Our first Red and Black Reading Group of 2015 took a look at Give up activism. The article written in the aftermath of the worldwide “Carnival against Capital” on June 18th 1999, take these events as the starting point for a wide-ranging critique of the outlook, practices and political strategies of the activist milieu of its time – and, to a large extent, our own.
Harshly critical of contemporary anarchist practice, Give up activism takes aim at the “activist mentality” which it sees at the root of much of the social isolation and political impotence of the activist. Drawing on situationist critiques of the leftist “militant”, and the author’s experience of and frustrations with activist groups and movements, the article explores the idea of activism as a political dead end – a kind of almost religious, self-sacrificial activity which leaves revolutionaries isolated and cut off from the broader population and one another. What follows are some brief notes from our discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Give up activism’s analysis, and the broader question of the shortcomings of activist activity.
Activism: 15 years on
We discussed the relevance of the arguments presented in Give up activism to anarchists and revolutionaries today. Certainly some of them still carry a great deal of weight. Nonetheless, a decade and a half after it was written, the critique presented here is somewhat dated. Single-issue campaigns of the kind criticised in the text still exist, but so too do activist projects with far broader goals, from the anti-summit protest movement to Occupy London. Then again, much of the criticism presented in Give up activism is still applicable to such movements, which, as the author says of the 1999 “Carnival Against Capital” which forms the backdrop for his own critique, struggled to go beyond the stage of activists “making links” with other activists, and so perhaps failed to really go beyond the activist mentality as described in the text.
The self-sacrificial attitude that the author talks about here is also still very much alive in today’s activist scene. In particular, we talked about the issues with the idea of being an “ally” to the oppressed; how the activist approach leads us to focus on fighting other peoples battles rather than organising around issues in our own day to day lives; how the need for an unselfish, self-righteous cause leads to activists creating an identity for themselves from other people’s oppression; and how this “ally” identity often ends up creating an unwelcoming and inaccessible environment for the very same people whose struggles the activists are supposedly supporting. We discussed alternative ways to support other people’s struggles, such as building alliances around common goals, and the notion of mutual solidarity as opposed to the one way street of “allyship”.
The activist identity
We talked about the notion of activism as an identity, as a social category that plays a particular role within capitalist society. We discussed the idea of an activist/non-activist binary, and how activist subcultures define themselves through their styles of dress, their use of jargon and particular forms of language, as well as through actions, in order to differentiate themselves from non-activist “others”. This leaves behind those who don’t manage to (or don’t want to) dress and sound the part, who aren’t playing their role properly. The analogies to other social roles – from relatively recent social categories such as that of that of priest or policeman, or more ancient social divisions such as the gender divide – are clear.
We touched on the question of how the activist role shifts in different cultural contexts, and how this critique could be applied to historical and contemporary movements from the ongoing struggle in Ferguson to the US Civil Rights movement. We also discussed the role of the media in defining the boundaries of the activist identity, by deciding who gets listened to and how different groups that make up diverse social movements are portrayed.
In the final stages of our discussion of Give up activism, we talked about what practical points we could draw from the arguments presented in the text. We talked about the difference between charity and solidarity, and the importance of focusing on organising around the issues facing us in our everyday lives rather than focusing on abstract activist causes. We also discussed the limitations of our current situation, the social and political isolation that characterise existing anarchist/activist groups and movements, and how far it is possible to break out of the activist mindset and go beyond activism as a way of doing politics given these circumstances.
The point was made that whatever its shortcomings, activism can mean making people’s lives better in practical, immediate terms – activist campaigns can be successful in winning limited gains, after all. We talked about whether the problem was simply one of mindset, of our approach to these activities rather than activist activity per se. We also explored whether social change in general should be thought of as simply an accumulation of limited victories, and whether activist victories necessarily brings us closer to the qualitative change we want to see in the world.
If any of the issues mentioned above interest you, feel free to weigh in in the comments, or better yet come along to our next reading group and get involved in person. Subscribe via RSS or using the subscription form below for email updates about the next session, or contact us directly.