We talk about “carbon capital”, “fossil fuel historical bloc”, ‘technological lock-in’. Yep, them corporations and states sure are sclerotic, ain’t they? But, aside from talking about foundations and how NGOs take their money and sell a fake rebellion, we don’t talk about social movement hegemonies and blocks or ‘social lock-in’. This bores me.
Descriptions of how we got into this mess are plentiful, and some of them are excellent. Some might say we have a plethora of these. Much more rare are critiques of “blockadia” for its manifest (?) and manifold failings.
Where we are
Marches are “acceptable” agreed format. A dominant design, whatevs.
- “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”
- Keynes “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
- “Better the devil you know..”
And if you criticise marches, then Gaia help you, for you are criticising The Tribe.
What happens when you criticise marches
People don’t/can’t hear and (so) create binaries/strawmen
- “You want us to quit”
- “You are like supporters of Apartheid”
- “You are mentally unwell”
[Digression – in response to an enthusiastic call out for yet another goddam march on climate change – I wrote this
“And all the other marches achieved what exactly? Marches just give an excuse for people to turn up on one day (maybe having spent a couple of hours perfecting a snarky sign) and feel good about themselves. They are emotathons (and before you reply, why not try googling that word). Organisers lack imagination, ability to enhance their groups’ absorptive capacity. So instead they stick to their goddam zombie repertoires. It’s a good thing it is already too late to do anything substantive about climate change, or I’d be quite annoyed by this latest example of failure.”
Here’s what transpired, with the other people’s names blotted out, fwiw.
In the same way the joke ends with the bear saying “this isn’t about hunting, is it?” this isn’t about the marches. These are proxies, surface responses to deeper anxieties.
All these add up to – ‘Don’t attack my tribe!’ And it’s hardest to take when comes from someone who ‘should be’ in the tribe, who can’t be dismissed as a denier or an official enemy.
Why are people so scared? (thus the ‘bloody compassion of the headline – I would prefer to be able to label people who don’t ‘get it’ as stupid and/or complacent. Reality is more complicated, dammit).
Over and above the standard operating of the smugosphere, there seems to be an extra level of fear that is clouding people’s ability to absorb new information, or even hear suggestions that we have to change our standard operating procedures. I think that is
- Because the situation is – objectively – fucking terrifying.
- Because, as Lennie sang, we know that we lost
- Because (some of us?) know that our previous methods haven’t helped to create the movement we need.
- Because people look at the last large-scale/publicised ‘innovation’ in social movements – Occupy and the Arab Spring – and they go ‘damn, that didn’t work’ and so we retreat into what makes us feel good, what is easy – the cycle of meetings and marches, marches and meetings.
We have to swallow the fear and actually innovate, actually listen to critiques of our current failures
Dismissing them (by claiming someone is mentally unwell, advocating quitting, or analogous to an Apartheid supporter) is – at its best- intellectually bankrupt and morally vacuous. I would argue strongly – or at least emphatically – that it is harmful and morally indefensible, but that would be another blog post.
We have to ask some questions
Do marches build social movements?
Well, if they did, wouldn’t we have won by now?
Let’s get beyond the marches/no marches binary, and reframe that question. “Do marches, on their own, build social movements.”
Okay, I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “no.”
Are there loads of people who care about these issues but don’t get substantively involved in the actions of social movement organisations?
I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “yes.” (If the answer is no, we’re totally fubarred.)
So, in order to ‘win’ (whatever that means) do we need a proportion of those people to become involved and to stay involved?
If your answer to that is ‘no’, then you may as well stop reading.
So, given that social movement organisations have been holding marches and meetings, meetings and marches, what have we been doing wrong?
What do we need to do less of, what do we need to stop doing altogether?
What do we need to do more of, what do we need to start doing that we haven’t been?
There are lots of things groups do – websites, newsletters, rallies/protests.
But the ‘big one’ is meetings. Let’s divide it into two kinds (there is overlap, of course)
Business meetings and ‘public meetings’.
What is the experience of new people at both?
If you look closely, you will see some people leave either at the end of the speech or during the Q and A, or right after it and before the ‘mingling’. Did you ever wonder why they left, why they came in the first place, why so many of them you never see again?
It’s like a first date. They were checking you out. And when they realised that you only wanted to talk about yourself, they left, and stopped returning your calls for a second date.
What are the obstacles for us to doing this? Or “Expect resistance”
- Habit –routines. Our expectations of ourselves and each other, the ‘scripts’ of the ‘right way’ to do things.
- Our frustration that we have the high moral ground, that it shouldn’t have to be up to us to work smarter, given the moral arguments are on our side and the bloody corporations and states/bureaucracies ought to keep their bloody promises.
- Our fear of failure. Many of us are middle-class and our schooling taught us that there was One Right Answer and if we memorised it or mastered the procedure for arriving at that One Right Answer, then we would ‘succeed’. That reflects curricula and the ease of marking exams, not life.
- Most of us do not reflect on the format of meetings
- The current set up benefits some people with some skills and some status.
- Cops? If they see us becoming more effective, they will up their game. Right now, they don’t particularly have to try that hard, I fear.
What could we do right now?
- Have lower expectations of the power of marches to motivate existing members (people get foot-sore) and to ‘recruit’ new ones.
- Have higher demands on ourselves for how we will structure meetings not for us and our mates, but for the new people, the hesitant ones, the ones who are not extroverts.
- Contest the smugosphere, the emotathons, both when OTHER people suggest them and when YOU do. Accept that social movement organisations need to innovate as well.
If the rest of the movement was healthy, but we were still doing too many marches, I’d grit my teeth and live with it. But it isn’t and we are. As a substitute for action. So it goes.