Traditional Activism is a Failure

in #news24 days ago


The above image was made with stable diffusion using the prompt 'a classical reclining figure painting being broken.'

In the UK, the activist group Just Stop Oil recently defaced more classical art to protest against fossil fuels. These kids seem totally disconnected from reality, and I get the sense that older activists who should know better are pulling their strings. Here in the US, messaging like "death to Israel" and "glory 2 the martyrs" was recently spray painted on a DC building as part of pro-Palestinian protests. Although many march for peace, there are clearly Hamas supporters among them.

When swastikas were seen in the crowds of Canadian truckers protesting vaccine mandates in 2022, it helped cultural commentators characterize the movement as racist. Few are painting the current pro-Palestinian demonstrations with the same brush despite their racist features. There's much broader support in the mainstream for pro-Palestinian sentiment than there was for vaccine mandate protests.

Personally, I agree with Just Stop Oil that fossil fuels should be phased out. Just as I agreed with the Canadian truckers that vaccine mandates were terrible. I also agree with pro-Palestinian demonstrators that Israel's killing of civilians in Gaza should stop, and that US military aid to Israel should be reduced to zero. But I feel completely disconnected from the activism around these issues. It's ineffectual and embarrassing.

The whole formula of using demonstrations to force officials to change policy seems outdated. And most protest events are heavily manipulated by special interests, both on the ground and in media portrayals, so their messaging is untrustworthy. Public opinion about these events is largely manufactured by the choices of social media giants. As I see it, traditional activism is a failure.

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, civil rights demonstrations brought over 15 million people out into the streets across the country. It was the largest protest in US history and it accomplished very little. 15 million people all working in concert should have moved the needle, but it didn't. The energies of this group were dispersed and nothing really changed.

The Swarm

As traditional activism fades, there are at the same time new forms of activism becoming possible in the digital age. Networked action. The formation of swarms. The technical replacement of control regime systems with better alternative systems.

The problem with this stuff is that it's boring. It may also feel contrary to our instincts. When I'm outraged, my instinct is to jump up and down shouting, not calmly participate in an alternative economy. And while I'd prefer to see constructive solutions come from the new activism, much of what I'm seeing so far is destructive.

Consider cancel culture. A few years ago in Minneapolis, an online swarm formed to cancel the Holy Land Deli over racist posts made by the daughter of the establishment's owner when she was a teenager. This happened in the context of 2020's madness, and a boycott of the deli destroyed the business. The episode illustrated the potential of the swarm to ruin any company. There's power in that, though in this case I think that power was misused.

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To use a better, more direct local example of swarm protest/boycott, the entire staff of Club Jager quit when it was revealed the owner had donated a relatively small sum to David Duke's political campaign. Combined with some inference based on his other interests (Germany, Germany, and also Germany) it was concluded he is a Nazi. A real Nazi, not the term flippantly thrown around by modern leftist children.

I think Club Jager came back, but probably had trouble attracting staff and patrons, and is now long closed. But he also owns and owned property elsewhere. On Lyndale Ave near Lake Street, he owns the building that formerly housed HUGE Theater (they finally moved this year) as well as the popular UpDown bar. Even though he doesn't own the businesses like he owned Club Jager, they haven't suffered as much if at all. Although in the case of HUGE, it's likely they moved at the end of their lease primarily due to the landlord's politics. I wonder if it also played a role in keeping the former specialty woodworking hardware store vacant, which he eventually sold to Gyu-Kaku. It may play a role in the potential renter market of the HUGE space, as well.

I remember hearing something about Club Jager but didn't know the whole story. Whatever its origins, the stigma of racism is hard to wash off once a swarm gets involved.

I felt bad when I saw how Israelite were killing people of Gaza.
Right now, I don't want to take sides
I just want the war to stop. It makes me feel bad

Yeah it's no good.

Do people still protesting or let me say do people protest still count even in our contemporary age

Hard to say. They don't seem to count for much.

I like the idea of swarm formations, and inquiring into what a wise and healthy swarm would look like. Your idea of a knowledge workers union is super promising to me. In the chapter I wrote for Project Censored on the constructive media movement, we talk about how the the root of all the crises we face is the crisis of imagination. Outdated methods of traditional activism is familiar, so we stick to it. To reimagine better systems (especially in a technological sense) is not just boring, but hard. Collaboration is hard. Creativity is messy. As Jung says, "thinking is hard, that's why most people judge." We're also not talking to each other in real ways, especially across our differences. I've been to so many protests where we're all gathered there for a "cause," yet there are zero efforts to build community with each other while we're shouting and screaming together. When the protest ends, we turn the other way and go home. How isolating.

Also, there's the component of clearly defining our end goal, which activists choose something super idealistic and unrealistic (like "just stop oil" or "defund the police") or they only see the end goal in the context of their self-serving needs vs. the community. Once again I'd like to call in bell hooks, who kept noticing how an ethic of love remained missing in activism and progressive movements.

Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination. It has always puzzled me that women and men who spend a lifetime working to resist one form of domination can be systematically supporting another…. (with) many of us motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us.

One thing I've been thinking more and more about is the idea of using tech from the crypto world to organize decentralized swarms. Specifically, I'm thinking about using governance models like fractal democracy and various voting schemes to help huge groups of people get on the same page quickly about issues and what to do about them.

The bell hooks quote is on point: )