photo credit: Atlantic Monthly

On Activism

Immersed as we are in our own life experiences, it is hard for us to recognise the larger-scale movements in human history — the ‘socio-tectonic’ forces — that are pushing on us and slipping and sliding us into new relational landscapes. Partly this is because our individual existences are so brief compared with historical human epochs. Half a century ago, the French historian Fernand Braudel sought to delineate these long, slow forces to show that they are beyond the consciousness of the actors involved.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that there are some powerful historical forces presently on the move. Beyond the specifics of reported events, what is noticeable are some underlying tendencies. One is the crumbling of institutional edifices such as representative government: a lessening acceptance of the principle that “someone else can stand for me” in public decision-making. This seems related to the present crisis of political leadership: the systematic diminishing of leaders except those who wrap themselves in the flag of invented or exaggerated external threat (eg Putin, Kim Jong-un, and now Trump). The crystallisation of today’s social condition into a struggle between the 1% and the 99%, the growing recognition of the perilous consequences of extractivism, and an increasing prospect of unenforceable personal and national debt, all suggest a situation that’s moving towards some form of socio-tectonic shift.

A symptom of this movement has been the re-emergence of activism as a vigorous political force, after a period of relative quiet in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Particularly in the decade from 2005, the internet has been credited with helping to re-invigorate grass-roots social movements in South and North America, southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East and now in south-east Asia[1].

The history of activism so far has generally been as a vehicle for articulating and expressing discontent and pursuing actions in ways that evoke a response from dominant power structures. In other words, activism has typically sought to invite or force change in the social and political order of the day. Social movements are often countervailing forces whose purpose and language is defined in opposition to the prevailing authority.

But in a context of potential tectonic social shift, a question is whether grass-roots activism can become a practice of transcendence: a movement that is not so much away from what exists, but more towards something quite new. Something that defines itself in its own terms: less, perhaps in terms of doing and more about being. A practical way of being that is neither ethereal nor idealistic and abstract, but is instead grounded, ordinary and everyday. Can activism grow into a wide-scale force for transformational change as well as being a response to particular instances of injustice or inadequacy?

The foundational idea here is that for sustained collective achievement, it is our human relationships that define what is possible between us. How we operate together determines what we can do. When mutual understanding and trust are low, everything is a struggle. We want to formalise and document things, and we argue over fine points of definition. When we have a clear sense of, and respect for, one another, agreement flows naturally and easily.

At least in the West, our Cartesian inheritance has left us trapped and isolated as individuals, in a persistent pathology of solipsism. So discovering the possibilities for ourselves as contributing members of well-functioning groups is a novelty and a challenge for many of us. Our atomisation — our individualisation — has become so deeply buried in Western culture that we scacely notice it. Yet it is present in every part of our lives — in all of our institutional structures, and in our assumptions around purpose, career, family and social and workplace conduct.

So is there then a form of activism that can move beyond individualism? Can there be a form of collective action that is based on a new kind of productive, everyday working relationship? Something that doesn’t depend for its motivation on anger, rage or a shared sense of impending crisis, or demand forceful and charismatic leadership for guidance and direction?

What’s interesting about activism as a starting-point for thinking about step-function social change in the world, is that it seeks to work outside existing structures and institutions. Activism starts with the word “act”. It is all about ‘acting’ and ‘action’, especially in the sense of a reaction against acceptance of injustice and domination: “We’re not going to take it any more”. It’s never action from a standing start: it’s re-action, a response. Activist movements are sparked by a shared sense of what people are against.

But action or reaction alone doesn’t generate sustainable change. Giants of activism — Cesar Chavez, Saul Alinsky, Marshall Ganz, Marina Sitrin — are noted for their organisational orientation: their ability to create patterns of collaborative conduct that outlast the communal outrage that first brought them to life. Yet the stories of their initiatives show that even careful, disciplined organisation has its limits. In many ways our recent history — not only in the domain of activism, but more generally — has been a search for sustainable patterns of human organisation. We’ve had a sense that if only we could arrange people together properly — if we could find the formula that enables people to click together — then the world’s problems can be solved.

I think the problem with organisation as the way forward is that the genetic code of individualism is still buried so deeply within it. Organising means thinking about people as identifiable units, able to be placed in relation to one another. Organising is something that we do to others rather than to ourselves. Organising puts us ‘outside’ the problem space. Organising has us thinking about static, describable entities rather than movement, emergence, and spontaneity.

So to recognise the transformational socio-tectonics that seems to be beckoning, we need to go deeper than (or perhaps ‘upstream’ from) acting and organising.

Let’s try to follow this thread a bit further. If the experience of social movements teaches us that organising comes before acting — but that organising isn’t yet enough — what might come before organising? Can we work our way upstream from acting and organising to discover an ur-condition of lasting social change?

Over the past twenty years, a new and potentially subversive agency has made its appearance in organisational discourse: the story of personal experience. Formerly dismissed by the institutions of science and the law as ‘mere anecdote’ (as distinct from measurable and verifiable ‘evidence’) the personal story has been steadily gaining traction as a source of original insight and productive connection.

An early response to the emergence of story from the mainstream was to seek to instrumentalise it. In the Harvard Business Review and elsewhere, articles appeared from around 2000 onwards to champion notions like “the CEO as storyteller-in-chief”. There is an interesting echo of this in the world of activism, in the work of Marshall Ganz. From his work on the ground in the Mississipi civil rights movement, Ganz argued for “the power of public narrative and the art of leadership storytelling”. From this insight he proposed a sophisticated storytelling method that weaves a tapestry of threads together from “the story of self”, “the story of us”, and “the story of now” — deployed, for example, in Obama’s 2008 election campaign. This practice pays serious attention to personal experience — but at the same time, seeks to mould it to a particular purpose.

Because an authentic personal story isn’t bound by social and political convention, it is perhaps unsurprising that it evokes an underlying urge control and tame — to ‘organise’ it.

However it’s possible to set aside the urge to control, and to consider stories on their own terms — as glimpses of aspects of the world that otherwise remain hidden. From this perspective, stories of personal experience can be understood as an important pre-cursor to organising, because they form themselves and create their resonance between people according to circumstances, rather than just being unchanging aspects or possessions of each person. The power of stories is in their telling and their hearing, rather than in their describable attributes. Stories do different things to different people in different circumstances. So paying attention to stories is to shift the focus of attention from an exterior view of things (an ‘aboutness’ orientation, where the world is separate from ourselves) to an interior experience of relationality (a ‘withness’ orientation, where we are are part of the world’s becoming). Being in a group and listening to a story together opens up and changes the character of the space between us. This change is worth taking seriously.

On these grounds, personal storytelling and listening are part of something that comes before — is ontologically upstream from — acting and organising. There isn’t really a word for this yet, but we might call it ‘preparing’. The idea here is that before we can organise and act together productively, there is some work to do to prepare ourselves — to make ourselves ready — for transformative collective action.

What kind of preparation is needed? Well, mostly it’s about sensitising ourselves. And it’s not an intellectual process, but something much more physical and fundamental. It’s about seeing ourselves as bodies in a world of other bodies, human and non-human, and acknowledging our physical responses to events, activities, and other people. It’s about paying attention to the ‘weak signals’ of uncertainty, unease, caution and discomfort that we all experience, and learning how to respond to these in useful ways. It’s about noticing how our own gestures and actions land with and influence others. It’s about discovering how to talk about what’s going on with us (our thoughts and feelings) even while we’re engaged in tasks and activities with others. It’s about recognising how those we are working with are oriented differently from ourselves, and then looking for ways to make direct and practical use of these differences. It’s about seeing ourselves not as self-determining, striving individuals, but as members of groups, families and tribes that continually draw on one another’s resources to deal with the unpredictable uncertainties of ordinary life. It’s a new world of everyday, moment-to-moment relationality, for which there is still only the beginnings of a shared language.

We can sense the yearning for this kind of preparing work in the current upsurge of interest in practices like mindfulness, meditation, and presencing. But such activities still seem to be disconnected from everyday ‘real’ work, and tend to be approached through a lens of individualism, as a kind of self-help activity.

A helpful prospect is opening up through our slowly maturing experience of the internet. Mostly what we have experienced online so far is networked versions either of person-to-person, face-to-face interaction or of broadcast communication (email, chat, websites and blogs). Learning on the internet has been following a traditional teacher-student model. Protagonists are not expected to be changed by their network experience. Patterns of internet use are mined to be categorised, replicated and exploited for advertising or surveillance. Assumptions about people in the design of mainstream internet services (Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon) are traditionally individualist rather than collaboratively transformative. The battle for revenue-generating eyeballs on the internet is steadily deteriorating into appeals to the most sensational, the most prurient and the most instantly satiable aspects of human behaviour.

But a new generation of internet capabilities is now emerging that is primarily oriented towards the group rather than the individual. And a few of these (Loomio, Hylo, and interactive tools like Symflow) invite collective learning and behavioural adaptation. Loomio, for example, enables group deliberation, and acts as a kind of ‘echo-chamber’ in which people can hear how their interventions are received. It provides immediate positive reinforcement for contributions that are appreciated by other group members and vice-versa. The tone here is naturally respectful and appreciative. The way that everyone is ‘on stage together’ — even asychronously — means that genuinely collaborative behaviour is instantly rewarded. The format encourages the shy and thoughtful, and discourages grandstanding. And because all of the conversation is preserved, it’s possible to look back and see how the attitudes and behaviours of the group have developed and matured with experience.

For me, Loomio points the way forward to a systematic approach to the new work of ‘preparation’ that lies upstream from present organisational methods in the world of activism and elsewhere. This new work

  • will enable people to easily tell and to share poignant stories of personal experience, and to find the stories of others just when they need them;
  • will allow collective meaning and insight to emerge spontaneously from a body of stories of experience;
  • will help people to recognise their own most distinctive capabilities in the midst of others, and to join forces in collaborative work in dynamic, situation-dependent ways;
  • and will create strong groups from widely scattered individuals who can work productively with a range of others with steadily deepening levels of understanding and mutual respect.

I believe that this is the kind of socio-tectonic shift for which we are yearning. There’s so much to do that we can only tackle together, as sensitised communities of purpose plugged into the events of the world, and able to use our differences of orientation and talent in highly tuned and productive ways. Rather than working in the abstract — for example, on transforming our institutions and our forms of governance — we can turn our efforts by ninety degrees, to work on ourselves together. By powering up our collective capabilities, humanity can flourish in unforeseeable new ways.

The affordances of the network, where asynchronous engagement can be gathered together into purposeful and coordinated action, will be pivotal in developing the sensitive relational behaviours that are foundational to transformative social activism. And the sooner we can include a pedagogy of relational development in our educational practices — from pre-schools to universities and beyond — the sooner we’ll get where I think we want to go.

[1] eg, Horizontalidad (Argentina); Tontonto G20 (Canada); Occupy (US & many others); Indignados (Spain); January 25 revolution (Egypt); Anti-austerity (Greece); Wisconsin labour (US); Gezi Park (Turkey); Sunflower student movement (Taiwan)