Category Archives: Social Movement Learning

30 mins at a meeting’s outset tell you EVERYTHING. Also, crap plenaries…

There are other blog posts I need to write.

A review of an extraordinary book about Norfolk, the Stone Age, incumbency, patriarchy and sociotechnical transitions (no, seriously it’s all that and more. Staggeringly good))

Something about the intellectual work behind the job I just was interviewed for (accelerating sociotechnical transitions. Or sociomaterial transitions – or something in between)

Something about ‘you can’t blow up a social relationship’ – a bunch of novels I’ve read recently or a long time ago about ill-fated adventures in violent resistance (a 1970s genre of fiction, not all of it pulp)

But for now, I have Something To Get Off My Chest (as usual)

FOR FUCKS SAKE CAN WE PLEASE BE LESS FUCKING SHIT?? (okay, okay, I will tone this down now, given potential future and future potential bosses have checked out this site),.

So, sweet- natured version.

“Progressive social movement organisations may possibly benefit from some reflection on long-standing methods of organising and holding meetings”

So, here’s the ranty bit about the first 30 minutes of meetings

You can tell how a meeting, (and quite probably the campaign it is ‘part’ of will go) from the 15 minutes either side of the start.

If the answer to many of the following questions is “no”,  then time and energy are being spaffed against the wall.

Have people been given the option of wearing name badges and badges that say broadly where they are from, to help make it easier for other people to cross the first hurdle and speak to them?

Is there a notice up on the powerpoint saying “a big part of today is you getting to meet other people you don’t already know, to thicken the networks on which a movement sits.  Please do talk to strangers!”

Is it clear where the toilets are, the coffee/tea etc?

Opening speeches/announcements

  • Is there a clear “thank you for coming” and a repeated encouragement (perhaps even two minutes of doing it) to talk with someone you don’t know?
  • Has provision been made for people who would like to come but couldn’t (e.g. livestreaming of opening speeches, some sort of online interaction (a hashtag at least)
  • Is the opening introduction clear and concise and high energy?
  • Is the opening speech – if there is one – full of things that those attending DON’T already know/agree with?
  • Is there an opportunity for at least a couple of questions to the opening speaker, so the tone is set for, you know, discussion?  Is that opportunity after people have had a chance to talk with someone else to hone their question (if not, the usual suspects’ hands will go straight up)
  • Is it clear – crystal clear – what the purposes of the day are, from the opening introductions and the first speech?

So, here’s the ranty bit about plenary sessions. Also if the answer is no…

  • Has the reporting back from break out sessions been carefully designed (or, if you must “curated”), with clear time limits?   (Reporting back meaningfully from breakouts sessions is a skill. Most people do not possess that skill at all, or at the level required for it to be meaningful. In the absence of that skill, and of a time constraint, the report-backers will blather and foreground their own (organisational/emotional) needs. This will drain energy  from the room and credibility from the process, simultaneously.)
  • Have the announcements of upcoming events been carefully thought through, and a way of avoiding rants devised and implemented?  (If you really want concise comments, especially about upcoming events, have a ‘hand in details’ form, which can be entered on a powerpoint and flashed up for all to see.  Again, no time limit is going to mean some very long, rambling and energy-sapping and credibility destroying speechifying).

Oh, and sidebar – the emotacycle will get us all killed.

The answers to most of these questions, at most of the events I go to is “no”. Which is why I don’t stick around.  The number of months we have before the shit properly hits the fan is more finite than we want to admit – it’s later than you think.  So, why waste time at time-wasting and morale-destroying meetings.

What’s that you say?  I sound down on the “Left”?  Why, yes, yes I do, don’t I.

What’s that?  Am I a Daily Mail reader?  No, but I can see why you would need to believe that, since I am traipsing all over your tribe’s culture, and there is an implicit rebuke in this to you for tolerating crap culture in your subculture for so long.

Fwiw, I have raised these issues REPEATEDLY.  Both unhelpfully, but also as helpfully as I know how. You can, on a good day, get individual “organisers” to agree with bits and pieces.  But when time comes for them to innovate, to push past the resistance of their colleagues to any deviation from The Way Things Have Always Been Done, they bottle it. They lack either the skills or the spine – or both – to make things any different.  So it goes.

 

Why does nothing change, will nothing change?
Because the success or failure of one meeting doesn’t register for those who are making the decisions about it and future meetings, because those people are a tight-ish band of long-term/baked on activists, who will keep doing what they do. They lack the insight into what behaviours really put off newcomers, or have the insight but are unwilling to innovate the format of meetings because. well, lots of reasons.  Nobody else is going to be able to do a sustained change of format – the incumbents will have to do the disrupting, and everything we know about incumbents is that them doing disrupting is pretty damn rare.

So, we’re doomed. So it goes. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is, so suck it up.

 

 

Asking the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong way: WW2 bombers and social movements

Those who know me will put two and two together, but the rest of you can wonder why and what.

This.

There’s a story about the beginnings of Operations Research, I think from De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, which goes like this:

trying to figure out what bits of bombers required (heavy and therefore necessarily scarce) reinforcement, the people assessing would look at planes which came back from hitting German targets, see where all the holes in the fuselage/wings were and say “reinforce the bits with the most holes.

No.  No, that’s wrong.  Because the planes that made it back, with that damage, were the ones that were still flying, by definition.  Those bits full of holes were precisely the bits that did NOT need reinforcing.  But it’s hard to look at planes that got hit in their weak spots and went down in flames, them being in thousands of pieces in Nazi Germany and all.

Fortunately, the mistake was seen, the right bits reinforced and We Won the War.

 

So, when I see an excruciating survey, full of the wrong questions, being aimed at people who are STILL INVOLVED, I weep.  Because nowhere does it ask “do you know anyone who is no longer coming? Did they tell you why they stopped coming?  If not, could you ask them to tell you, anonymously?”

THEN we might be looking at the right bits of the shot-down planes.

But that would open up a different can of worms, and quite a squidgy one. And require a level of emotional intelligence that is lacking. Has always been lacking, not just from this particular iteration.
We are just not smart enough. Or we are smart enough – on our good days – but simply not BRAVE enough.

Whatever it is, we are toast.

 

 

A year from now… aka The Glasgow Shitshow #COP26 #socialmovements

Right now there’s a lot of politicians flapping their meat in Madrid, at the 25th “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Late next year they will be flapping their meat in Glasgow. It will be the first COP to be held in the UK (though there was 1994’s “Global Forum – of that, more later).

And what will the build-up to the Glasgow COP allow (or “afford” if you do all that ANT hand-wavy stuff)?  It will allow groups to forget their differences (internal, external), their failures, their inability to do local capacity-building, their aimlessness.  It will allow them to put on a series of feeder events for the mother of all emotacycles – a big set-piece climate conference in the UK (I’m assuming indyref2 can’t happen by next November).

The whole thing is deja vu all over again, for those of us with memories stretching back to 2009.  Then – after 3 exhausting years – climate groups decided that a “big” march in London with some bumbling on to the COP in Copenhagen (“last chance to save the world, TM”)  would “build a mass movement… international this… solidarity that”  (my memory may be playing tricks, but I don’t think the words “decolonising” and “inter-sectional” were thrown around so much).

So, I have made a graphic, and there are other things afoot.

glasgow shitshow

 

Not because I expect to change a single soul’s mind, but so I can say “I told you so” in March 2021, when the fallout is at its most clearly radioactive.  Schadenfreude is a dish best served… in advance…

 

 

 

 

Sequential Consensual Autophagous Meetings

First I will treat you as ego-fodder.  You will sit in rows, or in a circle,and you will listen to me drone on and on about my hobby-horse du jour.

I don’t care what you know about the topic.

I don’t want to take time away from hearing my own voice to hear your perspectives.

I don’t care about you getting to know the other people in the room

I don’t want to take time away from hearing my own voice for you to build networks

Why do I want this?  Because I am Important, dammit.  I may not have had all the adulation and obedience that I should have had. But that is because I am a Dissident, and a Rebel.

But I have you all here now, and You. Will. Listen. To. Me.  In this “workshop.” That’s a new definition, by the way, of “workshop.” Do you like it? Say yes. If you don’t, well, I don’t care.

But I am not a monster. Of course I am not a monster.  Am I? I understand that having used you all, you – well, one or two of you perhaps – might then expect to use me and the rest of you in a similar way. Without my insight, my brilliance, it’s true. So the most of us, and even me-  because I am not a monster, am I – will sit in rows or in a circle and we will listen to one or two you drone on and on about your hobby-horse du jour. Fair is fair, after all.

Not all of you, that would be impossible. No, just perhaps three or five or so other people who are also FOTO-genic.   Friends Of The Organisers, that is. We will run the day as a series of sequential “consensual” autophagous meetings. Just don’t think too hard about the acronym there, okay?

You don’t know what autophagous means? Oh dear. Perhaps you didn’t go to a good school? Perhaps you did not take your own education in hand, as I have? Perhaps you could reflect on how this might mean that rather than being one of the important people, who talks, you are merely one of those who is allowed to listen. But fear not, they also serve who only sit and listen. But since you’re not very well-educated, you probably don’t even get that particular bon mot? I should not cast my pearls of wisdom before such swine.

You see, by sitting there, by OBEY-ing, provide proof to the important people, like me, that we are important, that our hobby-horses are not old nags, but thoroughbreds.


Where was I? Autophagous….  It means an entity that eats itself.  Self-cannibalism. It’s like that Stephen King short story – Survivor Type.

And in order to do the important things – namely for me to feel important – we have to perpetuate social movement failure. We have to keep doing meetings where new – or actually often old, half-baked –  ideas come from the front. From the FOTO-genics. And we will not do good meeting design. And we will not do facilitation in any meaningful way. For if that were to be done, well, it would detract from my opportunities to use you to boost, albeit fleetingly, my self-importance. 

That new people are bored, so what? That they don’t come back and they tell other potential members that at the meeting they went to they were bored, patronised, their input neither sought nor welcome? So what. That after a while the meetings, conferences get smaller and wink out of existence? That the campaign has in effect eaten itself, to meet the insatiable appetites for attention by the FOTO-genics?  That when the issue next exercises the public, new “organisations”, bereft of experience, competence, innovation, repeat the same ghastly repertoires? So so what?

For, you see, this is a balance, a difficult decision.  All of those minor, even trivial downsides, compared to me feeling important for 55 minutes. As Madeleine Albright said when asked about the sanctions on Iraq costing the lives of half a million children – “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

Oh god, how hard IS IT, really? Meetings that don’t suck. #oldfartclimateadvice

Hi everyone,

there’s a lot of us in this room, and the tables aren’t really helping. I know it is gonna take a minute, and the “Elf and Safety” types may be upset, but I want to spend one of our precious 57 remaining minutes stacking the tables against the wall and making a circle of the chairs for us to fit in.  While you are doing that

a) introduce yourself to someone

b) come up with a way we can build a densely linked, long-lasting movement for climate justice on this campus, and beyond this campus.

(Once in a circle)

Great, thanks, I am x (yes, introducing yourself by name is a good thing). I am from y, which is one of the organisations which called this meeting. It is fantastic to see so many people here on such short notice.  Hands up if you’re an undergrad? Hands up if you’re a Masters Student.  PhDs?  Academics? Staff? Other – you are all welcome.

We are here for two reasons. One is that there is a climate strike at the end of this month.  But if we only focus on building for that, we’re idiots, trapped in the emotacycle.  We have to have the longer vision of a real climate movement on campus. That’s the second reason we are here.  Every minute of speeches from the front is a minute less for those tasks. So, no speeches. Okay, that’s a lie. I want to say this:

What IS a climate movement on campus? It’s not a bunch of organisations, each small, secretly fighting over recruiting undergrads. It’s not a bunch of organisations doing that while occasionally co-ordinating over a date – a climate strike – or an issue – like divestment. It is this – it is dense webs of people who know each other a little bit at least, or maybe a lot. A dense web of people who can collaborate, who can support each other to learn new skills, new knowledge, put new and ever-more pressure on the decision-makers on campus and beyond. A dense and denser web of more and more people who win victories, find new things to improve.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  How does it start? It starts with me shutting up, and you – you, talking in groups of two or three – no more.

Find out the other person’s name, find out what course they study or teach. Find out what their idea for building a climate movement is.  Three minutes.

[three minutes]

Right.  We are going to do exactly that same thing later, but first, we have to make some progress to the climate strike that’s coming up.  It mustn’t be a damp squib, and it can be a great way for us to show ourselves, our allies and our opponents that we are serious and capable.

So, there are flipcharts and marker pens. As individuals, or ideally in the groups you just formed, I want you to add – legibly – the following

  • On these flipcharts, upcoming events between now and the strike where we might be able to publicise the strike
  • On these flipcharts, ideas for things that could be done on campus to publicise the strike
  • On these flip charts, ideas for things that could be done off-campus to publicise the strike
  • On these flipcharts, ideas for longer term action on campus.
  • On these flipcharts, the names of groups we should be talking with.

If you run out of ideas, that’s fine. PLEASE go and talk to someone new. Introduce your new acquaintance to them. This is how networks grow, and movements are stronger if the underlying network is stronger.

BUT, before we do that.  I want us to go round the room.  We want three things. Your name, the course you study or teach, and if you are a member of a group, the name of that group, or at most, two groups. No group, no problem! We WILL have time at the end for groups to advertise what they are doing – come speak to me about –  but for now, just those three things

(Name go round)

Right, ten minutes on the flipcharts, and discussing, then we reconvene!

[ten minutes]

Thanks everyone.  Before we close, I want you to get into new groups of three and do the same. Find out the other person’s name, find out what course they study or teach. Find out what their idea for building a climate movement is.  Three minutes.

[three mintues]

Thanks everyone, we now have a really long list of upcoming events before the strike. This will be typed up and circulated.

We also have a huge number of ideas and thoughts about the short term and, crucially, the longer-term. These too will be typed up.

There is an email list going around.  We promise not to spam you, or let the list get taken over by other issues.  Please write your email address on it, legibly.

 

Now, I’ve had six people want to advertise their groups and upcoming events. Any others?

So, the rule is this. You have forty-five seconds. At the end of that, I am going to start to applaud you, and everyone else will join in.

[Announcements from various groups.  If they do it badly, that teaches them a lesson for next time.  And they’ve only taken up 45 seconds. Meanwhile, each round of applause boosts spirits, even if some of the applauding is ironic].

Right, great. Thank you so much for coming. A final plea. These new people you’ve met – stay in touch with them. Swap e-mails, or Twitter, or Grindr or whatever.  A movement is built on a network, not on an event or even a series of events.

We will announce our next meeting with more notice. It will almost certainly be next week, venue to be confirmed, but probably in this building.

One last round of applause for all of you and your ideas, energy. We can win this – we must win this.

(Applause)

 

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]