Category Archives: activism

The four Cs- Coronavirus, Capitalism, Climate and Cats (“belling of”) 

Another hot take about what may be coming. The USP for this one is that 

  • It tries to use some academic theories but in plain English
  • It admits up front – “who the hell knows?”
  • It actually foregrounds the crucial question other posts (e.g. this otherwise interesting one)  ignore – “who is going to bell the bloody cat?” 

Look, you’re in lock down, and this will kill 15 minutes or so….

Introduction

In the following essay I try to do four things. Firstly, I want to suggest some intellectual tools which might be of use to you in thinking about what is going on/will go on. There are plenty of such tools knocking about (Marxist-or-other dialectics, policy theories, conspiracy theories, economics and other poking- around-in-the-chicken-entrails). This essay only focuses on two, and some of my favourites (1) don’t make the cut.

The two in use here are sociotechnical transitions (“Multi-Level Perspective” and deep transitions)  and neo-institutional theory (both the ‘pillars’ image and ‘institutional work’). I will try to keep this first section as pithy and vivid as possible, but, you know, these things come from academia, so there are limits on their digestibility. I’ll end that section with a shout out to some ideas I’ve encountered in the last few days which look tasty but which I haven’t had time to chew on.

Secondly, I want to use these tools to make some suggestions on the sorts of behaviours we will see as the pandemic continues/wanes. This section will draw on what others have been writing of late.

Thirdly, I want to suggest the cat belling question is equivalent to the “Van Halen demand no brown M&Ms backstage”  tactic(2).  That is to say, if an article – academic or popular – isn’t clear about who has to act, and how, then it’s probably a waste of your time.  And so in order not to be a waste of your time, I give my current answer to that question.

Finally, I want to flag just how much we don’t know, and things we should look at. This is the bit where I hope someone with access to ERC funds goes “give that man – who has signally failed to get more than one of the 6 jobs he has been interviewed for in the last year – a postdoc.  Money is no object.”

First, two disclaimers –

  1. Who the hell knows?  The ball we are staring into is less limpid crystal ball and more pitch black bowling ball. And while we are talking balls, the wrecking ball of Coronavirus puts paid to many firm facts that seemed so damn solid four weeks ago. (who knew there was a magic money tree, eh?) But which of these facts have melted into air, and which of them have moved aside/fallen over, only to get up again in the near future? Who the hell knows?
  2. If I seem glib, it’s because I am glib.  I, famously, don’t have skin in this game. If I had gone done the breeding thing, I’d be going out of my gourd about now. But the glibness, well, it’s a transparent (in every sense) defence against the night terrors, innit?

 

 

Part 1: “If the only tool you have is a hammer…”

We are all of us struggling to make sense of what is going on these last few weeks.  The most easy thing to do is keep track of death rates, of where we are compared to this country or that country (Italy seems to have become the baseline for Europe at least), and curse that we aren’t living in New Zealand, where they seem to mostly have their shit together (certainly their Prime Minister talks a much better game than her Australian/UK counterparts).  That gives us a temporary sense of control, because, you know, numbers make it scientific(3).

Next along, it becomes a morality play – of who ignored what warnings, who shut down what, who stripped what public sector organisation of which crucial resources.  This is all good grist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be held in (checks notes) …2022 or so.

The slightly more sophisticated version is to decry neoliberalism, and the casual stripping of the state’s capacity to act, flogging off anything that isn’t nailed down and selling it at firesale prices to rich mates who happen to be donating to your political party and/or providing you with a job once you’ve done your years in the trenches as a party hack or a bureaucrat. That’s a morality play with footnotes, with the added advantage that it takes you closer to the systemic nature of what has been done to collective provision.  And you can bop along to REM’s Ignoreland as you read Harvey, Mirkowski, Brown, or the “much raking” about Dark Money. If you’re nimble, you might even get a couple of publications out of it.

Still, morality plays with footnotes don’t help us orient ourselves. And right now, we could seriously do with some shared situational awareness.

So, what is to be done? What tools (that I am aware of) might help us see this more systemically, but still allow us to think in a granular level about the what is to be done (WITBD) question in ways that go beyond pleasantries, platitudes and shibboleths?

I’ve got two proposals, which are, to be fair, kinda linked. The first is socio-technical transitions (mostly “Multilevel Perspective” –  I am probably overcooking it and under-referencing ‘deep transitions’  ). The second is institutional theory – especially the work of Scott (three pillars) and the whole “institutional work” thing.

First, MLP/Deep Transitions.

The MLP was first propounded in the late 1990s in the context of ‘sociotechnical transitions’. These are long, slow changes from one relatively stable state to a new relatively stable state. Shortest way to explain transitions: if Doctor Who used his/her Tardis and went to 1400 and found a sailor and took them to 1800, the sailor would be impressed but not totally freaked out. They’d see that the basics were the same – trees were cut down, turned into planks into hulls. Then some masts. Sails were made. Ropes were made. People had jobs as sailors, provisioners etc.  Sure, some new kit (astrolabes, chronometers etc) but the basics were unchanged. If the good Doctor were to scoot them forward to 1900 and it’s all metal steamships and it would blow their 1400AD minds: “wtaf?”

So, in the intervening 100 years, “everything changed”.  And there had been a prolonged battle between sail and steam, with all sorts of folks jockeying to maintain the current system or switch to a new one, based on where their money was coming from, what they thought was ‘right’.

So, one durable/popular way to talk about sociotechnical systems and their staying power/inertia has been the multilevel perspective (MLP). What follows is exceptionally crude.

The MLP three levels – landscape, regime and niche. The landscape level – this is where there are long term “big” factors which no individual actor can really shift or control – so for the rise of the steamship it might be associated developments in transport (railways), communications (telegraph), business management (see Alfred Chandler), Western expansionism/colonisation etc.

The “regime” (or “system” – there’s a lot of debate about these terms, because, well,  academics) is where the “big beasts” are trying to keep things on, ah, an even keel (sorry). Big business, trade associations, government departments, regulators.  Anyone who is likely to get quoted in the first eight paragraphs of a Financial Times “state of the sector” special feature. And in the 19th century it would be the big shipbuilders, insurers, the British Navy, the American Navy etc.

Finally, you’ve got the “niches” where lots of experiments take place – people tinkering in their proverbial garden sheds, innovators and entrepreneurs who either want to bring a new product to market to get rich (or die trying), or who want to change the way the “regime” is made up and what it does.  There’s a whole industry around “strategic niche management” and who counts as a niche actor. Obviously regime actors are paying attention and will adopt innovations from the niches in order to gain position within the regime or else kill an innovation that would threaten their position (think of the Japanese state versus Western tech, up until 1853).

What happens is that eventually the technology (and behaviours which enable and are enabled by that technology become more ‘efficient’/obvious and a new regime is formed from the wreckage of the old.  Wars can speed this up (Johnstone and McLeish, 2020). Pandemics? Well, we shall see….

There are many many criticisms of the Multi-Level Perspective, many of them compelling , and all of them outside the scope of this particular article.  Recently, there’s been a repurposing of the MLP, or subsuming of it into the notion of “Deep Transitions (DT).” DT covers the idea that the kind of transition we need to cope with climate change – a massive, rapid decarbonisation of the interlocked systems which mean we can move about, feed ourselves and live in warm-enough houses – can/must be accelerated, and that we can learn some tricks to do that from looking at history.

The MLP and DT are useful tools, perhaps (but certainly not on their own).  Where coronavirus fits in is in the sense of “landscape shocks”. This pandemic, long predicted (Garrett, 1994) is, as the person who kindly phoned me the other week (4) put it, the mother of all “landscape shocks”, which destabilise and possibly delegitimise the regime. The regime relies on the consent (cognitive capture, if you want to go full Gramsci) of those participating. This last few weeks beats the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, 911 and so on as the ultimate “wtaf?” moment.  We are in the earliest days, and it already has unfathomable implications for many industries (newspapers, restaurant industry, insurance, you name it). With many “normal” things now stigmatised, what might emerge in its place?

As Johann Schott says

“The key question is whether the new practices, that generate positive impact, can be continued over the longer term when the shock disappears.  After all, ‘cancel everything’ can’t be a motto for the longer term, but perhaps cancelling the commute to work to attend just one face-to-face meeting that could be conducted online instead, may become the norm. ”

And – more importantly which of these new behaviours/norms might stick around and which will be gone like a fist when you open your palm?

Which brings me to the second useful intellectual tool: institutional theory.  There’s a basic confusion in English between organisations and institutions, with the latter term being used to describe the former.  But organisational theory is something else (and quite fun – especially if you get off on understanding just how horrifically unfit for purpose most outfits (in the Richard Stark sense) are: Pournelle’s Law, the Peter Principle, Parkinson’s Law, Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, the Tyranny of Structurelessness etc etc).

Institutional theory is more about “institutions” in the sense that, in the words of Peter Cook that mawwiage, is an institution. So, the two ways I find particularly useful (again, see (1)) for thinking about “institutions” defined as

“ … social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts. Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localized interpersonal relationships. Institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous.”

are (drumroll please) these.

  1. Scott’s Three Pillars and
  2. Institutional work (creative, maintenance, defensive, disruptive)

Scott (1995) suggests we think of institutions as held up by three pillars.

  • Cultural-Cognitive Pillar – “how the world works, according to my culture, what I should think of as proper and commonsensical
  • Normative Pillar – what seems “right” and proper
    (side-note: Bourdieu kind of went here with his ‘habitus’)
  • Regulatory – what are the rules (both legal and otherwise) of the game (yes, in The Wire sense).

The crucial point is that although these are “pillars” they can (and do) change over time. When I was growing up in Australia in the 1980s it was a ‘fact’ that homosexual men were perverts, and child abusers.  Well, common sense changed…

The pillars/norms around “the market” and “neoliberalism” were contested from their birth, but gained dominance in the early 1980s and endured until 2008.  Zombie-like, they have staggered on. In the coming months and years there will be an intense battle over not the existence of the magic money tree, but who gets to shake it and who gets to gather what falls from that tree…  There will be all sorts of battles…

This brings us to institutional work, first propounded by Lawrence and Suddaby (2006). It is

“the broad category of purposive action aimed at creating, maintaining, and disrupting institutions and businesses .”

So, those pillars are being built, shored up, chipped away at all the time.  One of the most intriguing papers on this is about how DDT went from wonder-chemical to pariah in the space of ten years (Maguire and Hardy, 2009).  We will be seeing a hella lotta defensive and disruptive institutional work over the coming years, and also concerted efforts at creative institutional work – trying to create new norms and common senses around new behaviours.

Before I try to deploy the MLP and institutional work to ‘what next’, I want to shout out to two other tools which don’t make the cut but have the potential to be seriously interesting.

Firstly, within psychoanalysis – the Claustrum (Fife and Hines, 2020)

“When experiencing an environment which is intensely punitive, has little to provide, but upon which one’s survival depends, people develop predictable defenses—fantasies of how their environments work—and in various ways retreat into these fantasies, which filter their perceptions of the world and can provide a sense of safety. Or, if not safety, at least predictability—the truly new being far scarier than repeated contact with the evils one is familiar with. Psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer described the resulting subjective reality as the “claustrum.” These defensive fantasy-lenses are structured around three primary themes: 1) a dreamy apathetic denial of problems, 2) a compulsive need to convert everything into a bacchanalian party, and 3) a preoccupation with exposing and unmasking “falseness.” What draws one into the claustrum is the need to replace the confusion of reality with some kind of predictable, repeating experience that will reduce anxiety or at least provide a familiar cast of characters.”

Secondly, Peter Mair’s “hollow but hard” states.

Part 2: If I had a hammer

There are already a bunch of quite good “what comes next?” posts out there about how the pandemic ends  (Yong, 2020) and what might come next (Mair, 2020 ) and how climate change action ain’t gonna happen (Bordoff, 2020)

Fwiw, I should probably map the Mair one

“From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.”

onto David Holmgren’s peak oil/climate matrix at some point… But not today.

Pretty much everyone is alive to the danger of the status quo getting shored up. See Mazzucato (2020) and also Lombrana 2020-

“There’s a risk that countries and companies will  revert back to what they know works, Mountford says. Shovel-ready coal or fossil fuel projects that were halted in recent years on environmental concerns could easily be reactivated”

Let’s take the two intellectual tools I banged on about in the first part of this essay – MLP and Institutional Theory – and see if there are any rough (5) thoughts we can sketch out.

MLP

Well, there has been a landscape shock.  So, the regime actors will be looking to either maintain the status quo OR ELSE push towards a new stable system they think they can dominate.

That is to say, there is not and will not be a single “they”.  Some current incumbents and incumbencies (we need to think of this processually. Get me another time on the whole “T-800 versus T-1000″ thing) will want to return to a recognisable version of the good old days. Others may think that they are more likely to be able to dominate a NEW system, and put their energies into creating that.

Maybe we should start thinking in terms of “status-quo-seeking incumbents” and “change-the-world-to-get-rich-from-the-change incumbents.”  It will depend on what assets they have, what absorptive capacity, what cognitive capacity and appetite for risk the decision makers have, how they can communicate that, how constrained/embedded they are in other relationships (can they get their shareholders/investors to take a punt?)

When it comes to mobility and energy, Elon Musk, presumably, will be in the latter category, as will electric scooter makers.  Car manufacturers with enormous sunk costs and interests in something that looks and sounds like an internal combustion engine maybe less able to be nimble, for a host of reasons (6).  This battle, clearly one that was coming, just got accelerated by a very small bug. So it goes.

In terms of consumer goods, new “zero infection risk” products will be promoted.  There will be an emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘ease of disinfecting.’ These will be advertised with a seal of approval from this or that official sounding body (some legit and desperate for cash or needing to burnish their own cred, others little more than front groups).

What will incumbents do in defence of their incumbent position? The glib answer – “whatever they think they can get away with”. The more interesting question is how they will go about doing it.

We are of course already seeing massive bailouts being garnered already (Tienhaara, 2020;  Dayen, 2020). Simultaneously, we are seeing a bonfire of ‘red’ and ‘green’ tape (environmental regulations.

ustoannounce

Matt Lubchansky

Niche actors

All sorts of niche actors will either believe in their own ‘technology’ as the rightful one (and there is, as you would expect, a tendency to moralism among the niche actors, many of whom are motivated by disgust and despair at the behaviour of the regime actors).  Others will be hoping for a quick buck, to form a marriage of convenience with existing incumbents. To the dismay of many, the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, on the morning of Wednesday 1st April, announced some kind of sleazy sponsorship deal with the Bilderberg Group.

However, before we get too bogged down in incumbents and niche actors, I would argue that the best way to think of this is through MLP and Deep Transitions PLUS institutional theory.    It’s a bit clunky, because this is a first pass. See section 4 for more about this…

Work which  incumbents/incumbency might do. Work which ‘niche’ actors, and “change the world to get rich from the change” incumbents  will do
Cultural cognitive pillar Maintain and defend by finding new partners to burnish selves (as per STRN). More tie-ins/sponsorships of charities/worthy causes

Highlighting the the work it did during the crisis (donations of stock/expertise)

Defend by delegitimising niche actors as unproven, dangerous, ‘dirty’.

Create new common sense by showing  customers that new products and behaviours are easy, clean, pro-social.
Disrupt existing incumbents by emphasising their bad behaviour, their need for taxpayer bailouts, labelling them dirty old dinosaurs.
Normative pillar Create and maintenance work by states and security apparatus attempting to (further) habituate consumers and citizens into a) handing over their data automatically as an act of civic-mindedness and b) delegitimise citizen questioning of states as ‘carping’ or ‘a resource drain during an emergency’ (already we’re seeing in the UK various public bodies delaying answering Freedom of Information Act requests) (7) and Agamben, (2020). Disrupt by delegitimising previously ‘normal’ technologies and behaviours (the improvements in air quality in cities will be latched onto by EV makers, as soon as it doesn’t look opportunistic. They will try to kill off the legitimacy of the Internal Combustion Engine.  Someone will go too early, others will learn, hold back. Then there will be a flood)

Legitimise “sharing,” but in ways that allow capital accumulation (they’ll try, but personally I don’t see AirBnB making a big comeback anytime soon).

Regulatory pillar Using the state to maintain the status quo, via using “safety” and “cleanliness” rhetoric to raise bar for new entrants  (especially likely in food production/retail) Try to disrupt by getting new rules attached to bailouts for “status quo seeking incumbents”

Try to get wiggle room in regulations and laws for ‘experiments’ (ideally with the tax payer picking up the tab/acting as insurer or last resort).

What will happen when the emergency “ends”?

If you asked me to bet, I’d say  we will see “corporate liberalism as Gabriel Kolko called it or The Thing as Cobbett called it ever further entrenched. Obviously I could be wrong, and I hope I am. (But hope is not a strategy – as we shall come back to.)

Some new practices will last only for the period of emergency, only to be undermined by wily incumbents, exploiting and amplifying the enormous and understandable desire to return to something like “normality”.  Presumably some new infrastructures (such as they are) and new social and moral norms will persist. Who knows which ones?

Part 3: Give me a long enough damn hammer and I will move the world, aka “who is gonna bell the bloody cat?”

In which I argue that if the worthy “our post-coronavirus world needs to look like this” article by the worthy person/people you are reading is not explicit and specific about WHO IS  GONNA MAKE IT HAPPEN, then it is not worth your time (8).

For those who don’t know the story

Conseil_Tenu_par_les_RatsA group of mice get together to discuss ‘what is to be done?’  A new cat has been gobbling them up at will. They debate various plans to nullify the threat of the marauding cat. Various stupid ideas are put forward (e.g. “ask the cat to be socially responsible”). Finally one of the mice proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are all warned of its approach.

The plan is applauded by the other mice, and the meeting is about to break up, ‘job done’.

Then one of the elderly mice raises his little mouse paw and asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat.

Tumbleweed….

All of the applauders make excuses about why it can’t be them…

 

Look, we bring our baggage with us, to new towns, new places. I may as well put my baggage on the table: I have (terminal?) ennui, a dread of (and inability not to go on?) making the same mistakes.  And I go to meetings – be they activist or academic where smart and/or brave people reel off shopping lists of Good Things that Should Happen.

But it isn’t real.  We’re deserting the real, most of the time, for understandable (and sometimes forgivable) reasons.  For me, the question is not “what needs to happen?” but – and sorry for shouting-  Who. Is Going. To. Make. It. Happen? What constellation of actors are we talking about – Activists locking themselves to things? Academics whispering in policymakers ears? CEOs driving change from above?

So, I agree with David Osland

“Coronavirus will likely see a transformation in popular political consciousness on a par with 9/11 and the financial crisis. If the left cannot harness that shift behind an egalitarian agenda, the right will use it to ram home its nationalist and authoritarian vision.”

I also agree with the skepticism of  Chris Shaw

“I wish I could believe that the millions of impoverished and the bourgeois will together use this crisis to waken to a new consciousness of the oneness of all existence and the suffering caused by grasping.”

With regards to “last chance to save the earth”, we have been here before.  I know I am a stuck record on this, but there have been three previous waves of concern about ‘the fate of the planet’ in relation to (gradual) environmental degradation – in the late 1960s to early 1970s (Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, Earth Day), the late 1980s to early 1990s (Amazon, Ozone, Greenhouse, Rio), and then the late 2006s (Inconvenient Truth, IPCC 4AR, Copenhagen) one.

Now we are (or were?) in another, thanks to the obvious failure of Paris, Greta, XR, 1.5 degrees report, COP26.

But (and it is a big but)

Social movement organisations and “left populism” (I cannot speak highly enough of Fife and Hines, 2020, btw) are generally unable to sustain their anger, their energy. It’s too easily captured, corralled (see Barlow 2010 on this) and commodified. And on climate – well, we’re staring into the abyss here, folks, and the Nietzsche had some advice for niche actors who do that.

We sociotechnical transitions scholars know this.  We know how hard it is to create a sustained and sustainable market for ideas, technologies, how easy it is for incumbents to disrupt or purchase them.

And look, the COVID19 thing MIGHT be an enormous opportunity but

  1. If green groups go too early, they will look opportunistic and suffer a backlash.
  2. There will be an enormous amount of money spent on PR to burnish the status quo or funnel it to a new accumulation-friendly regime.
  3. Captured states (and all of them are) will pass all sorts of hellacious laws against dissent.
  4. There will be a desperation among grieving impoverished populations (so many businesses shut down, so much domestic violence – mostly by men, so much education interrupted, so much PTSD,  many hopes and dreams shattered) to ‘return to normal’.  Yes, even when that normal was in every available sense ‘unsustainable.’

So, what is needed is the following.

Citizens’ groups which are capable of

  • sustaining themselves, emotionally, financially, cognitively – avoiding the temptations of being co-opted, the dangers of being repressed, the lure of the smugosphere/and enacting or being enacted by emotacycles
  • Linking with other groups for mutual aid
  • Forcing the state (local, national) to be less horrifically a captive of the incumbents
  • Figuring out how to have sustained alliances with people who don’t look like, talk like, think like them
  • Figuring out how the incumbents will try to crack them (see above) and devising effective countermeasures

Here is something – CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done? – I mostly wrote, with input from my colleagues in Climate Emergency Manchester. It’s seven weeks old and feels like it is from another century. But it kinda stands up as a program. Kinda…

Oh, and there’s that climate change thing from a few years ago. (ONION)

I am not saying this is doable. I am not saying it isn’t doable. I am saying that if we allow the intellectuals who enjoy our attention, in meatspace and cyberspace to

  1. Keep it all in the realm of Shopping List Politics,
  2. Decline to answer the basic question “what have we been doing wrong in the past?”

then we are wasting the last of the last chances our species has for some sort of comfortable non-barbarism life on this planet. (8)

Section 4: Gizza postdoc

Here’s what – imho – needs studying, using MLP/Deep Transitions, Institutional Pillars/Work and whatever other intellectual tools I find down the side of the sofa…

  1. How will the incumbents in [insert sector here – transport, mobility, food, politics] use the COVID19 pandemic to reinforce their position?  What coalitions and constellations will they mobilise (industry bodies, relations with political parties). What discourses (around cleanliness, safety, reliability, care) will be mobilised. Under what circumstances are challengers (be they niche actors or incumbents from competing/overlapping systems) able to force system change?  In what ways will the state be a primary arena for struggle? How will civil society actors be tactically incorporated? What are the fracture and fissure points? (How) will the need to decarbonise economies and institutions be imbricated into these battles? Methods – Interviews with participants, keeping tabs on the industry associations and the revolting door – sorry, revolving door – with the state, and intra-state battles.
  2. How will existing NGOs and SMOs seeking to force a transition/transformation at the socio-technical/socio-material level actually stuff it up, (because they will).  What strategic alliances will they be unable, unwilling to create and maintain? What lacks – of operational capacity, of credibility and legitimacy- will doom them to ongoing irrelevance?  Methods – Participant observation, attending sage-on-the-stage meetings (aka “the meatspace equivalent of clicktivism”), going on marches, interviewing “strategic” leads of NGOs/SMOs.
  3. What scope is there for new actors (entrepreneurs morally, politically, economically) to repurpose existing discourses (safety, responsibility, justice) and forge (in every sense) alliances and constellations of actors which can accelerate (ah, that bloody word again) the delegitimisation of fossil fuel-centric incumbencies and give birth to some new rough beast, as we all slouch towards Armageddon?  Methods –  Participant observation, interviews, getting nicked, that sort of thing.

Have PhD, will travel. Not great at quantitative, but I do a mean interview. Reasonable general knowledge.

References (may not be complete, and may include some stuff that I didn’t reference. So it goes).

Agamben, G. 2020. Clarifications. Itself, 17 March.

Applebaum, A. 2020. The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff. The Atlantic.

Baker, P. 2020. ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?The Guardian, 31 March

Bordoff, J. 2020. Coronavirus pandemic shows why no global progress on climate change. Foreign Policy

Dayen, D. 2020. Unsanitized: Bailouts, A Tradition Unlike Any Other. The American Prospect,

Fife, B.  and Hines, T. 2020. I can’t relate. Damage, 9 March

Garrett, L. 1994. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance.

Ghosh, B. Bloomfield, G. and Schot, J. 2020. Conversations on COVID-19: Consequences for the Second Deep Transition and the Sustainability Revolution.  TIP Consortium, 27 March

Johnstone, P. and McLeish, C. 2020 The Role of War in Deep Transitions: Exploring Mechanisms, Imprints and Rules in Sociotechnical Systems. SPRU working paper.

Joshi, K. 2020. Watch out for this symptom of Coronavirus: lazy ecofascism. Ketan Joshi. Co. 20th March.

Lawrence, T. B.; Suddaby, R. (2006). “Institutions and Institutional work”. In Clegg, S; Hardy, C; Lawrence, T (eds.). Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.). London: Sage. pp. 215–254.

Lombrana, L. 2020. The Post-Virus Economic Recovery Could Be a Green One. Bloomberg

Maguire, S. and Hardy, C. 2009. Discourse and Deinstitutionalization: The Decline of DDT. The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 52, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 148-178

Mair, 2013. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing out of Western Democracy. Verso

Mair, S. 2020. What will the world be like after coronavirus. Four possible futures. The Conversation

Mazzucato, M. 2020. Covid 19 Crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently. The Guardian, 18th March.

Meadway, J.  The Anti-wartime economy. Tribune

Tienhaara, K. 2020. Coronavirus and the economy: we need green stimulus, not fossil fuel bailouts. The Conversation

Yong, E. 2020. How the Pandemic Will End. The Atlantic, March 25

 

White Saviour Complex, COP26 and #climate activism – my two cents

I was sat recently in a room as white as Cumbria. It was full (80ish)  of white people who sincerely believe that the revolution will only come when the last capitalist is strangled with the intestines of the last racist.  There were three women of colour present. I was sat next to one, a friend, (who prefers the term black).  She is, as I said to her, one of my very few Black/poc friends (as in, I’m no better than any other white person on this matter).

And the meeting was about climate change. And the meeting was all culminating with… Fucking Glasgow.

But wait. This.  I’m a white guy.  And if I am gonna write about whiteness and climate change, I gotta flag some debts.  Beyond the debts to folks like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Bob Moses and others who’ve shaped my thinking long term, more recently, Mary Heglar has been just nailing it. To not read her is to court serious ignorance.  Follow this link, read this piece then come back.

“I find it nearly impossible to look at the climate crisis without seeing the consequences of all the times white folks told people of color: “Wait, we’ll get back to it later.” To be satisfied with “incremental change” and not “push too far.” To settle for band-aids atop gaping, festering wounds.”

Back? Right, well, go away again and read this piece too.  Then come back.

Where was I? Oh yeah, fucking fucking Glasgow.  There was even someone there, from Glasgow, telling us we should all be there in November for this fucking COP26, big fat emotacycle that it will be.

Imma call it now.  The obsession with “summit hopping” is just another manifestation of white privilege.  Not as blatant as chanting “we love the police” or sending flowers to Brixton Police Station, but another manifestation nonetheless. Harder to see because it would be horribly conflicting to see it.  Summit hopping is just another way for us white folks, with our unexamined privilege, to avoid the tricky work of local activism around local issues, of building coalitions with people who don’t talk like us, dress like us, speak like us and have the same/similar experience of the state (1).

Instead we can get to prepare for months for some big international jamboree, displaying our virtue, our knowledge, our concern.   Those who go will be the students, the retired and those who can take annual leave. Those with caring responsibilities, those on zero hour contracts, those who can’t afford to get nicked, will not go. And will feel second class for it, no matter what assurances are given that “we are all crew.” And for what? To achieve  what exactly?

And there is a zero-sum game here. Time we spend on that is time we don’t spend  on local issues.

And yes, as individuals these people will admit that they don’t expect Glasgow to be a magical solution. But the emotional and organisational imperatives are overwhelming. And the herd mentality is overwhelming. It’s not the Abilene Paradox, it’s the goddam Glasgow Paradox (except the reasons for it are not difficult to understand).

Where does the white saviour thing come in? Allow me to use my reconditioned IPhone6 (2) to share the scribblings I made and shared with my black friend.

First, the Glasgow shitshow and its demobilising potential…  (see also here)

IMG_0061

 

Now, White Saviour Complex.  Teju Cole kinda nailed that.

white saviour variation

and then, because I wanted to make my friend laugh (with/at me), and because it’s true-

virtue signalling

 

 

I suspect many people enraged by this post will have stopped reading by now. But for the record

  • I am not saying everyone who is “organising” for Glasgow is a racist.
  • I am not saying everyone who wants to go to Glasgow is a racist.

That would be absurd, and I am leaving the absurdity to those among us (and there are many) who think that the current system is in ANY way sustainable. It has been a horrorshow for most people of colour for a very long time. And a lot of white folks.  The horrorshowness of it all is expanding, is all  (oh, and don’t even start me on the other species we allegedly “share” this planet with).

For clarity, what I am saying is that there is more to unexamined privilege that we folks with most of the privilege can understand without a serious and painful effort.

What I am saying is we need to listen carefully to those among us  – black, white, indigo, green with polka dots – who are making an argument about white privilege that get our hackles up, that get us defensive. Because if the claims makesus angry, well, there’s quite possibly something to them, eh? And it then becomes a question of whether we retreat into the comfort of white tears, of being allowed to be angry (and who gets to be legitimate and non-hysterical in their anger is a whole other blog post).  Or if we try to manage our emotions and think with clarity about who we are, why we do what we do and what is not getting done that really really needs to get done because we’re too busy organising the next emotacycle.

FINALLY, those of you who know me, online or in meat space, know that I am hardly any bloody paragon of virtue. I am full of unexamined privilege (some would say full of other things). I have pissed off people I massively respect, and had my ass (quite rightly) kicked to the kerb, more than once, which is a source of ongoing regret (the pain caused to others, more than the exile).  But pointing out that I am a hypocrite (for the record – I AM A HYPOCRITE) does not invalidate the argument I’ve made.  Counter-arguments could well do that, but ad hominems are not counter-arguments..

Okay, FINALLY FINALLY. We have work to do.  Summit-hopping is going to at the very best be a massive distraction from that work. At worst it will kill the possibility of building that mass movement (less white than Cumbria please) that we all agree we need.  We white folks have the privilege of a choice. I hope we have the wisdom and the courage to choose right.

 

Footnotes

(1) This is NOT to say that all white people have the same privilege in relation to the state. If you’re working class, well, the truncheon will come down on you too. You The middle-classness of various environmental activists didn’t protect them from being abused by the SpyCops..

(2) Nonetheless originally mined by children, gorillas killed, put together by slaves prevented from killing themselves with those safety nets.

Probably time for the XR post I haven’t been writing, because…

I have an article coming out that has come out on The Conversation (yes Sarah, yes Matt, you are both right) that may cause some fur to fly.  This post is for readers of that who want/demand to know where I stand. I will keep it brief and try to keep the glibsnark to tolerable levels

Are you some kind of  climate denier/lukewarmis/eqivocator?

I had a vasectomy in 2004 (pre-breeding) because anthropogenic global warming is all-too real. I have thought since mid-1991 that the human response to its self-created problem would be too slow.  In that I was wrong – the response has been virtually non-existent, if like Greta you don’t count empty words and emissions trading schemes

But you aren’t a full-throated supporter of XR, so you presumably think there are technological fixes, or that we can adapt to temperature rises?

Technological fixes? Er, no. Even before I started studying the intricacies of how innovation works, how social and political change are in a waltz/tango/rumba with those, I didn’t believe in that particular soothing fairy tale (and remember, fairy tales don’t always have a happy ending, do they?). As for adapting. Yeah, right. Because we’re doing so well at 1 degree, the 4 degrees we are probably gonna get this century will be a doddle. Er, no. My hunch is that the second half of the twenty first century is going to make the first half of the twentieth look like a golden age of peace, love and understanding.

So in that case, why aren’t you involved in XR, with all your obvious talents – well, opinions?  After all, it’s the only show in town.

If I were glibsnarking, I’d say because I am a Marxist- a Groucho Marxist – “never be the member of any club that would have you as a member.” But I am not, so I won’t.
There are two ways of looking at this…

But first an important disclaimer – nothing below is aimed at the brave and committed individuals who have been putting their bodies on the line, who have been treated shamefully most of the media, by the Met etc.

One on the basis of what XR’s demands are, and whether I could explain them to an interested potential ally with a straight face and two, my thoughts on XR’s likely success and longevity. Then I will address your Thatcherite ‘there is no alternative’ line.

One.  XR’s demands are both necessary but also simultaneously bat-shit crazy.

Zero-carbon by 2025.  Yeah, I say to people, I can deliver that. Just give me a week and a phial of smallpox and we will all be on our way.  Twelve Monkeys redux (fun fact – that is based on a great short story by a ,gasp, female author. #butIdigress). I have yet to meet a single XRer who thinks this is doable. I totes get the need for stretch targets, but there has to be a modicum of plausibility. The group I am in, we’ve put 2030 as our target for Manchester, which is that-bit-less unimaginable. And don’t even start me on zero carbon.

Tell the truth. Look, there are two people in the UK who are trusted. Queenie, principally for longevity and keeping her mouth shut, and David Attenborough.  Well, Dave, at long long last, finally told the truth about climate change.  And yeah, that has meant (checks notes), everyone has stopped flying, reduced their meat intake, stopped buying gas-guzzling tanks, sneering at the eco-freaks. No, wait.  The ‘tell the truth’ thing is again one of those propositional demands, non-reformist reforms  (yes I’ve read my social movement theory stuff), but wtaf, it also betrays this hypodermic informational-deficit model nonsense that the greenies have been doing for (checks notes again) like, foreva.

Citizens Assembly.  Yeah, because it absolutely would not be captured by elite interests who, and would absolutely not produce a shopping list of wouldn’t it  be nice claims that would then absolutely not be watered down and not implemented by – God, Bless the Civil Service, the nation’s saving grace   Because that’s what’s been lacking all these years. We just needed a bunch of good ideas so our leaders could implement them.  Just like Australia with its Ecologically Sustainable Development process in … 1991…

And don’t even start me on this “capital S science proves – proves I tell you! – that 3.5 percent means the government falls”. FFS.

But, of course, maybe we should take XR seriously if not literally?  Which brings us to two.

I have seen this movie before, I know how it ends. I was involved (very heavily) in Climate Camp in 2006, and for the first half of 2007.  I saw the same psycho-social dynamics at play. I have even read Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ and knew that it applied.  Sure, this is a sequel, so the body count is higher, the protests are more elaborate. But, I saw this movie before y’all.

XR, at least what I have seen, lacks the skills in meeting design, meeting facilitation, absorptive capacity, you name it.  It has oodles of bonding capital, which is doubtless strengthened by the latest rebellion, but as for it’s bridging capital is, yeah, well.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating – I am not dismissing the energy, concern, intelligence and courage – physical, emotional you name it – of participants in XR. I just doubt their prospects for success, and wish they would use their energy, concern, intelligence and courage to take a close look at what they are doing, how they are doing , and do some innovating (maybe this is happening, but I do not see it where I live).

Holy crap you can waffle.  So what you are saying is XR is irredeemably shit and we should all dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do. Thanks, I will do that.

Er, you interrupted before I got to your Thatcheshite ‘TINA’ argument.  XR is not the only part of the ecosystem, it’s just the gaudiest…

So we should join Friends of the Earth?!

Stop interrupting. And god no. GOD no. Why waste the few good years before nemesis kisses us on the apocalypse getting people to sign colourful postcards.  No, I am saying that as well as the School Strikes (I am a bit long in tooth) there ARE other groups, or at least the possibility of them.  Smaller groups, trying to keep it radical, keep it local, and keep it long-term, for after this moment- and it is a moment- passes.  Groups like Climate Emergency Manchester (full disclosure, I co-founded it) which are trying to take a movement-building rather than mobilising approach, building up skills, knowledge, relationships, confidence, in as structured but simultaneously urgent and radical (that word again) as possible.  See the blog post “The January 4th 2023 problem“.

Yawn

Yeah, it’s getting late, I should be at the gym, and then be doing some of that research and thinking they are paying me for.  And if you want to hear about the why and how of Climate Emergency Manchester, well, for now you can look at this. I may come back to the gritty details later. And you can point out the racism, colonialism, sexism and classism (tube blocking, much?) of environmental social movements.  I will not argue with you about those critiques- they are almost always entirely valid. The more interesting question is how to make things less awful. But that sound you hear is the gym saying ‘where the hell are you, fat arse?”  I’m off…

 

 

Sucking on the hopium pipe

In 2002 I got some weird-ass bug, probably from having been in Cambodia. I ended up in a lot of pain (probably as much as in my life) and on a hospital gurney.   And then they gave me some morphine.

Holy mother of God that stuff is the shit.  You just… the pain just… you float away on this soft warm cloud of bliss.

I TOTALLY see how people get addicted to that. You’d be mad not to, if you had serious pain (and I did not – it was acute, but not chronic, not omfg ‘shoot me now’ pain).

Anyone with a brain who looks at what our species (1) has done to this planet – the genocides, the ecocides, the wanton destruction driven by fear, greed, will to power etc – is in a lot of pain.  That would be the case even if we were not quite clearly a long way down a suicidal path that will turn this planet into a largely uninhabitable overcooked slag-and-plastic heap.

Pain is not fun.

So, we want to suck on the hopium pipe.

“New group X will save us” (for x, insert Climate Camp, Occupy, Corbymentum or some extremely new and depoliticised rendition).

And if anyone has the rudeness to question why the same tactics and rhetoric should be expected to come to a different result, oh my.

“Look has anything else got this big this quickly? We must be winning. If you’re not with us you’re against us!  Don’t be so demoralising. You must be unwell/jealous” etc

I will say it again, (though I am staggered and appalled that I have to). We. Have. A. Moral. Obligation. Not. Just. To. Act. But. To. Learn. From. Past. Mistakes.

Everything is just riding an emotacycle off a cliff. Again. Why should people who ought to know better be applauded for that?

 

 

Footnotes

(1)  Yep, there is common but differentiated responsibility. Most of that responsibility lies with people who look like me – white, male, middle-class, who either actively did stuff or were unwilling to speak up against it, out of fear-greed-complicity-etc.  Anyhows, parsing the anthropocene versus the racialised capitolocene etc is a blog post for another day, ‘kay?

The emotacycle- what it is, why it matters, what is to be done?

The article first explains the emotacyle and its four phases, then what its consequences are.  Given that these are (on the whole) negative, the obvious question ‘why does it persist?’ is next addressed. Finally, the all-important ‘What is to be Done?’ question receives a response, albeit an anemic and incomplete one.

 

What is the emotacycle? its stages/phases

The best definition I can come up with at present for the emotacycle is this:  a sequence of relatively predictable events and decisions by social movement actors (individual and group) to engage in ritualistic and familiar actions (marches, protests, camps) that allow for the performance/release/management of certain kinds of emotions, regardless of whether they ultimately achieve the stated goals of the individuals and groups.

A triplet of disclaimers first.

  • Firstly, I do not claim that this pattern fits all countries at all times. I am not playing Donna Haraway’s God trick.  My ambition extends no further than the UK in the last 25 years. That said, when I have described the emotacycle to people from other countries, they tend to instantly get it.
  • Secondly, if you’re going to respond to this with claims that I am ‘burnt out’ or ‘too cynical’, please save your breath/electrons.  Play the argument, not the man, ‘kay?
  • Finally, I am not a sociopath (as far as I know).  I do understand – and even celebrate – the importance of emotions in getting anything done (or indeed seeing the world as it is).  I am simply saying that while emotions can be a very useful servant, they tend to be a lousy master, taking you to all sorts of bad places, dead ends.

The emotacycle

Let’s start with “the orgasm”.

Months in the making, with countless hours spent planning, exhorting, negotiating, arranging (and arraignments), training, explaining, the Event (be it an occupation, a camp, a march, whatever) is finally here.  Thousands/tens of thousands/hundreds of thousands turn up (for the real number, you’re best of halving the estimate of the organisers, and doubling the estimate of the police: that should give you a pretty narrow band).

Everyone is out in force, with clever placards, chants and slogans. There is a sense of punching through the enforced-by-the-state-and-media silences and silencings. What the sociologists of religion call ‘collective effervescence’ is all around, what historian William McNeill called ‘muscular bonding’ – people doing the same thing at the same time, rare in our atomised world – gives a much needed sense of belonging, of being right.  Paper-sellers display their virtue by selling papers, those who want to get arrested have the opportunity to do so. Everyone is, well, happy. That’s not to be sniffed at. Happiness, for anyone who reads the newspaper or has a Twitter feed, is in short supply (but Capitalism will provide you with anti-depressants, for a price).

The aftermath

This moment is, of course, fleeting (though is afterwards turned from four days into a week, or from six days into a fortnight: you should have seen the one that got away…).  And after the orgasm cometh the grump: the period of sadness, le petit mort. There will inevitably be disappointments: banners captured by the police, never to reappear, disappointing numbers of papers sold, the lack of being arrested or the surprising brutality and inadequately supported-ness of it. There will be recriminations about the media doing what the media does (ignoring, distorting, silencing, sensationalising, deriding), about the mainstream NGOs hijacking/watering down.  What was it all for, ask those who had poured their hearts and souls into self-seduction, into believing that this was a step on the path to the New Jerusalem?

The reckoning 

While some head for the exits, the more committed, the more embedded (in affinity groups, teams, groups, groupuscules, sects) dust themselves off and ask’ what next?’  And while some might be suggesting localising, making better connections with people and groups who were not at the last orgasm (and even asking why they weren’t there), others will want to repeat the experience.  There’s usually not much of a sensible debate. A future Important Date is found, agreed (by mysterious processes), and months in the making, with countless hours spent planning, exhorting, negotiating, arranging (and arraignments), training, explaining

The “feeder events”

There are to be feeder events (in Quaker halls and social centres) where guest speakers are brought in, but the key message is that the most important thing anyone can do is to get ready for the Orgasm, to be held at a not-too-distant date, in Another Place – i.e. the capital city.  Even previously stand-alone ventures, that were proposed as opportunities for local capacity and coalition- building, are retro-engineered into being feeder events.

And finally the Event (be it an occupation, a camp, a march, whatever) is finally here…

Now, if the next Event is bigger (which automatically means better)  than the last, then this cycle will continue. But sooner or later – for reasons of state or reasons of the media’s attention shifting, or organisational schism and exhaustion, the next one won’t be, and then the air rapidly leaks out of the dirigible, or it flames out like the Hindenburg…

emotacycle

What are its consequences?

Emotacycles are not so bad for getting an issue onto the policy agenda (hello Extinction Rebellion), or expressing dissatisfaction with a war (why aren’t Blair and Bush in chokey, for like, ever?).  They might even create enough pressure for a new policy to get passed (the ur-case being the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US).

  • Some movement “stars” are born, and get media or NGO careers,
  • With the extra philanthrapocash sloshing around, existing NGOs grow, or new ones form.
  • The whole process provides an easy hook for journalists and historians.

But such a process often distracts and exhausts local groups, leaving them with few allies and relationships because they have spent all their limited time, energy, bandwidth on doing logistics for the next emotacycle.

For people who aren’t into taking part in these (because they have kids, sick parents, zero-hour contracts, no cash, a fear of getting arrested, a physical disability etc), their need for other legitimate and celebrated ways to be involved are ignored (or, more charitably, deferred – endlessly deferred).

For those watching from afar, curious about whether to get involved, what they see is a group of hyper-committed people doing lots of virtue-signalling, while ignoring the local.

 

Why does it persist?

So the obvious question is – if it is as bad as all that, surely it wouldn’t persist? (well, no – evolutionist fallacy of perfectibility, but I digress).

This is where I will lose some readers, who will accuse me of gross cynicism – but, you know, I have no fucks left to give. The emotacycle meets psychological needs – it gives a sense of momentum, but also provides easy, predictable ways to earn status tokens within the particular movement sub-culture(s) with which you identify.

Beyond these simple (simplistic and reductive) psychologisings, this:   It’s difficult to innovate, especially when the alternatives seem alien to passersby, and they lack adrenaline, testosterone and being able to see yourself in the Mirror (or the Guardian).  Machiavelli said it best –

The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.

Individuals and organisations, understandably, stick to what they know, what they think they are good at. The Cargo Cult of marching and emoting continues

 

What could be done about it?

To be honest, probably not much. Too many needs are being met, too much inertia is in play, from a socio-material point of view, for any transruptive breakthroughs.  Below are the behaviours I engage (indulge?) in..

  • Call it when you see it, and maybe hand out this sheet that explains the emotacycle in simple terms.  (link to two pages of A4)
  • Refuse to participate in it
  • Participate in other, better things. If other, better things don’t exist in your town or city, well, get to work? Good luck!

 

About the author

Marc Hudson hasn’t been on a march, a camp or to anything else more than 1km distant from where he happens to work/live that had a predicted emotacycle score of more than about 4 out of 10 for many years. What, with climate breakdown upon us, life really is, literally,  too short.

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.