Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Structure of Activism: Corporate or State goverance?

I wrote recently about student activism in the 1960s. Today I found a great description of student activism in the 1930s.

The activism of the 60s, it turns out, was very much indebted to that of the 30s. Students for a Democratic Society, the famous SDS, was funded for years by the League for Industrial Democracy. It was the Students' League for Industrial Democracy that was one of two founding organizations of the American Student Union. And activist extraordinaire, Walter Reuther was one of the student leaders of the movement in the 30s. According to the site, the movement boasted 500,000 participants at its height.

What brought the movement to an end? If you know, please share! It seems likely that World War II played a big part. But I suspect also that all movements, and student movements in particular have a very short active period of their life cycle. It took 20 years for students to organize on a large scale again (and it wasn't just the Viet Nam war. The student movements of the 60s started before anti-war protest was popular)

Flash forward to today: There are plenty of problems for young people to organize around. Why don't we? We have, I think, a kind of culturally pervasive distaste for formal activist organizations. The non-profits that dominate American Civil Society are organized like corporations. There is an Executive Director, a Board and a strict hierarchy of employees and bosses. Supporters are the consumers - they buy/donate the advocacy or service of the non-profit.

The SDS and its bretheren derived their organizational structure more from government. Members voted on a President, elected a Secretary, paid dues/taxes and debated and voted on the organization's actions.

Perhaps this holds part of the answer to why mass mobilizations of students haven't happened for 40 years? That's twice as long as the last gap. SDS asked new recruits to become citizens of the organization. Non-profits today ask them to be either professionals or consumers.

Today across America we have plenty of professionals, and we have consumers out the wazoo. But do we have enough citizens?

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