Defund the Celebrity Activism Industrial Complex

Home Activism Defund the Celebrity Activism Industrial Complex

Capitalism has turned the legitimate organizing and activism efforts of everyday people seeking support and care for their communities into a competitive spectacle.

Activism is in its flop era. That’s an uncharitable characterization, but based on current events and public sentiment it’s an apt one in the wake of CBS’ announcement for their soon to be revamped activist game show-turned documentary. I did not have Survivor: Activism Wars on my bingo card for 2021 but I am also not surprised. Nothing about the gross commodification of organizing language, or learning that CBS and Global Citizen, an “advocacy organization” founded by professional poverty tourists, tried to leverage obscene wealth and celebrity name recognition into an activism game show is shocking to me. In a late-stage capitalist world where “influencers” are heralded as the true activists—the real “voices for change”—there is nothing so run-of-the-mill as the gamification and sensationalization of the fraught, exhausting, and often thankless work that is organizing.

In a conversation earlier this year, I was struck to hear someone decry “influencer activism” as a western luxury. Not because I necessarily disagree with the sentiment, but because the conflation of true grassroots organizing and the infographic era of influencing has become so commonplace. This false comparison implies that activism cannot exist without social media and internet prestige. In a world where Shaun King continues to haunt the world wide web with geographically tailored  pleas for support (money) and patience during these difficult times (accountability), it’s easy to understand why the distinction is difficult to make. But now more than ever, it is critical to remember that having a platform to say things that ring true in the moment does not make someone an organizer or activist. Follower counts and brand endorsements do not equal a 1:1 correlation with community trust and support. 

In the midst of an unending global health crisis, exacerbated by rampant unemployment and government apathy and inaction, the rise of distinctly online activism is both necessary and important. The reach of mutual aid campaigns, for example, is multiplied exponentially through retweet and reshare networks across social media platforms. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, a disturbing rise in activist stars has been amplified with the help of corporate sponsorships and branding partnerships.

“But Adrie,” you’re thinking, “people have to pay their bills.” I absolutely agree and I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make a living by the means available to them. However, the rise of an influencer economy has been consumed by the increasing corporatization of activism. Capitalism, the omnivorous behemoth that consumes and co-opts anything that seeks to dismantle it, has turned the legitimate organizing and activism efforts of everyday people seeking support and care for their communities into a competitive spectacle.

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Deference to lived experience and subject matter expertise is not equivalent to, or free licence to endorse, celebrity worship. The tireless work that is true advocacy should not give way for resentment or entitlement concerned with public adoration and endless praise. Yet the movements created to give a platform and community support to victims of sexual violence have been commodified and turned into national non-profits plagued by reports of harassment, racism, and labour abuses. Tales of re-constituting press networks that once served Black communities have become nightmarish landscapes of donation theft, defamation lawsuits, and deep dives into financial misdeeds. Legitimate criticism of performative messaging and harmful antics have been silenced with the misappropriation of terminology meant for egregious and systemic abuses. We have long left behind the excuse of “I have bills to pay,” for multi-million dollar compounds and empires built by larger-than-life public figures with PR teams and weaponised legal counsel. 

As a reminder, activism is supposed to be a collaborative, transformative means to seek equity, justice, and community building. Organizing is meant to divest from hierarchical power structures that amplify individuals and specific, subjective ideologies over meaningful, concrete solutions to widespread issues. Instead the practices, language, and traditions—the culture—of advocacy have been warped and watered down to  self-important, self-serving, radicalized wealth accumulation. The collective has been subsumed as a sacrifice for the interests of one ego. Community leaders have become committed to solitary success and a need to be the smartest, loudest, most expert opinion, most sought after spokesperson.

There should be no joy in wallowing in trauma or confronting injustice—the suffering of others should repulse at every turn. Any activism that purports to center liberatory politics cannot serve the needs of one before many. It cannot build a platform that uses the suffering of others for support. It cannot be a solitary venture that pits one voice against many who have been cast aside for material gain. Leadership in the championship of others should be conferred, rarely sought, and never demanded. It should necessitate the involvement and prevailing wisdom of others. If we cannot divorce ourselves from the self-championing, egocentric, trauma-peddling brand of activism that currently dominates, we can never get free.

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