The article first explains the emotacyle and its four phases, then what its consequences are. Given that these are (on the whole) negative, the obvious question ‘why does it persist?’ is next addressed. Finally, the all-important ‘What is to be Done?’ question receives a response, albeit an anemic and incomplete one.
What is the emotacycle? its stages/phases
The best definition I can come up with at present for the emotacycle is this: a sequence of relatively predictable events and decisions by social movement actors (individual and group) to engage in ritualistic and familiar actions (marches, protests, camps) that allow for the performance/release/management of certain kinds of emotions, regardless of whether they ultimately achieve the stated goals of the individuals and groups.
A triplet of disclaimers first.
- Firstly, I do not claim that this pattern fits all countries at all times. I am not playing Donna Haraway’s God trick. My ambition extends no further than the UK in the last 25 years. That said, when I have described the emotacycle to people from other countries, they tend to instantly get it.
- Secondly, if you’re going to respond to this with claims that I am ‘burnt out’ or ‘too cynical’, please save your breath/electrons. Play the argument, not the man, ‘kay?
- Finally, I am not a sociopath (as far as I know). I do understand – and even celebrate – the importance of emotions in getting anything done (or indeed seeing the world as it is). I am simply saying that while emotions can be a very useful servant, they tend to be a lousy master, taking you to all sorts of bad places, dead ends.
Let’s start with “the orgasm”.
Months in the making, with countless hours spent planning, exhorting, negotiating, arranging (and arraignments), training, explaining, the Event (be it an occupation, a camp, a march, whatever) is finally here. Thousands/tens of thousands/hundreds of thousands turn up (for the real number, you’re best of halving the estimate of the organisers, and doubling the estimate of the police: that should give you a pretty narrow band).
Everyone is out in force, with clever placards, chants and slogans. There is a sense of punching through the enforced-by-the-state-and-media silences and silencings. What the sociologists of religion call ‘collective effervescence’ is all around, what historian William McNeill called ‘muscular bonding’ – people doing the same thing at the same time, rare in our atomised world – gives a much needed sense of belonging, of being right. Paper-sellers display their virtue by selling papers, those who want to get arrested have the opportunity to do so. Everyone is, well, happy. That’s not to be sniffed at. Happiness, for anyone who reads the newspaper or has a Twitter feed, is in short supply (but Capitalism will provide you with anti-depressants, for a price).
This moment is, of course, fleeting (though is afterwards turned from four days into a week, or from six days into a fortnight: you should have seen the one that got away…). And after the orgasm cometh the grump: the period of sadness, le petit mort. There will inevitably be disappointments: banners captured by the police, never to reappear, disappointing numbers of papers sold, the lack of being arrested or the surprising brutality and inadequately supported-ness of it. There will be recriminations about the media doing what the media does (ignoring, distorting, silencing, sensationalising, deriding), about the mainstream NGOs hijacking/watering down. What was it all for, ask those who had poured their hearts and souls into self-seduction, into believing that this was a step on the path to the New Jerusalem?
While some head for the exits, the more committed, the more embedded (in affinity groups, teams, groups, groupuscules, sects) dust themselves off and ask’ what next?’ And while some might be suggesting localising, making better connections with people and groups who were not at the last orgasm (and even asking why they weren’t there), others will want to repeat the experience. There’s usually not much of a sensible debate. A future Important Date is found, agreed (by mysterious processes), and months in the making, with countless hours spent planning, exhorting, negotiating, arranging (and arraignments), training, explaining
The “feeder events”
There are to be feeder events (in Quaker halls and social centres) where guest speakers are brought in, but the key message is that the most important thing anyone can do is to get ready for the Orgasm, to be held at a not-too-distant date, in Another Place – i.e. the capital city. Even previously stand-alone ventures, that were proposed as opportunities for local capacity and coalition- building, are retro-engineered into being feeder events.
And finally the Event (be it an occupation, a camp, a march, whatever) is finally here…
Now, if the next Event is bigger (which automatically means better) than the last, then this cycle will continue. But sooner or later – for reasons of state or reasons of the media’s attention shifting, or organisational schism and exhaustion, the next one won’t be, and then the air rapidly leaks out of the dirigible, or it flames out like the Hindenburg…
What are its consequences?
Emotacycles are not so bad for getting an issue onto the policy agenda (hello Extinction Rebellion), or expressing dissatisfaction with a war (why aren’t Blair and Bush in chokey, for like, ever?). They might even create enough pressure for a new policy to get passed (the ur-case being the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US).
- Some movement “stars” are born, and get media or NGO careers,
- With the extra philanthrapocash sloshing around, existing NGOs grow, or new ones form.
- The whole process provides an easy hook for journalists and historians.
But such a process often distracts and exhausts local groups, leaving them with few allies and relationships because they have spent all their limited time, energy, bandwidth on doing logistics for the next emotacycle.
For people who aren’t into taking part in these (because they have kids, sick parents, zero-hour contracts, no cash, a fear of getting arrested, a physical disability etc), their need for other legitimate and celebrated ways to be involved are ignored (or, more charitably, deferred – endlessly deferred).
For those watching from afar, curious about whether to get involved, what they see is a group of hyper-committed people doing lots of virtue-signalling, while ignoring the local.
Why does it persist?
So the obvious question is – if it is as bad as all that, surely it wouldn’t persist? (well, no – evolutionist fallacy of perfectibility, but I digress).
This is where I will lose some readers, who will accuse me of gross cynicism – but, you know, I have no fucks left to give. The emotacycle meets psychological needs – it gives a sense of momentum, but also provides easy, predictable ways to earn status tokens within the particular movement sub-culture(s) with which you identify.
Beyond these simple (simplistic and reductive) psychologisings, this: It’s difficult to innovate, especially when the alternatives seem alien to passersby, and they lack adrenaline, testosterone and being able to see yourself in the Mirror (or the Guardian). Machiavelli said it best –
The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.
Individuals and organisations, understandably, stick to what they know, what they think they are good at. The Cargo Cult of marching and emoting continues
What could be done about it?
To be honest, probably not much. Too many needs are being met, too much inertia is in play, from a socio-material point of view, for any transruptive breakthroughs. Below are the behaviours I engage (indulge?) in..
- Call it when you see it, and maybe hand out this sheet that explains the emotacycle in simple terms. (link to two pages of A4)
- Refuse to participate in it
- Participate in other, better things. If other, better things don’t exist in your town or city, well, get to work? Good luck!
About the author
Marc Hudson hasn’t been on a march, a camp or to anything else more than 1km distant from where he happens to work/live that had a predicted emotacycle score of more than about 4 out of 10 for many years. What, with climate breakdown upon us, life really is, literally, too short.