sustaining ourselves and our dreams, for resilient activisms

Alice B Reckless wrote a post on activist burnout. It’s really great. Read it now. I read it a few months ago, and it gave a way in to talk about my relationship with ‘activism’ and some of the strategies I use to navigate political activity and communities.

We need to talk about burnout, she writes.

It’s there physically in a lot of us. Our skin’s pale, there are bags under our eyes. We’re fatter or thinner than we habitually are, or were last time we were happy. We lose our tempers really, really fast. We talk to people with moderate politics as if they are evil or as if they are stupid.

This last one is something that I have often focused on as a huge problem in the activist community. Do we intend to be a minority? Do we not hope to recruit from those slightly more moderate than us? This last one is often a conflict between wishing to engage with those who are oppressed and inactive through their sense of powerlessness in the political system, and so are alienated by the prospect of insignificant change within the system as an end goal, and on the other hand to engage with those who believe that small change within the system does have at least medium-term if not short-term tangible benefits.

When I say we lose our tempers fast: I mean, really REALLY fast. And I’m pretty sure by now it’s not just me. The slightest indication that someone can’t see that the situation is fucked and that ordinary people are being aggressed against, and that suicide among the more precarious members of society is a direct effect of government policy, that we are therefore actually being killed at present, is a massive trigger, quickly producing tears, shouted insults, incoherent rage.

This person who is indicating that they don’t think of the situation as fucked . . . do they recognise it but take a realist stance that does not inspire them to fight at the systemic level? Have they had a lack of experience of the oppression of government policy? Or are they aware, and choosing not to take an activist from of action?

It’s hard to know. Which should we suppose?

there are times when we see in each other’s faces the bright and beautiful spirits that dreamed another option –

I am drawn to those bright and beautiful spirits and the dreams that we dare to dream. But I always feel that it is inevitable that those dreams are fleeting and momentarily. The anger and the hurt which drives activism is a precious resource. There is only so much emotion that a person can feel. People whose immediate communities are flopped over have already got most of their capacity taken up. To choose to plough energy into dreams of systemic change is an endeavour that few people choose. If we were all to choose it then those dreams might be far closer to reality. But everyone would have to engage in balancing care for themselves, and immediate mutual aid, and care in our immediate relationships, for that energy invested in the big picture to be sustainable.

In the last few years we’ve fought an increasing number of losing battles. (…) it’s also about the feeling of having given everything for a long time and having failed. It is psychologically hard to recover from repeated, consistent failure.

How do we define our battles? What would it mean to win? If we are fighting against the tide then a realist view is to acknowledge shelter for a few fleas on the beach as a victory. When we fight something we may position ourselves with a belief that we will vanquish the thing we fight. A belief that our dream will manifest. But if we speak about what we think will happen, among ourselves, our expectations are more modest than our dreams.

We chant that Palestine should be free from the mountains to the sea. Among ourselves we hope that our contribution to the international discourse will reduce the magnitude of the atrocity that will be committed against the Palestinian people before Israel is meaningfully sanctioned by the international community. And it’s grim, to keep an awareness that the changes we affect will not match up to what we dare to dream.

What is the resistance we want? How can we keep visions of what might be possible alongside the realism that are immediate ambitions should not set us up for continuous failure.

How can we balance high expectations with realistic goals in the optimum balance for what they call ‘rapid and sustained progress’ in teaching jargon.

And we’re really creative and imaginative people, and plenty of us have begun to take our balls home. I wrote previously about preparing to go on the last big march against university fee hikes. I didn’t write about the run-ins that I had with the police, the way that I was manhandled for WALKING DOWN A STREET or the subsequent night that I spent in my friends’ arms shaking and crying. Like, disintegrated into bits. No more capacity to keep a handle on my emotions. It is frightening to feel like that and it is probably unhealthy to pursue situations that will make you feel like that again. So I, for one, have looked out alternative spaces where I can be creative and imaginative and which are in no intrinsic way radical, which are doing nothing to change the exterior situation, but which let me feel like I have sometimes felt, glimpsing the best of all possible worlds. And I’ve gotten stronger and started to cry less and to be less filled with rage.

I turned to teaching. I hoped that a single occupation that would fill my days would keep me from beating my head alternately against different systemic brick walls, whilst not daring to smash it so hard that my head would break or that I would lose my ability to paint those rules or chip away at them using other means. Teaching sucks. I didn’t know before what a 70 to 80 hours week felt like. And I am emotionally drained and torn by the conflicts between how I want it to be and how it is in the classroom. The idealism which burns me out as an activist also drains me as a teacher.

I feel like I can’t talk about burnout because I’ve never been a proper activist. I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never – well rarely – bottom lined organisational aspects. I’ve always been drawn to the shining optimism of those who can lead activism, but rarely shared it. I am too much of a realist to be a driving force. Not for the sort of activism which sets itself up to lose. But is it worth pursuing dreams which if we were to gain them we would ask – ‘did we really only ask for this? this is nothing we are still being fucked over’. I prefer to dream the big dreams. That’s not true; I prefer that the big dreams be dreamt, but I lack the personal capacity to dream of them sufficiently strongly. I try now to stay aware of the big dreams, and to conceive of whatever I am doing in terms of a spectrum of action, of a diversity of complementary tactics, and I am finding that I am drawing together my fragments of dreams in projects where I can visualise potentials more than I used to be able to.

The sense of ‘not being a proper activist’ is something I’ve been able to reconceptualise as a chosen path, rather than exclusion on the basis of personal inadequacy over the past couple of years or so. When I found people who engaged in activism who were willing and open to acknowledging the chasm between our dreams and slogans, and our realistic hopes and beliefs about our impact, I found I started being able to cry about social injustice. Acknowledging the tension between the human empathy which must drive solidarity, and the scale of global struggles, linked up the political and personal in a broader way than before.

Trying to bridge many modes of action is something I have been drawn to, from when I first engaged in activism, trying to make the edges of radical anti-capitalist identified activism, and lifestyle activism and normal people giving a shit more porous. But, it is challenging and exhausting to try to communicate concepts from one community of shared political understanding in other settings. And to do so in an open conversation, which is open to the possibility of learning something from the other person’s perspective, means that every conversation risks upsetting your schema of the world and how you are choosing to engage in politics. Holding an image of a diversity of complementary tactics helps me here. The alternative, of conceptualising a single method of action as the only effective one gives a sense of despair if this method is failing, and it turns those who choose different tactics to the same ideals and values into misguided fools or enemies.

Thank-you for writing and sharing Alice B Reckless, you brave and bright and beautiful spirit.


my second capitalist workplace

Experiencing positive discrimination in the workplace

this is the second of a pair of autobiographics heavy pieces, trying to pin down some of my experiences of socio/educational class at work. the first is about my formative first experience of a capitalist workplace aged 18.

Part Two – hierarchy and class in schools.

After uni I decided to apply for Teaching Assistant jobs. I applied for about 20 without getting an interview. Then I got an interview, in which the headteacher asked me with concern, ‘Do you know what you’re going to be paid? Are you sure you want the job?’. I convinced her that actually there weren’t that many graduate jobs that I was keen on doing, and I got the job.

I found it hard. There were lots of routines, most of which weren’t written down. I felt like I knew too little, but also, conscious of the contrast of my educational background to the T A s alongside me, had reservations about asking for formalised, teacherly knowledge about the kids. And there was no time. I was supporting 16-19yrolds with their learning, having no idea myself about what they were capable of, what specific barriers to learning they had. My awareness of this, and my level of aspiration to facilitating effective learning, made me uncomfortable to a degree which inhibited my chances of learning how to communicate intuitively, and learn the ‘language’ of the less verbal students.

After a few weeks I got a meeting with the deputy head to check if I was fully inducted, and if there were any problems. I took it as a springboard to discuss everything which was problematic in the school, which I saw as a lot, with a big focus on lack of communication and transmission of information (to me as a T A). Hearing other T As referring to their performance review meetings, I realised how I had interpreted it within an incredibly entitled framework. Nothing happened from that meeting, but the headteacher continued to take a bit of a special interest in me. She seconded me to a primary school as a keyworker, out of interest in my professional development as much as that I was not too settled and so wouldn’t object, I suspect. Then, when in my secondment it suddenly emerged that they had massive problems with my insubordinate attitudes, she had my back. She placed me with teachers who were keen to value their teaching assistant’s inputs. In one class I was alongside a man, who was the sort of straight, confident, masculinity that abounds at Oxbridge, which I avoid like the plague. And he was popular, with his heteronormative banter, and his good looks, and total lack of self consciousness. He left after two terms to work for a multinational minerals company abroad somewhere. 

My class-self-consciousness is something which layered with my already existing social awkwardness at that school. In the staffroom I was stuck between teachers and teaching assistants – an experience common to many graduate teaching assistants, who are teacher-like by demographic, but at the same time are not teachers. I never said where my degree was from unless I was directly asked. And . . . I saw how the non-striking union ‘Voice’ poster was put up, overlapping the Unison/NUT poster, in case anyone was unclear about the fact that management wasn’t really into strikes. I saw how being paid hourly, and not being listened to, and being given initiative after initiative to fit into the day makes hard-working, caring people work to the clock as a matter of self defence. Meetings which could be productive became burdens on time, extra minutes before we could go home. Top down targets, squeezed into a lack of time and resources in the day, make people do activities regardless of whether they make any sense, and so . . .  many are done in a task focussed way which may or may not have any positive value for the child/student concerned. And the T As who work with the kids all day aren’t stupid. We all have critical thinking skills, and a pretty good awareness of the young people’s needs, but little space to exercise those skills. Teachers become control freaks, because they’re responsible, but then they make things happen which sometimes make sense, and sometimes make no sense at all. My bourgie intelligentsia background made me see this. But my role meant that I experienced how little I could do with it, and just how much it was structurally determined that my colleagues accepted it, knowing that to pursue questions was a waste of energy.

Now I am training as a teacher, and one of the aspects I feel deeply ambivalent about is that I am taking up my middle-class mantle. I hope and aspire to find strategies to make the class-based hierarchy in schools less bad, rather than worse, with whatever capacity I have to do so. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know a bit more about what it is not than I did a few years ago.

my first capitalist workplace

Experiencing positive discrimination at work.

This is the first of a pair of autobiographics heavy pieces, dealing some things I’ve been processing for a while. I started writing prompted by reading this article by Kevin of Platform, which gets into the practicalities of compensating for positive discrimination as a male in meetings. I haven’t got to writing practical strategies yet, but this is a pair of bits of writing to pin down some of my experiences of socio/educational class at work.

Part One – my first capitalist workplace. 

There are things about my childhood and background which are still becoming visible to me today, but this goes back a few year to when I went into my first capitalist workplace aged 18, with a batch of A grade A levels, a deferred place at Oxbridge, and a need to save up money to fulfil my plan of going travelling for a few months. Previously I’d only had casual jobs, as a student teacher at a music club, strawbale hefting & babysitting for friends. It took a couple of months, applying to retail, call-centre and care-work until I ended up working minimum wage, 9 – 5.30, Monday to Friday, in the provisions –aka  section of a family run small department store. It was a formative experience of class and capitalism, as I’d previously lived in a comparatively insulated middle class bubble. When I’d come up against Marx in A2 philosophy, it was interesting, I agreed with it, but I didn’t apply it to my personal experience of the world. 

There was a good batch of characters in that corner of the shop. There was Tom*, a kind old man, with the gift of the gab. I didn’t notice until a couple of weeks in, once he’d cycled through all his trademarl pearls of wisdom a couple of times that he wasn’t saying anything that he hadn’t said before. He seemed cheery. Then his wife left him, and the hollowness showed. The ambitious young line manager, Dan*, had a bantering relationship with the middle-aged and run-down Mary* who he’d known since he was a boy. Banter tinged with the power relation of hire/fire. Mary hated her job. She was humiliated by Dan regularly, and was unnecessarily rushed as she restocked the fridge. The big boss was a gruff, pompous man with a silver sporty car. His son was a prosperous, well fleshed 30-something with a well-groomed wife, and ran the wines section, more mellow and amenable than his dad, but purely by dint of age. His daughter, however, was considerate and genuinely friendly with workers. She seemed distanced from her father, and word was she’d been disowned by him when she first came out as a lesbian probably helped. She shared being oppressed by the old man with the employees – if not in the same way. The old boss also liked to talk to me – in particular relishing telling me about the Blues (oxford v cambridge) rugby. I couldn’t care less, and let him know. One conversation I pointed out, when he asked if I’d come back in holidays, that he paid low. ‘You’d be lucky to get more [than minimum wage] when you’re not staying in a job,’ he scoffed, somewhat affronted, but amused, to have it said to his face on the shop-floor, and let me know how people had been thankful for any work they could get in the 80s. He was, literally, the capitalist boss personified. The opposition of class interest between him, and the workers was starkly visible. Mary was the oppressed worker that the boss literally did not give a shit about in terms of wellbeing. Dan was the upward aspiring up-by-the-bootstraps self-centred middle manager. 

There were a bunch of incidents which brought out my awareness of my own class positioning, as well as the exploitative and oppressive nature of the capitalist structure of the business. The boss’s chattiness with me was one. He was almost justifying himself to me, the dynamic of me as lowly employee crosswired with me as a representation of academic middle class which he, as business-wealth, had grown up sometimes struggling to be recognised within. This is an insight I gained from my ex-piano teacher, who was plugged into the private school grapevine – rumour had it that the school had installed speedbumps just for him.

 Our customer base was posh old people, and old people without cars. One old lady requested half a pound of ham, thick sliced (she was clever, and didn’t want the ham that was already out on the tray) each Wednesday. One time I served her, and she asked me if I was going to university. I said ‘yes’, and she promptly asked where, and on hearing that it was an Oxbridge responded ‘See! I knew you weren’t really the sort to be working here’ – as a co-worker was walking past. I was angry at her, but, in service mode, could only reply mildly.

Then there was a lad who I’d sat with and got on with in my psychology classes, a cute stoner type who wore a tea-cosy for a hat, and never had paper or pens. I bumped into him on the street, and he mentioned he’d applied for the job, and commented “I’d have employed you rather than me”. We laughed, him certainly having taken pride in his laziness at college, but me being uncertain if it’d make it better or worse if I talked about how shit job he’d missed was. While I’d been in education, although I’d been aware of differences in material circumstances, I’d rarely looked beyond the subcultural identity which identified my friends and classmates. I went to a private school 11-16, where there was, of course, an absence of working class folk. I was at the low income end of that school, which identified as ‘less posh’ than some other schools. It was full of liberal lefties rather than tories. But in this school, rebellious attitudes, or doing less well at school were not class-based. So I had not read them that way at 6th form either, so suddenly recognising that a classmate had not got the same opportunities and prospects as I had, and that they hadn’t started from the same position as me, was a moment for me. The one when I began to be disgusted by the fact that my friends, including me, had used the word ‘chav’ as an insult at the same time as having the same lack of class awareness as I had had.