Category Archives: our doomedness

Of cargo cults, social movements and accelerating transitions. #magicalthinking

Imagine tribespeople in the South Pacific. Sure, lots of trading, and contact with Europeans (good and bad).  But what happened in 1942 and 1943 must have blown their minds.  Giant white men who could fly arrived in big metal birds, with chewing gum and coca cola.  And then, as quickly as they came (with the war won), they left.

How to bring them back?  How to achieve something so far out your own experience, your own cosmology? Well, if you clear runways, and make bamboo representations of the big metal birds, perhaps this display of faith and begging would be enough to convince the gods to send back the coca-cola and the gum…

And anthropologists call these cargo cults.

Imagine ‘advanced’ people, with literacy, indoor plumbing and other markers of civilisation in, oh, England. Sure, lots of reading, and contact with the idea of ‘sustainability.’ But what was called upon them to do in 2018 and 2019 must have blown their minds. A giant need for immediate and fundamental change in not just their big metal birds, but their big metal factories, their small metal vehicles, the food on their plates, the visions of the good life (more of everything, all the time).

How to bring it about? How to achieve something so far out of experience or cosmology? Well, cast your mind back, rifle through the accepted images. Social movements … What images? What folk tales? Ah, the “I have a dream” speech, the march on Washington in 1963. (Forget – or never know- that it was contested as a time-and-energy-suck, as an ego-driven distraction by those struggling on the ground in the South, and indeed the North).)

Perhaps if we repeat this display of faith and begging, this march, it will be enough for the magical transition (or transformation – it’s a live debate), perhaps it will convince the gods to send back harmony and balance (that never really was).

And social movement scholars (okay, me) call this a cargo cult.

We are, individually and on our good days, away from the groupthink that degrades us, smarter than this. Or most of us are, or can be, at least some of the time. But rather than be better, think through what is actually required, we seem to want to cling to incantations of ridiculous precision (3.5 per cent? Really? Really??).

We seem hell-bent (interesting phrase) to be seen building ever bigger bamboo planes – that is to say, our rallies, our sages on the stages, our redolent and indolent blockades and barricades which we then recreate once “back home” (and so then alienate hundreds of potential supporters). And the smugosphere thickens, and the emotacycle rolls on…

We need to accelerate the socio-technical (or socio-material, if you will) transitions/transformations. We really do. And the evidence (from my own life, from the literature, much of it quite interesting), is that the state usually has a role to play (tough luck, anarchist dogmatists). And the power of the state (however you understand it) is probably best leveraged via decent social movements, movements that can stick around, not get co-opted, repressed, bored into oblivion. Movements that grow, learn, organise, win, grow, learn, organise….

The tl:dr – We need to act as we never have before, NOT precisely as we always have. That requires honesty, and guts. I am not hopeful, because I am not an idiot (subs, please check). But on my good days, with courageous friends, I have courage.


Karma does what karma does.

About 15 years ago I went on a training day (it didn’t work – I stayed a douche).

It was union steward training. Mostly those days were death by powerpoint, info-deficit tosh.  This one thing I am about to describe, though, it stands out.

It was a card game/exercise.  Each individual was given a card that only they could look at.  They were allowed to answer questions about it, but they could not freely describe what was on the other side.  All the cards together – in some format – added up to a picture or pattern that would be obvious if they were all turned face-upward and re-arranged.

One person in the team was supposed to co-ordinate, and the team ‘won’ by being able to describe the picture on the back simply by communicating with each other, within a time frame.

The trainers in chief chose me to be co-ordinator. And I fucked it up, because they (astutely- though it wasn’t difficult to figure out)  put the key info in the hands of more diffident, older and – gasp – female people.

And because those people weren’t asked the right questions at the right time, and actively listened to/space created for them to speak, we didn’t solve it.  One person’s fault only – mine.

Though I haven’t been able to act (consistently) on that particular lesson, the experience stayed with me   (To be fair to myself – on my good days I try, and on my very best days I succeed in overcoming this. I obsess about it a lot – the quiet voices being the ones with the most important pieces of the puzzle – being unable to pierce the smugosphere ).


So, 15 years on, the big wheel has turned, as it does.  Now I am on the receiving end. Not because I am diffident or fit any of the usual low status categories, but because I am dissident from the dissidents. I can’t take their particular riding of the emotacycle seriously.  And so I am easy to overlook (who knows, perhaps that’s what I want – to be the ‘Cassandra’).


I have important pieces of the puzzle (I think I do, anyhows – and I don’t see anyone else asking the same specific questions about social movement organisation longevity, effectiveness, self-defeating rituals and norms: Maybe I need to get out more).  And I am being ignored – the way I ignored other people 15 years ago, if not for quite the same reasons.  And I don’t think the team will win, I really don’t.

What goes around, comes around. Karma gets you like that, eh?  So it goes.



[19th August- Minor edits and fixes]

Desolation angels

She had been asked to attend a shit meeting, at which one of the blithely ignorant assholes the electorate seems to love was talking among his friends.  She was sent on an intelligence-gathering effort, for an environmental pressure group. And she told me, fighting back the tears, that it had been a truly awful, traumatising experience.

Younger me would have thought she was over-dramatising.  Younger me might even have told her to – in effect – grow a pair.

(Younger me was, to use a technical term, an asshole.)

She has two kids. And she doesn’t want to believe that Extinction Rebellion is likely to go up like a rocket, and down like a stick.  She doesn’t want to believe that the research of Chenoweth is being misinterpreted, mis-used.

She doesn’t want to go to more shit meetings.

We met at what was, really, a shit meeting.

I only stuck around for the food. (which turned out to be as good as advertised)  I suppose I also wanted the chance to ask my standard question – “given that we’ve known  about serious environmental problems at a global level for 50 years, and climate change for 30, what have we – the social movements, the ‘good guys’ been doing wrong?”

I got the chance. But of course I didn’t get – I never get- a meaningful answer to that question: talking about your own tribe’s mistakes is not gonna get you promoted or protected or whatever.  And so we slop around in our smugospheres, talking excitedly of the new 3 and 4 letter acronyms, and the new implementation plans, and invoking the magical words like participation, and democracy.  All from the stage.  All top-down, information deficit, that goes on twice the advertised time, leaving virtually no time for questions.  It meets the organisational needs of the organisers, the ego-needs of the speakers and – sad to say – the absolution needs of (most of those) who attend.

Absolution is no solution, as an abandoned blog post, ‘inspired’ (or provoked) by a shocking event six weeks ago was going to go.  We don’t, we really really don’t, need more opportunities for the grey and the white to turn up and relive the seventies, and hear first-hand from An Expert about how screwed everything is if that Expert is not going to present some plausible innovations.  The audience gets to feel absolved, for still demonstrably caring, but are not called upon to do anything differently. Shambling towards Bethlehem.

And we don’t need ego-foddering and incompetent social movement organisations that want us to get up but are unable to help us help each other, but persist with the shame old shame old info-deficit ways of “mobilising”.

But it’s what we get, and I think what we will always get.

Yes, yes, I should come up with some way out. But so far I don’t know how. I don’t seem to have the skills, the reputation, the energy, to take on a culture that claims to be about participation and a brighter future but is stuck in its rut of ravenous egos and incompetence.

It seems to me that the skills we need to change the expectations of meetings – to make it easier rather than harder for people to be involved in meaningful ways for the long-term –  are extremely high-level. And using those skills requires, I think, more time, energy, patience, credibility and courage (as distinct from that stupid thing hope) than I currently possess or can see myself coming to possess. And maybe there are loads of other people working on this, doing better, and news just hasn’t reached the provinces.  Or maybe not.

So it goes, I guess.

She has two young children. She was crying in front of a stranger.

The need for/inevitability of magical thinking

We can laugh at the people buying their Make America Great Again hats (made in China) and chanting at Trump rallies for the return of a mis-remembered past.  It’s easy to see that they want something that is difficult (impossible) to deliver and that they want it with no particular effort on their part, beyond emotional affiliation to an Idea, as represented by a particular individual in front of them, an opportunity to emote collectively.

That’s easy.  Fun too, if you want to unleash your inner condescender…

Nastier, brutally harder and likely to lead to a short solitary life is the following: seeing those same dynamics among those of us who want a habitable planet.

As it becomes so-difficult-as-to-be-impossible to ignore the signs of the times, as it becomes impossible to see a narrative that leads to us getting out of this fix, this sixth great extinction, this anthropo-bad-scene, then we progressives – with the right bumper stickers in our brains-  are just as prone to the same kinds of magical thinking we can spot and deride in those Trump supporters.

We are clinging, will cling, to our own saints (Saint Greta is the obvious one), and our own magical incantations.  Not so much ‘build that wall’ as ‘3.5 per cent!’.  Not so much the 2020 election as a citizens’ assembly, as if that would solve anything, as if that would result in anything more than a confused shopping list that could then be killed off in the committees.

The one sticking point is that those on the reactionary right, the unreflecting nativist, ‘anti-reflexive’ blood and soil crowd don’t PRETEND to understand or desire nuance, complexity, difficulty.  There is black and white, good and evil, zero and sum.

On what passes for the resistance to such binary thinking, there is the ritual obeisance to complexity, emergent properties (hundredth monkey my fat arse) and to feedback loops. We go for timey-wimey feedback  loops, consilience, holarchy, ecosystems approaches. Or rather, we SAY we do, we’d like to believe that we do.  But by and large, we don’t.  Some of us don’t all the time, and it seems like all  of us don’t, at least some of the time.  It’s too hard – cognitively, emotionally, socially.  The temptation to slip into comforting half truths, where the sun in our eyes makes some of the lies worth believing, is so very strong.  And as nobody likes a smart-arse, nobody likes a buzz-killer.

Does any of this matter? I suppose not. If (as I suspect, and have thought for all my adult life, since about 1991 or so) ‘we’ as a species are not going to respond to this emergency with the kinds of actions that we need – that (to use a more recent term) avivocracy cannot rule – then why not let people have their illusions?  Why not let them spout their 3.5% baloney?  Where’s the harm?

Answers on a postcard please, to the usual address….

And, for the benefit of anyone who has wondered in late, the usual address is

(The answer, of course – is that the harm is to our dignity. (or amour-propre, if we’re going to be cynical?) The thing that humans can be good at, on their good days, is to see things for what they are, not what we wish they were, what we think they ought to be.  Because then at least you can fail into the abyss, rather than flail into it.  But maybe that’s just me, reaching for theoretical comforts.)

Note to self –  neologism flalling – combination of flailing and falling?

Why we are doomed: of meetings, ghosts and the QWERTY keyboard

So, I wrote this over a year ago.  Nothing I have seen from the “new” organisations on the scene gives me any cause to revise what I wrote back then.  I am less prone to flounces and resentment grenades, but only marginally so.

There’s a much shorter (and life is short, so read that instead?) version of this on Peace News., extensively de-snarked and de-psychologised..


Why we are doomed: of meetings, ghosts and the QWERTY keyboard

The way social movement organisations arrange meetings makes it harder, not easier, for new people to become involved for the long-haul struggle for social (and technological) change. 

Formats which minimise active engagement and linkage persist, despite being ‘sub-optimal’, much as the QWERTY keyboard persists.  Prospects for change are … virtually non-existent.

The problem

We have all seen ghosts.  Out of the corner of our eye, they pass among us, past us, with messages from the past, the present and the future, if only we would listen.  But the ghosts are largely mute, and if they do speak, we are too terrified to listen….

I do not mean the paranormal type of ghosts, but rather the all—too-normal world of activism and social movements, where if you sit still for long enough you will see a hardcore of ‘the usual suspects’ a semi-periphery of tourists who move from campaign to issue to flashpoint to abeyance and back through the cycle, and then a broader mist of faces, seen once, twice or thrice are placed. This mist is made up of the ghosts, those who should haunt the nightmares of social movement activists, but largely seem not to.  This article is about why they rattle their silent chains and gnash their teeth in futility, why the ghosts matter, and what could be done to minimise the ghostliness of social movements. It concludes with a series of misanthropic and miserabilist moans about why nothing will change. We’re all doomed.


Two kinds of meetings

Social movements create spaces for encounter, recruitment, retention and (in theory) discussion in many ways.  While online spaces are one important way (and the arguments around the use of proprietary platforms such as Facebook is both fascinating and urgent), the ‘real world’ also matters. However, this article is silent on marches, rallies, camps and other physical forms of social movement activity. Instead it focuses on two kinds of meeting – the  set piece public meetings with invited (high profile) speaker and the regular planning meetings of a group.

At both  ghosts are present.  In the former they tend to stay  seated near the back, and leave at the close of (interminable) Q and A.  If asked they might say they had buses catch, child-minders to relieve, and surely that will be true on many occasions. But on others it will be because they have seen or heard enough, and found no place for themselves in the overarching narrative.  At the latter, they usually stay till the end of the meeting (it’s only polite, after all), but probably don’t volunteer for tasks, and don’t expect to turn up on another occasion.   More than this, they are not going to tell their friends ”wow, the event was great, you should definitely come with me next time.”  If anything, the ripples of ghost-making will spread outward, in multiple invisible but effective ways.


What is the problem caused by?
So, why is it so?  We need to take a diversion into the business and innovation literature now.  In it we find discussion of “incumbents” who are the big beasts who benefit from the status quo, and act with political, economic and technological power to keep things the way they are.  They lobby to ensure that patents are protected and extended, that regulations keep potentially disruptive competitors at bay, to demonise innovations which would eat their market share as unnatural, dangerous, expensive. So far, so obvious.

In addition, there is an academic strand of research, ‘Upper Echelon Theory’ which argues that those who run large organisations (while not actually owning them) are able to leverage the resources of that organisation to meet their own personal and social goals – getting the organisation to do things that then reflect well on them.

Where it gets interesting (to me at least) is in thinking about social movement organisations with this ‘incumbent’ lens.  The observation that foundations and charities act as ‘control rods’, soaking up resentment against ‘the system’ is hardly a new one.  Over one hundred years ago Jack London, in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, wrote about this exact topic. More recently, Naomi Klein critiques ‘Big Green’ organisations in her book This Changes Everything.  On the whole the critique is that, as big expensive-to-maintain organisations, institutionalised incumbents are disciplined by their need to obtain funding from other large organisations- be they state, corporate or third sector.  However, in terms of ghostmaking, there is another, more ‘cultural’ and behavioural critique that needs to be made. This critique has the added advantage of applying not merely to ‘Big Green’, but also the grassroots groups which are so lauded by starry-eyed academics (or worse, those who know better but suppress their critical faculties in exchange for continued access to their subjects).

It is not merely a case of incumbents defending their financial interests directly, but other material interests – status , attention, their place within an ecosystem of soi-disant ‘dissent’.  Further, incumbent actors (primarily individuals but also at an organisational level) are driven by the need to see themselves as pure, righteous and competent, as a last line of defense for a society stumbling into chaos.  To reflect critically, to admit not merely that ‘mistakes were made (but not by us)’ but that potential members and their skills and energies were lost, that they were turned into ghosts- would be more than merely morale-hurting (the usual excuse given), but actually inherently a critique of years/decades of failure, of the style, capacities and potential of social movement organisation ‘leaders’.  This would open them to attack by other members of the organisation.  Nobody is masochistic enough to put their own head on the chopping block and offer their opponents an axe.  And nobody but self-obsessed neurotics likes to ruminate on missed opportunities, poor choices and the resulting failure.   Not only is this not ‘selected for’, to use a Darwinian term, but it’s not in the skill set of most leaders, who have been well-educated and encultured into the dominant ways of having a ‘right’ answer, of explaining away failure and ignoring ignorance.  But we urgently need to change this, because social movement organisations, especially around environment (and especially climate change) are failing, and failing faster. And that is – in part – because we have too many ghosts already, and we should stop making more of them.


The consequences of the problem

So, if people do not become involved, but instead become ghosts, then obviously they are not available to continue or expand the work of the organisation, the campaign.  The organisation loses those people  who might help it succeed in its goals or the campaign to achieve its objectives; but there is a deeper loss – as the new people fail to stay engaged, this undermines the morale of (at least some) of the existing members, and adds to the stress of extra work on few hands. Groups that are not growing, that are not even sustaining their numbers very probably come to lack legitimacy in own eyes and the eyes of others. This in turn can cause a hardening of the sense of ‘nobody else gives a fuck’ among self-selected elites, leading to a willingness to adopt extreme/Manichean/apocalyptic positions.

All this contributes to burnout and withdrawal from the organisation itself. Discretionary effort is withheld.

Even beyond this, there is an even-less-visible, but equally real, effect, the ripple effect of non-recruitment.


Why do people become ghosts?

There are of course multiple reasons why people don’t get involved after initial contact. And failure to get involved is not all the fault of organisers of badly designed and facilitated meetings.  Here’s a selection of reasons why many of those who turn up to one or two meetings are not seen again.

  • A certain number are tourists who can’t/won’t commit to the boring work of activism, but instead flit from one ‘high’ to another.  Insofar as they have skills or resources that might be useful, they are a loss. Insofar as they have no stomach for a fight, they are a dead loss.
  • Others turn up just to ‘stay aware of an issue’, or see the media personality ‘n the flesh’, but with little or no desire to become actively involved in a issue, or any issue.
  • Some are cops, or political opponents who have come on safari to laugh at the hippies.
  • Some hard-core hacks turn up to gather intelligence on what their competitors or the enemy (the line is fuzzy) are doing, and to recruit from among the attendees for those other groups.
  • Occasionally ex-activists will turn up, to confirm their doomy gloomy predictions of the futility of groups and re-affirm why activism is a grotesque farce most of the time.

But that is by no means everyone who turns up to one or two meetings.  I maintain that a large number (and it will vary, and be hard to measure in any case) are actually desperately worried about the state of the world (how could an intelligent, aware, sensitive person not be, and want to be part of the solution, not the problem?)  They are coming to meetings to see if the group has a plausible plan, and if they can see themselves as part of the group.

I think there are two major reasons why people come to public meetings (and to a lesser extent an organising meeting)  Firstly, they come to learn facts and perspectives about ‘an issue’ – to get beyond the headlines.  If you’re not particularly confident around the skills of tracking down different sources and perspectives and comparing and contrasting them, then this can be a relatively efficient way of getting information.

Secondly- and I sometimes think, without any way of proving it, that this is the major reason people attend meetings, is the need to find connection with other people who give a shit and want a better world.  Basically, these people are looking to find a way to escape from the  endemic and escalating loneliness that characterises many ‘advanced’ societies.


But along with those overarching motivations, there are other things people need if they’re going to stay involved, if they’re not already hard-core, committed (and indoctrinated) activists, with deep social ties in a group.  They need and/or want

  • opportunities to admit ignorance and uncertainty, and hear succinct and non-judgemental explanations of radical ways of thinking.
  • opportunities to get their ego-needs met, especially around attention, recognition, connection

On the whole, new attendees do not get these in meaningful or effective ways at meetings.


What they get instead is

  • The  boredom of listening to a small number of self-proclaimed radicals banging on, often using jargon and referring to obscure and long-past events, ideologies in a thinly-veiled effort to meet their own ego needs.
  • The feeling of exclusion when other people (obviously known to the facilitator) are named and they are not
  • When their questions either do not get an outlet or are dealt with an eye-roll and condescension.

And we wonder why they don’t stick around…


What are the causes of this ghost-making?

Some of this is just down to bad luck, bad timing and so on.  Social movement organisations are usually chronically starved of resources, and have little time or incentive to reflect deeply on past failures.  And so the status quo prevails not  – generally- because of any particular active dickishness but simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here.”

Less forgiveable though, are those movement activists who make a big song and dance about the importance of innovation or doing things differently and then don’t innovate at all or say they will and just fuck it up.  On my darker days, I remember that meetings “designed” by incumbents in unthinking ways, will see incumbents interests prioritised and the possibilities for genuine interaction and finding-of-each-other minimised.

Let’s have a closer look at the way the two types of meeting under discussion are performed generally (please note, this is a generic description, not necessarily specific to your experience.  I would in fact be heartened and enlightened to hear of examples where there are consistent exceptions to the rule).

An early draft of this article used the word “designed” to describe meetings.  But designed is too strong a word- very little thought goes into how a meeting will be arranged. People mostly follow scripts (how they’ve always seen it done) and think that any conscious design is somehow an artificial imposition, and that if anyone wants to speak, they can/will.

The public meeting

The public will have run a gauntlet of paper sellers outside.  They’ll come and sit down near the middle (or at the back if they’re planning to duck out early).  They’ll either sit together or if they are on their own bury themselves in a book or (more 21st century), scroll through their newsfeeds and social media accounts.  The room will fill up a bit more, so people have to do that most un-English of things – sit next to someone they don’t know.  There will of course be isolated outbreaks of networking, talking to new people etc, but on the whole, people will keep to themselves.

The chair of the meeting will – within a few minutes of the advertised start time – announce the meeting open.  There will be some random comments about current events and heavy handed attempts at humour and welcoming.  The speaker will then get a long and fawning introduction.

The speaker – some personality from television or the mass media, mostly, will utter a few standard and obligatory self-deprecatory noises. He (and it is more often than not he, though women are not good at this either) will then very much launch into the standard spiel that they’ve done many a time before.  It will have been updated with new factoids and new examples (almost certainly drawn from their latest book or television programme).  They will get so carried away that they’ll run over time by a significant amount of time.  The chair of the meeting, not wanting to seem a bully, and certainly not wanting to alienate this celebrity (or others) will let it run on.

Eventually though, the celebrity will shut up.  Most of his talk, oddly, will have been about the finer detail of the world’s PROBLEMS.   Problems are relatively easy to study, after all. And there are so many of them…

Solutions? Well, the celebrity doesn’t want to be perceived as following a particular party line, as captive or captivated by a particular group.  At the same time, if you got specific about a solution, all the difficulties in implementing that solution would surface.  Far better, therefore, to keep it to a general ‘the government/business is bad/mistaken’ and a general and generic ‘we the people have to do something’.  The chair of the meeting will call for additional applause.  Some people will get up and leave, knowing what comes next.  And what comes next is… usually dreadful.

It’s the Q and A, which might as usefully be called the P and A – preening and assholery. The chair will ask if anyone has questions, and a bunch of hands (attached to men) will shoot up.  The chair will pick three or four, based on who they know, who they like.  These questions will each be long. Some will not be questions at all, but mini speeches with terms like “don’t you agree that…”.  A long question demands a long answer, and the invited guest may also use the excuse to add stuff that he didn’t get to say in his spiel.  Eventually, with time running out, the chair may make some weak comment like “it would be good to hear from women”.  But it will be too late – a lot of the women will have left, either physically or mentally.

The meeting will close with more applause and announcements about upcoming marches and demonstrations.  The people who know each other will catch up, some will go to the pub and pick over who said what.  The ghosts though, having met no-one, will leave.  They may be back, on another issue, with a different speaker, but then again, they might not…

The business meeting

The group is meeting in a room somewhere – either a Friends Meeting House or a community space (like the one the police so helpfully were involved in setting up in Leeds, back in the day).

There’ll be a bunch of ‘old hands’ who clearly know each other.  The meeting will start on time, ish.  Depending on how many people are present there will probably be a name go round. People will give their name and their political/group affiliations. The chair (or ‘facilitator’) will announce the agenda and ask if there are any additional items.  Discussions will then be launched.

The conversation will probably be dominated by those who have the longest histories in the group/around the issue. They know the most, have the shared experience.  The Plato Rule will be witnessed – the wise man speaks when he needs to. The foolish man speaks when he wants to…”

The facilitator will point to various people, probably using names when he knows the person and “you, sorry, don’t know your name” when they don’t.   Issues will be decided, volunteers sought.  When there is a job, it will not be explained in detail, or paired off with anyone else.  The implication will be that it is an open-ended commitment.

In all probability, important issues that were at the foot of the agenda are not dealt with because the facilitator has not kept the meeting to time.  So items are either abandoned, deferred or – worst of all – decided in the pub afterwards.

For, inevitably, once the meeting is declared closed, there will be an announcement that some people are going to the pub….


Here’s a brief set of “commandments” and suggestion


What could be done?

Public meeting

Start on time.  It’s unprofessional and sends a message that you are sloppy and don’t consider people’s (finite) time to be a precious resource.

Start with an interaction – get people to turn to the person next to them to exchange names and ‘the reason they came’.  Not doing this sends the message that the only thing that matters is the front of the room, and what the oracles and the elect are saying.  Doing this means that everyone at least speaks to SOMEONE during the course of the evening.

Crowd-source the time keeping.  “Dear everyone, our wonderful speaker Professor Jane Bloggs has expressed a keen interest in hearing your questions and comments and ways forward and so is going to restrict herself to 30 minutes, of which at least one third-  10 minutes is about the possible solutions to problem x.  To that end, I’m going to slide two pieces of paper across – one at the 11 minutes to go mark – “Solutions” and another “This is the end”  piece of paper across at the “one minute to go” point. At exactly 30 minutes, I’m going to start to applaud, and you’re all going to join in.  Let’s practice now – (starts to applaud).

Ask speaker to devote at least half of talk to a) solutions b) problems with previous solutions c) what incumbents will do in response to attempts at reform. d) stuff that people in audience could do in coming days, weeks, months. i.e. NOT an exhaustive/exhausting litany of woes, recap of the book that they are shilling, followed by a tokenistic “we need to build a mass movement” horseshittery.

Making the Q and A a tolerable (even, gasp, energising experience).

(after applause dies down).  “Thanks to Professor Bloggs.  I am sure some of you already have questions.  I am sure others of you have half a question in your heads.  What we are going to do now is spend two minutes developing – and where possible SHORTENING those questions.  Please turn to the person next to you and do that if neither of you has a question, just compare your thoughts on what you’ve heard.”  (After two minutes rings a bell)

So, you’ve had a chance to get feedback on your question. With very rare exceptions, good questions are short questions. So, please no speeches, no self-advertisements. Professor Bloggs has said she’s going to try to keep her answers and responses as short as possible, and not use the time to continue her speech or go off on major tangents.  So we should be able to get through lots of questions.   We’re going to batch them in threes.  Can I see a show of hands, who wants to ask a question?” (Then pick two women and a man as “one, two, three” – don’t use names, even if you know people.)  Then another batch of three…

We’re drawing to a close now.  There’s something I didn’t tell you earlier, and that is that we have a prize for the best question.  Our judges have whittled it down to three, based on how short they were, how much they forced Professor Bloggs to think, and how relevant they were to the topic at hand.  Here are the three questions (puts up powerpoint).  Please only clap for one of the three questions Loudest clapping wins, and the person who asked that question gets…”  (a ten quid book voucher/ a copy of the book being launched, whatevs).  (This recognises and encourages the art of asking good questions, and gives the questioner a specific reward).

Maybe have the questioner come up to receive the book from Professor Blogs and close the meeting with those thanks.
Crucially, end the meeting on time, and on a ‘high note (applause for everyone). Remember the pea-end effect – people’s memory of an event is shaped by the most emotionally salient period within the meeting (the peak), and the final bit (end).


Planning meeting

Start on time, to send out a message of seriousness and reliability

  • Have an ice-breaker/”report-in” from people. Get the creative juices flowing, get everyone talking to one other person.  As a rule, a ‘name go round’ is NOT an icebreaker!
  • Consider having name badges for the meeting, even if most people think they know other people’s names.
  • Have a skilled chair, someone who understands the difference between chairing and facilitating, and is capable of doing both.  And if there are contentious issues to be discussed/decided, perhaps think of having an external person who facilitates those bits, making sure that there’s good process.
  • Facilitator, who either uses everyone’s name or nobody’s, to minimise that sense of an ingroup and an outgroup.
  • Have co-facilitators who facilitate a portion of a meeting, so that they gain experience and confidence, without having to ‘jump in the deep end’.
  • At the half way point of the meeting have a brief break. At this point jobs that need doing could be distributed, to people who were not present.
  • Make sure that when tasks are being offered out, that they are ones that aren’t open-ended commitments, and that wherever possible/sensible people are paired, an experienced person and a new-to-the-group person. Never ever let anything ‘mission critical’ be left to one person.  That stuff should always be paired.

There are more, but we’re drifting here from the mechanics of a meeting into how to distribute tasks and build skills in a group, which is a separate article…

Why social innovation will not happen.

As a baked-in pessimist, but also an empiricist, I believe that few if any of the suggestions above will become social norms.  I have reasons for this pessimism, which I provide in two sections: firstly when the incumbents want to innovate, but lack certain resources, and secondly when  the incumbents do NOT want to innovate (some cases will be hard to parse, of course, since motivations shift, and are sometimes a mystery even to those who have them).

Incumbents want it to but…

Innovation is difficult: experiments can fail, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and there are people just waiting to tell you that no good comes of trying to Change The World.  Further, innovation probably requires (demands) new skills, which an actor can lack.  It certainly demands confidence, and even (especially?) outwardly-confident people can be lacking in that

Beyond the purely ‘internal (psychological, cognitive, emotional) factors, are the broader ones to do with the social and political (small p) environment in which the innovator might attempt to ‘shake it up.’ It may be that they lack the opportunity because, while they are in office, they are not in power, and must defer to others – who do not want innovation – over the format of meetings.  It may be there is simply not enough appetite for  innovation among the broader field of actors involved. For whatever reason they do not see the need for change, or do not believe that it can succeed…. That brings us to the second reason why innovation won’t happen: incumbents don’t want it. It’s not in their material or emotional interest – would be abjuring opportunities for attention and affirmation, and would create unease/discomfort in a significant portion of their audience, which comes to these events largely to be seen as responsible citizens, but ultimately want to be passive, to not have responsibility.

Something from a wonderful book called from “Freedom to Learn,” a book by the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers is particularly relevant here:

He told me that while the experimental plants continue to do extremely well, and he feels pride in the work he has done with them, he regards his work with the corporation as a failure. The top management, though appreciative of the increased profits and good morale of the experimental plants, has not moved to follow this model in their other plants, even though it appears evident that overall profits would be increased.

“Why not?” I inquired.

His answer was most thought provoking: “When managers from other plants look closely at what we are doing, they gradually realize how much of their power they would have to give away, to share with their employees.  And they are not willing to give up that power.” When I stated that it appeared that power over people was even more important than profits- which are supposed to be the all-important goal in industry- he agreed.

So, if incumbents don’t want it, what do they do?

First, they simply ignore proposals for change.   If that no longer works, they may deride it as ‘touchy-feely’ or ‘hippy bollocks’.  Next they may tokenistically schedule discussion, putting it low on an agenda and then either not discussed at all or only discussed in a rushed and cursory fashion.  It is then deferred as “not appropriate; maybe later, after the next demonstration.”

The more sophisticated variant is to co-opt  a change and empty it of meaning (what academics who study these things call ‘de-coupling’). This can be done either fairly knowingly and cynically (having people in a circle instead of in rows, but still ‘running’ things or else inadvertently and simply because you are latching on to the latest ‘cool’ words (for example, the way the terms ‘unconference’ and so on were debased by Compass in 2013- see here.

Even more sophisticated (and I’ve not seen that many examples of this) is to do an experiment with the expressed intention of having it fail so it can be discredited.

What can be done?
As we say up north, “nowt” (which means, ‘nothing’).  Or rather, I can’t imagine a) being part of the solution, I lack the social skills, the status, the patience to enact this.  b) other people with the skills, status, patience stepping forward, since they don’t seem to feel the need; almost by definition, if you have the status within a group to make the changes, you have less motivation to do so, since your psychological and social needs are largely being met (so, not so much ’embedded agency’ as in-bed-with agentic deadlock).

Personally, I vote with my feet.  I just don’t go to events which I know are likely to be shit.  I walk out of events that I have gone to which are shit.  I sometimes lob a resentment grenade over my shoulder as I flounce out.  Strictly for the shits and giggles, you understand.  I have become, for all intents and purposes, a ghost. [n.b this was written in mid-2018. I have de-ghosted, for now.]

The dead hand of history is very very strong.  In the late 19th century the Qwerty keyboard became the industry standard.  Not because it was the best arrangement for rapid typing, but because it wasn’t – in the age when metal had to hit paper, the arms of the commonest letters would jumble.  Therefore they had to be placed away from each other.

Once we have a routine, a set of habits (and I’ve not addressed the whole question of “institutions” in the academic sense here) , we stick to them, even if they no longer ‘make sense.’ The legacy of the way we’ve always done things.

The sun. The sun….



UPDATE 1 August 2019: Thanks to Sam for spotting a bunch of typos/grammar snafus, which I have fixed. All remaining errors remain my responsibility, obvs.





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.


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.



  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.


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

Or perhaps PERMIAN extinction?

Peak Emotional Resonance Moment Inadvertently Accelerating Negativity?



(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…”

Anything but the E word. Holdfast Bay council rejects #climate emergency motion

“The shit is hitting the fan,” but it’s not an emergency, according to Holdfast Bay Councillors

Holdfast Bay’s elected members have overwhelmingly rejected a bid for the council to declare a climate emergency. In front of a packed public gallery of young and old, councillors were at pains to display their environmental concerns and credentials, while simultaneously watering down a motion put forward by one of the newest members.

After hearing from a delegation of a 14 year old and an 80 year old, both articulate and compelling, the council had the chance to act on what they heard. A recently elected Councillor, Philip Chabrel, put forward a motion noting recent alarming scientific reports, and calling on the Council to join many others around the world in declaring a climate emergency.  However, it quickly became clear that almost all of his fellow councillors were not in agreement.  An amendment, which removed the offending  term climate emergency and replaced it with an anodyne statement that “ALL levels of government” needed to act, was immediately put forward by another councillor, of many years standing. As other councillors spoke up in favour of that amendment, it quickly became apparent that they were all more interested in declaring that they knew how dire the situation was than in, well, committing the Council to doing anything new about the situation.  An almost accidental and incoherent attempt by another councillor to re-insert the climate emergency term was brushed aside,  The final vote was overwhelmingly in favour of the amended- and weakened – motion.

Holdfast Bay is a sea-side council, and as such could be expected to be particularly concerned about climate change, which is already bringing sea-level rise.  Instead, the Councillors were more interested in blaming State and Federal government and highlighting the City’s purported credentials..  While there is a lot of truth to this, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

Councillor Chabrel, who repeatedly argued that a climate emergency declaration would not cost the council inordinate sums of money, and would bring focus and urgency to the Council’s action, was palpably frustrated. His telling argument that previous Council goals (e.g. to be carbon neutral in its own operations by 2023) were not being implemented, was basically ignored.

After the motion was defeated, most of the 30 or so people present left the meeting and congregated outside the council chamber, amidst the displays that celebrate the city’s radical and pioneering past.  There was a distinct sense of confusion and despair, alongside déjà vu – recently two other metropolitan councils – Adelaide and Marion – have rejected calls for a climate emergency, with similar arguments used.

If this is a situation where, in the words of the Councillor who moved the watering-down amendment, ‘the shit is about to hit the fan’, then it IS an emergency, and talking about plastic bags and abandoned tyres is not discharging your responsibilities.

Eventually, as the impacts pile up,  these incoherent and irrelevant arguments will go away. However, the opportunity to prepare individuals, communities and society for the major challenges ahead will also have gone.  Future generations are unlikely to look kindly upon almost all of Holdfast Bay’s ‘leaders’.