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The “Activist” in General and Blockupy

Blockupy is part of a European wide network of various social movement activists, altermondialists, migrants, jobless, precarious and industry workers, party members and unionists and many more from many different European countries from Italy, Spain, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany and other countries. Together we want to connect our struggles and powers beyond nation-state lines. Together we want to create a common European movement, united in diversity, which can break the rule of austerity and will start to build democracy and solidarity from below. Blockupy and the actions in Frankfurt are only one step along this way. As a transnational movement we oppose explicitly each and every attempt for racist, nationalist or antisemitic divisions as well as conspiracy theories to interpret the world. The German Blockupy alliance is supported by activists from various emancipatory groups and organizations; among others, the interventionist Left, Attac, Occupy Frankfurt, trade unions, youth and student organizations, the forum of the unemployed in Germany (Erwerbslosenforum), the party DIE LINKE, the network peace cooperative (Netzwerk Friedenskooperative) and the alliance umsGanze...

Blockupy website 

The Blockupy alliance’s anti-austerity protest action in Frankfurt on 18 March 2015, during the opening of the European Central Bank’s new headquarters, made the news prominently – largely due to the spectacle of riot police quelling protesters and a few burning cars. Having rooted for (from a distance) and occasionally joining in (when within reach) various such protest actions since Seattle 1999, neither the terms/forms of the protest nor the police and news media response held any surprises. This posting isn’t about those, or about Blockupy; it lays out a few thoughts at a somewhat self-indulgent tangent while contemplating this most recent of so-called “anti-globalization” or “globalization-from-below” protests. It is addressed to a question that is at the heart of the Blockupy’s alliance’s announcement, as to so many such announcements over the last couple of decades: what is an activist? My reflections on this are pinned, in this instance, to the Blockupy statement above – but could equally be relevant to almost every announcement of a multi-pronged formation (coalition, alliance) seeking social and political change through such demonstrations and other public means.

Let me delimit my question and my approach to it. My interest here is in the connotations of the word “activist” in such contexts – as it appears in the ordinary language usage of such announcements and media coverage, and insofar as it denotes a common denominator across alignments (“activists from various emancipatory groups and organizations”), disaffected constituencies in different locations (“migrants, jobless, precarious and industry workers, party members and unionists and many more from many different European countries”), and is inclusive of individuals. This move delinks the word “activist” from the specific group memberships and constituencies that activists are active for or on behalf of, and generates a sense of activist in general. The idea of the activist in general circulates easily in ordinary language, appears in such inclusive statements as the one above, in news reports and analysis, in theoretical texts and the like, and it is not uncommon for it to be invoked for individuals as meaning something in itself (“he is an activist”/ “I am an activist”). By way of delinking it from the spiritualist underpinnings with which “activism” came in the early 20th century, via Rudolph Eucken’s philosophy, its dominant connotative force now is sometimes underlined by saying “social activist” or “social movement activist” – and that is understood as being coterminous with “activist” in general.

My few thoughts below are as ordinary (common-sense) as the ordinary language in which the term circulates now. That means that I have largely shied away here from citations and specialist-speak, from the plethora of prodigiously informed academic accounts of social movements and activism, and from useful abstruse considerations of the term (e.g. Marcelo Svirsky’s essay “Defining Activism”, Deleuze Studies 4, 2010) and empirical research into who identifies with it (e.g. Chris Bobel’s paper “I’m not an activist etc.”, Social Movement Studies 6:2, 2007). The following thoughts are lazily based on little more than awareness of ordinary language usage as an ordinary language user.

  1. “Activist” in general comes with an implicitly normative inclination now: for those identifying with it (as in the Blockupy statement), usually as good – to be an activist is a good thing; for those inconvenienced by activists as the opposite – using the term with suspicion or pejoratively. Let’s leave the latter out of these reflections. The normative inclination (as good) is of course neutered immediately when qualified (“active for what?”): it is allowed in ordinary language that one may be an activist for neo-nazi or patriarchal or fundamentalist religious alignments, and no doubt the latter think of their activism as socially engaged and emancipative through their lenses, though obviously the Blocupy activists (and I) regard them as bad. To a great extent, the support of “activists from various emancipatory groups and organizations” claimed by Blockupy is carried by the sense that “activist” in general is normatively good.
  2. “Activist” in general is obviously and strongly associated with action – the gesture or act that registers a demand, which can be immediately received and understood in the ordinary language sphere as making a demand. The name Blockupy (blockade & occupy) announces a crystallization of action by activists; its announcement and existence is grounded in action. Simmering behind the action there may be gestures redolent of a structure of thinking at work – most Blockupy demonstrations came with academic-sounding conferences, workshops and lectures (listed on their website), as did the Occupy movement’s actions. But the action is the announcement of activism – the “voice” of the activist in general – and not the thoughts and formulations of particular activist intellectuals that participate in it. The intellectual content is performatively “diverse” so that action confers “unity in diversity”; in a way, the pure action is the voice of the “activist” in general.
  3. That is another way of saying that the “activist” in general is disinvested of ideology. This might seem completely contrary to what the term seems to imply. But this is also the most common kind of criticism levelled at, and the most common cause for unease in, circles which identify as “activist” and join with “activists” in general. Every particular activist of a specific activist group or formation is likely to be able to give a clear account of ideological commitments and analysis. A feminist activist, a human rights activist, a pro-choice activist, an activist against structural adjustment loans – not to speak of the broader commitments of a Socialist activist or an Islamist activist – can delineate the political and social principles that she subscribes to and justify her activism accordingly. But in the bid of inclusiveness, the “activist” in general brings together so many ideological subscriptions that it annuls all subscriptions.
  4. So, it is not ideological position but its absence which is connoted in “activist” in general – and, further, by way of compensation the “activist” in general is reified through other means. One of these, as observed, is the crystallization of the “activist” in general through pure action, through engagement in action. Another is the identification of a common grievance: in the Blockupy statement above it is austerity in Europe – as a social symptom, and as manifested in various ancillary social symptoms (disinvestment from public services, unemployment and employment insecurity, conditional bailouts, etc.). Each specific activist may be able to give an ideological account of the sociopolitical structure which these are symptoms of; the “activist” in general is focused on the symptom alone since ideology is annulled. The over-determination of the symptom as the locus of action is the raison d’être of the “activist” in general. But it is possible that the “activist” in general is brought into existence by each specific activist (group or organization) for her to maximize her ideological agenda – as a strategy, a path that will lead towards gradual consolidation and embedding of a particular ideological vision. But this is a play of covert machinations, each hiding their agendas behind the strategically configured “activist” in general taking action at the grievance of the moment or symptom at hand. Perhaps that is why, in ordinary language circuits, “activist” sits uneasily beside “revolutionary” – the will to change of the “activist” in general is weaker, less coherent, less committed (few would describe, for instance, Che Guevara as an activist). In some sense, the “activist” in general may be a construction that hides the willfulness of the activist in particular, who may well be a revolutionary – or might be the product of a general weakness of revolutionary enthusiasm itself.
  5. With disinvestment from ideology, and focus on pure action and over-determined symptom, there appears a typical motivational rhetoric for the “activist” in general – a set of normative terms as banner. They are there in the Blockupy statement above: “united in diversity”, “democracy and solidarity from below”, against “racist, nationalist or antisemitic divisions as well as conspiracy theories to interpret the world”, “emancipatory groups”. I am at one with the spirit in which each of these terms are enunciated; at the same time, I can’t help but be aware that these are exactly the terms, with the same embedded moral weight, that are used with conviction by those who are held responsible for numerous government disinvestments from public support systems and welfare provisions, invasions and wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, the installation of the global system which was symptomatized in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the austerity regimes that followed, inequality-generating financial institutions, and so on. This morally loaded language of the “activist” in general is carried with the same thrust by the Blockupy alliance and the neoliberal alignments which it opposes. “United in diversity” may well be the calling card of neoliberalism, “democracy and solidarity” preferred neoliberal verbiage, and neoliberal policies have been embedded very effectively “from below”. There’s a gaping hole between the symptom that is addressed by the protesting action and the moral rhetoric which motivates the “activist” in general.    
  6. Which leads to a disturbing possibility: perhaps the fact that protest is now necessarily – almost inevitably -- sieved through the “activist” in general, and structured and expressed as above, is the greatest asset of the neoliberal order that alliances like Blockupy seek to oppose. Perhaps this structure of opposition through the “activist” in general is produced by that neoliberal order, from its interstices, in the terms it enables, in a predominantly media-savvy and electorate-savvy middle-class “activist” voice, represented by newsworthy images and spectacle, and within its normalized functioning. This sounds a bit doom-laden and defeatist. But then, deconstructing the “activist” in general dispassionately might well be the first step out of the preconditioned defeat of alignments and persons who are alienated/dispossessed in the neoliberal order and feel inclined to do something about it. Less pat moralism won’t go amiss either.

Suman Gupta, April 2015