SMOTE – (social movement organisation transcience and emptiness.) Why “we” refuse to see it, say it. #ClimateTwitter

All these people on Climate Twitter, spouting variations of information deficit, or hope deficit or anger deficit. All of them studiously avoiding the key (imo) question – what do social movement organisations need to do DIFFERENTLY, given that for the last 30 plus years, they have not managed to slow the acceleration of the destruction of the conditions for the continued habitability of life on earth (1).

All of them getting some sort of payment (monetary, emotional, attentional, some combo thereof). Some decent, some I suspect are simply grifters, whether they are fully aware of that or not.

All of them conscious of who they are allowed to berate, who they must please to keep their position.

In this blog post, which was mapped out straight after I wrote this one, I want to ask and answer- to my current satisfaction, but who knows what next week brings – the question of why these people – and others – avoid the “what do we need to do differently” question.

I would very much appreciate comments and suggestions on this post. I will try to engage with the substance of any responses I get (yes, even the ones that are directed at my many shortcomings and couched in language as abrasive as mine).

Why we don’t see it

[I am listing here, but these causes are not linear. They’re mutually causative, iterative, algorithmic, non-linear, fractal, affordative, assemblegaic, and whatever other buzzwords stolen from physics and chemistry happen to be fashionable at the moment.]

a) we don’t have the language for it. It’s been so long since the language of collective struggle was used, and even then it was about following this or that movement star (Martin, or Malcolm, or Cesar, or whoever. The feminists were less prone to Movement Stars, but only slightly so, I think). Without regular examples of this, of what a social movement actually looks like – made up of big and small organisations, some permanent, some temporary, across a spectrum of radicalness/reformism, with different repertoires, you end up calling a single organisation “a movement” (looking at you, Extinction Rebellion), and you end up not understanding the rhythms, the swirls, the eddies of it all.

b) most of the so-called “elite thinkers” have either got no experience or a very particular kind of experience of being IN a social movement organisation. Mostly they had enormous amounts of cultural capital before they turned up, were treated differently (whether they understood that or not) and got a buzz and ego-feed about being the one interviewed, being the one who was exempt from the scut-work etc etc

Their skillset is the capital S Science, the big overarching Ideas, or the flowery hagiographic rhetoric, or the plaintive manifesto. And that’s what they do, over and over and over again. They never ask ‘gee, all those faces I saw last time, they’re gone, I wonder where they went, why they went, what we did wrong?’

c) we don’t have a language (despite my efforts with the smugosphere, the emotacycle, ego-fodder, single-points-of-failure etc etc) for the pathologies of social movement organisations, of how they go up like a rocket and come down like a stick, of how many people who came to one or no meetings were repelled by the lack of organisation (distinct from ‘non-hierarchy, or ‘anarchy’), were repelled by the unacknowledged but very real power struggles, by the policing of who could say what, think what, by the need to be ‘all in’ if you were to be involved at all.

In the absence of a language it is, pace Wittgenstein and that crowd, very hard (impossible?) to think, let alone to communicate about these problems.

So here I’d like to bring in a favourite (albeit not entirely robust) academic concept – the “Issue Attention Cycle.” As the name implies, issues go through periods of hardly anyone caring, then more people, then “everyone” and then a point where boredom/frustration kicking in. We’ve seen it repeatedly on environmental issues (remember when everyone was losing their minds about plastic pollution?) We’ve seen it happen three times now on climate change (1988-1992, 2006-2009, 2018 to 2021/2). (2)

But the problems I have described, about social movement organisation transience and emptiness have NEVER, to my knowledge, become an issue.

Let’s take a look at why that might be. This look, I am anticipating, will be criticised as conspiratorial or Machiavellian or whatever. I refer you mostly to option b) in Footnote 1, unless you have a better explanation.

For a problem to become an “issue” there need to be people and organisations who can do the work of identification, of explanation, of packaging a problem as an issue to key audiences. You see, through the 50s and 60s, this slow, careful, patient, pains taking (no, really, the takings of all the pains is under-estimate) work in creating a kind of ‘common sense’ (actually ‘good sense’) that there really WERE environmental problems that needed to be tackled. You see individuals like Rachel Carson, Stuart Udall, hundreds of others, organisations like The Conservation Foundation, the Conservation Society, WWF building that knowledge base. But the crucial thing here was that they were identifying something “outside” what their audience was directly responsible for. They were saying “there is a problem THERE with what THOSE people are doing, and you, HERE, can do something about it.”

With what I am describing, you’d be asking people to say “There is a problem HERE, with what YOU and I have been doing, are doing, expect to do in the future.”

Right there, I hope you can see, there is a huge difference, a huge problem for anyone who is trying to turn SMOTE even into a problem to be acknowledged, let alone an issue to be dealt with.

Because people do not like to be confronted with their own past failures, their own shortcomings, their own complicities. It makes them feel blamed, it makes them feel inadequate, guilty. All these are very unpleasant feelings, especially when you live under a system that is designed and functioning to make you feel powerless, inadequate, unloved and unloveable (the better to sell you crap that will kill those feelings in the short-term).

And the responses to these outrageous ad hominem attacks (as they would be seen)? Well, that’s easy.

  • “We should be directing our anger at the real problem (Capitalism, the Tories, the Oil Companies etc).”
  • All you’re achieving is demoralising people trying to make the world better.
  • “This is just juvenile process-obsessed carping, typical sectarian circular firing squad bullshit.”
  • “So, you think YOU should be the boss and tell us how to run groups/hold meetings. Well, what’s YOUR track record?”
  • “You must be mentally unwell”
  • “We can deal with this after we have held the next march/sold some more newspapers/stormed the Winter Palace.”
  • “I simply don’t recognise what you are saying. Me and other comrades are trying our best and I don’t see why we should listen to some middle-class wanker who doesn’t know how real people live telling us we are doing it all wrong.”
  • “But you have been doing some of the things you describe, so you’re just a hypocrite!”

And I am sure you can fill in some other examples of whataboutery, diversion, counter-attack.

Guy Rundle, who is an Australian intellectual I admire greatly, recently wrote about progressives allowing Scott Morrison (failed ex-Prime Minister) to live rent free in their heads months after the election. And his point (I paraphrase) was that hating on Scummo was a way of distracting from their lack of vision and their knowledge of their own lack of power. Well, there is a similar dynamic at play here – we focus on the evils being done by Them, and the current make up of Them, because we don’t see a way through, and we don’t want to admit just how fragile and failed our “own side” has been for many decades on many issues….

So who would BE the problem entrepreneur, who would turn this all into an “issue”?

Who would be this endlessly patient, courageous figure, who could deal with the (true) accusations of hypocrisy, who could remain un-diverted from the ‘whataboutery’, immune to the accusations of hypocrisy.

If a major “movement intellectual” (hah!) were to come out with this, they might get a patient hearing, albeit with lukewarm applause. But there would be hostile comments in the Q &A, and other forums. Other more minor figures would see their chance to topple someone higher up the food chain and so get their top spot. Offers to come speak at rallies and so on would start to dry up – organisers of these events would not be willing to give a platform to someone who had criticised their way of “doing activism.” The next book might not sell as well as the last one…. So, for this would be what was knowingly described as a “courageous decision.”

The organisers of events are even less likely to take a stand, because a) they probably don’t even see the problem (goldfish in water famously don’t know what water is) and b) are even more complicit in any case.

The attendees/foot soldiers in social movement organisations are even LESS likely to see the problem, and to have the power to do anything about it. What can they do? Stop being involved? Well, many do, but that doesn’t send any sort of signal to the “intellectuals” and organisers. And most attendees/foot soldiers are habituated into the endless carnival of clicktivism, marches, the emotacycle. They too don’t see that it could (and needs to be) different. “Well, it’s just inevitable that groups go up and down.” “It’s inevitable that individuals burn out/lose interest” etc etc.

So, we are trapped in a situation where things are very unlikely to change, despite the current set up not meeting current or future needs. In economics, you’d call it a “market failure.

Basically, the shituation we find ourselves in reminds me of that song by The Fray ‘How to Save a Life’… to be honest, about trying to help someone to help themselves, to accept the need for change and support, but knowing the chances are that the helping hand will be slapped away, and that the effort to make a better future will be sneered at, jeered at.

So it goes.

What is to be done?

[insert some guff about healthy groups with emotional intelligence, division of labour, emphasis on learning new skills, building relationships, ensuring fewer single points of failure blah blah. Nobody will read it, believe it or succeed in actually doing it, so it doesn’t matter].

Nowt. Just carpe the diems. It’s waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay later than you think.


(1) If you come back at me on this saying I am engaging in hyperbole, you are clearly either a) not paying attention or b) a troll. If a) pay attention. If b) fuck off.

(2) Each time leaves a residue, each time the issue doesn’t go away as much or as long as it did last time. It may be that very soon the issue of climate change is back on the public agenda and simply stays there because the basic assumptions (of weather, of food production, of water availability) are no longer invisible, but live challenges, all the time.

2 thoughts on “SMOTE – (social movement organisation transcience and emptiness.) Why “we” refuse to see it, say it. #ClimateTwitter

Add yours

  1. Yes. Great post.

    Transience and emptiness. Such is the stuff of life. Or really, I should say, the lack of life.

    I am thinking these days about lack, and its comedic twin, excess.

    With social movement organisations, some people invest excessively in them, put way too much hope in them, or make them seen way more powerful than they are, and thus they cannot properly see their lack in size, skill, strategy, etc. So you get comedically impossible statements from groups who are over-invested in their own excessive hype. Media friendly social movement organisations are excessively boosted, making groups seem bigger than they really are. The media can be positive hagiography (“eco-group do amazing stunt”) or it can be negative scare-mongering (“hippy loons coming for your whatever”). Either way it is excessive. If only such groups were as powerful as they claim.

    People involved, and indeed many observers, kind of know the lack is there. But attempts to address the chasm most often go awry. Therefore it might be tempting to walk away, so as not to look too hard into the abyss of the wider eco-social crisis AND the deficits that inevitably plague the group(s) one is invested in. Without the means – including the very language of it, as you say – to properly address it, it’s easier to pretend it’s not there, or just drift away when the chasm has got too close.

    This helps explain why people are resistant to taking feedback on board too, especially the critical type. People will prefer not to hear: “What do you mean you are exposing to me the lack? I am not interested in hearing that. I am interested in building my group’s excess / pretending the group I like are more powerful than I care to admit.”

    If people do stick around, it’s tempting to go get more media, so people can enjoy the feeling of excess for a while longer. And you are right to identify the most prominent activists, the spokespeople types. They are the very ones who feel the rays of that media spotlight most directly, getting most exposure to the UV that feels good but contains cancer risk. Sure, they will have different experiences of social movement organising, and they are rewarded by speaking the language of their group’s excess.

    The lack and the excess, it’s there for us to see with social movement organisations. Not as funny as you might think, though.

    Carpe diem? I know what you mean. For me, that is about excess, too. To cover over our lack as beings. It makes me think of the instruction to enjoy in a capitalist society. That injunction covers over capitalism’s lack, too. Maybe you think carpe diem has a better meaning than that.

    There are still some people trying to do the “grunt work” (a term you use) in social movement organisations, and whatever shit is coming, they remain valuable, especially the ones who are clever enough to see through the patterns that blind others, and bold enough to try and do something effective, to make it better. But don’t get me wrong here – they won’t enjoy being reminded of their deficiencies. If they are smart enough, they will already do that for themselves, and that will already feel like quite enough.

    1. Thanks Robbie, that is super useful. “We need to talk.” I would propose that you, me and Joe Blakey sit down over a pint or three (Joe doesn’t drink, but he can still get rounds in) and chew on jouissance and Rancidiere and that crowd. Could even invite a certain Belgian Waffle? And Mat Paterson? And so on…

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