This is not the end of movements

A website called Arthur Magazine brings us Douglas Rushkoff’s An End To Movements:

“That’s right. Mass organization may just have been a twentieth century thing: collective actions of all sorts—good and bad—were responses to the corporatization of government and industy. As such, they took the form of the entities with whom they sought to do battle. But—like the top-heavy, highly abstracted creatures they were created to counter —they are proving utterly incapable of providing an alternative to what they would replace.”

It’s an interesting read, and makes some accurate observations, but I don’t agree with Rushkoff here. I think he places too much faith in reformist symbolism like petitions and too much stock in the large-scale efficacy of the “change begins at home” argument. And whilst statements like “mass organization may just have been a twentieth century thing” make for great headlines, they’re exactly the sort of generalised nonsense that makes banner-waving new media advocates sometimes look a bit silly.

While encouraging people to act locally (and, one assumes, think globally) is a good one it belies various social and economic realities. Firstly that the majority of people lack a large amount of time and money to spare – which I imagine is particularly true in the US where it’s common for many people to work two jobs just to hold themselves or their family together financially. Buying organic local produce and helping out at local schools and so forth is a lot easier for people with time and money to spare and the will to use that time altruistically – primarily, the liberal or leftist middle classes (or “affluent classes” or “co-ordinator classes”, whatever your lingo). This is not to deny the fact that many dedicated people do good for their local communities despite the difficulties of their personal circumstances, but only to observe that demographically the number of people who meet the criteria for this sort of immediate social engagement are limited. Arguments are regularly made that our societies are designed this way; to encourage the disengagement of the population from the political realities and debates that affect their lives. Whether or not the design is intentional, it’s a reality.

More naive, though, is this statement:

We’d more effectively pull the rug out from under a corrupt financial sector by simply investing in one another’s businesses—our own town restaurants and drug stores—instead of outsourcing our retirement savings to Wall Street.

While this does clearly illuminate who Rushkoff is writing for – middle-class activists, those with savings to invest – it seems to neglect the reality that the money which prop ups Wall Street does not come from Joe and Jane Average with enough savings to invest in some shares and stock options. The people that prop up Wall Street are the astonishingly wealthy institutions and individuals who constitute the “corrupt financial sector”. Ordinary people are pocket change in the world of global finance, even en masse.

What I think this fallacious argument best illustrates, however, is the vast discrepancy between the power of individuals when pitted against that of a political and economic system with an entrenched (if inclusive) elite class. That is, it is at best ineffectual and irrelevant.

There also seems to be a confusion between “branded” mass movements (such as the umbrella of motley groups who saw Obama into power, and the ludicrous astroturf groups who are plaguing American grassroots activism) and non-hegemonic groupings of activists. Whilst it’s true that many large-scale movements have figureheads, these are often emergent and not necessarily imposed from the top (Martin Luther King was no brand, and nor was Emmeline Pankhurst). Here in the UK the Stop the War coalition played a large part in coaxing 2 million anti-war protestors onto the streets of London – but they did not represent everyone there, not by a longshot, and even if they had they would still remain a coalition, not a command structure. This only represents a brand in the eyes of those who see groups as conglomerates – not something I’d accuse Rushkoff of, I want to note, just an observation regarding the tendency of many talking heads and pundits to reduce the participants in such actions to a single-willed creature of many heads, rather than a collection of unique people who want different things who just happen, on this occasion, to also share a common cause. Branding is an exercise in reductionism; social progressivism is directly at odds with reductive impulses.

However, even if the arguments Rushkoff uses to make his case are fundamentally flawed, his conclusion is almost spot on:

In fact, by creating and branding a movement, even the most well-meaning activitsts are disconnecting from terra firma, and instead entering the world of marketing, public opinion, and language selection. Potential participants, meanwhile, are distracted from whatever on-the-ground, constructive and purposeful activity they might do. They get to join an abstracted movement, and participate by belonging instead of doing, or blogging instead of acting.

But the answer to this sidelining is not to abandon entirely the power of the collective fist, the efficacy and dedication of a movement that is linked by ideas and belief rather than geographical immediacy or local efficacy. It is to recognise that any successful cause requires a multiplicity of tactics, a plurality of activism. You need people writing and speaking in the organs of mainstream media, making the case as best they can in the face of possible hostility or derision. You need lobby groups and petitions pushing for change through legitimate means. You need masses of people on the ground, making their collective voices heard, and you need masses of people making their individual voices heard in local debates, on the Internet, in newsletters and blogs and letters to their elected representatives. You need people who will break the law and impede those who oppose the cause with direct activation, be it with d-locks, bolt cutters or the carnivalesque. You need the support of people who are not 100% engaged as much as you need the die-harders, because the hardcore can only ever be the core.

The best way to kill a cause is to destroy its popularity, and one way to do that is to limit its expression to a single stratum that is only effective for some of the people, some of the time.

3 Responses to “This is not the end of movements”
  1. Colum Paget says:

    I find the statement quoted here strange and interesting on many levels. (I should go and read the article, but it’s more interesting right now to take your single, out-of-context quote, and argue with that instead ;-) ). Mr Rushkoff may consider me an idiot and a charalatan, but I’m cool with that, frankly.)
    I grew up in the late 20th century, and mass movements, in my experience, were rare. The only really significant one that I recall, was the poll tax riots. I’m not sure how much that was a movement, or just a spontaneous expression of anger.
    I do remember seeing a couple of fairly large “demos”, one in France, one in the UK, which consisted of a load of people walking about chanting and waving placards, while the world simply ignored them. Even by the 80’s, mass movements seemed to be in the past.
    On the other hand, I suspect that the 21st century will be the century of the mass movement, in some ways. Consider this question: You are a mass-movement (no offense) how do you achieve your goal? Do mass-movements generally achieve their ends by depowering or killing those who oppose them? Well, in the case of the really big mass-movements, religions or political systems, this is quite often true, but I don’t think that’s the kind of movement we are talking about here. I think, by and large, that mass-movements achieve their goals by convincing the NEXT generation that the world will be better if their manifesto is implemented. Hence, all the demonstrations and direct-actions are, essentially, advertising for a change in society.
    It may seem trivial, but we in the UK recently had a mass-movement with the stated aim of putting Rage Against the Machine at No.1 in hip-parade. It was fairly effective. No one had to get out onto the streets and get in a fight with the police to make it happen.
    Mass movements used to take to the streets and commit civil disobedience because the street was, effectively, the public forum, and creating a scene was a good way to grab the spotlight. This is changing, we now have a new public forum, the internet. Radio and TV and newspapers were never public forums (forii?) like this, because the capital costs involved in setting them up meant they were always in the control of governments and wealthy individuals. Barriers to entry into blogging or podcasting (or wandering around in world-of-warcraft with a placard proclaiming ‘the end is nigh!’) are far lower. Also, you can concievably reach far greater numbers of people (though most bloggers, admittedly, don’t).
    And if you want an on-the-streets crowd, you call up a flash-mob.

    All in all, I think the mass movement is just mutating as society changes around it. Is a denial-of-service attack any less direct action than chaining oneself to some railings? Isn’t a net-organized boycott likely to be more effective than one organized by word-of-mouth?

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Colum.

    I think comparing the recent efforts to propel Rage to the top of the charts, or indeed the majority of consumer boycotts, to more serious political agitation, is a bit disingenuous. It also misses the thrust of my argument about how any successful movement demands a multiplicity of tactics to achieve its ends, even if bloggery and boycotts are a part of that. You’re quite right that it’s a lot easier to get your voice heard these days, but it’s also a lot easier to tune people out. What’s just another upstart blog decrying the way things are? What’s just another ill-conceived Facebook campaign with 100,000 lethargic members? (I’m not saying these things can’t have an effect, just that it shouldn’t be overstated and certainly shouldn’t be the point where people stop.)

    For what it’s worth 2003 saw an extremely historically significant protest in the UK, the anti-Iraq war march in London. This was arguably the first anti-war march in history that took place before the war it was against had begun. It was the largest march in recent history, at least, with estimates of 1.5 to 2 million people participating. And the various coalitions and individuals that participated were drawn from across the board of political opinion – from anarchists to conservatives, Trots to liberals – religion and ethnicity. And France, as always, continues to host huge youth protests on a scale that genuinely scare its government – look at the riots just a few years ago in response to legislation that targeted poor urban youth, disproportionately Muslim. This is not to mention Greece, which is still reeling from the effects of being paralysed for several months by a mass youth/anarchist uprising.

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