When I saw that one of my Facebook friends had thrown up a meme in support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, I immediately responded with a counter-meme: a bright pink picture under my face that said, “Still Standing With Planned Parenthood.”
They later decided to reverse the decision, but in what sense was my action a stand for Planned Parenthood? Posting only took a click on a friend’s “Share” button; I wasn’t dedicating any time, effort or money to supporting the cause.
Clearly, if Facebooking is what it means to show commitment to reproductive rights, then this is an impoverished form of politics.
Indeed, as political theorist Jodi Dean suggests in her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, digital media often stands in as a compensatory substitute for political activity — what Dean calls the “technological fetish.” Even though most of us are unable to act to change things in the actual world, liking a meme or forwarding a quote makes us feel as if we’re doing something. I posted about Planned Parenthood, so I could go about my day feeling guilt-free and empowered.
However, this isn’t just a problem in the virtual world. Most activism and charity work seems geared toward helping us forget our helpless inactivity. The Susan G. Komen Foundation is a prime example: While some undoubtedly do good work for them, most just buy a ribbon or a pink-colored doodad and then forget about it.
Even within radical political movements, there is a frustrated desire to “do something.” I’ve been to multiple political discussions in which someone stands up and asks, “Why aren’t we out in the street right now?”
And yet, once the demonstrations start, they often become just another form of individualistic self-expression. In what economics journalist Doug Henwood terms “activistism,” protesters organize protests to recruit more protesters and inspire further protests, which are then held to generate more protests and so on.
When marches and rallies only fulfill the frantic need to be seen and heard by like-minded people, they become a fetish substitute for effective political action — like Facebook, but with giant puppets and drum circles.
The Occupy movement has demonstrated several ways to move beyond this issue. For example, the blockades of the ports in Oakland did more than just provide yet another venue for activist self-advertisement: They stopped the circulation of capital, if only for a brief period.
The movement has also shown the need for collective, face to face organization. The mass occupations accomplished what isolated groups, independent theorists and digital media activists have long failed to do: focus attention on economic inequality in the public consciousness. They did this by bringing people together in real-world struggle, thereby forging a shared purpose and vocabulary.
But we still need to solve the problem of passivity. People rely on Facebook to speak out not because they’re lazy but because they don’t have time for anything more.
While some attribute time poverty to technology or the way of the world, I would argue that it’s largely the product of our economic system. As wages stagnate and profits decline, the working class is forced to work more hours. So, after a long day of exhausting work, nobody wants to go link arms and sit in front of a bank.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the people most heavily involved in the occupations are unemployed, students or young professionals. It’s not that these groups are the new revolutionary subjects; it’s that everyone else is ground into passivity by mind-numbing work hours.
Activist movements should strive to include those who don’t have the flexibility to show up to spontaneous marches on a weekday or the ability to devote many hours to activism.
That first means protests should develop stable, open institutions with accessible contacts and regular meeting times.
Meeting workers halfway also entails welcoming different kinds of participation. Not everyone can risk arrest or march all day.
Finally, moving beyond the fetish of inaction also means finding workers where they live and work. Canvassing neighborhoods or organizing in workplaces may be frustrating and unglamorous, but it can be much more useful than holding events with people who already agree with us.
That doesn’t mean that activists should compromise their goals or commodify activism like the Susan G. Komen Foundation. But it does mean that we can’t just swap memes with our friends anymore.
JORDAN S. CARROLL is a PhD student in English who can be reached at email@example.com.