How to keep activist movements from burning out

How to keep activist movements from burning out
Image via Shutterstock.

Since the 1960s, how many movements have excitedly exploded into existence, only to later morbidly melt away? In contrast, how many movements have constantly interminably grown and strengthened over time?


The answer, best we can tell, is that most movements have rapidly grown during their initial stages, only to lethargically decline later. Most movements gloriously birth and later ingloriously die.

You might ask, “what’s your point?” We might answer, “winning a new world isn’t easy.” You might reply, “but that’s obvious.” We might respond, “You lose, you lose, you lose, you win. It is hard to revolutionize the basic structures of life, but once you do so you have done so.” Put differently, even though each of our attempts for a half-century have failed to interminably grow and strengthen, nonetheless we must try and try again.

But why do our excitedly born movements so often morbidly age? Why do we so often gear up but then die down?

The two usual answers for what deters us from interminably growing are coercive repression and media machinations. We add a third factor: too many of us aren’t trying to win in the first place, so of course we don’t. And to us, a fourth factor seems at least as important. We are too often our own worst enemy. Of course there are other factors, but for another time.

First, consider coercive repression. The system we abhor overtly defends itself however it can, including political assassinations, jailing, exiling, and intimidating. But the effectiveness of coercive repression depends greatly on how we react to it. To the extent our actions provoke and make coercive repression appear warranted, coercive repression becomes aggressively more effective. To the extent we endlessly tout its power and even become paranoid about its ubiquity, coercive repression becomes insidiously more effective. To the extent we move our focus from mainly communicating our own aims and methods to instead bemoaning their repressiveness, coercive repression becomes disorientingly more effective.

On the other hand, if we reduce the means of coercive repression by defunding it, and if we diminish it by imposing restrictions on it, but even more so if we subvert coercive repression by joining the military or police and organizing them from within—or if we at least compellingly communicate with coercive repression’s rank and file not only about our situation but about theirs as well—coercive repression becomes less effective. Likewise, if we organize to ensure that acts of repression so affront the broad public as to strengthen rather than diminish activism’s support, coercive repression becomes less effective. Since overcoming both genuine fear as well as the paranoia surrounding coercive repression benefits winning a new society, we believe these approaches merit attention and perhaps action. We don’t claim this is an easy task, but a necessary one.

Second, consider mainstream media machinations. This factor reflects that the sexist, racist, classist system has endless resources as well as endless greed and dismissiveness. The corporate megaphone interminably inundates billions of households across the globe. Our megaphone intermittently reaches a tiny fraction of households across the globe. They lie, manipulate, and pile it on, over and over. They shower us with denials and depredations. They normalize what we seek to replace. They unrelentingly assault our trajectory of growth until it becomes a trajectory of decline. If to escape their wrath we bend our words to appeal to mainstream media’s logic, or we succumb to mainstream media’s premises, or we accept mainstream media’s entreaties and mimic its perversions, we empower mainstream media and disempower ourselves. If we let their news cycle determine our focus, if we redundantly communicate messages and ideas that we know will receive applause from a comfortable and friendly audience but will not challenge those who hear, see, or read our work to find new paths forward, we strengthen the mainstream and weaken ourselves. If we mimic mainstream media’s methods or modes instead of utilizing new ways to communicate and convey knowledge and ideas, they gain, we lose. Their masthead features racist, sexist, capitalist types. Our masthead features anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist types—but we each have a masthead.

We therefore urge that we reveal mainstream media machinations and aid efforts within the mainstream media’s structures seeking reforms to mitigate and replace its oppressive features. And that we simultaneously assault mainstream media from outside with movements demanding changes but also creating alternatives in ways that don’t replicate the worst elements of mainstream media but that instead develop a real antithesis structured to communicate what is true and needed to win real change. In these ways we can diminish their power and advance ours. If we see mainstream media not merely as vile individuals hijacking the truth, but as vile institutions that we should challenge no less creatively than we challenge arms manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, we will disempower mainstream media and lay the groundwork for alternatives that reach billions of people across the globe. So: Press the press. If we establish and build needed alternatives to mainstream media in ways that plant the seeds of a better future in the present, not only via the words they convey, but also via the structures they establish, we will overcome mainstream media machinations with alternative media innovations. So: Do it our way.

Third, consider intrinsic defeatism. Is our asserting that too often too many of us aren’t really trying to win a new society in the first place controversial? “Fight the good fight” sounds nice, but essentially it says you know you are going to lose, but you should feel and look good doing it. “Keep your chin up”—until you are flat on the ground, that is. Likewise, a silo doesn’t intimate a new world. Or, consider “Dare to struggle, dare to win.” The first part is clear enough. It does take outsized confidence, optimism, and drive to struggle against massive obstacles. We do have to “dare to struggle.” But why do we have to “dare to win”? Why wouldn’t we desire to win, hunger to win, be desperately eager to win, and so, plan and prepare to win?

The truth is that all too often seeking to win a new society, not just modest or isolated gains, seems like seeking the dauntingly impossible. The truth is that all too often we don’t even think about what winning a new society would mean. We don’t even envision much less compellingly communicate what full victory would look like. Why bother? It is not on the agenda. People ask, “what do you want?” We answer with worthy aspirations like “peace,” “justice,” or “freedom,” but we don’t offer a large-scale vision of what could replace racism, sexism, and particularly capitalism. We have shared short-term aims. We do not have shared institutional vision for post-markets, post-private ownership, post-corporate structure, post-racism, post-sexism. In fact, many of us don’t think very much about post-anything, in part because we don’t really expect to get there.

But not knowing and conveying where we want to arrive impedes our planting the institutional seeds of the future in the present. What future? It impedes orienting our actions to lead where we want to go. Where is that? It impedes our combatting hopelessness and cynicism with positive vision that can inspire and guide. What positive vision?

We brilliantly provide robust, nuanced, deep, and scathing critiques. We rarely suggest positive end-point alternatives. We tirelessly detail the strength and venality of existing institutions. We barely intimate viable and worthy full-scale alternatives. We are expert dystopians. Sometimes activists brilliantly and courageously seek new forms and structures attainable on a small scale in the present: alternative worker-controlled structures, food and workplace co-ops, schools, autonomous zones. But regarding larger scales, we are neophyte real utopians.

We say join us to reduce poverty, end alienation, curtail global warming, eradicate racism, and terminate sexism. Join us to enrich, embolden, and liberate life for all. We say it well. People excitedly join. But before too long people wonder, where more specifically are we going—for all? How more specifically are we getting there—for all? Receiving no compelling and defensible large-scale for-all reply, their energy depletes. Their motivation wanes. We have all seen it. We have all endured it. Hope dissipates. A movement busy being born becomes a movement busy dying.

To address this third obstacle, how about modifying our focus? What if we devote as much effort to developing, refining, and sharing long-term large-scale vision and strategy as we devote to understanding and critiquing the system around us? What if when working in movements seeking current change we are able to convey, as well, how the current change moves us toward longer-term aims which we also elaborate? Vice versa, what if we take our long-term aims for culture, gender relations, workplace arrangements, allocation, political decision making, education, or what have you, and use those to arrive at short-term aims, and methods, and especially to inform experimental new forms that lead toward our preferred future and that ensure that struggles for immediate aims persist past immediate victories? Mightn’t doing these things more than we now do help arouse and sustain long-term hope and program? Mightn’t it help undermine the process of movements dying? Mightn’t it help movements grow toward winning a new society? So: Act in the now, but aim at the future.

So far, we have briefly described three demobilizing factors—coercive repression, media machinations, and insufficient attention to vision and strategy—and we have offered brief, yet hopefully interesting forays into what might reduce their damage and thereby increase our ability to grow our movements until we win.

But what about the fourth factor? What about being our own worst enemy? What if that fourth factor is so powerful that even if we do much better regarding the first three, the fourth will repeatedly result in the decline of our movements? In that case, we must centrally address not just coercive repression, media machinations, and under-attention to vision, but also a destructive dynamic that sits literally within ourselves. Being our own worst enemy is less comfortable to talk about than the other factors. It’s not imposed on us, and we can’t put the blame elsewhere. The problem is us. Being our own worst enemy is also harder to even describe, let alone confront. Yes, it may be imposed by our surroundings, almost like a disease spread by oppressive social relations right into our very thoughts and habits—but still, however it got there, the problem takes root within.

The tendencies we have in mind are difficult to pin down but become evident in disputes. Yet this is not about being right or wrong in a particular dispute. It isn’t about ‘positions’ or ‘policies.’ Being our own worst enemy is instead about the toxic ways in which we often behave toward each other that are apparent to those both inside and outside our movements. Our self-defeating behaviors are not so much thought out as habitual and reflexive. They aren’t policy commitments, but they nonetheless create an environment that causes movement members distress and depression. They burn us out. They fuel our movements morbidly dying.

We believe these behaviors manifest in numerous ways, but particularly surrounding a handful of concepts and factors which must be perceived in the hope of overcoming them. That said, we have no illusions that we will fully succeed. We offer four broad types of toxic dynamics, all intimately related to the other three and each intensifying, causing, and being caused by the other three. Hopefully, our list, found by looking within our own actions and experiences, contributes to a conversation about internal movement relations and behaviors. And while we of course understand that racism and sexism are also profoundly toxic internal movement relations and behaviors and that they are also far from fully solved and that they also cause internal tensions and ills that produce deadening decline, and in different ways than those we are addressing, we here focus on the other factors because racism and sexism have been brilliantly addressed and widely prioritized in numerous essays, books, conversations, and debates, while the problems we here address are far less acknowledged, much less treated.

So why are we our own worst enemy? First, we are very often sectarian. We, like others, convert ideas into part of our own self-definition, and we then defend our self-definition more or less as we would defend our bodies—not solely with calm evidence and logic, but with outraged rejection of the incoming blow or with aggressive disavowal of disagreement. We know what it looks like.

When sectarianism is a group phenomenon, organizations, groups, or tendencies identify with a particular ideology. Sectarian groups tend to be small, and stay small. Their clashes with other groups tend to debilitate those involved and those watching. Everyone on the left knows this phenomenon, even if we each often only see it in others. Less sectarianism requires we more sincerely reach out to meet people where they are at. It requires that we more congenially and sympathetically debate topics with those who differ, that we more collectively participate with others in worthwhile campaigns that result in actual victories for people in need. In contrast, more sectarianism comes when we ever more fiercely define ourselves with inflexible ideologies. It comes when we adopt a kind of almost robotic a priori untouchable attachment to singular stances—and whether our stance is right or (more often) wrong is beside the point. Unchallengeable commitment to doctrine, not debatable belief, is the giveaway sign. Such sectarianism augurs less growth, more morbidity.

But the dynamics don’t have to be those of a group, and the group dynamics in any case owe to each member’s mentalities. We can individually become so attached to some idea or set of ideas that whenever someone disagrees with our sacred belief, much less criticizes it, their dissent or even their doubt feels to us like a personal attack. It feels like an assault on our very being. In reply, we don’t consider and discuss. We strike back. Groups do it. Individuals do it. We become mechanical about ideas that we feel as parts of our self-definition. The ideas become sacred to us. We hold them like prized and even loved entities. We no longer entertain the slightest doubt about their validity and importance. We cannot permit the slightest doubt. We forbid the slightest doubt. We don’t try to convince a dissenter by reason, much less do we seriously consider a dissenter’s logic or validity. We assert by authority. We no longer hear and respond sensibly even to doubt much less to disagreement. We dismiss dissent or we steamroll it. Put two individuals, or two arrays of individuals in proximity, each sectarian, and with the two at odds regarding some view or views, and there unfolds a dynamic that horrifies everyone sensible who encounters it. Sectarian belief repels folks. It produces morbid decline. If you haven’t encountered it, if you don’t know it firsthand, terrific. Maybe you can skip thinking about how to reduce it.

But, for the rest of us, what might we do to reduce the likelihood of sectarianism in ourselves and in our movements? It may seem trite, but we might avoid so closely identifying beliefs we have with who we are. We might avoid perceiving doubts about our beliefs as attacks on our being. We might diminish our defensiveness and so also our offensiveness. We might take the attitude that people finding fault with something that we have done or with something that we think is a potential path toward doing better or thinking wiser. Instead of celebrating being permanently right and never changing our views, we might celebrate perpetually improving. We might hope criticisms of our views or actions have merit so we can improve. We might stop taking for granted that criticisms we hear are malicious threats. And when confronted with sectarian rejection, we might pause to defuse rather than rush to escalate.

But sectarianism isn’t our only self-defeating behavior. We are very often excessively perfectionist and adversarially denigrationist. We adopt some standard or belief as to what constitutes proper behavior, and thereafter when anyone acts in a way that we can even remotely interpret as not living up to our standard, we rush to conclude that acts that could conceivably be ill-motivated are certainly in fact ill-motivated. We assume any act that could conceivably derive from less than perfect attitudes and behaviors in fact definitely derives from horribly imperfect attitudes and behaviors. We interpret, we spin, until whoever doubts or questions us appears to us vile. We more or less instantly move from thinking an act ill-motivated—merely meaning not complying with our notions of perfection—to attacking, even viciously, the person involved without the slightest inclination toward understanding much less sympathizing with his or her actual intents.

Perfectionism can take many forms. We talk to death a policy because we are fearful of falling short of perfect. Same for an action. We consider problems, work to avoid or alleviate them, but then sometimes continue to worry, perhaps not entirely without reason, but nearly entirely without benefit, that any mistake could be catastrophic so best do nothing. Each side of a dispute starts to feel events must go “my way” or the opposition should disembark for “the highway” because we feel our way is perfect and every other way is catastrophic. And ironically the polarization often occurs absent meaningful conversation about vision, goals, strategies, and even tactics. We just clash our assumed and asserted perfections, often without even a semblance of a serious argument on behalf of one or another.

Denigrationism is brutal and often accompanies sectarianism and perfectionism. It often defends “perfection” or attacks “imperfection.” It can evidence insecurity as much as overconfidence. We attack when anyone seems to step outside or beneath our narrow view of perfection, not just when they challenge our self-definition.

Yes, there are really and sometimes deep differences. But aren’t we all familiar with folks sitting around and berating, even ridiculing, other organizations and people? Aren’t we all familiar with being friendly with, or even admiring and allying one day, only to defame and castigate the next—because of some purported but ultimately minimal deviation?

For example, right now, leftists around the United States are debating whether or not we should aid Joe Biden’s campaign. Let’s assume that most of the people “knocking on doors” for Joe Biden not only want to defeat Donald Trump but would like to see a more just, equitable, and reasonable world. As leftists, we might disagree that Joe Biden is committed to creating such a world, but we might agree that it makes strategic sense to vote for Joe Biden. Should we then deem those who reject lesser evil voting where it may matter as moral cretins or otherwise cast them to the category enemy? Or, let’s say, instead, that we don’t agree that it makes strategic sense to vote for Biden in contested states. Should we then call Joe Biden’s supporters or even those who only say vote for him in contested states, a bunch of liberal-sellout-pieces of scum who love an accused rapist? Neither approach to a contrary stance makes sense if we’re interested in bringing anyone to our side. It doesn’t make sense on a political level. It doesn’t make sense on a human/social level. And it creates toxicity that produces morbidity. We can and must engage in disagreements about policies. Progress requires it. But disagreement should never devolve into personal attacks on ethics and motives and into horizontal hostility. Good comedy punches up. The same is true of good politics: save vitriol for those in power.

So what can we do to reduce our perfectionism and defang our denigrationism? We can assume, let’s say 98 out of 100 times, that whoever is involved with left-wing politics is involved because they genuinely want to change the world. They care about human beings and the planet. They want what’s best for everyone. If we start with that assumption, if we have patience and humility, we can overcome denigrationism. We can assume the best, not the worst, of others. We can try to empathize with others and even to question the universality or even the merit of our own standards. We can realize that before one is “perfect” one is imperfect, and we can realize being imperfect is not a sin against humanity but a sign of a possible area of improvement, or, perhaps, not even an imperfection at all. And even when we are absolutely certain there is serious deviation from obviously valid norms, we can try to understand why. We cannot impute vile motives. We can try not just to listen but to hear and not just to hear when what’s said is to our liking, but still more so when it isn’t. We can try to be able to not only see a contrary side, but to make the other person’s best case. And we can leave viciousness behind, way behind.

Finally, as still another debit, we have what we might call left academicism and elitism, or, more instructively, classism. By this we mean something very much like the well understood morally horrible and strategically suicidal tendencies to dismiss or underestimate and even revile and reject people on grounds of race or gender, but in this case to do so on grounds of class. And we have in mind not simply the behavior of the owning class toward everyone below, but also the behavior of what some call the professional-managerial class, or the coordinator class, or even just—seriously confusing what class is—the middle class (though we have in mind roughly the top 20 percent of the population)—toward workers below. And more, we have in mind not only overtly personally directly reducing, rejecting, or reviling people, but (as also occurs with race and gender) establishing or abiding impersonal social conditions that implicitly but no less destructively reduce, reject, or revile people.

We are talking about ridiculing working-class culture, working-class tastes, working-class lives. We are talking about assuming and expecting worker subordination, even worker obedience. We are talking about employing language workers are largely shut out from, language they haven’t experienced, even language they identify not unreasonably with their own diminishment. No one wishes to admit any of this could be real, it is so ugly.

But working-class people are 80 percent of the population. What percent of attendees at anti-war meetings, green meetings, anti-sexist meetings, even anti-racist meetings are members of the working-class proper? What percent do work that disempowers them, do work that is subordinate not only to distant owners, but also to much nearer managers, lawyers, professionals, and coordinator-class members situated below capital but above workers?

We are talking about how we allot tasks and duties within our organizations and within the movement in a way that replicates and reproduces the corporate class, race, and gender divisions of the world around us. Read left-wing journals, magazines, newspapers, and websites—usually, those writing have not only a college degree, but an advanced degree, or they are even university professors. Actual poor and working-class voices are largely missing from existing left-wing literature. Language and concepts used are foreign to many poor and working-class people. Sometimes that alone creates destructive tension within an organization or movement. It always makes workers feel, this land is not my land. In truth, movement language and culture often function like a fence keeping workers to one side, welcoming those who monopolize empowering circumstances to the other side.

Consider the tasks that people perform within existing organizations and movements. Oftentimes, poor and working-class people, if involved at all, end up doing most of the disempowering work. They make phone calls, set up rooms for events, clean up after, and so forth, while the people from more empowering backgrounds and circumstances run the cameras, make the speeches, sit on the panels of panel discussions, set the agendas, make the decisions. The empowered come to meetings with confidence, plans, and agendas. The ensuing discussion is determined by what they convey. Someone from the 20-percent-above proposes an idea or project with the expectation that someone from the 80-percent-below will end up doing the rote work to make it happen. For instance, an academically erudite activist comes up with a media strategy, something most poor and working-class people might not even be privy to, such as a coordinated social media campaign.

Right away, this causes problems if the person proposing the idea doesn’t realize that many poor people don’t have internet access, hence creating a barrier for participation, or if that person isn’t willing to find ways to accommodate and explain the process to members of the organization or movement who don’t have the same material resources or knowledge. Or more to the point, if the whole process precludes working people gaining the information and confidence to develop and propose their own agendas and plans so that their interests fade while coordinator interests dominate. An even more basic example would be a community organization that’s composed of a wide range of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. There’s an upcoming fundraiser and the organization needs volunteers to help grill food, hand out literature, welcome guests, and make speeches. Do the poor and working-class members of the organization end up behind the grill, while the more well-off members make speeches and meet with donors? These sorts of dynamics create a tone and tenor that repels working-class people by process, but also by outcomes.

Let’s say this problem arises in an organization: What next? On the one hand, perhaps we have a hurt member who’s tired of being given menial tasks and who feels isolated from, intimidated by, and subordinate to a more upwardly identified member who gets to always make speeches. Let’s assume the upwardly identified member is simply ignorant of the fact that they’ve neglected to take into account the class dynamics at play. Let’s approach that member with respect and help them understand why someone might be upset about the situation. On the other hand, the member who’s hurt by this dynamic should assume that the upwardly identified member didn’t intentionally hurt them. Yet, the member who is hurt also has every right to feel hurt and more important to seek and even to demand changes that respect those below and elevate them, while respecting those more upwardly identified but also moderating their tendencies to dominate. To address even an oppressive relation, first assume goodwill, but always work to reduce and eliminate the injustice and its causes.

We can extend this dynamic out from inter-organizational dynamics to outward-organizational dynamics. For instance, many times community groups are in the thick of it, constantly fighting, organizing, losing and winning. Organizers, for the most part, have little time to write, reflect, and develop ideas about what they are doing, not because they are incapable of doing so, but because they simply don’t have the time, capacity, resources, or headspace. On the contrary, many student groups, academics, middle-class intellectuals, and so on have the time, training, and resources to develop ideas, but may have very few community connections. The community organizations that are largely made up of poor and working-class people might take offense at the suggestions and ideas from their middle-class counterparts, seeing them as privileged individuals who have no connection to ‘the street,’ while their middle-class counterparts may look down on poor and working-class organizers as being anti-intellectual or novices.

Of course, this plays out in unproductive ways as much of the left-wing academic literature is quite detached from the actual organizing practices taking place on the ground, while much of the organizing that takes place on the ground is detached from larger ideas and concepts. The solution is for the big thinkers to get involved, and for the doers to do some more big thinking. Yet for either to happen comprehensively, roles have to change; class hierarchy has to be removed. It isn’t just that those on top become personally more tolerant and that those below become personally more assertive. It is that the basis for a group above and a group below, a division of labor that empowers some and disempowers the rest, has to be dissolved by having new roles that empower everyone, prepare everyone, and incline everyone to conceive, think, debate, and act. And this is of course not only inside our movements, but throughout society.

We have tried to point out some key factors that cause our movements to grow but then decline. We have tried to suggest some methods to overcome those debilitating factors. But our main point is not our specific observations and suggestions. It is that the reasons for repeated movement decline ought to be a central focus of movement thinking, and doing so, we can develop still better observations and suggestions—so we can gear up, and then not die down.

Collective 20 is a group of anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-racist, environmental activists and writers from around the world who provide analysis, vision, and strategy for positive social change.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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