Protest Inc.

Protest Inc

The Corporatization of Activism


Copyright © Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron 2014
The rights of Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron to be identified as Authors of this Work have been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2014 by Polity Press
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ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8119-1
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1  Where are the Radicals?
2  Seeing Like a Corporation
3  Securitizing Dissent
4  Privatizing Social Life
5  Institutionalizing Activism
6  A Corporatized World Order


A host of friends and colleagues joined us as we sailed well beyond our discipline of international relations to research Protest Inc. Without their guidance we would surely have been shipwrecked on the shoals of interdisciplinarity. We wish to thank Alan Sears for sharing his research and for many inspiring conversations. V. Spike Peterson, David McNally, Susanne Soederberg, Marcus Taylor, Gavin Fridell, Stephen Gill, Isabella Bakker, Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Alan Nasser gave perceptive advice and encouragement and pointed to crucial sources.

Conversations with many colleagues at the University of British Columbia were very helpful as well, notably with Asha Kaushal (especially for locating legislation for chapter 3), Sara Koopman (especially chapter 3), Linda Coady, Jonathan Gamu, Justin Alger, Déborah Barros Leal Farias, Jennifer Allan, and Charles Roger. Special thanks should also go to Catherine Dauvergne, Sébastien Rioux, Jane Lister, Kate Neville, Sara Elder, and Adrienne Roberts for their support and judicious feedback on book drafts. Valuable too was the wise counsel of the five anonymous reviewers for Polity Press.

Expert research support was provided by Elim Wong, Reference Librarian, UBC Law; Zoë Veater and Jonathon Bell, Advice and Information Officers, Liberty, UK; and Nathan Tempey, National Lawyers Guild. Shahrouz Hafez assisted adeptly with fact-checking. We are indebted as well to the world-class staff at the Liu Institute for Global Issues: Julie Wagemakers, Sally Reay, Patty Gallivan, Timothy Shew, and Andrea Reynolds.

Finally, we need to thank Louise Knight, David Winters, and Pascal Porcheron of Polity Press for steering us so expertly.


Where are the Radicals?

Over the last two decades activist organizations have increasingly come to look, think, and act like corporations. You may well find this claim upsetting. Yet we go even further, arguing that the corporatization of activism is deepening and accelerating across all causes and cultures. Rarely now do “career” activists call for a new international economic order, or a world government, or an end to multinational corporations. Only a select few on the fringes, in the words of Greenpeace cofounder Bob Hunter, still struggle to “mindbomb” the world to form a new “global consciousness.”

More and more activists, especially those toiling inside large advocacy organizations, are instead speaking in market-friendly language. They are calling for a gentler capitalism – for fair trade, for certification, for eco-markets. The buzz is about the aid of rock stars and the benevolence of billionaires. Solutions to global problems involve campaigns for ethical purchasing: to brand social causes and sell feelings of “doing good” to the “cappuccino class.”

Without a doubt most activists still want to speak truth to power. But nowadays they are entangled in this power. Unthinkable a few decades back, partnerships with big-brand companies – Walmart, McDonald’s, Nike – are now common, even expected. The global WWF Network of activists, as just one example among many, receives funding from and works closely with the Coca-Cola Company. WWF leaders do not hide the reason for joining forces. “Coke,” explains Gerald Butts, who at the time was the president and chief executive officer of WWF Canada, “is literally more important, when it comes to sustainability, than the United Nations.”1

A Coca-Cola World

Why is this happening? Why is corporatization affecting some advocacy organizations more than others? What are the consequences for the nature and power of activism? The answers, as we reveal, are complex, with many activists fighting back. Still, looking across the surface of global activism, we see three processes that are interacting with markets and politics to corporatize activism: the securitization of dissent (chapter 3); the privatization of social life (chapter 4); and the institutionalization of activism (chapter 5).

Together, these interlocking processes are reconfiguring power and resistance globally, as firms engage social forces through corporate social responsibility, as governments cut social services and devolve authority to companies, as consumerism spreads, and as states suppress public dissent. The result is a seismic shift in the nature of activism worldwide. Not only are more and more corporations financing and partnering with activist groups, but activists are increasingly communicating, arguing, and situating goals within a corporatized frame. And more and more activists are seeing corporate-friendly options as logical and effective strategies for achieving their goals.

This does not mean that activists have capitulated to corporations: corporate malpractice continues to draw their ire. Within every movement, many activists are challenging the values and institutions of capitalism. And many examples exist of successful efforts to slow or reverse corporatization. Worldwide, both organized and spontaneous uprisings remain common too, with social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter rallying hundreds of thousands of people to oppose rigged elections, decaying dictatorships, and corporate pillage. If anything, because social unrest tends to cluster and come in waves, in the future we would expect even more – and larger – public protests as the world population rushes toward 10 billion people, as communication technologies and economies continue to globalize, and as citizens react angrily to the hardships of an ever adjusting world economy.

Nonetheless, although it is a contested, uneven, and in no way inevitable process, the overall trend, we argue in this book, is toward a corporatization of activism, where the agendas, discourse, questions, and proposed solutions of human rights, gender equality, social justice, animal rights, and environmental activist organizations increasingly conform with, rather than challenge, global capitalism. Some of this reflects self-censorship under threat of government audits, business retribution, and the pressures of austerity; but much also arises from self-evaluation by activists of what is feasible and what is effective.

Working for the Establishment

The corporatization of activism is not a simple business takeover of activism. Business is seeking out advocacy organizations for legitimacy and marketing opportunities. But activists are courting companies for funds and partnerships with as much, if not more, enthusiasm.

Their eagerness is understandable. Partnering with business is enhancing the influence of advocacy groups within ruling political and economic institutions. Activists are gaining seats on corporate boards and at international negotiating tables. And they are raising more funds to run even more programs. Without a doubt, access to the real corridors of power remains highly restricted. Still, compared to those outside of the establishment, activists on the inside are more likely to be able to shape corporate governance or prod a policy reform.

A natural desire for influence, then, partly explains why so many advocacy groups are readily, even keenly, embracing corporatization. Advocacy groups are using this influence to do much good. Achieving this good requires a big sacrifice, however: groups must work within the confines of global capitalism and put aside thoughts of transforming the world order.

One consequence for world politics is that activism is now less “radical” than it was forty or fifty years ago, at least in terms of demanding systemic and far-reaching change. Another consequence, as we document in chapter 2, is that, with each passing year, activist fundraising, projects, and goals are becoming more entwined with corporate interests. Unraveling corporatism from activism is getting progressively harder. Meanwhile, the corporatization of activism is marginalizing more critical ideas and people.

The intensity and speed of this process is stronger within the global North and among large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with home offices in Western Europe and North America than among community-based, grassroots, and bottom-up movements in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. Across both the global South and the global North, many community groups and grassroots movements are resisting and rejecting corporatization; nevertheless, corporatization is altering the context within which such groups organize, raising the financial and legal stakes of tactics such as direct action. Those NGOs striving to reform capitalist institutions seem especially prone to corporatization. At first this finding may seem counterintuitive. Yet, in many ways, it is perfectly logical given the power of capitalism to assimilate criticism and dissent. Multinational corporations are keen to partner with large, global NGOs in particular, not only to mold the nature of criticism and pressure but also to legitimize business growth, gain efficiencies and competitive advantages, and earn profits.

Once again, the story here is not one of firms coopting or duping activists. Only a rare few activists are selling out for Fleet Street salaries or jet-setting lifestyles.2 Just about all are dedicated, and they deserve praise for sacrificing income and professional status to work for a cause they believe in. Most genuinely want to make things better: to stop deforestation in South America or help those with HIV/AIDS. Let us be crystal clear. Our book is not waging a war on activists; nor is it a lament for the activism of the 1960s or 1970s. We are sounding a loud alarm, however, about the consequences of the corporatization of activism for the possibilities of transformative change in world politics.3

From Protest to Activism

The long history of public uprisings is not just one of rebellions and revolutions against tyrants. Nor is it just one of grand symbolic protests, such as the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 to spark the American Revolution. Seemingly trivial and often forgotten protests can combine for lasting influence, as E. P. Thompson reminds us in his article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Thompson reveals how, as the English commons were enclosed and the numbers of landless peasants grew during the takeoff of capitalism in the eighteenth century, “crowds” in times of hunger would on occasion storm a baker’s shop and demand a lower price for bread. Such action was not only a reaction to soaring prices and hunger. The crowd was defending the customs and rights of the community – thus enforcing the boundaries of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” behavior. In this way, individuals drew on the “moral economy of the poor” to restrain the profit impulse of capitalists.4

Crowds still wield startling power today, as is proved by the Arab Spring uprisings beginning in late 2010 and, in a different way, the worldwide protests following Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Student protests in Britain in 2011 and Quebec in 2012–13 also expose the rage of many of even the world’s best-off youth. Nothing suggests much, if any, corporate control or influence over these kinds of protests – most people, for instance, credit the anti-corporate organization Adbusters with launching the Occupy movement.

We are not arguing that such protests are corporatized. Nor are we suggesting that public protest as a form of political action is waning. Nostalgia in the West for the 1960s (just think May 1968 in Paris) leads some writers to portray this period as the heyday of popular protest as a political tool. Yet protest recurs across generations, with the intensity rising and falling over time. Protests remain common today. In many countries, even Western ones such as Germany, we have seen more, not fewer, protests since the 1960s.5

Much of this popular protest survives for only a few days or weeks – after perhaps it is crushed by the police or the military, or perhaps after protestors reverse a rigged election. Our focus is not on the first days or weeks of a protest but rather on what happens after activists start making consistent and repeated claims, with long-term strategies and formal organizations. It is during this process of sustaining a campaign for change that we see activists, especially over the last decade, coming under the increasing influence of corporations, consumerism, and capitalism. Like so many governments, many activists have come to accept the value of opening economies to private investors, deregulating state services, legalizing private property and land ownership, “freeing” up trade, and allowing markets and corporations to “self-regulate.” It is in this globalizing market economy that we see activists partnering with big business, moderating strategies, and advocating for market solutions. It is here that we see what was once Protest become Protest Inc.

What is Activism?

Most “protestors” are activists, and many belong to, dip into and out of, or later join a social movement – for civil rights or global justice or human rights; for sustainability or animal rights; for gender equality or gay and lesbian rights. A few people no doubt join protests in search of friendship or thrills or mischief, with no real political purpose. But most protestors are (or soon become) activists, making claims and pursuing a public goal.

Activism, as we define it, includes protests; yet most activism emerges out of and takes place between protests. Activists seek change that at least to some extent challenges the established order. Some want better treatment of animals or people or nature. Others want to cure a disease or lessen poverty or promote development. The degree of change called for varies widely. So do the tools. These can range from poetry to strikes to blockades to running a nonprofit organization.6 Some analysts prefer to focus the concept of activism exclusively on unrest such as Occupy Wall Street or on grassroots networks such as the World Social Forum or on advocacy campaigns such as the ones to end whaling and child labor. Doing so, however, misses much of the world’s behind-the-scenes, quieter efforts of activists, which arguably comprise the bulk of today’s activism.

So understood, activism does not need to begin life as a protest; nor does protesting ever need to be part of it. Activism requires sustained collective action with a political purpose: to stop strip mining of indigenous territory; to prevent human rights abuses; to stop trade in endangered species; to block college tuition hikes. Individual action to change personal conditions, such as a sustained protest about one’s own salary, does not qualify as activism. Nor do the actions of organizations born out of the private sector and family philanthropy, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Also beyond our definitional scope are neo-fascist, racist, and terrorist groups. Conflating “racism” or “terrorism” with “activism” (so, for instance, terrorism becomes an example of “radical” activism) would do an extreme disservice to understanding the changing nature of today’s global activism.

The tactics of activism as we define it can be theatrical and playful – singing in solidarity, banging pots and pans, a gay pride parade – or revolve around hunger strikes, occupying city squares, lawsuits, or hacking the Internet. Or they can focus on educating citizens or fundraising for research. For us the tactics can also involve violence: burning cars, smashing windows, self-immolation. The common thread is a collective challenge of the priorities – and often the authority – of companies and states. Thus, in our meaning, the tactics of activism always have a political purpose, however small.

Our broad understanding of activism has the advantage of allowing us to capture a great diversity of civic action and reaction across all social movements. Concretely, this lets us include in our analysis a wide range of advocacy groups, from the World Social Forum, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International to the United Way, the Nature Conservancy, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Defining activism so inclusively does have a downside: it softens the meaning to embrace groups that accept, and in some cases are even part of, prevailing power structures. Yet any narrower meaning would miss too much of the story of the corporatization of activism.

Scholarship on activism is vast and deep, mapping important differences among organizations, coalitions, and grassroots movements across time, campaigns, and settings (among other factors). We take a different tack, treating activism as a single category and analyzing the processes of corporatization in broad strokes. Our goal is to evaluate what is happening to the capacity of activism as a whole to transform the world order. Surprisingly few people are discussing this; our hope is to spark a much bigger conversation.

The Politics of Corporatization

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” social theorists Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zˇizˇek have both quipped at different times. Mark Fisher extends this idea in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism to explore the power of capitalism to present itself as the only viable economic order.7

To some extent the corporatization of activism is a symptom of capitalism. Or, put differently, it reflects what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) saw as a reason why so many of the downtrodden were not rebelling a hundred years ago: for the masses, the rules and customs of the ruling powers had become “normal” and “natural,” even “common sense.” Capitalism today continues to contort what people think is true and workable – what Gramsci called the “limits of the possible.”8 Only some things even appear changeable. Gramsci’s insight helps to explain the how and why of the ever growing sway of business thinking, markets, and individualism.

Understood in this way, the process of corporatization is not only about activists taking on the organizational and managerial practices of a company – budgets, staff, oversight boards, and a corner office for the CEO. It is also more than just corporate sponsorship and financing. Corporatization involves the politics of social activists internalizing a belief in the value of corporate responsibility, deregulation, and privatization. It entails treating donations as investments and supporters as shareholders. And it includes coming to accept the status quo as normal and seeing markets and corporations as natural.

Anti-corporate activism certainly continues in many places, particularly among grassroots groups.9 But signs of the corporatization of activism far outweigh signs of anti-corporate activity. Telling is the rapid increase since 1990 in formal partnerships between NGOs and “Big Oil,” “Big Brands,” and “Big Pharma.” So too is the increasing trust among activists that consumer labels and certification can make trade “fair” or “ethical” or “sustainable.” Many activists are also turning to celebrities and billionaire benefactors to support campaigns, setting aside worries about runaway consumption or appalling inequality.10

Another sign of the corporatization of activism is the growth of corporate-style “fundraising,” where, although it may be admirable, the “cause” has come to be defined by branding and advertising. Samantha King’s 2006 book Pink Ribbons, Inc. (as well as the 2012 documentary) reveals this dynamic at work in the case of fundraising for cancer research by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the article “Welcome to Cancerland,” is pointed in her critique of what Komen has done to the activism of women with cancer: “We used to march in the streets. Now you’re supposed to run for a cure, or walk for a cure, or jump for a cure, or whatever it is.”11

Many other NGOs are also branding and marketing “problems.” Some aim to reach Western consumers in particular, telling them they are “saving the world” through compassionate consumption. Such campaigns are raising billions of dollars. Yet they tend to do far more to encourage consumption rather than any deep change, a point that Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte’s 2011 book Brand Aid explicates especially well.12 Such campaigns can end up “selling” the suffering of others and marketing feelings of empathy rather than necessarily doing good in any broad sense. And they can shift the focus of “change” to superficial matters, shoring up capitalism and shifting responsibility for improving the world to individuals and away from corporations and states.

Corporatization, then, is not a straightforward process of firms and markets colonizing ever more of the world. One trend is clear, however: the process has been intensifying since the 1980s, reinforced by the securitization of dissent, the privatization of social life, and the institutionalization of activism.


States worldwide are increasingly policing the line between “civil” and “uncivil” society, funding groups that are more cooperative while stifling those that are more critical. At the same time, politicians and government officials are portraying protests as a threat to public order and national security. This reframing of challenges to state authority as a security threat gained momentum following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Soon afterward, social justice and environmental groups with no connection to terrorism were facing tighter security and scrutiny.

In the wake of 9/11, activists pulled back from any action that the media might depict as “fanatical.” Seemingly daily suicide bombings across the Middle East and Africa and further terrorist attacks – the 2002 bombings in Bali, the 2004 Madrid bombings, the 2005 London bombings, the 2008 Mumbai shootings and bombings, the 2013 hostage killings in Amenas (Algeria), and the 2013 Boston marathon bombing – have kept activists wary. Over this time the political climate for activism has darkened. Governments have revised and passed laws to boost state powers to spy on activist groups and suppress demonstrations. And presidents and prime ministers now talk of “eco-terrorists” and social saboteurs – language and images that weaken the message and legitimacy of groups that are challenging, rather than partnering with, a government or corporation.

The American government has been leading the charge to securitize activism. Homeland Security is supplying funds and the Pentagon is donating tanks and machine guns to police departments. With military training, police are now using combat equipment and tactics to contain and subdue protesters. Meanwhile, to prosecute “rioters” and “vandals” and “anarchists,” the FBI’s counterterrorism division is raiding homes to collect evidence and prosecutors are subpoenaing activists to testify in front of grand juries.

The American government response to the Occupy movement is telling. Homeland Security and the FBI infiltrated protest camps, and police launched military-style raids to demolish camps and arrest thousands across the United States. Police in riot gear tear-gassed and clubbed protestors; in Lower Manhattan, police even conducted a military-style nighttime raid on protestors in Zuccotti Park. “What is most worrisome to us is that the line that has traditionally separated the military from civilian policing is fading away,” explains Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the Cato Institute. “We see it as one of the most disturbing trends in the criminal justice area – the militarization of police tactics.”13

America is far from alone in cracking down on public protest. Just look at Spain’s harsh reaction to direct democracy rallies in 2011–12 or at Greece’s similar response to anti-austerity protests in 2012. Strict security measures are now put in place for most public events, from hosting the G20 to holding the Olympic Games. A 50,000-strong force of army troops, police, and private security kept the public “safe” during the 2012 London Olympics, aided by an electric fence around the Olympic Park, closed-circuit TV cameras, and, for good measure, a couple of surface-to-air missiles.14 Such security may well be necessary in an age of al-Qaeda, suicide bombers, and lone-wolf zealots. But the aftereffects can give states even stronger tools to watch and corral crowds – including peaceful gatherings.

Police beatings and military-style raids rightfully garner much media interest and activist scorn. But securitizing dissent comprises far more. Cities are setting up “free speech” and “protest” zones to contain demonstrators. Police departments are fencing in demonstrators and secluding them far from the politics of the moment (e.g., World Bank or World Trade Organization meetings). By enacting and manipulating bylaws (and sometimes even reviving archaic war-time acts), cities are handing police extraordinary powers to search, arrest, and detain protest “suspects.” Such bylaws might well fail a civil rights challenge; yet the worst of these laws tend to expire before ever reaching a court. Police are further enhancing their coercive powers by acquiring armories of military hardware: bazookas, machine guns, sound cannons, helicopters, and mini-tanks.

Security agencies, counterterrorism units, and big-city police departments, moreover, are tracking and spying on social justice, animal rights, and environmental groups. Databases store the resulting information; in the case of the United States, this information might even pop up during a routine police check of a driver’s license. Nonviolent activists can end up classified as a threat under the guise of fighting terrorism – the mere possibility of which is increasing the capacity of states to vilify and bankrupt activists.15

Rising state power to police the boundaries of dissent is isolating more critical groups and delegitimizing more confrontational methods. At the same time it is bolstering the corporatization of activism, rewarding cooperative groups with a “safe” national security status. This process of securitizing protest is part of a worldwide shift toward more coercive governance of social resistance, especially activism against the free market, private property, and economic growth. A decline in state social welfare since the 1970s has reinforced these trends further. The globalization of conservative economics after Margaret Thatcher became UK prime minister in 1979 and Ronald Reagan became US president in 1981 devolved authority to the private sector while contributing to worldwide government funding cuts for social services and nonprofit organizations. Today, states are shifting responsibility for problems such as poverty from political and economic systems to individual choices and consumer decision-making.

Prominent in this process of securitizing protest are laws that bar free speech and assembly on the grounds of protecting national interests or business stability. The German city of Frankfurt, for instance, after declaring that blockading and hindering traffic and financial districts was a form of “violence,” in May 2012 deployed 5,000 police to thwart demonstrations to “Blockupy” the city center.16 That year the Canadian province of Quebec countered a student protest strike with similarly severe action, passing Bill 78, an emergency measure to curb marchers and necessitate police approval for protests. “It’s the worst law that I’ve ever seen, except for the War Measures Act,” remarked law professor Lucie Lemonde, referring to the 1970 Canadian government law imposed during the crisis with the Front de libération du Québec.17 In these and many other cases the state is privileging the security of business and economic growth over the right to organize and protest. This notion of security, as we argue more fully in chapter 3, is curbing the most basic of democratic freedoms.

Governments worldwide have also been turning to their intelligence agencies to monitor the activities of social justice movements, including through the social media. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has admitted to monitoring activists leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2010 G20 summit of heads of government in Toronto, as well as sending agents undercover as activists. But this is hardly unusual. Court cases and freedom of information requests, as we substantiate in chapter 3, reveal how many other intelligence agencies and police forces, those in the US and the UK among them, are employing similar strategies. Countries such as the US, China, Thailand, and Russia are also engaging in cyberspace espionage to censor Internet activism and control movements against state authorities.18

States are aiming as well to depict anyone who questions the value of capitalism for jobs, prosperity, and political stability as irrational or menacing or unpatriotic. To further quell opposition many governments are slashing the funding for groups seen as truculent or belligerent. This securitizing and sidelining of dissent is hastening the trend toward more moderate activism. After all, who wants a police club to the head? Or a border guard to strip search them as a terrorist? Or the CIA to spy on their Twitter account?


Over the last century markets have increasingly come to structure people’s time and relationships. This privatization of social life has altered how activists interact and organize. To an ever greater extent, market principles and meanings have come to mediate personal preferences and decisions, weakening societal capacity for collective action. The online world is swelling with activity, but much is impersonal and fleeting. More people also tend now to rely more on family or a small group of friends, rather than on a broader community, for emotional and living needs.19 Especially in high-income countries, but even in the most impoverished places, collective action has become a secondary, rather than primary, feature of social life. This change, as we elaborate in chapter 4, is accelerating a trend where collective and individual actions increasingly reflect market values.

Corporations, we argue further, are capitalizing on this trend to extend power and control. Time and again citizens are being told to consume more to create a more sustainable and just world. Advertising, branding, and labeling drive home the message that it is possible – indeed, it is good citizenship – to buy eco-friendly and fair-trade products. At the same time commodities have come to mark the self-identity of more people – while interacting outside of a market is getting harder and the opportunities rarer.

As states and corporations channel activism into the market economy, and as societal obstacles to sustained collective action increase, more people are looking for ways to match beliefs and everyday choices, striving to live within the market with less hypocrisy and more sustainability. This is contributing to what political scientist Michael Maniates calls the “individualization of responsibility” – and thus the power of corporations to shape personal decisions and relationships.20 It is also weakening forms of social and political community that anchor movements and sustain campaigns for long-term, systemic change.

Activists have always struggled, in the words of American sociologist C. Wright Mills, to turn “private troubles” into “public issues.”21 Ruptures in daily routines and social structures, however, have made this more difficult since Mills was writing, a half-century ago. Suburbanization in the industrial North has dislocated “home” life from “work” life. Neighborhoods, once organized around shared circumstances such as factory work, are less coherent, weakening social bonds and collective action (especially for class and work identities). Fewer people now gather outside to debate issues of the day. More women, by choice and need, have joined the paid workforce, and, with fewer neighborhood “supervisors,” fewer children are playing outside with each passing generation. Children and adults now spend more free time inside, watching television, playing video games, and surfing the Internet, while activities such as block parties and festivals keep declining. The meaning and relative importance of friendships and relationships have changed as well; even as online associations are multiplying, so are feelings of isolation and loneliness.22

Before the 1970s, working-class politics in Western Europe and North America generally arose out of a neighborhood, ethnic or religious group, or other association with pre-existing bonds of friendship, kinship, or comradeship, forming the social foundation of what sociologist and social justice activist Alan Sears calls “the infrastructure of dissent.”23 A politics of change was often a logical extension of the discontent and hardship among members of such groups. Far more people today participate in collective action as individuals to advocate for a common cause (e.g., human rights in Latin America). Many of these groups do not have strong community or historical bonds of faith, trust, or solidarity. This has lasting consequences for the change capacity of activist movements, especially those relying on more impersonal commitments (such as monetary donations) or on more impersonal interaction (such as the Internet).

In the past, bonds of friendship and solidarity were vital for achieving far-reaching change. This was the case for the British labor movement, the women’s movement in Europe, the American civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Historian E. P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, documents how the camaraderie and unity of working-class neighborhoods sustained the emerging political consciousness of England’s labor movement during the Industrial Revolution. While walking home together after work (perhaps stopping at a pub along the way), laborers came to understand and value the political power of collective action.24

Now, on the other hand, politics almost always precedes the formation of any group. Politics is indeed often the reason people come together. Yet, without pre-existing social bonds, politics alone frequently fails to generate a lasting or robust collectivity; as many contemporary activists have come to appreciate, without strong social bonds, many campaigns sputter out.

The global market economy is also, to borrow Raymond Williams’s phrase, altering “structures of feeling” within social groupings.25 The privatization of “hope” and “rage” and “misery” is splintering communities in ways that run counter to sustaining a social organization. As Mills argued back in the 1950s, as elites devolve societal problems (e.g., unemployment and poverty) into the private realm, individuals come to assume increasing responsibility (or to blame their parents) for the unequal consequences of capitalism.26 Once individuals internalize societal failings as personal failings, bonds of solidarity become harder to form and retain.

These and many other changes are causing market values progressively to permeate personal preferences and decisions, with less time and energy to act collectively. Taken together, these shifts are transforming private and social life. Like securitization, the privatization of daily life is occurring worldwide, although, as we said earlier, with great unevenness both between and within countries. Both securitization and privatization in turn are reinforcing the institutionalization of activism.


Global activist organizations have come a long way since 1970. Take Greenpeace. It started in Vancouver in 1970 as the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee,” a scrappy band of peace activists who the next year chartered a fishing boat (called Greenpeace for the voyage) to Amchitka, an island west of Alaska, to “bear witness” (and thus try to stop) American nuclear weapons tests. Before long, groups calling themselves “Greenpeace” were forming worldwide. In 1979 Greenpeace International was set up in Amsterdam to link national Greenpeace organizations campaigning to end commercial whaling and sealing, among a growing number of other issues.

The Greenpeace of today is a multinational enterprise with a global brand. The Amsterdam headquarters controls its brand image, with the name “Greenpeace” now a registered trademark in the Netherlands. Worldwide, Greenpeace has thousands of employees, around 3 million financial “supporters,” and twenty-eight national and regional branches operating in more than forty countries. Greenpeace International reported income of more than €60 million in 2011 (about US$79 million); the salary of its executive director was just over €115,000 in 2011 (about US$150,000). The title of a 2012 documentary on Al Jazeera World – “Greenpeace: From Hippies to Lobbyists” – captures well the trend over the last four decades.27

The history of Greenpeace is typical among international environmental NGOs. Founded in 1969, Friends of the Earth has millions of members and supporters, with more than seventy national and 5,000 local groups. Founded in 1961, the World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature also has millions of regular supporters and operates in more than 100 countries. This WWF Network funds more than 2,000 conservation projects and in 2012 had an operating income of €593 million (about US$776 million). That year it spent more than €105 million (about US$137 million) on fundraising alone.28