Home / General / Is the Idea of an “Activist” a Problem?

Is the Idea of an “Activist” a Problem?


I strongly encourage you to read this Jonathan Matthew Smucker piece from In These Times that calls the entire idea of labeling someone an “activist” a problem that divides us.

One way that progressive political groups create barriers between themselves and society is through the construction of a relatively new category of political actor: the activist.

The word activist was first used about a century ago to describe those Swedes who advocated for Sweden to abandon neutrality and enter World War I on the side of the Kaiser. But as it is now used, the term became part of our lexicon in the 1960s. Today, activist carries important meanings absent in words that described earlier manifestations of collective action. Classifications like abolitionist, populist, suffragette, unionist or socialist all referenced specific contents. Activist, on the other hand, is a “contentless” label that traverses political issues and social movements.

Negative stereotypes about activists can negatively affect opinions about a given political issue once the issue is associated with activism. Consequently, because the term repels many people, it cognitively blocks their entry into collective action.

Yet, some people are attracted to activism for that very reason. Many activists take pride in activism partly because it is an expression of their willingness to do something that is unpopular. Indeed, some come to see their own marginalization as a badge of honor, as they carve out a radical oppositional niche identity.

This clustering of activists into silos fits into a broader trend in advanced capitalist nations toward greater individualistic self-expression and less civic participation. With this backdrop, it is as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby—something akin to being a skier or a theater person or a foodie—rather than a civic or political responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific microaggregations, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such little niche—that activism would become its own particular community of interest that self-selecting individual activists join. The problem is that, when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches and selfselectors. We need much larger swaths of society.

Yes, yes, and yes. The idea of the “activist” as an individual choosing to operate outside of norms addresses what I see as two sides of a major problem–first, that political activity is about individual (perhaps even neoliberal!) expression that actually reinforces capitalism rather than challenges it and, second, that it creates artificial divides between “activists” and the mass politics of resistance that we need. That there is a whole cultural aspect to activism that turns a lot of people off–whether the clothes or the music or chants or whatever–is a real problem as well. Moreover, as Smucker delineates, entering an activist community today creates an echo chamber that takes people (often quite young) interested in social change and keeps them from talking to others who might disagree or challenge them in ways that reminds us how the music divides us into tribes, to quote Arcade Fire.

When new activists enter a cultural space where political activity occurs only in a milieu of like-minded activists, the end result is that society’s most idealistic and collectively minded young people voluntarily remove themselves from the institutions and social networks they were best positioned to influence and contest. The idea that activism occupies a special space unto itself—that it is an activity disembedded from the day-to-day lives, cultural spaces and workplaces of most people in society—encourages activists to check their activism at the door when entering “non-activist” spheres. Alternatively, they may proudly and defiantly wear their activism on their sleeves, but more as self-expressive fashion that distinguishes them from the group—and likely inoculates others against taking them seriously—than as part of a genuine attempt at strategic political engagement.

Naturally, social justice-oriented people gravitate toward safe spaces where they feel appreciated. The slow work of contesting and transforming messy everyday spaces is, however, the essence of grassroots political organizing. When we do not contest, from within, the cultures, beliefs, symbols and narratives of the existing institutions and social networks that we are part of, we walk away from the resources and latent power embedded within those institutions and networks. This is not a winning trajectory. In exchange for our own shabby little activist clubhouse, we give away the farm.

Should we then abandon the “activist” label? A better question would be: Is there any compelling reason to persist in using a label that inoculates so many people against us and our messages? If this word effectively functions as a cognitive roadblock that prevents most people from considering anything we do or say, while also excusing sympathizers (who don’t consider themselves “activists”) from joining us, then inertia is not a good enough reason to hold on to such a disadvantageous label.

Abandoning the label, however, will only get us so far. It is more important that we break out of the cultural niche that the label has prescribed. Our work is not to build from scratch a special sphere that houses our socially enlightened identities (and delusions). Our work is, rather, to politicize everyday spaces; and to weave politics and collective action into the fabric of society.

I just cannot agree with every point more strongly.

….One additional thought. One thing the term “activist” does is also divide us between “people who are real forces for change” and “people who are lame.” This can be used in a denigrating way, even self-denigrating. I don’t know how many times I have said that “I am not a real activist” because I am not all that often at the protest rally. I figure I can personally do better as a writer thinking through the tricky questions of social change than as just another body at the climate change rally. And I think that’s right, although we absolutely need people at the rallies, and as we have seen since the inauguration, those rallies can make a world of difference (and I have been at some of them). But is this entire divide and these disclaimers, not to mention when they are used as insults by calling you a fake or lame or whatnot, really just an entirely false paradigm of what constitutes making change?

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  • aturner339

    Everyone hates a “do gooder.” Something about a person who tries “too” hard to do the right thing offends our moral vanity. I suspect that this might be an inescapable part of grass roots based reform.

    N-Gram tells me that the word “activist” took off sometime in the 1920s but is there any doubt William Lloyd Garrison or Susan B. Anthony were seen as out of touch eggheads catering to an in-group of busybodies?

    I’m not saying it isn’t a problem I’m wondering aloud if it’s something that can change.

    • CP

      Everyone hates a “do gooder.” Something about a person who tries “too” hard to do the right thing offends our moral vanity. I suspect that this might be an inescapable part of grass roots based reform.

      This, unfortunately.

    • LeeEsq

      “Do gooders” can come across as moral prudes and they often have an accusatory air about them. There passion comes from being able to point and say “how dare you enjoy your life ever when there are these terrible evils that must be fixed first.” Like all moralists, there may be or may not be some hypocrisy involved in the accusation. Its the accusatory tone that turns people off.

      • Ronan
      • aturner339

        That’s certainly part of it and not just in personal terms. Garrison made a fair few enemies by burning copies of the Constitution and renouncing it as a “compromise with the devil”. Activists tend to make previously comfortable associations into indictments and yes that grates.

        But even as studiously non accusatory a figure as MLK was derided as over sensitive by William Buckley and other conservatives. The very act of holding a position can be interpreted as an accusation.

  • cleek

    they are, as former regular Joe from Lowell liked to call them, Protest People.

    they want to be seen protesting, to be known as people who protest, and they continually find things to upset themselves about in order to maintain the appearance.

    the constant armchair-martydom and relentless negativity drives potential allies away. but that’s OK, because those people weren’t as Pure anyway.

    it’s… problematic.

    • nemdam

      It’s politics as branding. The goal isn’t to accomplish anything, but to show what kind of person they are like an article of clothing they wear or a possession they own. It’s adopting a lifestyle to show they are against “the establishment” (the modern word for “the man”). It’s politics as virtually an exact stereotype of corporate consumerism which is both what these people are supposedly railing against and the opposite of what politics actually is.

      • cleek

        as Stereolab once put it: “fashionable cynicism, the poison they want you to drink / oh no man, that’s too easy”


      • Ronan

        I think this is an overly cynical view to take (also I dont think it’s ‘armchair-martydom’, as per cleek, if theyre actually putting their neck on the line attending protests)
        I would assume most activists care about the cause theyre committing themselves too, and not just adopting a pose to build a personal brand.

        ” It’s politics as virtually an exact stereotype of corporate consumerism”

        although I do think there’s something to this (the symbiotic relationship between the 60s counterculture and contemporary corporate consumerism) Though that’s probably a society wide issue, not just something specific to straw-activist.

        • cleek

          just look at the “leftists” who spent the better part of the year protesting HRC. the politics of it were completely nonsensical, given the clear policy differences between Trump and Clinton and the way our election system actually works.

          the only possible conclusion is that the protesters did not care about the policy issues – they were in it for something else…

          • Ronan

            Okay, there’s one plausible group of assholes I guess.
            What about BLM? They arent armchair martyrs.

            • nemdam

              I think this gets into what we mean by the word “activist”. I interpreted this post to mean “activist” in the protesting HRC at the DNC nonsense not in the actual effective “activism” of something like BLM.

              There are multiple types of activists, and I believe this post is referring to those whose work ends becoming merely mode of self-expression as opposed to a way to effect change.

              • Ronan

                fair enough

            • cleek

              i wasn’t trying to say everybody who makes political noise is a poseur. i was referring to the kind of person referred to in the OP.

              especially these people:

              Yet, some people are attracted to activism for that very reason. Many activists take pride in activism partly because it is an expression of their willingness to do something that is unpopular. Indeed, some come to see their own marginalization as a badge of honor, as they carve out a radical oppositional niche identity.

          • brewmn

            How does that explain Joe from Lowell? He was as vituperative a Bernie supporter, with all the toxicity implicit in the BernieBro stereotype, as you could find.

            • cleek

              i dunno. i don’t recall him as a Bernie supporter – our paths didn’t cross much then. no doubt he could be … argumentative. but i can imagine it… i had several rounds with him over at BJ about things we disagreed on.

              but i do think he was largely right about Protest People, about which he wrote many many comments here and elsewhere.

              • One day shortly after I’d already pissed him off, he started in with something along the line of “you only say that because you’re in the tank for Hillary” and wouldn’t let it go. It was strange,

              • brewmn

                He was horrible on this blog during the primaries, and flounced away just before the general. But I always did appreciate his Protest People meme. The fact that he morphed into one was always very strange to me.

            • FlipYrWhig

              Yeah, I never quite understood the zeal of his seeming conversion.

              • Ronan

                I liked JFL, and have no real issues about him in general. But I do remember him in the past being pretty pro Hillary, so the strength of his Bernie support did surprise me.

                • I liked Joe too up to the point where he decided I had to be treated like an Enemy. Maybe even past that point (there’s no accounting for who I’ll like). A pity.

      • I think this is unfair. People work very hard to make change through these activist communities. That they are infected by the disease of consumer capitalism in a way that undermines their own ability to make that change, even as they are truly committed to it, is only partially their fault.

        • nemdam

          This is a good point to counterbalance my post. Good people attach themselves to these groups with a genuine desire for change. And the people who engage in this kind of activism do believe in what they are doing. But what I described is not the cause but the effect of siloing yourself among only narrowly like minded people who treat activism as a segmented activity.

      • LeeEsq

        Or as one article I read called it, fantasy politics. The goal of fantasy politics is not to change things but to do things that are good for your soul. PETA is a great example of fantasy politics in action.

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      I feel this is unfair at the same time as I agree with your point. I make a distinction between people whose sole focus is protest vs those who protest but also engage in small scale activities (local voluntarism) that provide tangible benefits or relief to specific individuals or local communities in need of assistance or local problems where individual action can have a small positive effect. The latter sometimes is derided to the effect that it’s nothing more than structurally useless “thousand points of light” band aids. But the former seems to me to fit the description of the person who wants to “help” you by telling you what to do: “it’s not help if the only muscles moving are in your jaw.”

      • cleek

        I make a distinction between people whose sole focus is protest vs those who protest but also engage in small scale activities


        i really should’ve quoted the part of the OP that i was really set off by. too late now.

    • SatanicPanic

      I don’t think this is true as much of the time as we’d like to think. Most of these people really would like to affect change, they just have an unfortunate combination of ego and bad ideas that sticks them in a place where they can’t accomplish much. Some of the more prominent intellectual architects of the left also have a lot to answer for- they built this self-defeating system the hard left is stuck in.

  • How is this different than the progressive-vs-liberal debate? Just wondering.

    • The divide is a lot starker and more meaningful.

  • I think the concept of “activism” is valuable: even if you called it something else, you’d need something to represent all the things people do to try to make things better socially and politically. I think the main problem is that it is often defined too narrowly, as “those things that activists too”. And the concept of the “activist” is, as you suggest, more of a problem. It can be a very elitist concept separating those who can devote their lives to activism from those who’d like to do some activism but have a whole lot of other things they also need to do.

    • I think people differentiate activism from resistance in that ‘resistors’ are seem as fighting a wrong, while activists are seen as picking a fight. We can all empathize with being wronged and resisting, and we’ve been told practically since birth that we shouldn’t be picking fights.

      • Lurker

        This is, by the way, part of the etymology. The word “activism” does not originate in WWI-era Sweden. They picked it from the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia.

        Early 20th century Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy that was facing severe Russification measures. The Finnish reaction to these was three-fold: collaborators, passive resistance and activists. The difference between passive resistance and activism was that passive resistance meant civil disobedience while activism involved terrorism.

        During WOW, the Finnish activists sought and got a lot of support from Sweden and Germany. The Swedish supporters of Finnish “activists” were also “activists” in the Swedish sense: they wanted Sweden to join the war on the Central Powers.

        • The difference between passive resistance and activism was that passive resistance meant civil disobedience while activism involved terrorism.

          The fundamental difference between a civil disobedient and a radical is not just in kind, but also in ideology. The civil disobedient believes that the system fundamentally works, and merely needs some resistance to bend it back into shape. The radical believes that the system is not working, will never work, and needs to be replaced with something that works (for them). An activist can be on either side, but it seems more often than not they are painted as radicals when they are really just trying to work within the system to fix it.

    • Ronan

      “It can be a very elitist concept separating those who can devote their lives to activism from those who’d like to do some activism but have a whole lot of other things they also need to do”

      True. But is it effective? My impression is that a lot of the effectiveness in pushing a right agenda in the US is that a relatively small group of activists started organising at a grassroots level and influencing the Republicans. If this is the most effective way of influencing politics, then does it matter if its elitist?

      • Crusty

        I think there’s a different dynamic on each side. Allow me to grossly overgeneralize for a moment. First, I take as an activist someone who devotes a significant amount of time to their activism, more than someone who just votes the way the activist would urge them to. Part of the activism is urging other people to act, either by voting a certain way or more. Second, to continue with gross over generalizations, let’s say the R’s advocate on behalf of the rich and the D’s on behalf of the poor. When the likes of Betsy DeVos becomes an education activist and advocates things like vouchers, draining money away from public schools, etc., the people she’s trying to reach get involved at the grassroots level don’t necessarily have cause for resentment. Its like yes, that is a good idea, as a rich asshole myself, I can get behind that. If there’s an activist whose activism involves advocating for better treatment of immigrants, or against Trump’s immigration policies, and the activist tries to get people to attend a protest or something, a portion of that target audience is thinking, I’m working the night shift of my third job, I don’t have time to attend your protest, man of leisure that you are. Now, the target audience doesn’t necessarily have to be hardworking immigrants, just people who support the position, but I think there’s just going to be a different dynamic at work that makes it different on each side.

        • Ronan

          True. but I dont think the notion of elitism(as per the original comment) is necessary a case against in itself. Political change will most likely be driven by small groups of committed ideologues, you arent going to get the masses out in any great number. Maybe the left should be more elitist, in some respects anyway.

    • My concern about the “elitist” aspect is that it becomes a barrier to more widespread involvement in popular movements. If the idea is that the only way you can really count in these movements is by being an “activist”, and all that entails, that ends up demobilizing people and reinforcing negative stereotypes, and popular movements turn out to be not so popular after all.

      Of course there will be people who are more willing and able to be involved than others. Some people have the knack for organizing. But it should never be forgotten that the ability to put a lot of time into activism is a privilege. I am glad that some people do have this privilege, but that it is a privilege shouldn’t be forgotten.

      On the right, of course, elitism is a feature, not a bug.

      • The reason some leftists say the left is elitist is that they are leftists and they know they are elitists. They are at least half the public face of the left.

        It’s possible they wouldn’t be welcome in activist circles and would accept this as reasonable. But it’s impossible to believe they would welcome a Left in which people like them were actively purged.

  • John F

    Rebranding can work (it can also fail)

  • Whirrlaway

    “If anti-Trump activism finally brings attention to sweatshops, then that’s a positive thing.” -from the next post down. Can we have activism without activists? Maybe the problem is how people use labels, whereas your opponent is your partner, as we say in Aikido.

    • Well, yes, activism has dug so far deep in the language that it’s hard to even talk about these things without using the word. Of course, activism can still be useful without a divisive language of activist vs. non-activist.

  • NewishLawyer

    I think another issue is the difficulty of living in a pluralistic society which requires being at peace with things you disagree with on a deep level.

    being an activist allows for the fantasy of total victory instead of muddy compromise.

    • Ronan

      I dont think living in a pluralistic society means you have to be ‘at peace’ with things you disagree with, which implies that you cant work to change, or even articulate a response to, values or polcies you disagree with. It means, afaict, more that you should recognise that people have other preferences or values than your own, and should try to accommodate them as far as possible. But it doesnt mean adopting positions of extreme moral relativism, where you never object to someones opinions, no matter how awful.

      • NL is taking about what David Riesman called “minority living,” which put crudely is kind of a conflation of the idea of being Jewish in a Christian society and the idea of having Bildung in a
        Philistine society. And having the “wisdom” to know it’s not your world in that situation. Essentially an apolitical attitude.

        • Ronan

          Is he? He’s talking about activists so my reading was the implication being that the average activist couldnt accept the compromises necessary to live in a pluralistic society, which is why they’ve been driven into radical politics.

          • He’s talking about people who don’t become activists for the reason he states. (“pluralism”)

            Obviously those concerns don’t apply to you so you don’t see them.

        • LeeEsq

          There is also a form of politics that sees everything in terms of gigantic moral conflicts where the other side or anybody who believes differently is the enemy. There isn’t going to be complete agreement ever and its important to remember that those that disagree with us even on the most fundamental level are human beings.

          • It is funny how often Jewish writers come up with “it’s important to remember that the people in this country are Christian conservative workers and we Jews should back off.” And in private I might find examples to prove their point but I sincerely think they don’t know what the hell they’re doing,

          • Ronan

            If you dont have moral extremists on the side of the angels(ie our side)pushing an agenda then you’re going to leave that space to the Islamists and white supremacists.
            I am not temperamentally made to be an activist or even particularly brave morally, but I thank God that historically there have been moral extremists on the right side (ie abolitionists, pro Gay campaigners, and maybe today open borders ideologues)

            • LeeEsq

              There are many issues where compromise is not possible and one side, hopefully the right one, needs to win.

        • NewishLawyer

          I’m not talking about that at all. Nor am I arguing against fighting for change.

          Someone I know from gradschool is deeply into animal rights. In said person’s ideal world, we would use no animal products and eat no meat.

          This person has a right to advocate for change but is never going to win a total victory. She isn’t even going to win among people in this community who are more sympathetic to her arguments than a right-wing blowhard. We have lots of meat lovers here on LGM.

          So I think being in a pluralistic society requires acknowledging different values as Ronan states above.

          And I disagree with another notion above that activism is just another variant of bourgeois identity. Most of the people I know who describe themselves as such are pretty far from bourgeois (says this very bourgeois guy).

          • OK. Your argument is usually used to get people to shut up. Good to know you don’t mean that.

            • NewishLawyer

              Well that’s not very generous. Good day to you too.

              • Yeah, when someone keeps expressing views that boil down to saying I should shut up, I get grumpy.

    • Ronan

      “being an activist allows for the fantasy of total victory instead of muddy compromise.”

      On that. I dont know. I think a lot of activists accept the premise of muddy compromises, they just have a different way of trying to influence politics. Or perhaps they think there is more space to push the point of compromise further out than the non activist.

  • I am embarrassed personally when I realize how much of what I think I know about other people and their beliefs comes from exchanges that go something like “But you don’t believe [horrified expression of someone’s shibboleth here], do you?!?” “Oh no, of course not!”, followed by wondering whether I do and whether I should, but not usually whether that person did himself or was pretending/trolling. This might be regional or cultural, I guess, and maybe different people have never that experience.

    That’s what this kind of border-reinforcing reminds me of.

    ETA I realize some people don’t think that kind of thing is important. Stuff is true or not and who cares who said it,

  • ASV

    Boy oh boy, that’s a lot of causal claims to hang on one word.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      Yeah, right?

      Who knew that it was the word “activist” that was holding us back from accomplishing all our aims. Such a nice, tidy argument — too bad it is completely devoid of any evidence for any of its claims.

  • keta

    This clustering of activists into silos fits into a broader trend in advanced capitalist nations toward greater individualistic self-expression and less civic participation.

    For me, this is what most resonates, and what I find most frustrating in watching the left in America fart-fumble around in trying to counter the right.

    I read “greater individualistic self-expression” but what I think, and what I call it, is selfishness and immaturity. It galls that the right can galvanize around the most ridiculous of totems, yet meanwhile the left is busy arguing about what represents the proper colour of protest.

    Until the left in America exploits their broad commonalities rather than bickers about their narrow differences, it really doesn’t matter if they’re labelled “activists” or any other term, because self-interest above all is a losing approach under any moniker.

  • brewmn

    “That there is a whole cultural aspect to activism that turns a lot of people off–whether the clothes or the music or chants or whatever–is a real problem as well.”

    And the propensity to violence. I find that to be probably the biggest problem.

    • Propensity to violence? That’s a tiny subsection of the activist world and a ridiculous charge to make against all activists.

      • brewmn

        I wasn’t making it against all activists, but against the subset that manages to make it onto the evening news with the greatest frequency. Those people also wear the “activist” label most proudly.

        • Seems to me the problem is that you watch the evening news.

        • keta

          Reality is often not what is presented by a lazy and money-grubbing media.

          • brewmn

            Thanks for telling me what reality is and isn’t.

            • keta

              More a reminder. But either way, you’re welcome.

    • SatanicPanic

      This is ridiculous. Those antifa idiots are broadly unpopular on the left. How much violence was there at the Women’s March? How many Indivisible groups are advocating violence?

      • Origami Isopod

        Let’s remember that the Women’s March was mostly free of violence because cops attacking white women makes for bad optics. Not so the women of color at DAPL protests.

    • awarrens

      Don’t want to speak for Erik, but I think he was referring more to the Occupy culture/style than something like radical anarchists….

      • brewmn

        That makes sense. But I don’t see Indivisible types weaponizing the activist label against mere liberals the way the more confrontational subsets do.

  • libarbarian

    Can I be an anti-“Activism” Activist?

    That would be AWESOME!

  • NeonTrotsky

    I think a lot of this has to do with relying on campus activism as both a model and a recruiting pool for other kinds of left-wing activism. The problem is, and I think we need to be honest about this, that a large part of this population isn’t particularly invested in a number of progressive causes, either because they are not really affected personally, or more cynically because they just want to look good or live out some stupid rebellious fantasy and see a brief stint protesting in college as an easy way to do this. I don’t know if I have a good alternative, but trying to replicate the failures of the New Left seems like a bad starting place.

    • LeeEsq

      Its where the accusation of virtue signaling comes from. “I am righteous because I believe in the just things, listen to the proper music, wear the hippie garb, and go the protests.”

  • SatanicPanic

    I am currently reading his book Hegemony How-To and I am finding it very useful.

    • BloodyGranuaile

      I’m glad to hear that! I read Blueprint for Revolution recently and had mixed feelings, but Hegemony How-To sounds like it’s intended to be more specific to the current times in America — Blueprint was a bit broad at times.

      • SatanicPanic

        I’m finding it very relevant. It’s got some theory and some history, but it’s mostly a practical guide. We need more of that right now.

    • Matty

      I wandered in to this thread to say exactly that. Hegemony How-To has been like a cool drink of water some days. I’m almost finished with it.

  • FlipYrWhig

    I am genuinely torn about this. On the one hand, there’s something authentic and powerful about bodies massing in space for a cause. And that’s what I think makes an activist an activist. (Petitions, hashtags, whatever — that’s just mimicking a crowd without actually making one turn out. Even boycotts seem to be essentially invisible crowds denying themselves something, and it’s a much more powerful statement to have an actual crowd doing something than a virtual crowd doing nothing.)

    On the other hand, lots of people truly detest the core activist tactics, from striking and picketing to blocking streets, etc.. So I’m not sure it works but I’m also not sure there’s much in the way of alternatives that work better.

    • Linnaeus

      I don’t think it’s an either-or-choice. There certainly is a place for the kinds of direct action that we associate with activism as the term is being used here. That action, though, needs to go hand-in-hand with the quieter, more mundane work of building and organizing institutions. The latter is in many ways harder to do, and it’s harder to get people committed to it.

      • You can’t build an institution unless you agree on a goal. Occupy could do that because it was rebuilding a community from scratch: libraries, hospitals, etc. You also can’t build an institution unless you agree that institutions are good things, or trick yourself into thinking you’re doing something different.

        I think the lack of common ideas about goals is masked by the extent to which protest has been offloaded to students who can be seen as just disrupting stuff so the good people can get a foot in the door and do what they wanted to do anyway.

        • Linnaeus

          You can’t build an institution unless you agree on a goal. Occupy could do that because it was rebuilding a community from scratch: libraries, hospitals, etc. You also can’t build an institution unless you agree that institutions are good things, or trick yourself into thinking you’re doing something different.

          These are good points, and I don’t disagree with them. Institution building is hard to do, and it’s not always successful. I do think, however, that it’s a key facet of doing liberal and leftist politics. Granted, my view may be skewed because of how I came to do political work.

          • That makes sense. I’m looking at this from the point of view of someone who did not get involved in Left politics in college and whose first presidential vote was Dukakis, looking at protests and movements kind of from afar and wondering whether they even have any promise, and what could even possibly have promise for a left-liberal politics. In part, still, from the POV of Occupy being a surprise. I don’t think this is an uncommon point of view, even among people who are relatively involved in politics.

            It’s obviously not how the protesters and activists see themselves.

        • bender

          I didn’t get involved in the Occupy movement because I couldn’t identify what their goals were and because they seemed to be structureless. I stay away from organizations that do not have clear procedures for making decisions and settling disagreements.

          My view of that episode was that there was a rare moment when there was an opening for mobilizing a lot of people to press for radical change, and they burned off the latent energy with their boundaryless, interminable consensus process. I’ve talked to a few people who were involved, and from what they told me, the main good that Occupy did was to give a lot of people the experience of being members of a true community for the first time in their lives. That’s not nothing. Many people who were drawn into the Free Speech Movement reported the same thing, and it can be a life changing experience. But these moments don’t last, and cannot be turned into effective movements unless the people who are inspired by them have an immediate opportunity to join functional organizations with clear goals.

          • Obviously it led to some people getting motivated to do things like BLM. I’d guess also there are people floating around, not involved in anything organized, who still base part of their self-concept on their time in Occupy. But as you say that’s a lot of energy to justify on the basis of a small fraction of good outcomes.

            • MaxUtility

              I think Occupy also had a big impact on the ‘conventional wisdom’ of what the issues were way beyond their direct impact. It seems to me that even people who decry the dirty hippies occupying parks did really absorb the message that the corporate world, particularly wall street were powerful actors that did not have our best interests at heart. That wasn’t a new idea, but I think Occupy was a small tipping point. Hell, even Trump ran on sticking it to the banksters.

              • I think that’s true. You started seeing a lot more emphasis on inequality after Occupy and “we are the 99%.”

                I’m not sure why that’s true, though. People had been writing about inequality for several years already before then. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 25 years we’ve forgotten that Occupy influenced how seriously they were taken.

                • MaxUtility

                  Yeah. In fact I think it’s already been largely forgotten. Even in this comment thread there’s a lot of remarks about how Occupy was a complete failure that had no impact. (Not that much was achieved in immediate, concrete change…)

                  It’s odd and frustrating how minor events can be a pivot point for big changes in public perception/action. I remember how “Inconvenient Truth” just had this huge, sudden impact on the climate change discussion even though people had been talking about it for years. One guys sets himself on fire in Tunisia and starts the Arab Spring.

                  I guess the lesson for me is that you have to keep pushing because you never know beforehand what will be the trigger for big change. That’s partly why I get roll my eyes at all of this discussion on how to be an “activist” and what the exact right tactic at any given time is. No one knows. You push with everyone and every tactic you have and hope something clicks.

                • Yeah, that’s true, except for one thing. I don’t believe in “public perception.” More attention could have been paid to the people already writing about inequality at any time. That part of what they were saying could have been emphasized instead of explained away. It didn’t happen until a bunch of mostly young people, with mostly weird ideas, engaging in civil disobedience, could be naked as a cause. That this even happened was luck and if it hadn’t, that would have been on the people doing the explaining away, not on the young people who didn’t put their bodies on the line this time.

          • bender

            I’ll add that another reason that the Occupy movement, in my view, largely failed is that it did not present sympathizers with any way to support the demonstrators other than by physically joining them in the public square.

            It may very well be that some of the organizers did make appeals for other kinds of support, and I didn’t hear about those appeals because the mass media didn’t transmit them. But that should come as no surprise. If the Occupy activists wanted the public to support their demands, they should have used the channels of communication open to them to request specific kinds of support. They had other channels of communication available: social media, word of mouth, signs and chants at demonstrations, 20 second TV interviews, press releases, enlisting pop celebrities, etc.

            The only requests for support from the public that I heard about were requests to stop the police from evicting the demonstrators. That’s necessary but hardly sufficient unless the main goal of the movement is to continue occupying public spaces. Something which was inevitably going to come to an end, and did.

            The aims of Occupy, as far as I understand them, require a mass movement .

          • Origami Isopod

            From all I have heard, Occupy did indeed catalyze the involvement of many young people in politics. For what it was, it was a remarkably effective phenomenon.

            • In my experience, at least one person who was an activist before getting involved with Occupy became increasingly incapable of tolerating having people who disagreed with him interact with him in any way in discussions, but that’s anecdotal,

    • bender

      What works better* in at least some cases is organizing that is persistent and involves a wide variety of activities and tactics, most of which ordinary people can participate in on a part time basis without abandoning their family life and their jobs.

      For example, the range of activities done by people who are addressing homelessness includes memorial services for people who have died on the street, participating in annual censuses of the homeless, lobbying local governments to set up full service centers and supportive housing for homeless people, providing mobile bath house/shower vans that go to neighborhoods with a lot of homeless people, defending tent encampments from sweeps and confiscation of the property of their denizens, political organizing for zoning changes that facilitate lower cost rental housing, programs to employ the homeless, training library staff to recognize homeless patrons and help them, advocacy for free mental health services, etc.

      *Better than relying primarily on core activist tactics such as strikes and demonstrations

      • Those are things, however, that can be done by conservatives or political quietists.

        • bender

          Of course they can. What is your point?

          • My point is really a question, maybe. In what sense is organizing people to help the homeless getting those volunteers into politics? Or influencing politics? Or maybe, what goals are you seeing this tactic as “working better” for?

            • bender

              In what sense is organizing people to help the homeless getting those volunteers into politics? Or influencing politics?

              They meet other people who have an interest in the problem and a background in dealing with it; will receive information about the institutions and organizations that are helpful, harmful, potentially helpful but unengaged; may learn about the history of past attempts to address the problem; hear directly from the homeless about what their problems are and what they want. Not all will choose to become politically engaged but those who do will be better informed on where to find allies, where to apply pressure, and what to ask for.

              What goals would this tactic work better for?

              It’s not either/or. Protest calls attention to problems and sometimes draws together people who would not otherwise have been in contact. Protest alone rarely does anything to solve or resolve a problem unless it’s an anomalous event in an otherwise well functioning system.

              Longstanding problems and any situation in which somebody is benefitting from the status quo take as much time and human effort to fix as went into creating the problem. Therefore you need organized groups that are in it for the long haul and have a structure that keeps various kinds of dysfunction in check, so the organization itself does not become part of the problem. This seems fairly obvious to me, so I’m wondering whether you are getting at something I’m overlooking.

              • One of us appears to be confused about the topic of discussion on this thread/blog, or else you are being maddeningly vague for reasons of your own.

  • nadirehsa

    These threads too often devolve into piling on straw leftists, the various idiotic trolls that frequent here, and bombastic Twitter leftists. This article also seems clearly to be talking about campus activists. It ignores the entire sphere of organizing and, if we’re using the word, activism that has nothing to do with colleges.

    Meanwhile, there are tons of us out here doing work in our communities, but we don’t take part in these threads, don’t use Twitter, and don’t have blogs. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who voted for Hillary, who’s an organizer with a wide-ranging Indivisible group, who regularly works together with Bernie Busters to centrist liberals. There’s lots of us. I think this thread, and this conversation it’s a larger part of, desperately needs a wider perspective.

    • Well, I certainly agree that the comments are not going as I hoped, although I should not be surprised. People are indeed discussing straw leftists.

    • SatanicPanic

      I took consider myself one of these people, but I think there’s an important angle on this discussion- if we say “I’m an activist” and LGM readers are like, “DIRTY HIPPIE!” then imagine how the broader population thinks about that label. Maybe it’s time to retire it. Or start a war on those drum circle clowns.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      Amen amen amen. I find it so odd that the original piece makes a distinction between being an activist and politicizing everyday spaces, when people who identify as activists are out there politicizing everyday spaces, well, every day. I mean, it’s like this author has never heard of Black Lives Matter or Fight For 15. How exactly are those movements turning people off by having leaders who self-identify as “activists”?

      This In These Times piece is a solution in search of a problem.

    • pseudalicious

      Yeah, this. If any thread desperately needed a comment from JL (or you! thank you for saying this, for real), it would be this one.

  • kvs

    I agree with Smucker’s assessment of the challenges involved with organizing for change. But unless we’re only defining activism as protest, then I disagree that they are uniquely inherent to the idea of activism.

  • Nick never Nick

    You see this very clearly in some of Orwell’s lesser-known essays and letters. He supported leftist causes, but loathed many of the people who ‘activists’ at the time, for a variety of stylistic, personal, and class reasons. One of these was that they often stood out in eccentric or wilfully obstreperous ways.

    I think in America it also comes from the linkage of white protest to the hippies and the Vietnam war, and not to the more-highly-regarded Civil Rights protests. White people have more of a tradition of performative protest . . . not for us the quiet dignity of being in the right . . . Though this may be a stereotype imposed from above, who knows?

    • Origami Isopod

      If Orwell disliked them for eccentrism, that doesn’t speak well of him.

    • Matty

      It’s not even the lesser-known essays and letters. It’s a major theme in the back half of Road to Wigan Pier, as is his frank assessment of his own prejudices (which he then generalizes – arguably overgeneralizes – to his class as a whole).

  • Scrooge

    The activist and non-activist are both valuable, but have different objectives. The problem arises when neither understands the other’s role.

    The activist’s role is to identify and publicize an issue or a problem. Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, even the Tea Party movement are all examples of identifying a problem.

    The non-activist is the policymaker, most often the politician. The politician’s job is to translate the activist’s grievance into something tangible. The activist, kind of like the restaurant critic, has no limitations. She has no budget to adhere to, no constituents to answer to, and no donors to please. The activist says what she feels.

    The politician, on the other hand, has all of those constraints. The politician has a finite pool of money with which to solve the problem; the politician has other stakeholders to consider, some of whom will disagree with the activist (remember, the politician — unlike the activist —
    represents everyone, not just the people she agrees with).

    These are real-life limitations on solving the activist’s problem, but the activist thinks it’s as simple as walking into the Legislature, writing a bill, and passing it. Some activists don’t consider the existence of competing interests and limitations. Some activists do, but believe through sheer force of will, the politician can make happen whatever she wants, and her failure to do so means she’s been corrupted by the evil System.

    • ISTM there’s a feeling that this is true for conventional politics but that if you go socialist, anarchist, or third-party you can combine the two roles.

      Though obviously one shouldn’t take the roles too seriously or we’ll begin to think there are professional politicians and activists and no one else has a public role to play. Where are the policy experts? Where are the voters? What about the journalists?

      • Scrooge

        The voters are the ultimate arbiter of public policy. Your activist raises an issue, but the activist might represent only a minority of the electorate, and ultimately, the issue might not be all that popular. Take privatizing Social Security in 2005. George W. Bush, spurred by Grover Norquist types, made it his second-term priority to radically overhaul Social Security. Voters rewarded him by tossing Republicans out of the House and Senate: clearly, privatizing Social Security was a major concern for a small, but vocal, group, but not for everyone else.

        The policy expert advises the politician about all the things surrounding the policy — after all, the politician isn’t a budget expert, or a health care expert, or a military expert. For example, the policy expert might ask what’s the likelihood that policy X will solve this problem? How much will it cost? Would other solutions be cheaper? Are there unforeseen consequences, either directly or as the result of predictable actions by third parties?

        Journalists, as well, play a role in interrogating both the activist and the politician. To the activist, the journalist might ask, “Why is this important to you?” To the politician, the journalist might ask the same question, but also other questions similar to those asked by the policy expert, but with an eye on the electorate as the audience.

        You’re right that the activist/politician split isn’t so Manichean. Politicians are often their own activists when they present issues, like health care, then solve those issues with their own legislation.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    In These Times publishes a lot of poorly argued clickbait, and this piece is no exception. Tellingly, the author marshals no evidence whatsoever to make his point.

    I mean, look at this:

    Negative stereotypes about activists can negatively affect opinions about a given political issue once the issue is associated with activism. Consequently, because the term repels many people, it cognitively blocks their entry into collective action.

    Okay, this may be true, but I am going to need a hell of a lot more than a paragraph like this to convince me of this essential premise for the whole argument. Do activists turn people off? Or do they draw people in to participate? Do they drive people away or inspire them? I suspect that the answer to these questions depend a lot on the different issues, people, and populations involved. It’s very much contextual, but this guy has another piece in a long line of the “if only we’d do this, then we’d win” genre. Or maybe “kids these days, amirite?”

  • Lasker

    I saw the headline and immediately thought of this older article on the same topic by Astra Taylor. I guess she is friends with the author of the article in the OP so they are very similar but for me Taylor’s version is a little more fleshed out:


    One thing I will say I have observed is that while activists in Occupy were frequently and justly criticized for having no real ideas about how to take power or use their power to meet their goals, the activists I read and meet today – many of whom are the same people who were there in zuccoti park – are if anything, obsessed with understanding power and how to get and wield it. While on some level it is just a change of vocabulary, the activists I know are much more likely to describe themselves and their goals as organizing than activism.

    That is to say, This is very much a conversation that is happening within activist circles, and to productive if as yet uncertain effect.

    • Matty

      I think this piece really suffers in being essentially an excerpt from a longer, better footnoted, more comprehensively argued book (that’s part of the conversation you refer to). The real meat of the distinction isn’t the word activist, or drum-circle hippies or whatever, but between prefigurative and strategic politics. Prefigurative in the sense that it’s concerned with reflecting the world the group wishes to make, rather than taking power and moving the world in that direction (if I can way oversimplify an argument that Smucker makes in the book, which he admits is an ideal type or oversimplification).

    • bender

      “While on some level it is just a change of vocabulary, the activists I know are much more likely to describe themselves and their goals as organizing than activism.”

      I’m glad to hear that they are willing to reflect on and learn from their experiences. I think self-identifying as an organizer is a significant change of vocabulary. You can’t be an effective organizer without listening to the people you are trying to organize.

      I’m sorry that history seems to be rhyming. The New Left made blunders that might have been avoided if they had been offered and were receptive to mentoring from older generations of organizers. McCarthyism and the warfare between Communists and democratic socialists in the Old Left got in the way. I wonder whether sustained contact between what’s left of the Sixties generation of left wing activists and the activist youth of today might have helped the latter take better advantage of the moment of political opportunity they had at the cusp of Bush and Obama.

  • pseudalicious

    I think this is a little silly. When it comes to activism outside of college campuses, activism that actually makes things happen, there are organizers and there are volunteers. That’s really it.

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