Recently, I received a few sarcastic reactions to a Stirrer post – What really matters to people… 22.4.22 – dealing with what really matters to most ordinary people. I wasn’t personally offended – I’ve reached the point in my life where it’s not worth the effort:) However, it did get me thinking about how different strands of activism consciously develop strategies that relate to ordinary people and will win them over. So, here are my thoughts…
Listening and dealing with the messy complexity of reality
There are times when I get annoyed at the seeming inability of some activists to take a step back from what they do and ask – what do ordinary folk think of of it? When I was younger and less experienced, I used to dismiss the concerns of the average person as either mundane or bigoted. With experience and hindsight, I now realise that youthful arrogance was wrong.
For that, I have the seven years I was active in the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) back in the 2000s to thank. The amount of door knocking and canvassing involved in our activity was certainly an education! One important lesson being that it’s difficult to pin most ordinary people down on the political spectrum because they’re apolitical. One person could express views ranging from reactionary to progressive. Obviously, that didn’t mean I pandered to blatant prejudice. It did however mean listening to people’s legitimate concerns. Listening to and acknowledging those concerns gave me the respect I needed to have an honest discussion. Having those honest discussions meant accepting the fact that I would hear things I would disagree with. The point was (and still is) that I learned to debate and argue with people instead of simply cancelling them. The problem with the political culture we’re in is that there’s increasingly less room for honest disagreement and way too much for cancellation.
What’s the consequence of a culture of cancellation and censure? Namely that a worrying number of activists are retreating into their self referencing, self reinforcing bubbles. They may feel safe and validated in these bubbles but they’ll do nothing to actually bring about change. I don’t want to keep banging on about the various anti-lockdown protests I’ve been on but, while they were far from perfect, nevertheless they represented something new. My curiosity was peaked enough to want to attend them and, with the aid of a paper to hand out, to see what could be done regarding engagement and interaction. It was an experiment worth undertaking and I stand by what I attempted to do.
Which is a f**k sight more than many of my now former comrades bothered to do. All they could manage was a) ignoring or downplaying the concerns that drove people to join the protests and b) denigrate and smear those who attended the protests. Basically, my now former comrades managed to make themselves more irrelevant than ever by denigrating people’s concerns about lockdown.
A number of these former comrades whinged about the alt right looking to capitalise on these protests. Having dismissed people’s legitimate concerns about the adverse impacts of lockdowns and refused point blank to make any effort to constructively engage with the protests, they played a part in creating a political vacuum. When you have helped to create a political vacuum, please don’t start getting wound up when the alt right and other dodgy elements start to fill it! The same applies when people’s concerns about the state of their neighbourhood are dismissed as parochial concerns or simply too boring to bother with.
If activists can’t recognise that meaningful change can start with ordinary people in their neighbourhoods, then maybe they should take a step back and ask themselves exactly what it is they want to achieve. Vanguardism on the one hand and virtue signalling gesture politics on the other simply aren’t going to cut it when it comes to bringing about real change Nor will telling ordinary people how crap their lifestyles are or how (supposedly) bigoted they are. It may make some activists feel good but all it will achieve is to alienate and piss off ordinary people. As for the kind of action that sets out to inconvenience ordinary people trying to get on with their lives, while we’re all for a thorough home insulation programme, the antics of Insulate Britain were counterproductive to say the least: M25 protests: Insulate Britain activists dragged off road by angry drivers near Thurrock – Essex Live 13.10.21.
Relating to people at the grassroots
At this point, the kind of activism that gets things done at the grassroots needs to be acknowledged. We’ve done the IWCA kind of stuff alongside working with Basildon & Southend Housing Action to facilitate community clean ups and the like. That’s a couple of routes that are firmly based in the community. There are others…
Community gardens that go some way to empowering people to grow and source their own food is one example. One that not only helps with food but also with skill development/sharing and building neighbourhood solidarity. Community food kitchens are another example of genuine mutual aid and solidarity at the grassroots, as are community food banks. To tackle the culture of waste there are repair cafes where people help each other to mend and repair stuff, extending use life by years. All of these examples are about people meeting up and forming bonds of solidarity. This is where the discussions about the kind of future we want can happen. The proviso being that it has to be recognised that not everyone will be coming to them with a perfectly formed political outlook. So long as that’s accepted then it’s possible to move forwards.
Another route is people taking over and running things for themselves. There’s resident run parks – one we have been involved in is Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope. Then there are fan owned football clubs. One of the current leading examples of that is Clapton Community Football Club who currently ply their trade in the Middlesex League. They were set up as a response to frustrations of supporters at the opaque dealings of the owner of Clapton FC.
What’s important about all of the above is that it’s about getting stuff done at the grassroots and getting people in the community involved. As we’ve said more times than we care to remember, if you don’t have a base at the grassroots, you will struggle to bring about any meaningful change.
Militant protest and direct action
Of course there’s room for this but, if it’s not hitting the mark or passing off swathes of ordinary people, then there has to be room for constructive criticism. Sorry but the tactics used by Insulate Britain backfired massively. The disconnect between sitting in the road to block traffic and the need for a massive upgrading of home insulation was so vast, it pretty much blanked out the message it was intended to send out. Stop Oil did hit the target most of the time apart from the cooking oil incident which was a source of great amusement to many of us here in Thurrock. As to whether it did anything to screw the supply of petrol, as many people are having to rein back on travel because of high fuel costs, it’s hard to tell. Given the close proximity of the Thurrock Council depot to one of the blockaded oil terminals, it has allegedly screwed up the bin collections. Take a step back… What are people in Thurrock talking about after both the Insulate Britain and Stop Oil actions? They’re talking about the disruption and not the issues the protesters wanted to increase awareness of. Fail!
Obviously there’s a place for militant protest and direct action where there’s popular backing and a clearly defined target. Locals mobilising with the help of seasoned activists to prevent the environmentally destructive reopening of a quarry in the Mendip hills in Somerset is one example. The key point is that the locals are more than up for direct action and that the activists recognise that their role is one of facilitation rather than coming in from the outside and taking the lead. It’s when activists come in to an area from outside to essentially impose their own agenda that the problems start, as we have seen in Thurrock.
We’re not saying all of this for the sake of being seen to be right. We’re saying it because we feel that there are times when activists need to take a few steps back from the immediacy of the fray and ask themselves precisely what it is they want to achieve. Part of that involves thinking about how your activism is going to be perceived by the public. That doesn’t mean pandering to prejudice or set ways of thinking but it does mean having a strategy to win friends rather than make any more enemies.
While we at The Stirrer have made a conscious decision to stand aside from the anarchist movement for the time being, the above piece is not intended to be a dig at it. Sure, we have our reservations about the attitude and strategy and tactics of some anarchists. The above is as much, if not more, aimed at those who swoop in on an area thinking they have some God given right to disrupt the lives of ordinary people trying to get by in increasingly difficult times. It’s aimed at all activists, us included, in a bid to stop ourselves creating self referential bubbles that are sealed off from the real world. It’s about making sure we all take a few steps back to ensure we review what we do and ensure we’re relevant. In that spirit, we welcome constructive criticism and comradely debate.