Designer Activism and Post-Democracy

Published by openDemocracy on May 17, 2016.

Celebrity philanthropists like Bono, Madonna, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have become the public face of the humanitarian agenda, along with gala events such as Comic Relief in Britain and its counterpart Red Nose Day in the USA. There’s nothing new about the social elite becoming publicly involved in ‘good causes,’ but today’s highly-networked configurations of power, business, media and charity are different: ‘designer’ activists, campaigners and philanthropists are flourishing as never before.

But there’s a puzzle: there is little evidence that celebrity endorsements contribute to higher levels of donations to their favored charities, and opinion polls suggest that celebrity advocacy has a peculiar legitimacy with the public. Most people are not persuaded by it—but they also believe that most other people are. Some minor testimony to this skepticism can be seen in the success of satires from Helen Fielding’s debut novel Cause Celeb to the Instagram site BarbieSavior.

Fans may devotedly follow a particular celebrity, but they don’t transfer their loyalties to the causes they adopt, belying the popular myth that this form of endorsement actually works. Charities and advocacy groups are well aware of this phenomenon. Some, like Médecins Sans Frontières and most church-based charities, don’t use celebrities at all, and it doesn’t affect their income.

So why do so many NGOs and campaigners persistently solicit celebrities? The answer appears to be that it isn’t about the public at all: it’s about how elites manage the public sphere in a post-democratic system.

The term ‘post-democracy’ was coined by Colin Crouch to refer to the fusion of corporate power with government, generating an elite politics based on a political-financial cycle in which money buys power and power rewards money. Post-democracy is a plausible imitation of democracy. It has a popular, consultative appearance, while the real politics of power and money consists of a continuing round of inter-personal transactions among elites.

However, political legitimacy still depends on the public sphere. Corporations can own the media, but they can’t set the agenda entirely. Into this political ecology enter designer activists and their advocacy. Their concerns may be secondary and without major political import, but they are important issues nonetheless.

Famine, genocide, epidemic disease and mass migration could suddenly surprise us and storm across the threshold of political saliency. And people—elites included—genuinely care: they are looking for ways in which they can be compassionate and active global citizens. Actors and musicians who write many of the scripts for our moral imaginations can help us with this task.

Celebrities help to frame how publics should feel, and how they should act on international humanitarian issues. When a famous actor such as Ben Affleck goes on a disaster tourist mission to Congo, what’s required from him is a performance of personal integrity and emotion. He is not expected to be an expert on the details of policy, but he is encouraged to express vicarious compassion.

When television personalities appear on the annual fundraiser for Comic Relief, for example, they are validating philanthropic responses to world problems. And when a singer such as Bono, along with his wife Ali Hewson, promotes a luxury brand as an ethical purchase because some of the profits go to Africa, he is selling consumerism as an answer to poverty.

Sometimes celebrities go off script, and this is where their role in post-democracy becomes most interesting. Author Dan Brockington gives examples which are simultaneously shocking and amusing: will they choke or be photographed showing visible revulsion? Will they be caught swigging champagne on a private jet en route to a refugee camp?

The actor Ralph Fiennes reportedly had casual sex with an air hostess while on a mission to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. Another actor, Salman Khan, shot a protected antelope in India shortly after appearing in a calendar for the WorldWide Fund for Nature. For the public, one of the attractions of parachuting high-profile amateurs into the roles of aid workers or diplomats—many of them well known for their personal foibles—is this irreducible element of unpredictability.

Perhaps the celebrity might even call for revolution? Brockington tells the storyof actress Jessica Lange explaining to a journalist that she undertook a UNICEF-sponsored trip to Congo in 2003 in order to expunge some of America’s shame at the actions of President George W. Bush. UNICEF tried to stop the journalist from reporting her words.

For the old-fashioned social justice campaigner committed to transformational social change, the unscripted howl of a celebrity is a weak peg on which to hang a revolutionary movement. But for the political and business managers of post-democracy, the unpredictability of celebrities is a useful lightning rod. The Comic Relief gala is a cornucopia of social intelligence: it’s an extraordinarily effective way of finding out what issues the public cares about, and how. The popular response to a celebrity’s radical rant is a useful means of flushing out the depth of support on that issue.

For charities and campaigning groups, celebrity sponsorship communicates a message primarily to power elites rather than to the general public. It’s a ticket to the corridors of ‘real’ politics, since designer activists and philanthropists have access, and with access comes leverage over money and potentially favorable policy decisions.

Politicians and corporate leaders may believe that associating with celebrities serves the purpose of subliminal advertising, polishing their brands with the electorate and consumers. But they also want to hang out with celebrities because they like celebrities (or perhaps because they think they do on the basis of their public personas).

In the bygone era of mass democracy, the paradigm of trans-national activism took the form of political solidarity with transformational socio-political movements. In such cases the agenda was set by the political leadership of the affected groups. A good example is the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which stood in support of the African National Congress.Nelson Mandela was notably reluctant to become the public face of the ANC, and always saw his fame as a tool in the service of a broader political cause.

Unable to effect sufficient direct pressure on their oppressors, social and political movements in the global South enlisted support from civil society and left-leaning political parties in the global North, thereby circumventing the blockages they faced at the national level. International advocates played a junior role in setting the strategic agenda.

Today, this position has been reversed. To the extent that local groups set the agenda in their relations with northern activists, they either do so in the form of resistance to post-democratic hegemony, or with an eye to how their story will resonate in the global North. The political scientist Clifford Bob has described the latter strategy as a ‘market’ of causes: only those that can successfully ‘sell’ to their Northern patrons will survive, while others will wither.

Meanwhile, many Northern advocates have become insider policy lobbyists—specialists at the business of trading influence. They set the agenda in dialogue with the politicians with whom they work—tacitly or explicitly. Indeed, there may be revolving door between political office and an advocacy position in an NGO. The goals and strategies of the campaign are set by what is mutually considered achievable in a Northern capital. The Southern groups are thereby reduced to the status of clients with tactical influence only, or are left to succumb to the sad fate of orphaned causes.

The paradigmatic cases of designer activism are deeply compatible with the circuitry of power in the post-democratic order. Hence, they campaign for more coercive intervention by the United States against the established rogue’s gallery of international villains such as Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army or Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. They emphasize the role of private foundations as the world’s problem solvers, so that social programming is decided by the untaxed wealthy in a discretionary manner—rather than by democratic states on the basis of universal rights and entitlements.

The script of personal compassion is perfectly suited to this process—further emphasized by the way in which celebrities often perform acts of conspicuous generosity such as funding projects with their own money or adopting children into their families.

The post-democratic Northern celebrity therefore has a number of overlapping agenda-setting roles—in the ‘real politics’ of power and money, in the public arena, and in defining the nature of international philanthropy or campaigns for social justice. Meanwhile, those who try to support people’s own agendas face not only the hostility of elites; they also find that their messages are dissonant with, or drowned out by, the clamor of designer activists.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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