Some comments on “activism” from the article ‘The Arms of Exploitation: On development and technology’ in issue two of A Murder of Crows: For social war and the subversion of daily life (worth a read).

Since [the Interstate 69 Highway project] was merely in the preliminary stages, activity against it lulled. In 2002 though, when the State of Indiana was deciding which route to pick for the I-69, opponents participated in state-sponsored public forums, sent letters to their representatives, and on one occasion presented over 125,000 signatures against the planned route to the governor’s office. Once the official route was picked in January 2003, there was further letter writing, an Earth First! banner-that-failed-to-even-unravel drop, and in late 2004, members of environmental and citizen’s groups gave the new governor anti-I-69 literature in the hopes he would consider their alternative plan. Hilarious.

All of these tactics read straight from the citizen activist’s handbook; it could be any issue, and the list of activities would read the same: letter writing, petitioning, symbolic protests, dialogue with state officials, and of course mandatory whining, begging and grovelling. The types of tactics, promoted by the state, capitalists and micro-politicians, serve to undermine social conflict, to transform it into am easily manageable situation where “the people” work together with “their representatives” to come to an agreement. After all, we’re all on the same team.

In addition, this model presents further problems. Without going into a lengthy critique of activism, it suffices to say that activism is an historical social-construct, meaning that like everything else in this world, it is a product of a particular time period and of particular social relations. Housewives, police, and activists are social categories that serve particular roles in this society. Activists fulfil the role of specialists in social change who intervene in conflicts in order to act as representatives of the people involved and as those who also represent the conflict to the media. It is not a matter of ill-intentions, but rather a matter of social roles. Activists are politicians, albeit on a smaller scale.

Therefore as specialists in the field of social change, it should come as no surprise that activists further specialise in a particular niche, in the same way an academic carves out some obscure area of study in order to make his or herself more valuable. Rather than attacking the social order, activism is a practice that focuses on “solving” various problems and issues that have their roots in the same system that activists work within. Whatever conflict they are involved in, they in turn reduce them to preordained categories that fit perfectly within a framework that is easily digestible for the media and easily defused by the state. Thus in the fight against I-69, various groups were formed to oppose only parts of the plan: its effects on the environment, the “unwise” and “inefficient” use of taxpayer money, its effects of rural residents and so on. These ignore the fundamental causes and overall role of the I-69 extension and play into the hands of politicians who can cater to these partial critiques. They took a diverse area of social conflict and fragmented it into many issues in order to effectively manage the situation.