Why I hate activism

Tagged as: anti-racism culture gender

I hope that readers of this article will be aware of what I mean by activism. It is the work of that particular sect, “the activists”, who have taken it upon themselves to rid the world of evil. Whilst their peers pursue careers, raise families or lose themselves in hedonism, the activists minimise their commitments to the conventional world, putting their hearts and souls into the furtherance of whatever ideals they hold dear.
Inevitably, to some extent, through “dropping out” of the mainstream, the activist seeks solace in doing good deeds. She considers this to be a life more enriched and rewarding than the materialism of those who surround her.

OK – I exaggerate. Not every activist is a modern day nun or monk. That said, the parallels made between activism and religiosity are deliberate and are intended to demonstrate the limitations of the former. Indeed, the adoption of activism as a role or a lifestyle is a significant obstacle to progress towards genuine and far-reaching social and political change. The inflexibility that results from the adoption of an activist role hinders the ability of the activist to adapt to change and remain effective. It also encourages the emergence of “experts” of social change and the formation of hierarchies that impede spontaneous action. Meanwhile, the tendency to associate activism with a particular lifestyle can lead to the estrangement of activists from the general population and the dilution of radical politics.

One of the most influential critiques of activism as a role was the anonymous article Give up Activism, which appeared in the aftermath of the June 18th 1999 anti-globalisation protests in London (J18). Drawing heavily on the work of situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem, the piece emphasised the limitations of activism and even suggested that it was a counter-revolutionary ideology.

Taking on the role of activist, the authors suggested, was to become a jealous guardian of the secrets of revolution. The activist relies on a niche provided by capitalist social relations in order to have relevance and it is thus in his interest to maintain that situation. Whilst I would question whether this tendency is, in itself, sufficient to nullify the activist’s desire to overcome oppressive social relations, it is clear that the activist role sets up a situation in which there is competition between an individual’s status as an “expert” of revolution and the revolutionary change itself. This is particularly true when the former is so much easier to achieve and maintain than the latter.

There is certainly a tendency for ‘activist’ to turn into shorthand for ‘expert in bringing about radical social change’. Even in movements and groups that claim to be against hierarchical social relations there is an unstated assumption that it is the ‘superactivists’ that are best positioned to lead the revolution. This assumption results in the pursuit of getting as many people into activism as possible, with the aim of achieving a critical mass that can then lead the charge against capital/climate change/whatever.

However, this assumes that the activists are a vanguard and thus, somehow, superior to the masses. This theory is certainly not borne out by the evidence of actual insurrections, in which the ‘specialists’ of revolution usually play a rather peripheral role. Even if it were probable that activists could lead such a revolt, the formation of an informal leadership class would ensure the reproduction of hierarchical social values. To form a leadership group within a so-called revolutionary movement is to sow the seeds of counter-revolution.

Another phenomenon that seems to be associated with the adoption of the activist role is an inflexibility around strategy and tactics. Because activism inevitably means perpetuating action, there is often little opportunity for reflection and adaptation within the milieu. An ideology of constant attack is part and parcel of the role and is favoured, even when patience might be more effective.

In addition, the fetishisation of particular tactics results in their mass reproduction, often without regard for the limited period during which they are novel, when no defence against them had yet been formulated. For example, the past decades have seen activists around the western world lock themselves to various things with zeal, because it is what activists do – not, necessarily, because they have determined that it is the most appropriate action to take. By clinging to a heritage limited by culture and geography, the activist reproduces the same routine over and over, without apparent regard to its effects.

It is this culture of activism that is, perhaps, neglected by Give up Activism. The adoption of activism as a lifestyle rather than a medium for bringing about social change serves to alienate those who do not identify with its idiosyncratic culture. The unspoken rules of what hairstyles, clothing, diet and lifestyle choices are and aren’t acceptable in the activist ghetto are major barriers to those who are interested in the same revolutionary aims but don’t share the lifestyle.

The activist subculture is derived from subsections of punk, hippy and other predominantly white subcultures which inevitably makes it harder for non-white people to fit into them. Without being part of the social scene around activism, with its drinking rituals (vegan organic beer only, of course) and crusty clothing choices, the outsider can only get so involved in the movement.

This results in a limbo situation for such people who cannot fit in. Most end up giving up on a scene that they feel they can never be fully part of.

Aside from the obvious cultural bias in activist circles towards whiteness, the disproportionate dominance of student politics (as well as those who have come through the university system) means that those from working class backgrounds often feel a similar alienation from activism. The intellectuals of the movement love to communicate in lengthy theses on this or that particular issue, often lacking direct connections to those on the front line.

Unsurprisingly, there is often a lack of understanding of the harsh realities poor people experience, which can lead to a lifestyle of poverty being fetishised (see, for example, http://unsustainablespecies.blogspot.com/2010/08/crimethinc-sucks.html%E2%80%9D">criticisms http://bermudaradical.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/rethinking-crimethinc/%E2%80%9D">of CrimethInc). Certain prevalent activist lifestyle choices e.g. clothing, diet, not flying, etc. are easier to adopt for the middle class activist who, after a childhood of luxury, sees these choices as a rejection of materialism. This denial of material wealth is a less comfortable choice to make for the person who has grown up associating such denials with a lack of opportunity.

Last but not least, the culture of activism is often a macho culture. The emphasis on having the best ideas or doing the most daring actions can encourage a competitive atmosphere where those with the loudest voices (usually men) get heard and others (often women) stay silent. Just as in the case in society at large, the speakers are often male and those who are expected to support them are often female. This reproduction of gender roles in activist culture is further evidence that it is not, at present, a revolutionary culture.

The lack of diversity and acceptance, in the activist subculture, of people who are different, is obviously a problem. However, the one area where there does appear to be genuine diversity is also a problem: activism has long been associated with anarchist politics due to the traditional association of direct action with those ideas. However, with the emergence of liberal direct-action movements, particularly around climate change, the political ideals of activism have become muddied and less focussed.

Whilst you might once have associated the activist with the revolutionary politics of anarchism or socialism, now the activist might be just as likely to engage in symbolic acts with the aim of pressuring some authority or other to change its policy. This divergence of political positions around a common lifestyle seems to be the opposite of what is required to bring about wide reaching social change.

Activism, then, is a deeply problematic identity which throws a number of obstacles in the path to radical social change. This inevitably leads to the question of what can be done by those who are committed to that radical change and, out of the lack of alternatives, end up defining ourselves as activists?

One of the most important things is to get over ourselves. Just because we are consciously committed to trying to revolt doesn’t make us the most capable of doing it. We are going to need a lot of friends and allies before we are able to do anything. When spaces open up for the kind of change we wish to see we won’t be the ones leading it because there won’t be any leaders. We can spread useful ideas and skills amongst people who are sympathetic but in the end spontaneity will be vital.

Because we need a massive range of people from all backgrounds to adopt radical ideas before meaningful change becomes possible we need to constantly be aware of the limited diversity of the circles we move in. It is only when these are genuinely open to and supportive of a wide range of active participants that we will grow in any meaningful sense. That means rejecting the white, middle-class, male claim on radicalism that is prevalent at the moment.

It means accepting people who have different lifestyles and different ideas about eating meat, shopping in supermarkets and using fossil fuels to those prevalent in the subculture. There is a need to be open to and welcoming of everyone who is sick of the system of domination.

Whilst there’s a lot to be said for and against that colourful character of an anarchist, Ian Bone, his Bash the Rich book makes excellent reading. In one chapter, he recounts how he and his Class War comrades participated in the Brixton riot of 1981. They saw the riot as an opportunity to engage in the struggle against their class enemies. Rather than trying to set themselves up as some elite group with authority over what was going in, they saw the riot as a moment in the struggle that, with their street fighting experiences, they could contribute to, along with other unknown militants.

As far as I’m concerned activists should be just that – unknown militants who lend their efforts and their solidarity to struggles wherever they find the opportunity.



This article originally appeared in Ceasefire Magazine.