It seems as if grassroots activism has recently become more popular, and more accessible than ever.
In addition to the ever-increasing number of grassroots organizations, communities have scaled down to the microcosmic level in holding each other, and themselves, accountable for oppressive language, ideas and behaviours.
In many radical communities, this extends to becoming accountable towards the food we buy (locally produced, organic, fair trade) and clothing we buy (ethically sourced and made).
While these choices may seem obvious, making socially conscious decisions can be incredibly difficult, as most of the products available are mass produced by cheap labour, not to mention expensive.
Accountability often falls disproportionately on the individual, which may be a product of neoliberal paradigms insidiously filtering into these youth activist cultures.
Liberal democracy is defined as being a political ideology and a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of classical liberalism, which stresses protecting the rights of the individual.
However, it can be argued that it has become less a development of freedoms than an increasingly administered society: one of bureaucratic agencies, proceduralism and litigiousness.
In addition to these tenants, a liberal democracy also strongly puts pressure on the individual to become increasingly self-regulating.
This has interesting connotations for the individual and their relation to the state.
“The role of the individual is only able to interact with the state through their individual acts, most primarily voting… the act of voting strips the decision-making process from any intimation of social interaction or mutual accountability,” stated Jacqueline Kennelly in her essay, “Learning to Protest.”
She suggested that voting has come to represent an “economic rationality,” which views democracy as the total result of individual choices or purchases in a political marketplace.
Kennelly also argued that due to this individualization, youth activist subcultures face an incredibly heavy burden of individualized responsibility, and also guilt.
Neoliberal paradigms further instill this sense of responsibility by inundating people, through popular media, with “self perfecting” subjects of how to be healthier and happier, as if achieving these idealized, and often unattainable, states fulfills any political or ethical obligations they may feel they have.
This concept extends into activist subcultures in the form of fatigue, guilt, emotional exhaustion and never being able to “do enough,” where the belief in the individual’s lack of ability to create enough change can result in feelings of guilt or hopelessness.
Notions of what it means to be a good person in nations that occupy privileged positions within global hierarchies, and still have vestiges of Victorian-era codes of charity, tend to focus on the helping of others as being one of the most commendable merits.
Kennelly suggested that burnout occurs because of this acting on the behalf of others, as opposed to self-interest. She found that those who joined activist communities out of self-interest were able to stay within movements without the same levels of emotional exhaustion.
There also appears to be a certain exclusivity of who is allowed to participate in these subcultures.
For example, those possessing the necessary social capital to produce “authorized language,” receive greater legitimacy than those who do not.
This social capital often revolves around the ability to attend institutions such as post-secondary education. In this way, the white, middle class stratum often dominates the majority of youth activism in Canada.
There is also a certain code of aesthetic and demeanor in some activist communities, which is policed by its members.
The subtle expectation of consumption patterns can include second hand clothing without brands or logos and DIY fashion. These practices speak to the idea of the “active citizen,” which emerged in the 1980’s.
This is the citizen who is not involved in the political sphere, as much as becoming more attuned and active in their own self-regulation.
Kennelly astutely points out that “this is one manner in which liberalism and, more relevantly, neoliberalism has penetrated youth activist subcultures: consumption practices and what they mean for rituals of style, and struggles for belonging cannot be separated from forms of active citizenship, and has become increasingly about one’s identity as a consumer.”
This set of unspoken practices and beliefs can marginalize those who are not able to fulfill those requirements.
Ultimately, it is essential that we look critically into how the realm of politics has turned into an arena where concerns about individual behavior and identity take precedence over forms of real ethical action, which takes place at a more macrocosmic level.
While buying organic and secondhand are great practices, they are not accessible to everyone, which can exclude some from activist cultures.
In addition, the focus on the individual is potentially a distraction from ethical issues that need to be addressed on larger scales.
A critical focus on the class and race structures in activist communities is essential, as is questioning how these cultures are shaped, how we operate in them and how we can reorient them towards the larger, structural issues that also need to be considered.