Two thirds of activists in global grassroots movements believe that changing the world cannot be done without breaking the law in some symbolical way. This proportion has doubled since 2018. The growth is fueled by people in their 40s and 50s, not the young, and predates the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.
These were the key pieces of insight from a survey done by the Altruist League earlier this spring. The comprehensive study spanned 23 countries and more than 1,000 activist groups fighting against climate change and for reducing economic, gender and racial inequality.
The polling took place during the COVID-19 outbreak and concurrently with the events in Minneapolis and across the U.S. The anger in some of the interviews was palpable. But the radicalization trend was clear already before the virus struck.
Part of the explanation is a much-documented fact that citizens around the world are losing faith in their change-resistant political institutions. But movements, an obvious example being Extinction Rebellion, are also using law-breaking and political protest as a tactical tool. The theoretical work of the likes of Erica Chenoweth of Harvard has shown the effectiveness of past nonviolent protests that managed to stay visible and galvanize support through such activities.
None of this will be a surprise to those for whom the word “activism” rings of hippies, neo-Marxist radicals flirting with violence or self-important clictivists on Facebook. But today’s social movements have little to do with old stereotypes. More than half are led by women. The average movement member’s age, where data is available, is 34 - not particularly young.
For every photogenic group of young people protesting climate catastrophe and systemic racism in the West there are ten working to prevent femicide in Central America, corruption in the Congo and free speech repression in Algeria, often led by people in their middle years. These are in fact the engine of the radicalization we are observing, not the young, who traditionally hold more extreme beliefs anyway. Dissatisfaction and impetus for action is spreading across regions and age groups.
None of this means the world is on the way to some carefully orchestrated revolution. Of the three major preconditions for one, namely fragmented elites, organized social pressure from below and an uncooperative repressive apparatus, only the first two are to some degree visible in the West. The grassroots community itself doesn’t see a revolution coming - 60% of the people expect only more gridlock ahead, with unclear results.
The survey also provided feedback on another trend - impact investing. The average activist believes that investment that tries to create both financial and social value can do so (71%) but cannot lead to actual systemic change (22%). The latter evidently requires broader institutional action and a transfer of power from one group to another, which conflicts with the fiercely win-win philosophy of impact investing.
Shaping systemic change that we need will require commitment for the long run, coordination of different actors, leaders with intrinsic motivation, smarter philanthropic portfolios and a fundamental understanding of grassroots action and the change process. In a fragmented, tentative world there is in theory enough space for everyone to step up and try to lead - philanthropists, corporations, governments, international organizations. Most of those will face a steep learning curve.
Based on the underlying data, the trajectory of the world seems increasingly a matter of simple cause and consequence. We will either solve our problems or we will not. The World Economic Forum has announced that the topic of its next gathering in January will be “The Great Reset.” Such initiatives will either bring something truly new or be yet another round of talk shops. If the latter, we should prepare for a world where ever-worsening social unrest is a daily phenomenon.