Category Archives: activism

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.

 

 

On the Manchester bombing – safety, fear, solidarity

Facebook messages come through every minute – people marking themselves as “safe.”

Twenty two people are not, and sixty more are physically wounded.  The psychological wounds for others who were there, for the emergency services, and for others further afield (loved ones, friends) will take time to be obvious, longer still to heal (if they ever do).

Already the familiar patterns are kicking in.  The election campaigning suspended, the newsfeeds full.  We all know the rituals now, of a twenty-first century terror attack in the West.  The hashtags, the solemn declarations, the “Je suis” marches, the sombre faces of politicians telling us what we know, having no more to say than anyone else,  but having to fulfil that role.  We look for solace.

We will learn more of the attacker who committed this mass murder.  Arrests will be made, trials held.  Recriminations will be launched about “why wasn’t more done?”, “why wasn’t this spotted?”

We are scared. We do not want to admit – cannot admit- what we have been told;  that while there is a lot that can be done to make these massacres less likely, the risk can never be removed altogether.

This is not the first attack, it will not be the last.  And the blood banks are full already, so we wonder what solidarity looks like, how do you HELP in a situation like this?  Beyond the grieving, and the listening to the fears and terrors, and supporting those who have suffered, what is to be done?  how?

Ideas?

2019:  How the #climate activists blew it, again #debacle #doomed

Imagine it’s 2019.  Imagine that “climate activists” get the perfect conditions handed to them on a plate.  What would happen?

 

Sometimes Mother Nature gives climate change activists a boost. She tried in the summer of 1988. She tried again in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina bulls-eyed New Orleans.  She tried again in the long hot summer of 2019.

The Indian heatwave saw thermometers bump up to 48 degrees on four occasions during a two week period.  The power system buckled, and only those who could afford generators and ever-more expensive fuel could afford air-conditioning. Pictures of overflowing mortuaries – stuffed with the old, the young, the poor –  and mass graves in major cities around the sub-continent were beamed around the world.  Social media hashtags proliferated, and protest events about Western indifference and the slowness of relief efforts were held in cities with significant Indian populations around the globe.

Just as that was becoming old news, a pall of smog hung over China’s capital (that’s what you get when you melt the Arctic). Millions of middle-class Chinese people, fearful for the health of their child (or more rarely children), were not fooled by official declarations that – after four days of warnings to stay indoors – that it had suddenly become safe to go outside. The twitter feed of the monitoring equipment on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing was endlessly reshared and reposted. The 50 cent army failed to distract people, and the real army was on standby, and but nobody quite knew if it would, or could be called upon to repeat its show of force of 1989.

Meanwhile in Russia, in an eerie repeat of 2010 , fires surrounded Moscow, and wheat exports were again banned.  Globally, food prices surged, with devastating impacts on the poorest.

Closer to home, a freak tidal surge hit Norfolk, leaving 8 dead and thousands homeless. (Sadly European Union reconstruction funds were not going to be available). Although the surge had nothing to do with the other events, it added to the growing sense of panic and despair.

In response to that disaster, the Prime Minister exuded gravitas, flew over the damaged areas in a helicopter and said all the right words.  This backfired spectacularly when a conversation about climate change activists being “opportunistic luddites and crazies” leaked to the media, thanks to a microphone being left on.

All that got people agitated.  But “shit got real” when David Attenborough did everyone a huge favour. He died.

And then the video turned up.

He’d made it at some point in 2017, when he knew that the end was near. It was short, sharp, beautifully made, of course.  In it, over a montage of his documentaries, he delivered a simple, powerful message in his inimitable and adored voice, which was at times frail, but always clear.  He asked anyone who had enjoyed his documentaries (and that was pretty much every man woman and child in the UK, let alone the rest of the world) to start taking climate change seriously.

It was not a problem that could be ignored any longer.  It was not a problem that could be left to politicians and international gatherings. It was, he said “not about what is happening internationally, or even nationally. It is about what your local council is – or isn’t doing. It is about what your church, mosque, sports club is doing.   You must get involved, you must stay involved. This is the fight of our species’ life.”

The video almost broke the internet. It was reposted, tweeted, shared, mashed-up, translated, beamed against parliament buildings everywhere.  It took off in a way that left even social media ‘experts’ speechless. Efforts by climate deniers to point to Attenborough’s lifetime carbon footprint elicited ridicule and contempt.

The rest of this article is about what happened next – what the state did, what the corporate sector  did, and most of all how the environment movement blew it again, for the last time.  There are some words about ‘what we could have done differently’ at the end, but my heart isn’t in it.  This is only going to play out one way.

State responses

The responses of states were the standard, and not always subtle, mix of soothing blandishments, co-optation of repression. New taskforces sprang up, inquiries were promised, ministers reshuffled.  Meetings of serious-sounding –acronym groups (“COBRA,”   anyone?) were held.  Action (as yet unspecified) would be taken.  International gatherings were scheduled, made up of chief scientific advisors and stern-faced ministers.  Loose talk about geo-engineering as a regrettable necessity started to get picked up by the news media, which was in an economic death-spiral of its own.   Penalties for “interfering” with “critical national infrastructure” were given a quiet boost.

Local authorities and city governments pointed to various token climate strategies that were adopted during the last upsurge in 2008-2010, and then left to rot. They hosted tedious self-congratulatory and defensive top-down meetings, and invited various tame-able movement ‘leaders’ to be part of ‘environmental advisory panels’, while shifting the blame and attention to the national government, and shifting the topic from impending ecological debacle to the safer ground of rubbish collection and pot holes.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

The corporate sector

The corporate sector called upon governments to ‘set the policy framework’ (never mind that they had diligently undermined all previous attempts). We cannot damage the profitability of our own company/industry they would say, since jobs would merely be exported to countries with less stringent standards.

Old front groups were dusted off and rebooted, new ones formed. Advertising campaigns showed branded bottled water being dropped on parched and suitably grateful Indians. Earth Hour was rebooted, and turned from an annual ‘event’ into a monthly one. Anxious and guilt-ridden consumers suddenly had dozens of feel-good/‘do-your-bit-for-nature’ products to choose from, and books, websites, glossy newspaper supplements and gurus to tell them how to shop for a better planet.

CEOs bought up more land in New Zealand, and worried about how to get to it when it all suddenly went horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

 

Civil society

Academics wrote papers about the socio-technical transitions, the  anthropocenecapitolocene and cthlulocene,  which were read by literally dozens of ordinary people all around the world.

The bank accounts of the think-tanks and industry trade associations swelled in synchronicity with the Indian graves, and their well-drilled drones filled the screens and airwaves, explaining that if anything was to be done, it could only be done on market principles.

Religious groups saw a serious uptick in attendances, as people began to make Pascal’s Wager.

The big “green” movement organisations could barely believe their luck. Their coffers full, they would hire lots of “campaign organisers” and tussle over who would dominate a new umbrella organisation “Stop Saying Yes to Climate Chaos”.

They held big meetings around the country, each a panel with a scientist, a politician and a celebrity, all based on the “information deficit model,” with sages on the stage stoking fears.  Attendees were urged to give their emails and money. The mis-named “question and answer” sessions which followed these talks were dominated by those most anxious and most ‘knowledgeable’.  Numbers were great, but follow-up meetings were ever-more sparsely attended.

Marches were planned and held, with the specific of David Attenborough’s plea that people take action locally lost in the more familiar “we must show world leaders that we care” message. Papers were sold. Protesters were pepper-sprayed.  Splits, hidden in the first honeymoon months, emerged, between the “Change the System from Withins” and the “Global Revolution Nows.”  Groups fought for their part of the global problem to be top of the shopping list of demands.

Some activists stormed runways and power stations, and were jailed for their sins. This, combined with well-placed articles and websites gently remind activists that the last time direct action had been tried, the movement was riddled with well-placed deep cover spies, helped keep radical action to a minimum. Who wants to run a very high risk of serious jail time when there might only be a few ‘good years’ left?

And nine months later, all that energy and concern?  Gone like a fist when you open your palm.

 

Why was it so?

The social movements had dreamt of this ‘wake-up’ moment, but they had never bothered to prepare for it.  The skills required – the ability to retain new members, to broaden out beyond stale but comforting repertoires of meetings, marches and the ‘emotacycle,’ to acquire new skills and make sure there were no single-points of failure – were never selected for, in the Darwinian sense. Social movements had low expectations, and were able to avoid awkward questions the ‘absorptive capacity’.

So when the moment came, when the great ‘awakening’ happened, these organisations were simply not able to retain the hordes of people who came to them, were not able to co-ordinate with other groups to provoke a long-term, sustained pressure building, not able to counter the tried and tested methods that the state and corporate actors had at their disposal

In their own defence, the movement organisations pointed out that this wave of concern about global apocalypse had been different from the previous ones, from 1970 to 1973, 1988 to 1992, and 2006 to 2009. In each of those cases scientists could be found who would say “if we act now, things will be okay”.  By 2019, that had morphed into “if we act now, and we are really lucky, then we may avoid the very nastiest of the impacts.” Hope was in short supply.

But after the pulse of activity died, many activists turned at each other, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears, in sympathy and said “that’s it.  There’s no point any more.”
They were right.

 

What would need to be done differently? 

Well, first, get a time machine…

Second, think maybe about running this above as a scenario planning exercise for your group. Not because it will unfold like this – of course it bloody won’t, but scenarios are not predictions, they are thinking and doing tools.  What ways is your group likely to fail?  What can you do to lessen the likelihood of that particular kind of failure now?

Third, from this as a planning exercise, think about how many skills today’s activists need – in terms of meeting design, facilitation, keeping ‘newbies’ and returnees- maintaining connections and everyone’s morale, identifying the skills and knowledge that exist in a group (and its bottlenecks) and how to plug those, choosing winnable targets, and figuring out how to not be bought off, ploughed under or burn out.

Or you could just shut it all out and follow the Pulp Protocol – “dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do.”