Ask A (Shitty) Activist #1: Does Reformism Work?

cropped-the_shitty_activist_logo1.jpgIn our first ever installment of “Ask A (Shitty) Activist,” we get right into the mix with a question from Life Loving Libertarian, who asks:

“What is your opinion of this article on why reformism does not work?”

He links to an article posted on The Last Bastille, written from an unapologetically libertarian perspective, explaining why reformism, or working within the system, doesn’t accomplish anything.

On The Shitty Activist blog, I’ve brought up many times how I believe the most effective activism seeks to transform (or replace) the system without being confined by its restrictions. I’ve discussed why I think it’s important for activists to be “unreasonable” and avoid the temptation to pull their punches in order to get grant funding from corporate foundations.

Suffice to say, The Shitty Activist believes reformism might have a role in society, but it’s often weak and self-limiting when conducted under the banner of activism.

Now, let’s address some of the points in the article, the first of which is a mention of the all too frequent lack of strategy in the activist world. The author wrote, “If there are no strategic goals, then what milestones could possibly ever be used to measure incrementally progressive successes?”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to disagree with that statement. While many activists are constantly reassessing their goals and finding ways to improve, sometimes even the best activists get caught up in what I call “feeling good over doing good.” That’s the phenomenon where long-term movement goals take a backseat to an activist’s craving for the heady feelings that come with an easy win or public approval, or the dirty high from complaining about what’s wrong instead of doing the hard and uncomfortable work of addressing root causes.

Of course, all activist flaws are forgivable, so long as the individual is open to self-reflection and feedback about how to improve. Obviously, no one enjoys being critiqued, however far too many activists have shown themselves to be dismissive and/or hostile to constructive criticism, even from inside their own movement.

Next, the article pooh-poohs the idea of writing letters to members of Congress and “editors of corporate newspapers,” saying it “wastes the human labor invested in persuading those whom will never read such letters.”

Having met with Congressional staffers, state legislators, and city officials on numerous occasions, and provided them with peer reviewed science contesting their positions only to have them completely ignore the information, I’d have to agree that it’s often a fool’s errand to try to sway politicians with mere facts.

However, if you’re able to rally a groundswell of public support for your cause, flooding a politician’s inbox, voice mail, or mailbox with enough messages that they fear negative media coverage and/or a lack of support in the next election, then it just might be worth it.

So what about writing letters to the editor? Are they also a waste of time?

Having written scores of letters to the editor over the years, The Shitty Activist is reluctant to believe it has zero impact. However, my lousy track record in winning campaigns has led me to believe that opinion pieces are most effective at rallying those who already agree with you, rather than changing anyone’s mind.

And, of course, this is only if an editor decides to run your letter at all. By far, I had the greatest success in getting my somewhat subversive pieces published in alternative weeklies, as opposed to corporate daily newspapers.

Then, the article lambasts voting, saying that the “efficacy of the ballot box…can be safely judged to be insufficient for restoring liberty.”

The Shitty Activist doesn’t have a lot of faith in electoral politics, certainly not on a national level. The main reason I vote is so when, after my inevitable complaint and the predictable response asking whether I’ve voted, I can say: “Yes, and it didn’t work.”

Local or statewide referendums might be an exception, as your average individual can take the time (and a small amount of money) to collect enough signatures to get something meaningful on the ballot, in the cities and states that allow it (The Shitty Activist has been involved with one statewide and one city-wide referendum–both of which failed, of course).

Further, I’m not exactly sure I consider those stumping for a political candidate to be activists at all, more political cheerleaders. Imagine if the amount of time and energy spent pimping candidates were diverted towards actual grassroots activism for concrete causes?

One of the last points of the article is that “the term ‘activist’ might as well mean reformist.”

I’m both strongly opposed to this idea, and at the same time resigned to its partial accuracy. The purest and most powerful form of activism involves your average person taking matters into their own hands. A true activist’s worth should be measured not by their state sanctioned authority or social prestige, but the ideas they bring up and the number of dedicated people in support or opposition to them. I think that’s still the point of activism, and the reason I write this blog.

However, I can’t pretend that a lot of activism is less interested in grassroots momentum for systemic change, and instead focused on individuals trying to feel good about themselves, securing a seat at the table, and raking in the corporate foundation grants.

In conclusion, I hope the author of the article agrees me with my belief that, just because that’s what activism has devolved into, doesn’t mean it’s the way it always has to be.

For a chance to be featured on the next installment of “Ask a (Shitty) Activist,” message The Shitty Activist on Facebook or Twitter!


  1. MattyP. says

    Thank you for this, I’ll let the oroginal author know that you took the time to review his work. Just so you know there is individual articles for each point made that contain more information on the cretain subject.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s