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Against Activism

Almost a decade ago I attended a conference called “1968” at a nondescript college in New Jersey. Mark Rudd, a student radical turned community college math instructor living out his retirement in New Mexico, delivered the keynote. Taking the podium, he reflected critically on the national renown he had earned in his early twenties for his role in the Columbia University occupation and his involvement with the Weather Underground, a mediagenic group of militant rebels who preached the gospel of “propaganda of the deed” by detonating bombs in places like the Pentagon and the Capitol. (Fortunately, there were no casualties.) The audience members, mostly graduate students and twentysomething politicos like myself, were disposed to cheer Rudd’s revolutionary past, impressed by the years he spent living as a fugitive. The Weathermen may have crossed a line and not really accomplished much, we reasoned, but at least they took action!

Rudd challenged our easy romanticism. Unlike many of his peers, who had become more conservative with age, Rudd remained committed to the political ideals that had guided him in his youth. But he had wholly reassessed the confrontational tactics on which he had built his reputation. The macho bluster, the calls to “pick up the gun”—those, he saw now, had been based in delusion. Fancying themselves a privileged group of revolutionary agents destined to catalyze a “white fighting force” to “aid the people of the world,” he and his comrades had succeeded only in diminishing a base that had been painstakingly built up over years. “The FBI should have put us on the payroll,” he said.

What he had failed to grasp back in the day, Rudd explained, patiently crushing our insurrectionary fantasies, was the difference between activism and organizing, between self-expression and movement building. It’s a message he is still spreading. “The only time I heard the term activist fifty years ago was as part of an epithet used against student organizers by our official enemies, university administrators and newspaper editorialists,” Rudd told me recently. “Mindless activists” was the phrase, and Rudd wonders now, half-jokingly, if “mindless” and “activist” don’t somehow go together. At Columbia, he developed a rhetorical position he would repeat to anyone who would listen, “Organizing is another word for going slow,” but lately he prefers Joe Hill’s oft-quoted 1915 telegram to Bill Haywood: “Don’t waste time mourning; organize!” As it happens, 1915 was around the same year the word activist first appeared—so in a way, that’s when the mourning really began.

An Injury to All

Unlike the term organizer, with its clear roots in trade union and labor politics, activist has murky origins. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has been quietly biding its time for over a century. Associated early on with German idealist philosopher Rudolf Eucken—who believed that striving is necessary to a spiritual life—it was then sometimes used to describe outspoken supporters of the Central Powers during the First World War. Eventually, the term came to signify political action more broadly, and though the precise path of this transformation remains to be traced by scholars more diligent than myself, it is clear that activism and activist have been in circulation with their current meanings for some time. In the early 1960s the New York Times described both Bertrand Russell and C. Wright Mills as “activists” (Mills’s editor objected to the characterization in an angry letter), and searches through archival records from that period reveal scattered mentions of labor activists, and then civil rights activists, and then student activists.

“We used to call ourselves, variously, revolutionaries, radicals, militants, socialists, communists, organizers,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a radical historian with fifty years of social movement experience, told me. The rise of the word activist, she speculated, corresponds with what she describes as a broader “discrediting of the left.” A good number of Rudd and Dunbar-Ortiz’s politically active peers came from dedicated communist or labor families, or had joined the fight for civil rights in the South, which meant they had firsthand knowledge of a movement deeply rooted in churches and community organizations, many of which employed (poorly) paid field organizers to mobilize people over sustained periods of time and against long odds.

It was only after the 1960s ended, as new social movements erupted—feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism, and disability rights—that activists truly began to proliferate. By the eighties and nineties, the term was firmly in common usage. These social movements accomplished a tremendous amount in a remarkably short time frame, often by building on and adapting long-standing organizing techniques while also inventing open, democratic, and non-hierarchical procedures. Yet in their quest to jettison some of the left’s baggage, potentially useful frameworks, traditions, and methods were also cast aside.

Activists flourished as people moved away from what they felt were dated political ideologies—the anti-imperialist Marxist Leninism that captivated the Weathermen went out of vogue, as the Communist Party had before it—and embraced emerging radical identities. In the wake of the sixties, people also, understandably, wanted to be less beholden to charismatic leadership, which put movements at risk of being sabotaged when figureheads were assassinated (Martin Luther King Jr.), acted unaccountably (Eldridge Cleaver), or switched sides (Jerry Rubin). Over the years, as unions lost their edge and became overrun by cautious or corrupt bureaucrats, cynicism about social change as an occupation took root, at least within certain idealistic circles. (When I recently heard the phrase “professional organizer,” it was a slur, not a compliment.)

Activists are types who, by some quirk of personality, enjoy long meetings, shouting slogans, and spending a night or two in jail.

Notably, too, this was the era of the right-wing backlash, the toxic blast of union bashing, deregulation, and financialization that led to the explosion of income inequality that the left has been incapable of mitigating—incapable in part because of the turn away from economic justice to other causes, but also because the left has been up against an extraordinary adversary. Conservatives were busy executing organizational strategies during the last third of the twentieth century—launching think tanks and business associations buoyed by corporate largesse, inflaming the ground troops of the Moral Majority, and laying the foundation for a permanent tax revolt by the 1 percent—even as the left was abandoning its organizing roots.

Yet organizing is what the left must cultivate to make its activism more durable and effective, to sustain and advance our causes when the galvanizing intensity of occupations or street protests subsides. It is what the left needs in order to roll back the conservative resurgence and cut down the plutocracy it enabled. That means founding political organizations, hashing out long-term strategies, cultivating leaders (of the accountable, not charismatic, variety), and figuring out how to support them financially. No doubt the thriving of activism in recent decades is a good thing, and activism is something we want more of. The problem, rather, is that the organizing that made earlier movements successful has failed to grow apace.

Self-Directed Action

In the sixties, Rudd, Dunbar-Ortiz, and their respective cohorts learned about organizing almost by osmosis, absorbing a model “developed and tested over many generations,” as Rudd put it. (Their ambient awareness of organizing, Rudd clarified in his talk, informed the years of preparation that made the celebrated 1968 Columbia occupation possible; ignoring those efforts in a fit of hubris is where the Weather Underground went wrong.) Today’s activists have come of age in a very different milieu. No one has a parent in the Party, trade unions are in terminal decline, and the protracted struggle of the civil rights movement, which has so much to teach us, has been reduced to a series of iconic images and feel-good history highlights.

To be an activist now merely means to advocate for change, and the hows and whys of that advocacy are unclear. The lack of a precise antonym is telling. Who, exactly, are the non-activists? Are they passivists? Spectators? Or just regular people? In its very ambiguity the word upholds a dichotomy that is toxic to democracy, which depends on the participation of an active citizenry, not the zealotry of a small segment of the population, to truly function.

As my friend Jonathan Matthew Smucker, whom I met at Zuccotti Park during the early days of Occupy Wall Street, argues in a forthcoming book, the term activist is suspiciously devoid of content. “Labels are certainly not new to collective political action,” Smucker writes, pointing to classifications like abolitionist, populist, suffragette, unionist, and socialist, which all convey a clear position on an issue. But activist is a generic category associated with oddly specific stereotypes: today, the term signals not so much a certain set of political opinions or behaviors as a certain temperament. In our increasingly sorted and labeled society, activists are analogous to skateboarders or foodies or dead heads, each inhabiting a particular niche in America’s grand and heterogeneous cultural ecosystem—by some quirk of personality, they enjoy long meetings, shouting slogans, and spending a night or two in jail the way others may savor a glass of biodynamic wine. Worse still, Smucker contends, is the fact that many activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness, their membership in an exclusive and righteous clique, effectiveness be damned.

While there are notable exceptions, many strands of contemporary activism risk emphasizing the self over the collective. By contrast, organizing is cooperative by definition: it aims to bring others into the fold, to build and exercise shared power. Organizing, as Smucker smartly defines it, involves turning “a social bloc into a political force.” Today, anyone can be an activist, even someone who operates alone, accountable to no one—for example, relentlessly trying to raise awareness about an important issue. Raising awareness—one of contemporary activism’s preferred aims—can be extremely valuable (at least I hope so, since I have spent so much time trying to do it), but education is not organizing, which involves not just enlightening whoever happens to encounter your message, but also aggregating people around common interests so that they can strategically wield their combined strength. Organizing is long-term and often tedious work that entails creating infrastructure and institutions, finding points of vulnerability and leverage in the situation you want to transform, and convincing atomized individuals to recognize that they are on the same team (and to behave like it).

Globally, we’ve seen an explosion of social movements since 2011, yet many of us involved in them remain trapped in the basic bind Rudd described. “Activism, the expression of our deeply held feelings, used to be only one part of building a movement. It’s a tactic which has been elevated to the level of strategy, in the absence of strategy,” he lamented. “Most young activists think organizing means making the physical arrangements for a rally or benefit concert.” Add to this list creating a social media hashtag, circulating an online petition, and debating people on the Internet, and the sentiment basically holds. The work of organizing has fallen out of esteem within many movement circles, where a faith in spontaneous rebellion and a deep suspicion of institutions, leadership, and taking power are entrenched.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t times when rallies, concerts, hashtags, petitions, and online debates are useful—they sometimes are. The problem is that these events or tactics too often represent the horizon of political engagement. “I think it’s generally a good thing that large numbers of people have been inspired in recent decades to take action, and that developments in technology have made it easier for them to do so,” said L. A. Kauffman, who is putting the finishing touches on a history of direct action. “Divorced from a deliberate organizing strategy, all of this can just be a flurry of activity without much impact, of course, so we return to the need for our movements to recognize and cultivate organizing talent, and to support this work by treating it as work—e.g., by finding ways to pay people a living wage to do it.” To state what should be self-evident, people taking small concrete actions—signing a petition or showing up at a rally—are more likely to have a real influence when guided by a clear game plan, ideally one with the objective of inconveniencing elites and impeding their profits.

Divided We Gig

Obviously, there are still organizers in the classic mold—labor organizers—doing invaluable work. And a growing number of people are experimenting with new forms of collective economic power and resistance. But one major challenge in these neoliberal and post-Fordist times is to find inventive ways to update the union model for our current conditions of financialization and insecurity. We need to create fresh ties among the millions of stranded people who lack stable employment, let alone union membership, so that they become a force to be reckoned with. I have been part of an effort, born of the chaos of Occupy Wall Street, which attempts to do this by organizing people around indebtedness. The project, which launched the nation’s first student debt strike last year, recognizes that debt is money, a tradable asset for the financial class, and a source of leverage for those stuck in the red. We take inspiration from the old adage: “If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”

Activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness.

Other efforts are much further along. Climate justice organizers have devised original ways to mobilize people to affect oil companies’ bottom lines—by forcing the federal government to stop issuing new coal mining leases on public land, for example. Since launching in 2012, the campaign for fossil fuel divestment has managed to pressure investors controlling more than $3.4 trillion in assets to exit the market. Organizing started with students on campuses and then expanded to include citizens of broader communities, with more than sixty cities and towns worldwide now pledged to support full or partial divestment. “One of the greatest successes of the divestment campaign thus far has been to undermine confidence in the fossil fuel industry’s business plan,” Jamie Henn, a cofounder of the environmental group and one of the campaign leaders, told me. “Now it’s not just small liberal arts colleges that are taking ‘carbon risk’ seriously, but huge financial institutions like the Bank of England, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, and California’s pension systems.”

Finally, there is the Black Lives Matter movement, which has done an astounding job of putting racial oppression back on the national agenda. Young groups like the Dream Defenders, a Florida outfit that coalesced in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, have embraced a model of “leaderfull” as opposed to “leaderless” organizing, while taking a skeptical approach to online-only activism. “To change our communities, we must have power, not just followers,” the group’s leaders explained after a ten-week, strategy-focused social media hiatus. While concrete victories have been few and far between, the movement for black lives achieved a remarkable win last fall when the University of Missouri football team threatened to go on strike for the rest of the season unless the school president, Tim Wolfe, stepped down. And he did.

This phenomenal show of economic might—the cancellation of one game would have cost the university a million dollars—was quickly blotted out, however, by a raging debate over free speech on campus, driven by an unfortunate encounter between a Missouri professor and a young journalist and by subsequent events at Yale, where students took umbrage at a faculty member’s preemptive defense of racist Halloween costumes. As the debate over free speech raged in op-ed sections and Facebook threads, some rightly observed that the shift of focus was distracting. When pundits started talking about the First Amendment, they stopped talking about systemic racism. They also stopped talking about the reasons the Missouri athletes’ form of direct action got the goods and how their approach to organizing might be replicated elsewhere.

Up from the Armchair

All things considered, the word activist isn’t that bad. It is, at the very least, certainly preferable to social entrepreneur, change agent, or—god forbid—social justice warrior. Unlike activist, with its hazy etymology, the history of social justice warrior, or SJW, can be traced in remarkable detail thanks to the website Know Your Meme. It first appeared in a blog post on November 6, 2009, and by April 21, 2011, merited its own entry on Urban Dictionary: “A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.”

Since then, the expression has traveled up the media food chain, from Reddit and 4chan (where it was embraced as the insult of choice for the aggrieved mobs of Gamergate) to the Daily Beast, Slate, and the New York Times. Liberal Salon tried to reclaim the phrase with the headline, “5 reasons 2015 was the year of the social justice warrior (and why progressives should embrace the term).” The rapid mainstreaming found momentum in last fall’s wave of campus unrest. The New York Post editorial board, for example, warned that “Social Justice Warriors now rule at the University of Missouri.” While the piece mentions the football players in passing, the real focus was, predictably, the alleged suppression of free speech. “The quest for ‘safe spaces’ is starting to look a lot like fascism,” the editors opined.

So there we have it. A century ago, the idea of activism was born of a philosopher—Eucken—who preferred the mystical to the material, and that preference still lingers on today, for many still believe that action, even when disconnected from any coherent strategy, can magically lead to a kind of societal awakening. Social justice warfare, in turn, emerged from some of the Internet’s more unsavory recesses as an insult concocted to belittle those who take issue with bigotry. But vitriol aside, the term betrays a faith that unites social justice warriors and their critics (a faith, to be clear, that is all too common today): that arguing with and attacking strangers online is a form of political engagement as significant as planning a picket or a boycott once was.

Fortunately, at least for now, social justice warriors have not totally eclipsed activists, and activists have not completely eradicated organizers. There are still plenty of arenas in which real organizing—what Rudd described in his talk as “education, base-building, and coalition,” and what I would describe as creating collective identity and shared economic power—is being done, but these slow-moving efforts are often overshadowed by the latest spectacle or viral outrage.

Almost a decade after I sat listening to Mark Rudd speak in a dingy room, tens of thousands of people are flocking to auditoriums across America to hear Bernie Sanders condemn the “billionaire class.” With polls showing that a growing number of young people and the majority of Democratic primary voters have a positive view of socialism, we need good, smart organizing to back up this astonishing uptick in leftist sentiment and to productively channel people’s enthusiasm and energy beyond the limited frame of the presidential race and electoral politics. Semantics alone will not determine history’s course, for it matters less what we call ourselves and more what we do, but often the language we use doesn’t help the cause. It has always been easy for elites to dismiss those who challenge them as losers and malcontents, but it takes even less effort to ignore a meme. Successful organizers, by contrast, are more difficult to shrug off, because they have built a base that acts strategically. The goal of any would-be world-changer should be to be part of something so organized, so formidable, and so shrewd that the powerful don’t scoff: they quake.