Overcoming (some) obstacles to a movement of millions

I met some really cool folks last night. They were a bit younger than I, like high school seniors, but I learned a lot from talking to them. During our conversation, one of my new friends brought up why she thought change could be made because people are too lazy to do anything to make it happen.

I hear a lot of young people talk about how they’re discouraged from activism because they perceive that other folks wouldn’t take action to change anything–because they don’t care, they’re lazy or would blow it off, or whatever. The funny thing about that, of course, is that it prevents them from taking action themselves! (I think the folks from Tent State might have some good ideas on challenging this.)

Inaction is a problem, but often times progressive organizers frame it as “other people’s problem,” to do something about it. Organizers in the movement have the responsibility to build the movement, nobody else. So it’s our problem.

Often times inaction is framed as “apathy.” Which is the wrong word to describe what’s happening and makes it simpler than it really is. It suggests that it’s people’s problem that they’re not participating in the movement, rather than our problem, for doing organizing that activates people’s participation.

This is a really simple attempt at breaking this all down. How our movement can start to cut at the heart of what is usually called “apathy”, which involves challenging three things:

  • A sense of powerlessness.
  • Alienation from tactics and movement culture.
  • Irrelevance of issues.

A sense of powerlessness.

Carl Davidson wrote in 1966 that apathy is the “expression of apparent powerlessness.” In other words, it’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t believe their actions can change anything. What’s the point in getting into a car, if it doesn’t turn on, right?

People power works, and we should share that with people by pointing to the successes of historical movements, but especially to our own victories.

Too often we don’t claim victories when we can. The Left needs to learn to accept it’s own successs whenever we have the opportunity. In my chapter of SDS, during a campaign we ran for a tuition freeze we received a letter from our administration basically telling us to stop what we were doing and shut up. That may not sound like a victory, but the fact that they responded to our action and pressure says that we were having some impact. People power will always meet resistance when it is working. We could have responded to the letter, framing it as a victory and shown people that action makes an impact.


The folks over at the Pirate Caucus talk about people’s alienation as reinforcing inaction or so-called “apathy”.

“The fact is the reason people don’t sign those post cards, don’t get involved in organizations, or follow politics isn’t that they don’t care, it’s that for one reason or another they don’t actually believe those things alleviate human suffering … Apathy implies that we as organizers are doing everything right, but the people are at fault. Alienation implies that the people are fine, and some of our tactics/strategies are at fault.”

Thinking about how we can take action in a way that is inclusive and strategic will help activate more people. If we can start offering strategic purposes for our actions, than the action we take can speak more to peoples experience (while challenging the myth that that activists are dreamy-eyed young idealists with their heads in the clouds, rather than dedicated, clear thinking revolutionaries!). We show people that what we’re doing will actually work. This also speaks to people’s sense of powerlessness.

It’s not just our choice of tactics that may be alienating, but also our movement’s or group’s culture (which often times affects the choice of tactics that we use). Our movement will have a difficult time pulling people in, holding on to them, and making them great organizers (like ourselves!) unless we make sure that the space in which we organize is inclusive, democratic and supportive of people’s needs and experiences. An article over at Class Matters talks about how movement culture could have a huge impact on hurting our organizing.

We need to go beyond the typical left rules about “inclusivity.” We need to go beyond not using typical acronyms and challenge the use of Left rhetoric. There are enough words in the English language to describe any concept without having to create a whole new lexicon for radicalism. I definitely have been stubborn about sticking to certain phrases to describe my position on things, or my beliefs about the world, but often that was an uphill battle I was choosing to fight on the point of principle, rather than as a strategic decision. I was more concerned with maintaing the image of an activist, rather than doing what needs to be done to actually build power for change.

The point is that the “image” of the progressive or radical is part of the problem, we should be inclusive and democratic enough to not have one.


The Left can’t just organize around any old issue and expect people to care. People have real needs that aren’t being met. Movements erupt because they’re relevant to millions of people, not a select few. We cannot expect tens of millions of people to care about a narrow political ideology, or issue that doesn’t speak to peoples values and needs.

To speak from my own experience: I had once worked to organize a campaign on my campus against my universities investments in military contractors, like Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and so on. The campaign was frustrating because so many people blew off what us organizers had to say about the issue. It was discouraging, until we realized what was going on. We were forcing the issue on them, and really telling them what they should care about, rather than listening to them and addressing their needs and working within their experience.

Being Proactive

To organize the tens of millions we need, we should start asking ourselves how our movement reaches people. The fact is that conversations happen in dorm rooms, cafes, pizzerias, bathrooms and parties all the time concerning people’s frustrations with the state of the world. It’s not that people “don’t care” it’s that, for many, there’s no clear way to manifest that frustration into action that will yield real results.

An exciting idea is what would happen if movement builders could respond proactively to people’s sense of powerlessness, alienation and needs? Think about how much power a transformative movement could build through providing trainers or organizers that could be available for the people who have these conversations. “You want lower tuition? Okay, well we can give you some ideas on how to organize to get that. What resources will you need? We can help you get those too.”

We can build a movement of millions to build a new world. Really. We doing it right now. Through relevant, strategic and democratic organizing we can offer people a sense of their own power shake governments to their knees with what we’ll be able to do. But we have to work for it and think really hard about it. Not just try to fit the branded “radical” archetype. We need to challenge our limits and think really hard and intentionally about what a movement of millions looks like, and just as importantly, what it will take to get it

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3 Responses to Overcoming (some) obstacles to a movement of millions

  1. cloudy says:

    It might be interesting to have someone (possibly getting credit for it as coursework in sociology or something) go out an interview a good number of ordinary students, with a focus not on those who ARE active but those who are not. And their responses might be well quoted in places like this blog.

    My own limited feedback in this area, including recently, is that people have an overall image of themselves, a kind of accompaniment to a lifestyle choice. This kind of choice holds often for those who ARE active as well as those who are not. The idea that ‘politics’ and ‘political activism’ just “aren’t my type of thing” is a complicated issue, and implies that activists need to further penetrate many of the kinds of social venues in any target constituency (such as students/youth) hang out. This kind of outreach is quite difficult and often requires a fairly sophisticated movement, but there are some things that organizationally, can broaden a movement in terms of constituencies and at least mobilize greater numbers of those who are easier to mobilize from a wider range of groups and constituencies within the overall (as in student/youth) constituency.

    This could also be illustrated with some concrete suggestions, some of which encounter resistance for various reasons, always in the name of being more progressive. These are among the ‘internal’ to the movement/underground repressive barriers that there needs to be much more willingness to confront. If instead one tries to do the “possible”, ie permissible, then one is trying to play in the context of a machine that is programmed for the failure of authentic progressivism.

  2. Becca says:

    this was a great analysis (and yes, high school seniors can be quite intellectual…)
    thanks for writing this up
    i’ve been tossing around a lot of thoughts about this in the recent months, and what you’ve written definitly resonates with a lot of my thoughts!

  3. Brian Kelly says:

    Great article Aaron. A few comments…

    When we depart from “left lexicon”, we need to ensure that we don’t water down our politics. That means we need to be all the MORE precise in what we mean, and clear that we are opposed to the Establishment. It is mostly our behaviors, attitudes, and language that must seem accessible. People have to think “hey, I could join them!”

    There are a lot of people who just aren’t interested in “politics”. This doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in organizing for social change. Artists, musicians, graphic designers, etc… can all contribute to the movement just as much as people who like the political end of things. Our challenge in relation to these people is figuring out how to plug them in *in a serious way*. We need to find out how to challenge them to be just as overtly revolutionary as we are. In our failure to relate to many segments of the youth population en masse, we lose a myriad of ways to organize new people, a new segment of potential radical organizers, and we ignore the realities of what it will take to organize millions of people in our generation.

    Finally, I actually don’t think its our politics that “alienate” certain people. I think a lot of people don’t like the left because of the left’s association with the tyranny of the Soviet Union, China, and so on. People are right to not want anything to do with such models. Coordinator class rule by managers, central planners, technocrats, and party bosses has nothing to do with liberation or democracy. Our vision does. All the more reason to talk about our ideas for the future.

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