The Everyday Life of Activism [review essay]

by Salman Hussain, York University, Toronto

Reviewed in this essay:

  • Accidental Activists: Victim Movements and Government Accountability in Japan and South Korea, by Celeste L. Arrington (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).
  • Now Peru Is Mine: The Life and Times of a Campesino Activist, by Jaymie Patricia Heilman and Manuel Llamojha Mitma (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  • Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia, by Doreen Lee (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Both the recent rise of populist leaders and the success of protest movements in the last decade have brought the study of political and social movements center stage. Questions to do with political subjectivity and agency, affect, and activism are at the heart of many recent works that have looked at mass politics, right-wing populism and movements for democracy in Europe, South Asia, and Northern Africa. Recently, for example, Walter Armbrust (2019) has provided an ethnographic account of the Egyptian revolution, focusing on activists and tricksters in the liminal phase of the revolution, and Nusrat Chowdhury’s (2019) insightful work has examined the role of affect – surprisingly little discussed in the anthropology of mass politics – in shaping crowd protest and democratic politics in Bangladesh (for other recent considerations of populism and affect, see Majumder 2019 and Shoshan 2016).

The three books reviewed here preceded these turns to mass phenomena as affective and ritually transformative; together, however, they contribute to the wider shift in anthropology and other disciplines towards the study of the commonplace forms of populist politics and the making of “ordinary” political activists. These books offer a distinctive focus on how political activists memorialize their actions and engage with the legacies of the past and how everyday spaces, conversations and materials shape their political agency and actions. Drawing from different regions and historical and ethnographic periods, the books collectively ground the ubiquitous term, “activism,” by outlining what lies behind the making of activists and its implications for political action and future political movements.

The books discussed below are about Korea and Japan, Peru, and Indonesia, respectively. The first is written by a political scientist, the second is co-authored by a historian and a political activist, and the third is a work of cultural anthropology.

In Accidental Activists, Celeste L. Arrington provides a comparative study of victim movements in South Korea and Japan, covering activism launched at the turn of the 21st century by people suffering from leprosy and hepatis-C, and activism for redress by South Koreans and Japanese who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is situated within the literature on the subset of social movements that mobilize to claim compensation and restitution from states, both nationally and transnationally (Arrington 2016, 8). Based on 225 interviews with victims, lawyers, non-victim activists, scholars, politicians and government officials, the book builds upon “three paired case studies of six victim redress movements” in Japan and South Korea during the late 1990s and early 2000s (2016, 15). 

Arrington argues that the redress actions for leprosy victims took different trajectories in each country: for example, Korean legislators were the first to get involved in the redress movements, while in Japan it was the victims who took the initiative and went to the courts in 1998, which then resulted in a legal ruling against the state and the development of legislation, apology and enumeration measures two years later (2016, 2). “By comparing the political activism of redress claimants,” Arrington “unpacks [their] counterintuitive dynamics and develops a framework for analyzing why some groups achieve more redress than others” (2016, 4). Furthermore, the book “sheds light on both the potential potency and the potential perils of political participation on the basis of victimhood” (2016, 14). One of the central questions that Accidental Activists deals with is whether elite third party allies (politicians and parliamentarians) are useful to have, and if so, when and why.

It is not useful, Arrington argues, to have elite allies early on since such alliances hamper the mobilization of fellow victims and citizens and discourage grassroots organization. It is such bottom-up support, garnered from the public and civil society, which persuades politicians to draft more comprehensive legislation. Bottom-up mobilization, Arrington suggests, increases the pressure on politicians (2016, 5). Lawyers, journalists and activists play a central role in the “processes of conflict expansion” as they can more effectively influence public opinion (2016, 6-7).

Still, Accidental Activists is a top-down study, an institutional perspective – rather than the activists’ view – on politics that assumes the existence of a political field within which movements and victims stake their claims, rather than asking how that field is constructed and contested. The voices of the leprosy victims and their experiences of suffering and marginalization are absent from the book, and thus the victims’ use of their “victimhood to try to persuade others” that their injury is due to state negligence is not clearly presented (2016, 187). More importantly, Arrington does not show what leads to the emergence of her “accidental activists”: who are they before they are activists, and how do their stories and experiences of victimhood reinforce, impact, or otherwise shape their activism?  

By contrast, Now Peru is Mine takes up the making of an activist and of their voice, agency and memory. The book is a collaboration between the Peruvian indigenous activist Manuel Llamojha Mitma and a Canadian historian, Jamie Patricia Heilman. It documents Llamojha’s political and personal life journey as remembered by him and recorded by Heilman.

Now Peru is Mine builds upon the “testimonial biography” method (2016, 14). It follows the methodological genres of “testimonio – a first person narrative that shares a witness’s experiences of a particular atrocity or injustice” – and third-person biography. Both Heilman and Llamojha share “editorial authority” over the work (2016, 15).

Heilman’s curiosity about Llamojha was born from her work in the Ayacucho Regional Archive, where she found many references concerning “a dangerous communist activist” in the area (2016, 13). Heilman finally met Llamojha in 2011 and proposed a book documenting his life. Llamojha’s fascinating life stories are compiled from several interviews conducted by Heilman and her assistant and the interview he gave to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2006, 13). Llamojha’s archive of his own writings, a practice he had followed throughout his life, was unfortunately confiscated and destroyed by the Peruvian military in 1982.

Framed by an introduction and an afterword, the book contains six chapters that chronologically lay out Llamojha’s political life. While Chapter 1 relates the origins of his activism in an indigenous peasant community, Chapter 6 concludes his life history with the bitter winding down of his political life and marginalization from active politics. The rest of the book charts Llamojha’s rise from peasant activism to the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP), his travels to Soviet Russia and China, and later, his political decline following the rise of Shining Path and his subsequent displacement from his community to Lima. These chapters place Llamojha’s political life against the backdrop of Peru’s national political history, through the tumultuous period of the Cold War and beyond. Rather than the heroic story of a leftist icon of the Cold War, like Che Guevara for example, often fetishized as a global symbol of leftist resistance, Llamojha’s tale tells of an “ordinary” political activist, of his struggle, rise and decline.

Llamojha tells us that he was ambitious from an early age, his dreams and aspirations were unlike those allowed a campesino: anti-Indianism had restricted indigenous peasants to a life of hard labor (2016, 19). This explains why in his stories he projects himself as an agent of his own actions and plans. His literacy, which he remained proud of all his life, fueled his activism, and it was due to these skills that he became politically indispensable for his community. His literacy was his political weapon but it also put him at risk: his petitions and other writings were often discredited as fabrications and forgeries, and he was declared an instigator by the local authorities (2016, 91-93).

Engagement with the state authorities is a constant in Llamojha’s story, and by presenting his “cunning” in evading them he manages to construct his own agency (2016, 73). He was always on the run and sought by the police. His life of activism was a life of constant mobility, risk, deceptions and economic precariousness (2016, 84-85).

Llamojha’s life history challenges “romantic visions of political activism” and helps us to look past “simple narratives of heroic struggle and triumph” (2016, 2). His memories of “unjust imprisonment, torture and . . . severe economic hardships” demonstrate that the life of a political activist is a difficult and painful one, marked by bitter political disputes with, and even betrayals by, one’s own allies (2016, 3). His life story also reflects the declining political life of an aging activist in a changing world. Moreover, Llamojha’s story “chronicles the realities of anti-Indianism,” indigenous peasants’ activism for justice, and specifically their struggle for land (2016, 3, 4). It rehearses the broader themes of the rural-urban migrations of 20th century Latin America and the rise of new political parties. Llamojha’s life history helps us to understand what it meant to be a political activist in the decades of the Cold War, and how the war between two world powers affected the lives of ordinary people and activists, as they were accused of communism, jailed and persecuted.

The book’s methodological strength lies in its reliance on life history (Mintz 1960, Crapanzano 1980, Shostak 1981) through which local level “struggles against indigenous oppression, territorial dispossession, and sociopolitical exclusion” are vernacularized and the activism of ordinary people is politically, spatially, and socially grounded (2016, 1). However, the life history method has also been critiqued for its inadequacy in dealing with questions of translation and memory—translation between the informant and the ethnographer’s cultural and discursive languages, and the transformation of memory with the movement from oral elasticity into textual form (Crapanzano 1984). Mindful of these criticisms, Heilman cautions that Llamojha’s life stories should not be read as “literal narrations of the past” but rather, as “historical memories shaped by his past and present dreams and desires, sorrows and triumphs, and by the Peruvian realities that he tried so hard to transform” (2016, 17). The many ordinary Latin Americans who took part in the political struggles of the 20th century are often overshadowed in retrospect by a few glorified leftist icons; Llamojha’s life history opens a window into those everyday forms of activism in Latin America and the memories of those struggles. Even though the book lacks a historical and political overview of the Peruvian state or of its political and social formation (which might have been useful for readers unfamiliar with the country), Llamojha’s life history reflects the broader political history, hopes, and disappointments of the Peruvian and Latin American left, and tells of their possibilities, failures and legacies.

Activist Archives by Doreen Lee also examines the everyday life of activism and the memories of a charged and glorious political past, as remembered and lived by youth and student activists in urban Indonesia. The book is based on eighteen months of fieldwork conducted in Jakarta between 2003-2005, and focuses on the evolution and afterlife of the Reformasi, a popular movement that toppled Suharto’s rule in 1998. The book discusses the students’ role in the movement as well as the mechanisms by which students and youth activists have kept the legacies and memories of their political actions alive. Lee thus documents a vibrant and active youth culture that thrives in everyday spaces, garb, conversations, and stories. A number of Lee’s interlocutors had been part of the Reformasi movement and were revered and remembered by younger activists who chose to follow in their steps.

The six chapters of Activist Archives locate and classify the “lifeworld” of student activists to showcase the “unique political amalgamations of Reformasi’s globalized moments and older traditions of morality, masculinity, and nationalism” (2016, 3, 6). Lee follows everyday politics grounded in the urban life of youth as they participate in the work of non-governmental organizations, film screenings, discussions and protests, while bypassing the factory, the school and university – places more often assumed to be the ideological training grounds for a leftist politics of resistance (2016, 5). Activist Archives, then, importantly brings into focus “those activist domains that enable social movements to linger, by reproducing student politics and imaginaries in everyday, exceptional, and seemingly apolitical ways, through their clothes, homes, and writings and even in the pleasure of friendship or the outbreak of violence” (2016, 5). Moreover, Lee’s focus on the intimate and everyday details of activism illustrates “how resistance to the state endured” and was later remembered and re-told (2016, 5).

The book brings forth the places, materials, and repertoires that comprise the life of a young political activist in post-Suharto Indonesia and how conjointly, these aspects ultimately produce an activist culture. The young activists collect and display various types of paper artifacts which form paper archives of historical memory: a documented “historical understanding” of past political actions (Lee 2016, 28). This ephemeral archive is captured by Lee through her examination of the “trash of democracy (the print, material, and electronic matter of activism)” which serves as “a repository and resource” for the making of a “public and political culture” (2016, 40). Paper artifacts that are collected and shared by the student activists include “writing manifestoes, statements, leaflets (selebaran) and position papers on the ‘national situation’ (sitnas)” (2016, 35).

The capture of public space by way of protest is a legacy of the Reformasi era, and the activists continue this practice through street “demos” (2016, 59). Lee argues that this is indicative of a new culture of democracy in Indonesia: the public space of protest serves as a zone that activists depend on to justify their presence and their political work. They disrupt the “disciplinary and territorial understandings of the urban by commandeering public space as temporalized sites for oppositional politics” (2016, 87).

In addition to the paper archives and the occupation of public space, the “visual style” of the youth adds to their public presence and the reproduction of activists as agents of pemuda (youth) history. However, student activists are not simply producers of past historical memory but they also make use of current globalized leftist symbols – printing t-shirts with images of Che Guevara – to seek their place in an oppositional politics of the present (2016, 103).

Between the street and their homes, Lee explains, there are other spaces where activists meet, organize and spend their time: “the kost (rented room, lodgings), the secretariat (sekret), the basekemp (base camp or organizational headquarters), and the emergency posko (pos komando, command post, or pos komunikasi, communications post)” (2016, 147). Youth activism is nurtured in these spaces where students meet, converse, eat, plan, and debate. These “politically charged” spaces play a key role in the making of activist kinship, hierarchy and authority, and they also serve as a platform to politically socialize new recruits through interactions with seasoned and senior activists (2016, 147-151). Lee suggests that these spaces inculcate the ideas of belonging to the nation and its politics within the young activists she studies.

Since many of the older activists went on to support or become a part of established political parties, Activist Archives concludes with a nostalgic look at how democracy and elections in post-reform era have generated novel political questions for youth activists about their own political role and identity (2016, 179). Lee explains that the post-Reformasi youth and youth politics have fragmented into various non-governmental platforms, but “in the last ten years, social media, rather than the power of civil society groups and NGOs, played an increasingly important role in getting the public to protest outrage and express dissent” (2016, 211). The role of the pemuda in Indonesian politics and society has entered yet another stage of transformation.      

An important contribution of Activist Archives is its focus on the everyday places of politics and the repertoires of resistance central to student and youth politics (see, e.g., Bayet 2017 and 2009). The book shows how grand political ideals and the memories of protest movements thrive in everyday spaces, how the politics of resistance is reproduced and how the memories of past politics have helped to shape activists in the present. However, as significant as the focus on everyday spaces is to an understanding of the politics and historical memory of protest movements, this focus evades a pertinent historical question: why in contemporary Indonesia have homes, non-governmental organizations, and other non-institutional places, as opposed to the campuses and schools, factories and unions, become the “new” sites of reproduction for leftist and secular student politics? In other words, a reflection on the processes that triggered this apparent displacement is absent from this book. One might wonder how neoliberal economic reforms in Indonesia, and elsewhere, have rendered older forms of solidarity and organizational politics implausible, and what implications this change carries for left politics and class activism.

This brings us to the class identity of youth activists – implicitly presented as “middle-class” – which is mentioned briefly by Lee initially but remains unaddressed throughout the rest of the book. The youth activist is treated as a generic identity in Activist Archives: apart from a few vignettes in which certain activists’ voices are heard, it remains unclear who the activists are: their class, gender, social and cultural identities do not come forward. Lee tells us that the youth of 1998, the activists of the Reformasi, were a “mix” of religious, rural, secular traditionalist, urban and middle-class students that congregated on cosmopolitan campuses (2016, 8-9). This is a crucial insight that has not been theoretically developed: how did student activists from various middle-class, regional, traditional, and religious backgrounds converge upon these urban sites and what united their distinct backgrounds in the post-Suharto, post-Reformasi era?

Populism has become a ubiquitous term today, often used to explain away the varied historical and economic processes, and sociocultural identities, that come together in the making of politics. For example, “Ordinary” people have been claimed as the leaderless agents of popular movements – right-wing populist campaigns as well as those led by a mix of “apolitical” citizens – which helped topple military-backed regimes in North Africa and propelled the rise of nationalist figures elsewhere (Douzinas 2013; Azzellini and Sitrin 2013). The books reviewed here contribute to a more detailed understanding of the everyday life of popular politics and social movements and their memorialization. Even though each makes use of a particular methodology – institutional analysis, oral history, and ethnographic study, respectively – together they take us to spaces where memories and histories of spectacular events of revolution and political uprisings and resistance are remembered and lived. However, they also delve into and capture the commonplace or the ‘unremarkable’ repertoire of activism, as well as the darker side of politics, that is, the opportunism, the betrayals, and the destitution of activists. Lee’s and Heilman and Llamojha’s books indicate that it might be rather simplistic to characterize activism solely as the organization of rational political action, or to consider popular politics as action captured in rallies, protests and street action only. Ethnographic attention to everyday places, objects and practices of sociality, community and care, within which activism is concretely rooted, flourishes, and is recollected, thus contributes to the study of political and social movements by showing how these places, objects, and routines mold the political agency and collective action of activists, and how the archiving of past and present actions continues to be done by these ordinary people and within those spaces.

These books have broader implications for the anthropological study of politics. Anthropologists, political scientists, and historians, indeed any political activist or scholar interested in popular politics, will benefit from the insights presented in these works.


  • Armbrust, Walter. 2019. Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Azzellini, Dario and Marina Sitrin. 2014. They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy. London: Verso.
  • Bayet, Asef. 2009. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle-East. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Bayet, Asef. 2017. Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Chowdhury, Nusrat S. 2019. Paradoxes of the Popular: Crowd Politics in Bangladesh. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Crapanzano, Vincent. 1980. Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Crapanzano, Vincent. 1984. Review: Life Histories. American Anthropologist 86(4): 953-960.
  • Douzinas, Costas. 2013. Athens Rising. European Urban and Regional Studies 20(1): 134-138.
  • Majumder, Sarasij. 2019. People’s Car: Industrial India and the Riddles of Populism. New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. 1960. Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Shoshan, Nitzan. 2016. The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism in Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Shostak, Marjorie. 1981. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.