Inspired by a rant about the utter ineptitude of an activist discussion last Sunday, I’ve been sent this by someone who wishes to remain anonymous.
Let’s start by saying I’m a big fan of the ‘Give Up Activism‘ critique! I was a ‘full time’ Earth First! activist when I first read the article. It made me re-evaluate everything I was doing at the time and it still causes me to reflect.
In one sense I am entirely in agreement, a group of elite, vanguardist revolutionaries whose ‘job’ it is to bring about social change is counter productive, self defeating and ultimately leads to ghettoisation. However, I would argue it’s not the need for ‘activists’ that needs to change but their isolationist, repetitive and frankly boring tactics.
Now, more than ever, society needs people to inspire us, to say things others wont and take action. We live in unique times, when the limitations of liberal democracy and market capitalism are clear too all. Yet mainstream and even radical political elements have failed to articulate people’s concerns adequately or point a coherent way forward.
The activist vacuum is too often filled by the far right, conspiracists or nut jobs (sometimes all three). If we need social change (and we do) we need activists to inspire and awaken. We need those brave people who can stand on the precipice, close their eyes and take a leap of faith, to demonstrate a route others can follow (like that bit in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). We need people who have the vision to conceptualise new social relations but also the guts to do what’s required to make them a reality.
Fewer leaders more leadership
Leadership is badly lacking in activism today. Let’s separate the idea of leaders from leadership. We clearly need less of those traditional activist leaders, typically, though not exclusively, white middle-aged men, that hold sway in certain circles. A dinosaur like George Galloway, strangling the hopes of the new idealists or the alpha-male Earth First-er prioritising polyamory and drugs over real politics. These figureheads stratify a movement into inaction. “I could never be that cool/that clever/that well connected,” mere mortals might say.
Real leadership is about direction, progression, moving forward together and building consensus. Leadership can be demonstrated by an individual, a small number or even a large group. We need to build momentum, be brave, sell a vision others can buy (or barter) in to, show some leadership not only within our movement but outwards to the rest of society.
In the past we’ve set the agenda on sustainability, community involvement, autonomy and climate change. Ten years ago we were the crazies advocating 80% CO2 reductions, now it’s law. But we don’t live in a utopia and our politics have suffered inevitable co-option, subsumed and re-badged by an elite. The agenda has changed and we, as activists, need to show the same radical change in our thinking.
Without leadership we have an ever shrinking number of people repeating the same behaviours and tactics, going round in circles, delivering poorer results with fewer recruits in a cycle of decline.
Activism has become boring
Clearly activists are a product of the society that spawns them, the tools we use to attack the elite are those we have to hand. In the 1980s dole culture and inner city decay spawned a youth with time to make political mischief, stage free parties and kick start a new radical rave culture.
The tactics of ‘party and protest’ came from that society but social relations change and our tactics need to change with them. It is simply no longer acceptable to turn up at a corporate conference with a samba band, free flapjack and a stack of flyers (no matter how well designed) and expect thousands to flock and the corporate hordes to shrink in terror.
We have failed to change, we need to innovate, experiment, fail and succeed. We need to learn from the successes and failures not repeat them: try some new methods, discard others, mix and match, use what we have around us. The Arab Spring saw a combustible mixture of well educated young people with time on their hands, new social media tools and the good old tactics of marches and occupations. Those tactics may work here, they may not (they may ultimately fail in the Middle East).
We need new ideas that on occasion may fail but equally may succeed, rather than the same tactics that fail time on time.
Activism in the UK is at a low ebb – though as always there are chinks of light and inspiring individuals and small groups present. In general our tactics are boring, our meetings so dull they make death seem a sweet release. We’ve become fat and lazy. More than anything we wont attract the calibre of people we need until we can demonstrate political activism is effective and goddammit, fun!
Yes, this means re-grouping, abandoning the comfort of all tactics and old ways of working, the support structures of old groups and old friends. But come one, let’s take a few risks, let’s live a little! Ultimately we need more activism not less. After all, the stakes have never been higher so what have we got to lose?