Category Archives: activism

Max Weber nails it on politics, natch #stupidity

“Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he will not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or base for what he wants to offer.”

Reminds me of

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Albert Einstein

and

“Against stupidity the very gods
Themselves contend in vain.”
Friedrich Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans, at Project Gutenberg), Act III, scene vi (as translated by Anna Swanwick) (1801)

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What would a genuinely “empowering” #OpenState look like? @JayWeatherill

On Wednesday morning Jay Weatherill and 200 or so of Adelaide’s soi-disant cognoscenti gathered at Adelaide Oval, scene of triumphdisaster and foreigners hurling dangerous things at locals.

Everyone was there for the launch of the programme of the second ‘Open State’ festival, which will chart the potential triumphs and disasters of our species as it careens into the 21st century, with no brakes and a wonky satnav.  At the Open State festival – a series of talks running from 28 September to 10 October, some foreigners will hurl some possibly dangerous ideas.

Jay’s speech was everything you’d expect (and sadly not the alternative one I had suggested).  The words and themes were all there – innovation, inward investment, challenges of ageing, putting Adelaide on the map.   He extolled the use of citizens’ juries (without mentioning that the last one hadn’t gone the way he would have liked). He bigged up the attendance of international luminaries such as Richard Watson, Tia Kansara and Beth Simone Noveck.

He was followed by two presentations by entrepreneurs who had been given a boost during last year’s inaugural Open Event. The first, Daniels Langeburg arrived at the stage in one his Eco-caddy vehicles.  He explained his own heritage (ineligible at present for Federal parliament, thanks to Swedish and African heritage) who has been building up momentum for a couple of years

Eco-caddy has been transporting people and goods, and at the launch Langeburg announced the latest custom-built vehicle, which has a capacity of 350kg, and is designed for hauling things around the CBD.  (There is, of course, an app for people to order pickups and pay for them at the touch of a screen.)

He also referred to a recent foray into Melbourne to provide passenger transport at a local festival, at which his vehicles collected real time data on the travels and attitudes of attendees (anyone who saw Wednesday’s episode of Utopia, with Tony’s car survey difficulties will shudder at this).

There are, of course, reasons to be cautious.  Firstly, since so far eco-caddy has been replacing short journeys that would have been conducted on foot, the amount of carbon dioxide saved so far – and it is only early days – is, well, small (6.5 tonnes).  More seriously,  you can see them doing all the hard ‘proof of concept’ work and then being pushed aside by a fleet of electric vans with autonomous machine drivers with bigger capacity, longer range and deeper pockets to loss lead competitors into oblivion.

A bug not a feature

Second up was the founders of Post Dining.  Hannah and Stephanie.  With verve and humour, they took the audience through some of their work, in which they  “merge food with music, art and performance to create immersive and interactive eating experience” and  “meet the palate with an environment of possibility, through creativity.”  This then segued into a brief practical demonstration of Conversations around food entomophagy– eating bugs.  The attendees were treated to rocky road sprinkled with… crickets.

It was all tasty enough, but in the back of my mind was an excellent book by an American anthropologist, the late Marvin Harris. In his book Cannibals and Kings he argues that you can construct a story of humans eating all the easy to get protein, exhausting the supplies and then having to hunt up-and-down the food chain, developing new techniques of hunting and management.  And this is where – in a world groaning under the weight of Western excess and global overpopulation, we seem to have come to.  Earlier this year a shortage of lettuce in the UKwas treated as one of those jokey end-of-bulletin stories, a relief from tales of bombs, fires and elections.  But should it not have been seen as something sinister and full of foreboding. Next step Soylent Green?

The real problem with the launch though, was the programme.  And I don’t mean the glossiness of the impressively thick booklet that was handed out to all the well-heeled attendees.  I mean instead the superficiality of the ‘radicalism’.  It strikes me as a giant series of TED talk, where those with university educations, leisure time and the confidence to come along to listen to various actually-not-as-system-challenging-as-they-sound ideas without ever being able to connect in useful ways with the other attendees.  It’s the hub-and-spoke model, where the speakers are the stars and the audience is, well, ego-fodder.

This is not surprising, given who is sponsoring the event, and how it fits into the wider marketing of South Australia as a ‘happening place.’  If you think I’m being excessively undergraduate and self-proclaimed ‘radical’, well, maybe you’re right.  But incremental changes, which repair or recalibrate the existing patterns of behaviour and ‘governance’, are not going to get us out of the messes we’re in.

There’s nothing on the need for a post-growth economy, for example –that is still the topic that dare not be mentioned, even as we accelerate past 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide, as the Arctic melts and the reefs die.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the sessions on ‘new foundations for social change’ and ‘effective advocacy – what does it take’ will address the issues, but wouldn’t it be great if we had sessions which explored topics like, oh….

Citizens as Mushrooms – how bureaucrats and politicians use corporate public relations techniques and their own obfuscation techniques to prevent citizen oversight: and what to do about it.

How to make social movements effective –  how can social movement organisations overcome spin, secrecy, burnout and betrayal to be effective creators of good public policy that actually gets implemented.

Or something on how academics end up not being quite as useful to social movement organisations as they could be, and what is to be done about that.

Tell me I’m dreaming.

What may Jay say? The alternative @JayWeatherill speech for #Openstate

The following document fell through a wormhole from an alternative universe, landing as a smoldering set of singed papers, with a comedy thump, on my desk. It purports to be an account of the speech given by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill at the launch of the “2017 Open State Program.”

Standing at the podium with his confident bantamweight poise, it is Jay, the Man himself. He flicks through his prepared speech in a manner not unlike the late Senator Bulworth in the documentary of the same name.
He can be heard muttering to himself (“South Australia based on ideas, check. Wakefield, check; token olive branch to Liberals by mentioning Playford, check; red meat to the True Believers by invoking Don, check; me and my mate Elon, check; Federal policy vacuum, check”). He looks up, seemingly surprised that everyone is there.

He casually tosses the speech aside.
“Yeah, look, you know why we’re here, or else you wouldn’t be here. We’re launching another “Open State” festival. Various events in (at this he does that annoying air quote thing) “pop up” venues, where men with pony tails and pot bellies swap the buzzwords. Collaboration and innovation and other soothing blandishments that help the neoliberal state cope with its legitimation crisis.

“You’ll come along, catch up with some people you haven’t seen in years, hear half-digested ideas that you can trot out at your dinner party. Feel like you’ve got your finger on the pulse, that Adelaide isn’t the backwater people who fled to Sydney, Melbourne and LA keep telling you it is.

“The adjective “future” thrown in for sex appeal and then followed some random nouns – what are they again? (He looks at his notes) – “Hmm.. Human/Planet/Cities/Food./Enterprise/Democracy. – yeah, that about covers it.”

He looks around, seeking familiar and friendly faces, and finds them. “Most of you were at this last year, along with other people from Norwood and Prospect, Toorak and Dulwich. 25 thousand of you at 60 events.

“But look, life is short and we’re all going to be dead a long time. So I want to take a few minutes to talk about a different kind of innovation. Because you all already know about technological innovation. You all know about the enormous battery up north. Course you do. But in case someone’s been living on Mars, waiting for my mate Elon to show up (nervous sycophantic laughter can be heard), then my government is spending 2.6 million of your bucks to explain our energy plan. The one we can point to if the lights and aircon go out this summer, ahead of next March’s election, and pin the blame on my friend Josh.

“But let’s put that kind of innovation aside. What I think we need – what I am introducing to day – is some relatively small but potentially hugely significant – social innovations. For way too long we’ve been using the standard chalk and talk/sage on the stage methods. Last year’s Open State suffered from that. So many of them were glorified TED talks, the audience as nothing more than egofodder for the speakers and organisers, bums on seats, brains in jars at home. Instead of a 2 to 1 ratio of talk and Q and A, sometimes we ended up with nothing but talk.

At this the audience seems divided; some looking relieved at the outbreak of emotional intelligence and plain-speaking, others alarmed by it.

“It’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? We have this situation where we say we’re trying to create links between participants and get different things happening, but to do that we seem stuck on using methods that haven’t changed since at least the birth of the university in Italy a thousand years ago, before the invention of the printing press. A lecturer and acolytes. It’s all top-down info dumping followed by a Q and A which is actually a P and A – preening and asshatery.

“You might almost say that it’s the equivalent of using centralised coal-fired power stations to keep the lights on and the carbon emissions low and being surprised when it goes wrong..

“So today, I announce that my government is going to set an example and blaze a trail on the socialinnovation. And it won’t even cost 2.6 million to be advertised.

“Every Open State event is going to have four innovations. One is to keep greenhouse gases in front of our minds, and the three others are to break down the power of the speaker and the power of the confident.

Jay is onto the front foot now, getting that bouncy energy thing that he does so well, a family dog that realises playtime is about to begin.

First up, in addition to the welcome to country, we’re going to do an acknowledgement of Greenhouse gases. The MC will say something like

“We acknowledge that this meeting is taking place in an economy that has grown massively over the last two hundred years in large part from the burning of coal, gas and oil. We acknowledge that the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm, and that other species and the poorest humans are suffering first, but that we will all suffer in the future. We acknowledge that as people who have benefited from previous burning, and as people who continue to burn fossil fuels above and beyond the global average, we have a primary responsibility to work to minimise carbon dioxide emissions in fair and sustainable ways, and to help the poorest among us adapt to the inevitable changes that climate change will bring.”

“I picked this one up while scanning an obscure activist website, which is my hobby when I’m not attending the book launches. Why are we doing this? Because it’s easy to get blinded by boosterism for the latest gadget, and forget the painful scale of the challenges we face.

Second thing, after the usual pleasantries, the welcome to country and that greenhouse gas thing, everyone’s going to be settling into passivity, willingly or otherwise. So here’s a disruptive innovation. : we’re going to have two minutes while everyone turns to someone they don’t know – beside them or behind them – and just introduces themselves.
Why? Because we’re trying to thicken the web of knowledge and friendship, reduce loneliness and help people use these Open State events as real networking opportunities. This two minute thing will give people more permission to have better wider connections during the longer breaks.

Third thing – we’re going to keep all the speakers to their promised time. We’re also going to empower our MCs to keep the speakers, no matter how prestigious, strictly to their allotted time. We know that this can be tricky, if it’s a young female or star-struck bureaucrat and a high status old male. Rather than add pressure on them, and see them fail a lot, we are going to ‘crowd source it, as the young people say. It’s called the ‘clap clinic’.
The MC will introduce the speaker and then say something like
‘I’ll give the speaker a one minute warning. Then, when their time is up, I will start applauding and I’d like you to all join in. Let’s practice now, giving the speaker the clap they so richly deserve.’

hm2-clap-clinic

This will mean there is proper time in every session for an actual Q and A.

“Fourthly and finally, we are going to do something about the Q and As, which tend to be dominated by old white men with a lot to say, with others pushed to the margins. Here is what we are going to do. As at the outset, we’re going to have a further two minutes for people to talk to each other.
We’ve trained our facilitators to say something like.
Let’s all turn to someone nearby you – ideally someone you don’t know. Introduce yourself and exchange impressions of the speech. If you have a question you are wondering whether to ask, find out if the other person thinks it’s a good ‘un. With their help, refine it, hone it and – please – for everyone’s sake, make it shorter. Women especially, your questions are just as good and welcome as men’s. You have two minutes…_

“The MC will then be able to draw from a wider range of ages, genders, skin tones than is currently the case.

“Look, people are banging on about the “entrepreneurial state.” They’ve been banging on about the enabling state  – though to be honest that was Mark Latham’s schtick, and we all know how that turned out.

“South Australia is already leading on battery storage and energy production. And now the CST thing. Well,  today is that South Australia starts leading on how to hold gatherings that get beyond the usual stultifying egofests to create genuine connections.

“So, let’s start now. Instead of you guys sticking up your hands and me asking the safest and most sycophantic person I can see, let’s have you talk among yourselves for a minute, to hone the most awkward questions you can.”

A minute passes. Jay looks around the room. He points to an oldish white male. Chris Kenny (for it is he) “Premier, one question…”

 

[The second “Open State” festival of innovation, collaboration, ideas and enterprise will be held in Adelaide from 28 September – 8 October.]

“That was a good meeting “– what the heck are your criteria?

So, went to an activist meeting that was dominated by a small core of people.  Afterwards they were heard agreeing that it was an excellent meeting.  And you have to wonder, what were their criteria. I think these.

  • “I got to speak a lot/display my virtue and or intelligence/be the centre of attention”
    (see also ego potlatch)
  • “Issues that were uncomfortable were not aired”
  • “There were agreed doable outcomes that the ‘group’ can do that will lead to benefits for the group and me.”

Other criteria, which would be regarded as irrelevant or hippy nonsense by those who found the meeting ‘a success’ but might actually make the whole damn thing sustainable.

  • Everyone present was given enough information and opportunities to ‘warm up’ so that they could both more easily absorb what was being said at (sorry, ‘to’ ) them and also participate in the conversation afterwards
  • The initial promises of interactivity and time-keeping were kept
  • People were not just encouraged to participate but the meeting was consciously structured in ways that lowered/eliminated the invisible barriers that are in place due to status, information differentials etc
  • The meeting was not dominated by a small core of high-status individuals who have the confidence/cultural and social capital to interact with each other over the heads of a silent observing group of people treated as ‘ego-fodder’

(e.g. in a group of 14 people, 5 people did all the speaking [bar one invited speaker and one self-serving ‘question’] for the first 105 minutes of a 120 minute meeting.  By the end of the 120 minutes, only 9 of the 14 people had said anything (and 3 of them had spoken only once).

 

The obvious retort is that by trying to abolish hierarchy you are pissing in the wind, futilely defying millions of years of evolution.

The retort to the retort is that no, we’re not trying to abolish it, just lessen its impact, and that by that argument, nobody ever managed to knock the rough edges of absolute dictatorship etc etc.   How come slavery was abolished, men can no longer ‘legally’ rape their wives etc  etc.

#GrenfellTower – “never again” they say. But WHO ensures that? How? #socialmovements

Glued to the newsfeeds.  Thinking in horror of the lives cut short, women throwing babies from the ninth floor.  The courage of the firefighters, the desperation, the professionalism of the emergency staff, the NHS.

Thinking of how burning down a city for fun and profit is nothing new.  There’s a book we should all read, by some epidemiologists  (I think Chomsky put me onto it) called

A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled

plagueonyourhouses

Thinking how this is becoming a lightning rod, the visible manifestation of the years of austerity, just another name for class and race war against the most vulnerable people in society.

There is a growing sense of anger and frustration among the crowds gathered under the Westway flyover where volunteers are sorting and boxing donations.

One volunteer, Sinead O’Hare, said the fire and loss of life had tapped into a deeper sense of resentment and alienation.

“People are angry about years of Tory policy of cutting corners and costs, and refusing to take responsibility. The interests of the Tory party are closely allied to the interests of business and private landlords,” she said. SOURCE

I lived in a tower block for two years. Doesn’t count, because I felt totally safe because it was owned by University of Salford, and they took safety seriously.

And I think of how long and hard the Grenfell Action Group fought. And how they got fobbed off, threatened, ignored.  Condescended to.  I have some inkling of what it is like to go up against an incompetent and dismissive bureaucracy, a bunch of smug sneering wastes of space.

And I hear the usual cries of “never again.”

And I have  simple questions for the left.  Do we believe these claims?  Do we remember how they were made before?  And are we willing and able to think about how WE, as citizens, together,  have to make sure that this is indeed the last time that children, old people, frail people, ANY people die like this?

And do we know how to do it?  Because marches and demonstrations and appeals to the great and the good will not do this.    Getting a new government will help, sure, but how many disasters have happened under allegedly progressive/”left” governments?  How much of the insolence and arrogance and venality and inertia is baked in?

Do we understand that getting the right policy, by forcing elected politicians to make that policy, is the BEGINNING of the battle, not the end?  That implementation is often where it all falls down?

Are we willing to develop the capacity to fight back against bureaucratic inertia?

(I genuinely believe that bureaucrats take the attitude “well, if we give in on this, where would it all end? We’d have to do x, and then y, and then z. Far easier to block block block until this lot give up and piss off. The next lot will come at this with zero experience, and can be blocked and fobbed off.  We need to lower expectations and keep them low.”

If we ARE, then we need to (and I am about to shout) CHANGE THE WAY WE HOLD MEETINGS AND THE WAY WE TRY TO BRING IN NEW PEOPLE AND NEW IDEAS.

Or we can stick to our same old round of smugosphere and middleclass delusional emotacycles, and watch as more working class people and people of colour and vulnerable people die.   What kind of ally is that?

 

Citizens Gathering – we need new institutions

Last night I went to a “meeting” of, oh, let’s call it “Citizens Gathering”. After 90 minutes I came away with a very small amount of new information (nothing that I couldn’t have learnt by reading a three minute blog post) and a lot of suspicions confirmed.

I have put the word meeting in scare quotes because we were not encouraged to, um, meet, anyone.  Instead after three speeches (the second and third mercifully shorter than the first) the floor was open to… mostly more speeches and exhortations, declarations of faith. As for the question of what we do next – well, demonstrations, obvs.  One on Saturday. Another in July. Then the Tories come to Manchester in October.  There was some marginal acknowledgement that this was not enough, and that a recent thing had not gone well, but nowt concrete on what is to be done differently.

I could go on for hours, but instead I will quote one of the new Labour MPs, Marsha de Cordova

“I haven’t got the final figures, but turnout on some of our estates, among the more impoverished communities, increased massively. What’s really important is we keep these young people who have been volunteering involved and engaged, and all the CLPs have to be really opening and welcome. But I also want us to look at how we can change the dynamic and do different things to keep them engaged, because local party meetings can be pretty dry.”

It seemed to me that most (all?) of the people there were established activists (I base this on how people spoke, how they described themselves).  I didn’t see any nervous/confused looking new people.  Which is a relief,  to me at least, because it would in my opinion have been an intensely alienating experience.

Basically, we have all the organisations we need. We need different habits of meeting that help new people integrate, that help us find out what each others’ knowledge and skills are, that make the creation of new relationships and ‘weak ties’ easier.  Holding specific networking events, or doing it ‘in the pub’ is not adequate.

So, I made some predictions beforehand.  I did relatively well (#fishbarrel)

predictions

 

My friend suggested three other criteria

Prediction Correct/Incorrect comments
It will be very ‘dramatic with regard to language Yep  
It’s gonna be the system’s fault Oddly not! A few mentions of ‘neoliberalism’, maybe one or two of capitalism, but mostly about Theresa May….
“Planning” is only part of the title. Concrete, actionable, and actually game-changing plans will be absent.    

 

Other points

To be clear, I do not blame the facilitator – she did as good a job as you could expect. It was the format and the rituals of the meeting that were the damage. And that’s ALL our fault .   Having one person speak and 26 listen is incredibly inefficient. It encourages people to use everyone else as ego-fodder to meet their emotional needs.   But my effort to suggest a relatively minor innovation sank without trace, of course.  Oh well.

At one point someone acknowledged that there will be more problems after a possible Corbyn Prime Ministership begin.  And he said – totally incorrectly, imo- “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”   Nope. We need to be building the structures to hold any future Labour government’s feet to the fire.  Has the experience of living under the total Labour dominance of Manchester City Council taught us nothing?  Seems not.

The  turnout at this thing was mostly plus 40 (or 50). There were about 6 of the 27 there who were under 30 I reckon. Everyone white. Male to female ration 2:1.