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.