An End to Movements
by Douglas Rushkoff
The national healthcare movement was doomed from the start. TV clips of shouting matches at town halls and fear-mongering by cynical politicians may be lamentable, but we are witnessing something more profound than the collapse of civic discourse. The failure of a movement that could rightly claim over 70 percent public acceptance just a month ago, exposes the inherent failure of movements of any kind to effectively address our society’s ills.
That’s right. Mass organization may just have been a twentieth century thing: collective actions of all sorts—good and bad—were responses to the corporatization of government and industy. As such, they took the form of the entities with whom they sought to do battle. But—like the top-heavy, highly abstracted creatures they were created to counter —they are proving utterly incapable of providing an alternative to what they would replace.
They did work for a time. When a corporation had the power to hire a police force to crush labor unrest, labor created its own collective, virtual structure to fight back: the union. When disenfranchised blacks faced Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement gave them a tent under which to organize, a charismatic leadership to follow, and a clearly articulated cause to promote. It was branded. Marches could be scheduled, buttons could be worn. And it worked.
Between the 1960s and today, however, the mediaspace through which these causes disseminated ideas and gained momentum has changed. 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.
In our current position, when disconnection from the real world is itself a cause for concern, movements only serve to disconnect us further from the actionable. They give us content for websites, language for our bumper stickers, and faces to put on our ideals. But they distract us from the matter at hand, and worse, turn our attention upward toward brand mythologies instead of immediately before us to the people and problems that need our time and energy. In the place of real connections to other people, we get the highly charged but ultimately fake connection to an image.
This is why progressives are so disillusioned by President Obama. He was never anything other than a centrist Democrat. But “brand Obama” gave his supporters—a movement in the fullest sense of the word—an abstracted ideal on which to focus. At least until his election. Meanwhile, the real requirements of progressive activists to contribute to their neighborhoods, promote local business and agriculture, invigorate failing public schools, were again left to someone else. This is not the failure of a president, but the flawed functionality of movements themselves.
For while civil rights, suffrage, and many other causes were largely won through traditionally organized, long-fought, top-down movements, the scale on which these great battles were waged is one no longer appropriate to the tasks at hand. In fact, it is the scale itself on which we have been attempting to orchestrate human affairs that is suspect.
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.
For as the alternative is now teaching us, one size does not fit all. Americans, in particular, have been living under the premise that there’s something to buy, vote for, or believe in that will simply change everything. And it’s certainly still possible that government could develop the single payer system that pretty much everybody knows deep down would bring the best of industrial health care to the most people.
But just as we are learning that industrially produced food is not ultimately nutritious, a top-down, passionately executed, and highly branded movement is not ultimately effective.
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.
Douglas Rushkoff is the author, most recently, of Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back.