How to get ahead in activism

Thinking is a lot harder than it looks. Sometimes you can actually feel the new neural pathways being formed, and it's not pleasant; I imagine it's similar to what werewolves go through come a full moon.

So there are several reasons to be sympathetic to the problem that any good grass-roots activist faces. For a start, critiquing and reinventing an entire political system is not easy, and we should give people a lot more credit for trying.

But in this world you get marked on results, not effort. And it's for that reason that activists need to be even more stringently rigorous in their lines of attack than, say, bankers or politicians. There's no room here for woolliness or bad fact-checking, and I've come across plenty of examples
of both: the activist who spoke to me of "reframing climate change" in a manner that Accenture would have applauded; another who, when questioned about where she stood on a specific policy, replied that she floated above all that stuff; the conspiracy theories about the establishment; the blanket assumption that all politicians/police/fill-in-as-appropriate are bad; the paranoia and small-mindedness that can destroy a constructive discussion.

This isn't just a small problem - it's one that touches the heart of activism, although others may disagree. (They almost certainly will: they're activists. Very argumentative.) The problem is that, for some people, their political positions are the result of years of thought, years of discarding one belief after another, years of journeying to their current place. They've read Derrick Jensen's theories about human endgames, they've studied William Godwin, Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin. They love David Solnit's theories on organisation, they've worn out their copies of Naomi Klein's No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, and they grab their copy of SchNEWS or Freedom or Peace News as soon as it hits the stands.

But for others it's an instinctive thing, a position that comes from the gut, with justifications and rationale limping along very slowly behind.

And that's not hard to understand. It's easy to sympathise with the underdog. Robin Hood, Brer Rabbit, Fantastic Mr Fox - in childhood we're brought up on heroes who outwit the establishment, and the ground is laid early to admire folk heroes such as Che Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista rebel army in Mexico. There are also many emotional reasons why people become so anti-establishment, such as residual damage from childhood experiences that is then projected on to the government or some other figure of authority. Some are simply angry and searching out a fight. Others are lost and find a home, or a sense of belonging, on a protest site, in collective living, in a squat. A lot of people drift into the movement, and then tailor their political beliefs to suit.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing, in some ways. It's inclusive: for everyone. But occasionally I feel sorry for the people in there who are genuinely good at thinking - the ones who've agonised their way to their position, who have come up with subtle and intelligent ways of moving the rest of the world there, only to find out that someone who identified with a cartoon character got there faster.


This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on