Category Archives: activism

On (failing at) piercing the smog of the smugosphere

The tl;dr is this – we come up with all kinds of rationalisations for the dismal failure of our social movement organisations to either change/modify government policy or even retain the talent that passes through its meetings and slip through its fingers.  When someone tries to raise it, there are a variety of defence mechanisms and blame-shiftings. NB Lots of quoting of comments I’ve recently posted on facebook – #selfplagiarismupthewazoo

The smugosphere is a fine and semi-public place, but none do there I think embrace the measures of success and progress towards the world we (1)  need.  In fact, that’s the definition of the smugosphere

smugosphere-page001The Smugosphere is not a place you’ll find on a map. It’s a state of mind: it’s the place where deeds are done not so much because they might actually have a positive effect on the world but because they will raise the status or self-esteem of the person/group doing them.

Why am I writing this?  Because in the aftermath of Jezza’s win, and in the tedious ‘build-up’ to Paris (2) there are a lot of people saying things like  “We need to build a climate movement.”

As they were saying TEN YEARS AGO, when we all (cough cough) got involved in the first Climate Camp. And we failed. And we will continue to fail, because we refuse to learn. We just do the things that make us feel good. Emotathons. Smugospheres. Sage on the Stage and Ego-fodderfication. Rather than actually engage with the facts that social movements are losing – because they’re obsessed with a small number of comfort-zone repertoires  – state and corporate – have (long ago) learned how to contain us.

the same contained and constrained and constipated repertoires over and over again, because we can, because they make us feel good, because they are easy.” Right this very minute, for example, I can ‘hear’ someone giving a speech at the rally. Lousy amplification, but no loss, because I am sure they are mouthing exactly the same pieties and banalities and exhortations that have always been mouthed, to people who already totally agree (why else would they be on the fricking demo?). Shepherds and sheep. Yawn yawn yawn.

egofodderSo like (as) a fool, I’ve been trying to have this conversation on Facebook. Yeah, I know.  And there are certain patterns which I’ve noticed.  I’ve listed them below as a) change the subject, b) reject the idea of critique (including ‘it’s not our job’),  c) construction of false binaries and d) ad hominems (you’re mad, you’re middle-class).  You’ will be delighted to learn that, after using a quote from 20 years ago, I close out with a modest proposal.

a) Changing the subject (from the thought that we have failed/the current uptick will fade)

  1. “I am growing food and encouraging other people to do the same”
  2. There are new people

To which I replied

Did I dispute there were lots of new people? Why not address the *actual point I made* – that we don’t have open cultures that ‘exploit’ – as in KEEP these people involved? We have been here before, with surges of numbers and optimism, and we’ve learnt nothing from those moments’ passing, I fear. And yes, marches are a lot like therapy.

b) Rejecting the idea of critique of social movement activity

  1. Chiding people for “negativity” when we should all be “positive” and “loving”
  2. We should do what we love
  3. “It’s not our job”

“a lot of advocacy groups get blamed for climate change – like blaming a firefighter, the person at the end of the hose, for the fire, or the ambulance driver for the heart attack… “

So, just accept that protest movements are the “theme park” of late consumer capitalism and identity crisis, for most people briefly and for some people for decades.

c) Creating a binary between “doing exactly as we have been doing” and “giving up”

To quote “What then?! Recognise its a life-long slog or give up letting the powerful know we know what they are up to. Do nothing is giving that inch that turns into a mile.”  [Actually, I think the powerful know that we know what they are up to.  And they know that, as currently behaving, we won’t stop them.]

My favourite here is ‘the only way forward is [my kind of group]’ – “how else are people going to organise outside of their union’s?

And the reply I gave (it sank without trace, of course)

Well, there are church groups, environmental groups, all sorts of ways that people can organise. Tenants associations, community-based groups, shared-oppression types of groups. Not just unions. And to be clear (I had hoped that I was). I am NOT opposed to organisation, or unions. I am opposed to boredom, and I am opposed to wasting the enthusiasm and energy of ‘newbies’. What I am saying is that the existing formats of meetings is intensely alienating unless you are an insider (and probably even then), and ‘newbies’ tend to not stick around when they realise that the talents and skills they have are not going to be tapped into, and their desires for learning new skills are going to be ignored.

d) Ad hominems

  1. “You are depressed”  [To which the actual reply is ‘mostly by your defensiveness and unwillingness (inability) to engage in a critique of the way we’ve been failing for decades, you walking Dunning-Kruger example’.]
  2. “You are middle-class” Personal favourite example – “And I don’t come from some toffy nosed middle class never left university background either!!”

Twenty years ago someone (and I now know who) wrote an anonymous analysis of the climate ‘movement’ – or rather, the hypocrisies and evasions of those who Care. It’s called No-one ever is to blame. After recounting his inability to get people interested in the concept of personal carbon allowances, he moves on to thinking about the dynamic of how we choose Bad People to hate.

Perhaps these career scapegoats [corporate and state] even encourage us, by adjusting their rhetoric so as to continue to attract our anger. After all, they wouldn’t want us to face reality, would they? Whatever the case, having established our supply of excuses, we continue to buy whatever we like for ourselves, rewarding the politicians with votes for a job well done, and blessing businessmen with an uninhibited market. Even the environmental pressure groups now find a comfortable nest in this collective rottenness. They soon learned that subs and fame came only from telling the sort of truth that people wanted to hear. We were thus instructed to direct our hatred at governments and multinationals. With our lifestyles quantitatively exceeding sustainable levels many times over, the most that mainstream environmental groups thought we should have to cope with was the suggestion that we put our bottles in a different shaped bin, or pump up our car tyres properly. Pleased with their words, we gave them some money. Pleased with our money, they gave us newsletters full of invective about big business, and coloured stickers to stick on our unsustainable cars.

It is logical enough, I suppose, that our environmentally corrupt society should have an even more corrupt environmental movement to protect it. Perhaps everyone else has known this for years, but it is new to me, and something of a shock.

But why give someone else the last word? I should always have the last word. On the question of what we could do differently, two quotes;

Hi xxxx, my question is this – what have you seen that has been learnt by the organisations that have to now try to absorb/sustain/amplify the energy and hope of those who felt battered, from previous failures to do so? How will they hold their meetings differently, measure success differently, build their campaigns differently? Because if they HAVEN’T learnt, and they HAVEN’T got plausible plans in place, then there is every likelihood that they will simply go through the same miserable emotathon cycle, as they did the last five years, and the five years before that, and the five years before that. And it’s for you to decide, but it’s interesting that you rule out psychoanalysing your love of demos. Surely we should be suspicious of that which we ‘love to do’? But that’s for you


Crucial things, imho, is legitimate peripheral participation – people being able to feel useful and part of a group without having to come to (endless) fucking meetings. And the other thing is to find out what skills people have and people WANT, and then work to use their existing skills and design mentoring and apprenticeshipping so they feel they are learning. And as a plus, your group ends up with three or four people who can, for example, do websites, instead of only one. Fewer single points of failure…


(1) Our species, its future generations, other species

(2) Seriously?  Anyone want to bet me that the November march in London will be bigger than the 2009 ‘Wave’? And if it is, so what?

To read
Dauvergne, P. and Lebaron, G. (2014) Protest Inc:The Corporatizatio of Activism Cambridge: Polity Press

Weaver, K. (1986) The Politics of Blame Avoidance’ Journal of Public Policy 6:4

See also

“That’s a courageous decision minister”

Folk Song Army by Tom Lehrer –

Remember the war against Franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

Coda: The inspiration for this post was the pointless facebook interactions, the more interesting face-to-face interaction yesterday morning and this – Blame Games and Climate Change: Accountability, Multi0Level Governance and Carbon Management, a fascinating and useful article published this year in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.  It has a good literature review on the mechanics of blame avoidance (as this relates to politicians and bureaucrats). This could usefully be applied to social movement organisations. I haven’t done that here, but I have written the first draft of the first draft…. I need to talk more with people about ‘the wrong kind of guilt’…

Oh, and this, from 2006.


Save Karen and the “limits” of Australian democracy #SaveKaren #FreeKaren

KarenLast Friday the Government released a booklet with a set of anti-radicalisation homilies every bit as subtle as the movie ‘Reefer Madness‘.  One in particular spoke of ‘Karen’, the sweet well-meaning lass who became a green Jihadi Jane because she cared too much –  or in the wrong way – about the environmental destruction we choose to call development. By the end of the day a twitter backlash, with the obligatory ironic hashtag,  #saveKaren, had swept across the screens of Australia.

By eerie coincidence this was almost exactly the one year anniversary of Queensland MP’s George Christensen statement that anti-coal protesters were ‘terrorists ‘and ‘green germs’.

Five months earlier there’d been similar claims from Andrew Bolt and Judith Sloan of anarchists and eco-terrorists running amok.

Six months before that the then president of the Australian Coal Association, Nikki Williams, gave a speech at the Sydney Institute which spoke of anti-coal activists and “fundamentalist eco-activism”, drawing a distinction between “ local  people seeking answers and reassurance … political campaigners, whose only objective, by whatever means  and on the basis of whatever cause, is to extinguish the industry.”

The list could beat onwards into the past; this disdain for those who believe in limits is nothing new.

Limits to Growth

The American scientist Kenneth Boulding once quipped ‘Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.’ Had he known Australian history, he might have added ‘or settler colonist’.

In the 1880s, South Australian planner George Goyder, who designed Darwin, was derided for warning farmers not to plant wheat and barley north of a certain line.  A run of wet years appeared to ‘prove’ him wrong – you can still see the ruins of the buildings that housed the people who ignored him.  The ‘Goyder Line’ is, by the way, moving south under the influence of climate change.

Forty years later, Thomas Griffith Taylor,  a polymath explorer and scientist  who was a founder member of the Australian National Research Council in 1919, came under similar attack for pointing to environmental limits to the population growth of Australia. Labeled ‘unpatriotic’,according to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

“Western Australia’s education authorities and university senate banned his text on Australia because of his temerity in employing the terms ‘arid’ and ‘desert’.”

Clearly, we take aim at the messengers who remind us that there are limits.

Modern Times

From the 1979 Terania Creek blockade that marked the beginning of environmental non-violent direct action in Australia through the 1980s, the extractive industries decided that protesters were feral extremists, luddites who sought to emulate Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin.  The Australian Journal of Mining ran a column called ‘Know your enemy’, and an anonymous columnist railed at greens and Aboriginal land rights activists.  The response to the 1991 decision to ban uranium mining at Coronation Hill provoked a response in keeping with this. Addressing the Adam Smith Institute, mining magnate Hugh Morgan warned

”This decision will undermine the moral basis of our legitimacy as a nation, and lead to such divisiveness as to bring about political paralysis. …. The implications of it will, inevitably, permeate through the entire body politic, and cause, imperceptibly, like some cancerous intrusion, a terminal disability. ….”

In the 1990s there were (unfounded) claims of environmental terrorism in Tasmania (See Bob Burton’s “Inside Spin”)and the 1998 Esso Longford plant explosion) provoked short-lived speculation of Green Terrorism.

At the end of the 1990s, Hugh Morgan described four reports about emissions trading by the  Australia Greenhouse Office (which, let’s remember, was set up by John Howard, hardly a radical greenie himself) as “Mein Kampf declarations”  (Hamilton 2001, 138)

The Institute of Public Affairs has consistently framed greens as at best well-meaning dreamers and at worst ‘watermelons’ – green on the outside, red on the inside, and accused journalists of alarmism.

Inculcating a State of Fear, framing the enemy
In 2004 Michael ‘Jurassic Park’ Crichton released State of Fear, a novel that hinged (or perhaps ‘unhinged’) on the idea that environmentalists were melting glaciers and causing environmental damage to gain funding and adherents for their religious crusade.  The book found approving reviewers in the IPA’s Jennifer Marohasy, and Crichton’s ludicrous  ‘DDT ban has killed more people than Hitler’ was echoed by Miranda Devine.

In early 2012 a Greenpeace campaign strategy  “Stop the Mining Export Boom” response was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.    A month later the paper was reporting that ASIO  “has been providing intelligence to the federal government on environmental groups that campaign against coal-mining.”

Mining impresario Clive Palmer then pitched in, claiming  “Greens and the environmental group Greenpeace were tools of the CIA in a plot to undermine Australia’s coal exports”.

Perhaps, as an author counselled on ‘the Conversation’

“We should remember the words of US Senator Wyche Fowler. He argued that a balance of power that was distributed to democratic institutions was meant to keep politicians on their toes, and “bureaucrats from doing something stupid”.”

Why Now and What Next?
Framing people who speak of environmental limits and act on those beliefs as extremists is not unique to Australia. Canadian police and security agencies are framing petitions and protests as ‘attacks’ . In the United States both state and corporate responses to environmentalism have been extremely robust for decades. In the United Kingdom the police ran an expensive and extensive undercover operation against environmentalists.

Ad hominem arguments work not just to distract from consideration of the substance of a position, but also to prevent that view from spreading.   As a perceptive commentator on the Guardian wrote in 2014, the mining interests and their supporters are

“consciously framing the everyday Australians who actually live in these communities, and send their kids and grandkids to school in them, as “fringe” or “radical”. Such a tactic softens the ground for future attacks on democratic participation and community input on the things people have a right to be concerned about: their health, their livelihoods and the beloved natural places which surround them. The last thing the miners want is a community groundswell delaying their mammoth projects. Turning on the community suggests they are spooked by the growing support to protect our national treasures.”

Forty years ago green bans by environmentally-minded trades unionists saved parts of the heritage of Melbourne and Sydney that had been earmarked for destruction.  Forty years hence, will today’s ‘ferals’ have become similar (forgotten) saviours?   Certainly, given the projections for emissions increases and temperature rise, we will be asking who are the radicals – the people who think that economies can and should continue burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels, or those trying to stop them?

“The Girl in the Mirror” – 80s pop and #feminism

Today on Youtube, while doing grunt work on the PhD (goes quicker with a soundtrack), I stumbled on something I don’t think I’d ever heard – a political (feminism) pop song from the 1980s. You can watch it here, followed by my attempt at lyrics and a John Berger quote that seems to fit….

“Following Jo Jo Zep Clifton once again collaborated with Joe Camilleri in the recording studio on her first solo single ‘Girl On The Wall’. The Camilleri produced track was a fantastic pop-rock song with really clever lyrics, which took a sharp edged look at the whole question of self image for women. The inspiration for the song came from Jane Clifton’s role in the Robyn Archer penned cabaret show ‘Pack Of Women’.”

Lyrics (if anyone can figure out the bits I couldn’t, lemme know please)

Every time I go to catch a train
An image stares down at me
Oh every time I buy a magazine
An image stares out at me
And I feel so insecure
Cos I know one thing for sure
That the girl in the mirror
Ain’t the same as the girl on the wall

Baby’s….. to know
He says that it must be love
In bed when he closes his eyes
Is it me that he’s thinking of?
Because everything I say and do
Is all from his point of view
And the girl in the mirror
Ain’t the same as the girl on the wall

Cos I’m overweight, underweight
Too strong, too frail
I got lifeless hair and dirty finger nails
Too dry, too greasy
I’m a prisoner locked in a body cage

Flat chested big busted
Flat footed flat face
Big-bottomed short-legged and my nose is out of place
Too pretty too ugly
Too forward too shy
I got no self-image and I wonder why

Every day I’m walking down the street
I feel every eye on me
Everyone that I meet
I wonder who do they see
Perfection in disguise
With regimes and alibis
And the girl in the mirror
Ain’t the same as the girl on the wall

The girl in the mirror
Ain’t the same as the girl on the wall

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The Fujimoto Imperative

My, doesn’t that sound like a particularly bad Robert Ludlum novel (three inch thrillers with three word titles)?

It’s about being able to blot out the horrible thing that is inevitably coming, and do what you have to do in the meantime.  Sisyphus blah de blah, yadder yadder yadder.  In case you don’t know the story;

Shun Fujimoto (藤本 俊 Fujimoto Shun?, born May 11, 1950) is a retired Japanese gymnast.

Shun Fujimoto
— Gymnast —
Discipline Men’s artistic gymnastics

He represented Japan at the 1976 Summer Olympics, where he won gold in the team competition.

Fujimoto achieved fame by continuing to compete in the team event right after breaking his knee during the floor exercise. He scored 9.5 on the pommel horse and 9.7 on the rings with a broken knee, dismounting from the rings from eight feet above ground and keeping his balance after landing on his feet. He “raised his arms in a perfect finish before collapsing in agony”.[1][2] The dismount worsened his injury, dislocating his broken kneecap and tearing ligaments in his right leg. Doctors ordered him to withdraw from further competition or risk permanent disability.[3][4] One doctor stated:

“How he managed to do somersaults and twists and land without collapsing in screams is beyond my comprehension.”[5]

Fujimoto stated that he had not wanted to let his team down by revealing his injury.[6] His completing of the pommel horse and rings events enabled the team to win gold, defeating the team from the Soviet Union by a narrow margin.[7] Later, when asked whether he would do what he did again, he replied frankly, “No, I would not.”[8]

“So we bleat on….”, or Q &A/P&A; the pathological meetings of academics, activists etc

This article outlines the very familiar pathological pattern of meetings at which dialogue is lauded and then slaughtered, the usual attempts to fix the pathologies, and then describes why they usually fail. It closes out with what COULD be done, and why it won’t be (it’s a conspiracy!!)

The pathological meeting

preening macawsWe have all been there –  at meetings (of activists or academics)  at which ‘the most important thing is your questions.’  (e.g. public events or seminars/panel discussions).

The set-piece speeches over-run, with most/all of the speakers exceeding their agreed limits, and so

  • disrespecting their own promises and discrediting themselves,
  • disrespecting the chair (who is either lower status to the speakers and can’t stop them, or equal status and won’t upset their mates)
  • disrespecting the audience.

So instead of, say, 45 minutes for questions and that oh-so-important discussion, suddenly there are only 25.

But wait, then it somehow gets even worse.  Because the so-called “Question and Answer” session runs like this; the chair just asks for a show of hands.  Hands belonging to the ‘usual suspects’ go up.  Mostly (usually) male.  Mostly people with long and glorious records in academia (lots of citations in journals) or activism (lots of citations by police).  These usual suspects then do P&A – Preening (talking about themselves and their pet ideas/ideologies/tactics/causes/concepts) & Attacking (“if you read my paper in…/”But Marx said in 1862 that…”).

Their ‘questions’ (at best thinly-veiled speeches) ramble on, and then the speakers ramble back.  The energy drains from the room.  The clock ticks down. People leave (if it’s polite to do so – happens more at activist meetings than academic ones, in my experience).  Women who realise that their questions are as good as the men’s don’t have the time to get their questions into the room.

The event organisers are happy (people turned up!), the speakers are happy (they got fed!) and a minority of the audience are happy (they got to preen/attack!).  Lots of other people aren’t so happy, but have no way of voicing their frustration.   Over time, they stop coming, either physically or mentally…

The failed attempts to ‘limit’ this

  • The chair pushes notes with ‘5 minutes’ across the table to the speaker, who may or may not acknowledge (old white tenured male versus young female grad student; no contest)
  • The chair asks people to limit their speec… sorry, questions, to two sentences
  • The chair explicitly calls for women to stick up their hands and ask questions
  • Questions are written down and sent up to the front for vetting .

This usually fails because;

The speaker (by definition high status) thinks they are the most important person in the room, the P&A folks thinks their contribution is the most important and women who were thinking of asking a question are now being patronised, tokenised and ghetto-ised, which tends to intimidate and demotivate.  The vetting tends to get done along Party Lines, and isn’t this supposed to be an open forum anyhow?

What could actually happen (any 2 of these innovations would be transformative. Doing them all in one session would probably blow people’s minds).

Why none of these innovations will happen

Humans don’t do change; ‘We’ve been doing it this way for years, it works’

Event organisers like being able to get elite speakers along, it makes them look important. They are providing the captive audience/ego-fodder for the elite speaker.

Panellists like treating the audience like ego-fodder.  It’s one of the tacit rewards of being high-status.

Some of the audience LIKE being ego-fodder, sleeping with their eyes open and entering into a tacit agreement of passivity with the organisers.

[None of this needs to be conscious to be perpetrated and perpetuated.]

These innovations would undercut the power of our lords and masters. They would resist, and not like the entrepreneurs who were trying to take away their privileges.  They wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate it, but they’d know it nonetheless…  Career-limiting move for the innovator, therefore, and for little or no gain.  Thus do sub-optimal social ‘strategies’ and rituals continue…

“So we bleat on, boasts against the current, boring stiff ceaselessly into the future.

Our #climate – personal stories, global change; #excellent art on despair and hope

At its best our species does courage, creativity and trust.  At its worst it excels at greed,stupidity and violence. Last night Melbourne Playback Theatre Company (MPTC) displayed enormous quantities of the former to illuminate one symptom of the latter – climate change.

The event’s format captured our dilemma nicely.  The first half was taken up with brief speeches from a climate scientist (Prof David Karoly), a renewables proponent (Stephen Bygrave), an activist (Isabella Morand) and a writer(Marita Davies).  Each spoke from the heart about what concerns them, what drives them. Each was able to impart a sense of danger and urgency without despairing.  There was then time for a few questions, which they dealt with pretty well.

So far so conventional – we’ve all been at these sorts of events, with a sage (or three) on the stage, an audience that is ego-fodder,

all premised on the ‘information deficit’ model.  But the second half of the evening broke important new ground.

Danny Diesendorf of MPTC had the audience shouting out words that described their thoughts and emotions based on what they heard so far, and riffed briefly and intelligently on these.  Then the real fun started – the four actors and two musicians on the stage would ‘act out’ (zero preparation time) what they’d just heard from the audience, in movement, song and speech. [Declaration of interest – they did my ‘smugosphere‘ brilliantly].

Finally, Diesendorf asked for people willing to come up on stage and ‘tell a story’.  They would choose one of the four actors to be them in the forthcoming performance, and then Diesendorf would gently and expertly probe, getting the audience member to give concrete details that the actors could work with.  My friend Toni was first up, and the story of her time in Peru, working with locals while the glaciers melt, was beautiful.  David Karoly’s wife spoke of the support networks that academics need (hopefully not as extreme as Jacques Derrida!). The last story, on the subject of class, consumerism and desire for comfort, was brilliantly executed and a suitably ambiguous point on which to end.

The level of technical proficiency among the actors and musicians was, naturally, extremely high.  This sort of high-wire work demands enormous skill and courage.  When it is done well-  and the gods are smiling –  it looks easy and effortless. It most certainly is not.

MPTC has been around for over thirty years, (think Improv and Boal) and this is the first – but surely not last – time that they’ve tackled the every-growing elephant in the ever-shrinking room.  It would be incredibly powerful if one or more of the big environmental beasts (I’m looking at you, Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society etc) would work with MPTC to take a show like this ‘on the road’ around (regional) Australia. Soon (yesterday would be good).

PS The question of sustained and sustainable activism came up.  Given there are at any one time a small number of people ‘active,’ it’s really important to welcome ‘new’ people when they turn up at an event/protest, thank them for coming, find out what they can offer. Otherwise they just walk away to do something else, and they’ve been decruited. Yes, decruited. Decruited, got it?