Of activist self-care and the need to think in systems and #Freud #Darwin etc

I attended portions of a zoom seminar this morning on “activist self-care.” Portions not because I flounced (this, as those who know me will attest, does happen) but because of technological issues and my steam-powered laptop not letting me into the break-out groups.  So my “criticism” of the seminar (which was on the whole good!) is constrained by that – maybe they got to what I want to say, but it didn’t look that way.  Here’s my two cents on what was “wrong” and what “we” (who that?) would need to put it “right” (and that, is, of course, a process not an event).

The structure of the seminar – and therefore the intelligent and compassionate contributions from those attending – was very much coming from an individual ‘coping’ strategy – the world is in a terrible state, and those who want to help unterribilise it are going to experience frustration, excessive demands (from others) and themselves.

The contributions (therefore) centred very much on ‘taking time away’, ‘having a buddy’, ‘delegating’, ‘breaking tasks down’ .  These are ALL EXCELLENT AND ALL NECESSARY.

But also very inadequate. Because many people, for whatever reasons, can’t do those things. If they could, there’d be no need for these seminars.  And in any case, there is an elephant in the room – which I mentioned in the chat function, but nobody responded to it, at least in the time I was on the call. It’s this:

There are pathological cultures and assumptions within “activism”.  Until we recognise these, talk about them, and try to do something about them, then we are stuck with “coping strategies” akin to telling victims of domestic violence – “don’t do anything to set him off.”  We need to think in systems here.

So, let’s take the eminently suggestible suggestion of ‘delegate’ as a way in to what I mean.

You could look at this from a psychoanalytic point of view (and I would recommend that as a starting point). Why DON’T people delegate? Well, when you delegate you lose control.  And in this world, control – or the illusion of control – is something most of us struggle to have.  We want to believe that we are brave, dedicated people who can rise to the challenges of being citizens in the 21st century. We know that there are many many people in far worse situations than ourselves, and we want to believe in our own power to overcome our doubts, our fears (Samuel Johnson wrote brilliantly about this in an essay called “What Have Ye Done?“)

There’s also the status issue – if you are known in your group(s) as The Person Who Does That Thing (be it the website, the lobbying, the coach-booking, the facilitating), well, delegating will lessen your status, if the delegation succeeds. And if the delegation does NOT succeed (and it often does not), your status will take a hit, as will your morale. David Rovics kinda nails it in “I’m a better anarchist than you“.

So we can’t talk about delegation, really, until we talk about the culture within most activist groups that accountability for performance, and respect for expertise, is somehow Hierarchical, Capitalistic, Oppressive, Fascistic etc.  We all know people who are able to scoot along the edges (or even near the middle) of activist groups through charisma, optimism and other forms of social capital, but who either often don’t do what they said they would, or who do it badly (either through laziness/lack of focus or because they’re not actually quite as good at something as they, or others, think they are).  And this can persist  for… (checks notes) … indefinitely because the structures of accountability and performance assessment are essentially absent in activist groups.  Until you “fix” that, only somebody who doesn’t care about their own morale or status, or the achievement of group goals, is going to delegate. Such a person is probably not really an activist, no?

Related to this – the question of breaking down a task into its component parts was suggested. YES. Good idea. But again – who is going to be the person checking in that a sub-task was actually done, in the timescale that matters, to the level required? This is going to require project management, volunteer management, time management and diplomacy skills that most of us lack most of the time, and cannot often deploy when we are tired, frustrated, etc.

Ultimately, there are few if any selection pressures (this is where the Darwin from the blogpost’s comes in).  Individuals are aware that activist groups are so low on numbers, and lack accountability mechanisms that can be activated (I hesitate to type the word ‘enforced’) that a certain amount of free-riding is inevitable.

Now, the term ‘free-riding’ is of course offensive. It suggests that the “real” reason people don’t participate fully is that they have made a deliberate calculation that they will be able to get away with not doing what they are supposed to while still getting the benefits (of being in a group). In the vast majority of cases, I think, the reasons for under/non-performance are to be found in the group culture (lack of mentoring, lack of a specific job description, fear of outshining others etc) rather than in cold calculation.


So, unless groups are able to ask the following questions of themselves, and provide real answers, then the individual-coping-mechanisms stuff, while necessary, is ultimately totally insufficient.

  • Does our group have a clear sense of what its mission is in the next few months?
  • Is this mission realistic? (This can only be known when you know what resources – skills, knowledge, relationships, stability – your group has. Most groups don’t know this, so cannot answer this question!)
  • What are the mechanisms by which our group measures whether any given task is being done effectively and efficiently?
  • What are the support mechanisms in the group to help people who are struggling with the promise-delivery issue?
  • Can these mechanisms be accessed by everyone, or are they really only available to the popular people in the group?
  • What are the accountability mechanisms for dealing with persistent cases of under/non-performance (no, not an accusatory Star Chamber, an exercising in one-upmanship. But at some point, if someone is consistently not delivering and it is hurting the momentum, morale and credibility of the group, failure to take action is actually a decision to fail.)
  • What collective resilience,  collective morale maintenance mechanisms are in place for this group?  (this does NOT mean compulsory singalongs).


For what it is worth, the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester – is developing or has developed answers to many of these questions. We’re working on an “Active Citizenship Toolkit” to help ourselves and others with these questions, and others.


7 thoughts on “Of activist self-care and the need to think in systems and #Freud #Darwin etc

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    1. Cheers Jodie.

      I’m trying to better than the easy Anglo-Saxon words, which also come with undertones of domination, contemp, destruction etc…

      All best wishes


  1. Ha, I also came here to compliment you on the use of the word “unterribilise”. I agree with your point about there being the person in the group who is ‘known’ for doing certain tasks and the possible loss of personal credibility if that person delegates something and it then doesn’t get done. For me though there are two issues there – in a completely flat organising group, I tend to think all jobs of the group should ideally be shared out equally, i.e. so one person doesn’t always book the van, one person doesn’t always organise rotas, etc… everybody takes a turn at everything. This makes the group more resilient as you have a better mix of skills and if anybody has to drop out for a period, for any reason, you’re not losing the person who knows how to do [task].

    However another bit is the reason people don’t delegate is because they feel very personally attached to the work the group does, and they want to see that it gets done, and they know that if they do it themselves it will get done. I’ve been burned in the past, as I’m sure you will have been too , by delegating something that doesn’t get done, and that can cause stress, cause more work for the person who did the delegating (as they then have to pick up the pieces from the [task] that didn’t get completed) and even can put the whole work of the group at risk. It leads to disillusionment and burnout and bad feeling. This is certainly part of the reason why I don’t like delegating important tasks!

    There’s a really good bit in the ‘working in co-operatives’ book by Footprint about trying to eradicate the effect of charisma and popularity within working groups – I think that’s a part of working in a group that it is really hard to get rid of altogether.

    1. Hello!

      yes, absolutely – in the absence of accountability mechanisms (did the job get done at ALL) and quality mechanisms (did the job get done to an acceptable standard), then delegation is a huge gamble, and when you lose the gamble, you are the one left picking up the pieces. A core moment in my political education about ‘non-hierarchical’ groups came in early 2007, when a popular member of a group I was involved in TOTALLY lunched out a crucial task. And nobody wanted to talk about it, or the (quite large, in relative terms) consequences that the failure to both do the task and flag that it was not going t be done had. That would have been “mean”, “fascistic” “divisive” etc. So, the consequence was that I (and other people) started to disengage from the group, taking our knowledge, skills and energy with it. It quickly shrank to a rump of very similar “cool kids”. That was one of the core things that led me to coming up with the term “smugosphere”, which I decided to leave out of the blog post above, on the grounds that I am trying to be emollient these days- catch more flies with honey etc etc…

  2. Hi Marc, though (because?) your analyses of social movements are correct they are also I think tautological. We have no money/time/energy to do things properly, and address the issues you raise. The issues that arise that need time and money to solve them arise because we have no time/energy/money to do things properly.
    If my rent and or status doesn’t depend on doing this thing properly then it won’t get done properly.

    1. Hi Chris,
      thanks for commenting, and a qualified yes – in that, I agree we have left this SO late, that now, grassroots innovations/democratisation of civil society – a process that will take years (decades) if we start well now – cannot tackle galloping emissions and the consequences of those emissions. Alongside democratisation there would need to be (appropriately governed) techno-fixes [the strict dichotomoy between a society and its technologies is of course largely nonsense, but I will save that rant for another day].
      HOWEVER, I do not believe that the sorts of issues – activist subculture pathologies – that I mostly focus on, are soluble with energy and money. I think what is required is awareness of them (they are mostly unacknowledged, ignored), and courage to both face them and courage to innovate. There are already most of the tools we need to overcome these pathologies in existence – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

      Within CEM we are trying to do that, and over the coming weeks and months will try to share these tools further.

      But yeah, time. Or lack of it. How cool would it be if atmospheric concentrations of C02 were at 350ppm, as they were when the scientific concern first broke through in 1987-1988? Before we built all that additional infrastructure (physical, cognitive) of fossil fuel consumption…

      Did I ever mention that I am fucking glad I didn’t breed because there is the mother of all shitstorms coming?

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