Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rise of the activist

In the 20th century people involved in left politics might describe themselves in a number of ways. They might declare their ideological commitment: 'socialist', 'anarchist' 'communist'. They could be slightly more specific: 'member of the Communist Party' or 'registered Democrat'. If less involved then just 'supporter' or perhaps something like 'a Labour voter all my life'. If they were really interested they could use the minor position they had within an organisation: T&G shop steward or secretary of the local party branch.

Whatever the label it implied a long-term commitment to a group, a regular involvement in a useful activity for the cause (even if it was just voting at every election). It also implied, I think, that you would actually know people with similar politics to yourself in real life, on a regular basis.

Since the 1970s saying that you are an 'activist' has became increasingly common, as my totally lightweight linguistic research from Google Ngrams shows below:

Activist vs socialist

Activist vs agitator

Activist vs campaigner

In the Will Self novel How the Dead Live one of the characters remarks that since the end of the Cold War his metropolitan friends now described themselves as 'liberals' - a label, he says, that allowed them to adopt any position between fascism and anarchism with impunity.

I think 'activist' works in a similar way. Lots of blogger and twitter profiles say something like 'Blogger, activist, Hackney resident'. It is left unclear exactly what these people are being activist about or for: what campaign are they helping out on, who are they trying to get elected? After trawling through their posts or tweets you find they are on the left somewhere, altogether often of a vague and naive kind.

It was the environmental movement in the 80s and 90s that helped spread 'activist' as a description. Swampy was the model here, and a very effective one:

Interestingly, the BBC drama about the rise of New Labour - The Project - gave some of the characters the rather implausible backstory of having been environmental activists:

I think it was supposed to heighten the narrative decline from youthful idealism to middle aged sell out, but just makes you dislike them right from the start instead.

'Activist' is narcissistic: "look I'm being active!" it declares even if its only handing out the placards at a demo. Members/supporters etc were happy to pay their subs and turn up for canvassing or picket lines. The concern of those slighter higher up, like local councillors was (and is) trying solve the problems of those they represent, not self-promotion via pseudo punditry. 'Activist' is close to 'liberal' here in that both assume that politics is a version of a university seminar translated to the public sphere. Noel Gallagher once got ticked off in the NME letters pages for saying that he had always voted Labour because like supporting a football team, you backed them through thick and thin and hoped to see them win in the end. No, no the liberals/activist tutted - it's about making your mind up rationally about the issues of the day. God forbid that left politics might be 'tribal' and an activity that wasn't just for the politicos.

Activists aren't quite like liberals as they see symbolic action as part of 'politics as debate'. Of course it is necessary (and enjoyable) to disrupt the spectacle every so often. But too much of this becomes a cycle of symbolic actions that closely mirrors the degeneracy of newspaper commentary: politics reduced to commenting on other commentators columns or attacking politicians for 'giving the impression' of being incompetent.

Just as the students of May '68 were once accused of being 'a party in search of a proletariat' so you could ask the activists: who they are for? Squatting, a movement which once tried to organise homeless people to take over large numbers of houses, is now about temporarily occupying buildings with connections to well known bad guys or institutions in order to have a social centre or an alternative space. That's not a bad thing at all, but it does seem like a reduction in ambition. It also raises the suspicion that some of this activity is primarily cathartic or reproductive (in the sense of maintaining current levels of activists). I wasn't offended that the Boat Race was disrupted this year, but then I'm not offended by the Boat Race to begin with. Trenton Oldfield could at least have made the effort to say he wanted the return of EMA rather than just being against 'elitism'.

I mean throwing yourself at Oxbridge rowers isn't that far way from wiggling your arse at Michael Jackson is it?


David W. Kasper said...

This read like an article from 'Spiked'.

ralph dorey said...

I have been concerned in the past that the comradely and "event" of protest essentially short-circuits itself as another kind of spectacle.

I do still consider this sometimes when I've met people at the various occupy or para-occupy sites around london,

How the practicalities of function, whether it is delivering a message or facilitating an education program, fall by the wayside less they impede "enthusiasm".

However, as much as Activism (the non-direction-specific kind) can be a gap-year-extreme-sport for some, to tar the actions of people concerned with political action with the same brush, even only through subtext, is too cynical for me.

There's an important distinction between flittering between causes because "means" has become "ends" and being able to re-evaluate one's situation and one's beliefs continually and avoiding an equally undesirable case of Tail and Dog confusion.

"labour" is obviously not a constant entity so to keep supporting it regardless is the worst kind dumb tribalism and expresses nothing but fear in the face of continually changing world.

I'm not in love with the occupy movement by any means, I think a lot of times it lets itself down in a lot of the ways your describing William. On the other hand though, behind the dickheads, there are moments of real utopian action, as opposed to just gestures and status updates. This Wednesday, for the second time, I'm going to be attending a course on economic literacy and the impact of unmanned warfare, run casually from a pub in north london. Its a 6 week course, run just a informal but rigorous seminar and it started originally in an Occupy site before it was closed. Like I've said, this is the second time I'm attending this course, in part because I'm a bit slow but mainly because I think this sort of free association structureless organism is amazing both needs supporting and is great to experience. So out of the cliched pseudo-anarcho shit of Activism comes moments like this where people can actually get it together to go beyond representation and that's too good to knock.

blah blah ill shut up now

William said...

Did it read like an article from 'Spiked'? Oh dear sorry.

Something about the word really does bug me though.

David W. Kasper said...

OK - maybe that was a bit harsh. But Spiked always has articles saying 'working class politics are dead', 'political activism is just a tantrum', 'no one has faith in progress any more', 'political thinkers have run out of ideas', 'communities used to give us meaning' etc. etc.

But then, Adam Curtis has been coasting on that routine for a while now.

I hate the word 'activism' too. If Sunny Hundal's a 'left-wing activist' then anyone is really. Occupy's a weird one for me, at least its UK version. It's highlighting so many limits and contradictions in current 'activism', I assume that it'll prove influential beyond the tents. Certainly seems to be the case in the US.

David W. Kasper said...

And yeah - have noticed a funny trend with younger bloggers/tweeters' self-descriptions. They don't just say 'writer' or 'teacher' etc. anymore. Now it's "anti-humanist post-sectarian gender activist, Hackney patriot, lifelong fan of Mervyn Peake and neo-Situationist theorist".

The news is a novel - and everyone wants to be the news!

Alex Niven said...

I found this very persuasive, and not at all Spikey.

But I guess - hipster narcissists of the Trenton Oldfield variety aside - I have a bit more time for the "activist" bracket than I do for "liberal". At least activism implies some sort of effort, even if the cause itself might be inchoate.

Although, on third thoughts, perhaps there is something Green Tory-ish about a certain kind of "activism" - localism, Big Society, farmers markets. I can foresee a day when local businessmen describe themselves as "activists" on corporate bios.

In sum: great, thought provoking stuff.

And as you know I'm all for left tribalism!

William said...

Well I guess the word may end up becoming meaningless or neutral. Look how much more popular it is in google ngrams than ‘campaigner’.

Ralph, I take your points absolutely. People being involved in Occupy (or similar) is much better than shouting at Question Time. I agreed with the anti-road protests in the 90s and the protests against the third runway at Heathrow. And they both changed government policy. Swampy is right: if people had just written to their MPs it wouldn't have worked.

David W. Kasper said...

OK point taken - maybe I was just in a bad mood after reading Spiked shortly before the above...

Where do you think mere commentary comes into this? There are many who would dismiss it as armchair time-wasting, others who think it contributes to building an alternative political 'super-ego' (I recall Phil summed up Laurie Penny's role in those terms).

Ideology plays such a big role, I'm in two minds over how useful comment actually is. If there was no blogosphere or alt-publishing, would there be enough 'common language' to proceed with left-wing activity? Does it help or deter action?

William said...

I have a fantasy where we all stop being obsessed with 'the media' and put all our efforts in organising in real life on wages, housing, energy etc. Town by town, street by street.Then in a couple years really shock the bastards when they realise that at least 1/4(?) of people have opted out of Daily Mail/Tesco world and the left has a parallel, independent structure to do stuff with. But this makes me sounds like a Shining Path groupie or something.

I don't think commentary deters action, in that I think very few people are chained to their laptops reading/writing this stuff 24/7. It is mainly read by people already on the left, but every time some gets on question time or newsnight it probably does help ideologically.

David W. Kasper said...

Then there's the question of 'BBC-approved lefty' (similar to 'BBC black' or 'BBC gay') - where the boundaries are marked by who gets airtime. Currently it seems to be the very young (Penny, Jones) the very old (Benn, Loach) or the clownish troll (Zizek).

Not to criticize who actually gets to make a case on TV, but there's all kinds of ideological wrangling to represent certain viewpoints as the concern of certain kinds of people. Swampy's publicity was about this. Now it seems to be presenting left-wing concerns are either out-dated/obsolete or a frivolity of the young and idealistic.

But totally agree that alternative formations are required. Lenin didn't create the Soviets, after all...

Phil Knight said...

It's just a trend, innit?

There's been a trend over the last 30-odd years for the political parties to "triangulate" over a semi-mythical, semi-real "centre ground", so any ideas that diverge from this consensus are marginalised, and therefore there's been a counter-trend that sees them having to adopt more and more extreme means of being noticed.

But like I say, it's only a trend.

The big problem that the Left has, and it's primarily a psychological problem, is its tendency to extrapolate every current trend to some ultimate, impossible extreme and then lapse into either paranoia or depression.

Now I'm the last person to want to sound like Adam Curtis, because I think Adam Curtis is nuts (anybody who approves of Charles Fourier must be nuts), but to start to see political trends as trends instead of endlessly interpreting them as portents of a nightmare future would be a good start.

I think the centre of politics is going to move leftwards (can only move leftwards), but that's a long essay that's going to need lots of Jacques Ellul quotes, so I'm not going to do it here.

David W. Kasper said...

What's nuts about Fourier??

Don't agree they're just trends either - the rate of crises (real or manufactured) and their global nature suggests this will be the 'consensus' for quite some time.

Phil Knight said...

It's Fourier's concept of "anti-lions" that does it for me.

As for being the consensus for quite some time to come, I'm really not sure about that. The problem with Capitalism is that despite the rhetoric, it's really quite inefficient (as it only can be if enormous amounts of capital are tied up in a few private hands), and this inefficiency has been covered up over the past 30 odd years by the vast increase of credit.

That's a process that came to an end in 2008, so the price of maintaining the status quo will be more and more inefficiency, which is fine if you want your nation to move backwards, but I think there are too many vested interests that will be against that. It's interesting that Argentina has nationalised Repsol - I think this will be the start of a trend that spreads to even the richest countries.

It's too easy to come out with apocalyptic rhetoric. It was only a few short years ago that the BNP were supposed to be harbingers of a dreaded interface of Fascism and Neoliberalism. When the BNP turned out to be a damp squib, nobody put their hands up to apologise for over-egging it, did they? Small "s" socialism is actually more efficient than capitalism, which is why I think it has the advantage over the long run.

David W. Kasper said...

Hmm - the 'wild card' is climate change. Going by how the ruling class is dealing with uncooperative populations now, can't help but think they're ready to get really harsh.

And like with Thatcher in the early 80s, 'brand x' the far-right loses its edge when enough of its approaches are appropriated by the 'centre'.

Culla said...

timely piece. being an 'activist' can help the individual identify with several causes, yet in some instances seems to help advance none, it can be a placeholder term, salving the conscience when the 'activism' is doing little to move things on. but what about the hacktivist? do you see them as being more or less useful to the left's goals?

we increasingly see the term 'activist' in stories, captions, headlines, etc because its very lack of definition helps get round having to explain causes, etc, a route of accuracy that editors dont seem to want to go down because they usually involve gory leftwing causes that they believe alienate 'the reader'! that route help reduces it to the 'symbolic actions' you mention, and that's one good reason why the term may not be helping

also, minor factual point - argentina trying to nationalise the ypf subsidiary not repsol itself

David W. Kasper said...