This time it’s different? Of #climatebreakdown, issue attention cycles, social movements and other natural disasters….

Lunch with a smart friend with whom I often disagree (politiely).

This time it is different, maybe, he says (in response to my point that we’ve known about the essential unsustainability of techno-accelerationist consumerism since the late 1960s  – Earth Day, The Limits to Growth, Blueprint for Survival in 1970, 1972 and 1972: I can find you other doom-laden prognostications too  – and yet the moment of awareness/panic passes (is repressed, in psychoanalytic terms?).

This time it is different, perhaps, because it will no longer be possible to ignore the agonised screams of “Mother Nature” (i..e. it is middle-class white people getting affected, not just other, lesser beings and species).

So, how might the issue attention cycle NOT follow the path it has in 1969-1972, 1988-1992, 2006-2009?  (that’s a  very crude global approximation – always check your mileage).

I think you would need to see TWO things BOTH need to happen

a)  The natural disasters/extreme weather events keep on piling up and – this is crucial – start affecting the daily lives of rich people in the West.

b) the social movement organisations keep learning, growing, organising, and are able to understand that media attention is an extremely dodgy success metric, and that coalitions must be built, maintained, defended, and that the wretched emotacycle is fool’s gold. (btw, subverting, channelling, smearing, cracking and splitting social movements is the actual job description of some among us).

We will probably get a), but in the absence of b), the usual amnesias and social (de)constructivism will assert itself.

Finally, this IS NOT like the Soviet Union, which collapses “overnight” between 1985 and 1990.  They at least had an alternative “viable” system – of liberal democracy, with political parties, elections etc – to point at and say ‘hmm, we will have some of that thank you.’.  We have no roadmap, (though endless ‘roadmaps’ provided by ever-so-kind academics wanting to feel important), and (you can tell I’ve been listening to too much Dylan) no direction home.

 

The emotacycle- what it is, why it matters, what is to be done?

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.

The emotacycle

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).

The aftermath

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?

The reckoning 

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…

emotacycle

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.

Of Greta, misogyny, patriarchy, technology and shattered dreams

On Twitter right now (in my stream anyhow) people are talking about why Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin and AOC are triggering such incandescent (old, white) male rage.

I’ve written a bit about this here and here, but here’s a recap/short0version.

This, in my opinion, goes back way further than August 2018, when one Swedish girl started her solo strike.

Let’s take it back to 1945 (you could take it back hundreds of years if you like, as whip-smart eco-feminists like Carolyn Merchant have, but I promised short).

In August 1945 the “Good Guys” won. They unleashed the power of the sun, via some crazy expensive and smart scientists on two previously untouched Japanese cities. And the bombs were called? Little Boy and Fat Man.

And the next twenty years were all about how white, male, heterosexual scientists were going to control everything. Electricity would be too cheap to meter, DDT would kill all the pests etc. Holiday on the moon, jetpacks, you name it. Production Science, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, would control EVERYTHING. Women in the kitchen, queers in the closet, blacks in their place, mother nature under the thumb/in the test tube.

Then, between 1960 and 1975, all that (was) unravelled. The heroism of countless Civil Rights activists (far too few of them white, but that is another story) meant that black people could no longer be treated like fifth class citizens. Learning from those struggles and disgusted by the patriarchy and male supremacism of the ‘peace’ movement, women’s liberation activists decided fuck your kitchen. Then Stonewall…
And meanwhile, that nature that was going to be under the thumb? Er, no. Impact science began to show the damage that the industrial dreams were creating (thalidomide, Silent Spring -written by another of those damnable women – , DDT, Ozone hole, through to Seveso).

So, if you were a hetero white man, in the technostructure, your simple Great Chain of Being narrative, with you at the top, just went to hell.

Shortly after, with the post-War Keynesian consensus in tatters, the neoliberal pushback succeeded. Now the old settlement – that if you were a working class/middle-class white man, you’d have enough money to keep (interesting word) a wife and two kids on your wage – evaporated. But rather than blame our lords and masters (again, interesting phrase), it’s easier to pin the blame on the feminazis, the uppity you-know-whats, the eco-freaks.

And then, finally, there is also this. The old white men have spent thirty years denying the major consequence of all their dreams – climate change. And now, it’s kinda obvious – even, perhaps – to themselves, that they were…. gasp…. wrong.

NONE OF THIS CAN BE THEIR FAULT. Reflectiveness, humility, none of that was selected for, in the Darwinian sense, at the Darwinian schools and universities they went to.

Therefore, it must be someone else’s fault. Ideally someone young, and whose demeanour (not ‘neuro-typical’) leaves them – and they hope others – uneasy.

If Greta Thunberg, with her guts, her clarity, her humour, did not exist to enrage these [insert your favourite noun here], they’d have had to invent her.

 

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that this is an extremely US/Europe-centric view of the resistance to these things in the 1960s and 1970s (Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, etc).  Indeed yes. But I was promising to keep it short and as an ‘explanation’ for the white hot old white male rage at Greta…

Of cargo cults, social movements and accelerating transitions. #magicalthinking

Imagine tribespeople in the South Pacific. Sure, lots of trading, and contact with Europeans (good and bad).  But what happened in 1942 and 1943 must have blown their minds.  Giant white men who could fly arrived in big metal birds, with chewing gum and coca cola.  And then, as quickly as they came (with the war won), they left.

How to bring them back?  How to achieve something so far out your own experience, your own cosmology? Well, if you clear runways, and make bamboo representations of the big metal birds, perhaps this display of faith and begging would be enough to convince the gods to send back the coca-cola and the gum…

And anthropologists call these cargo cults.

Imagine ‘advanced’ people, with literacy, indoor plumbing and other markers of civilisation in, oh, England. Sure, lots of reading, and contact with the idea of ‘sustainability.’ But what was called upon them to do in 2018 and 2019 must have blown their minds. A giant need for immediate and fundamental change in not just their big metal birds, but their big metal factories, their small metal vehicles, the food on their plates, the visions of the good life (more of everything, all the time).

How to bring it about? How to achieve something so far out of experience or cosmology? Well, cast your mind back, rifle through the accepted images. Social movements … What images? What folk tales? Ah, the “I have a dream” speech, the march on Washington in 1963. (Forget – or never know- that it was contested as a time-and-energy-suck, as an ego-driven distraction by those struggling on the ground in the South, and indeed the North).)

Perhaps if we repeat this display of faith and begging, this march, it will be enough for the magical transition (or transformation – it’s a live debate), perhaps it will convince the gods to send back harmony and balance (that never really was).

And social movement scholars (okay, me) call this a cargo cult.

We are, individually and on our good days, away from the groupthink that degrades us, smarter than this. Or most of us are, or can be, at least some of the time. But rather than be better, think through what is actually required, we seem to want to cling to incantations of ridiculous precision (3.5 per cent? Really? Really??).

We seem hell-bent (interesting phrase) to be seen building ever bigger bamboo planes – that is to say, our rallies, our sages on the stages, our redolent and indolent blockades and barricades which we then recreate once “back home” (and so then alienate hundreds of potential supporters). And the smugosphere thickens, and the emotacycle rolls on…

We need to accelerate the socio-technical (or socio-material, if you will) transitions/transformations. We really do. And the evidence (from my own life, from the literature, much of it quite interesting), is that the state usually has a role to play (tough luck, anarchist dogmatists). And the power of the state (however you understand it) is probably best leveraged via decent social movements, movements that can stick around, not get co-opted, repressed, bored into oblivion. Movements that grow, learn, organise, win, grow, learn, organise….

The tl:dr – We need to act as we never have before, NOT precisely as we always have. That requires honesty, and guts. I am not hopeful, because I am not an idiot (subs, please check). But on my good days, with courageous friends, I have courage.

Trying to talk with people about (stopping) the end of the world. And failing.

Since I got back from 7 weeks and 10 tonnes of climate criminality, the same conversation – if you can call it that – has been had several times.

Here’s the dynamic of it (not obviously direct quotes, for various reasons, and a certain l’esprit d’escalier, but this is my website, so suck it up).

 

Me: Protest groups have come and gone – not at this scale on this particular issue, granted – and have a dynamic I call the emotacycle.  Tl:dr – it doesn’t last, and what is left behind is anomie, despair and unkept promises.  If we want a different result, we should probably do things differently.

Person 1: Yes, but at least we’re doing something.  You are saying we shouldn’t do anything.

Me: Really?  Really?  When did I say that?

Person 1:Look, a squirrel (scuttles off).

Person 2: Well, okay, then what’s your big idea about doing things differently?  You haven’t proposed anything.

Me: Really?  You know me.  You know that I have been writing about – and doing where possible – how to hold meetings differently, how to design events so they are not alienating to new folks, that I have been designing and holding skill-shares, talking about how we could change activist culture and expectations  etc etc etc for literally over a decade.  And you say I haven’t proposed anything.  And you expect me not to get angry at that?  Well, luckily for both of us I am not going to get angry. Not because I’ve been on anger management training (though perhaps I should) but because I am not even exasperated. I can’t take you seriously.  You know – and you know I know you know – that  I do in fact have a series of implementable proposals.  And you know that those threaten the status quo, and force today’s ‘we are winning’ crew to think differently, and they won’t – can’t?- do it.  And that all scares and frustrates you, but rather than deal with that, you simply say that I haven’t proposed anything. A convenient falsehood, instead of an inconvenient truth.

So, um, nice talking, but maybe I should be walking, ‘kay?