Category Archives: activism

How to lose, for sure. Aka “the information deficit model is killing us.” #vasectomy

We are losing.  All we need to do to keep losing is to keep on doing what we are doing.  Simples.

Reflecting on the mirror-image of master and slave

We can see it in our opponents. And if we denounce them for their condescension and silence, well,  our tribe rewards us for seeing it and saying it.  What’s that Buffalo Springfield lyric

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say “hooray for our side

What we see in our opponents is the top-down model, the assumption that what people lack is information, and that they – our lords and masters – have that information, which they will nobly inject into our heads.

And what that achieves, of course, is the shutting down of debate. Our opponents do it deliberately, because it suits their political needs;  prevent awkward questions,  remind everyone (including themselves) who is the boss, remind everyone who it is who – quite literally – sets the agenda.

We see it in those people, and we rightly condemn them for sharp practice, for wilfully blind, wilfully deafening devices.

And then we turn right around and do EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS ourselves. We let our own lords and masters, who run unions and campaigning groups,  do the exactly the same thing. And we lack the courage, patience, clarity, persistence to do anything about it. Well, actually, I lack the cpcp. Maybe you don’t.

Two examples.

First:  The strike I’ve been part of. The energy on the picket lines, the humour, the talent, the connections? All pissed against the wall by specialists without spirit, unimaginative technocrats who sit us in rows, take no interest in building our bonding capital, our capacity to act as networks. Not leaders then, but shepherds.

And we take it.

Second: A room full of people, some of whom have mingled. The meeting leader calls the meeting to start. he announces that there will be five consecutive films, totalling fifty minutes. Then there will be a panel discussion, mostly of men. Then he starts showing the films. No effort to get us to meet a stranger (so why is it called a meeting, ffs?) No breaks between films to discuss. Just us sat in rows watching and listening.

And we take it.

Nobody complains, nobody protests. That’s just the way we do things… I invoke the law of two feet. Of course I do. I always do. Too heart-sick, too tired now.

Same behaviour, different motives. But same consequences

But although the behaviour is the same, I suspect the underlying motivation is different. Unlike our lords and masters, there is no deliberate attempt to shut down debate. Sometimes, yes, there are egomaniacs who just want to be the centre of attention- cynosures (the word I learnt last week).

But I suspect that that’s not what was going on in the two examples above. It’s just that organisers don’t know any better, or dare not innovate (nobody ever got fired for buying IBM).

But then, the followers don’t demand more. And in the absence of demand, then I guess you’re a fool to expect innovation (which is risky) or hopeful monsters that might survive.

We are losing. We will continue to lose. We will continue to be atomised, demoralised, prey to incompetents, Judas Goats and egomaniacs, until we insist on better institutions (both in the ‘cultural norms’ AND the ‘real existing organisations). sense. Which means, since this will not happen, that we will continue to lose.

Blathering about my bloody sterilisation for the hundredth time

In December 2004 I had a vasectomy, so that I wouldn’t have to explain to a child of mine how we fucked it up for them, how we were handing on a planet stripped bare of its extraordinary diversity, a semi-inhabitable slagheap.

People used to think I was a whackjob for believing that. I don’t get that quite so much these days. We can see the future from where we stand (or sit, in rows). If we choose to see it. Most of us, understandably, choose to listen instead to soothing blandishments.


Of Aristotle, courage and #ussstrikes

Anger fades. This is both a ‘good’ thing and a bad one. After all it’s no fun to go through life as angry as I am (trust me on this). Angry at our so-called ‘leaders’ who mouth pieties and platitudes while not taking actions which would give our species the slenderest chance of survival. Angry at social movements for bumbling along in the smugosphere and ignoring both their failures and the possibilities of useful innovation. And angry, of course – narcissistically and neurotically – at myself for missed opportunities, for failing to have the courage and discipline to change and to speak out effectively, and to demonstrate consistently how things could be done differently.

Please stay with this post. That is the last lot of “I”-ing you’ll have to endure.

Aristotle said

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

More recently, climate scientist Kate Marvel argued that what we need is not hope but courage.

Imo, that courage includes the courage to innovate, to get out of the stale ‘zombie repertoires’ that we so easily fall into.

Throughout this strike I’ve heard people talk about the “feeling” on the picket line. Feelings fade. I’ve seen this cycle play out on a bunch of occasions – people get enthused, hopeful for having hope again, believing “their side” can win. And then comes the dolchstoss – often from our own side – because we have followed the same old script of poorly (or NOT) designed and facilitated meetings, where big mouths make small points, where the same stale rhetoric and repertoires rule.

We have/had this opportunity on the picket lines and in our meetings after the pickets to begin to break down the isolation and silo-ism that is one of the defining features of any modern workplace, and especially the university. And to my eyes, at my university, we have not taken it. We have not created loose networks based on roles, interests, skills etc. We have not started each meeting with a ‘turn to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself, share an anecdote’.

Yesterday was the nadir (so far). Our union branch told us there was a meeting. About 40 or 50 of us were there, and waited for it to start. I made sure that various people I knew got to know each other. And we waited. And then, finally, with no explanation, the meeting was cancelled and we were told to come back tomorrow.


We need novice lines, we need small group discussions about how we cope with the inevitable hangover from these strikes. We need to talk about what the management will do over the coming months to punish trouble-makers, to chip away at solidarity and whatever deal finally emerges.

We actually needed to start with the movement-building (as opposed to mobilising) weeks, nay, months, nay, years ago. Maybe we will start today. But going on what I have seen so far of the skills, knowledge, atttitudes and aptitudes of those in office if not in power, I doubt it.

“You’ve had your fun” – on emotions, rituals and resistance #USSStrike

So, the USS strike moves into its fourth week, with more industrial action likely.  I’ve just lost a small gig because of it, but am not on the breadline yet.  For the Vice Chancellors to climb down now, and admit that their scare campaign around the pension scheme is based on the rubberiest of figures and assumptions that make Australia’s climate denialists look sane and rational, will require some delicate footwork. Meanwhile, students suffer because of their intransigence.

There have (as you’d expect given who is striking) some extremely astute analysis of what is going on, on all levels. The latest I’ve read (and h/t Graeme Hayes) is

On the emotional and material politics of the strike

by Dr Chris Millard.

It’s short and astute, and very highly recommended.  One of the points that struck me was this –

“As I see it, this brings into focus the demand to reschedule teaching, which had previously been backed by, by many institutions, by a threat to deduct up to 100% of pay for each day teaching was not rescheduled. (Most institutions have backed down under public pressure on this particular point. A list of institutions not understood to have backed down on this point at the time of writing can be seen here). However, the fact that the demand was made at all is important, in both material and emotional terms. According to the view that mistakes strike action for an expression of feeling, once the feeling is expressed, there is no reason why the teaching can’t be done. It can be rescheduled (the logistical impossibility notwithstanding), because making the point was the point, rather than the withdrawal of labour. In other words: the supportive demonstrations, the protest, the signs, the placards have obscured the core of the strike, i.e. the withdrawal of labour.” (emphasis added by me)

This put me in mind of something I read in Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals about 20 years ago-

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic. Recently the head of a corporation showed me the blue-print of a new plant and pointed to a large ground-floor area: “Boy, have we got an architect who is with it!” he chuckled. “See that big hall? That’s our sit-in room! When the sit-inners come they’ll be shown in and there will be coffee, T.V. And good toilet facilities – they can sit here until hell freezes over.”

Now you can relegate sit-ins to the Smithsonian Museum.

Alinsky, S. 1971. Rules for Radicals. P163.

We mistake the feeling and the appearance for the thing itself.  We are hairless chimps with opposable thumbs and ideas above our station.  And it is not ending well, in biological terms.

IAM what IAM – on models, muddles and human failure.

Six weeks or so I went to a talk by a man I respect immensely. I knew exactly what I would be getting – he’s delivered basically the same talk every time I’ve seen him, going back over a decade. He explains what we need to do, starting now (we should have started decades ago, but we don’t have a time machine). He explains how the longer we wait, the harder it gets (like dieting to fit into a wedding dress/suit). He always finishes with the same Roberto Unger quote. He’s sincere, incredibly well-informed (it’s his day job, after all) and fearlessly honest.

He’s added a new element to the talk over the last few times. He has explained just how disgusting/bogus/insane (take your pick – they’re my adjectives, but I am sure he’d agree) our reliance on “Bio Energy Carbon Capture and Storage” is. This is the proposal by which – now, you’ll think I am making this up, and I kind of wish I were – we would plant gazillions of acres of crops which we would then transport to power stations, burn, then capture the carbon dioxide and then pump it into aquifers left empty because the oil has been sucked out. And we would do this on a global scale, for decades, in order to get ‘negative emissions’ to keep the world from overshooting the so-called “safe” limit of two degrees of global warming. It’s a scheme so hubristic as to make Dr Strangelove blush.

And Professor Kevin Anderson – for it is he – explains just how crazy it is.

And yet, and yet….

I’ve known Kevin for over a decade. Kevin kindly spoke at the first ever Manchester Climate Forum event, in February 2007, just after the release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Kevin wrote a lovely intro to the “Call to Real Action” document that a bunch of us put together in early 2009, in an effort (ultimately futile) to get Manchester City Council to take, well, Real Action, on climate change. Kevin and I have shared beers, jokes etc. I’ve interviewed him a bunch of times.

But there is a thing that is bugging me. And it is the IAM question.

In his talk six weeks ago Kevin explained that there are these things called “Integrated Assessment Models” which bring together economists, technology wonks and some social scientists to develop models of ‘how we get to two degrees’. And the only way they can make the numbers work, is with BECCS.

Now, I know about the idiocy of IAMs from other sources. So I was probably laughing earlier and harder than some others when Kevin explained them that day six weeks ago.

And here is my big but.

It is fun, but WAY TOO EASY  to point at ‘smart’ people in love with their computer models, too scared to tell their political paymasters that social change is needed at an unprecedented scale, and that we are not going to geek our way out of this mess.

It’s shooting fish in an acidified barrel.

Because when you point one finger at someone else, I recently learned, you point three others back at yourself.

There are two other “IAMs” that we need to challenge with sincerity, knowledge and honest. Those two models are (drum roll please)

The Intellectual Advice Model and the Inane Activism Model.

I’ll describe each, explain what I think each leaves out, and then explain why, in my opinion, it persists.

Then I will riff on class.

If you want my SOLUTIONS, well they’re scattered all around, like confetti at a mass wedding. Pay me in beer and I’ll consolidate them.

Intellectual Advice Model

The model that Kevin, and I and countless antecedents since “pollution”, “conservation” and “the environment” became big ticket items in the late 1960s have have been engaging in is the Intellectual Advice Model. Smart and diligent people would Do Science and then present their findings.  This would convince our lords and masters of the errors of their ways, and things would – as if by magic, change for the better, albeit slowly.

It’s a myth of Enlightenment thinking that we dare not puncture. For then we would see that our hierarchies are less overtly vicious than the Stalinist ones, but not significantly more amenable to education. There is a plan (five year, ten year, the plan of ‘let the “market” (sic) rip’) and they’re gonna stick to it. Take the Peter Principle, throw in some Wilhelm Reich and it all makes sense. We are led by scared and scarred people who need power not just to feather their beds, but to resolve psychic wounds. So it goes.

What it leaves out

All the best environmental thinking in the West (I’m shamefully ignorant of Majority World thinking) comes from Australians. Oh yes. And here is a satirical piece from an Australian who was combatting rapacious forestry chainsaw-happy bureaucrats, who knew what they were up to.

Sift available information carefully, water down scientific recommendations, add large cup of public money, a hint of public consultation, mix in essence of buzz-word, season with the merest pinch of artificial green colouring. Boil together until all logic has evaporated, heat until light and fluffy and garnish with the promise of jobs.

And he wrote that … in 1991 I have other examples from the 1960s and 70s available upon request.


And academics to be involved in these, desperate for ‘policy relevance’ tokens that they can use at their next promotion/retention panel.

Why it persists

The model conveniently leaves out POWER (political, economic, and in large parts of the world military power). It means that those proffering the advice get to see themselves as somehow disinterested, neutral, above the fray. And it means they can persist in believing that they live in something approaching a democracy, when ultimately they live in plutocracy, semi-benign at best.

Inane Activism Model

[Update 4 March – here I am talking about activism in the Minority World (aka ‘teh developed world’, ‘the West’.  The picture is vastly different in places where they blatantly shoot you for dissenting.]

I will confess for a long time I used to think technocrats Baaad. Academics okay. “Grass roots” struggles authentic and better.


My experience (these days limited by the need to write a thesis and the inability to stomach any more bullshit) of ‘grass roots’ activism is that it made up of people fighting a cause who are unable and/or unwilling to insist upon reliability in their colleagues, some of whom are clearly fighting parental battles through their ‘politics’ (and yes, I am perfectly aware of just how Daily Mail I sound right now. Even broken and fascist clocks are right twice a day).

And the activism – especially the middle class stuff – is based on the information deficit model, whereby Informed Activists will offer Intellectual Advice to our lords and masters, who will then see the error of their ways. Srsly.

And it goes on about a three or four years cycle, by which time people are exhausted, burnt out (never to return in many cases) cynical and confused. But the hard core persist, waiting for the next recruiting opportunity.

And the activists are – for reasons of time, emotional resources etc – unable to see the broader cyclical patterns, and to intervene to improve their own cultures.

I wrote something in Peace News last year about this – about the NGOs (and other groups) inability to even understand the need for absorptive capacity, let alone the capacity to build that capacity. While you’re at it, I wrote for the same excellent journal on the nature of academics and/vs activists.

I’ve also written about the Smugosphere, emotathons, ego-fodder, and much else.

What it leaves out

The Inane Activism model, with its inflatable elephants, its petitions, its importuning of our lords and masters, and its willingness to conflate access for influence, leaves out the same things that the Intellectual Advice Model does: Power.

Why it persists

The inane activism persists because it meets the psychological needs of those doing it (to be Right, to be Righteous, etc. Some forms of Inane Activism offer valuable martyrdom tokens too). It meets social needs (there is one group in Manchester which is basically a friendship group that might admit new members if they stik around for a year or two, which they tend not to do). It meets their financial needs in some cases. So it goes.

At this moment, if you’ve read this far, you’ll be thinking “he is some sort of Trotskyist.” For your benefit, and that of SDS or whatever they now call themselves, I. Am. Not. A. Trot. I am a bit like Frank Turner, but without the guitar. I am some kind of classical liberal, or a disappointed romantic or whatever. I don’t know, don’t care, and I don’t see how it is relevant to my observations about the failures of the IAMs above. So if you’re asking who I am, then maybe it’s because you don’t actually want to address my criticisms of the models, but instead engage in some ad homineming and some tu quoqueing…

That elephant. #Stayclassy…

The elephant in the room, with all three of these models, is of course, class. I am achingly middle-class, but even I have enough common sense and empathy to see that.)

  • The IAM modellers are, to a man and a computer, middle-class (or even part of a technocratic elite of sorts).
  • Those who engage in the giving of intellectual advice are middle-class, though some are falling through the cracks into the precariat, shoved by the USS and their pension-shredding, against a broader back drop of the marketisation of the university etc.
  • And the activists who campaign “purely” on climate change in the UK are usually middle class (I will now have a thousand people point to poor people involved in fracking. But that is a local poisoning the land for fun and profit issue as much as it is a broader climate issue). The climate movement is riddled with it. One of the many many reasons for its collapse in 2009/10 (that and some idiotic ‘strategising’ (if you could call it that) by the big NGOs. They do love a good summit…)

We (middle-class) people would rather cling to our class privilege (akin to white skin privilege) than actually change the way we do things, and take working class concerns seriously. They’re a ‘distraction’, they’re ‘messy’, they’re ‘social problems’ etc etc.

So, the next time someone invites me to laugh at an Integrated Assessment Model, I will ask them to join me in laughing at Intellectual Advice Models and Inane Activism models. That at least will add the hilarity levels on a planet being stripped of its biological wealth by some crazed infantile hairless apes with opposable thumbs and more neurons than is good for them or anything else.

Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.

Tom Uren and the class war

So, to my shame I don’t know enough about people like Tom Uren.  That shall be rectified #afterthethesis.  For now, this, from a speech he gave in 2007, which touches on his time as a POW working on the Burma railway.  Talk about natural experiments…

“There are many people and experiences that have nurtured my life. But my experience serving under Weary Dunlop has had a lifelong and lasting experience on me. We were at a place called Hintock Road Camp or, as Weary called it, Hintock “Mountain” Camp. “Weary” is a name of respect. He would tax our officers and medical orderlies and the men who went out to work would be paid a small wage.

“We would contribute most of it into a central fund. Weary would then send some of our people out into the jungle to trade with the Thai and Chinese traders for food and drugs for our sick and needy. In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivised a great proportion of our income.

“Just as the wet season set in a group of about 400 British camped near us for shelter. They had tents. The officers took the best tents, the NCOs the next best and the ordinary soldiers got the dregs. Within six weeks only about 50 of them marched out—the rest died of dysentery or cholera. In the mornings when we would walk out to work, their corpses would be lying in the mud as we passed them. Only a creek separated our two camps. On the one side the survival of the fittest – the law of the jungle – prevailed, and on the other side the collective spirit under Weary Dunlop. That spirit has always remained with me.”

Dodgy Academic Concepts #94: “Digital Haussmanisation” and the 21st century city

When I’m not Finishing My Damn Thesis (FMDT), I either watch Roger Federer doing his ballet/ice-skating combo, or else have interesting conversations with supervisors and friends.  Via a post-supervision chat I found myself uttering the phrase “digital Haussmanisation.”

Haussman would “like” the opportunities the Panspectron presents…

Let me “unpack” that, with complete sentence structure and so on.

For hundreds of years (longer?) elites have been trying to control and absorb ‘the commons‘, notably via various ‘Inclosure Acts‘,  This is to create dependency among ‘the masses’ who might be able to run away/live off the land and to accumulate capital (by dispossession).  So far, so obvious.

However, ‘enclosing’ the city is a different challenge, since there are high concentrations of people who might fight back instead of being dispersed/deported, and the city is where the elites often live too.  Not helpful to have the streets full of blood necessarily.


Elites have almost always feared the city and its uncontrollability (see Marshall Berman on the work of city engineer Robert Moses in his book ‘All that is Solid’, and see also Stephen Graham in the equally wonderful ‘Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism’).

The French learnt lessons about colonial control with small numbers of troops (who were not always reliable) and so reshaped the physical nature of Algiers (from memory, Graham talks about this. I could be wrong.)

The French naturally brought those techniques back from the colonies to reshape the metropole, Paris.  It was changed from warrens of tenements and twisty windy timey-wimey  to what we see now –  wide straight boulevards, which have the advantage of being harder to barricade [see the very etymology of that word], easier to send troops in to suppress rebellion without those being vulnerable to ambush/capture.

This large scale urban engineering effort was, famously, conducted under Baron von Haussman.

So far, so (uncle) history.  And, “so what?”  Well, imho what we are seeing now, with digital face-recognition and  real-time tracking by police forces (in China, UK etc)  is the possibility of digital haussmanisation (concept TM, patent pending).  The movement of individuals and groups will be monitored, controlled, stopped etc, the commons enclosed by being able to tag everyone all the time, in real-time, and say whether they are allowed to move from a to b or not, how and when.

Again, this stuff has already been well under way in the “colonies”,and is now, once mature, being exported to the metropole.  Plus ca change… (There might be something useful on this here – Hollow Land  by Eyal Weisman, as a laboratory for the 21st century…)

It isn’t so much the Panopticon, where one central surveillance point attempts to See All, and the walls are permanent, the institution clearly carceral, but the Panspectron, where the points of surveillance are pervasive, (hyper)linked and distributed (see this old blog post for more).  And of course,  the points of surveillance are ‘co-created’ by their subjects; as many have said, the extraordinary thing is that we now routinely give up vast quantities of personal data freely to corporations while bemoaning the evils of the state.

So, digital Haussmanisation.  I said it first. Cite me or else.