Saturday, February 24, 2007

Activism and Risk - Life beyond altruism

At this rate, soon, on this planet, we will all have to be either activists or victims.[1]

Denis G. Rancourt
February 2007

University courses do not prompt students to consider their role in shaping the world. That is why I facilitate a course about activism at the University of Ottawa.

Registered students span the spectrum of engagement in society, from experienced campus activists to environmentally conscious community members to mainstream-misinformed clients picking up a free elective. The material presented by guest speakers is compelling enough that all students question their place in society and the nature of their agency.

There is relatively little polarization between the right and the left in the class. Representatives of both political tendencies are genuinely interested in hearing the other side and in re-considering their positions in the light of the challenges presented, or are happy to reaffirm their positions having heard the other side. Instead, the main axis of polarization tends to be between liberals and radicals. Here I consider the origin of this tension.

I argue that the heart of the tension lies in opposite fundamental beliefs about societal structures and corresponding opposite allegiances with power: The liberals are elitists who believe that the system works (because it works for them) and that one does best to preserve and enhance the system, whereas the radical activists are egalitarians who believe that societal structures need to be transformed through action and direct democracy. This brings me to elaborate on the definitions of both activism and radicalism. Militant activists are not necessarily radicals and radicals are not necessarily activists, in fact most are not. There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything. Regarding the false dichotomy of working from within versus working from without, I point out that activists from within can be effective agents for change through organizing as well as through sabotage and overt or covert mutiny.

Seeking to define activism, right and left

Many students in my class first strive to define activism. One dominant tendency is to want to be all inclusive and to suggest that activism is acting out of personal initiative to “contribute positively” to society – being personally motivated to do good. Here, volunteers who help out at the local soup kitchen and students helping others with their homework, for example, are activists, as are people who recycle and who are vegetarians, according to their beliefs of what is good.

The latter definition is not the one in common usage and is not specific enough to be useful. The latter behaviours by themselves should instead be referred to as: volunteering, altruism, responsible behaviour, community service, ethical consumerism, and so on. These behaviours are the result of natural individual impulses to cooperate and to contribute to community.

There are also natural impulses to compete and to be socially territorial. Each individual chooses to adopt either an altruistic or a defensive stance depending on her perception of the circumstances, depending on whether the human environment is perceived to be either safe or threatening, respectively. We all draw boundaries between what we do to contribute and what we do for ourselves. Few commit suicide to avoid consuming or to avoid emitting CO2 by breathing.

Activism is something else. Activism is political. In activism one acts directly to change circumstances, change power balances, or change hierarchical structures. One does this either to achieve greater justice by moving society toward equally distributed power (left-wing activism) or to advantage or protect oneself or one’s group (right-wing activism).

The left assumes a safe environment where all people can be trusted to share in power, whereas the right assumes an unsafe human environment where one must protect oneself. Both environments exist, but the left has a tendency to believe that a safe environment in which cooperation thrives does or could easily dominate whereas the right believes that there is an inescapable tendency towards aggression, oppression, and competition, and that, therefore, the best strategy is to fight others and win.

Too often the cooperation versus competition debate ignores the facts that humans respond in kind and that shared decision-making power is the greatest known catalyst for learning and personal development. This has been shown, for example, in the participatory democracy movement that has transformed Brazil.[2] The “masses” are ignorant only to the extent that they have no power.

Altruism is not activism

An animal rights activist may treat her pets humanely or may be a vegetarian but she is an activist only because she directly confronts the system that abuses animals. She may do so via intense discussions, petitions, lawsuits, lobbying, outreach events, demonstrations, challenging authority, denunciation, direct action, civil disobedience, or some such direct means. In activism one confronts in order to change the norm.

A vegetarian may practice vegetarianism in political silence and simply adapt to all eating circumstances by abstaining from eating meat, whereas another vegetarian may defend her choices and engage in every occasion to communicate her reasons and to advance her justice-based political motives. The first is a vegetarian while the latter is a vegetarian and an activist – someone whose discourse is more than a personal style.

The same is true of volunteer work, charity, and so on. These behaviours are not activism by themselves. On the contrary, they often help maintain an unjust status quo. It has been shown, for example, that the non-profit and NGO sectors taken as a whole do more harm than good.[3] Similarly, activists can be effective and dedicated agents without adopting any particular lifestyle practices that are advanced by others. An environmental activist can drive a car if she judges this to make her activism more effective overall or for whatever personal reasons. A public school activist can choose to send her children to a private school, given the family circumstances or for whatever personal reason. What matters is dedication to activism, not personal survival, convenience, and lifestyle choices.

Obedient workers contribute to maintaining existing structures whereas, for example, whistle-blowers and employee justice organizers make a difference.[4] In this world of continental-scale exploitation, it is superficially satisfying to have a job where one does seemingly useful work, but being a dedicated employee in any such job does not directly change power structures to maximize social justice. At work, you only make a difference if you work for change by going outside of what is expected and imposed.[4] This is necessarily in opposition to the established order and therefore involves personal risk.[5, 6]

Essence of activism

Two essential components, method and goal, define activism. The method involves confronting authority directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion. The goal is to redistribute power in the workplace and society. Left-wing activists want to democratize power whereas right-wing activists want to secure power. Risk is a hallmark of activism because activism seeks to redefine power structures.

At the heart of activism is a belief that things are wrong, a belief that injustices are institutionalized or socialized and are maintained by those who benefit from the established structures. The justice of left-wing activism is social justice, in which one shares rather than steals opportunity and resources; it is social justice in its broadest sense including animal justice and environmental justice.

Justice is synonymous with democracy: distributed power and horizontal structures rather than concentrated capital and lap dog elites. Anything that moves us towards more democracy and the associated greater individual responsibilities is a step in the right direction. Employees taking power from bosses, students and professors taking power from the university administration, students taking power from professors, board members taking power from the chair, community members taking power from the board of directors … by whatever effective means … all move us toward more democracy.

Democratic influence derived from activism is both empowering and educational. It may be the most powerful form of education ever practiced. How better to learn what the system is really like and your place in it? How better to increase your knowledge and your influence? All progress of civil society has been catalyzed by and based in activism. Only strong popular movements have ever wrestled concessions from the ruling class.[7, 8, 9] Service intellectuals by comparison to activists are spineless and serve only to placate and deceive in order to strengthen the power structure and erode past gains.[5]

Resolving methods and motives

With the above definition of activism, we must make the important distinction between methods and motives. Both activists and hippies want a just society. The latter actors look for it by attempting to create ideal but somewhat isolated communities. They are morally supportive of activists, may show up at rallies, and often contribute to a community that activists need, but they are not activists except when they act to transform the broader society in order to defend their ideals.

Likewise, the extreme right wing and fascists use direct action to transform power structures toward aims that are the opposite of egalitarian. They are right-wing activists. But they are at least often honest and transparent in their goals.

Liberals are elitists. They believe that the system should be moulded by an enlightened elite, is primarily just, and needs only to be adjusted by following the guidelines for change that have already been established. They believe that the best method to obtain positive change is to negotiate and cooperate with power. They are allergic to direct action. The more the direct action is likely to be effective, the more allergic they are to it. They are a major force for maintaining present power structures and they go into overdrive when activists appear to be making gains.[5]

What emerges is a two-dimensional map. On one axis, from left to right, we have the justice and equality variable, going from distributed power and complete democracy (that is, the anarchist ideal [9, 10]) to plutocracy, fascism, and hierarchy. On the vertical axis, from bottom to top, we have the methods variable, going from direct action by whatever effective means to non-confrontation and cooperation. Activists are in the bottom left, hippies in the top left, fascists in the bottom right, and liberals in the top right. True conservatives are in the middle.

Too many observers confuse method and motives: There are four poles and a middle in the action-justice plane. What liberals offer amounts to cooptation, not genuine negotiation, which can occur only between power equals.

Too many observers confuse choice of methods (collaboration versus confrontation) with choice of focus (working from within versus working from without). One can be an activist either from within or from without or both; but one can only be a true liberal from within and only be a true hippie from without.

Liberal-radical antagonism

This brings us to an analysis of the liberal-radical polarization introduced in the first paragraphs. Liberals believe that the system is fundamentally sane and needs only to be improved using methods approved by the ruling elites who are needed to protect us from the ignorant masses, whereas anarchists or socialists (radicals for short) believe that the present system and society that hosts it are deeply flawed and must be changed in their structural roots, at the level of their dominant underlying assumptions or myths, and that people are capable of great collective wisdom and growth. Given these opposed perceptions of society’s architecture and fabric, it follows that liberals would insist on cooperation and “gradual change” [5] whereas radicals would insist (at least intellectually) on challenging the structures and rules themselves.

Radicals, by definition, go to the root of phenomena. In a capitalist society, in a plutocracy, anarchists and socialists are radicals. However, radicals are not necessarily activists. Indeed, most radicals are not activists. Many academics, for example, are left intellectuals well versed in alternative power structures, but they are not engaged in activism. They do not risk their privileged positions by taking action, nor are they defiant on campus [11], which is not a niche of participatory democracy.

The liberal-radical antagonism, therefore, is not between passivity and activism or fundamentally between cooperation and actual resistance. Instead, it highlights two opposing world views that include beliefs about the associated methods that follow from these views. One can get rather overheated about protecting one’s world view (and consequently one’s view of oneself in the world) even if one is not about to risk action that would change the world toward one’s ideal. Conversely, those already engaged in activism often don’t loose much time with this debate.[12]

When liberals say “we should work from within,” they mean we should work in such a way as to preserve and ameliorate the present structure rather than question it deeply. They also incorrectly imply that working from within necessarily means working with and in support of the system rather than against it: They do not recognise the legitimacy of sabotage as a method of fighting unjust rule in society, because they do not see present rule as mostly unjust.

Liberals believe that their methods lead to the most and best results, whereas radicals believe that the methods promoted by liberals cannot possibly increase justice overall because they legitimise and strengthen a system that is overwhelmingly unjust. Liberals tend to be insiders who have had many “productive” exchanges with other insiders. Liberals are leaders and enjoy joining the elite agents for “good”… whereas radical activists tend to be outsiders who are compelled to confront and to challenge. Rather than take power, left-wing activists make power via solidarity and creative contribution.

Real mutual threat

This is how I understand the visceral confrontations that I have observed between liberals and radicals (or between different left factions), as arising from the above fundamental differences in beliefs and perceptions, coupled with a correct mutual sense that the other side represents a significant threat to both position and goals.

It’s easy for radicals and egalitarians to understand the fascist position and to find effective ways to combat the fascist drive, but the liberal threat is more insidious. Conversely, radicals are the greatest threat to the ruling liberals of present First World so-called free democracies, because liberals can cooperate with the right to the degree that serves and preserves them, but radicals present a refractory opposition.

Left-wing radical activism is beyond good – risk is life

In conclusion, left-wing activism is what effective anarchists, socialists, progressives, and egalitarians do. These agents are radical in that they go to the root and identify the underlying basis of injustice. They are activists because they understand that standing up in defiance is the only way to exert influence in the direction of greater democracy. Personal risk is necessarily a consequence.

Finally, because defiance and confrontation are characteristics of activism, and because such action is limited by the risk involved, it is often the case that more risk equals more effect. This leads to the conclusion that we should take as much risk as will maximize the effectiveness of our activism. Whereas Third World activists often don’t need to consider how much risk they should be taking, because they often don’t have a choice if they are to survive, First World left-wing activists who want to be worthy of the title probably should consider actions that will involve more risk. Having survived and learned from the backlash, experienced activists live a life of action, anchored in community and solidarity, and instinctively know how far to push it. Proportionate rewards are guaranteed. Risk is life.[6]


[1] Jeff Schmidt as cited by the author. The present essay is partially based on a lecture given in the activism course, 2006: . Course material is posted at .

[2] Rebick, Judy, 2000, Imagine Democracy. Stoddart, Toronto.

[3] del Moral, Andrea, 2002, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.

[4] Schmidt, Jeff, 2000, Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield.

[5] Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Gradual Change Is Not Progress.

[6] Murphy, Brian K., 1999, Transforming Ourselves Transforming the World. Fernwood.

[7] Zinn, Howard, 2001, A People’s History of the United States. Perennial Classics.

[8] Mitchell, Peter R. and Schoeffel, John, 2002, Understanding Power, the Indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, NY.

[9] Noble, David F., 2005, Beyond the Promised Land, The Movement and the Myth. Between the Lines, Toronto.

[10] Malatesta, Errico, 1891, Anarchy. New translation from the Italian by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press, 1974, 1994.

[11] Said, Edward W., 1994, Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage Books, NY.

[12] Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Malalai Joya Breaks the Fear Barrier in Ottawa.

Epilogue: Alternative definition of activism, and a parallel goal

I am grateful to Jeff Schmidt who provided critical comments on this essay. Jeff also pointed out that another goal of left-wing activists is to make more activists: This automatically creates more democracy, as more people exert influence.

In defining activism, I struggled with the enticing alternative choice that activism would be restricted to left-wing activism whereas ring-wing activists would be termed militant right-wingers. This would be consistent with most of mediascape usage of the term activism, including the term activist judge. In the mainstream media, the term activist has a negative connotation and is usually reserved for left-wing activists. Right-wing activism is downplayed or is termed extremism rather than activism. The implication is that it is an extreme of legitimate aspirations whereas activism, like radicalism and anarchism, are incorrectly equated with chaos and destruction. Most activists are left-wing activists because present social structures are more in line with right-wing ideology and because ring-wingers are more easily controlled by fear and can more easily be made to fight other groups rather than the power structure. Fear and perceived danger cause one to want to be protected and this often overrides democratic aspirations. Perceived safety breeds cooperation. Perceived danger breeds tribalism. We need to actuate that cooperation breeds safety and distributed power breeds education and responsibility.


aronevans said...

It certainly has given me a lot to think about & raised questions about where I am at the moment.
I hope the latter is not a accurate observation and we don`t fall victim to fear or apathy...hmmm
Though I am not university edmacated it is well written & easy to understand I think

BC Mary said...


[Re your reply: as a reader of your essay, I not find the term acceptable, and did find the term exactly as described in my comments below. I hope this helps to differentiate between two opposing political philosophies.]

BC Mary
The Legislature Raids

Hi, DGR:

Your comments were circulated this morning and I am responding with a growing concern I have. It isn't a small point, in view of the escalating clash of philosophies which surfaced in the House of Commons last week ... with Opposition (mainly Liberal Party) on one side and Stephen Harper's (Reform/CCRAP/Alliance/Conservative Party on the attack, as government. The issue is very much one of liberalism, i.e., fairness, tolerance, open-mindedness.

The use of "Liberal" or "Libertarian" as in your comments, is being introduced to mean something other. This is worrisome, because it fits into the Harper model, by defining "liberal" as an elite, exclusive enclave rather than as an open-minded, apolitical, progressive force throughout Canadian society.

The former definition is the U.S. model, and doesn't hold true for the Liberal Party of Canada nor for fair-minded citizens of all classes.

It is not simply carelessness on your part; it is knowingly destructive, a dangerous error, particularly coming from the University of Ottawa.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your new blog. It's stunning. Although I hate being labeled, after reading this article I must admit that the leftie activist bottom feeder tag fits me most closely.

I might need a Cosmo type of questionnaire with a point rating system to be absolutely certain. Do you think you can whip up one of those?

Just kidding. Your blog is sorely needed and I hope you will continue with it.

John said...

Your response about "no system is worst" is a classic response that is based in false assumptions about anarchism and its practice... i.e., read the anarchist theorists, such as the ones I cite in the piece.

Best regards,

John Hill wrote:

Interesting piece. It is, for me, a call to arms. But then I guess I am there already having never had any faith that I could engage in a rational argument with the elite bureaucratic masters of any stripe and come out anywhere but where they wanted. So two things come to mind

The first is the goal. If one is committed to taking down the system, and that is real fundamental change to the social and cultural structures, then I suppose one should consider what sort of a “structure” would be left as I cant really believe that anarchy would last long and I can’t think that there will be time or intelligence to develop a working structure on the fly. I think that you are right in that we will soon, as a result of economic chaos produced by the twin storms of peak oil climate change, be activists or victims and it would be comforting to have a general direction. Richard Moore has a rather interesting look at the problem and thinks that we will evolve a more community based if not tribal and quite participatory democracy, as apposed to the representative one that we have now.

Your look at activism has skirted the subject of violence. The non violence of Ghandi is purposed as a solution that was, in it’s time, very effective. Others, including Derrick Jensen in “End Game” have suggested and infact made reasonable arguments that violence is acceptable and have offered direction in it’s use. I would suggest that in the defence of the commons against the violent assaults of the corporate elite that some level of violence will be required, and lord knows that if the collapse scenarios come to pass as most aware folks seem to think and the population returns to what is considered the carrying capacity of a less developed world of, say, three billion then there will be violence aplenty to go around.

Activism is indeed about risk but in-activism is far riskier.

John Hill

Anonymous said...


Activism -- contemplating the ramification of projected perceptions, is mute to cultural realities unless exposure is activated with traceable penetration.

Essence of humans is of opposing force, "manipulator and manipulated," as such manipulations manifest within in human essence. Human essence responds to perceptual concepts injected; pending perceptual concepts projected, variables of culture equals interpretation of activism.

Pending Projected Concepts

Cultural realities perceives Activism as a control dynamic;
Cultural realities perceives Activism as humanitarian;
Cultural realities perceives Activism as an invasion.

Therefore Activism dynamic is a deflection that manifest into penetration of cultural abstract variables pending expected desired results.

Therefore, except core functions "unless sanctioned," dynamics of cultural variables of a given cultural abstract may be altered to desired conclusion.

Whereupon a manipulator/s altar's core functions of a given cultural abstract, imbalance would occur of opposing force within the essence of humans dynamic extenuation's.

Historical censure demonstrates resistance to such conceivable probabilities; "Johann Gutenberg, William Caxton," of the degree, examples.

Factual, human essence in neutral is in motion to enlightenment of abstract realities of lower denominator. To censure enlightenment is to denounce the advancement of humanity.

"Activism or Victim," a fragment of accuracy within given abstract realities when applied, assuming assumption projected on hypothesis of an absolute; unattainable when project on all realities.

The dynamic and penetration behind activism is comprehended, the temporal shift will subside.

Response simplistic, presumed sufficient to your interest.

I akin to my kind are genetically enhanced to extrapolate beyond core cultures of design.
Like soap bubbles on a summers breeze witnessed by children, the interplay of cultural realities observed.

I take my leave Sir, I shall return to the sanctum of my detachment and continue to contemplate future endeavors.

Jack Wesley

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of activists don't want to take a lot of risk, because at a point to them the personal threat is worse than the social benefit is good. People are quick to give a little, but slow to give a lot.

Anyway, this article was very good, well-thought-out, and well-written. It has given me much to consider.

You might be interested in the Activism Forums.

Anonymous said...

Good article that brings clarity to a complicated situation.

I might be in the spineless intellectual bin, but you've set me off with the following sentence:

"Conversely, those already engaged in activism often don’t loose much time with this debate.[12]"

Please, Bob help us, the word "loose" is such a polluter of the web.

I will give thanks that you haven't thrown the word "literally" around the place willy nilly.

Strike at the root by telling the verifiable truth.

Anonymous said...

As a leftist-activist, risk is only a consideration in means, not goals. I also imagine true activists, by definition, must consider their goals before themselves.

I am a very selfish person. And I am very active. But then again I cannot draw a clear line between myself and the world.

JJEN said...

Hello Professor,

Thank you for the thought-provoking comments. I was wondering if you would elaborate a little more on your efforts/struggles at balancing academic life and activism. It is my belief (as an aspiring academic) that the two can be mutually beneficial... while this might not be an easy task, I see it as a real possibility given the methods and tools disposable to an academic. Any thoughts?

pebbles said...

Wonderful article. Your observations helped me to clarify the enigmatic behavior of my liberal friends. Before Bush, I considered myself to be one of them, but have since been astonished to watch many friends move into at least a partial embrace of the militarist agenda. American liberals are addicted to propaganda, allergic (to use your word) to factual analysis and incapable of initiating a personal (or informed) critique of our current political horror show. I had perceived their complicity, but did not fully understand their motivations. You have explained them brilliantly.

Anonymous said...

i am writing as am curious to bcmary`s comments that liberal is to be referred to as ``an open-minded, apolitical, progressive force throughout Canadian society``. being apolitical and progressive seems contradictory to me. when i hear the term liberal i think of an ideology that sounds good in theory but when applied to reality can perpetuate injustice and oppression by ignoring the differences that exist in people`s lived realities due to strucutural inequalitites. It is this form of ideology i see as dangerous as it can be guised in a well meaning, harmony producing cloak while not making the systemic changes required for actual justice. Perhaps the use of this label as describing an elite is more honest as systemically this is who benefits the most from liberalism.
i would love your thoughts on these thoughts.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I am glad to find this blog; more or less by accident.

I am Dutch and Holland has many parties; unlike the VS. To me, and many others, it does not matter who is in power. They all taste different, its all rotten fruit. Even when certain politicians mean well; they always want the status quo. When it comes to anarchism; most people say that - if it ever will emerge - it will not take long before the robbers, rapists and such unlightened people have a free way. This is not so. Such people will always exist, yes. But in todays world they are only a fraction of the problem. A problem that will be fought easier in an anarchist or non-hierarchial sphere.
The crimes commited now are the ones that are protected by law and power. When we organize a whole diffferent lifestyle, based on sharing wealth instead of grabbing it, a lot of crime will stop; the need for it decreases. Most crimes are drug related; 90% of heroin comes from Afghanistan; the UN keeps these plantages in tact. Ask yourself why? There are more examples to give. But such horrible facts will fanish when we simply have no more powers over us that keep such places intact.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, societal structures are simply ideas that have no inherent qualities. Where does the power elite exist other than as an idea in your mind? Begin to look at more closely and you see that it is made up of individuals, each of whom seeks exactly what you seek--happiness. Certainly it is a useful idea with some power to explain, but ultimately that's all it is. Where does the power elite end and begin? What color is it? What does it smell like? What noises does it make? The problem is, the idea of a power elite creates a sense of otherness that is false. That otherness leads to a sense of separation, disharmony, and fracture. We begin to define ourselves by what we oppose and detest (in this instance power elites) and then we wonder why we feel so alienated. We orient the mind towards only seeing what is wrong in others, and we wonder why the world looks so bleak.

You say you cannot reason with power elites. That the only way to curtail the negative effects of their actions is to confront them directly. Can you provide one example of direct confrontation of power elites that has then lead to greater peace and justice in the world?

You say that activism is defined by action--of course. However, how can one not act? It is impossible to be alive and not engage in action. Even sitting in front of the T.V. all day is an action. Our hearts, though, call us to examine the motivations and effects of our actions.

Are our actions born of compassion, love, and clear seeing, or are they born of delusion, ill-will, and greed?

Any action that is motivated by ill-will leads to the proliferation of more ill will. So, if we have ill-will in the form of judgment towards "liberals" or "power-elites," we have fed the fire of ill will in our own hearts, and cast this ill will into the world as well. Does this mean that we can not discern the unskillful and unwholesome actions of others, and that we should not act to mitigate the harmful effects of these actions? Of course not. But it does mean that we must be very mindful when "confronting" others. If we act out of ill-will (wishing to cause harm to others, even those who have caused harm) then we will necessarily plant seeds that will sprout into more ill will.

Of course, we are equally as deluded if we look at the world and ignore that there exists a massive amount of suffering and injustice. But, we must be very careful in diagnosing the causes of suffering, and even more vigilant about correctly identifying what is suffering and what is not.

A Tibetan Lama was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for many years. On the most literal level he lacked freedom, liberty, and justice. Inwardly, however, he was never a prisoner. All during his ordeal he never felt-ill-will towards his persecutors. Quite the opposite, he practiced holding them in his heart with compassion and kindness.

When he was released, he did not suffer from post-traumatic stress, as one might expect. Why? Because, although he experienced great physical pain, isolation, and imprisonment, he did not suffer. He avoided suffering by not feeding his mind with ill-will, and by actively substituting the opposite in its place.

If there is nobody to oppress, then there can be no oppression.