Slacktivism Isn’t Activism: Arundhati Roy’s “Public Power in the Age of Empire”

Back in 2004, I doubt anyone could have predicted the degree to which social media would shape not only our lives but our entire world. Yes, Facebook and its precursors existed, yet it was far from the juggernaut it is today. One way it has undoubtedly transformed our culture is its influence on social activism. On the one hand, it has offered new and powerful tools to activists. On the other, it has allowed for the rise of a far less meaningful kind of activism that is limited to sharing stories or pictures with others who may, or may not, share them, and on and on.

I’m talking, of course, about slacktivism.

Yet all I could think while reading Arundhati Roy’s “Public Power in the Age of Empire” was that, somehow, she’d seen it coming more than ten years ago.

This powerful polemic is worth reading if only for its prescient warning about slacktivism. However, it also offers a concise explanation of neoliberalism’s destructive impact on the world and offers insights into some of the similar, yet in many cases far worse, instances of governments cracking down on non-violent resistance movements (primarily in India). Though the book was published in 2004, Roy’s analysis is just as relevant, if not more so, today.

(On a side note, I’ve always found it annoying that neoliberalism has the word “liberal” in it, since it obscures the fact that neoliberalism has been at the core of both Republican and Democratic economic policies since at least the late 1970s)

In spare, crystal-clear prose, Roy demonstrates again and again the dangers of suppressing nonviolent movements. These dangers are, broadly, two-fold. First, to quote President John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It would be a disservice to Roy to try and summarize her provoking thoughts on this subject. However, one line that struck me with particular force was her idea that terrorism could be considered “the privatization of war” with terrorists as “the free marketers of war.” If you’re curious what leads her to this haunting conclusion, I urge you to read her book, which shows how neoliberalism has influenced not just what wars we fight but how we fight any war.

The second danger is related to slacktivism – that is, Roy believes activists, who do not succumb to the urge toward violence in the face of state oppression when they try peaceful means of dissent, may settle for purely symbolic actions. Interestingly, she points toward non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a part of the problem – not all of them, she stresses, but certainly more than enough to have a cultural impact. She writes, “NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people out to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance.”

This “NGO-iszation of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in.” However, “real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.”

Roy’s criticism of NGOs is easily applicable to social media, where dissent is easily watered down to symbolic actions that require little of the sender or receiver. Worst of all, they indeed “defuse political anger” to the detriment of the very people slacktivists purport to want to help.

That isn’t to say there is merit in using social media for activist purposes. Of course there is. Sharing news or ideas can indeed be an important way of building awareness of problems, especially in a world as information-saturated yet truth-starved as ours. But even the best uses of social media mean nothing if the work stops there.

 

This work is a potent reminder of what the biggest threats facing our world today are, the nature and dangers of suppressing nonviolent movements, how terrorism can be an unintended and horrific side-effect of that suppression, and what real resistance is.

And it’ll certainly make you think about what you’re really trying to accomplish the next time you feel good about sharing a sad story on Facebook.

So go read it. Now.

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