Why Activism is Failing

millennium-curse-coverI suspect that reading Tony Saghbiny's book The Millennium Curse: Why Activism is Failing might be a disturbing experience for you. It was for me.

If you consider yourself an activist in any form, there's a good chance that the book will challenge some aspect of the way you think about what kinds of activism are useful and effective. If you're proud of the successful Facebook or Twitter campaigns you've orchestrated to raise awareness about a certain issue, you'll probably be made uncomfortable. If you have invested heavily in becoming the change you wish to see in the world, you might feel insulted or deflated. If you think of yourself as a pacifist, you might feel like hitting something. And if you're pretty content with the status quo, or if you're not someone who appreciates activism in any form, it might be upsetting to think about the very existence of such a book, let alone some of its implications.

The Millennium Curse tackles head on the question of why much of modern activism is proving itself to be largely ineffective.

As Saghbiny says in his introduction,

"The Millennium Curse is a political culture, a set of ideas, assumptions, and strategies of actions that guide and shape the activism scene for countless movements, organizations, and individual activists today. The Millenium Curse is currently paralyzing a lot of movements, and casting its dark shadow on most, if not all, the new movements popping up in recent years."

He goes on to identify some of the key issues with activism today, and devotes a compelling and concise chapter to reflections on and examples of each one:

  • the emaciated repertoire of actions
  • the internet centrism
  • the problem of professional activism
  • the problem of structurelessness
  • the critical mass – lifestylism problem
  • the lack of systematic approaches
  • the dogmatization of pacifism
  • the inability to cope with spirituality as a vibrant force

While the book does not claim to be an exhaustive academic analysis of these issues, each chapter is well cited and full of biting and relevant examples to make the point.

For example, on the question of Internet centrism, no punches are pulled in criticizing the work of clicktivists: "Social media has made it possible for everyone to call for a manifestation, announce a new cause, or seek a political presence. This has encouraged countless initiatives, groups, and collectives to see the light, sometimes simply because it’s too easy to make a page on Facebook and categorize it under “organization”. Instead of having strong movements working with clear strategies and goals, we have today thousands of small groups, sometimes consisting of just two individuals, competing for online and offline visibility instead of being focused on their announced goals."

Saghbiny wraps up with his vision of what a new and dynamic political and activist culture for the 21st century might look like (although mostly in bullet point form - another book or 50 could be devoted to fleshing them out) and it can probably be summarized with this highlight: "Enough with partial solutions, individual lifestyle changes, temporary programs and compartmentalized analysis, it’s time to take on the system as a whole."

Depending on your interpretation of what such a call to action requires, you may find yourself excited, inspired, terrified or annoyed. But if you think about social/cultural change in any form, it would be hard to finish The Millennium Curse and not feel some kind of pushing or pulling within you; for that alone, I suggest that it's an important read.

Published by

Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

3 thoughts on “Why Activism is Failing”

  1. activism is NOT failing.....we are not in a fast serve world it takes time to make actions become contagious.......the world is engulfed in a massive "spell" to break it we need to move the energy away from its flow......this book is meant knowingly or unknowingly to break the movement of energy away and back to the fear based horror show that has been created......so i say in a clear strong voice......this book is nothing ....it has no effect on what is happening we will not be deterred....funny business from silly beings of nothingness....

    1. right on. people love to put down 'clicktivism' while clicktivism wins battles everyday. The review of the book makes some good points. People get together and win on many levels all the time. Look around. Gay marriage everywhere (clicktivism is a big part). Anti fracking initiatives on November ballots (clicktivism, voting). Appreciate that people are always on a continuum for 'activist' and having low energy entry points is crucial for people to develop the skill of 'declaration' or 'commitment'. Clicking leads to locking down to a MF rig with a D-ring 'round my neck.

  2. I am not sure what to make of Saghbiny's argument (as shared by Chris) - either its accuracy, or utility, if true. It may be that what bothers the author so much is people's perception of their efficacy. Though bulleted specifics provide some ground for his thesis, It seems odd, though, to make such broad statement about the failure of activism, generally. There is a good deal of change going on, and much of it, as someone involved in at least some small branch of it, is not televised. It is hard to blog about changes in consciousness (perhaps one's own), and such changes stretch over a lifetime - across generations. We won't see the fruit (how we hope it's fruit) of our labor, and I think this pisses us off.
    Thanks to Chris, I was introduced to the activist/author Derrick Jensen who broadens the scope of what is currently needed for the biosphere's, and thus human, survival. In his view, what is needed is both above and below-ground activism, specifically addressing the ways current human culture is killing the planet. He says that all forms of consciousness raising, including the use of force, are needed. I confess that, as a vestige of my age, I privilege direct action, putting one's body in a space, over virtual efforts - and yet we need them both.
    It can be difficult to know what is the best way to witness once one feels called to speak and walk differently. I will share this about change: there is an inmate in one of the prisons I facilitate the Alternatives To Violence program in. He is finishing out the end of his sentence, and has become an engaged promoter and advocate of other residents attending the workshops. He now leads the workshops along with other residents who trained to be facilitators. I can only see, or make sense, of change at this scale. When someone complimented him about how many other inmates he was reaching, he said "I'm just trying to reach ME. Change ME.

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