Book Review: Civic Activism Unleashed: New Hope or False Dawn for Democracy? by Richard Youngs

July 19, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

This book promised a lot, but only partially delivered. There’s enough substance there to warrant a read, though.

The book’s starting point is an upsurge in ‘new activism’ around the world. Robert Putnam’s anomic world of lonely people ‘Bowling Alone’ is looking pretty silly right now. The new activism is very different from the professionalized advocacy and campaigning of traditional NGOs like Oxfam, in that it is ‘self-consciously shapeless, indeterminate and even nebulous in form, deed and vision’ (actually that does sound a bit like a bad Oxfam meeting).

The concluding chapter contains the best summary of the phenomenon, so let’s start there:

‘A significant degree of change is occurring within civil society as the intensity and range of civic activism mount. Activism has become more sporadic, footloose, tactically innovative, daring, effervescent, and intent on carving out local autonomy and ownership.’

‘Some new initiatives are practical, some political. Some are leftist, some are conservative, while others reject both these traditional labels. Some are peaceful; others espouse a radicalism that can shade into violence. Some activism has emerged in the confines of closed politics; some has been catalysed by open politics. Many Western activists have honed in on issues related to economic austerity and often aspire to sweeping change of the entire economic system, while non-Western activists are often grounded in less grandiose goals.’

‘Civil society activity today extends beyond the relatively genteel world of NGOs lobbying on issues that largely fall within the scope of already acceptable policy parameters. In much of the new activism, a spirit of civic volunteerism and community-level practical organization seeks not so much overt confrontation as indirect workarounds – a middle route between taking on the system and meekly serving it. While it is true that many civic movements seek a more contentious politics, the new activism is often contentious in an indirect form.’

Youngs is interesting and nuanced on what all this new activity seeks.

‘Much new activism is not directly confrontational so much as ‘prefigurative’ – acting in a way that paves toward or prefigures a new type of politics and society’. (I would call that normative, I guess). Mobilizations ‘need to be seen as expressions of cultural change’.

He tries to assess the impact of all this activism, but rapidly runs out of steam. To what extent can ousting Egypt’s dictator Mubarak be counted as a success, given what has followed since? In the end, he takes refuge in the comfort zone of ‘needs more research’ and quotes a spectacularly jaundiced Slavoj Zizek: ‘I am fed up of these demonstrations of one million people – they are bullshit. A short period of enthusiasm, where we are all together crying and bonding – and then? Ordinary people see no change.’

Which brings me to my two main criticisms of the book:

Firstly, a startling lack of political economy analysis. With a couple of exceptions, the book skates over the issues of how new activism interacts with power. How do those with control over the law or resources or violence see the new activism? No idea. Rather it seems to inhabit a parallel universe of process and energy and protest, without ever quite engaging with power. The occasional brief reference (e.g. ‘civic activism has impact to the extent that it magnifies and widens divisions that have already taken root within regimes’; ‘ICT platforms tend to succeed where reformers inside government already support reform’) highlights what is missing everywhere else. In the end, institutions matter, and will continue to do so. The kinds of mass protests that Zizek is so dismissive of will come and go, but only if they gain traction over the machinery of everyday authority will they have lasting impact. How/when/why does that happen?

The same goes for the aid sector. The book is at least partly intended to influence donors (the author is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as an international relations Prof at the University of Warwick), and has some fairly sensible suggestions for what they can do (help new activists link up with other actors, encourage regional exchanges, be careful not to kill them with cash). What’s missing is any discussion of the incentives and politics of the aid sector – results, risks/compliance, Value For Money etc, which make it hard enough for donors to support traditional CSOs, let alone the ‘self-consciously shapeless, indeterminate and even nebulous’ world of new activism.

Secondly, there is just too much description. The book feels over-researched and under thought. So whenever a new idea comes up, we instantly embark on a wearying odyssey across examples from every corner of the globe. Gets a bit wearing and I was left wanting more analysis of what is really going on here.

But (as I hope the quotes demonstrate) some of the writing is really good and thought-provoking, so even with these caveats, if you’re interested in activism, this book is definitely worth a look.

July 19, 2019
Duncan Green