Tag Archives: ego-fodder

Ego-foddering: Why is it awful, who benefits, what is to be done? #oldfartclimateadvice #climate

I believe that one of the biggest problems “we” face as individuals-in-groups-trying-to-unfuck-the- world, is the seductive call of ego-foddering. This piece explains what I mean by ego-foddering, the two main types that I have spotted (there may well be others!). It then moves on to who benefits from it, who does NOT and what consequences ego-foddering has. Finally, it turns to the ever-important “what is to be done?” question. This is published “in beta” – that is, it’s provisional, subject to modification (hopefully improvement!) I’d really appreciate any reasoned critique of it. Many thanks in advance

What is ego-foddering?
Back in 2011,when I came up with the term, I described ego-fodder as

“the audience at any public event (big or small) which has not been structured by the organisers to provoke the highest possible amount of participation, engagement and mingling.“

So, ego-foddering is the process – deliberate or merely “passive” – of destroying the potential of attendees/participants and turning them into an audience, into ego-fodder for you/your organisation/another speaker who you’ve got along to get more people to come along and make you feel validated.

Here’s a possibly controversial bit. Traditionally the sages on the stage have been old white men. In my opinion it doesn’t actually help so very much if those on the stage at the front are black, radical women. If it’s ego-foddering, it’s ego-foddering, not movement-building. In the same way that neoliberalism can find willing meat-puppets of any gender or race, without changing its basic operating system, so it is with ego-foddering.

The label ego-fodder(ing) comes from “cannon-fodder”, with its understanding of rows of soldiers being fed into the mouths of guns. But there is a “modern” variant. Let’s call them for termin(ator)ological ease, the T-800 type and the T-1000 type.

The T-800 of ego-foddering is big, lumbering but deadly and comes with a Germanic accent, of people in rows, with those at the front to focus of attention/adulation.
It’s pretty easy to see T-800 ego-foddering, they’re not so good at disguise. And in fact, we’ve all been in plenty (too many) of these meetings. In fact, most people’s experience of schooling is this. Sit in rows. Stay silent. Absorb what the teacher is telling you. Squeeze out the sponge on the appointed (exam) day. Get the result. Repeat. A society built on the Peter Principle, filtering, filtering, always filtering sheep and goats. But I digress…

The second variant of ego-foddering, the T-1000 is far harder to spot, far hardier. It’s slinky, shape-shifting, really really deadly, super-good at disguising itself.
No longer are you stuck in rows, but you’re in a circle, or sat around in small circles, at tables. There may even be flipcharts and coloured-pens.
But ultimately , you’ll be focused on what they want you to be focussed on, answering questions they think are important, that help THEM do what they want. You’ll not be actually invited to find out anything useful about the other people around your table (for more on this see here and here).

Who benefits from it?
The powers-that-be, basically. They achieve/sustain and maintain their hierarchy, their sense of (self) importance and knowledge.
Speakers get a captive audience, and people likely to buy their books. Organisers get to see dozens/hundreds of people present, and bask in (reflected) glory.
Though that’s only part of the story. There are, depressingly, other beneficiaries. To quote myself-

It finally occurred to me today the level of collusion in this. Yes, the people at the front want their egos stoked and stroked. Yes that is endless and destructive. But the ‘audience’ wants – for the most part – to be infantilised, to be “taken care of.” We want parents to blame, we want parents who will take care of us. We surrender our autonomy, our ability to make connections, to forge (in every sense) our own paths. We allow ourselves to be seated, bored and patronised. In exchange, we get to offset responsibility for our own education, our own movement-building.
The parents (not “adults”) at the front of the room want children who will obey, and be dutiful and respectful. But it’s not as if the audience is all rushing for the door marked “adult.” Through that door are the horrible fearful rooms marked responsibility, uncertainty, self-mastery.
Better to suck the thumb, suck the dummy. Watch the powerpoint. Listen to the plenary.“There there, it was just a bad dream. Sleep. We are here to protect you.”

 

Who does NOT benefit from it?
Anyone/thing with any investment in a habitable (not-just-for-humans) planet, obvs. All those – present humans and other species, future humans and other species who are being sacrificed on the altar of the great god Economy, of Growth. Who thought that social movements (especially in countries where we have formal freedoms around information, speech and assembly) were going to get their fucking gamefaces on and do something about the eco-cide. Them, they’re getting screwed by ego-fodder. But they don’t vote/turn up to meetings or fill out direct debits, so, you know, screw them.

 

What are the consequences?
The consequences of ego-foddering is that the few people who do occasionally turn up to meetings feel alienated and don’t come again. They think they don’t have the stamina/intelligence to be an “activist.” They also tell any of their acquaintances who ask that organisation X is not interested in their skills, knowledge, perspectives and is just more of the same grand-standing middle-class complicit boring condescending wankery.

 

Why/how does it persist?
So if it is so terrible, why does it persist? Because it meets the emotional needs (for attention or for denial of personal responsibility) of speakers, organisers and attendees. Those who might “change the system” never stick around long enough, or don’t have a name for what they are being subjected to.

 

What is to be done? “You” could do about it.
I’m not going to waste everyone’s time by saying much about what event organisers could do. They tend, in my experience, to be very small c-conservative, and quickly realise that a change of format could mean they could not offer up captive audiences to visiting Celebrities. This would upset the business model, and mean fewer bums on seats and less ego-fodder for them too.
Here’s a checklist from ages ago
checklist-for-organisations

Nor shall I waste much time on speakers, who are not going to refuse it. It would be too much of a (monkey)-wrench to forego the pleasures of basking in the adulation (or at very least attention) of a captive audience.

Both types could, in theory, forego the dubious and parasitical pleasures of ego-foddering, but they have not done so to date, and to “hope” they will is just silly. We need courage, not hope.

So, it’s up to us – we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Here’s a few things we could do.

  • We could refuse to participate. We could let organisers of meetings know that we’re not going to meet their ego needs unless they meet the broader movement’s needs. We could send them a letter/email beforehand, along these lines.

algorithm-for-event-attendance-page1

  • If we decide to trust their blandishments and go, then we could always separate under the law of two feet (I personally do this, to the disgust of people who think that it’s rude to walk out of meetings. Me, I think it’s ruder to stage meetings that people want to walk out of. Again and again and again).
  • We can NAME what we see. We can explain to other people (in blogs, conversations, on social media that what is happening is ego-foddering, and that it is not okay, because it has terrible consequences).

See also (and omfg have I written a lot about this topic)

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this”

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BRILLIANT paper on sustainability transitions and political ecology. #holycrap #jealous

And the Best Paper I Have Read This Month Award goes to… drum-roll please…

Lawhon, M. and Murphy, J. 2011. Socio-technical regimes and sustainability transitions: Insights from political ecology. Progress in Human Geography. Vol. 36 (3), pp.354-378.

Here is the abstract

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a core focus of geography, linking subfields such as urban, economic, and political ecology, yet strategies for achieving this goal remain illusive [sic!]. Socio-technical transition theorists have made important contributions to our knowledge of the challenges and possibilities for achieving more sustainable societies, but this body of work generally lacks consideration of the influences of geography and power relations as forces shaping sustainability initiatives in practice. This paper assesses the significance for geographers interested in understanding the space, time, and scalar characteristics of sustainable development of one major strand of socio-technical transition theory, the multi-level perspective on socio-technical regime transitions. We describe the socio-technical transition approach, identify four major limitations facing it, show how insights from geographers – particularly political ecologists – can help address these challenges, and briefly examine a case study (GMO and food production) showing how a refined transition framework can improve our understanding of the social, political, and spatial dynamics that shape the prospects for more just and environmentally sustainable forms of development.

Why is it so good?   Very clearly written, very clearly argued, and the authors have read heaps of important literature and synthesised it beautifully.  There is so much here for academics, but also for activists who want to loot the ivory tower.  I can’t quote too much, but these bits, from an activist perspective are useful (I read it with my Write Your Bloody Thesis Hat on, the hat I will be wearing from now until it is done, or the Donald starts a thermonuclear war based on a stray tweet.)

Once the lens is extended to include diverse actors, questions will arise regarding the roles played and the kinds of interactions between them. How and why were different stakeholders approached, informed about, and enrolled into the transition management process? What kind of language was used in these processes? Are participants made to feel that their opinions are valued and considered in decision-making?
When considering these kinds of questions, Whatmore (2009) argues for the development of competency groups as a means to more pluralistically and fairly develop interventions in response to social or environmental problems while still keeping focused and including relevant, affected actors
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 366)

and

As Allen (1997) has shown, power can be conceptualized in a variety of ways – as an ‘inscribed capacity’, a collectively produced resource mobilized by groups to achieve particular ends, or as a mobile and diffuse phenomenon realized as a series of ‘strategies, techniques, and practices’.
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

and

Power may be expressed directly – in terms of who controls the selection of participants in decision-making processes, who participates, and whose voices count in the making of decisions – or indirectly – in terms of the language used to convince others to support a position or to create discursive alliances (Birkenholtz, 2009).
Many political ecologists emphasize the relational nature of power, arguing that power is found not in elite individuals as suggested by socio-technical transition theory but instead in relationships.
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

But activists won’t get away from the smugosphere, the emotathons, and will keep losing, and keep burning through potential recruits, who – after being used as ego-fodder a couple of times – give up and stay home.

In terms of the politics of sustainability socio-technical transitions (my Thesis) it is insanely useful.  I’ll stop gushing now – gotta read a few 2016 papers (Avelino et al x 2)

Here’s the references that look particularly mouth-watering to me, fwiw.. (no offence intended to the others)

References

Allen J (1997) Economies of power and space. In: Lee R and Wills J (eds) Geographies of Economies. London: Arnold, 59–70.

Allen J (2003) Lost Geographies of Power. Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell.

Angel DP and Rock MT (2003) Engaging economic development agencies in environmental protection: The case for embedded autonomy. Local Environment 8: 45–59.

Avelino F and Rotmans J (2009) Power in transition: An interdisciplinary framework to study power in relation to structural change. European Journal of Social Theory 12: 543–569.

Bailey I and Wilson GA (2009) Theorising transitional pathways in response to climate change: Technocentrism, ecocentrism and the carbon economy. Environment and Planning A 41: 2324–2341.

Berkhout F, Smith A, and Stirling A (2004) Sociotechnological regimes and transition contexts. In:

Elzen B, Geels FW, and Green K (eds) System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability. Cheltenham: EdwardElgar, 48–75.

Blaikie P (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. Harlow: Longman.

Castree N (2005) Nature: The Adventures of a Concept. Abingdon: Routledge.

Ekers M and Loftus A (2008) The power of water: Developing dialogues between Gramsci and Foucault. Environment and Planning D 26: 698–719.

Freeman C (1991) Innovation, changes of techno-economic paradigm and biological analogies in economics. Revue Economique 42: 211–231.

GandyM (2002) Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Geels FW (2006) The hygienic transition from cesspools to sewer systems (1840–1930): The dynamics of regime transformation. Research Policy 35: 1069–1082.

Hodson M and Marvin S (2010) Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were? Research Policy 39: 477–485.

Kemp R, Schot J, and Hoogma R (1998) Regime shifts to sustainability through processes of niche formation: The approach of strategic niche management. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 10: 175–195.

McManus P and Gibbs D (2008) Industrial ecosystems? The use of tropes in the literature of industrial ecology and eco-industrial parks. Progress in Human Geography 32: 525–40.

Mann G (2009) Should political ecology be Marxist? A case for Gramsci’s historical materialism. Geoforum 40(3): 335–344.

Markard J and Truffer B (2008) Technological innovation systems and the multi-level perspective: Towards an integrated framework. Research Policy 37: 596–615.

Meadowcroft J (2005) Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy 10: 479–498.

Meadowcroft J (2009) What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions. Policy Science 42: 323–340.

Patil AC (2009) Transition to clean coal technologies in India. Computer Aided Chemical Engineering 27: 1731–1736.

Robbins P and Bishop K (2008) There and back again: Epiphany, disillusionment, and rediscovery in political ecology. Geoforum 39: 747–755.

Rocheleau D (2008) Political ecology in the key of policy: From chains of explanation to webs of relation. Geoforum 39: 716–727.

Rotmans J, Kemp R, and van AsseltM(2001) More evolution than revolution: Transition management in public policy. Foresight – The Journal of Future Studies, Strategic Thinking and Policy 3: 15–31.

Scott J (1999) Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith A, Voß JP, and Grin J (2010) Innovation studies and sustainability transitions: The allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges. Research Policy 39: 435–448.

 

On (failing at) piercing the smog of the smugosphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which I replied

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

b) Rejecting the idea of critique of social movement activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d) Ad hominems

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

See also

“That’s a courageous decision minister”

Folk Song Army by Tom Lehrer –

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

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

Oh, and this, from 2006.

miffy

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

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

The pathological meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failed attempts to ‘limit’ this

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

This usually fails because;

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

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

Why none of these innovations will happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Resistance’ rituals: “Historical materialism” or the material of history

You’d think an academic conference – attended by people with the willingness to think and criticise, and a hunger for a transformed world – would be looking at the questions of what what went wrong, of how the ‘revolutionary’ fervour of “1968” gave us not the new Jerusalem, but the new Las Vegas. ‘Neo-liberalism’ (see another post on this – there was a good presentation at the conference on why not to use the term) is in the ascendant. Life may be much better for ‘minorities’ (women, people of colour, non-heterosexuals – especially those with citizenship) than it was 50 years ago, but if you can read a Keeling Curve and the emissions trajectories, you know that on the seriously big item – climate change –  ‘we’ failed.

But academic conferences have – like any human gathering – unspoken (even unconscious) rules and routines. Some people, the chosen, sit at the front and read out things they have written (god forbid they ever simply film themselves doing this and put it on youtube). Everyone else since in dutiful rows, and waits for the opportunity to stick up their hand to ask a question. Sometimes those questions are self-serving, or sycophantic, or mini-speeches because they couldn’t get the organisers to let them sit at the front, or they did but didn’t get enough of a feed when they were at t’front.) There are short breaks, during which time people who know each other (and perhaps like each other) catch up. Newbies are basically left to fend for themselves. This goes on all day (or all week. Sometimes a day can feel like a week).

I spent parts of Friday and Saturday at one of these things. My wife, far smarter than I, skipped the whole thing. I am not so smart.

I asked the same question twice. On Friday I said words to the effect ‘Assuming that you are right about the benefits of decentralisation, horizontaility’ etc, and given that this critique of high-energy mass society was made by Murray Bookchin, Lewis Mumford, Barry Commoner and others as far back as the mid 60s- Gregory Bateson warned about climate change at the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation Congress – then how come we lost? Not ‘what can we do differently’ because I think we are fucked, but ‘what did we do wrong?’

I got two answers
a) we used money
b) but there is an eco-village in Spain with 900 people.
[I genuinely don’t think I am being unfair to the people speaking. They will probably disagree]

Yesterday I offered the panellists a magic wand if they could change on thing about the culture of the left that makes it so unwelcoming to new people.

Two of the three panellists engaged

The first said we need a better understanding of the social circumstances/viewpoints, so that we (some Gramscian Trotskyist elite?) “can intervene”.

The second said she wasn’t sure, but that she’d like to see “us being more generous to each other”, that we should be more serious about ideas, and that activism was affected by the tyranny of the busiest (my term) – that the ‘correct position’ was being decided by whoever did the most activism (“what would you know, you’ve not been at the last 3 rallies”).

While I have a lot of sympathy for this critique, I was also able to imagine someone who was between placard-painting and flyer-printing sneering ‘so, you’re saying that the main change to the left is that you- you ivory tower layabout – need to be in charge and then everything will be fine? Srsly?’

So what is going on with the silence about examining the failure of the ‘left’? Why are movement intellectuals not engaging?
Let’s get rid of some potential answers;

  • They are not smart enough to examine the problem. No.
  • They don’t believe there is a problem. No, they mostly do. You talk to them in private, and many concede things are stuffed.
  • They don’t believe we can do anything about ‘left’ culture. This would be odd, and incoherent, given they are trying to change broader culture, a much bigger task.

I think there is something far more depressing going on. A critique of the left and its cultures and rituals would cost friendships and career opportunities. A critique of how we do things would be an implicit (or explicit) criticism of the ways of doing of our friends, allies and ourselves had used for years/decades. That would be very very confronting, even if delivered in the mother of all praise sandwiches. And the opportunities to speak at conferences , rallies, meetings etc would dry up.  You’d stop getting invited to parties.  You’d be labelled a splitter, a sectarian, mentally unwell.
It is far safer, therefore, to denounce MultiNational Corporations, Capitalism, NeoLiberalism, Tony Abbott, David Cameron etc etc etc, than to take a look at ourselves and go ‘hmm’ what have we been getting wrong, all these decades.

“What is to be done?” as someone once said (I forget who).

My basic line is that the only way to keep pressure on elites, and open up policy-making space that neoliberalism and bureaucracy have been shutting down systematically [there never was a golden age] is to build movements that grow, learn, organise and win.

For work not to fall on a small group that becomes overworked, bitter, cynical, factional, you need constant influxes of new people, and ways for everyone to fit their activism around the fluxs of life (children, jobs, parents, hobbies).

To do that, you need to make a movement organisation credible, welcoming and a space where busy and/or not terribly confident people can feel that they have at least a toe-hold.

However, most movement events are pretty unwelcoming for ‘newbies’ (the old hands simply cannot see this, they are the proverbial goldfish that says ‘what water?’) and there is the old problem of the only way to be involved is to come to endless meetings that ramble, that offer no opportunity for ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.

A couple of VERY simple things that could have been done at the Historical Materialism conference, for literally no money and very little time-

Keep the speakers to time (if we can’t share out an hour equitably, why should anyone believe we have the global answers?!)

hm2-clap-clinic

Have a two minute ‘speak to the person next to you’ thing at the start of each session, making it easier for newbies to get chatting during the breaks.

Have a ‘before we go into questions, turn to the person next to you. If you have a question you want to ask, get feedback, hone it’ thing. This will increase the number of questions from, for example, women.

hm3-q-and-as

Will these things get implemented? Almost certainly not, because I am clearly just some crazy malcontent. So it goes.

 

See also

A short video about ego-fodder