Manchester and the ‘what to do’ question…

Manchester is famous the world over for its football, its music and now, sadly, for being the latest in an ever-lengthening list of European cities that have suffered terrrorist atrocities- Madrid, London, Oslo, Brussels, Berlin, Nice, Paris – in recent years. (And globally the list takes in Oklahoma City, Boston, Mumbai, Baghdad and so very many others).

Manchester has had terrorist incidents before, (such as the IRA bombing in 1996) but Monday night’s atrocity is on a different level of horror.

The pattern is familiar now – the attack, the rolling media coverage, the hashtags, the facebook ‘safe status’ search, the heartbreaking circulation of photographs of the missing – young, innocent people – the tales of heroism, the diligent professional work of the emergency services, the skill of the medical staff, followed by speculation about the perpetrators and their motives, the resolute sombre speeches of national leaders, and the solidarity expressed by other politicians, especially those from cities recently afflicted.

Also there are vigils. Last night thousands of us gathered in front of the Town Hall for a much needed vigil and show of solidarity, unity. The city had been on edge all day. Sirens and helicopters, people compulsively checking updates on social media and news feeds. The now all-too-familiar messages of solidarity from other cities that have been the subject of attack in the recent past. And when (not, sadly, if) the next attack happens, then Manchester’s leaders will themselves be signing condolence books and sending tweets.

I was with my wife and friends, and although we heard some of the poem, we heard little of the speeches of assorted political and religious leaders (it was a bit like that opening scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – blessed are the cheesemakers).

Of course, the words were not the point. The point was that Manchester rejects the idiocy of hate, divisions based on class, religion or race.  Manchester is cosmopolitian, and very determined to say that way.

What can we do?

The blood banks are full to overflowing – for now. But giving blood is a really good thing to do, part of the gift relationship. A work colleague wrote yesterday “Fear of needles not withstanding, I tried to give blood this morning because I am O-. However, they are a bit overwhelmed and can’t register me yet. I should have registered before. Anyway, if you are a registered, universal donor, you are exactly who they are looking for right now!”

Perhaps put a note in your diary for a fortnight, or a month’s time from now?

I personally don’t think the choice of target – where young women gather to hear about women’s power – was an accident. Neither do people like Australian commentator Greg Sheridan. So, continuing to support increased opportunities for everyone (while recognising the historical and systemic barriers that women have faced)

Contesting some of the ways that this atrocity will be used. I think there are two things here. Firstly, people outside the UK (and within it) have some very weird (by that I mean “wrong”) ideas about how things are. Remember the terrorism “expert” who claimed in 2015 that Birmingham was a ‘no-go’ zone?

To quote a wise friend

please push back against people with very transparent agendas who will use this event to talk about Manchester as some kind of “war zone”, or make references to “no-go zones” where lots of South Asian immigrants live. I’ve already seen people pushing that narrative, and it couldn’t be more wrong. Manchester is a beautiful city full of sports, music, and history, and it is made all the better by its diversity….. Muslim taxi drivers offered free rides to get people away from the arena. Muslim doctors worked overtime to help the victims…. And today, as the smoke is clearing, people are dusting themselves off, helping and comforting the victims, and getting on with their lives. Manchester is resilient and it will survive this.”

My wife, who speaks both Arabic and acerbic spent time yesterday doing precisely this kind of ‘push back’ work on Twitter and Facebook, against those who want to stir up hatred and stupidity.  It’s a Sisyphean challenge of course. Or perhaps, more like cleaning out the Augean stables.

Secondly, the attack may be used as part of the ongoing power grab by the State, for ever more control, surveillance. This is really tricky, because on the one hand there is a need for more frontline staff, but at the same time swelling budgets end up swelling the scope of the state’s reach into private lives. Troops on the streets is, at the very least, ‘unsettling.’  Those who try to exchange freedom for safety often end up with neither.

On the Manchester bombing – safety, fear, solidarity

Facebook messages come through every minute – people marking themselves as “safe.”

Twenty two people are not, and sixty more are physically wounded.  The psychological wounds for others who were there, for the emergency services, and for others further afield (loved ones, friends) will take time to be obvious, longer still to heal (if they ever do).

Already the familiar patterns are kicking in.  The election campaigning suspended, the newsfeeds full.  We all know the rituals now, of a twenty-first century terror attack in the West.  The hashtags, the solemn declarations, the “Je suis” marches, the sombre faces of politicians telling us what we know, having no more to say than anyone else,  but having to fulfil that role.  We look for solace.

We will learn more of the attacker who committed this mass murder.  Arrests will be made, trials held.  Recriminations will be launched about “why wasn’t more done?”, “why wasn’t this spotted?”

We are scared. We do not want to admit – cannot admit- what we have been told;  that while there is a lot that can be done to make these massacres less likely, the risk can never be removed altogether.

This is not the first attack, it will not be the last.  And the blood banks are full already, so we wonder what solidarity looks like, how do you HELP in a situation like this?  Beyond the grieving, and the listening to the fears and terrors, and supporting those who have suffered, what is to be done?  how?

Ideas?

When you think climate change, think “dam”…. #3MT

Here’s me giving my spiel in the “Three Minute Thesis” heat at University of Manchester

Here’s the slide I used.

hoover dam3

 

And… I’m through to the Three Minute Thesis Final to be held on Wednesday June 7, between 2pm and 3:30pm in University Place Lecture Theatre A. You can register for a (free!) ticket

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/university-of-manchester-three-minute-thesis-final-2017-tickets-34791162303.

 

 

Learning by doing – it’s the only way…

Case. Study. Bloody. Research.  Still, it meant I read

Stake, R. 1995. The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage,

And on page 35-6 there is this gem-

One century ago, philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey argued that science was not moving in the direction not helping humans understand themselves:
Only from his actions, his fixed utterances, his effects upon others, can man learn about himself; thus he learns to know himself only by the round-about way of understanding. What we once were , how we developed and became what we are, we learn from the way in which we acted, the plans which we once adopted, the way in which we made ourselves felt in our vocation, from old dead letters, from judgments on which were spoken long ago… We understand ourselves and others only when we transfer our lived experience into every kind of expression of our own and other people’s lives.

 

Which puts me in mind of Jason Bourne in the second Bourne movie (The Bourne Supremacy) – while he is Goa, static, the memories are not coming clearly. Only when he moves do things begin to unlock…. (Compare Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – can only shoot well when moving…)

Constant craving- of liberty, independence and the State…

Researching my thesis/an article-I-want-to-submit somewhere, I got interested (i.e. briefly stuck my head down a rabbit hole) in the question on the use and abuse of metaphor in political theory.  Via inter-library loan, got hold of this-

Ankersmit, F. 1993. Metaphor in Political Theory. In Ankersmit  F. and Mooij, J. Knowledge and Language Vol III. Metaphor and Knowledge. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

And this quote told me lots. You too perhaps?

“And if we decide to follow the former path the first political philosopher likely to be of help is Benjamin Constant. For Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) not only gave us the first but also the clearest definition of the concepts of the State and of civil society. Moreover, as we shall see, his writings contain a surprising analysis of the very dialectics that we are looking for. No political philosopher has surpassed Constant’s analysis of the relation between State and civil society in depth and subtlety. The fact that in both his personal and public life Constant had an almost neurotic obsession with all the problems this relation may give rise to- especially where freedom and independence are concerned – may explain the penetration of his insight and why he is still the best thinker on the subject.

The concepts that do most of the work for Constant are the concepts of freedom and independence. The latter is perhaps the more important of the two since it give s the right flavour to the notion of freedom and since we can also apply it, unlike freedom, to institutional spheres like the State and civil society. The central role in freedom and independence (or freedom as independence)  in Constant’s political philosophy is already exemplified by his definition of the State and civil society in terms of freedom and independence.  In contrast to Constant, modern writers on State and civil society do not make the notions of State and civil society conceptually dependent on other notions and that may partly explain their helplessness. This conceptual relation is defined by Constant in the following way. In his treatise on the contrast between ancient and modern liberty, in which all th threads of Constant’s political philosophy are adroitly woven together into one powerful intellectual texture, Constant pointed out that ancient liberty or what we now call ‘political liberty’ consisted in the citizen’s right to participate in the process of policy-making. Modern or ‘civil liberty’, on the other hand, is the freedom of the citizen from immixture of the State in his affairs –it thus is primarily an independence from the State.  Ancient or political liberty is best suited to the small state of the classical polis, whereas modern or civil liberty is required for the large States of modern Europe….”
(Ankersmit, 1993: 177)

Turns out he was born in Lausanne. Small world…

Obama, Trump, Omar, Levy. The game…

I am no fan of Trump, obvs.  But this emoluments thing, about him crassly (and everything about the Donald is crass) enriching his family and business through the POTUS gig.  Everyone is losing their shit about it, but when Obama gets a gig to give a speech for 400k for it people were slightly less bothered.

If I were a Trump supporter, I’d call that hypocrisy, and if I were a Trump supporter who loved The Wire I’d be pointing to a scene which involved Obama’s favourite character – Omar, who steals from drug dealers.  Omar is in court, giving evidence against a drug dealer on a murder charge. The dealer’s lawyer, Levy, who is in a retainer from the Barksdale gang, is cross-examining Omar.

Levy: You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade.  You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite, who leeches off..

Omar:  Just like you man

Levy:  Excuse me? What?

Omar: I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though right?

Baffled, Levy looks at the judge, who shrugs.

 

Yeah, I know it’s an order of magnitude, and Obama has had the ‘decency’ to wait until after he left office. I am not a Trump supporter, and I know there is a difference.  But what I am saying is, if I WERE a Trump supporter, I’d not be seeing a very big difference….

Retching wretchedly in the datasmog

Long-time case researcher Harry Wolcott wrote in his manual (1990).

The critical task in qualitative research is not to accumulate all the data you can, but to “can” (i.e. get rid of) most of the data you accumulate. This requires constant winnowing. The trick is to discover essences and then to reveal those essences with sufficient context, yet not become mired trying to include everything that might possibly be described. Audiotapes, videotapes, and now computer capabilities entreat us to do just the opposite; they have gargantuan appetites and stomachs. Because we can accommodate ever-increasing quantities of data – mountains of it – we have to be careful not to get buried by avalanches of our own making.

Stake, R. 1995. The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage. (p 84)

Wolcott, H. 1990. Writing Up Qualitative Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

2019:  How the #climate activists blew it, again #debacle #doomed

Imagine it’s 2019.  Imagine that “climate activists” get the perfect conditions handed to them on a plate.  What would happen?

 

Sometimes Mother Nature gives climate change activists a boost. She tried in the summer of 1988. She tried again in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina bulls-eyed New Orleans.  She tried again in the long hot summer of 2019.

The Indian heatwave saw thermometers bump up to 48 degrees on four occasions during a two week period.  The power system buckled, and only those who could afford generators and ever-more expensive fuel could afford air-conditioning. Pictures of overflowing mortuaries – stuffed with the old, the young, the poor –  and mass graves in major cities around the sub-continent were beamed around the world.  Social media hashtags proliferated, and protest events about Western indifference and the slowness of relief efforts were held in cities with significant Indian populations around the globe.

Just as that was becoming old news, a pall of smog hung over China’s capital (that’s what you get when you melt the Arctic). Millions of middle-class Chinese people, fearful for the health of their child (or more rarely children), were not fooled by official declarations that – after four days of warnings to stay indoors – that it had suddenly become safe to go outside. The twitter feed of the monitoring equipment on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing was endlessly reshared and reposted. The 50 cent army failed to distract people, and the real army was on standby, and but nobody quite knew if it would, or could be called upon to repeat its show of force of 1989.

Meanwhile in Russia, in an eerie repeat of 2010 , fires surrounded Moscow, and wheat exports were again banned.  Globally, food prices surged, with devastating impacts on the poorest.

Closer to home, a freak tidal surge hit Norfolk, leaving 8 dead and thousands homeless. (Sadly European Union reconstruction funds were not going to be available). Although the surge had nothing to do with the other events, it added to the growing sense of panic and despair.

In response to that disaster, the Prime Minister exuded gravitas, flew over the damaged areas in a helicopter and said all the right words.  This backfired spectacularly when a conversation about climate change activists being “opportunistic luddites and crazies” leaked to the media, thanks to a microphone being left on.

All that got people agitated.  But “shit got real” when David Attenborough did everyone a huge favour. He died.

And then the video turned up.

He’d made it at some point in 2017, when he knew that the end was near. It was short, sharp, beautifully made, of course.  In it, over a montage of his documentaries, he delivered a simple, powerful message in his inimitable and adored voice, which was at times frail, but always clear.  He asked anyone who had enjoyed his documentaries (and that was pretty much every man woman and child in the UK, let alone the rest of the world) to start taking climate change seriously.

It was not a problem that could be ignored any longer.  It was not a problem that could be left to politicians and international gatherings. It was, he said “not about what is happening internationally, or even nationally. It is about what your local council is – or isn’t doing. It is about what your church, mosque, sports club is doing.   You must get involved, you must stay involved. This is the fight of our species’ life.”

The video almost broke the internet. It was reposted, tweeted, shared, mashed-up, translated, beamed against parliament buildings everywhere.  It took off in a way that left even social media ‘experts’ speechless. Efforts by climate deniers to point to Attenborough’s lifetime carbon footprint elicited ridicule and contempt.

The rest of this article is about what happened next – what the state did, what the corporate sector  did, and most of all how the environment movement blew it again, for the last time.  There are some words about ‘what we could have done differently’ at the end, but my heart isn’t in it.  This is only going to play out one way.

State responses

The responses of states were the standard, and not always subtle, mix of soothing blandishments, co-optation of repression. New taskforces sprang up, inquiries were promised, ministers reshuffled.  Meetings of serious-sounding –acronym groups (“COBRA,”   anyone?) were held.  Action (as yet unspecified) would be taken.  International gatherings were scheduled, made up of chief scientific advisors and stern-faced ministers.  Loose talk about geo-engineering as a regrettable necessity started to get picked up by the news media, which was in an economic death-spiral of its own.   Penalties for “interfering” with “critical national infrastructure” were given a quiet boost.

Local authorities and city governments pointed to various token climate strategies that were adopted during the last upsurge in 2008-2010, and then left to rot. They hosted tedious self-congratulatory and defensive top-down meetings, and invited various tame-able movement ‘leaders’ to be part of ‘environmental advisory panels’, while shifting the blame and attention to the national government, and shifting the topic from impending ecological debacle to the safer ground of rubbish collection and pot holes.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

The corporate sector

The corporate sector called upon governments to ‘set the policy framework’ (never mind that they had diligently undermined all previous attempts). We cannot damage the profitability of our own company/industry they would say, since jobs would merely be exported to countries with less stringent standards.

Old front groups were dusted off and rebooted, new ones formed. Advertising campaigns showed branded bottled water being dropped on parched and suitably grateful Indians. Earth Hour was rebooted, and turned from an annual ‘event’ into a monthly one. Anxious and guilt-ridden consumers suddenly had dozens of feel-good/‘do-your-bit-for-nature’ products to choose from, and books, websites, glossy newspaper supplements and gurus to tell them how to shop for a better planet.

CEOs bought up more land in New Zealand, and worried about how to get to it when it all suddenly went horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

 

Civil society

Academics wrote papers about the socio-technical transitions, the  anthropocenecapitolocene and cthlulocene,  which were read by literally dozens of ordinary people all around the world.

The bank accounts of the think-tanks and industry trade associations swelled in synchronicity with the Indian graves, and their well-drilled drones filled the screens and airwaves, explaining that if anything was to be done, it could only be done on market principles.

Religious groups saw a serious uptick in attendances, as people began to make Pascal’s Wager.

The big “green” movement organisations could barely believe their luck. Their coffers full, they would hire lots of “campaign organisers” and tussle over who would dominate a new umbrella organisation “Stop Saying Yes to Climate Chaos”.

They held big meetings around the country, each a panel with a scientist, a politician and a celebrity, all based on the “information deficit model,” with sages on the stage stoking fears.  Attendees were urged to give their emails and money. The mis-named “question and answer” sessions which followed these talks were dominated by those most anxious and most ‘knowledgeable’.  Numbers were great, but follow-up meetings were ever-more sparsely attended.

Marches were planned and held, with the specific of David Attenborough’s plea that people take action locally lost in the more familiar “we must show world leaders that we care” message. Papers were sold. Protesters were pepper-sprayed.  Splits, hidden in the first honeymoon months, emerged, between the “Change the System from Withins” and the “Global Revolution Nows.”  Groups fought for their part of the global problem to be top of the shopping list of demands.

Some activists stormed runways and power stations, and were jailed for their sins. This, combined with well-placed articles and websites gently remind activists that the last time direct action had been tried, the movement was riddled with well-placed deep cover spies, helped keep radical action to a minimum. Who wants to run a very high risk of serious jail time when there might only be a few ‘good years’ left?

And nine months later, all that energy and concern?  Gone like a fist when you open your palm.

 

Why was it so?

The social movements had dreamt of this ‘wake-up’ moment, but they had never bothered to prepare for it.  The skills required – the ability to retain new members, to broaden out beyond stale but comforting repertoires of meetings, marches and the ‘emotacycle,’ to acquire new skills and make sure there were no single-points of failure – were never selected for, in the Darwinian sense. Social movements had low expectations, and were able to avoid awkward questions the ‘absorptive capacity’.

So when the moment came, when the great ‘awakening’ happened, these organisations were simply not able to retain the hordes of people who came to them, were not able to co-ordinate with other groups to provoke a long-term, sustained pressure building, not able to counter the tried and tested methods that the state and corporate actors had at their disposal

In their own defence, the movement organisations pointed out that this wave of concern about global apocalypse had been different from the previous ones, from 1970 to 1973, 1988 to 1992, and 2006 to 2009. In each of those cases scientists could be found who would say “if we act now, things will be okay”.  By 2019, that had morphed into “if we act now, and we are really lucky, then we may avoid the very nastiest of the impacts.” Hope was in short supply.

But after the pulse of activity died, many activists turned at each other, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears, in sympathy and said “that’s it.  There’s no point any more.”
They were right.

 

What would need to be done differently? 

Well, first, get a time machine…

Second, think maybe about running this above as a scenario planning exercise for your group. Not because it will unfold like this – of course it bloody won’t, but scenarios are not predictions, they are thinking and doing tools.  What ways is your group likely to fail?  What can you do to lessen the likelihood of that particular kind of failure now?

Third, from this as a planning exercise, think about how many skills today’s activists need – in terms of meeting design, facilitation, keeping ‘newbies’ and returnees- maintaining connections and everyone’s morale, identifying the skills and knowledge that exist in a group (and its bottlenecks) and how to plug those, choosing winnable targets, and figuring out how to not be bought off, ploughed under or burn out.

Or you could just shut it all out and follow the Pulp Protocol – “dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do.”

Neoliberalisms: Combative, Normative and Punitive

Neoliberalism, eh?  That handy catch-all insult that helps mainstream liberals not say “capitalism”, that helps radicals not have to think very hard about how to think or communicate.  Nota bene, I am not saying it is not real, that it does not matter, that there is not a usefulness to the term.  Just that we tend to use it very lazily.

That point is one among many very well made in an extraordinary (in a good way) piece in the New Left Review Sept/Oct 2016, called – wait for it – The New Neoliberalism.

The author, William Davies silkily moves from an anecdote of Yanis Varoufakis (that bald Greek Finance Minister guy the Guardian drools over) to the Artist Taxi Driver and on to Ludwig Van Mises.  Some Carl Schmitt, Tony Gramsci, Maggie Thatcher. And so on.

The take home is this:

  • 1979-1989 – Combative Neoliberalism (smash dem unions, colonise hope)
  • 1990-2008 – Normative Neoliberalism (imagine that grinning warmonger saying ‘we’re all meritocrats now’)
  • 2008 – 20?? Punitive Neoliberalism (‘this thing of darkness, I do not acknowledge mine’), when people who have heart attacks on their way to the benefits office get sanctioned for non-attendance…

It is a very cogent heuristic, which I want to remember (thus this post), and merits further thought.

What’s missing from the article?

  • From the past: the use of the ’60s rhetoric of individuality as part of the cultural battering ram, as per Boltanski and Chiapello.
  • From the present (i.e. his assessment of why this is happening –  “Yet somehow this increases the urge to punish them further).  We’ll, there’s probably some narcissistic rage  going on, at the lack of adulation from the masses?  Hegel would say the master doesn’t like the lack of a (proper) slave.  And fear, there is always fear. Of the pitchforks, of the future.  That’s how this breed of hominid rolls…
  • From the future: the rise of the surveillance capitalism, the bots, the pending ecological debacles as game changers.

But as I am learning, no single article can (or should try) to deal with everything.  This is a corker. Read it now.