Douglas Rushkoff has put forward the depressing hypothesis that movements are history. “Mass organization may just have been a twentieth century thing,” he says.
The best techniques for galvanizing a movement have long been co-opted and surpassed by public relations and advertising firms. Whether a movement is real or Astroturf has become almost impossible for even discerning viewers to figure out. The question often becomes the new content of the Sunday morning news panel, taking the place of whatever real issue might have been addressed.
But the problem is not simply that we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between real movements and cynically concocted fake ones. It’s that they are functionally indistinguishable. They may as well be the same thing.
Here he brings up a serious problem. Organizing is a discipline with its own methods and measures of success. Organizing skills can be learned, practiced, taught, and improved. It’s natural to expect that a private industry version of political organizing would take off in a capitalistic society. Unfortunately, the industry guys have gotten a lot better lately.
Also, are grassroots and astroturf really indistinguishable? I don’t think so.
In fact, by creating and branding a movement, even the most well-meaning activitsts are disconnecting from terra firma, and instead entering the world of marketing, public opinion, and language selection. Potential participants, meanwhile, are distracted from whatever on-the-ground, constructive and purposeful activity they might do. They get to join an abstracted movement, and participate by belonging instead of doing, or blogging instead of acting.
I don’t agree. The push for some form of public health care in the US is a century long fight. Gay rights, the environmental movement, organized labor — these are long-standing, growing movements that aren’t going away any time soon.
Sometimes people need to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Belonging (and yes, blogging!) are important in their own right, and they make doing and acting more effective, not less. The “world of marketing, public opinion, and language selection” is the same world that puts boots on the ground. After all, mind and body occupy the same space.
Back to Rushkoff:
Activists would do more to fight Big Agra simply by subscribing to their local Community Supported Agriculture groups. We’d more effectively pull the rug out from under a corrupt financial sector by simply investing in one another’s businesses—our own town restaurants and drug stores—instead of outsourcing our retirement savings to Wall Street. We could more easily re-invent public schools by volunteering our time to them directly, instead of sending our kids to private schools while we sign petitions for government to re-prioritize. And even in health care, we’d end up cutting everyone’s costs by commuting less, smoking less, landscaping less, and, yes, hating less. For each of these actions triggers different responses, undermines industries, requires new legal structures, and so on. It’s tiny, but it’s almost fractal in its impact.
Rushkoff is right that individual action at the local level is the most important aspect of one’s civic life. But, he somehow fails to see how viewing oneself as part of a movement can generate that local action. It’s great to plant a small garden at your home, and it’s also great when the First Lady does it. Both can inspire people to do the same — it’s just a question of scale. That’s the essence of a campaign, a civic group, an issue advocacy group, a MOVEMENT, and so on — scaling individual action up to the society-wide level.
I think Rushkoff would agree that the measure of success for change is whether it remains as the status quo absent of a movement to maintain it.
Individual action and movements. We need both.