Birthday Missive

Activist culture is producing activists that are incapable of solving the world's problems.


Today is my birthday.

It has been 24 years since I became an activist and 8 years since Occupy.

Back when I was 13-year-old acting up and disobeying authority in the hopes of provoking change, activism was not popular. Activism was not cool. There was very little activism that mattered to the mainstream.

How ironic is it that activism is cool today partly because of Occupy Wall Street, a social movement that I co-created.

The trifecta of the Arab Spring, 15-M and Occupy kicked off a wave of social movements in 2011 that continues—leading through so many manifestations including Black Lives Matter to Idle No More to the Women's March, March for Our Lives and now today's youth-led environmentalist protests. In the past few years, younger and younger activists have catalyzed movements that flare up and dissipate, just like Occupy and the subsequent movements.

A decreasing number of activists are able to survive as activists into their 30s.

Life as an activist is not easy, especially if one makes the choice to be independent: to fight alongside movements without subscribing to the movement's orthodoxy.

Each year that I persist as an outsider activist, I'm continually struck by the decreasing number of activists that are able to survive as activists into their 30s. I mean survive in a financial sense: the denial of resources is one way that activists are punished. Youth have the advantage of being financially supported by their parents or, increasingly, student loans. Adult activists have to support their families while engaging in a lifepath whose most effective forms of protest are illegal to varying degrees and whose sources of steady income come at the cost of denuding ones activism of any potential.

And it is difficult to survive as an activist in a deeper sense:

  • It is difficult to maintain oneself as an activist.

  • It is difficult to maintain the commitment to activism.

  • Above all, it is difficult to maintain the revolutionary intuition, the inner voice, that guides one toward effective forms of activism.

Of the many pitfalls that turn would-be activists into neutralized advocates, the most difficult to overcome are subjective, conceptual and spiritual.

In the wake of the collapse of Occupy Wall Street, I set out to understand why our movement failed.

My understanding of why Occupy failed has been insufficient.

The first understanding that I came to is that the Occupy was a constructive failure that revealed that activism's theory of change is broken and that activism's strategy is broken. That was the thesis of my book, The End of Protest. And to fix these twin errors, I spent most of the first six years after Occupy advocating a broader activist theory of change that incorporates structural, subjective and spiritual factors along with promoting a strategy oriented around capturing sovereignty. I believed that the fusion of social movements with an electoral strategy could be a way forward for activists. I wrote articles, gave interviews and presented lectures addressing these points.

But as the years went on, and I had conversations with more and more activists around the world, I began to experience an even more fundamental problem with contemporary activism.

And this problem, I fear, could signal the end of activism.

The culture of activism is broken.

My encounters with today's activists have convinced me that the culture of activism is broken.

Activist culture is producing activists who are incapable of solving the world's problems at the same time as they are more than capable of creating spectacular social movements that dissipate without impact.

In other words, the reason why our protests are failing is not only because activism is broken. Our protests are also failing because activists, as people, are broken. We are not the fighters that we need.

Effective activism requires a peculiar personality type that is difficult, if not impossible, to produce. Our society knows how to manufacture world-class athletes, we know nothing of how to produce world-class activists. There is currently no pedagogical method that can consistently transform a child, over many years of schooling, into a Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr or Robespierre. Instead, we have left the production of activists up to randomness and so we are left with the kinds of activists that are stochastically produced.

Let's be clear about what is wrong with today's activists.

Activism, as it was originally intended, is a discipline for those who see something about the world that needs to change, develop a conscious strategy about how to change it, carry out that campaign despite all forms of resistance, achieve victory and carry out their movement’s will.

Activists have become conformists to the activist orthodoxy.

Activism was premised on a character type that was simultaneously counter-cultural and able to withstand the tremendous pressures to conform to the counter-culture. It is this second part that is most important.

Today the counter-culture has become the mainstream and activists have become conformists to the activist orthodoxy.

Today's activists lack the ability to resist the pressure to conform to the prevailing beliefs within their respective movements. In succumbing to groupthink, these activists are unable to guide us in a new direction.

The best activists in history have all been people who fought in unconventional ways. When Martin Luther King Jr's writes his letter from the Birmingham jail, he is responding to pressure from within the de-segregation movement. They wanted him to stop using the methods of civil disobedience that ultimately won the civil rights movement victory. Imagine if he had succumbed.

On the contrary, so many of today's activists assume outright that deferring to the movement's ideology, orthodoxy and consensus is always the correct path. There is an immense naïveté about how terrible ideas become part of the consensus through the work of bad actors within the movement.

The pressure to conform is extremely strong among young activists for whom social media exerts outsized influence.

The willingness to conform is the greatest danger to activism, and by extension all of us who are relying on activism to fix the world.

The activist orthodoxy is comprised of a series of unarticulated rules. If you violate these rules then you are canceled, cut off, punished, ridiculed, ostracized by the activist elite and activist police.

And yet, many of these rules are counter-productive and keeping activists in a losing position.

Our society knows how to manufacture world-class athletes, we know nothing of how to produce world-class activists

Unless we break activists out of their habitual ways of thinking, and create a new generation of radically unconventional activists, then I don’t see a way out of the current global crisis.

The solution lies in the development of an activist pedagogy that combines rigorous higher learning with character development.

We're tackling the higher learning part at Activist Graduate School while beginning to explore the appropriate way to develop activist character.

Ultimately, we imagine an activist educational system that goes from pre-kindergarten to graduate school, producing unconventional activists capable of building the movements that we need.

Support our mission at Activist Graduate School.

Thank you for reading. Share this with the activists in your life and let's start a much needed discussion about the kind of activists that we need to produce and how to produce them.

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