Category Archives: activism

“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

Whirlwind – “This is an Uprising” – #afterthethesis

So, public policy theories talk about tipping points/sudden eruptions. I’m thinking of Baumgartner and Jones ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Theory’ (the clue is in the name) and also Multiple Streams Approach and ‘policy windows’. And then there’s Bill Moyer and the “Movement Action Plan” (abused and mis-used by some so-called activists, but that’s not his fault.)

Then, in this rather excellent interview with two actual activists (h/t Sam) there’s the following

When you referenced the Englers’ book [This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent revolt is shaping the 21st century] , you referred to the “moment of the whirlwind.”

EJ: Right. There can be all this work that builds and builds, and then all of a sudden, something changes—whether it’s political, in this case, or purely social, all of sudden everything is up for grabs, and there’s a wholly different kind of energy. And it’s possible to use that energy, especially if you’ve done the work ahead of time. And I think we are totally in that kind of moment now. I actually think that in this case, it’s going to be an extended moment, lasting years, where there will be waves of these moments of the whirlwind. It’s all of the energy that we’re seeing flow into our movement. And you know, look at what happened at the airports the other day. They had something very specific to do, and all of a sudden, everyone just showed up. But people were also, in any number of ways, ready to show up. It didn’t happen out of nothing. But when you’re ready, and when you’ve been doing the planning and making the connections, and talking to people about the risks and that kind of thing, and a moment like that presents itself, then things can cohere in a really remarkable way.

I am skeptical that it can be sustained of course (more Occupy flash in the pan), and will be blogging about that and Manchester shortly. We. Lack. Absorptive. Capacity.

Activists, Bernardi, Refugees + much else – January in #Climate History

The All Our Yesterdays project is doing (at least) a blog post a day to show that the climate policy battles of today are repeats/mash-ups of the last thirty years. We have always been ignoring the scientists, blowing hot and cold on carbon pricing, blowing hot and cold on support for renewables, pretending mother nature isn’t getting mildly irked etc etc.

Each blog post lists one main thing (captured in the title) but most blog posts also have other events from other years (this is especially true after January, which is traditionally a slow month in Australian politics).

If you have any events that happened on days in future months, let me know, via the comments on this page. Happy to hear other comments to (but I don’t feed trolls).

Jan 1, 2003- NSW ‘Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme’ implemented

Jan 2, 1995 – Carbon tax on the cards, says BCA boss…

Jan 3, 1992 – Greenpeace vs POTUS on Climate Change

Jan 4, 1995 Liberals say planting trees beats a carbon price…

Jan 5, 2006 – Labor MPs release climate refugees paper ‘Our Drowning Neighbours’

Jan 6, 1995 – Business says ‘other nations are doing little, so should Australia’

Jan 7, 2013 – Frontline Action on Coal activist sends out spoof ANZ press release…

Jan 8, 2013 – Prime Minister Gillard connects heatwave and climate change

Jan 9, 1995 – Efficiency is better than a tax, says business. Of course.

Jan 10, 2011- flooding hits Queensland

Jan 11, 2008 – NSW Minerals Council tells industry to sell sustainability

Jan 12, 2006 – Protests at “AP6” talks in Sydney

Jan 13, 2009 – Aborigines to feel climate shift the most

Jan 14, 2006 – Scientist asks IPA if it supports *any* regulation…

Jan 15, 1990 – Liberal Party feels it got shafted

Jan 16, 2006 – Liberal Treasurer supports a carbon price. Or does he?

Jan 17, 1995 – Economic ministries throw their weight around on carbon tax…

Jan 18, 1993 – ‘Greens Jobs in Industry Plan’ of ACTU and ACF…

Jan 19, 2016- outgoing chief scientist says tougher greenhouse targets inevitable

Jan 20, 2010- Greens propose a tax to salvage the CPRS car crash

Jan 21, 2014 – Government legislates against further temperature increases

Jan 22, 1992 – “greenhouse action will lead to poorhouse” warning

Jan 23, 2013- Australian coal mining versus the planet….

Jan 24, 1989 – Greenhouse is not simply an energy issue says Resources Minister

Jan 25, 1995 – greenhouse and electricity reform policies battle. Greenhouse loses…

Jan 26, 1989 – “Hole in the Greenhouse” reports the Canberra Times

Jan 27, 2009 – Cory Bernardi launches ‘Thank God for Carbon’

Jan 28, 1992 – Ros Kelly admits it’s a long way to Toronto

Jan 29, 2004 – Skeptic author John Daly dies

Turnbull, #climate and the National Press Club #auspol

Jan 30, 1989 -coal might get restricted?!

Jan 31, 2009 – Australia’s first Climate Action Summit begins…


Sokal so good; on targets, reports, fantasies…


The “keeping anthropogenic global warming (global average) to less than 1.5 degrees above pre-Industrial levels” at COP21 was never a serious proposal, surely?  I mean, you’d have to be totally fricking scientifically illiterate to… oh, wait.

But look, even if the policy-makers put it in there to keep the AOSIS (fn1)  crowd from vetoing the agreement, then the scientists themselves ought to know better, and tell the UNFCCC lot that it is a waste of time and bandwidth to study ‘how to hit 1.5 degrees”?  Or would that be too fraught? Is this just a Nekkid Emperor shituation, independent of it being  a nice little job creation scheme and prestige-arena for some social scientists?

I don’t know. But I DO know the last time what happened the last time some social scientists didn’t understand basic physics and ignored shit.

Hilarity and egg on face is what happened. It was called the ‘Sokal Hoax‘-

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor atNew York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.[2]

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”,[3] was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[4][5] On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.”[2]

The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

What should we be doing, then, smart arse?
Thinking about social movement failure, state democratisation, resilience rightly-understood.  Thinking about how to put the politics ‘back’ into Transition Management, and thinking what social movements that applied relentless and irresistible pressure for both technological and social innovation (the two are entwined) would actually LOOK like. What support would they need from academics, for instance?


  1. This would be the same AOSIS folks who, since 1990 [indeed earlier] have been pleading for rich (mostly white) people to take this seriously)

Bloody compassion and the bloody smugosphere

We talk about “carbon capital”, “fossil fuel historical bloc”, ‘technological lock-in’.  Yep, them corporations and states sure are sclerotic, ain’t they? But, aside from talking about foundations and how NGOs take their money and sell a fake rebellion,  we don’t talk about social movement hegemonies and blocks or ‘social lock-in’. This bores me.

Descriptions of how we got into this mess are plentiful, and some of them are excellent. Some might say we have a plethora of these.  Much more rare are critiques of “blockadia” for its manifest (?) and manifold failings.

Where we are

Marches are “acceptable”  agreed format.  A dominant design, whatevs.

  • “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”
  • Keynes “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
  • “Better the devil you know..”

And if you criticise marches, then Gaia help you, for you are criticising The Tribe.

What happens when you criticise marches
People don’t/can’t hear and (so) create binaries/strawmen

  • “You want us to quit”
  • “You are like supporters of Apartheid”
  • “You are mentally unwell”

[Digression – in response to an enthusiastic call out for yet another goddam march on climate change – I wrote this

“And all the other marches achieved what exactly? Marches just give an excuse for people to turn up on one day (maybe having spent a couple of hours perfecting a snarky sign) and feel good about themselves. They are emotathons (and before you reply, why not try googling that word). Organisers lack imagination, ability to enhance their groups’ absorptive capacity. So instead they stick to their goddam zombie repertoires. It’s a good thing it is already too late to do anything substantive about climate change, or I’d be quite annoyed by this latest example of failure.”

Here’s what transpired, with the other people’s names blotted out, fwiw.





In the same way the joke ends with the bear saying “this isn’t about hunting, is it?” this isn’t about the marches.  These are proxies, surface responses to deeper anxieties.

All these add up to – ‘Don’t attack my tribe!’  And it’s hardest to take when comes from someone who ‘should be’ in the tribe, who can’t be dismissed as a denier or an official enemy.

Why are people so scared? (thus the ‘bloody compassion of the headline – I would prefer to be able to label people who don’t ‘get it’ as stupid and/or complacent. Reality is more complicated, dammit).
Over and above the standard operating of the smugosphere, there seems to be an extra level of fear that is clouding people’s ability to absorb new information, or even hear suggestions that we have to change our standard operating procedures. I think that is

  • Because the situation is – objectively – fucking terrifying.
  • Because, as Lennie sang, we know that we lost
  • Because (some of us?) know that our previous methods haven’t helped to create the movement we need.
  • Because people look at the last large-scale/publicised ‘innovation’ in social movements – Occupy and the Arab Spring – and they go ‘damn, that didn’t work’ and so we retreat into what makes us feel good, what is easy – the cycle of meetings and marches, marches and meetings.

We have to swallow the fear  and actually innovate, actually listen to critiques of our current failures

Dismissing them (by claiming someone is mentally unwell, advocating quitting, or analogous to an Apartheid supporter) is – at its best-  intellectually bankrupt and morally vacuous.  I would argue strongly – or at least emphatically –  that it is harmful and morally indefensible, but that would be another blog post.


We have to ask some questions

Do marches build social movements?

Well, if they did, wouldn’t we have won by now?

Let’s get beyond the marches/no marches binary, and reframe that question.  “Do marches, on their own, build social movements.”

Okay, I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “no.”

Are there loads of people who care about these issues but don’t get substantively involved in the actions of social movement organisations?

I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “yes.”  (If the answer is no, we’re totally fubarred.)

So, in order to ‘win’ (whatever that means) do we need a proportion of those people to become involved and to stay involved?

If your answer to that is ‘no’, then you may as well stop reading.

So, given that social movement organisations have been holding marches and meetings, meetings and marches, what have we been doing wrong?

What do we need to do less of, what do we need to stop doing altogether?

What do we need to do more of, what do we need to start doing that we haven’t been?

There are lots of things groups do – websites, newsletters, rallies/protests.
But the ‘big one’ is meetings. Let’s divide it into two kinds (there is overlap, of course)

Business meetings and ‘public meetings’.

What is the experience of new people at both?

From personal experience, it’s not good.  (see recruitment/decruitment stuff).  People get treated as ego-fodder.

If you look closely, you will see some people leave either at the end of the speech or during the Q and A, or right after it and before the ‘mingling’. Did you ever wonder why they left, why they came in the first place, why so many of them you never see again?
It’s like a first date.  They were checking you out. And when they realised that you only wanted to talk about yourself, they left, and stopped returning your calls for a second date.

What are the obstacles for us to doing this? Or “Expect resistance”

  • Habit –routines. Our expectations of ourselves and each other, the ‘scripts’ of the ‘right way’ to do things.
  • Our frustration that we have the high moral ground, that it shouldn’t have to be up to us to work smarter, given the moral arguments are on our side and the bloody corporations and states/bureaucracies ought to keep their bloody promises.
  • Our fear of failure. Many of us are middle-class and our schooling taught us that there was One Right Answer and if we memorised it or mastered the procedure for arriving at that One Right Answer, then we would ‘succeed’.  That reflects curricula and the ease of marking exams, not life.
  • Most of us do not reflect on the format of meetings
  • The current set up benefits some people with some skills and some status.
  • Cops? If they see us becoming more effective, they will up their game. Right now, they don’t particularly have to try that hard, I fear.

What could we do right now?

  • Have lower expectations of the power of marches to motivate existing members (people get foot-sore) and to ‘recruit’ new ones.
  • Have higher demands on ourselves for how we will structure meetings not for us and our mates, but for the new people, the hesitant ones, the ones who are not extroverts.
  • Contest the smugosphere, the emotathons, both when OTHER people suggest them and when YOU do.  Accept that social movement organisations need to innovate as well.

If the rest of the movement was healthy, but we were still doing too many marches, I’d grit my teeth and live with it.  But it isn’t and we are.  As a substitute for action.  So it goes.

Crash test dummies and movement building

Do you ever feel you’re strapped into a car that almost deliberately, wilfully, crashes into a wall? Sort of a Groundhog Day/Source Code mash-up, with Camus ruefully driving a Facel Vega and getting hit by a boulder that some clown had let roll down a hill?

I do.

It’s like we in the ‘social movement activism’ game are crash test dummies – and this song, which is all about arbitrary and inescapable pain –

has a hidden (source) code in its title,  that actually stands for  Mitigation mismanaged – mobilisation murders movement-building – Moments mostly muffed –   Misery mounts momentously.

Where did this come from?

Well, partly from hearing Professor Kevin Anderson do the same speech two weeks apart (I don’t mind, it’s a corker of a speech).  It’s about the pending ecological debacle  and it has this line about how “we” have tried everything else – offsetting, emissions trading, promises of carbon capture and storage- instead of, you know mitigation, and might it not be a good idea to actually try mitigation [FWIW, I think that ship has sailed].

Well, for me at least it’s the same with the various hype cycles of social movement/environmental activism over the past 10 years (actually, a lot longer, if you take in the roads protests morphing into GM crop morphing into Anti-Capitalism (man) from 1996 to 2001.) There were camps, marches, legal processes, tensions between the various perspectives (liberal reformist, state socialist, smash the state anarchism) and endlessly repeated (photocopied? Ctrl C + Ved?) proclamations of the urgent need to Movement Build.  And the answer was never to take a close look at why previous efforts had failed, why so few new faces at meetings/events/camps/marches came back for seconds – or if they did, came back for thirds.  Nope, it was always an emotathonic call for Another Big Event.


And wheels on the movement go round and round.  Until they fall off. Again.

Don’t get me wrong – a lot of people have put a lot of brain and muscle power into these things, sincerely believing it was a contribution to a better world.  (I’m talking about offsetting, emissions trading, CCS; the same goes for the Occupies, the camps, the rallies and marches.)

But these are all the appearance of movement-building, they are actually mostly mobilisation. The two can overlap, but they can also be in opposition to each other.

Might it not be a good idea to actually try movement-building [FWIW, I think that ship has sailed].

  • What is there for the person who doesn’t want to/cannot come to the next meeting/march/whatever?
  • Who can’t afford (in any sense) to get arrested?
  • Who is bored by being ego-fodder?
  • Who has some skills and wants others?
  • et. cet. er. a.

The costs of collusion with activist bullshit and hype cycles

When a Shiny New Technology is being hyped, it’s in order to pump the stock up, or get venture capital.


That’s how the hype cycle game is played, and it happens among mostly consenting adults. Fair enough you might say. No hype and nothing gets done (maybe).
But when it comes to social movement hype cycles, the rules of the game should be different. We who know better (old farts, or well-read, or generally cynical) should not be enabling the bullshit artists, the naive or the self-aggrandizing sociopaths who promote themselves and their projects as the Next Big and Transformative Thing.

Why?  Because all that happens in a technological hype cycle is that some investors lose money, everyone dusts themselves off, picks themselves off and the game goes on.

But we have an emergency right now, [yes, it has always been an emergency somewhere – for any civilisation or other species that was coming into contact with whitey in the last 500 years for example- now it is planet-wide].  And that means that social movements cannot afford to lose 80 or 90% of their potential recruits in the aftermath of stupidly hyped events/’projects’ which lead to  the dashing of (unrealistic) expectations. The clocks are ticking, and we really really don’t have time for a new generation of potential activists to grow up, or for the burnt-out ones to lick their wounds and forget enough of the last hype cycle to get cautiously involved in the next one.

After a hype cycle people become more cynical, less available for a decent group/project.

And the cynicism ramifies and extends further, to their friends and friends of friends.

We cannot afford this.  We have to call bullshit.  We can’t just say ‘that’s how life works’.

Because it’s not us – comfortable middle-class Westerners with water coming out of our taps and electricity coming out of our sockets, with something vaguely approaching the rule of law and freedom of speech who will suffer in the next twenty years.*  We have a very slender opportunity to create the psychological/social infrastructure for SOME sort of tolerable ‘civilized’ life for some of our species and perhaps reduce the apocalypse of the Sixth Great Extinction.  But that slender opportunity only exists if we refuse to collude in the propagation of shite.


* After that, of course, all bets are off.