Our task is to re-politicize these de-politicized everyday spaces; to weave politics and collective action back into the fabric of society.

Search result for “activism” and “activist” in Google Ngram Viewer

3 responses to “What’s wrong with activism?”

  1. […] valid questions that belong somewhere in this exploration. However, for the reasons expounded in What’s Wrong with Activism?, I will begin instead with a more group-oriented […]

  2. You’re absolutely right about today’s “activism”. It’s become a pastime or alternate identity, like clubbing or obsession with certain types of food. But I disagree that this grew from Americans having migrated “into values-homogenous social spaces since at least the late 1960s.” There was nothing more homogeneous in America in the ’50s than any white suburb in the country or any city with a population of less than 50,000 people. Today most American cities and also many cities’ suburbs are a mosaic of races and faces from all over the world, and the diversity of political views, cultural interests and social activities is more striking than ever. The economy may be weaker, but the society is juiced and limber. We are a vast stew of highly differentiated people. And that’s why, once the reform-minded left finally unites behind an actual program for fundamentally changing the political system, it will have an opportunity to lead a prodigiously strong national coalition. That won’t grow from today’s activism of ideologically litmus-tested mini-campaigns, mostly limited to hortatory protest. It’s more likely to be a response to a serious political crisis. But the potential exists, and it’s been stoked by a rising, not a declining diversity.

  3. […] 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 […]

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