Astra Taylor at The Baffler:
As my friend Jonathan Matthew Smucker, whom I met at Zuccotti Park during the early days of Occupy Wall Street, argues in a forthcoming book, the term activist is suspiciously devoid of content. “Labels are certainly not new to collective political action,” Smucker writes, pointing to classifications like abolitionist, populist, suffragette, unionist, and socialist, which all convey a clear position on an issue. But activist is a generic category associated with oddly specific stereotypes: today, the term signals not so much a certain set of political opinions or behaviors as a certain temperament. In our increasingly sorted and labeled society, activists are analogous to skateboarders or foodies or dead heads, each inhabiting a particular niche in America’s grand and heterogeneous cultural ecosystem—by some quirk of personality, they enjoy long meetings, shouting slogans, and spending a night or two in jail the way others may savor a glass of biodynamic wine. Worse still, Smucker contends, is the fact that many activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness, their membership in an exclusive and righteous clique, effectiveness be damned.
While there are notable exceptions, many strands of contemporary activism risk emphasizing the self over the collective. By contrast, organizing is cooperative by definition: it aims to bring others into the fold, to build and exercise shared power. Organizing, as Smucker smartly defines it, involves turning “a social bloc into a political force.” Today, anyone can be an activist, even someone who operates alone, accountable to no one—for example, relentlessly trying to raise awareness about an important issue. Raising awareness—one of contemporary activism’s preferred aims—can be extremely valuable (at least I hope so, since I have spent so much time trying to do it), but education is not organizing, which involves not just enlightening whoever happens to encounter your message, but also aggregating people around common interests so that they can strategically wield their combined strength.