Rupert Younger on United Activism and re-imagining Marx for the 21st century

Image credit: Rupert Younger

His name may not be familiar, but Rupert Younger is part of a duo that have re-written perhaps the most influential political document of all time, The Communist Manifesto, updating it for the very different world of 2018.

Younger, who is director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, and Frank Partnoy, an academic and author, have teamed up to create The Activist Manifesto, an online pamphlet faithfully recreating Marx and Engels’ magnum opus. Its thesis is that, instead of socialism, the two most famous intellectuals of the 19th century would today be concerned with the phenomenon of activism.

The original Manifesto does not, he explains, form the basis of a political party, but rather an idea. “Our central contention is that Marx and Engels were writing about inequality, as expressed through class distinctions and structures... there’s inequality today in a way that they would be appalled by. For example, when you think that the top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 99%.”

The Activist Manifesto aims to deal with a different type of inequality: inequality of power. If there is a concept at the heart of the work, it is that of ‘united activism’. “When you feel that you don’t have your voice heard, that’s what drives people into revolutionary action. If you think about the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the NRA rallies - what unites them is that people have felt powerless. The central theme of ‘united activism’ is that by uniting, they [activists] can redress the power imbalance that exists today.”

This may alleviate an inevitable concern of someone coming to The Activist Manifesto for the first time. Younger and Partnoy are self-confessed “true believers in free-market capitalism”, and therefore, it would seem, unlikely contributors to the socialist literary canon. But once it is appreciated that they are rejecting the materialist world-historical view of the original Manifesto for one which instead defines the world’s winners and losers in terms of access to power – ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-nots’ replace bourgeoisie and proletariat – their position starts to make more sense. 

What led them to the concept of united activism? “The idea was born out of the academic and professional interest of both of us. We had both written about in an academic sense, and advised in a commercial sense, companies who have been on the receiving end, or protagonists in, shareholder activism... For me the interesting thing is that financial activists are having to take into account many other different forms of pressure on companies, i.e. pressures to be societally responsible.” He invites us to imagine the possibilities if activists such as Malala, Greenpeace, and financial capital activists all united together on certain issues. “Could that not achieve real change and address that power imbalance, whereby people feel that their voices can’t be heard?”.

The main problem with activism today, according to this idea, is that of ‘silos’. “If you think about me identifying as an environmental activist. If I focus my activism just around that, I’m limiting my ability to rectify the power imbalance, because my voice is going to compete, not collaborate, with the voices of financial activism, social activism etc., and so it’s much easier for the powerful organisations that we’re putting our focal point on... to basically ignore us.” This idea seems to reflect the world we live in today; identity politics and single-issue zealots can often dominate our screens, and it makes sense to imagine that those collectively locked out of power would be far more successful at confronting the global elite if they worked on a united basis. I raise the example of people who campaign about inequalities of wealth, under banners such as ‘we are the 99%’, and Younger believes that these are examples of silos. Clearly, Jeremy Corbyn or the Occupy Wall-street movement do not shy away from advocating environmentalism or women’s rights; but the argument of The Activist Manifesto is that they are still missing their aggregate potential by not coalescing more strongly on a united platform.

Activism is all too familiar in universities and Cambridge is no exception. We moved on to student activism, and its wider value. “I think it’s hugely important on two fundamental bases. First, for the evolution of the democratic process in universities”. Indeed, Younger himself has a history at Oxford of leading a campaign for responsible investment. “Only through these concentrated pressure points and by having people willing to spend the time and effort doing things will real change happen. So, I’m hugely in favour of activism in any form – chaining yourself to railings or having reasoned debate – any form that you want it to take.”

Equally, he believes that activism is crucial for the development of young minds. That’s why he is against the idea of safe spaces. “I think universities should be the sort of place where this kind of controversy, debate, argument is celebrated... activism and argumentation is a critical part of your own development, and the way you’ll build your own particular character and value to society.” This may be more controversial – it is invariably at the hands of student activists that speakers are no-platformed, and so-called ‘safe-spaces’ are erected. But, like many outside commentators, Younger is adamant that the constructive path for activism is in the opposite direction.

Finally, I ask about the legacy of the pamphlet from which The Activist Manifesto takes its outline. Has there been a resurgence of Marxism in our politics with Corbyn at the head of the Labour party? In short, not really. “What I think Corbyn and Labour have done is reignite this question of inequality, and it’s been this latent problem which has underpinned so many of the perceived injustices in democratised worlds... But I don’t regard that as original Marxism at all.”

While he rejects many of the central claims of socialism, I am intrigued to know whether he believes Marx has been vindicated since the 2008 financial crisis. “I don’t think Marxism has proven to be right. But I do think that his argument that says there are some inherent contradictions in capitalism is right.” But again, it is not just to do with the failure of unfettered markets to distribute wealth equally, although this is important. “Our contribution is to say that by focusing on power inequalities, that gives a lens that allows people to coalesce and rebalance the unequal heavyweight boxing fight between economic interests and other interests.” Ultimately, if we are supposed to take anything away from the idea of united activism, it is that activists have more to gain from working together than going it alone.

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