On activism

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

John Stuart Mill

And yet what, as Lenin asked a very long time ago, is to be done?

Lenin has been dead for almost a century, of course, but while I wouldn’t claim to be a disciple of his it’s still a pretty good question. There’s one popular answer to it, however, that is definitely wrong. I’m talking about what currently goes under the name of activism.

It takes a couple of forms. One, probably the more popular, occurs entirely in the strange pretend-world of the Internet, and is sometimes referred to – with appropriate derision – as clicktivism. By this I mean the signing of online petitions (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I confess to having signed a few myself) but also self-important declarations on social media concerning the issue du jour. If it has a #hashtag, it’s clicktivism.

The second is the more physical manifestation of demonstrations, marches, happenings, and all the other nonsense that used to be big in the 1960s. It’s possible that some impression was made by the Million Man March. Nobody gave a toss about the million people who reportedly demonstrated against the second Iraq war; the UK went ahead and joined in anyway. In any case, it’s easy enough for governments to criminalise such activities, and it’s already happened in the UK, and doubtless elsewhere.

Why am I claiming these things are useless? Because they trivialise what is at stake. It is a trivialisation of what is at stake to imagine that “I went on a march, therefore I have stuck it to the Man.” It is infinitely more of a trivialisation of what is at stake to imagine that “I clicked on a button, therefore I have stuck it to the Man.” The Man doesn’t care. The Man would only care if what you did posed some sort of threat to his activities.

Governments require the consent of the governed in order to operate. Notice that I said consent, not enthusiasm. Few regimes have been able to count on much in the way of enthusiasm, apart from a few relatively brief episodes. You just need to make being governed seem tolerable.

That consent can be obtained in a variety of ways. Brute force is one way, although it’s hard to sustain for any length of time. Offering people some sort of vision of the greater good is more sustainable. That vision can be religious, ideological, economic, or some combination of the above. Another approach, which can be combined with a positive vision, is a negative vision of the alternative: hence the endless denigration of the “barbarian” or “savage” which is the appalling fate of those who fail to avail themselves of the manifold benefits of civilisation.

The word “barbarian”, incidentally, comes to us from the Greeks, for whom it simply meant “people who don’t speak Greek.” You may wish to consider on which side of that line you fall, dear reader. But I digress.

The real threat to governments – all governments, of whatever stripe – is ordinary people deciding to go their own way: to live in communities of their own choosing, making their own rules, providing for themselves, and owing nothing to self-proclaimed outside authorities. That doesn’t look like a riot in the streets. It certainly doesn’t look like a poll on Twitter. It can be – indeed it needs to be – a slow and gradual shift, something that happens under the radar, a change in the relationship between one family and their neighbours, a guerilla garden here, an informal quid pro quo there, conversations in informal spaces, an untold litany of tiny changes that add up to something profound.

This, in the end, is how empires fall. What, after all, is a Dark Age but an immense lacuna in the tax records? Those at the margins ease themselves out of the spotlight of official notice; gradually the margins enlarge, until the centre is eclipsed altogether. With any luck, the new set of thugs who take over the palace will take a generation or three to get around to us.

The revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron observed many years ago, will not be televised. Neither will it be notarised; or live-streamed; or otherwise taken notice of by the authorities. (Oh, what a Kafka-esque phrase “the authorities” is!) But it will occur, as it must. It may take a generation, or more than one, but occur it must, if people are to continue living on this planet.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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