Category Archives: activism

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

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

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

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

emotacycle

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

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

Peak Emotional Resonance Moment.  (PERM)

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

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

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

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

PERNIEUM.

Except

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

How about Ostentatious Rebellious Gatherings, Against Social Movement-Building

Or , or…

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

whitesnake.JPG

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

Or perhaps PERMIAN extinction?

Peak Emotional Resonance Moment Inadvertently Accelerating Negativity?

 

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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Look Sharp- underlying vectors and factors for the emotacycle?

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

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

 

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

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

and later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Activism and the #emotacycle: opinions/suggestions sought.

Hello everyone,

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

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

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

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

Keywords: Political Emotions, activism, smugosphere, cliques

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

emotacycle1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methodology

  • Listen to feedback (if any) on this blog post/exploratory article.
  • One-to-one interviews with activists I respect who are reflective (these people do exist). Discussion groups. Reflection and some re-reading of brilliant work on activism (Debbie Louis, Kathleen Blee).
  • Yeah. That sort of thing.
  • Watch Milk?!
  • PROBABLY SHOULD LOOK AT COMPETING THEORIES OF EMOTIONS AND MOBILISATION IN SOC MOVEMENT THEORY…

The Emotacycle and its dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But still she went.”

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

….

“Sounds a proper shambles.”

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

page 123/5

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

Move to next phase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beginnings of an “undercovers” fiction list

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

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

 

Books “about” undercovers

Book Author(s) Description Suggested by (for thanks)
Q Luther Blissett Q is a novel by Luther Blissett first published in Italian in 1999. The novel is set in Europe during the 16th century, and deals with Protestant reformation movements. Jonathan Atkinson
Orkney Twilight Clare Carson https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alix-long/clare-carsons-orkney-twilight_b_7233992.html? @UndercoverNet

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Films (documentaries and live action)

Documentary- “In the inner circle”

 

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

TV Shows

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

 

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

TV Show Spooks Season 1 ‘Spooks’ S1 has the ‘Traitor’s Gate’ episode, with veteran MI5 field officer Peter Salter infiltrating dastardly anarchist/anti-capitalist terrorists, but falling in love, etc etc
TV Show Undercover – BBC drama https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b076vdbc/episodes/guide

 

 

Plays

Any Means Necessary Kefi Chadwick

 

 

Infiltration and environmental movements – what is to be done? #ExtinctionRebellion #climatebreakdown #spycops

The future is not written, but there are several excruciatingly safe bets about the years ahead.

  • atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane will continue to rise
  • poor people will suffer the resultant impacts of #climatebreakdown hard and first
  • the state will try to suppress social movements which seek to do anything about rendering these first two bets less safe.

By “suppress” I mean at best ‘guide’ and ‘channel’ towards market- and elite- friendly ‘solutions’ that leave the broader architecture of global society (inequality, consumerism, authoritarianism,  rapacious disregard for other species and future generations etc.) unchanged.  At worst, the gloves will properly come off and the fine words of liberal democracy (freedoms of speech, assembly, information) will be replaced with (in the words of Steve Buscemi)   force majeure and enough AI and predator drones to make Black Mirror look like Love Island.

The infiltration of social movements and political parties by state and corporate actors (the line is fuzzy) straddles ‘suppress’ and ‘gloves-off’ .  In the following short (1) essay I first point to some sterling recent work on infiltration of social movements, political parties and so on in the United Kingdom. I then raise-only-to-dismiss various responses we could, in theory, undertake to make safe the bet that our lords and masters will respond as they always have. I make a couple of personal commitments before finally, laying out – with practical short and medium term steps-  what “we” can do about the certainty of infiltration and disruption efforts.

This is a first draft. I welcome all comments which are not troll-y or off-trolley. I am particularly interested in suggestions of fictional representations of the impacts on social movements of infiltration/disruption by state and/or corporate actors…

What does history tell us?

For yonks the two “core” references on how the British State dealt with dissent were Tony Bunyan’s The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain and Bernard Porter’s Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1790-1988.  (I’ve not read the first – the second is brilliant, if inevitably incomplete). There was also fiction like “A Very British Coup” and the like to talk about how the state would respond to radicalism.

Since the exposing of Mark Kennedy in 2010, the revelations have come thicker and faster, thanks to the tireless work of activists, journalists and a whistleblower.  Two Guardian hacks wrote a very readable and thoughtful account, Undercover [review here]. Most recently, there is the crucial work of Connor Woodman.  The three must-reads are his recent blog on the whys, and hows of state infiltration, which is based on two reports he has produced

(There are many other excellent works, also on corporate spying – see Eveline Lubbers on this, but for now, let’s move on.)

Stupid things that we “could” do.

There are three stupid things we could do.

  • We could give up and stay home. This would doing the state’s work for it.
  • We could fail to react or under-react, shrugging our shoulders and failing to innovate, thinking that surveillance and its consequences are inevitable and inescapable.  This would doing the state’s work for it.
  • We could over-react, and treat all new people at meetings as guilty-till-proven innocent, demanding to visit their homes, see their birth certificates, meet their kids,  with a little waterboarding and acid-testing thrown in for the lulz. This would doing the state’s work for it.

Responding in the “right” ways…

Obviously we don’t want to under or over-react, but instead hit the ‘goldilocks’ point, of not too hot and not too cold, where we don’t do the state’s work for it and make the state have to work a little bit harder.

This involves understanding that surveillance and infiltration is not primarily about gathering evidence to put people on trial.

  • It’s about finding out who the leaders are (and there are always leaders, whether they are willing to acknowledge that and be accountable, or whether they hide behind the feeble rhetoric of horizontalism, hoping nobody has read Jo Freeman).
  • It’s about finding those leaders’ breaking points, tipping points, how they might be bought off or burnt out.
  • It’s about finding out which are the fragile relationships and connections within and between social movement groups, and about disrupting those relationships by fostering distrust and antipathy.
  • It’s about making it harder for new people to get involved, and harder for those involved to stay involved.

In short, the purpose of the forms of intelligence gathering (“elint” “sigint” “humint”) is to create and deepen distrust, and  to exploit informational and organisational bottlenecks, to demoralise people and decrease the momentum towards policy and cultural change which would piss off those who benefit from the status quo.

What I will do in the next three months

Here’s a public commitment to do some specific things (nothing like sticking your head in a noose to stop yourself, er, hanging around). I’ve collected a bunch of articles and books about infiltration/surveillance of social movements, because I am presenting a paper about the usefulness (or otherwise) of fictional representations of infiltration/disruption at an academic conference in April.  I commit to blogging about the papers as I read them, and blogging about the novels/movies I will be write about in  the paper. I commit to making a youtube video about infiltration, its consequences and what to do. And, obvs, I will put the paper up somewhere not behind a paywall.

What is to be done? How? Short and medium term actions

Finally, in this short essay, I want to lay out some things that individuals and groups can do in the short to medium term (1 to 6 months).  And, yes, I am also going to bang on about the urgent need to challenge the pathologies of social “mobilisation” organisations, one of my favourite hobby horses.

A few banalities first.  We must realise that

  • while there is such a thing as healthy paranoia, paranoia can be fostered as a weapon used against you.
  • people of colour and women have been on the sharp end of this stuff, and their experiences (and resistances) have much to teach us all.  These people must not be wiped out of the history they so often are (COINTELPRO vs Nixon’s “Enemies List” for example).  See, for example, the experience of the Mangrove Nine.  By all means enjoy fictional representations, but you know, usually the work of black folks, and black women especially, mysteriously gets forgotten.
  • it’s necessary to identify and cultivate academics and researchers who are working or have worked on this stuff.  Their work can be turned into comics, youtubes, short speeches (but for Gaia’s sake, give them credit!). For example, Connor Woodman’s blog could be printed off, illustrated and copies given to new activists.
  • it’s necessary to support activists doing further research (Undercover Research Group) with time, praise and cash.
  • it’s necessary to educate yourself on what to do if you suspect someone is either an agent, an informer, an agent provocateur.

 

Depathologising the “movement”

There is much more to be said on this subject (I am a bit of a bore).  But I think the discussion about infiltration could be used as a springboard to talking about the need to reshape our social movement organisations and  “activist”cultures so they are both resistant to infiltration (2) and less easily affected/damaged by it, and are able to grow, learn, organise and win in ways that previous waves of activity (as opposed to action) have not.

So, finally, around this question of refusing to recommitting the pathologies, some don’ts.

  • Don’t accept the smugosphere
  • Don’t accept organisations where it is always the same person (of whatever gender/age/ethnicity etc) chairing, and no effort is made to cultivate new facilitators by giving them portions of a meeting to facilitate.
  • Don’t accept meetings which don’t include agenda points along the lines of “how do we learn from past mistakes in activism?” and “how do we better connect with and support other groups working on related issues in this town/city?” and “how do we ensure that people who get involved in our group have the opportunity to learn new skills, knowledge and relationships, while sharing their own as they wish?”
  • Don’t go riding on the emotacycle; even if you have leathers and a helmet, you’ll get hurt.

emotacycle

  • Don’t accept leaders, whether announced or unannounced, without transparency. Accept leadership, if it is transformational collaborative and working hard to render itself unable to be co-opted or repressed…)

The job therefore is to be “realistic” while demanding the impossible

The job is to create resilience within individuals and BETWEEN individuals and groups (resilience rightly understood), so that connections are made, sustained and spread, more than can be broken by the behaviour of disruptors, infiltrators and agents provocateur.

Easy-peasy. Should be done well before the waters close over our heads…

 

Footnotes

(1) I intend to expand on it, as part of a broader project aimed at explaining how western social movement (as distinct from mobilisation)  organisations don’t have to repeat previous mistakes, unless we want to, but that not repeating requires active and difficult continual choices). The future is not written and all that…

(2) I suppose I could go off on some immune system analogies here, but that is possibly not helpful

Hope, false hope, stupid hope and #climatechange: From Paris to Extinction (Rebellion)

Here’s the tl:dr – The Paris Agreement and Extinction Rebellion are two sides (or symptoms) of the same coin, i.e. the suspension of critical faculties by people who know better but are in desperate search of reasons to be hopeful about our grim meathook future….

Back in 2015 I wrote a piece about the Paris Agreement called Why the hype over Paris and #COP21? Politics, Psychology and Money.  I predicted that within two or three years the whole thing would begin to run into the sand. It was not the most risky oracling that I ever did.

I said that there were three reasons people who ought to have known better were hyping the wretched thing. While these intersected and overlapped, I subdivided them into psychology, money and politics.

On psychology –

Firstly, climate change is bloody depressing, and if you’ve chosen – or are paid – to think about it, it exacts a toll. You get grumpy, demoralised, angry, whatever. And mostly you get the hope kicked out of you year after year after year. The UNFCCC process has been one of repeated let-downs, since the first COP in Berlin in early 1995. You have to go all the way back to the Rio Conference to get any stirring words about large-scale ambition and equity. (e.g. article 2)

On the money –

Secondly, financial – lots of the non-governmental organisations that are usually more critical of this have pretty delicate finances of late, and if you’re reliant on guilty middle-class people sending in direct debits, you have to frame your critiques ‘just so’. NGOs are in the business of monetising hope. They need to keep middle-class people signing the direct debits. Thus “world leaders just need to be held to account, and combined with some New Technology, everything will be okay” is an acceptable message to send out in the aftermath of COP21, whereas “this agreement is too little, too late – middle class lifestyles like yours have caused the problem and have to go for us to have any chance whatsoever of avoiding total apocalypse” is … not. People on the receiving end of the second message are less likely to renew their direct debit donations.

On the politics – well, it was about not wanting to lose momentum –

They on some level know that there will be a counter-attack from the denialists and the fossil-lobby, so they want to talk the Paris agreement up, building its credibility.

More recently, applying the same knowledge of history, the same personal experiences of how things turn out in social mobilisation organisations, I’ve written a fair bit about Extinction Rebellion.  There was this one, and this one and this one. (By the way, I think outfits like Extinction Rebellion should be called social mobilisation organisations rather than social movement organisations, unless they happen to stick around for a few years and do actual movement-building, as opposed to repeated mobilisations).

The response has been, basically, underwhelming. The major strand that doesn’t try to engage with the (friendly) critique but instead say “critiques not welcome, you should get on board and cheerlead” or “hmmph, you just want to be the leader” or “prediction is ridiculous.”  None of this is surprising, but it is kind of like the Lewis Law  (“Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” .)

So, if your response to the rest of this article is along the lines of “have you even tried to get involved/been to a meeting?” [fwiw, yes, yes] or “cheerlead, don’t lead and shut up“, then please save your time and my bandwidth and keep your useless response to yourself, ‘kay?  If you think I am wrong and you can say WHY I am wrong without changing the subject/resorting to ad hominems, then by all means, engage.

The Ominous Parallels between Paris and Extinction Rebellion

  • Come after a long history of failure which is then ignored (leading to a high likelihood of history repeating – or at least rhyming) (The UNFCCC process has been staggering on since 1991.  Climate activism has a similar provenance.)
  • Hyped by people who ought to know (and I suspect DO) know better, but can’t afford to voice their concerns for psychological and social reasons – and the chilling effect of what happens to other people when they voice concerns is part of that).
  • Has the function of allowing people to take a hearty suck on the Hopium pipe
  • If criticised, the response of proponents reverts pretty quickly to brittle defensiveness and straw-manning/subject changing, with a bizarre reading of past failures as success.. Rather than engaging in an understanding of the critique, the “this is the only game in town” line is trotted out.
  • Focus on voluntary action/voluntarism. Paris is just the old Japanese “pledge and review” warmed over. Extinction Rebellion is just the RTS/Climate Camp critique of formal NGOs dialled up to 11, with higher numbers compensating for less of a core experienced group [meanwhile, Reclaim the Power, a Climate Camp successor organisation presumably has its nose well out of joint re Extinction Rebellion’s media profile). Voluntarism relies on social pressures. Social pressures are not uniform over time, space or class.  There is a real problem with free-riding and accountability.  In the honeymoon phase, this is glossed over, but the chickens do eventually come home to headlessly roost…

 

What is to be done?

I have written endlessly about how things could be done differently as well as making videos about it  (see also videos new person’s experience of meetings and newbie in a parallel universe) . And these ideas are applauded and then ignored. I am not alone in this of course.  But if you are going to comment on this with a “well, where are your concrete ideas” then don’t bother, because you haven’t bothered to do any research.

  • Er, actually engage with the substance of critiques of Extinction Rebellion
  • Understand that throwing around words like “decentralisation” and “holocracy” doesn’t actually add up to anything new at all. It’s new whining in old bottles, basically.
  • Understand that the information deficit model, and the hope deficit model, have been tried before, and that they quickly become opportunities for (self-appointed and unaccountable) leaders to indulge in a little light/heavy ego-foddering.
  • Understand that busyness is its own reward but also its own punishment, and that activity and action are not the same thing.
  • Understand that its very unlikely indeed that Extinction Rebellion and other social mobilisation organisations will be immune to the problems of incompetent/malicious leaders, overcommitment by followers (and lunchoutism), burnout, co-optation and repression, and that “hoping” it will be different is not, in fact, a strategy. Hope is not a strategy.  Building up false and unrealistic hopes is actually irresponsible, and dangerous.

 

In essence, this: we can accept that past social movements were shit on some things. For example, suffragettes and race (as well as class, but let’s stick to race for now).

“The racial split became glaringly obvious in 1913, when the white organizers of a major suffragist parade in Washington ordered black participants to march in the rear.”

That’s okay if it’s safely a century  ago –  we can wag our fingers and shake our heads. If it’s more recent, and we are more culpable, well...