“Big Fish, Little Fish, Box”: Social movement organisations and their lifecycles.

What goes up must come down. Sooner or later, the laws of political/social movement (1) gravity re-assert themselves.  Your movement organisation goes from big fish to little fish and then, unless it can institutionalise itself (i.e. get charitable status, and carve out a niche in the existing ecosystem that it came to overthrow) it simply winks out of existence – i.e. – is in a pine box.

Bob the Builder might start off with ‘Can we fix it? Yes we can?’, but quickly comes to “Big Fish, Little Fish, Box.”

This article/blog post/whatever offers some thoughts on the who, what and how of each of these three stages.  It doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or particularly rigorous.  If it helps a few people situate their experience/the experiences of friends/family, then it will have done enough (my visions of actually being influential on any scale have long since faded).  I provide some “how things could be done differently” but my heart really isn’t in it: the incentives and inducements and the institutions are too strong for any real change to take hold for any length of time, and in any case, the anti-systemic/counter-hegemonic forces are simply outnumbered and outgunned, and it’s far too late in the day to turn the shit of state/anthropocene around….

Before we get into it, there’s a key concept worth mentioning, because it is lurking in the first stage and present with bells on in the second and third –  “Schismogenesis.” I get this from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (straight up interesting guy).  According to Wikipedia

Schismogenesis literally means “creation of division”. The term derives from the Greek words σχίσμα skhisma “cleft” (borrowed into English as schism, “division into opposing factions”), and γένεσις genesis “generation, creation” (deriving in turn from gignesthai “be born or produced, creation, a coming into being”).

The coming of the Big Fish

The world is full of problems. Many never get brought out into the open and worried about.  They’ve been with us too long and are considered inevitable “that’s just the way it is”. They affect a population that is not sexy, charismatic, worthy victim. These are problems which never quite get turned into issues. They lack an issue entrepreneur who has the skills, resources and luck to force the issue onto the media/political agenda.  They don’t have any obvious solutions, or, worse, they DO have some fairly obvious solutions, but since those solutions would affect the rich and powerful (either financially or politically) they – and even the very problem itself – must be buried, and scientists and issue entrepreneurs  smeared etc.

However, some problems, including ones that fit some of the categories above, DO find their ways onto the public agenda as issues, regardless of resistance, regardless of difficulty…. Becoming issues.

The issue I am interested in, or have been interested in, is climate change.  Scientists woke up the carbon dioxide build-up problem in the late 1950s. It was only in the late 1980s that the problem properly became an “issue”. It was solved (politically) with the 1992 agreement in Rio, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  It has bubbled under, spiking occasionally, becoming part of the box of problems that educated people worried about. It rose again between 2005 and 2010, before being shunted off the agenda as too hard. It was dragged back because a political solution (not, note, a real-world physical solution) was made, the Paris Agreement in 2015.  And in late 2018 it rose again in the West.  There were multiple reasons for this – the very hot summer in the UK and US, the IPCC report on 1.5 degrees, Donald Trump being Donald Trump, and then… the coming of Extinction Rebellion, with its lovely graphics, graphic language and low-cost actions (such as the bridge occupations of November 2018). Soon after this, along came Greta, and the School Strikes repertoire.  Suddenly everyone was talking about climate change and a much much smaller number of people were thinking about what to DO about it in terms of changing the priorities and norms of our societies and the ways decisions are made.  Some people even went so far as to join protest groups, knowing they might be asked to do arrestable things.  This article is about what happens to such movement organisations. (I mostly avoid saying “XR” in this piece, not because I am afraid to criticise it – I’m not – but because if you criticise a single organisation, people get defensive, people start in with the whataboutery and the opportunity to draw wider lessons, spot patterns that might make a “difference” are missed. )

Konrad Lorenz and family

So, anyway, let’s start with the coming of the Big Fish and, to mix an animal metaphor, “imprinting (2).” On a purely instinctual level, when a bird pecks its way out of the shell, the first thing it sees it identifies as its mother. This is known as “imprinting” and the scientist Konrad Lorenz used to get goslings to think he was mother goose.


Contra what some folks want (you) to believe, it’s not as if people are waiting around for the “right” group to turn up, that describes itself as ‘non-hierarchical’ or throws around words like holocracy and regenerative etc. Most people, terrified by climate change (because they are not stupid) and thinking they are the only one who is terrified, are so relieved to find that others are on the same wavelength. If they then receive validation from respected figures such as George Monbiot, if there are well-designed graphics etc, and the entry requirements are low (“turn up at a place you know well”), then chances are the group will grow.

People turn up, it feels amazing, there are drummers, colourful posters (3), other people who care as much as they do. They feel liberated, seen, no longer alone. It’s a witches’ brew of positive chemicals (endorphins, testosterone, oxcytocin, you name it). It feels fantastic.

And then, as the expression goes, “you’ve got to dance with the ones that brung you…”

And that imperative – to remain loyal to the sexy group that was the first thing you saw when you pecked outa the shell, is made easier if/when the group you are in is telling you that all the other groups have failed, don’t understand what is going on. It’s only THIS group that is worth being a part of.  While other groups may be mentioned in wingman status, or “nice to make up the numbers,” it’s in a condescending way.  This is important in explaining why, later, when the big fish is becoming a little fish, when the honeymoon is over, when the rocket is becoming a stick, those who are heading for the exits do no go looking elsewhere for a different group to be involved in.  They have swallowed, with differing degrees of memory and self-awareness, the early line they were fed about the worthlessness of the other groups (and in any case, everything else is very likely to be an emotional letdown – nothing is going to replicate that initial ‘peck through the shell’ moment of cognitive liberation…)

So, having dealt at too great length with imprinting, now let’s ask “who gets involved?”

Here below is a rough and ready division of the four main types of people who get involved in the Big Fish – and their motivations and blind spots.

Students and the young in general (16 to 23 or thereabouts)

trying to figure out who they are, what they believe, who to cop off with, gain self-confidence, deal with feelings of loneliness, despair, hollowness, rage etc (over and above the usual Kierkegaard stuff).

Looking for – adrenaline, attention, validation, hopeyness in a hopeless world.

Blindspot – anything that happened before they turned up (e.g. pretty much everything).

The tourists and troopers (20s to 40s, but also older)

those who drift/bounce/ping from movement (organisation) to movement (organisation), not too worried about coherence, likelihood of success. Perhaps still chasing the high they had in their first episode of pecking through the shell.

Looking for – adrenaline, attention.

Blindspot – that enthusiasm and clever placards/tactics and media attention might get you started, but actual transformation/overthrow of the state/whatever the rhetoric of the Big Fish is, is going to require new skills and a lot of people.

Trots (all ages, but mainly students and veterans of the glory days of the 1970s)

Various tedious sects, usually with a three (or more rarely four)-letter acronym who believe that a) they are the keepers of the flame of truth and everyone else is a splitter and b) what this cute movement organisation of concerned folks really needs, whether it knows it or not, is the steady hand of the vanguard.  It’s a big job, a tough job, but hey, they’re willing to do it, even (especially?) when they have not been asked, or have been asked explicitly NOT to. They have learned, over the decades, to soft-pedal this offer, at least initially. If confronted about this ‘dual membership’, individuals will usually counter-attack and accuse the person bringing it up of McCarthyism, with a plea for “unity” and “fighting the real enemy.”

Looking for – acolytes, fellow paper-sellers and marchers.

Blindspot – the sterility and failure that has been on them for (checks notes) a century or so.

The re-tired (50s and up. Obviously overlap with troopers, trots, tourists)

Those who took a pay out, or are now retired, don’t have caring responsibilities. Available for day time meetings (helps with establishing an informal inner collective, in combination with some of the more pliable/well-connected students).

Looking for – (self-)forgiveness for having not been there when it mattered (4). Ongoing relevance (how many of these middle-management types are suffering Relevance Deprivation Syndrome?  A good question…)

Blindspot (wilful) – all previous campaigning on climate change (to engage with this would be to raise the very awkward question ‘where were you when it mattered, before it was an existential threat?’ (3). These people are the pos(t)er-children for amathia. But I digress.

There is overlap in these categories.

There are a whole lot of other people who don’t fit these categories but who come to one or two meetings to check out what is going on, to see if the group has any actual viable strategy, if it has any place for them. They’re mostly never seen again. There are other minor subgroups (actual natural scientists, for example) and there are other spivs and chancers on the margins (undercover cops, right-wing activists keeping tabs, academics writing dreary fucking articles that are either hagiographic or that nobody will read (or both).) But this covers the most of it, I’d guess.

Remember, there is a far far larger category of people who would never go to a public meeting, who would not consider themselves part of a group, would never think of themselves as a protestor etc who swallow the Gramscian “common sense,” who believe that being obedient will get them protection. Head down, nose clean, anything for the quiet life… And these people, when the shit hits the fan, will complain that the government should have done something…

Now that we’ve talked about the various types of individual who tend to be involved, let’s talk about the internal and external factors that will, sooner or later, impact on the growth of the Big Fish. These are factors that need to be managed (and are quite manageable, or ignorable, while you’re “winning”). For the sake of ease, if not accuracy, let’s divide them into external and internal factors

External factors

  • Family, friends, work colleagues “why are you getting involved with these dangerous idiots? Don’t you care about your career prospects, or just your employability? How far do you think you’ll get with a criminal record? Don’t you care about putting food on the table for your kids?” “When you support that organisation, you are supporting x or y or z! (Tube action, Roger Hallam on the Holocaust)
  • Media derision etc in the tabloids (that strengthens the attacks from family and friends)
  • Police violence (especially if people you look up to have been telling you that the police are our friends and you are therefore unprepared for it).
  • The action of other movement organisations in supporting/sabotaging/co-opting the newcomer. Is the newcomer seen as a useful radical flank outfit (saying what needs saying but the more established outfits are too scared/controlled to say). Is it seen as potentially containable, controllable? Or is it seen as, on balance, badly disruptive and in need of a slap around the chops?

Internal factors (aka “dysfunctional processes”)

Meetings

  • Too many bad meetings (long, poorly designed, poorly facilitated, inconclusive, over-long, fractious).
  • Too many meetings full stop. 
  • Too many leaders pulling in too many directions (while claiming they are not leaders)

Communications

  • Too few (consequential decisions being made on the hoof by the inner circle)
  • Too much information (newsletters and emails without a one sentence summary for each item, or even just too many one sentence summaries…
  • Too many new platforms to learn to communicate with other people (by late 2019, XR folks had I think 9 different comms systems!)

Random

  • People lunching things out and it not being dealt with (meaning that people whose hard work had been rendered useless were demoralised)
  • Unclear processes for proposing action/getting resources, aka Leaders who won’t admit they are leading (tyranny of structurelessness) [This tends only to be a yellow flag for the more switched on/cynical troopers, and for the Trots, if they happen not to be the ones doing the unofficial leading)

On the way up, as “the movement” (and big fish organisations often conflate themselves with “the movement”) everyone is happy and smiling

As Jeff Goldblum says in “The Lost World,” the Jurassic Park sequel – “Oooh! Ahhh! That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”

On the way up, and along the plateau, there is an intoxicating sense of unity – unity of purpose and unity of effort.  Of course, different individuals and groups are – with varying degrees of subtlety and self-awareness – jockeying for positions of influence, authority, power, legitimacy, control etc.  Those power games are ignored or simply not seen by most folks, who think they are some combination of irrelevant, inevitable and boring. Such games will wither away after the final victory, which is surely close at hand… What’s the worry, there seems to be space for everyone’s needs, and no need to fight over an expanding pie…

Ultimately, in this stage, everyone’s needs are being more or less met

The Students are getting to prance around, to cop off, to give content free speeches about how everyone else did it wrong, but relax, they’re here now.

The troopers and tourists have enough opportunities for adrenaline, for “outreach” (done terribly, with top-down information deficit model) to make themselves feel important)

The Trots reckon they are giving enough advice, gaining enough credibility for the Take Over (pencilled in for a couple of months’ time).

The re-tireds have enough daytime meetings and fluffy actions to keep themselves happy, and racking up “things I can tell the (grand)kids when they ask what I did during the eco-wars.”

What could be done differently; explaining that this is the honeymoon phase to people who are busy glugging down the KoolAid is probably a waste of time. Probably the most you can do is say to new folks getting involved is “you know there are other organisations, albeit less sexy and less publicised, that exist, right?” And get them thinking about the skills, knowledge and relationships needed for the long haul.  Because it is a long haul (5).

From big fish to little fish

No group stays big fish indefinitely. Product (and we are living in a material world, and these moments are commodities) has a shelf-life (6).  By now protests have been going for a while. Journalists have done about as many soft-soap/human interest puff-pieces as they and their editors want.   “Hippies glue themselves to things” is no longer particularly newsworthy… The splits (remember schismogenesis?) are beginning, and can’t be (so easily) ignored as they were on the way up (x). Other problems are becoming issues. There are only so many slots for issues.

The students have realised that those essays and exams need to be written and revised for, that activism can’t be squeezed in very easily between lectures, part-time jobs, love lives etc etc. They start to attend fewer meetings, and because there is rarely any concise summary of what happened in the last meeting, it’s easier to miss the next one. Pretty quickly you feel well out of it, and have an excuse not to go back…

The tourists have got their photos, their souvenirs, their sunburn and are ready to go home and start planning their next trip.  They start to leave, and are not replaced (because the movement is getting an increasingly bad rap in the media).

The troopers are continuing to troop, but are beginning to get fed up with the botched events, the leadership tensions, the work they did that never amounted to anything because other people didn’t deliver and that failure to deliver is being ignored by people because to raise it would be to spoil the mood, and put everyone on notice that “lunching things out” is not okay. They can see that some students and tourists are already leaving, and that even some other troopers have dropped out for reasons which might, in earlier/different days, been surmounted.

The Trots are clinging grimly on.  They tend to only abandon a bandwagon when the wheels have well and truly fallen off.  But there are fewer potential recruits/acolytes now…

The re-tireds are clinging on too.  They are not quite sure what is going wrong, since in their little gang morale is relatively high, cohesion maintained.

The schismogenetic forces are growing in importance, even if they have not necessarily grown in size (i.e. the counter-schismogenetic forces are now weaker).

External Factors

  • Hit pieces in the media about the organisation, its leadership, its finances, its prospects etc
  • Family and friends’ ongoing pressure
  • Consequences (legal, employment etc) of early actions start to accrue. A criminal record, even if only a caution, is not nothing, it turns out.

Internal Factors

  • Numbers shrinking – people starting to see that other people are voting with their feet. (It becomes imaginable to them that they will do the same.)
  • Power tussles come out in public (cliques harden, people take sides etc)

These things can be iterative and mutually reinforcing. They can feed upon themselves, leading to what is known as a vicious circle.  Thus groups which seem relatively ‘healthy’ or at least functional can implode/vanish/shatter far more quickly than most people expect (and even leave experienced and cynical people surprised).

As the big fish becomes a little fish, personnel are either staying put (with implications discussed below) or leaking/leaving in three directions

Before we get to the leaving/leaking, let’s talk briefly about “exit, voice and loyalty”, a concept developed by Albert Hirschman.  Basic version is this – if you spot things wrong in your (sub)culture or organisation and you try to fix them (“voice”) then chances are you will fail. You are then left with the choice of either exit (voting with your feet, but feeling bad about yourself (“I’m weak/a failure/I couldn’t cope”) or sticking around and being loyal (silent). If you go, it sends a message to other people who were watching on – “there’s no point in trying to change they (sub)culture” and they themselves become less likely to say anything about their own dissatisfactions. They either leave or learn to rationalise away their own dissatisfactions, and to discipline others who speak up. If you stick around, you are probably not going to be very happy, at least until you can convince yourself that all is well, and you’re not going to be particularly supportive of other reformists who try to succeed where you failed.

Once a group is no longer a big fish, there are various tricks it can do to give (itself) the impression that it is still functioning.

One is to consolidate geographically in order to get the same numbers it used to get just from one town/city.
Another is to latch on  to a local campaign with enough overlap and show that it is offering “practical solidarity” (but it’s actually two drunken people leaning together for support, neither entirely sure they could stand up on their own).

While they are doing this, they will usually try to expand their repertoire a bit (i.e. start trying to do things that they didn’t deign to consider before).

There are various stories they will tell themselves about why things are turning out the way they are – the fault of the media, the government, the corporations, other movements/issues, bad luck (the pandemic etc)

What could be done differently; offering a certain amount of sympathy to those who are trying to figure out what to do next, while accepting that many will be lost to ‘the movement’ permanently… But look, they are usually heading for the exits with such determination, and such demoralisation that saying to them “hey, wait, there’s another way” is no good.

From little fish to box

Can big groups who came in denouncing the existing ecosystem of organisations trying to deal with an issue pivot and become a reasonable-sized player in that ecosystem? Probably not (though it’s not impossible).  It’s most likely that a formerly big fish will try to relive its glory days with another audacious stunt that, well, falls flat, with recriminations and resentments. The lack of accountability and the lack of a strategy (doing the same thing over and over again is not a strategy) will finally be painfully felt.

By now, numbers are down and going further.

The students are almost all gone – the fish is beginning to smell rotten, and nobody wants to hang out with a rotten fish. There’s been a summer between, and many of those most involved have graduated, or entered the business end of their degree. There’s been little or no hand-over of knowledge, and the number of new students is tiny.

The tourists got their snaps and are off on a different trip

The troopers don’t see the point of continuing to troop, and there is less and less for them to do, in any case.

The Trots – well, vampires require blood, and in the absence of blood they fly away to hide in the dark, upside down in a closet, until their evil Dark Lord beckons them out to latch onto new unsuspecting prey.

The re-tireds are finally getting tired. They are seeing that the movement organisation is but the smallest shadow of its previous self, and that the ability to stage large actions which might get some media attention (hope of policy influence has by this time disappeared) has vanished.  Some particularly involved/bloody-minded individuals stick it out, but not all of them. The ability to recruit into this group has also vanished, since there is so much accrued knowledge. Others will have built their profile, and gotten involved in another group, and not need the original group for personal or professional reasons anymore.

What was it all four?

There are four kinds of direction that people go, I think (obvs I can be wrong)

  1. They stick around with the organisation until the absolute bitter end, unable to imagine anything else, often seething or pitying those who lack their… determination (?)
  2. They (especially the young folks) get a job with a relevant charity or social enterprise, or (less likely) throw their energies into another campaigning group
  3. They (usually a small number of friends) set up a new group, with a more local focus than the previous national/global focus
  4. They are “lost to activism” altogether, retreating, chastened, and having to listen to idiot uncles/cousins tell them they were stupid for getting involved with a bunch of dangerous hippies. They might, might, continue with a direct debit to various campaigning bodies, but only if money isn’t too tight to mention.

The organisation is then well and truly dead (“stick a fork in us, we’re done”).  Climate Camp had the decency to actually make a statement (albeit a semi-coherent one) called “Metapmorphosis.” Will XR do the same after Glasgow? Who know… or cares, particularly.

What is to be done?

This is the bit I am “contractually obliged” to write, but I just don’t have the heart for, haven’t had for years. Properly disvisioned. …

On climate

The political parties are not going to get us there. They’ve had over thirty years.

The corporate sector is not going to get us there. They’ve had over thirty years.

The social movements, using the formats, rituals, tactics whatever,   they’ve been using thus far, are not going to get us there. They’ve had fifty years, if you go back to the Malthusian moment.

So, we adapt, we adopt new ways of being, seeing, freeing our potential, or we accept what is – in all probability- already inevitable.

If we are serious about the final option (and I am not sure that I am) we use this period of relative abeyance to

explain the processes (as if anyone gives a shit), via videos, memes etc

develop better internal meetings (as if the functional groups will have any influence over/importance to the next big sexy thing and embed them in the wider cultures.

develop better public meetings (as if this can happen – see PMS article) and embed them in the wider cultures.

And of course, the Cocker Protocol. Always with the Cocker Protocol.

Footnotes

  1. Even (especially?) for groups claiming to be ‘beyond politics’, politics is there…
  2. For some the “shell,” protecting them from seeing the world/power relations as they more or less are, was never really there. Some (many?)  folks knew, because of an upbringing in working class/poverty, on the receiving end of racism, sexism, ableism etc, that the game is very rigged. (But let’s also not romanticise folk understandings). The author of this article is immensely privileged, and so may well be overestimating the length of time folks live in illusions and so over-estimate the impact of ‘cognitive liberation’ for some. The flip side is of course that the means of engineered blindness, at the hands of the ideological state apparatus and wider systems of corporate/capitalist/neoliberal/industrial/authoritarian control/gaslighting should not be underestimated: the subaltern’s mind is so often so very colonised, and blind… Species be weak, y’all.
  3. Some other time I will argue these groups are fast-moving consumer goods.
  4. ‘Getting on with life’ is not a good enough excuse, because other people can turn around to you now and use the same.  
  5.  Not that we have time left for that of course. We would perhaps have had if we’d started in 1988, or better yet in 1972. But here we are….

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