Activism’s existential problem

A critique of commodified resistance.

Carina Kane

March 22, 2024

No year symbolizes student revolt like 1968. Amid mounting unrest surrounding imperialism, war, civil rights violations, bureaucracy, and labor exploitation, college campuses became epicenters of antiestablishment values. A majority of college students and young people embraced liberal politics and challenged a status quo whose underpinnings were deeply rooted in, among other things, capitalism. Angry, rebellious, and vocal, students demanded attention be paid to their ideas and, in doing so, played a significant role in inciting a surge of protests that spread globally. In France, protests led by students and workers threatened to topple the government. In the United States, the university revolt was so fervent that students occupied buildings and even held school officials hostage. Around the globe, students rallied with the working classes and played a key role in affecting cultural and social revolution.

It is with both nostalgia and nausea that we reflect on the revolutionary ideals of ‘68. Today, when the word “revolution” is uttered on college campuses, it is hard not to feel it exudes an air of insincerity. Discourse on social resistance has flattened out into a game of virtue signals and semantic debate. Activism lends itself more to theatrical endeavor than real action.

A new political attitude began to take form in the decade after the protests of ‘68. In his book Capital Hates Everyone, sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato grimly lays out this attitude’s central flaw. By the late 1970s, Lazzarato writes, “‘peace’ was confused with the historical victory of capitalism, and the ‘end’ of wars with the defeat of revolution.” A deepening interdependence between war and capital had set in during the world wars, which gave form to a new vision of national security and “peace.” The production and circulation of commodities boomed in conjunction with spending on national security, and conversely, the military complex was woven into the private sphere of firms and corporations. Every dime spent on “peace” was a dime minted by and for the capitalist machine. This was especially the case in the United States, where industrialization accelerated during the world wars and the technological and scientific sectors developed with the express help of military funding and expansion.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan was elected president and unleashed neoliberalism, which strengthened the ties between capital and warfare just as it struck down the labor protections and cultural safeguards set up in the wake of World War II. Reagan’s administration repealed New Deal policies, removed global trade barriers, increased security expenditure, and weakened protections for American workers.

Neoliberalism and the globalization of the economy reinforced the superstructure of capitalism; its weaknesses were no longer exposed as they were in ‘68. Lazzarato ascribes the success of proletariat movements in the sixties to the ability of workers to “anticipate” the movement of capital and mobilize against it. Today, however, the military-capital apparatus is built on not local, but global, networks of exploitation, and its effects are far too expansive to predict.

Tracking the development of activist movements alongside the history of neoliberalism demonstrates a very real shift in the landscape of activism since the ‘80s. Gary Gerstle, a well-known historian of American politics at Cambridge, describes this shift in his book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. Similarly to Lazzarato, Gerstle discusses how activist movements after ‘68 struggled to challenge capitalist regimes and inspire large-scale changes to political structures. Both authors cite the fall of the Soviet Union as a major event that led leftist parties to move away from Marxism and more radical socialist views. In the United States, the left came to shift its focus towards identity politics—struggles for liberation and equality defined nineties activism. Gerstle points out that these movements, despite their success, were not aimed at dismantling capitalism; in fact, “multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism could and did thrive under conditions of neoliberalism.” This goes to show that the form activism takes cannot escape being shaped by the larger political structure within which it exists—especially when it exists within neoliberalism.

No longer can activism faithfully operate under the same conception of resistance as in ‘68. This fact is one I believe that university students are acutely aware of. Our activism is not the activism of ‘68. It abides by a new and self-gratifying logic.

At the University of Chicago, we walk around with copies of Das Kapital in our backpacks; social theory and philosophy are woven into our curriculum; reminders of our school’s economic and political legacies are ubiquitous. Beyond that, many of us are among the most educationally and economically privileged in the world. This generalization holds for numerous academic institutions throughout the United States. We are not only made aware of, but have the means to be well-informed about, the limitless possibilities for human suffering at the hands of war, capital, or both in all reaches of the world.

Not only that, we watch human suffering unfold every day from spaces where we are generally safe and comfortable—comfort built and reinforced by capitalism and the national security state. Consider the daily occurrence of lounging on your bed, scrolling past a clothing ad followed by  images of war-torn countries. It is an absurdity we cannot escape.

Shakespeare in his play Cymbeline writes, “Plenty and peace breed cowards.” What is bred, then, when we have plenty, peace, and the awareness that all of it comes at the expense of those whose suffering we witness?

College students are faced with an existential crisis. The activism rife on campuses today does not materialize a strong desire for change. Instead, it reflects the deep existential fears of our generation in the face of neoliberalism’s total installation. Mainstream activism has largely become a means of channeling frustration in a way that pacifies us and gives us the illusion of control.

I would like to preface the rest of this piece by emphasizing that activism is not dead. Quite the contrary. This piece is not intended to be cynical, condemning contemporary activism, or prescriptive, attempting to identify the “good” forms of activism from the “bad.”  My critique of activism is not unsympathetic to the existential sentiment I think drives its current maladaptive state. My intention is not simply to criticize—it is instead to identify the maladaptive elements of contemporary activism and propose a framework for moving forward as we face what I call an existential crisis.

Since the nineties, activism has moved dangerously toward coexistence with capitalism rather than confrontation. Buoyed by the historical movement towards neoliberalism, capitalism now leverages the existential crisis it has caused by feeding us the illusion of change and progress.

Activism, especially in the digital age, has become increasingly accessible. While it is certainly easier to engage with activism today, it is questionable whether easily accessible activism is generating meaningful action. Whether on digital platforms or in real life, progressive ideas and conversations about them are tending towards becoming more digestible and one-dimensional. Social media corporations profit from and feed off these interactions, ultimately setting a new precedent for communication both in and off the apps. As the spread of information becomes quicker than ever, ideas are succumbing to principles of virality. Ideas that are complex or difficult to articulate are met with suspicion, especially among students who arguably have access to the tools necessary to engage with them. As is the case with commodities, ideas themselves are becoming cheaper as we increase their production.

As ideas cheapen, it is becoming much easier to be vocal than to engage on a deeper level with the substance of the ideas themselves. Dialogue begins to operate on principles of easy regurgitation and empty discourse transfers from the internet into our real-life conversations.

It is not uncommon to see calls to action or demands being made that are entirely divorced from any conversation about their means of implementation. At Dartmouth, for example, student activists put together a document last year they call the “Dartmouth New Deal” that calls for the university to take action against a status quo they believe thwarts environmental, racial, and economic justice. One of the students who distributed the document said, “What we are doing is outlining based on what we feel we need, not based on how likely it is the administration will meet those needs.” The document itself, however, calls for the administration to, by a given date, “respond publicly to each item raised on this document with its exact commitment to each one of its demands,” and give monetary commitments to each item that requires it. While the document reflects the intent to produce change, it is empty of proposals for execution. Many demands at other universities are similar, with the logistical onus placed on the responding party and not the demanding one, stagnating actual progress.

Activism as a whole now tends towards emphasizing discursive activity over action. In the last decade, the focus of progressive movements has shifted towards paying closer attention to the way we talk about information and the particular language and words we employ to do so. Barnard and Columbia, for example, have just banned students from pasting messages to their dormitory doors in an effort to combat polarization on campus. Various lawsuits have been filed against Ivy League universities for the misuse of historically charged language, and many university presidents have stepped down from their positions after being accused of applying politically biased standards to students’ speech rights. Language as an act in itself is taking greater precedence than ever before when it comes to matters of social and political action.

By fixating on language and its use, rather than brass-tacks discussion and action, has made activism easier to work into our everyday lives. With this comes an increasing impetus to turn activism into a mode of being rather than a disruptive activity. This notion is latent in an idea growing in popularity that if one is not advocating and acting, they are complicit and contributing to the issue at hand. Reinforced is the concept of activism as a routine obligation rather than an active contribution.

From this perspective, activism seems to be subject to the laws of commodification. Commodities, Marx writes, pacify us, comfortably distancing the object from the unpleasant process which produced it. Bringing activism into a safe and predictable space of language and media separates the idea of change from the active process that brings it into being. By simply repeating ideas, we feel as though we have more control over a system that inspires deep discomfort within us. Engaging in this new activism absolves us of any blame we may have for benefitting from the system. How could we benefit when we are the critics? Capitalism, as we have seen before, redirects activism away from existing in the forms that can threaten it. The discourse of the social media age turns the cogs of capitalism.

Activism is also becoming less self-aware, making it even more difficult to identify its potential problems. Before sitting down to write this piece, I spoke with many friends and peers on the topic of activism. One of the most surprising experiences occurred when speaking with two students on our campus holding up signs and advocating on behalf of their student group. I asked if they would mind sharing a little about what activism means to them. After some back and forth, one of them turned to me and said, “Just so you know, nobody is going to be interested in talking to you about activism in general.” Any conversation that was centered around activists’ method rather than their message was moot, they claimed. This comment stood in sharp contrast with a history of activism that was, at its core, self-aware and constantly reflecting and disagreeing on its methods, limits, and scope. During the civil rights movement, for example, there was constant pushback and disagreement about the form activism would take and how it would bring about its intended effects.

The final, fatal flaw of today’s activism is this loss of self-awareness: attention is moving away from the methods and forms of activism and toward the mere ideologies it encompasses. This defect will allow activism’s potency to slip away before we notice it has even happened. By adopting this paradigm, activism escapes the demand for rigor and pragmatism as passion takes precedence. Perhaps this shift is the reason activist movements on the other end of the spectrum—zero sentiment, all method—are emerging in popularity too. Consider Effective Altruism as an example, which proposes implementing a utilitarian calculus as a solution to injustice. Both extremes give up on what both used to be key aspects of activism: fervor and strategy. It is not uncommon to see many young adults give up on both, adopting the cynical perspective that nothing can be done about our current situation. All three responses reflect a nihilistic attitude which is a negative response to existential crises.

Existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes about negative, passive nihilism which can be characterized as the resignation of one’s capacity to affect change, i.e. the resignation of the will. Oftentimes, this passive nihilism takes the form of a search for meaning which pacifies and eliminates discomfort. For Nietzsche, however, there is also a strong and active form of nihilism. This type of nihilism necessitates an exercise of the human will. Rather than searching for meaning in places where we can be pacified, we ourselves must create meaning that can channel our energies and capacity for change. For this to be the case, we must first confront the inherent meaninglessness and chaos of the world; in this case, the lack of explanation for the existence of human suffering and the neoliberal machine. Without confrontation, our anxiety is exploited by a system that pacifies us—one built and run by corporations.

Activism in the current age can be a positive demonstration of strong nihilism. To face our existential crisis head-on, we must face the dynamics of late capital that today’s activism will operate within—and yes, I do mean within. While we might be able to set our sights beyond the dynamics of capital, today’s activism must at least acknowledge the rules and functions of the dynamic it seeks to change. Disruption has to originate internally and resist being controlled by the very system it disrupts. To face our crisis is to face the state of our world with bravery and disillusionment.

Activism can take the form of discourse and daily activity; it can be executed by means of social media. These methods, however, should not be used to provoke guilt or provide us vindication. They cannot supplant the unpleasant and more difficult work that must be done. As college students, we have access to resources that others do not and therefore we can pursue material goals that others cannot. We are likely the ones benefiting most from the system that exploits many others. With this in mind, our goal should not be to distract from this fact or bury it under a plethora of virtue signals. Rather, we should use the resources we have to effect the change we want to see.

We must see that in the current age, activism too risks succumbing to a kind of commodification. Rather than trade our discomfort for false ideals, let it push us towards reimagining societies’ deep ties to capitalism and mobilizing effective means of doing so. For now, there may be no clear path forward, but we will certainly not find one if we only seek ways of alleviating our anxiety. As we face this existential crisis, let us embrace nihilism without succumbing to cowardice.

Carina Kane is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying philosophy and data science.