Sometimes I think I’m the only one around here who can’t stand the cheerful media-oriented hippie protest theater that defines so many rallies and demonstrations and marches. Luckily this isn’t true at all, as this excellent essay published a few days ago on nonsite demonstrates. Titled “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent”, it describes from an insiders’ perspective the superficial, incoherent, and elitist nature of the non-profit-industrial complex that is at the center of many modern protest movements.
The descriptions and analysis of certain tactics hit home to anybody who follows any kind of media-oriented social movement: the singing of the same old protest songs, the vague appeals to “send a message” to decision-makers on moral terms, planning events in the middle of the day when average people (not professional activists/organizers) are working, using token representatives of marginalized groups for photo-ops, the exaggerated theater of “arrests” that were planned and initiated ahead of time by organizers and police, and in general the utterly boring, controlled, and sterilized nature of it all. The author looks to this old essay discussing a similar dynamic in the anti-war movement during the Bush administration, to label these sorts of organizers as “Activismists”.
The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists.
That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.
The author is unsure of what the solutions are, but for that we could look to this essay by Ray Valentine from Orchestrated Pulse which advances an explicitly socialist critique of these kinds of professionalized media-oriented tactics (on which I’ve commented on here), specifically by attacking the “theory of momentum” advanced by Mark and Paul Engler. In opposition to the liberal and idealistic tactics of Activismism, Valentine argues that real mass movements emerge from people winning concrete material victories by and for themselves through collective action, such as through workplace organizing and rank-and-file unionism. Action that restricts itself to the symbolic and performative level is insufficient, if not utterly ineffective, at generating socio-political change.