A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.

The conflict can be traced back to 1997 when a quirky Berkeley, California-based software company known for its iconic flying toaster screensaver was purchased for $13.8m (£8.8m). The sale financially liberated the founders, a left-leaning husband-and-wife team. He was a computer programmer, she a vice-president of marketing. And a year later they founded an online political organisation known as MoveOn. Novel for its combination of the ideology of marketing with the skills of computer programming, MoveOn is a major centre-leftist pro-Democrat force in the US. It has since been heralded as the model for 21st-century activism.

The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.

Clicktivists utilise sophisticated email marketing software that brags of its “extensive tracking” including “opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, in total and by source”. And clicktivists equate political power with raising these “open-rate” and “click-rate” percentages, which are so dismally low that they are kept secret. The exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the bottom of political engagement.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.

Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.

Digital activists hide behind gloried stories of viral campaigns and inflated figures of how many millions signed their petition in 24 hours. Masters of branding, their beautiful websites paint a dazzling self-portrait. But, it is largely a marketing deception. While these organisations are staffed by well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe they are doing good, a bit of self-criticism is sorely needed from their leaders.

The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism. Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever. The insider truth is that the vast majority, between 80% to 90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing.

The collapsing distinction between marketing and activism is revealed in the cautionary tale of TckTckTck, a purported climate change organisation with 17 million members. Widely hailed as an innovator of digital activism, TckTckTck is a project of Havas Worldwide, the world’s sixth-largest advertising company. A corporation that uses advertising to foment ecologically unsustainable overconsumption, Havas bears significant responsibility for the climate change TckTckTck decries.

As the folly of digital activism becomes widely acknowledged, innovators will attempt to recast the same mix of marketing and technology in new forms. They will offer phone-based, alternate reality and augmented reality alternatives. However, any activism that uncritically accepts the marketisation of social change must be rejected. Digital activism is a danger to the left. Its ineffectual marketing campaigns spread political cynicism and draw attention away from genuinely radical movements. Political passivity is the end result of replacing salient political critique with the logic of advertising.

Against the progressive technocracy of clicktivism, a new breed of activists will arise. In place of measurements and focus groups will be a return to the very thing that marketers most fear: the passionate, ideological and total critique of consumer society. Resuscitating the emancipatory project the left was once known for, these activists will attack the deadening commercialisation of life. And, uniting a global population against the megacorporations who unduly influence our democracies, they will jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution.