Free Radicals
March 5, 2008 3:55 AM   Subscribe

Do young activists change anything?

I'm speaking to a radical activist group about covering an issues and project their working on, as a photographer/multimedia producer. It's a group that I know pretty well, sort of by accident, and I like the things they do and what they produce (Educational Materials about different economic issues).

They are fairly solidly in the anarchist mode, but they party pretty well (that's how I know them). They also seem to bust their asses. The quality of this work is really high, there is no way around that. A very talented group.

Their asking me to donate some time this year for this project, and have been very positive and excited about me joining them. It would be a somewhat big commitment, with no money and a lot of travel and some crappy living conditions. I'd have somewhat free reign over what I was doing and I'd have the chance to cover an issue that is very interesting to me, in a place that I'd like to go. (sorry to be vague). It would also give me a chance to build some skillsets...they're asking me to do things that I know how to do well but haven't done a whole lot of. And to plan the project, something I haven't really done a ton of either.

At first they were looking for a larger commitment, and I was way more off the fence than on. I laid it out that I could commit for short, intense periods, and try to get as much done in that time as possible, and they seemed to think that was doable.

I should say I'm not an activist at all, and that bothers me, to some degree. But I've pretty much given up on myself as an activist. However, a lot of the issues they are dealing with have meaning for me.

That's the background. My question is, do you think that anarchist/radical organizations are able to change things? This group goes around the country with educational projects, teaching about the issues that they are dealing with. They are looking to use the materials we produce to do this teaching, and my work would feature in this process. I just can't get the idea out of my head that this will be one group of radicals talking to another group of radicals about things that they already agree on. But I have no idea what kind of people attend these things. And I have no alternative model in my head about how things get changed. And maybe going around to colleges and talking to passionate but ill-informed college students is the best thing to do?

I think part of the problem is that I'm generally well informed about the issues they are dealing with, and sometimes have a hard time understanding that other people aren't. And I wouldn't generally go to an educational meeting about this, I'd rather read about it.

Sorry if it's an amorphous question, I'm not totally sure how to ask it. I'm leaning towards doing it, mostly for my own work and experience, but would like to feel excited that the materials we produced would at least have the chance of doing something.
posted by sully75 to Law & Government (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I will be in the distinct minority in this thread, but I'd say, resoundingly, no.

The thing about anarchist radicalism is that our liberal democracy permits everything to be said as long as there is no actual threat to the system. If you were to convince people to rise up in sufficient numbers, the state would intervene immediately and squelch any rebellion with extreme prejudice.

If you only do the local or small-scale issues type of radicalism, you are guaranteeing that any genuine threat will be immediately co-opted. And if you want to translate that into vaguely leftist political gains, you end up making a compromise with a system that won't make any concessions itself. The center or right-center will always control politics, especially in America. There are so many middle-class people, who have an understandable attachment to the security and well-being of their families, that a revolt would be essentially authoritarian, against the will of the vast majority of the population.

Still, this might be a fun thing to do, and it might teach you some worthwhile skills. Just don't expect any results. This is a battle the radicals have been losing for two hundred years.
posted by nasreddin at 4:15 AM on March 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

I should have mentioned two things about this group, probably. One: they are not a radical protest group, not like the WTO groups and two: they are not really trying to overthrow anything, just to change particularly bad situations. I call them anarchists, but that might not be how they identify themselves. They might not identify themselves at all.
posted by sully75 at 4:22 AM on March 5, 2008

they are not really trying to overthrow anything, just to change particularly bad situations.

What kind of situations? If it's, say, helping the homeless, then by all means a group of activists can feed and clothe a surprising number of people. If it's getting the US out of Iraq, not at all.
posted by nasreddin at 4:27 AM on March 5, 2008

Young activists have little to no impact.

However, the people who go into them are often able and learn how to organise things and do things later. You may well meet good people engaging in this kind of thing.

But young folks being anarchists, socialists and whatnot are akin to the endless market for teeny bopper music. People tend to change their views as they get older in response to appreciating things that don't have simple theory and slogans behind them. Later on people appreciate things that have arisen from experience in response to the complexities of life.

In other words: "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head." French Premier Georges Clemenceau

From here
posted by sien at 4:33 AM on March 5, 2008

First of all, they don't sound like radicals or anarchists from your second comment. Working to change "particularly bad situations" probably earns them the label "progressive."

I'm an activist and I've changed things. I've seen change in my community as a results of hard work by my community. I've worked alongside activists who have scored big, important and significant changes for their local and state communities. Activism doesn't just mean shaking your fist with a group of likeminded people--although that's important. It also means education and advocacy work, too. (Which it sounds like this group does.)

On the other hand, I have worked with groups that I later realize are getting nothing done--it's all just a bunch of big talk. I think that to answer your question you need to thoroughly evaluate the specific group. They should be able to tell you the battles they fought and won and fought and lost and why in both cases. It's legitimate for you to ask for details about how they go about their work, what change they've implemented or caused and how that change is being sustained. Frankly, I don't know why you would choose to work with any group without getting a thorough description of their effectiveness. But that cannot be gleaned from asking about "radicals" in general. Then, once you understand what they do you can decide if how they go about is the way you think is best and something you want to be a part of. I can tell you right now that public education is the foundation of any social change effort. If people don't know about it, how can they jump on the bandwagon?
posted by sneakin at 4:37 AM on March 5, 2008

Anarchist group? Probably not.

SNCC and the Freedom Riders and the kids sitting in a lunch counters and getting hosed down and bitten by police dogs and the kids from CORE who were murdered and dumped in shallow Mississippi graves by the Klan? Undeniably.

The SDS and the Port Huron Manifesto? Maybe, hard to say.

The abolitionists, the temperance movements, the suffragettes, the Wobblies, the union organizers and the UMWA men? DEFINITELY.
posted by orthogonality at 4:48 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hi Sneakin,

I think they are radical/anarchists but putting their efforts into progressive change.

The issues they are educating on tend to be relatively large (not US out of Iraq, more along the lines of Don't Destroy This Particular Geographic Region with this horribly disfiguring commercial practice). Sorry I can't be more specific. So I think it's hard to measure they're effectiveness. They are a relatively young organization working against some large commercial interests. So I think they've had a lot of success in the way that their educational work has been received, and they are getting a lot more interest in their work, but as far as successes, I'm not sure that's a fair way to measure them.

Thanks for you answer...particularly about the public education component.
posted by sully75 at 4:48 AM on March 5, 2008

sully75, Fair enough. If they are a young group it will definitely be difficult to hold them accountable to past campaigns.

If their education work seems to be well received and drawing interest, then that is a good sign. I assume that you have attended the sessions they do? I would think that that is a good way of measuring how effective they are. Obviously everyone has off days and some presentations are better than others and some crowds are better than others. But seeing a handful of their educational sessions/presentations should give you some sense of 1) the way they're going about educating, 2) it's potential for effectiveness (as I said, some days/presentations/crowds just don't go well but that doesn't mean that your basic strategy/methodology is for shit) and 3) if you agree with what they're doing and how they do it.

Also, check your MeMail.
posted by sneakin at 5:01 AM on March 5, 2008

If it's young activists talking to other young activists, "preaching to the choir", then it might be worthwhile to focus on how these young people CAN actually make a difference. Education? Great: but the HUGE question is who, where, when, and what to say. You become a teacher "factory" (programming reference), helping them teach actual people in the community.

The issues they're addressing are probably difficult, because whatever it is, it isn't solved yet, and not for want of young activists (or at least idealists). The problem is, that once you start actually trying to change things, you quickly run into various obstacles - apathy, fear, lack of money, whatever. And people are somewhat inured to hearing about terrible problems faced by others - so how do you get past that, in a way that will actually get results? Teach your activists that (after figuring it out yourself), and you'll have something great.

Of course, it may be that that kind of stuff is rather boring for a young activist to listen to; as a multimedia guy, maybe you can make it more compelling. It's a long chain of causality: you teach them, they teach (or please, dear, find a better word for this) others, others talk to their friends, a few actually do stuff -- whatever the chain is, it's not as instantly rewarding as just giving a nice warm coat to a cold hungry homeless person. But it's more likely to work over the long and broad.

Anyway, I'm not saying they're not doing this already -- just trying to address your concern that "that this will be one group of radicals talking to another group of radicals about things that they already agree on." If they're exploring how to get their message out in new, better ways, then it's likely a worthwhile endeavor.
posted by amtho at 5:09 AM on March 5, 2008

I think sometimes it is hard to measure, but it doesn't mean it doesn't sink in. Especially if they are targeting younger folks, that can make a difference. While not a radical campaign in the least, I came of age in the 70's with Hootie Owl and the "give a hoot, don't pollute" commercials and school materials. It might seem corny but the message sunk in and I am an environmentalist today and continue to be interested in related issues like ground water pollution, global warming, etc. Your group is planting seeds. You don't know where or when they might sprout, but if they believe in it and you do I think it is worth doing.
posted by 45moore45 at 5:21 AM on March 5, 2008

Absolutely not.
posted by 1 at 6:07 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Absolutely not.

That's just silly. Finding even one success case would invalidate that -- what about radical and anarchist involvement (a la Emma Goldman) in working towards knowledge and legalization of contraception in the US? What about radical involvement in cooperatives and worker-owned businesses? What about influential mass movements like the Populists, the Russian Revolution, and so on -- you don't have to believe that those movements did any good to acknowledge that they made an impact.

do you think that anarchist/radical organizations are able to change things?

Well, sure, but only if they find a "lever" -- something that connects consciousness-raising with a mechanism for change. Moving into electoral politics does this (cf the German Green Party). Violence sometimes works, but mostly gets met with serious repression (cf the Black Panthers). Direct action has a mixed track-record -- good for fundraising, sometimes leads to changes (cf a lot of radical environmental groups -- Sea Shepherd, early Greenpeace, etc). ACORN figured out very early how to turn poor people's demands into political action, and has had some real successes.

There are a lot of limitations -- power corrupts; Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy suggests that as you formalize and bureaucratize your movement, compromises get made; the broader you want your movement to be, the more your message has to be "least common denominator" (eg compare modern with early Greenpeace); etc.

More worrisome for your group, a lot of radical groups have based their programs of action on structural analyses that turned out to not have a lot of relevance to the people they hoped to radicalize. The Weathermen really thought that all that the US needed only a push to head towards a revolutionary situation; the Deep Ecology people have so far utterly failed to connect their message with any mass movement; the militia movement that filled the papers in the 1980s and 1990s withered away from a combination of social ostracism and government repression.

Wasn't it Mao who said that guerrillas are fish swimming in the water of the people? That only works if the revolutionaries have a social base -- a lot of activist/anarchist groups today lack that base. They use the language of writers like Gramsci, but don't have the grounded connections that those theorists call for.

So yes, if your group can find a way to connect methods, message, and target audience, they absolutely can have an impact. I assume that their model is going to be more the early environmental movement, and less the early anarchist movement, because the one has had real victories, and the other not. It comes down to specifics, not some general rule of "activism works/doesn't work."
posted by Forktine at 6:38 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's difficult to discuss this without getting bogged down into a big debate. However, it can be boiled down thus. Activists can make small changes by affecting their immediate surroundings: providing cheap, vegan meals, or giving clothes to the homeless. They can spark revolutions. And they can also do things which make no difference at all.

If you believe in it, do it.
posted by maryrosecook at 6:43 AM on March 5, 2008

I'm not sure how "young" we're really talking about, but...
There's a girl I went to school with since I was in kindergarten. I think that through high school I maybe heard her say 25 words. Shyest girl ever. EVER.

Anyway, she finds me on myspace a couple months ago and friends me, you know---whatever. Now she's a Ron Paul lunatic. I don't mean fan, I don't mean supporter, I mean her brain fell out and she's been attacked by aliens lunatic. Every day I get 3-6 bulletins from her about the North American Union and how Ron Paul's going to get the nomination because Bush is going to support McCain and Bush is going to get impeached and how 911 was an inside job and how FEMA has plans to begin martial law on US Farmland and put us all in concentration camps...and...stuff.

They march on Washington, they hold rallies here, they hold up signs and throw flyers at anyone who will walk past them.

Do they change minds? Yes---other poor, sad, uneducated saps like themselves believe everything they say and become propaganda sheep. Other people whose minds actually work officially decide "Well, if these are his supporters, there's no WAY I'm voting for RP."
posted by TomMelee at 6:43 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's just silly. Finding even one success case would invalidate that

Sorry, let me rephrase: a bunch of kids play-acting as activists, but who mostly do it to create a common identity and facilitate partying, are not going to change America into an anarchist country in any measurable way, even if one or two of them are really good at QuarkXPress.
posted by 1 at 6:57 AM on March 5, 2008 [6 favorites]

a bunch of kids play-acting as activists, but who mostly do it to create a common identity and facilitate partying, are not going to change America into an anarchist country in any measurable way, even if one or two of them are really good at QuarkXPress.

This, I am with 100%.
posted by Forktine at 7:27 AM on March 5, 2008

a bunch of kids play-acting as activists, but who mostly do it to create a common identity and facilitate partying, are not going to change America into an anarchist country in any measurable way, even if one or two of them are really good at QuarkXPress.

I think people are confused by what anarchist means in context here. Having spent a fair amount of time when I was living in Seattle moving in anarchist circles and seeing what some of them do here, I'd give a qualified answer that yeah they can change some things and it depends what you're/they're looking at changing. I find that they are the most effective at grassroots social movements with definite purposes (feed the hungry, start a bike coop) and least effective at global politicking (stop the war)

First off 1, most anarchists I know have the same lofty ideals as Democrats or other people who believe in a future world that is more the way they like it. My anarchist goal is not that everyone become anarchist. Anarchists that I know care more about moving closer to their idea of a world where people are more self-governing and helpful out of their own volition than through the pressures of a non-representative elite. I don't really want to debate philosophy here, but I feel that your dismissiveness is a great example of what sully75 is going to be helping the people he's working for work AGAINST.

Anarchism can be a cheat sometimes because you can claim the people in your movement that you agree with (Food Not Bombs? Books to Prisoners?) and deny the ones you don't (Black Bloc? ALF? Earth First!) because after all, there's no central platform you have to identify with. This becomes an image problem when dealing with other people who pretty much only know what they see on TV. They hear anarchist [or whatever] and start making stupid jokes and you can't even get to the "what we're trying to do..." part of your spiel.

So, that said, my analysis is yes things can be changed by anarcho-types but the ways they may need to go about changing them besides what they're already doing are harder than what they're already doing. And you as someone who may not understand their process but may have useful information can help them so that, I think?

- So, from your perspective, learn about their processes and procedures and be able to reflect them outwards to groups of young people as This is The Way We Do Things. That in and of itself created legitimacy for their message as well as your own
- For them, working on tailoring their message to be real to the people who hear it is important. So they may be idealistic young people and if they're only looking to recruit idealistic young people, that's not going to be hard. However once they have to move outside that to get other things done, they will need to approach the issue of how much do their tailor their message to be effective. There are basic things to think about here -- get a haircut? issues press releases? have a website that isn't in shades of black and red? -- and they'll need to figure out what compromises weaken their core identity and what don't. I find the more progressive/activist types can move beyond the "here is our big dove puppet to loudly proclaim our wish for peace" theatrics, the more they are likely to have an impact outside of their own circle.
- Lastly remember that while there are some immediate changes your group is trying to make, there are also the cultural shifts that happen around them and their issues. So laws change slowly over time, police response to protests and activism changes slowly over time, cultural opinion on these sorts of thigns change slowly over time. The more your people can shift those balances subtly in the good direction, the more they will be useful to future generations of activists.

My uncle was a bigtime radical in the 60s and still is to some degree. When people ask him, as they always do, whether the movement "failed" (with the sort of implied "of course it did" meaning) he has a ready response to them that I'll share with you.
"Whatever we learned, we learned from making a complete commitment... The search for some kind of moral stance... the search for justice and some kind of economic equity... trying to leave a smaller footprint on the planet... exploring alternative spiritual and medical practices... they were all valid searches and they've all been completely integrated into the culture today. They're so integrated that you don't even notice them. No, we didn't end imperialism. We didn't end capitalism. We didn't do a lot of things we wanted to do. But there's no place you can go today where you can't find organic food, where you can't find yoga lessons or a chiropractor or you can't find some kind of spiritual alternative or some kind of acupuncture or alternative medicine. We did that, our generation. I'm proud of that. I wish we'd been omniscient. You know, I wish we hadn't made any mistakes or been able to do everything we wanted to do. But that would have probably meant that the world would come to an end because there'd be nothing left for the next generation to do. So -- I did my part. I'm still doing it."
posted by jessamyn at 7:40 AM on March 5, 2008 [10 favorites]

Ok I wish I had not mentioned anarchists. They are activists. They are not really trying to overthrow the government. Didn't mean to make a big conversation about anarchy.
posted by sully75 at 7:49 AM on March 5, 2008

And also, these people are very media-savvy. They are older and bright and smart and experienced. And very committed.

Thanks for everyone's feedback. It helped me clarify my thinking considerably.
posted by sully75 at 7:52 AM on March 5, 2008

- So, from your perspective, learn about their processes and procedures and be able to reflect them outwards to groups of young people as This is The Way We Do Things. That in and of itself created legitimacy for their message as well as your own

I think this is worth repeating and is true for any formal or informal group of more than a half dozen or so people regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. There are groups that exist as an identity to subscribe to and as a means to socialize. There are groups that like to discuss and philosophize and there are groups that exist to effect change. Some groups do differing amounts of these things None of these are right or wrong just make sure your goals match up with there.

You should also examine how their deal with compromise because that can tell you a lot about whether you are going to receive any tangible results in the time frame that you had in mind. If your group will accept nothing but say the total elimination of the process of mountain top removal for coal (that's my guess for the issue at hand) then you might have a hard time effecting change as opposed to stricter zoning or strong policing of prescribed cleanup efforts.
posted by mmascolino at 8:01 AM on March 5, 2008

The answer is always YES.
posted by apetpsychic at 8:39 AM on March 5, 2008

"Sorry, let me rephrase: a bunch of kids play-acting as activists, but who mostly do it to create a common identity and facilitate partying, are not going to change America into an anarchist country in any measurable way, even if one or two of them are really good at QuarkXPress."

What makes you assume this is the case?
posted by apetpsychic at 8:40 AM on March 5, 2008

I've worked with many in the past and I still support some out of those past relationships. So I can tell you right now that they don't really "Change" things but they certainly do express themselves. I feel like I grew out of it but if you're young still then go for it because it can't hurt you at all.
posted by Jack Feschuk at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2008

nthing "It depends." Also, what Jessamyn said.
posted by Rykey at 10:02 AM on March 5, 2008

I think in local communities, activist groups can effect substantial changes. As the sphere of expected influence widens, it gets harder and harder. But there are all kinds of activist groups that can have huge impacts on a less than national scale.
posted by genefinder at 10:10 AM on March 5, 2008

The group looks well meaning and generous.
Generosity always changes people.
It gives them hope that everything is not terminally fucked up.
It may not change the world, but it will light a spark in a few people.
And witnessing these sparks will certainly change you.
Sounds good enough to me.
posted by bru at 10:34 AM on March 5, 2008

Generosity always changes people.
It gives them hope that everything is not terminally fucked up.
It may not change the world, but it will light a spark in a few people.
And witnessing these sparks will certainly change you.
Sounds good enough to me.

I'm sorry, but I doubt that this is the kind of change this group is looking for. Generosity and hope are all very well in their way, but when Coca-Cola's slaughtering Nigerian activists, a few more East Bay bobos feeling better about themselves won't change very much--maybe cause them to spend a few more bucks on "conscious" advertising.

We didn't do a lot of things we wanted to do. But there's no place you can go today where you can't find organic food, where you can't find yoga lessons or a chiropractor or you can't find some kind of spiritual alternative or some kind of acupuncture or alternative medicine. We did that, our generation. I'm proud of that.

Jessamyn, I normally agree with everything you say, but this is just ridiculous. Yoga and acupuncture are the most glaring signs of the failure of the Sixties--the ease with which truly radical and world-changing ideas were turned into multibillion dollar industries demonstrates that the kind of change the Yippies and the Situationists were looking for is impossible without an infinitely distant total revolution.

If anything, what the asker should learn from the Sixties is that the songs and slogans that once inspired you to fight the system will be used tomorrow to sell that system back to you, by the same corporations that you were trying to stop. And that you will buy it, again and again and again, and you will be oh-so-"proud" of your achievement.
posted by nasreddin at 12:40 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I am honestly surprised not to see the Margaret Mead quote here already... "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Not saying it's necessarily true - I would be far more cynical about the potential of activists myself (tho' a lot depends on the definition of activist) but I'm still surprised it's not been brought up. I think what is important to remember is that the forces which work against activists are very powerful and also made up of people with strong interests, so to imagine that just by getting the word out, you'll change things, is naive. On the other hand, if you are honestly committed to working toward change in incremental, intelligent, careful ways, there's hope... What's unfortunate is when people are committed to preaching and chaining themselves to gates, or whatever, but not to thinking through the difficult aspects of the argument and really seeing where matters become complicated. I think that's why most people become more middle groundish and less activistish as they get older.

A protest march is kind of the perfect way to do nothing and feel like you did your part. The government has no problem with a million people marching against the war - they're still gonna go to war. Getting the conversations going is fine, but especially in an age of 15 minute fame, it seems like you've got to be ready to take real action, and not just put down other people's plans, but suggest working options of your own (ie, not just, don't go to war, but, what would you do about the middle east, etc)
posted by mdn at 1:09 PM on March 5, 2008

nasreddin, did you have an anwer to the OPs question? If you want to MeMail me to fight about the co-optation of radical politics and my family's part in it, feel free. Not everyone can live their life like I can and not everyone can live their life like the Diggers. In my opinion, if you want to have geniune solutions to political and social problems that work for people other than whichever elite are able to basically not worry about it because of their statused position, you have to figure out which compromises to make. We know who you think is doing it wrong. Who do you think is doing it right? In the US. Anyone?

I'm not saying my choice would be to go corporate-ag organics as a method to getting people to think about food sourcing and security, but it's one way to look at the problem. sully75 is coming from a non-radical position on this and is looking for ways to both understand the movement and how he can help them with what he does know how to do and what he does know. Your response and 1's are the sort of "it will never work, everything is fucked, you're all posers" nihilist approach (with extra vitriol to anyone who involves themselves with the means of production in American society) which gives many people -- I don't know if you fit this mold or not -- carte blanche to do whatever, not even try to make things better, and sneer at those who do.

Trust me, I can find a way to say that every radical, progressive, liberal and social justice movement ever is fucked and the people involved in them are misguided and spending their time and efforts poorly. My liberal arts education gave me a great toolkit to take things apart and poke holes in arguments. However, most social change movements don't need more people complaining about what's wrong, they need people moving in the direction of what makes it better. They need people to lift a shovel and/or just not make it worse. They need people to not poison the movement so that other people can actually work at things. If you believe that everything is going to be at least a little bit broken in our lifetime -- the infinitely distant revolution isn't pending now is it? -- you have to ask yourself what part do you play, if any, in making it slightly less broken, or do you just settle nothing if you can't have it all?

sully75, I'm sorry this is a little far afield for you original question, but I think the wide range of answers to this question should be helpful somewhat in figuring out how to frame arguments explaining it moving forward.
posted by jessamyn at 1:17 PM on March 5, 2008 [6 favorites]

...a few more East Bay bobos feeling better about themselves won't change very much--maybe cause them to spend a few more bucks on "conscious" advertising.

You really don't understand that some people spend a lot of time, most of their lives, even, committed to social change because they believe it's possible and as a result of their efforts see actual change. Just because you don't do anything substantive and/or sneer at those who do, it doesn't mean that there aren't activists out there who do real things to make actual change. The statements you've made, here, nasreddin, show that you have no sense of what grassroots activists and organizations have accomplished in our country.

Go ahead, call me a bobo, an idealist, a glassy eyed whatever, but I have spent time with moms of kids unfairly in the criminal justice system who have successfully lobbied for changes in my state's criminal justice system: change. I work with transgender people who have lead the fight for rights in our state and have been successful in getting inclusion in our state's hate crimes law. They continue to lead the fight for inclusion in non-discrimination law: change. I know parents of kids in my city's public schools who have lobbied the board of ed and have, after a fight, had demands met: change.

You either don't know anything about change efforts or don't respect them. Either way, you're not helping answer the OP's question. At this point perhaps I am not either, but hopefully this won't be deleted because as jessamyn said, the wide range of opinion will help frame arguments.
posted by sneakin at 2:09 PM on March 5, 2008


Obviously recuperation should be fought against. I don't think the eventual recuperation of situationist ideas proves the permanent failure of its ideals. Living your life this way isn't dependent on the revolution (tomorrow).


For what it's worth, I'd argue these "anarchist" (or whatever) kids are doing much more than the the many people I know who watch primary coverage on CNN and MSNBC and Daily Show (and annoyingly lecture people on the importance of voting) think they're informed from it.
posted by apetpsychic at 3:55 PM on March 5, 2008

If this organization has been around for, say, more than two years, ask the leaders the following question:

Could you show me (or name for me) individuals who you have helped?

Generally, the more specific the answer and the more people identified, the better the organization.

Watch out for organizations that focus on "the struggle," rather than the results.
posted by ferdydurke at 10:24 AM on March 6, 2008

While it's tempting to join the fray of comments above, I want to go back to the original question and give my two cents. Yes, radical activism has, can, and will continue to change the world we live in. It may not always feel that it's even possible, but that's because we live in a system that very strenuously pushes to delineate between acceptable participation and unacceptable participation. The acceptable participation, more often than not, doesn't change anything, and any victories from the outside (by organized workers, radical students, community organizers, coalitions of those three and more) are immediately co-opted by the system. So it wasn't the rioters that got the swimming pool, the mayor wanted to build the swimming pool anyway and just hadn't announced it yet. Then there's the issue beyond participation where we're actually out there struggling to overthrow an empire. Can't be done, they all tell us, but they won't acknowledge it until after it's over. If you had said in 1920 that billions of people would be living radically different lives in relation to colonialism, a lot of people would have looked at you like you were crazy. But in the space of fifty years the world turned upside down. It has before. It will again. Not because of the naysayers or because it is scientifically proven (so it's never definite, but it's always possible). Maybe it won't happen soon, but we don't really know. In my own parent's lifetime, jim crow was strong and destined to hold on "forever." We proved them wrong before and we'll prove them wrong again. My own theory is because we're social creatures and we want to improve things for each other, but that's a separate issue.

Back to your develop don't destroy group...
The second question is about them preaching to the choir. This one is difficult because a lot of groups have problems with it, few of them are trying to do it. Fortunately, a lot of activist groups are open to discussion and strategy. Talk to them about your concerns and ways to get past the listserv people. If you're designing media for them, make sure to think about the forms (trifolds that have to be handed out, posters that are inviting, etc) that bring new people in. Raise these concerns, talk to them concretely about their past and current outreach, and see if you are still worried and, if so, articulate the concern and work with them on figuring out how to reach beyond the same old same old. More often than not, groups that are having trouble reaching beyond the regulars, with some simple support and work, can begin to change that.

Good luck.
posted by history is a weapon at 12:04 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

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