JS Richard describes the difference between activism and organizing, arguing that activism is politically ineffective and should be abandoned for an organizing approach. This is further afield than our usual workplace organizing pieces, but is relevant to debates within the IWW about what kinds of activity the union should engage in. –Ed.
Activism has become the main political approach for the radical left in North America. It has been used without much consideration of its strategic validity for at least 30 years, and the results it has brought about are thin. Several elements condemn activism to political sterility. An “organizing” approach to political activity would be far more effective.
What is activism?
Activism can be identified as political activity that sets up short-term actions and statements on variety of causes and social problems. It moves from one issue to the next, once a sufficient expression of dissent has been voiced. It is based on an abstract opposition in principle rather than an attempt to obtain concrete concessions from the people in power, be they bosses, state officials, landlords, etc.. Activism is usually scattered politically, reactive and unfocused. For example, Google sets up shop in a city, and pushes the local government to destroy cheaper housing to make room for luxury condos; activists answer this by parachuting themselves, as militants, into the neighborhood, postering and leafleting for a bit, organizing one or two demos… and then move on when a policeman shoots a teen in the back, dropping the “old” issue for the new one, and so on.
There are, of course, organisations that fight in relation to these issues in a sustained and meaningful way. The issues are not in question. The point is that activism is often, if not always, futile in addressing social problems.
Activists are usually bonded not by common economic or social interests, but by political or sub-cultural affinities. In every struggle they enter, they substitute themselves (the acting minority, the militants, the politically enlightened) for the real subject of the struggle (renters, workers, the black community), i.e. the base. Even if the membership of activist groups is formally open, they rarely grow because every action they get involved with has a different base. Activism also lacks long-term objectives for each struggle. For the activist, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “resistance [is] its own reward”. There doesn’t need to be an evaluation of the results as they relate to objectives since the action taken is, itself, the goal.
What is organizing?
Organizing, by contrast, will usually involve people from both outside and inside the base contending with a concrete social or economic problem. From the outside, it will involve some experienced organizers or militants, and from the inside, it will involve the people whose material conditions are affected by the issue. Organizing has clear long-term objectives aimed at extracting gains for the base from bosses, owners or authorities. Ideally it will also have feedback mechanisms to evaluate the efficacy of the means taken, as regards the results they brought about, and as these relate to long-term objectives. This then provides a self-correcting feedback loop in which participants can evaluate the actions they’ve taken so far to achieve their goal(s), and whether the efforts were worth it or whether they should be changed. Tactics can be gradually escalated toward a constant objective.
For instance, a tenants’ association in Montreal that was in a fight with a landlord to repair housing units was initially using the media to pressure him via press conferences and press releases. After a few months, this strategy didn’t reap much results. At the general assembly of tenants, it was suggested that this approach could be replaced with demos at the commercial buildings the landlord also owned. This corrected two things: first, the landlord cared more about his commercial renters than the general public’s opinion; secondly, whereas most of the press work was being done by outside organizers, the demos included the base (the tenants).
What organizing can do that activism cannot
Organizations have the potential to build lasting fighting entities for the base, and expand to other people with similar material conditions. Continuing with the example of the tenants’ association: while initially built to fight a specific landlord, it can eventually help renters who lease from another landlord, by providing people and experience from their struggle to help those other tenants organize. This could lead to a city-wide tenants’ organization able to pressure the government, either at the municipal level or beyond, to get gains in terms of sanitation laws and growing the affordable housing in the city. Once these more permanent organizations take off, they also have the advantage of not depending on specific active militants’ availability to endure over time. They remain as permanent structures for people to fight from, regardless of who the initial militants and members were.
Both organizing and activism involve the participation of outside militants. However, activists don’t build connections with the base. The main difficulty of the organizing approach, for militants, is that it requires interaction with people that they don’t already agree with on larger principles such as economic system or political standpoint. The decision-making process is also messier with a larger base of people coming from different backgrounds. It requires deliberation, unlike in affinity groups where a common position can be taken for granted. It also requires building real trust and connection before people are willing to take action in a way that puts their own jobs or housing on the line. Finally, there is a longer arc to see any results since the objectives are usually more concrete, and more meaningful than just voicing opposition.
Why has activism remained so popular?
In light of all its shortcomings, one might wonder why activism has such a constant presence in radical left circles. Late capitalism has atomised us and promotes a bizarre ethos of self-branding. Affinity groups simultaneously give their members a sense of belonging and a sense of exclusivity. Hence the continual proliferation of new jargon, used as shibboleths to identify belonging to “the scene.” Also, violence is more often used among activists (compared to organizations), because they want to view themselves as radical. Activism is more about performative politics than achieving improvements in people’s lives.
Despite activism’s supposed radicalism, activist actions usually have lower stakes than organizing proper. Showing up for a few spectacular actions is less risky than engaging with your boss on the job in a way that can potentially jeopardize your livelihood. Activism is often safer and easier than actual organizing.
Another element of the allure of activism is the spectacular nature of the actions. As described by Guy Debord, the “spectacle” is the image of reality which we end up perceiving as reality. Stridently voicing opposition to this or that problem therefore gives the impression of having done something to address it. Social media makes this even more pronounced: all one needs to do to oppose systematic sexism in our society, for instance, is take part in the online mobbing of a person who expressed something sexist, to get him fired. Not only does this do very little to address sexism at large, or whatever other problem, but it also increases the power of his boss and bosses in general, who now have more precedent to terminate workers for what they say and do outside of work. In these ways, activism is often more about the activist’s self-perception of righteousness than about confronting social problems collectively.
Revolutionary political activity should be geared towards social change. Activism, as a praxis, has failed to effect much towards this aim. If we are to overthrow the now misanthropic, and likely genocidal, rule of global capitalism, we should turn towards collective organizing. This involves building structures of power around material struggles, which can endure and grow over time to yield tangible change for the base.