In July 2019 I will present a paper at an academic conference entitled “Political Emotions.” The abstract is below. I’m posting a very first draft/series of thoughts in the hope that I can stea… sorry, borrow, insights from smart people. Let me know what you think of the emotacycle concept, the details. What’s missing, what’s wrong, what are some examples of it? And, crucially, (how) might it be useful to activists, how would it need to be presented to “them.” (At the moment it is written in first person. I may keep that, I may dump it. Who knows).
TITLE: “Riding the Emotacycle off a cliff”- of (climate) activism, emotional management and eternal return.
Abstract: Thinking people are prone to despair. They join movements and movement organisations to change the world, but also to “manage” that despair. In this paper, an identifiable cycle of emotional peaks and troughs, partially under movement control, is identified. This “emotacycle” has four phases- the Big Event (a march, rally, camp) at which positive emotions (hope, optimism, affiliation) are performed and displayed; the aftermath, where disappointment and despair are contained; the Re-evaluation, where “next steps” are mooted; and Feeder Events building with optimism towards the next Big Event.
The article, based on personal experience, observation and interviews, will outline some of the psycho-social dynamics within each phase, the movement between phases, and – crucially – the efforts to move social movement organisations towards more effective styles of behaviour, and outline a research agenda for scholar activists and activist scholars.
Keywords: Political Emotions, activism, smugosphere, cliques
It is now over thirty years since the general public were made aware of climate change (n.b. the threat of anthropogenic global warming had been at least mentioned in specialist publications for almost 20 years before that, and the oil industry was keeping tabs from the 1960s). So, now is a good time to examine the reasons for the failure of social movements to sustain concerted radical pressure on elites and force a societal (indeed, socio-technical) transition.
Of course, climate change is a particularly hard issue to address, since there has been no “easy” substitute for fossil fuels in the same way that there was for the other atmospheric culprit of the 1970s-80s, ozone-destroying chlorofluorachlorines. And “our” (1) enormous ‘Great Acceleration” of (economic) wealth since the 1950s.
I became aware of climate change during that period (having been sensitised to environmental considerations through a mix of biographical experiences and a love of classic-era Doctor Who). By 1991 at the latest I was pretty sure we (as a species) were in deep shit and very very unlikely to get out of it. Nothing these last thirty years has changed that view.
I have lived in the UK for nearly 25 years now, and I’ve seen waves of activity around “the environment” come and go. I’ve participated in a couple of them. At the same time, I’ve looted (and I used the word in the sense of grabbing things without quite knowing what they are worth and then pegging it) ideas about issue attention cycles and social movement studies (mostly crap, imo) and so on. And I’ve reflected on the comings and goings of these waves of activity, what happens within them, between them. And I have written A LOT, and coined (too) many neologisms. Two that particularly stand out are the smugosphere and the emotacycle. They are connected in a non-determinate (I think) way. The smugosphere is the place where things are done not because they might be effective but because they meet the emotional/status needs of those (individuals or groups/organisations) who do them. If a student doesn’t study for their exams, they get robust feedback. If an athlete doesn’t train for the tournament/match, there is robust feedback they can’t explain away. If politicians don’t knock on doors, kiss babies and do what Rupert tells them… you get the idea. In most fields of human activity there is a link between effort/innovation and outcomes. Except in climate activism. “Activists” don’t generally get text messages from angry polar bears saying “your marches/petitions/camps have achieved nothing, thanks” or a voicemail from a child born in 2030 saying similar. And in the absence of feedback, people tend to keep doing what they’re “good” at, what gives them importance in their tribe, what helps them sleep at night. And the big wheel keeps on turning.
The idea has had an, ah, mixed reception. It turns out people don’t like being accused of smugness. Who knew, eh?
This article is not about the smugosphere directly, though it lurks in the background. This article is about a related concept – the emotacycle. I suppose the smugosphere is the “spatial” aspect (can I have a Geography post-doc now please) and the emotacycle is the temporal aspect. Put them together and you have a part of the explanation about the internal dynamics that keep “civil society” (my goodness I hate that term) where it is, at least on climate change.
I got thinking about the emotions of climate change activism in 2006 (a big year for me). In mid-2006 I was in a squat in London. I’d convinced myself that the reason the numbers at previous monthly meetings of the Climate Camp had been static was that we weren’t in London. But the London meeting was no bigger than those held in the provinces. When I pointed this out, and my puzzlement over it, to an activist friend, he was not surprised. “No smell of victory” he said, meaning that you could imagine “winning” by stopping a road being built, or by stopping genetically modified food hitting the supermarket shelves. But climate change? No, if you thought about it for a few minutes, you knew you were on a hiding to nothing. It may be that there was never a path to victory, that the power of inertia and denial (in the fullest sense) was too strong. But that doesn’t, I think, mean, that we should ignore the emotacycle.
So, what is the emotacycle? It’s the cycle of emotions that are facilitated/enabled/demanded by groups/organisations which mobilise (as distinct from movement-building) around an issue (in this case climate change, but I’ve seen it on other topics, and would be very interested to know how transferable/generalizable readers think it is.
I first came up with it back in 2011/2, when I was co-editing Manchester Climate Monthly. Then I called it the emotathon, to highlight its persistence/duration (as in marathon). I think that was a mistake, and so changed to emotacycle, which also allows me to riff on the wondrous song “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Manic Street Preachers.
The following figure (Fig. 1) lays it out. There’s a Big Event where people emote. This is followed by the come down, the re-creating of a sense of possibility, the proposal of a another Big Event which must be fed with “Feeder Events.”
As long as the Big Events are bigger than the last one (or a failure to grow can plausibly be explained away, then the forward momentum can disguise the fact that many people are either dropping out after one or two meetings, or after one or two years. When though, the bubble bursts, then it all disappears (to mix a metaphor) like a fist when you open your palm.
It’s captured by this observation from – of all people – Hunter S. Thompson, speaking of the feeling in the mid- 1960s from the vantage point of 1971.
“that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The article proceeds as follows. Firstly it explains the relatively novel methodology, in which I write an exploratory article and publish it on my website (this what you are reading). Secondly, I will approach various individuals and conducted a one-to-one interviews Finally, I will conduct two semi-structured discussions groups, one in Manchester and one in Adelaide, Australia. .
Secondly, drawing on interview and focus group material it describes the “emotacycle” and its four phases in detail.
A discussion of the possible utility of the concept to activists follows, and what they might do to overcome the emotacycle. This is followed by pointers to the weaknesses in the model and a future study agenda.
- Listen to feedback (if any) on this blog post/exploratory article.
- One-to-one interviews with activists I respect who are reflective (these people do exist). Discussion groups. Reflection and some re-reading of brilliant work on activism (Debbie Louis, Kathleen Blee).
- Yeah. That sort of thing.
- Watch Milk?!
- PROBABLY SHOULD LOOK AT COMPETING THEORIES OF EMOTIONS AND MOBILISATION IN SOC MOVEMENT THEORY…
The Emotacycle and its dynamics
So, this section looks more closely at the four phases within the emotacycle, examining what emotions are allowed/encouraged/discouraged at various stages – the psycho-social dynamics – and the passage between the phases.
- The Big Event (a march, rally, camp)
This event, usually lasting a few hours or at most a few days (the politics of long-running protests camps/blockades etc are outside the experience of the author, and the scope of this article) are the focus here. The predominant emotions encouraged are positive ones (hope, optimism, affiliation) are A big even allows these to be performed and displayed, both by and for the performer. These will be mixed with excitement and fear (Rathbone quote from Eurokillers)
While these big events are getting bigger, you can, if you squint say with conviction that “we are winning” ( a cynic would say that people are sucking on the hopium pipe, staying in a comforting hallucination, as so many second-rate sci-fi tropes would have it).
I suspect (but cannot prove) that there is a “re-enacment fallacy” going on here, that people are expecting to follow the script of the last “successful” mass struggle that people will have been exposed to (there have of course been others, but they are less well known). And that’s the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington (where MLK gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Here’s Noam Chomsky [quoted in Manufacturing Consent] on this phenomenon –
The way things change is because lots of people are working all the time, and they’re working in their communities or their workplace or wherever they happen to be, and they’re building up the basis for popular movements. In the history books, there’s a couple of leaders, you know, George Washington or Martin Luther King, or whatever, and I don’t want to say that those people are unimportant. Martin Luther King was certainly important, but he was not the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King can appear in the history books ‘cause lots of people whose names you will never know, and whose names are all forgotten and who may have been killed and so on were working down in the South.
So (controversially), with no disrespect to the many many people who risked their lives (and some lost their lives) in that struggle, I’d like to say that we’ve turned it into a cargo cult.
Cargo cult you say? What they, you say? Well, during World War 2, “primitive” peoples living on the South Pacific Islands saw American soldiers arrive with coke and chewing gum and want some of that. They know there are planes involved. But they go away… so what do they do? They make bamboo planes to ask the gods to bring the coke and chewing gum back. Oh how we laugh at them. While being identical. We want the energy, clarity, connection and courage of the Black Civil Rights Movement. We know that there was some big marches (MLK I have a dream). So… we have marches. It’s grotesque magical thinking.
So, this is a long quote below, from a fantastic novel called Mud, by Nicky Edwards. It’s about a disillusioned activist who is explaining her perspective on the Greenham Common Peace Camp actions to a much older woman (Ada).
“OK. Once upon a time there was this big day out at a peace camp, when Janet and Janet and some Johns, but mainly thirty thousand or so Janets went and held hands and sang songs and generally had a good time.”
“…. Lots of adventures for the Janets. But time passes, until it’s a year after that first day out in the country, which so many of our heroines found so inspiring. Almost exactly a year to the day…. Well, our particularly Janet is there, of course, older and a bit more battered and generally fed up to the back teeth with being pushed around in the good cause that has brought everyone out in their thermal underwear again.”
“But still she went.”
“Couldn’t miss it really. Big day out, lots of women there, sense of obligation, not wanting to be left out. All sorts of things.”
“And how was it different from the first time?” Ada was really quite good at this cross-examining business.
“In many ways, not at all. Same thousands of women milling around, looking pretty similar, singing the same song. Same mud, same camera crews, same tail-back of coaches with posters in the windows jamming the Basingstoke road. More police helicopters, more barbed wire, more soldiers and watchtowers and floodlights and guns in evidence. More crackle of walkie-talkies filling up every bit of the airwaves, even the ones the Janets were trying to sing in. But a lot of the same looks on their faces. Untroubled.”
“Like I said, our particular Janet was wandering around feeling rather jaded, and wondering why they all thought the nastiness would go away because they’d turned out in such numbers to be nice all round it, when they’d done the same thing last year and not changed it for the better.”
Ada tutted gently to herself. Not sure how to interpret the noise, I carried on.
“And, of course, Janet felt guilty for being so cynical and making comparisons with the way she always got taken to midnight mass when she went home for Christmas, a pleasant and colourful, but fairly pointless annual ritual.”
“Sounds a proper shambles.”
“It was.” I chewed the end of a match reflectively. “And because there’s no mechanism for anyone to have less than a wonderful inspiring time on a big day out like that, there were all these women left thinking that the kind of chaotic scrum they’d just been involved in was what you were meant to do there, and suffering from guilt that they didn’t come away feeling good about it. Trying to convince themselves that they did feel good about it.”
So, this is what the Big Event does for the people who can participate. Those who can’t? Well, they’ left to answer the Oasis question (“Where were you while we were getting high?”).
Move to next phase
The positive feeling here can of course create affiliations, connections between people, but mostly between people who are already on the same page – it’s bonding capital more than bridging capital, to use more terminology that I hate.
2. The aftermath, where disappointment and despair are contained;
Of course, the Big Event fades, memory fades, the media circus moves on. And if numbers were not as high as the organisers had hoped, then there is emotional work to be done to reframe the event as a “success”. And if people have been left injured- physically or psychologically – by confrontation with opponents (state, corporate or civil society) then there are feelings of anger and uncertainty as well as disappointment and despair which need containing, (explaining away?) and managing. However, everyone is so exhausted that, in my limited experience, that kind of work is either not performed at all or done very badly and haphazardly.
The main difficulty, psycho-socially, is that people want to remember the Big Event fondly, and all these awkward questions make that harder (or even impossible) to do. So, sweep under carpet…
I suspect a bunch of people who might otherwise stay involved give up at this point, which – if it gets to a certain number – can cause a death spiral. It depends on local factors, media etc etc.
This refractory period, where not much is “happening”, at least on the surface is – while an emotacycle is on its way “up” relatively short, I think.
3. The Re-evaluation, where “next steps” are mooted;
Here we see a “re-gathering emotions”. Failures are explained away using the Lady Macbeth line – “screw your courage to the sticky place, and we’ll not fail!”
Those who had a good time at the Big Event are more likely to have stuck around, and they want to recapture that elusive feeling of being on the road to victory. They know how to organise (or at least participate in) a Big Event, and so when the “what to do next?” question is posed, they are well-placed and well-motivated to suggest More of the Same – a big event at some suitably distant point (six months or so? Depends of course, on multiple factors.)
4. Feeder Events (aka the Frank N Furter manoeuvre)
So, here I think we need to go back to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Individuals/groups/movements decide that they can bury their differences and all build with optimism towards the next Big Event.
This enables people to have hope, defer pain/uncertainty and – above all – have a feeling of “progress”, gathering the flock, calling people together. It allows good opportunities for local and regional “ego-foddering” (another neologism – where those who attend meetings are turned into empty vessels to be filled with The Word. An organisation has a Message that the doubters and the ignorant Need to Hear. Nothing millenarian or eschatological about it at all, nosiree).
Again, those with doubts about how it will, in fact, be different this time are around are invited to do the Hirschman “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” – they can shut up or piss off, while everyone revels in lots of activity, very little action.
(So, I will include other people’s insights in each of these four phases (and perhaps there are more? Perhaps the whole thing is wrong-headed?)
What is is not what has to be. (aka “no future but the one we make”)
It doesn’t have to be like this of course, but we can’t just exhort ourselves to escape the emotacycle without understanding why it persists and how it can defend itself from attack.
I will tackle them both on the “individual” and the organisational level (these two imbricate, of course they do, but let’s keep it analytically simples for now).
Individuals are battling – if they understand the climate science – sheer terror. And when we are scared we tend to do what those around us are doing (for better or worse – over-reacting or under-reacting). And if everyone is going on marches and calling that activism, then so be it. Rather than think about what particular skills they have, what skills they could cultivate, people are invited to see themselves as fodder for organisations.
Mostly, rather than doing long-term, non-co-opted, boring/un-adrenaliney grunt work (a walk on part in the war) it’s easier (and more socially acceptable) to swap that for a lead role in the cage. So it goes.
Ultimately, participation in the emotacycle works as a selection pressure against those who do not have spare time, cash, hope. Who has the time to go to feeder events and then the Big Event. Or, they go to the Big Event and call that activism, call that their ‘duty’. Ultimately, this way of organising means that the ghetto is sustained
Organisationally, well, if your group is good at “doing” marches (booking coaches, printing placards etc), then that is what you are going to keep doing, isn’t it? And turning people into ego-fodder and forcing them into the emotacycle is EASIER, requires less courage, less imagination, less skill. And so it persists. Not to be determinist or anything.
If you name this, expect to be shouted down as “opposed to activism”. Expect to be sneeringly asked “well, what’s your alternative” and then be interrupted as you try to explain it. Expect to be resisted by those who see your criticism as a personal reproach for the decades they wasted, the “human resources” they have let slip through their hands from the endless enaction of the emotacycle.
Ultimately, this may be beyond the grasp of some people. Socio-dynamics tend to be poorly understood, or ignored or repressed. We have need of the liberal myth that we are atoms bouncing off each other.
I also don’t want to say that the only reason social movements have failed to “win” on climate change is the emotacycle/smugosphere. That would be to ignore the active efforts to keep us stupid (agnotology) divided (Agent provocateurs and ‘sheep and goats’ strategy) and stuck in old patterns (o-optation, undercovers making sure we are never, you know, effective.)
Research agenda for scholar activists and activist scholars
At the moment all I have is this –
- What are we trying to find out?
- For who?
- How would we communicate our findings (given the knowledge that calling people smug tends to have them plug up their ears, and talking about the psycho-social dynamics of emotions in movement cycles might have the same outcome).
- What and how might we learn from history?