What is an "activist"?

Submitted by AWL on 12 August, 2020 - 7:38 Author: Sacha Ismail
Vogue cover

The widely-publicised September special issue of fashion magazine Vogue, billed as “Activism Now” and focused on anti-racism, includes an article titled “How one lawyer-turned-fine-jeweller made sense of Black Lives Matter – from her Left Bank apartment”:

“I stopped feeling guilty that I wasn’t marching. I no longer find it strange that a typical day might start with me picking up a finished piece of jewellery from the atelier in the Marais, heading over to my diamond dealer to sort through piles of grey diamonds looking for just the right hue for a custom design, and then end with rushing back home to jump on a Zoom call to strategise on next steps in the fight for justice for Breonna Taylor [a health worker murdered by Kentucky police in March].”

Nothing else in the issue is quite so parody-like. But the lawyer-turned-jeweller piece does reflect something wider.

That Vogue wants to talk about political activism reflects the upsurge of the BLM movement and the many left-wing activists or potential activists it has generated. The problem is that, despite the progressive vibe, what Vogue has produced is neither really political nor about activism.

Last September Vogue produced a special issue edited by Meghan Markle (“HRH The Duchess of Sussex”). Entitled “Faces of Change”, it featured photos of and articles about a range of celebrity “campaigners”. Essentially they have done the same thing again, but with a black-focus and the words “activism” and “activist”.

The cover of “Activism Now” features footballer Marcus Rashford, who challenged the government over free school meals, and model Adwoa Aboah, involved in mental health initiatives. It is the first Vogue cover photographed by a black male photographer. Inside the cover are photographs of 38 other “activists”.

The type of politics involved is very much a variant of the top-down, elitist and corporate-backed liberalism that has worked hard to benefit from the Black Lives Matter struggle, particularly in the US. There is a wider discussion needed about corporate “anti-racism”; the Vogue brand is part of this and the celebrity antiracism it promotes here very much embedded in it.

While a few of those featured are political activists of a sort, most are just celebrities who have been publicly outspoken and support various charitable causes. Quite a few of those writing or interviewed seem to not be politically “active” in any real sense at all, but define their “activism” simply in terms of being black, queer, trans, etc.

Editor Edward Enninful’s article suggests more diversity in the upper echelons of fashion has a “unique” role to play in challenging racism, with a “singular ability to shift mindsets”. So as long as he keeps his well-paid job, he too need not feel “guilty about not marching”?

A longer overview by Afua Hirsch is more political, but again focused on the role of celebrities. Misusing a quote from Martin Luther King, she appears to conclude that the time for protest is over and the time for enjoying equality at hand.

Vogue has also organised two round-table video discussions with various celebrities, which are a little more political. It has, it should be said, produced a relatively radical and interesting reading list (here), which looks as if it was given as a stand-alone job to someone who happens to be a leftie.

It’s a corporate fashion magazine – what do we expect? But there is a broader significance to the problem of “left-wing” politics which is a subset of celebrity culture.

On the actual left, certainly in Britain, a political culture has grown up which sees “activism” as a matter of following leftish celebrities, or more widely left-wing journalists, NGO people and so on, and pursuing it as a matter of seeking a job in these kind of milieux – in an NGO, working for a politician, as an unelected union official.

The work of actual activism – organising meetings and discussions; recruiting people one-by-one to unions and campaigns and socialist groups; publishing and selling political literature; setting up campaigns from the grassroots; protesting and propagandising on the streets; organising in and around workplaces and in unions; studying and learning – has been widely downgraded in favour of a more left and active version of the Vogue approach.

The dominance and hardening of this culture in the “Corbyn movement”, i.e. the fact that it was no longer really a movement, was surely part of what brought about its failure. With the defeat, at least temporarily, of the Labour left, the pressure in this direction is likely to grow, as more people abandon political debate and organising in favour of passively following left commentary and trying to carve out a niche for themselves – “activist” but not really activist.

To remobilise the left, and to build up and transform the labour movement into a force for socialism, we must push the other way.

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