Category Archives: activism

Desolation angels

She had been asked to attend a shit meeting, at which one of the blithely ignorant assholes the electorate seems to love was talking among his friends.  She was sent on an intelligence-gathering effort, for an environmental pressure group. And she told me, fighting back the tears, that it had been a truly awful, traumatising experience.

Younger me would have thought she was over-dramatising.  Younger me might even have told her to – in effect – grow a pair.

(Younger me was, to use a technical term, an asshole.)

She has two kids. And she doesn’t want to believe that Extinction Rebellion is likely to go up like a rocket, and down like a stick.  She doesn’t want to believe that the research of Chenoweth is being misinterpreted, mis-used.

She doesn’t want to go to more shit meetings.

We met at what was, really, a shit meeting.

I only stuck around for the food. (which turned out to be as good as advertised)  I suppose I also wanted the chance to ask my standard question – “given that we’ve known  about serious environmental problems at a global level for 50 years, and climate change for 30, what have we – the social movements, the ‘good guys’ been doing wrong?”

I got the chance. But of course I didn’t get – I never get- a meaningful answer to that question: talking about your own tribe’s mistakes is not gonna get you promoted or protected or whatever.  And so we slop around in our smugospheres, talking excitedly of the new 3 and 4 letter acronyms, and the new implementation plans, and invoking the magical words like participation, and democracy.  All from the stage.  All top-down, information deficit, that goes on twice the advertised time, leaving virtually no time for questions.  It meets the organisational needs of the organisers, the ego-needs of the speakers and – sad to say – the absolution needs of (most of those) who attend.

Absolution is no solution, as an abandoned blog post, ‘inspired’ (or provoked) by a shocking event six weeks ago was going to go.  We don’t, we really really don’t, need more opportunities for the grey and the white to turn up and relive the seventies, and hear first-hand from An Expert about how screwed everything is if that Expert is not going to present some plausible innovations.  The audience gets to feel absolved, for still demonstrably caring, but are not called upon to do anything differently. Shambling towards Bethlehem.

And we don’t need ego-foddering and incompetent social movement organisations that want us to get up but are unable to help us help each other, but persist with the shame old shame old info-deficit ways of “mobilising”.

But it’s what we get, and I think what we will always get.

Yes, yes, I should come up with some way out. But so far I don’t know how. I don’t seem to have the skills, the reputation, the energy, to take on a culture that claims to be about participation and a brighter future but is stuck in its rut of ravenous egos and incompetence.

It seems to me that the skills we need to change the expectations of meetings – to make it easier rather than harder for people to be involved in meaningful ways for the long-term –  are extremely high-level. And using those skills requires, I think, more time, energy, patience, credibility and courage (as distinct from that stupid thing hope) than I currently possess or can see myself coming to possess. And maybe there are loads of other people working on this, doing better, and news just hasn’t reached the provinces.  Or maybe not.

So it goes, I guess.

She has two young children. She was crying in front of a stranger.


Why we are doomed: of meetings, ghosts and the QWERTY keyboard

So, I wrote this over a year ago.  Nothing I have seen from the “new” organisations on the scene gives me any cause to revise what I wrote back then.  I am less prone to flounces and resentment grenades, but only marginally so.

There’s a much shorter (and life is short, so read that instead?) version of this on Peace News., extensively de-snarked and de-psychologised..


Why we are doomed: of meetings, ghosts and the QWERTY keyboard

The way social movement organisations arrange meetings makes it harder, not easier, for new people to become involved for the long-haul struggle for social (and technological) change. 

Formats which minimise active engagement and linkage persist, despite being ‘sub-optimal’, much as the QWERTY keyboard persists.  Prospects for change are … virtually non-existent.

The problem

We have all seen ghosts.  Out of the corner of our eye, they pass among us, past us, with messages from the past, the present and the future, if only we would listen.  But the ghosts are largely mute, and if they do speak, we are too terrified to listen….

I do not mean the paranormal type of ghosts, but rather the all—too-normal world of activism and social movements, where if you sit still for long enough you will see a hardcore of ‘the usual suspects’ a semi-periphery of tourists who move from campaign to issue to flashpoint to abeyance and back through the cycle, and then a broader mist of faces, seen once, twice or thrice are placed. This mist is made up of the ghosts, those who should haunt the nightmares of social movement activists, but largely seem not to.  This article is about why they rattle their silent chains and gnash their teeth in futility, why the ghosts matter, and what could be done to minimise the ghostliness of social movements. It concludes with a series of misanthropic and miserabilist moans about why nothing will change. We’re all doomed.


Two kinds of meetings

Social movements create spaces for encounter, recruitment, retention and (in theory) discussion in many ways.  While online spaces are one important way (and the arguments around the use of proprietary platforms such as Facebook is both fascinating and urgent), the ‘real world’ also matters. However, this article is silent on marches, rallies, camps and other physical forms of social movement activity. Instead it focuses on two kinds of meeting – the  set piece public meetings with invited (high profile) speaker and the regular planning meetings of a group.

At both  ghosts are present.  In the former they tend to stay  seated near the back, and leave at the close of (interminable) Q and A.  If asked they might say they had buses catch, child-minders to relieve, and surely that will be true on many occasions. But on others it will be because they have seen or heard enough, and found no place for themselves in the overarching narrative.  At the latter, they usually stay till the end of the meeting (it’s only polite, after all), but probably don’t volunteer for tasks, and don’t expect to turn up on another occasion.   More than this, they are not going to tell their friends ”wow, the event was great, you should definitely come with me next time.”  If anything, the ripples of ghost-making will spread outward, in multiple invisible but effective ways.


What is the problem caused by?
So, why is it so?  We need to take a diversion into the business and innovation literature now.  In it we find discussion of “incumbents” who are the big beasts who benefit from the status quo, and act with political, economic and technological power to keep things the way they are.  They lobby to ensure that patents are protected and extended, that regulations keep potentially disruptive competitors at bay, to demonise innovations which would eat their market share as unnatural, dangerous, expensive. So far, so obvious.

In addition, there is an academic strand of research, ‘Upper Echelon Theory’ which argues that those who run large organisations (while not actually owning them) are able to leverage the resources of that organisation to meet their own personal and social goals – getting the organisation to do things that then reflect well on them.

Where it gets interesting (to me at least) is in thinking about social movement organisations with this ‘incumbent’ lens.  The observation that foundations and charities act as ‘control rods’, soaking up resentment against ‘the system’ is hardly a new one.  Over one hundred years ago Jack London, in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, wrote about this exact topic. More recently, Naomi Klein critiques ‘Big Green’ organisations in her book This Changes Everything.  On the whole the critique is that, as big expensive-to-maintain organisations, institutionalised incumbents are disciplined by their need to obtain funding from other large organisations- be they state, corporate or third sector.  However, in terms of ghostmaking, there is another, more ‘cultural’ and behavioural critique that needs to be made. This critique has the added advantage of applying not merely to ‘Big Green’, but also the grassroots groups which are so lauded by starry-eyed academics (or worse, those who know better but suppress their critical faculties in exchange for continued access to their subjects).

It is not merely a case of incumbents defending their financial interests directly, but other material interests – status , attention, their place within an ecosystem of soi-disant ‘dissent’.  Further, incumbent actors (primarily individuals but also at an organisational level) are driven by the need to see themselves as pure, righteous and competent, as a last line of defense for a society stumbling into chaos.  To reflect critically, to admit not merely that ‘mistakes were made (but not by us)’ but that potential members and their skills and energies were lost, that they were turned into ghosts- would be more than merely morale-hurting (the usual excuse given), but actually inherently a critique of years/decades of failure, of the style, capacities and potential of social movement organisation ‘leaders’.  This would open them to attack by other members of the organisation.  Nobody is masochistic enough to put their own head on the chopping block and offer their opponents an axe.  And nobody but self-obsessed neurotics likes to ruminate on missed opportunities, poor choices and the resulting failure.   Not only is this not ‘selected for’, to use a Darwinian term, but it’s not in the skill set of most leaders, who have been well-educated and encultured into the dominant ways of having a ‘right’ answer, of explaining away failure and ignoring ignorance.  But we urgently need to change this, because social movement organisations, especially around environment (and especially climate change) are failing, and failing faster. And that is – in part – because we have too many ghosts already, and we should stop making more of them.


The consequences of the problem

So, if people do not become involved, but instead become ghosts, then obviously they are not available to continue or expand the work of the organisation, the campaign.  The organisation loses those people  who might help it succeed in its goals or the campaign to achieve its objectives; but there is a deeper loss – as the new people fail to stay engaged, this undermines the morale of (at least some) of the existing members, and adds to the stress of extra work on few hands. Groups that are not growing, that are not even sustaining their numbers very probably come to lack legitimacy in own eyes and the eyes of others. This in turn can cause a hardening of the sense of ‘nobody else gives a fuck’ among self-selected elites, leading to a willingness to adopt extreme/Manichean/apocalyptic positions.

All this contributes to burnout and withdrawal from the organisation itself. Discretionary effort is withheld.

Even beyond this, there is an even-less-visible, but equally real, effect, the ripple effect of non-recruitment.


Why do people become ghosts?

There are of course multiple reasons why people don’t get involved after initial contact. And failure to get involved is not all the fault of organisers of badly designed and facilitated meetings.  Here’s a selection of reasons why many of those who turn up to one or two meetings are not seen again.

  • A certain number are tourists who can’t/won’t commit to the boring work of activism, but instead flit from one ‘high’ to another.  Insofar as they have skills or resources that might be useful, they are a loss. Insofar as they have no stomach for a fight, they are a dead loss.
  • Others turn up just to ‘stay aware of an issue’, or see the media personality ‘n the flesh’, but with little or no desire to become actively involved in a issue, or any issue.
  • Some are cops, or political opponents who have come on safari to laugh at the hippies.
  • Some hard-core hacks turn up to gather intelligence on what their competitors or the enemy (the line is fuzzy) are doing, and to recruit from among the attendees for those other groups.
  • Occasionally ex-activists will turn up, to confirm their doomy gloomy predictions of the futility of groups and re-affirm why activism is a grotesque farce most of the time.

But that is by no means everyone who turns up to one or two meetings.  I maintain that a large number (and it will vary, and be hard to measure in any case) are actually desperately worried about the state of the world (how could an intelligent, aware, sensitive person not be, and want to be part of the solution, not the problem?)  They are coming to meetings to see if the group has a plausible plan, and if they can see themselves as part of the group.

I think there are two major reasons why people come to public meetings (and to a lesser extent an organising meeting)  Firstly, they come to learn facts and perspectives about ‘an issue’ – to get beyond the headlines.  If you’re not particularly confident around the skills of tracking down different sources and perspectives and comparing and contrasting them, then this can be a relatively efficient way of getting information.

Secondly- and I sometimes think, without any way of proving it, that this is the major reason people attend meetings, is the need to find connection with other people who give a shit and want a better world.  Basically, these people are looking to find a way to escape from the  endemic and escalating loneliness that characterises many ‘advanced’ societies.


But along with those overarching motivations, there are other things people need if they’re going to stay involved, if they’re not already hard-core, committed (and indoctrinated) activists, with deep social ties in a group.  They need and/or want

  • opportunities to admit ignorance and uncertainty, and hear succinct and non-judgemental explanations of radical ways of thinking.
  • opportunities to get their ego-needs met, especially around attention, recognition, connection

On the whole, new attendees do not get these in meaningful or effective ways at meetings.


What they get instead is

  • The  boredom of listening to a small number of self-proclaimed radicals banging on, often using jargon and referring to obscure and long-past events, ideologies in a thinly-veiled effort to meet their own ego needs.
  • The feeling of exclusion when other people (obviously known to the facilitator) are named and they are not
  • When their questions either do not get an outlet or are dealt with an eye-roll and condescension.

And we wonder why they don’t stick around…


What are the causes of this ghost-making?

Some of this is just down to bad luck, bad timing and so on.  Social movement organisations are usually chronically starved of resources, and have little time or incentive to reflect deeply on past failures.  And so the status quo prevails not  – generally- because of any particular active dickishness but simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here.”

Less forgiveable though, are those movement activists who make a big song and dance about the importance of innovation or doing things differently and then don’t innovate at all or say they will and just fuck it up.  On my darker days, I remember that meetings “designed” by incumbents in unthinking ways, will see incumbents interests prioritised and the possibilities for genuine interaction and finding-of-each-other minimised.

Let’s have a closer look at the way the two types of meeting under discussion are performed generally (please note, this is a generic description, not necessarily specific to your experience.  I would in fact be heartened and enlightened to hear of examples where there are consistent exceptions to the rule).

An early draft of this article used the word “designed” to describe meetings.  But designed is too strong a word- very little thought goes into how a meeting will be arranged. People mostly follow scripts (how they’ve always seen it done) and think that any conscious design is somehow an artificial imposition, and that if anyone wants to speak, they can/will.

The public meeting

The public will have run a gauntlet of paper sellers outside.  They’ll come and sit down near the middle (or at the back if they’re planning to duck out early).  They’ll either sit together or if they are on their own bury themselves in a book or (more 21st century), scroll through their newsfeeds and social media accounts.  The room will fill up a bit more, so people have to do that most un-English of things – sit next to someone they don’t know.  There will of course be isolated outbreaks of networking, talking to new people etc, but on the whole, people will keep to themselves.

The chair of the meeting will – within a few minutes of the advertised start time – announce the meeting open.  There will be some random comments about current events and heavy handed attempts at humour and welcoming.  The speaker will then get a long and fawning introduction.

The speaker – some personality from television or the mass media, mostly, will utter a few standard and obligatory self-deprecatory noises. He (and it is more often than not he, though women are not good at this either) will then very much launch into the standard spiel that they’ve done many a time before.  It will have been updated with new factoids and new examples (almost certainly drawn from their latest book or television programme).  They will get so carried away that they’ll run over time by a significant amount of time.  The chair of the meeting, not wanting to seem a bully, and certainly not wanting to alienate this celebrity (or others) will let it run on.

Eventually though, the celebrity will shut up.  Most of his talk, oddly, will have been about the finer detail of the world’s PROBLEMS.   Problems are relatively easy to study, after all. And there are so many of them…

Solutions? Well, the celebrity doesn’t want to be perceived as following a particular party line, as captive or captivated by a particular group.  At the same time, if you got specific about a solution, all the difficulties in implementing that solution would surface.  Far better, therefore, to keep it to a general ‘the government/business is bad/mistaken’ and a general and generic ‘we the people have to do something’.  The chair of the meeting will call for additional applause.  Some people will get up and leave, knowing what comes next.  And what comes next is… usually dreadful.

It’s the Q and A, which might as usefully be called the P and A – preening and assholery. The chair will ask if anyone has questions, and a bunch of hands (attached to men) will shoot up.  The chair will pick three or four, based on who they know, who they like.  These questions will each be long. Some will not be questions at all, but mini speeches with terms like “don’t you agree that…”.  A long question demands a long answer, and the invited guest may also use the excuse to add stuff that he didn’t get to say in his spiel.  Eventually, with time running out, the chair may make some weak comment like “it would be good to hear from women”.  But it will be too late – a lot of the women will have left, either physically or mentally.

The meeting will close with more applause and announcements about upcoming marches and demonstrations.  The people who know each other will catch up, some will go to the pub and pick over who said what.  The ghosts though, having met no-one, will leave.  They may be back, on another issue, with a different speaker, but then again, they might not…

The business meeting

The group is meeting in a room somewhere – either a Friends Meeting House or a community space (like the one the police so helpfully were involved in setting up in Leeds, back in the day).

There’ll be a bunch of ‘old hands’ who clearly know each other.  The meeting will start on time, ish.  Depending on how many people are present there will probably be a name go round. People will give their name and their political/group affiliations. The chair (or ‘facilitator’) will announce the agenda and ask if there are any additional items.  Discussions will then be launched.

The conversation will probably be dominated by those who have the longest histories in the group/around the issue. They know the most, have the shared experience.  The Plato Rule will be witnessed – the wise man speaks when he needs to. The foolish man speaks when he wants to…”

The facilitator will point to various people, probably using names when he knows the person and “you, sorry, don’t know your name” when they don’t.   Issues will be decided, volunteers sought.  When there is a job, it will not be explained in detail, or paired off with anyone else.  The implication will be that it is an open-ended commitment.

In all probability, important issues that were at the foot of the agenda are not dealt with because the facilitator has not kept the meeting to time.  So items are either abandoned, deferred or – worst of all – decided in the pub afterwards.

For, inevitably, once the meeting is declared closed, there will be an announcement that some people are going to the pub….


Here’s a brief set of “commandments” and suggestion


What could be done?

Public meeting

Start on time.  It’s unprofessional and sends a message that you are sloppy and don’t consider people’s (finite) time to be a precious resource.

Start with an interaction – get people to turn to the person next to them to exchange names and ‘the reason they came’.  Not doing this sends the message that the only thing that matters is the front of the room, and what the oracles and the elect are saying.  Doing this means that everyone at least speaks to SOMEONE during the course of the evening.

Crowd-source the time keeping.  “Dear everyone, our wonderful speaker Professor Jane Bloggs has expressed a keen interest in hearing your questions and comments and ways forward and so is going to restrict herself to 30 minutes, of which at least one third-  10 minutes is about the possible solutions to problem x.  To that end, I’m going to slide two pieces of paper across – one at the 11 minutes to go mark – “Solutions” and another “This is the end”  piece of paper across at the “one minute to go” point. At exactly 30 minutes, I’m going to start to applaud, and you’re all going to join in.  Let’s practice now – (starts to applaud).

Ask speaker to devote at least half of talk to a) solutions b) problems with previous solutions c) what incumbents will do in response to attempts at reform. d) stuff that people in audience could do in coming days, weeks, months. i.e. NOT an exhaustive/exhausting litany of woes, recap of the book that they are shilling, followed by a tokenistic “we need to build a mass movement” horseshittery.

Making the Q and A a tolerable (even, gasp, energising experience).

(after applause dies down).  “Thanks to Professor Bloggs.  I am sure some of you already have questions.  I am sure others of you have half a question in your heads.  What we are going to do now is spend two minutes developing – and where possible SHORTENING those questions.  Please turn to the person next to you and do that if neither of you has a question, just compare your thoughts on what you’ve heard.”  (After two minutes rings a bell)

So, you’ve had a chance to get feedback on your question. With very rare exceptions, good questions are short questions. So, please no speeches, no self-advertisements. Professor Bloggs has said she’s going to try to keep her answers and responses as short as possible, and not use the time to continue her speech or go off on major tangents.  So we should be able to get through lots of questions.   We’re going to batch them in threes.  Can I see a show of hands, who wants to ask a question?” (Then pick two women and a man as “one, two, three” – don’t use names, even if you know people.)  Then another batch of three…

We’re drawing to a close now.  There’s something I didn’t tell you earlier, and that is that we have a prize for the best question.  Our judges have whittled it down to three, based on how short they were, how much they forced Professor Bloggs to think, and how relevant they were to the topic at hand.  Here are the three questions (puts up powerpoint).  Please only clap for one of the three questions Loudest clapping wins, and the person who asked that question gets…”  (a ten quid book voucher/ a copy of the book being launched, whatevs).  (This recognises and encourages the art of asking good questions, and gives the questioner a specific reward).

Maybe have the questioner come up to receive the book from Professor Blogs and close the meeting with those thanks.
Crucially, end the meeting on time, and on a ‘high note (applause for everyone). Remember the pea-end effect – people’s memory of an event is shaped by the most emotionally salient period within the meeting (the peak), and the final bit (end).


Planning meeting

Start on time, to send out a message of seriousness and reliability

  • Have an ice-breaker/”report-in” from people. Get the creative juices flowing, get everyone talking to one other person.  As a rule, a ‘name go round’ is NOT an icebreaker!
  • Consider having name badges for the meeting, even if most people think they know other people’s names.
  • Have a skilled chair, someone who understands the difference between chairing and facilitating, and is capable of doing both.  And if there are contentious issues to be discussed/decided, perhaps think of having an external person who facilitates those bits, making sure that there’s good process.
  • Facilitator, who either uses everyone’s name or nobody’s, to minimise that sense of an ingroup and an outgroup.
  • Have co-facilitators who facilitate a portion of a meeting, so that they gain experience and confidence, without having to ‘jump in the deep end’.
  • At the half way point of the meeting have a brief break. At this point jobs that need doing could be distributed, to people who were not present.
  • Make sure that when tasks are being offered out, that they are ones that aren’t open-ended commitments, and that wherever possible/sensible people are paired, an experienced person and a new-to-the-group person. Never ever let anything ‘mission critical’ be left to one person.  That stuff should always be paired.

There are more, but we’re drifting here from the mechanics of a meeting into how to distribute tasks and build skills in a group, which is a separate article…

Why social innovation will not happen.

As a baked-in pessimist, but also an empiricist, I believe that few if any of the suggestions above will become social norms.  I have reasons for this pessimism, which I provide in two sections: firstly when the incumbents want to innovate, but lack certain resources, and secondly when  the incumbents do NOT want to innovate (some cases will be hard to parse, of course, since motivations shift, and are sometimes a mystery even to those who have them).

Incumbents want it to but…

Innovation is difficult: experiments can fail, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and there are people just waiting to tell you that no good comes of trying to Change The World.  Further, innovation probably requires (demands) new skills, which an actor can lack.  It certainly demands confidence, and even (especially?) outwardly-confident people can be lacking in that

Beyond the purely ‘internal (psychological, cognitive, emotional) factors, are the broader ones to do with the social and political (small p) environment in which the innovator might attempt to ‘shake it up.’ It may be that they lack the opportunity because, while they are in office, they are not in power, and must defer to others – who do not want innovation – over the format of meetings.  It may be there is simply not enough appetite for  innovation among the broader field of actors involved. For whatever reason they do not see the need for change, or do not believe that it can succeed…. That brings us to the second reason why innovation won’t happen: incumbents don’t want it. It’s not in their material or emotional interest – would be abjuring opportunities for attention and affirmation, and would create unease/discomfort in a significant portion of their audience, which comes to these events largely to be seen as responsible citizens, but ultimately want to be passive, to not have responsibility.

Something from a wonderful book called from “Freedom to Learn,” a book by the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers is particularly relevant here:

He told me that while the experimental plants continue to do extremely well, and he feels pride in the work he has done with them, he regards his work with the corporation as a failure. The top management, though appreciative of the increased profits and good morale of the experimental plants, has not moved to follow this model in their other plants, even though it appears evident that overall profits would be increased.

“Why not?” I inquired.

His answer was most thought provoking: “When managers from other plants look closely at what we are doing, they gradually realize how much of their power they would have to give away, to share with their employees.  And they are not willing to give up that power.” When I stated that it appeared that power over people was even more important than profits- which are supposed to be the all-important goal in industry- he agreed.

So, if incumbents don’t want it, what do they do?

First, they simply ignore proposals for change.   If that no longer works, they may deride it as ‘touchy-feely’ or ‘hippy bollocks’.  Next they may tokenistically schedule discussion, putting it low on an agenda and then either not discussed at all or only discussed in a rushed and cursory fashion.  It is then deferred as “not appropriate; maybe later, after the next demonstration.”

The more sophisticated variant is to co-opt  a change and empty it of meaning (what academics who study these things call ‘de-coupling’). This can be done either fairly knowingly and cynically (having people in a circle instead of in rows, but still ‘running’ things or else inadvertently and simply because you are latching on to the latest ‘cool’ words (for example, the way the terms ‘unconference’ and so on were debased by Compass in 2013- see here.

Even more sophisticated (and I’ve not seen that many examples of this) is to do an experiment with the expressed intention of having it fail so it can be discredited.

What can be done?
As we say up north, “nowt” (which means, ‘nothing’).  Or rather, I can’t imagine a) being part of the solution, I lack the social skills, the status, the patience to enact this.  b) other people with the skills, status, patience stepping forward, since they don’t seem to feel the need; almost by definition, if you have the status within a group to make the changes, you have less motivation to do so, since your psychological and social needs are largely being met (so, not so much ’embedded agency’ as in-bed-with agentic deadlock).

Personally, I vote with my feet.  I just don’t go to events which I know are likely to be shit.  I walk out of events that I have gone to which are shit.  I sometimes lob a resentment grenade over my shoulder as I flounce out.  Strictly for the shits and giggles, you understand.  I have become, for all intents and purposes, a ghost. [n.b this was written in mid-2018. I have de-ghosted, for now.]

The dead hand of history is very very strong.  In the late 19th century the Qwerty keyboard became the industry standard.  Not because it was the best arrangement for rapid typing, but because it wasn’t – in the age when metal had to hit paper, the arms of the commonest letters would jumble.  Therefore they had to be placed away from each other.

Once we have a routine, a set of habits (and I’ve not addressed the whole question of “institutions” in the academic sense here) , we stick to them, even if they no longer ‘make sense.’ The legacy of the way we’ve always done things.

The sun. The sun….



UPDATE 1 August 2019: Thanks to Sam for spotting a bunch of typos/grammar snafus, which I have fixed. All remaining errors remain my responsibility, obvs.





Perm or Perineum? Of social movement emotions, retronyms and… sexism.

We’re all going to die.  And we’re all going to die in large  or small (1) part because social movement organisations run on emotion rather than anything approaching strategy. And they spend all their  time trying to get the next hit (2), rather than getting folks to do the long, slow, boring work of social change and of changing the system from “without” (3).

This matters to me in general because I am part of a group trying to build capacity to respond, in Manchester, to the insane scale of the climate emergency.  We will fail, but as long as we fail but do not flail, then I’ll be “happy.”

This matters to me in specifics right now because next Tuesday I am presenting at an academic conference on the subject of political emotions, on the emotacycle.


I’ve already come up with various neologisms (new words) for aspects of this – the smugosphere, ego-fodder, potemkinclusivity.  The wife, aka Dr Wifey,aka  TSG (The Short Genius) reckons that’s enough neologisms for one… lifetime.  So, I am switching to retronyms now.  A retronym is an acronym where the word comes first and the acronym is retro-fitted.

As I walked around the park with my proverbial (as in literal) backpack full of bricks, yesterday, I was thinking about the mechanics of the emotacycle, and the moment at the top right of the diagram, currently called ‘The Main Event’, where the peak moments of emotional resonance are to be had.  The orgasmic moment.  So I started playing around with P.E.R and pretty soon I came up with PERM-

Peak Emotional Resonance Moment.  (PERM)

In SOME ways its perfect – all about preening, presentation, wasting good money on frivolous things… and…

Deeply gendered.  There’s already a nasty vein of Puritan critique of consumerism as silly women’s business.   Would PERM not be more of the same?

So, as I walked around the park,  up and down the hill steps five times, up and down the grandstand five times, I kept going with the PER…

Peak Emotional Resonance Incident, Negatively Effecting/Undermining Movement-building.



  1. That should be affecting, not effecting
  2. It’s a mouthful, taint it? (see what I did there?)
  3. It’s still quite genital/sexual (as my shrink would point out, if I had one).;

How about Ostentatious Rebellious Gatherings, Against Social Movement-Building

Or , or…

Yeah, look, it was fun as I walked around the park, but TSG may be right.  I like the PERM thing best, tbh, but the sexism baggage – unless it can be illustrated with 80s stadium-rocker hair etc, renders it problematic.


Or am I overthinking this, censoring myself out of the pithiest term?

Or perhaps PERMIAN extinction?

Peak Emotional Resonance Moment Inadvertently Accelerating Negativity?



(1) Sometimes in my focus on social movement pathologies I forget that there are people out there trashing the planet for shits , giggles and profits. So I have been told, anyhows, by people who don’t want to look too closely at our own failings…

(2) There’s a critique of big NGOs (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc ) that the y spend all their time fundraising and so cutting their cloth accordingly, not saying or doing the things they should. Well, same goes for the so-called grassroots groups, in the sense that they too spend all their time creating opportunities for donations to keep them afloat. But the donations are of time, passion.   The longer slower movement-building stuff is simply ignored and actively hurt by the churning involved…  Put more pithily here

Activists keep hopping from cause to cause based on whatever’s currently getting media attention. Does that develop collective power for anyone? Political ambulance chasing is fine for NGOs

(3) As someone, I forget who, once sang – “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within…”

Look Sharp- underlying vectors and factors for the emotacycle?

My very smart Canadian friend (no, not you, Cameron – I have another very smart Canadian friend) just sent me an interview conducted with a researcher/activist called Marcie Smith, by a chap called Branko Marcetic.  It’s title is Gene Sharp, the Cold War Intellectual Whose Ideas Seduced the Left and it is brilliant (as in Smith is on the money, and the right questions were asked).

I think I may have to adjust/expand my thoughts around the emotacycle, which I am doing a presentation about at the end of the month.l.


I will deal with this more in the second part of the essay, which will come out soon — it’s about how Sharp’s ideas spread and migrated throughout the Left, how they show up. One of the things I began to see, and others have commented on — and this was not just in the climate movement but in the US protest scene more broadly — was a kind of instrumentalization of protests. By which I mean, elevating protest as an end in itself as opposed to recognizing it as a means to specific political outcomes. This idea that if we do protest, good things will happen. If we perform righteousness, power will notice and we will get the justice and freedom that we demand, whatever that means. Protest gets elevated way above other skills, like organizing, political education, intellectual labor, debate, the skills of alliance building, i.e. diplomacy, etc.

I myself am implicated in this. I was a college climate activist and it’s a very heady thing to get involved in protest movements, to connect and cathect in the street with others who are rightly outraged at the injustice of our current state of affairs. But always we need to be clear, what are we demanding? And who or what are we demanding it of? And is this the best, most strategic use of limited time and resources, is it informed by history and the dynamics of class struggle? And I think intergenerational movements are essential if we are going to answer these questions well. I don’t think it’s coincidental that many Sharpian movements have been driven by middle-class, urban university students, young people with lots of energy, so-called moral clarity, but who are still negotiating their relationship to authority, have few or no bills to pay, etc., and may be “cosmopolitan provincials” in their worldview.

and later

So, we are operating with these very moralistic categories that don’t offer much in the way of specifics about what kind of world we want, what kinds of productive relations we want, and what would it actually take to achieve them in the face of extremely powerful opposition.

That’s dangerous. It puts protest movements in a position where they can be easily co-opted, where they can serve as a kind of battering ram, and then the neoliberal experts with the “good ideas” come rolling out and with the content.

Out out, damned spot we’re in. Of freaking, burning and compassion…

I get it and I don’t get it.  I get that parents of young children are reading the science (at last) and freaking the fuck out  (pardon my French). I would be too.  Except, in 2004 I went under the knife – no taddies in my baby batter thank you very much. And, as I said at the time and have said since

a) it wasn’t me being afraid of what my children would do to the planet (standard ginormous carbon footprint of your average Westerner), but of what the planet would do to my child

b) the second half of the 21st century is going to make the first half of the 20th look like a golden age of peace, love and understanding.  You really don’t need to be a McPhersonite to grok that.  It’s been obvious since the get go (1988-1992) that “we” as a species would not respond with the necessary smarts and hard work.  Too much (enacted) inertia, especially from the fossil fuel interests, their mates and enablers.

So I don’t get it. In my darker moods I imagine the world ten years from now when, as the rationing and the chaos properly kicks in, parents of kids are demanding that their (the parents) needs be put first as they’re having to cope with all sorts of horror, and oh, the pathos of having to tell Theo or Ophelia about the Awful Things That Are Happening and how The Government Should Have Done Something.

But of course, I do get it. I get the anger, the sense of doom, the self-loathing for not having just been more effective when something could have been done.

And then when I don’t get it again,  I think about how I still won’t be able to say “What did you expect, you stupid breeders?  Did someone force you to spawn? No, you did it despite what any sensible person knew was coming.  Why on this dying earth do you think that you deserve sympathy?”

Right now you can’t say that (and you can only write it on blogs nobody reads).  Right now, friends I massively respect, who have young kids, are burning themselves out because the alternative, of taking a few days/weeks out, which they “need,” would expose them again to the full existential dread, horror, guilt and self-reproach which they’ve been blotting out with activity (and activism).  So they don’t do what they need (in my opinion, and also their own, I think)  to do stay effective for the long haul.

As with everything to do with climate change, you can’t blame them, except when you can.  And all that is left, before the collapse, is compassion, I guess.



Activism and the #emotacycle: opinions/suggestions sought.

Hello everyone,

In July 2019 I will present a paper at an academic conference entitled “Political Emotions.” The abstract is below.  I’m posting a very first draft/series of thoughts in the hope that I can stea… sorry, borrow, insights from smart people.  Let me know what you think of the emotacycle concept, the details. What’s missing, what’s wrong, what are some examples of it?  And, crucially,  (how) might it be useful to activists, how would it need to be presented to “them.” (At the moment it is written in first person. I may keep that, I may dump it. Who knows).

TITLE: “Riding the Emotacycle off a cliff”- of (climate) activism, emotional management and eternal return.

Abstract: Thinking people are prone to despair. They join movements and movement organisations to change the world, but also to “manage” that despair. In this paper, an identifiable cycle of emotional peaks and troughs, partially under movement control, is identified. This “emotacycle” has four phases- the Big Event (a march, rally, camp) at which positive emotions (hope, optimism, affiliation) are performed and displayed; the aftermath, where disappointment and despair are contained; the Re-evaluation, where “next steps” are mooted; and Feeder Events building with optimism towards the next Big Event.

The article, based on personal experience, observation and interviews, will outline some of the psycho-social dynamics within each phase, the movement between phases, and  – crucially – the efforts to move social movement organisations towards more effective styles of behaviour, and outline a research agenda for scholar activists and activist scholars.

Keywords: Political Emotions, activism, smugosphere, cliques


It is now over thirty years since the general public were made aware of climate change (n.b. the threat of anthropogenic global warming had been at least mentioned in specialist publications for almost 20 years before that, and the oil industry was keeping tabs from the 1960s). So, now is a good time  to examine the reasons for the  failure of social movements to sustain concerted radical pressure on elites and force a societal (indeed, socio-technical) transition.

Of course, climate change is a particularly hard issue to address, since there has been no “easy” substitute for fossil fuels in the same way that there was for the other atmospheric culprit of the 1970s-80s, ozone-destroying chlorofluorachlorines.  And “our” (1) enormous ‘Great Acceleration” of (economic) wealth since the 1950s.

I became aware of climate change during that period (having been sensitised to environmental considerations through a mix of biographical experiences and a love of classic-era Doctor Who).  By 1991 at the latest I was pretty sure we (as a species) were in deep shit and very very unlikely to get out of it.  Nothing these last thirty years has changed that view.

I have lived in the UK for nearly 25 years now, and I’ve seen waves of activity around “the environment” come and go. I’ve participated in a couple of them.  At the same time, I’ve looted (and I used the word in the sense of grabbing things without quite knowing what they are worth and then pegging it) ideas about issue attention cycles and social movement studies (mostly crap, imo) and so on.  And I’ve reflected on the comings and goings of these waves of activity, what happens within them, between them. And I have written A LOT, and coined (too) many neologisms.  Two that particularly stand out are the smugosphere and the emotacycle.  They are connected in a non-determinate (I think) way.  The smugosphere is the place where things are done not because they might be effective but because they meet the emotional/status needs of those (individuals or groups/organisations) who do them.  If a student doesn’t study for their exams, they get robust feedback. If an athlete doesn’t train for the tournament/match, there is robust feedback they can’t explain away. If politicians don’t knock on doors, kiss babies and do what Rupert tells them… you get the idea. In most fields of human activity there is a link between effort/innovation and outcomes. Except in climate activism.  “Activists” don’t generally get text messages from angry polar bears saying “your marches/petitions/camps have achieved nothing, thanks” or a voicemail from a child born in 2030 saying similar. And in the absence of feedback, people tend to keep doing what they’re “good” at, what gives them importance in their tribe, what helps them sleep at night. And the big wheel keeps on turning.

The idea has had an, ah, mixed reception. It turns out people don’t like being accused of smugness. Who knew, eh?

This article is not about the smugosphere directly, though it lurks in the background. This article is about a related concept – the emotacycle.  I suppose the smugosphere is the “spatial” aspect (can I have a Geography post-doc now please) and the emotacycle is the temporal aspect.  Put them together and you have a part of the explanation about the internal dynamics that keep “civil society” (my goodness I hate that term) where it is, at least on climate change.

I got thinking about the emotions of climate change activism in 2006 (a big year for me). In mid-2006 I was in a squat in London. I’d convinced myself that the reason the numbers at previous monthly meetings of the Climate Camp had been static was that we weren’t in London.   But the London meeting was no bigger than those held in the provinces. When I pointed this out, and my puzzlement over it, to an activist friend, he was not  surprised.  “No smell of victory” he said, meaning that you could imagine “winning” by stopping a road being built, or by stopping genetically modified food hitting the supermarket shelves. But climate change? No, if you thought about it for a few minutes, you knew you were on a hiding to nothing.  It may be that there was never a path to victory, that the power of inertia and denial (in the fullest sense) was too strong. But that doesn’t, I think, mean, that we should ignore the emotacycle.

So, what is the emotacycle?  It’s the cycle of emotions that are facilitated/enabled/demanded by groups/organisations which mobilise (as distinct from movement-building) around an issue (in this case climate change, but I’ve seen it on other topics, and would be very interested to know how transferable/generalizable readers think it is.

I first came up with it back in 2011/2, when I was co-editing Manchester Climate Monthly. Then I called it the emotathon, to highlight its persistence/duration (as in marathon). I think that was a mistake, and so changed to emotacycle, which also allows me to riff on the wondrous song “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Manic Street Preachers.

The following figure (Fig. 1) lays it out.  There’s a Big Event where people emote.  This is followed by the come down, the re-creating of a sense of possibility, the proposal of a another Big Event which must be fed with “Feeder Events.”


As long as the Big Events are bigger than the last one (or a failure to grow can plausibly be explained away, then the forward momentum can disguise the fact that many people are either dropping out after one or two meetings, or after one or two years.  When though, the bubble bursts, then it all disappears (to mix a metaphor) like a fist when you open your palm.

It’s captured by this observation from – of all people – Hunter S. Thompson, speaking of the feeling in the mid- 1960s from the vantage point of 1971.

“that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

The article proceeds as follows. Firstly it explains the relatively novel methodology, in which I write an exploratory article and publish it on my website (this what you are reading). Secondly, I will approach various individuals and conducted a one-to-one interviews Finally, I will conduct  two semi-structured discussions groups, one in Manchester and one in Adelaide, Australia. .

Secondly, drawing on interview and focus group material it describes the “emotacycle”  and its four phases in detail.

A discussion of the possible utility of the concept to activists follows, and what they might do to overcome the emotacycle. This is followed by pointers to the weaknesses in the model and a future study agenda.


  • Listen to feedback (if any) on this blog post/exploratory article.
  • One-to-one interviews with activists I respect who are reflective (these people do exist). Discussion groups. Reflection and some re-reading of brilliant work on activism (Debbie Louis, Kathleen Blee).
  • Yeah. That sort of thing.
  • Watch Milk?!

The Emotacycle and its dynamics

So, this section looks more closely at the four phases within the emotacycle, examining what emotions are allowed/encouraged/discouraged at various stages – the psycho-social dynamics – and the passage between the phases.

  1. The Big Event (a march, rally, camp)

This event, usually lasting a few hours or at most a few days (the politics of long-running protests camps/blockades etc are outside the experience of the author, and the scope of this article) are the focus here. The predominant emotions encouraged are positive ones (hope, optimism, affiliation) are A big even allows these to be performed and displayed, both by and for the performer.  These will be mixed with  excitement and fear (Rathbone quote from Eurokillers)

While these big events are getting bigger, you can, if you squint say with conviction that  “we are winning”  ( a cynic would say that people are sucking on the hopium pipe, staying in a comforting  hallucination, as so many second-rate sci-fi tropes would have it).

I suspect (but cannot prove) that there is a “re-enacment fallacy” going on here, that people are expecting to follow the script of the last “successful” mass struggle that people will have been exposed to (there have of course been others, but they are less well known).  And that’s the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington (where MLK gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Here’s Noam Chomsky [quoted in Manufacturing Consent]  on this phenomenon –

The way things change is because lots of people are working all the time, and they’re working in their communities or their workplace or wherever they happen to be, and they’re building up the basis for popular movements. In the history books, there’s a couple of leaders, you know, George Washington or Martin Luther King, or whatever, and I don’t want to say that those people are unimportant. Martin Luther King was certainly important, but he was not the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King can appear in the history books ‘cause lots of people whose names you will never know, and whose names are all forgotten and who may have been killed and so on were working down in the South.

So (controversially), with no disrespect to the many many people who risked their lives (and some lost their lives) in that struggle, I’d like to say that we’ve turned it into a cargo cult.

Cargo cult you say? What they, you say?  Well, during World War 2,  “primitive” peoples living on the South Pacific Islands saw American soldiers arrive with coke and chewing gum and want some of that. They know there are planes involved.  But they go away… so what do they do? They make bamboo planes to ask the gods to bring the coke and chewing gum back.  Oh how we laugh at them.  While being identical. We want the energy, clarity, connection and courage of the Black Civil Rights Movement.  We know that there was some big marches (MLK I have a dream). So… we have marches.  It’s grotesque magical thinking.

So, this is a long quote below, from a fantastic novel called Mud, by Nicky Edwards.  It’s about a disillusioned activist who is explaining her perspective on the Greenham Common Peace Camp actions to a much older woman (Ada).

“OK. Once upon a time there was this big day out at a peace camp, when Janet and Janet and some Johns, but mainly thirty thousand or so Janets went and held hands and sang songs and generally had a good time.”

“…. Lots of adventures for the Janets. But time passes, until it’s a year after that first day out in the country, which so many of our heroines found so inspiring. Almost exactly a year to the day…. Well, our particularly Janet is there, of course, older and a bit more battered and generally fed up to the back teeth with being pushed around in the good cause that has brought everyone out in their thermal underwear again.”

“But still she went.”

“Couldn’t miss it really. Big day out, lots of women there, sense of obligation, not wanting to be left out. All sorts of things.”

“And how was it different from the first time?” Ada was really quite good at this cross-examining business.

“In many ways, not at all. Same thousands of women milling around, looking pretty similar, singing the same song. Same mud, same camera crews, same tail-back of coaches with posters in the windows jamming the Basingstoke road. More police helicopters, more barbed wire, more soldiers and watchtowers and floodlights and guns in evidence. More crackle of walkie-talkies filling up every bit of the airwaves, even the ones the Janets were trying to sing in. But a lot of the same looks on their faces. Untroubled.”


“Like I said, our particular Janet was wandering around feeling rather jaded, and wondering why they all thought the nastiness would go away because they’d turned out in such numbers to be nice all round it, when they’d done the same thing last year and not changed it for the better.”

Ada tutted gently to herself. Not sure how to interpret the noise, I carried on.

“And, of course, Janet felt guilty for being so cynical and making comparisons with the way she always got taken to midnight mass when she went home for Christmas, a pleasant and colourful, but fairly pointless annual ritual.”


“Sounds a proper shambles.”

“It was.” I chewed the end of a match reflectively. “And because there’s no mechanism for anyone to have less than a wonderful inspiring time on a big day out like that, there were all these women left thinking that the kind of chaotic scrum they’d just been involved in was what you were meant to do there, and suffering from guilt that they didn’t come away feeling good about it. Trying to convince themselves that they did feel good about it.”

page 123/5

So, this is what the Big Event does for the people who can participate. Those who can’t? Well, they’ left to answer the Oasis question (“Where were you while we were getting high?”).

Move to next phase

The positive feeling here can of course create affiliations, connections between people, but mostly between people who are already on the same page – it’s bonding capital more than bridging capital, to use more terminology that I hate.

2. The aftermath, where disappointment and despair are contained;

Of course, the Big Event fades, memory fades, the media circus moves on. And if numbers were not as high as the organisers had hoped, then there is emotional work to be done to reframe the event as a “success”.  And if people have been left injured- physically or psychologically – by confrontation with opponents (state, corporate or civil society) then there are feelings of anger and uncertainty as well as  disappointment  and despair which need containing, (explaining away?) and managing.  However, everyone is so exhausted that, in my limited experience, that kind of work is either not performed at all or done very badly and haphazardly.

The main difficulty, psycho-socially, is that people want to remember the Big Event fondly, and all these awkward questions make that harder (or even impossible) to do.  So, sweep under carpet…

I suspect a bunch of people who might otherwise stay involved give up at this point, which – if it gets to a certain number – can cause a death spiral.  It depends on local factors, media etc etc.

This refractory period, where not much is “happening”, at least on the surface is – while an emotacycle is on its way “up” relatively short, I think.

3. The Re-evaluation, where “next steps” are mooted;

Here we see a “re-gathering emotions”.  Failures are explained away using the Lady Macbeth line – “screw your courage to the sticky place, and we’ll not fail!”

Those who had a good time at the Big Event are more likely to have stuck around, and they want to recapture that elusive feeling of being on the road to victory.  They know how to organise (or at least participate in) a Big Event, and so when the “what to do next?” question is posed, they are well-placed and well-motivated to suggest More of the Same – a big event at some suitably distant point (six months or so? Depends of course, on multiple factors.)

4. Feeder Events (aka the Frank N Furter manoeuvre)

So, here I think we need to go back to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Individuals/groups/movements decide that they can bury their differences and all build with optimism towards the next Big Event.

This enables people to have hope, defer pain/uncertainty and – above all –  have a feeling of “progress”, gathering the flock, calling people together. It allows good opportunities for local and regional “ego-foddering” (another neologism – where those who attend meetings are turned into empty vessels to be filled with The Word.  An organisation has a Message that the doubters and the ignorant Need to Hear.  Nothing millenarian or eschatological about it at all, nosiree).

Again, those with doubts about how it will, in fact, be different this time are around are invited to do the Hirschman “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” – they can shut up or piss off, while everyone revels in lots of activity, very little action.

(So, I will include other people’s insights in each of these four phases (and perhaps there are more?  Perhaps the whole thing is wrong-headed?)

What is is not what has to be. (aka “no future but the one we make”)
It doesn’t have to be like this of course, but we can’t just exhort ourselves to escape the emotacycle without understanding why it persists and how it can defend itself from attack.

I will tackle them both on the “individual” and the organisational level (these two imbricate, of course they do, but let’s keep it analytically simples for now).

Individuals are battling – if they understand the climate science – sheer terror.  And when we are scared we tend to do what those around us are doing (for better or worse – over-reacting or under-reacting).  And if everyone is going on marches and calling that activism, then so be it.  Rather than think about what particular skills they have, what skills they could cultivate, people are invited to see themselves as fodder for organisations.

Mostly, rather than doing long-term, non-co-opted, boring/un-adrenaliney grunt work (a walk on part in the war) it’s easier (and more socially acceptable) to swap that for a lead role in the cage. So it goes.

Ultimately, participation in the emotacycle works as a selection pressure against those who do not have spare time, cash, hope.  Who has the time to go to feeder events and then the Big Event.  Or, they go to the Big Event and call that activism, call that their ‘duty’.  Ultimately, this way of organising means that the ghetto is sustained

Organisationally, well, if your group is good at “doing” marches (booking coaches, printing placards etc), then that is what you are going to keep doing, isn’t it?  And turning people into ego-fodder and forcing them into the emotacycle is EASIER, requires less courage, less imagination, less skill. And so it persists.  Not to be determinist or anything.

If you name this, expect to be shouted down as “opposed to activism”.  Expect to be sneeringly asked “well, what’s your alternative” and then be interrupted as you try to explain it.  Expect to be resisted by those who see your criticism as a personal reproach for the decades they wasted, the “human resources” they have let slip through their hands from the endless enaction of the emotacycle.
Ultimately, this may be beyond the grasp of some people. Socio-dynamics tend to be poorly understood, or ignored or repressed.  We have need of the liberal myth that we are atoms bouncing off each other.

I also don’t want to say that the only reason social movements have failed to “win” on climate change is the emotacycle/smugosphere. That would be to ignore the active efforts to keep us stupid (agnotology) divided (Agent provocateurs and ‘sheep and goats’ strategy) and stuck in old patterns (o-optation, undercovers making sure we are never, you know, effective.)

Research agenda for scholar activists and activist scholars
At the moment all I have is this –

  • What are we trying to find out?
  • For who?
  • How would we communicate our findings (given the knowledge that calling people smug tends to have them plug up their ears, and talking about the psycho-social dynamics of emotions in movement cycles might have the same outcome).
  • What and how might we learn from history?


Beginnings of an “undercovers” fiction list

So, recently I reviewed two books “about” infiltration/undercovers, and asked for suggestions. I got loads of really helpful pointers. Here is the first very rough list of additions (there were some others, mentioned in the blog post.  I’ve kept track of the various people I have to thank for these tips too, but decided not to include that info here.

I need to integrate it/alphabeticise/annotate etc.  Oh, and actually read some more of them and produce the paper for the conference and the activists… should keep me off the streets…


Books “about” undercovers

Book Author(s) Description Suggested by (for thanks)
Q Luther Blissett Q is a novel by Luther Blissett first published in Italian in 1999. The novel is set in Europe during the 16th century, and deals with Protestant reformation movements. Jonathan Atkinson
Orkney Twilight Clare Carson @UndercoverNet


Stealing The Future @MaxHertzberg Alt Future East Germany @UndercoverNet
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare G. K. Chesterton @UndercoverNet
Naming the Dead Ian Rankin G8 Gleneagles shenanigans
The Terrorists Sjöwall and Wahlöö
Javelin Roger Pearce @BristolKRS
Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan Sweet Tooth is a novel by the English writer Ian McEwan, published on 21 August 2012. It deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early 1970s. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5, and becomes involved in a covert program to combat communism by infiltrating the intellectual world. When she becomes romantically involved with her mark, complications ensue. @UndercoverNet
A Legacy of Spies John le Carré @UndercoverNet
Guest SJ Bradley, @BradleyBooks An authentic look at anarcho-greens, anti-globalisation, the squatter movement and punk bands by someone who was clearly there @MaxHertzberg
Cold Island @MaxHertzberg It’s over twenty-five years since Mara arrived in Britain, yet today she no longer feels safe in the country she thought she knew.

Threatened with deportation, Mara goes underground. She meets others who have made their home in the UK but are now leading lives in the half-shadows of society.

Together they embark on a journey across the moors of northern England, hoping to reach relative safety in Scotland—but the officers of Immigration Enforcement are never far behind.

Demo Richard Allen OH GOD AVOID THIS BOOK.
The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad Excellent, gripping, thought-provoking
Under Western Eyes Joseph Conrad Sadly, no
Vida Marge Piercy READ THIS BOOK
My Revolutions Hari Kunzru


Really good 70s/90s stuff. Very well written, thought provoking
The Invisible Circus Jenny Egan Also good on the consequences of violence, but not actually so much about undercovers as memory, activism etc
Invisible Armies Jon Evans Highly competent thriller, with a corporate spying on activists thread throughout.
The Weatherman Guy Jon Burmeister Dunno yet, but looks lurid af.



Films (documentaries and live action)

Documentary- “In the inner circle”


The documentary “Im inneren Kreis” (English: “In the inner circle“) by Hannes Obens and Claudia Morar, which will be distributed from now on UCM.ONE (NONFY Documentaries), describes the already almost unbelievable twists of the undercover employments of Iris P. in Hamburg and Simon B. in Heidelberg. Both assignments combine fundamental ethical and political topics and questions in themselves Sarah Arens
Film – Police, Adjective  2009 Romanian drama film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. The movie focuses on policeman Cristi, who is investigating a teenage boy who has been smoking hashish. Over time, Cristi begins to question the ethical ramifications of his task. Sarah Arens
Film – Ummah – among friends
After killing two skinheads in a failed operation against neo-Nazis, young undercover intelligence agent Daniel finds a hiding place and new friends in Berlin’s Turkish Arab community. In a realistic and witty way, the German director of Turkish origin shows the rapprochement of two worlds which seem violently opposed. Sarah Arens

TV Shows

TV Shows- Between the Lines season 3 interesting stuff about the intersection of private sector & state actors as both attempt to undermine civil society (animal rights, anti-Pinochet, anti-fascism) through infiltrators, agents & touts.
TV Show
Ghost Squad
“Whilst superficially the focus is on CIB2/CIB3-style police-investigating-police storylines (similar to start of BTL), ‘The Ghost Squad’ (2005) is largely interested on the cumulative effect of UC work on an officer’s sense of self “


Ghost Squad is an unofficial top secret Internal Affairs unit that recruits former police officers who’ve proved their honesty during their service and sends them undercover to investigate and root out corruption within the police.

TV Show Spooks Season 1 ‘Spooks’ S1 has the ‘Traitor’s Gate’ episode, with veteran MI5 field officer Peter Salter infiltrating dastardly anarchist/anti-capitalist terrorists, but falling in love, etc etc
TV Show Undercover – BBC drama




Any Means Necessary Kefi Chadwick