Issues with issues

Monday, 22nd October 2007 at 19:26 UTC 9 comments

Union Election time is here once again, and though I’m not standing, its taking up a lot of my time right now, so I apologise if posts are becoming infrequent.

Amongst all this, I’ve also had to find time for various meetings recently, including one about Khaled, a Bradford student currently trapped in Gaza and unable to return to study. During this meeting, one of the speakers stated that “If South African apartheid was the defining issue of my generation, then Palestine will be the defining issue of yours”. Sophia helpfully wrote two words on the paper we were using to communicate silently: “Climate Change”.

On one level, Betty Hunter, General Secretary of PSC, was probably right: Palestine is the scene for many of the worst human rights abuses of our time. No other people group has been so thoroughly abused, dispersed and humiliated across the last 6 decades (and six it shall be next year, when Israel stages massive events worldwide to show what a wonderful country it is). No where on earth is the suicide rate higher than in Gaza (even discounting those who travel across the Green Line before killing themselves; the ones we do hear about).

But if we are to talk in terms of the political issue that will affect each and every person born on this planet recently the most, then it should be clear that Palestine is not that issue. Perhaps in a way, it could be poverty. We lose so much because of Africa’s poverty and studies of undernourishment in Latin America have proven that the intelligence of a significant proportion of the population has been reduced by lack of nutritional food intake in infancy and childhood. But poverty is not a threat to all of us.

Climate Change, however, is. It will affect people in Africa and Palestine, Latin America, the UK, the US, it has killed thousands in a single year’s heat wave across Europe, and it will continue to do so. Not one child born today who lives past the age of 5 will be able to escape the effects of it, and not one child in the West over 5 will fail to hear about it. Indeed, some parents believe their children are being forced to confront Climate Change far too early in life, yet this is hardly likely to change.

People who are prepared to commit to a single issue are great people. Their dedication, especially when the spotlights go out, or spin around to something new, continues, and much is owed to them. But to lose objectiveness on the scale of their issue is quite an annoying tendency; all the more so when they start to bring in competition between campaigns when none is called for, and where humanity as a whole would be better served through ‘joined up thinking’, ‘holistic approaches to injustice’ and ‘intrinsic analysis of problems’ that connect them together at their roots, rather than fighting each separate appearance of a problem on the surface.

Last night I was at a meeting where different possible proposals for the future of Climate Camp were given. I went through a list of different actions which all took place, mostly independently, on Monday October 8th. These included the Parliament Square Fence Incident, a blockade of USAF Fairford (the main UK B52 base), an occupation of Manchester Airport (no one missed their flights, but the message was still clear) and Greenpeace camped out on top of Kingsnorth Powerstation, future sight of a new coal-fired power station (the lunacy!).

I introduced the final thing which happened that day as “not really Climate Camp, but vaguely related. Its really a lot more of a NoBorders victory, but Camp can claim some of the credit”. Another activist rebuked me: “Don’t separate NoBorders and Climate Camp, they’re all part of the same movement”. This was actually quite an inspiring thing to be told off for. This kind of thinking makes all these movements so much more powerful.

The collective ‘we’ becomes more powerful when we see each others struggles as being the same, without losing sight of the scale of each individual struggle. Though we struggle for everyone’s sake against governments and corporations intent on wrecking the planet, for some the first thing on their mind is their own personal safety, and we could still have a nuclear war.

In the earliest months of this century a term was created: “the movement of movements”. It defines into one the plethora of different movements which are capable of finding common ground, while remembering that they are each uniquely important to different individuals. When the stand alone, they make their point, but when they stand together, they probably have about a billion members, if I can claim one sixth of the world are part of some or other social movement/struggle for real justice. We are strong, not because we abandon our own issues for one key struggle, be that Palestine or Iraq, or something wider like Worker’s control or the state of the Climate, but because we recognise each others struggles as intrinsically connected to our own. Long may the unwritten coalition of issues, campaigns and campaigners continue.

To all the movements of The Movement!


Entry filed under: Activism, Africa, Climate Change, Human Rights, Iraq, Latin America, Nuclear Weapons, Participation, Politics.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Monday, 22nd October 2007 at 22:01 UTC

    There lies your problem. GIving an artificial ‘Movement’ brand to all your pet movements out there not only claims the false votes of most of the other billion or so people, who don’t actually agree with you on all of ‘The Movement’s’ policies. It also puts off many people who are given the message that either they’ve got to sign up to the anarcho-leftist agenda in its entirety, or become a card carrying member of the hated Them group and sing in tune with your ‘Governments and big corporations’. I reckon you lose a lot of support that way. And people get this message when they watch the news and it looks like the protestors at Faslane are the same bunch of hippies who were at Climate Camp and at sixteen million Iraq marches before that. You really don’t need to re-enforce the message by actually banding yourselves together explicitly.

    You make a simplistic division between People Who Care and everyone else, where people who care are actually the ones who agree with you on everything, and Evil People, who are people who – shock horror – actually want to change the world but who honestly think you’re not going the right way about it on some issues, and who get really narked when they’re lumped with the ‘governments and corporations intent on wrecking the planet’*. It just puts people off.


    (who goes out regularly to help and be friends with people on the streets, who’s a cycling fundie, who gets really annoyed at most of his housemates’ apathy towards recycling and energy saving, but who thinks nuclear power will be a vital resource and especially so for small, crowded islands like Britain, and who thinks that half of Graham’s political ideas are ill-informed ones which don’t actually work in practice.)

    *I’ve got something else to say on that. Since I’ve now got a wordpress account, I could always fill in a day’s blogging for you if you like, and I promise not to make it as rude as this comment!

  • 2. Jonathan  |  Monday, 22nd October 2007 at 22:50 UTC

    firstly, I do agree that Graham’s last paragraph was somewhat badly put. all the same –

    Greg, I think you’re really misunderstanding what “movement of movements” means for many of those who use the term.

    the idea is NOT to have one single “anarcho-leftist” ideology that people should feel they are taking on when they get involved in one single campaign. what it IS, however, is an acknowledgement that [A] certain campaigns are likely to intersect; [B] no issue can be cut down to an isolated concept; and [C] we can learn from one another, even if we disagree, particularly when we’re addressing the same institutions.

    that, at least, is how I see it.

    the whole point of the expression “movement of movements” is to make it very explicitly clear that this isn’t one single movement with one single ideology, set of principles, formal position and manifesto. instead, it’s a way of acknowledging and strengthening the points where we do have things in common without trying to forge “unity” where there is none.

    as an example: I’m not a particular fan of Greenpeace, for a variety of reasons which I’m not going to go into right now, and as such I’m not really interested in joining them. however, for certain specific things I’d be more than happy to work with them, provided we both acknowledge that we have different politics and different agendas, and so cannot and should not attempt to either be or be seen to be a single entity.

    same applies to sections of the animal rights movement, formal trade unions, etc.

    I’m curious as to whose support it is you think we’re losing through this approach, as to be honest it echoes a lot of the moralistic shite I get from people trying to tell us how to run campaigns without “alienating people” when what they really mean is “I don’t agree with you,” generalising their own discomfort to the rest of the world.

    I do agree there’s an issue in that a lot of activist groups can be extremely offputting to newcomers; however, I would put that more down to the problems of activism as a subculture taking on all the problems subcultures bring with them, rather than an issue of political analysis per se. I’d also point out that the media generally does what it can to portray movements as entirely unconnected, such as the recent No Borders vs Climate Camp article posted here.

  • 3. R  |  Tuesday, 23rd October 2007 at 12:37 UTC

    But there is an assumption within many activist circles of “if you agree with me on this issue, then you’ve got to agree with me and my analysis and conclusions on all these other issues too”. This can manifest itself in chants on marches actually being about things other than what the march is about (anti war marches are horrendously bad for this), through to an unstated assumption of position within meetings. To speak out and tell activist friends with whom you agree on so much that you don’t agree on everything can be really hard and I think it does damage the campaigns as individual battles. I’m not trying to deny the joined up nature of the issues – or the fact that we can learn an awful lot from each other, through cross-pollination of tactics. But it would be nice if the campaigns were a set of intersecting circles with people feeling free to fit in where they belong, rather than only those who belong to many of the circles remaining, leaving us even more out of touch with many parts of society and even more irrelevant.

    Keeping people like Greg in campaigns where they fit is vital – admitably Greg’s stubborn enough that he’d be hard to shift 😉

  • 4. Jonathan  |  Tuesday, 23rd October 2007 at 22:03 UTC

    R – agreed on all points. and “a set of intersecting circles” is generally what I mean by “movement of movements”, tho many do disagree.

    there is an extremely strong element of groupthink in activist groups – which IMO goes back to the subculture aspect of it. something I read a while ago described contemporary anarchism (and I feel this applies to the activist scene in general) as less a movement, more a culture with certain reference points which indicate you as part of the “in” crowd, manifested as particular views on or attitudes towards gender, sexuality, animal rights, the environment, and so on. the result being strong pressure to either conform or get out.

    what I find frustrating is on the one hand the subcultural groupthink and on the other the desire to atomise individual campaigns out of a fear of that groupthink. I’m not really sure what the alternative is tho.

  • 5. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 24th October 2007 at 0:49 UTC

    Wow, this seems like quite a healthy debate going on. Do continue…

    Though I might drop my oar in to say that I agree heavily with Jonny; the point of the Movement of Movements is that its a network, and not every part of that network agrees with every other part of that network, and I could really easily give you some examples, but the thing is, between those disagreeing sections are lots of nodes which can pass stuff along (I realise now that everyone in this discussion is some level of Comp Sci, for the rest of you, a Node is a point on a network to which other points are connected).

    Examples might include campaigns against Sex Trafficking which are informed by anti-sex-trade agendas, and the International Union of Sex Workers. That said, they really do have a common point of agreement, so maybe a better example is the veganism campaign (or anti-whaling campaign in some cases) and campaigns to protect indigenous hunting and fishing rights. Ultimately, they’re going to be connected through the vast network of actors (people or groups), some of which are far from ‘activist’.

    Basically, its all about submerged networks, parallelograms of forces, rhizomic interaction, iterative development, strange attractors and other wonderful things. Problem is, only Sophia out of those who read this blog will get what I mean if I use those terms.

  • 6. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 24th October 2007 at 0:54 UTC

    Oh, one thing I was going to drop in was that this is where I find the whole idea of “The Working Class (TM)” to be really off-putting. I prefer the term multitude, which Negri and Hardt coined, because it implies a ‘whole’ with many parts, which are all very different and very individual, but still constitute a group with some kind of commonality.

    When Empire is added as the anti-thesis of this, we get the idea that most of us (particularly in the west) spend some time acting within Multitude and other times we act within Empire. We’re diverse people, even inside of ourselves.

    For the theologically inclined in the neighbourhood, the Movement of Movements is a way of saying “though we are many, we are one body, because we all want to change the world for the better”, and you know how divided the church can be when it comes to being ‘one body’, and how diverse it can be even when it achieves something like a single-organism state.

  • 7. Sophia  |  Wednesday, 24th October 2007 at 9:11 UTC

    I don’t really feel like getting into the debate but I just thought I’d try an explain a few of the terms Graham just used because I don’t think it’s fair to bring them up and not explain what they mean.

    strange attractors – an issue or event which will bring a diverse range of groups and individuals together, many of whom appear to have little in common e.g. G8/WTO protests and the anti-globalisation movement or, to a certain extent, climate change and the environment.

    rhizomatic interaction – this refers to the way in which different movements and campaigns are connected by a series of unseen and unpredictably branching roots (think of a ginger root or the massive underground root systems of some mushrooms). The ‘roots’ could be friendship circles, people in more than one organising group, media sources, etc.

    I think it’s G’s turn to explain the other things he mentioned.

  • 8. Jonathan  |  Wednesday, 24th October 2007 at 10:20 UTC

    I really don’t understand your last point. outside of pseudo-Marxist drivel pretty much any understanding of class – working, ruling and everything in between – recognises that there are contradictions and tensions within those classes, on both the individual and collective levels. class isn’t about understanding two monolithic blocks within society, but recognising the ways social groups interact and where power – economic and political – can be seen to come from, impact on and travel to.

    in fact, I’d say “a ‘whole’ with many parts, which are all very different and very individual, but still constitute a group with some kind of commonality.” is fundamental to any understanding of class that has relevance to the real world.

    from what I’ve seen, the whole “empire and multitude” concept seems to be a way of describing class politics in slightly nicer, more updated language. which is fine, I just don’t get the excitement over it.

    BTW, I’m somewhat amused by your reference to animal rights vs indigenous campaigners, as that is what I was thinking of as one of my problems with Greenpeace.

  • 9. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 26th October 2007 at 21:21 UTC

    Jonny, point taken. I was mostly thinking of people who read my blog for the theology stuff and trying to find something which might vaguely connect back. Also, I like using Social Movement theory to understand things that go on in churches, its a weird interest I know!

    Submerged networks are kind of related to Rhizomatic Interaction; underneath the immediately visible expressions of movements which are visible to the media and the public lie a myriad of network connections, or friendships, that enable these movements to learn from and share with one another.

    Iterative Development basically takes the compsci concept of a similar name and uses it to describe the way movements develop by learning from their mistakes. We do something, we do it again, but this time, we try figure what was wrong last time and get it right. When new issues develop, we repeat, but we attempt to change that which isn’t working.

    A Parallelogram of Forces can be described thus: 2 people pull a trolley with swivel-wheels using ropes. They pull at right angles from one another. The trolley then moves in a direction between the two ropes, according to which pulls hardest (or exactly 45* from each of them if they pull equally). Two organisations may look like they’re pulling different directions, but they end up in the middle. You can read about this in an ICPS working paper (if you’re really that interested, I’ll get you a copy!)

    Sorry if those were terrible definitions!


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