Category Archives: Social Movements

White Saviour Complex, COP26 and #climate activism – my two cents

I was sat recently in a room as white as Cumbria. It was full (80ish)  of white people who sincerely believe that the revolution will only come when the last capitalist is strangled with the intestines of the last racist.  There were three women of colour present. I was sat next to one, a friend, (who prefers the term black).  She is, as I said to her, one of my very few Black/poc friends (as in, I’m no better than any other white person on this matter).

And the meeting was about climate change. And the meeting was all culminating with… Fucking Glasgow.

But wait. This.  I’m a white guy.  And if I am gonna write about whiteness and climate change, I gotta flag some debts.  Beyond the debts to folks like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Bob Moses and others who’ve shaped my thinking long term, more recently, Mary Heglar has been just nailing it. To not read her is to court serious ignorance.  Follow this link, read this piece then come back.

“I find it nearly impossible to look at the climate crisis without seeing the consequences of all the times white folks told people of color: “Wait, we’ll get back to it later.” To be satisfied with “incremental change” and not “push too far.” To settle for band-aids atop gaping, festering wounds.”

Back? Right, well, go away again and read this piece too.  Then come back.

Where was I? Oh yeah, fucking fucking Glasgow.  There was even someone there, from Glasgow, telling us we should all be there in November for this fucking COP26, big fat emotacycle that it will be.

Imma call it now.  The obsession with “summit hopping” is just another manifestation of white privilege.  Not as blatant as chanting “we love the police” or sending flowers to Brixton Police Station, but another manifestation nonetheless. Harder to see because it would be horribly conflicting to see it.  Summit hopping is just another way for us white folks, with our unexamined privilege, to avoid the tricky work of local activism around local issues, of building coalitions with people who don’t talk like us, dress like us, speak like us and have the same/similar experience of the state (1).

Instead we can get to prepare for months for some big international jamboree, displaying our virtue, our knowledge, our concern.   Those who go will be the students, the retired and those who can take annual leave. Those with caring responsibilities, those on zero hour contracts, those who can’t afford to get nicked, will not go. And will feel second class for it, no matter what assurances are given that “we are all crew.” And for what? To achieve  what exactly?

And there is a zero-sum game here. Time we spend on that is time we don’t spend  on local issues.

And yes, as individuals these people will admit that they don’t expect Glasgow to be a magical solution. But the emotional and organisational imperatives are overwhelming. And the herd mentality is overwhelming. It’s not the Abilene Paradox, it’s the goddam Glasgow Paradox (except the reasons for it are not difficult to understand).

Where does the white saviour thing come in? Allow me to use my reconditioned IPhone6 (2) to share the scribblings I made and shared with my black friend.

First, the Glasgow shitshow and its demobilising potential…  (see also here)

IMG_0061

 

Now, White Saviour Complex.  Teju Cole kinda nailed that.

white saviour variation

and then, because I wanted to make my friend laugh (with/at me), and because it’s true-

virtue signalling

 

 

I suspect many people enraged by this post will have stopped reading by now. But for the record

  • I am not saying everyone who is “organising” for Glasgow is a racist.
  • I am not saying everyone who wants to go to Glasgow is a racist.

That would be absurd, and I am leaving the absurdity to those among us (and there are many) who think that the current system is in ANY way sustainable. It has been a horrorshow for most people of colour for a very long time. And a lot of white folks.  The horrorshowness of it all is expanding, is all  (oh, and don’t even start me on the other species we allegedly “share” this planet with).

For clarity, what I am saying is that there is more to unexamined privilege that we folks with most of the privilege can understand without a serious and painful effort.

What I am saying is we need to listen carefully to those among us  – black, white, indigo, green with polka dots – who are making an argument about white privilege that get our hackles up, that get us defensive. Because if the claims makesus angry, well, there’s quite possibly something to them, eh? And it then becomes a question of whether we retreat into the comfort of white tears, of being allowed to be angry (and who gets to be legitimate and non-hysterical in their anger is a whole other blog post).  Or if we try to manage our emotions and think with clarity about who we are, why we do what we do and what is not getting done that really really needs to get done because we’re too busy organising the next emotacycle.

FINALLY, those of you who know me, online or in meat space, know that I am hardly any bloody paragon of virtue. I am full of unexamined privilege (some would say full of other things). I have pissed off people I massively respect, and had my ass (quite rightly) kicked to the kerb, more than once, which is a source of ongoing regret (the pain caused to others, more than the exile).  But pointing out that I am a hypocrite (for the record – I AM A HYPOCRITE) does not invalidate the argument I’ve made.  Counter-arguments could well do that, but ad hominems are not counter-arguments..

Okay, FINALLY FINALLY. We have work to do.  Summit-hopping is going to at the very best be a massive distraction from that work. At worst it will kill the possibility of building that mass movement (less white than Cumbria please) that we all agree we need.  We white folks have the privilege of a choice. I hope we have the wisdom and the courage to choose right.

 

Footnotes

(1) This is NOT to say that all white people have the same privilege in relation to the state. If you’re working class, well, the truncheon will come down on you too. You The middle-classness of various environmental activists didn’t protect them from being abused by the SpyCops..

(2) Nonetheless originally mined by children, gorillas killed, put together by slaves prevented from killing themselves with those safety nets.

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.

 

 

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)

 

Sucking on the hopium pipe

In 2002 I got some weird-ass bug, probably from having been in Cambodia. I ended up in a lot of pain (probably as much as in my life) and on a hospital gurney.   And then they gave me some morphine.

Holy mother of God that stuff is the shit.  You just… the pain just… you float away on this soft warm cloud of bliss.

I TOTALLY see how people get addicted to that. You’d be mad not to, if you had serious pain (and I did not – it was acute, but not chronic, not omfg ‘shoot me now’ pain).

Anyone with a brain who looks at what our species (1) has done to this planet – the genocides, the ecocides, the wanton destruction driven by fear, greed, will to power etc – is in a lot of pain.  That would be the case even if we were not quite clearly a long way down a suicidal path that will turn this planet into a largely uninhabitable overcooked slag-and-plastic heap.

Pain is not fun.

So, we want to suck on the hopium pipe.

“New group X will save us” (for x, insert Climate Camp, Occupy, Corbymentum or some extremely new and depoliticised rendition).

And if anyone has the rudeness to question why the same tactics and rhetoric should be expected to come to a different result, oh my.

“Look has anything else got this big this quickly? We must be winning. If you’re not with us you’re against us!  Don’t be so demoralising. You must be unwell/jealous” etc

I will say it again, (though I am staggered and appalled that I have to). We. Have. A. Moral. Obligation. Not. Just. To. Act. But. To. Learn. From. Past. Mistakes.

Everything is just riding an emotacycle off a cliff. Again. Why should people who ought to know better be applauded for that?

 

 

Footnotes

(1)  Yep, there is common but differentiated responsibility. Most of that responsibility lies with people who look like me – white, male, middle-class, who either actively did stuff or were unwilling to speak up against it, out of fear-greed-complicity-etc.  Anyhows, parsing the anthropocene versus the racialised capitolocene etc is a blog post for another day, ‘kay?

What next for XR? Gazing dimly into my crystal balls #oldfartclimateadvice

Tl:dr  Hard to see radical granular climate action in the UK continuing beyond early 2021 at the latest. But I could be wrong.

Firstly the disclaimers:

  • Disclaimer the first: Who the hell knows?  Who the hell knows anything anymore?
  • Disclaimer the second: In cosmic scheme of things it doesn’t matter- we are a dead species stumbling, about to spaff all the achievements of the Enlightenment against the wall. So it goes.
  • Stories like these, scenarios, give a crumb of comfort, the illusion/delusion of control.

We are not quite a year in to the public face of XR (I went to my first – awful – meeting last September).  The whole climate ‘thing’ (including XR, Thunbergmania, FfF etc) seems to be happening at twice the speed of the last wave (2006-2009), for whatever reasons.   On Monday the next ‘International Rebellion’ is to begin in London, after the events of April.  So, rather than be overtaken by events again, I am putting this long-brewing post (where long = n+ 14 days, for values of n 0-14 days) so that I have to own my predictions and can’t fall to the retrospective smoothing fallacy (fwiw, I don’t think I ever meant XR in toto would be over by end of 2018, just that the idea of maintaining blockades for weeks on end in Nov/Dec was, well, ambitious. But maybe I did)

As far as XR is concerned (the school strikes are different, but not that different), I think we’re coming to a crunch point. Much depends on Monday onwards.  The April evens had a few things going for them

a)  weather (it was warm – can’t think why) and not too rainy
b)  novelty ‘hippies take over London, complete with ‘normal’ people among them’ was a good news story
c)  a gap in the news cycle from the Other Thing Of Which We Will Not Speak
d)  The Metropolitan Police were playing it softly softly (possibly because it helped them in budget negotiations to look outnumbered/overwhelmed? Who can say.)

For this next orgasm in the emotacycle to ‘work’, all of those need to be in favour again, and the novelty factor has to include LOTS more people (if numbers aren’t much much higher,  where is the novelty?) It’s not clear to me the numbers will be that much higher. Lots of people got to tick the I Did My Bit box by turning out in their lunch hour for the Global Climate ‘Strike’ on Sept 20.

It’s not clear at all that the OTOWWWNS window will be there.

It’s also reasonably clear that the  Metropolitan police attitude is different.  Clock this display of pre-emptive we-da-boss-ery. Seems odd to do this and then be all touchy-feely-dancy-yes-we-are-your-friends from Monday on. We shall see.  (Of course, just because the Met may want to change its tactics does not guarantee they they will succeed in changing their tactics/those tactics will succeed.)

But for the sake of argument, let’s say  all the stars align and this next rebellion is a ‘win’ for XR, then what? As far as I can see, then the pressure to do an ‘even bigger’ Rebellion next April will be almost irresistible (and it is not clear to me many participants would WANT to resist).

Okay, so say the event is a damp/ignored/plodded squib. In that case, I suspect that there will be some decruitment, some soul-searching and the splits emerging (the drones-at-Heathrow as XR’s ‘Brexit Moment’, as an insider said not long back) will open.  BUT if I had to bet, I’d say the cracks will be papered over, morale sort of maintained and the caravan will be kept on the road because, you know, momentum (lower case), it’s an emergency, and there is a summit to be hopped in Glasgow next November/December.  And given that the dreary mainstream NGOs (Hello Faux, hello Greenpieces) are busy playing catch-up and will be wanting to mobilise for the COP, then the XR will stagger on.

Meanwhile, in both these extreme cases, the calls  for granular, local, low-adrenaline-radical action will be ignored or wilfully misunderstood by most folks.

But I could be wrong. Time will tell, as she so often does.  In the meantime, will keep pushing on with the granular local, low-adrenaline radical stuff, as best I can, with people I trust.

This time it’s different? Of #climatebreakdown, issue attention cycles, social movements and other natural disasters….

Lunch with a smart friend with whom I often disagree (politiely).

This time it is different, maybe, he says (in response to my point that we’ve known about the essential unsustainability of techno-accelerationist consumerism since the late 1960s  – Earth Day, The Limits to Growth, Blueprint for Survival in 1970, 1972 and 1972: I can find you other doom-laden prognostications too  – and yet the moment of awareness/panic passes (is repressed, in psychoanalytic terms?).

This time it is different, perhaps, because it will no longer be possible to ignore the agonised screams of “Mother Nature” (i..e. it is middle-class white people getting affected, not just other, lesser beings and species).

So, how might the issue attention cycle NOT follow the path it has in 1969-1972, 1988-1992, 2006-2009?  (that’s a  very crude global approximation – always check your mileage).

I think you would need to see TWO things BOTH need to happen

a)  The natural disasters/extreme weather events keep on piling up and – this is crucial – start affecting the daily lives of rich people in the West.

b) the social movement organisations keep learning, growing, organising, and are able to understand that media attention is an extremely dodgy success metric, and that coalitions must be built, maintained, defended, and that the wretched emotacycle is fool’s gold. (btw, subverting, channelling, smearing, cracking and splitting social movements is the actual job description of some among us).

We will probably get a), but in the absence of b), the usual amnesias and social (de)constructivism will assert itself.

Finally, this IS NOT like the Soviet Union, which collapses “overnight” between 1985 and 1990.  They at least had an alternative “viable” system – of liberal democracy, with political parties, elections etc – to point at and say ‘hmm, we will have some of that thank you.’.  We have no roadmap, (though endless ‘roadmaps’ provided by ever-so-kind academics wanting to feel important), and (you can tell I’ve been listening to too much Dylan) no direction home.

 

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.