Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX19044
"Activism" stands in contrast to organizing. Organizing aims to bring people together to build and exercise power, informed by a strategic vision for acquiring power and changing society. To be an "activist" now merely means to advocate for change, and the hows and whys of that advocacy are unclear. Activist is a generic category associated with oddly specific stereotypes: today, the term signals not so much a certain set of political opinions or behaviours as a certain temperament. Worse, 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.
"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."
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.
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.
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