Is activism dead – or is it blooming? Some look at the G20 demos or student occupations and see a vibrant youthful movement, taking on the injustices of the day. Others look at the same gatherings and see only a confused bedraggled crowd, a mere shadow of 1960s mobilisations.
It is of course difficult to make generalisations about the state of activism. The most radical times have harboured losers as well as the heroes remembered by history. Yet over the past 10 years I have observed a shift in the state of activism - happily, for the better.
There was a lot of heady talk about late 1990s anti-globalisation demos, but they were actually demoralising experiences. Everybody there was angry but it was not clear what they were angry about. The objects of their anger were big agents of power - America, Israel, corporations, capitalism, globalisation – but these seemed to be effigies against which to rage. Alongside big effigies were a million personal effigies: they were angry about the regulation of pigeons in Trafalgar square, the lack of love in the world or the building of bypasses.
This was not a group of people calling for something to change in the world, but instead a gathering of discontent. For all the big crowds, there was a curious atomisation: nobody’s concerns seemed to relate to those of others, and in the end it came down to the narcissism of the activist performance. Cameras were everywhere.
Demonstrators in protective gear worried whether their shoulder pads looked okay. These gatherings of discontent came at a specific point in history. The old channels for political mobilisation had gone, but people – especially young people – were rightly still dissatisfied with the world. The social world was not perfect and they wanted to change things, yet they lacked a political vocabulary or political ends.
They had no sense of themselves as an interest group with specific demands, so the result was a disaggregated hostility to everything. Demonstrators talked the Marxist talk about capitalism and power interests but the protest was really founded on the pure sentiment of dissatisfaction. Recent protests against G20 in London or NATO in Strasbourg were very similar to these 1990s anti-globalisation rallies, with the same disparate vague anger, even the same anarchist groups.
Yet at the same time, we are now seeing the birth of new kinds of groups, which are not gatherings of discontent butcommunities of interest. These may be small and under-organised, but they involve groups staking real political demands - as such they have the potential not just to rage against the world but to change it.
This list might include: file-sharers organised in Pirate Parties against internet regulation; foxhunters protesting against the ban on foxhunting; motorists petitioning against road charging; photographers mobilising against the regulation of public photography; children’s authors refusing to go on the vetting database; young people partying against the ban on booze on the London tube. Or more: scientists opposing the new bean-counting funding system and calling for curiosity-driven research; artists and academics protesting about Visa controls that block international visitors to the UK.
Nobody would agree with all these demands - but they are all communities of interest. There is something they want to do that they are being prevented from doing by political authority. They assert themselves as a group and demand specific changes in social life. They have a constructive sense of injustice: they are not raging but acting. Here are nascent political constituencies, networks of friends and colleagues gathered together through email, online petitions and Facebook groups.
As head of the freedom campaigning group, the Manifesto Club, these protests give me heart that new kinds of political activism can happen in our times. At the club, we look for the points of tension between people’s desires and a hyper-regulatory political authority – and here, in these battlegrounds of everyday life, is where we launch campaigns. The role of activists can never be to invent political issues from scratch, but only to help to vocalise and understand really existing social conflict.
These new protests appear first as a single-issue claim by smokers, photographers, fox-hunters or authors. Over the next five years, I think the challenge is to link up and theorise single-issue freedom claims.Because these claims will only really have power if they are staked not as a special dispensation, but as a resonant political principle of freedom and the self-organisation of civil society. Photographers could support young people’s protests against booze bans, even if they do not themselves drink; and young people could support photographers, though they do not themselves photograph.
In conclusion, we might say that activism is not dead, nor is it blooming – it is being born.