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.


on the joy, necessity and ephemarility of optimism

From the archives, I wrote this over three years ago, February 2010, for a student magazine. It’s funny, I force -edited it into a style that is just slightly unnatural. I’ve developed my perspective on each of the things described and wouldn’t phrase everything the same if I wrote this now. I dug it up as I’ve been coming into contact with positive minded people, with more than a hippyish tinge to them recently, which is provoking some thoughts which link back to the thread in this article.

“ we are the ones we have been waiting for”

“Paradise is where I am” proclaimed a sign, as we came to a gateway shaped with contorted figures, where we were greeted by beautiful dusty women. ‘Going Nowhere’ had become a mantra over the past months, especially during my hitchhike from England, and finally I was there, in the ‘desert’ of Los Monegros, Spain. Nowhere is a festival inspired by the Burning Man festival- which has become a temporary city in the Nevada Desert shaped by principles including ‘no commerce’, ‘no spectators’ and radical self expression. These principles are given living meanings as diverse as its population-peaking 35, 664 in 2004.

“When it comes down to it, it’s just a big party in the desert” I was told. This ‘party in the desert’ is, however, the focal point for a passionately dedicated community of Nooners- it is where they live the community they imagine and maintain all year. To me the atmosphere at Nowhere was one of a tangible but ephemeral euphoria. Maybe Nowhere has no purpose beyond itself and so exists on a purely hedonistic basis. Daniel Pinchbeck thinks not:- “The essential point of Burning Man [this applies equally to Nowhere] is not what it is now but what it suggests for the future, which is not just a new cultural form but the possibility of a new way of being, a kind of radical openness toward experience that maintains responsibility for community.” A man, while being body painted, explained how he envisioned a future driven by creativity transcending the work/life divide, and how spaces like Nowhere were laboratories for future forms of society. I wanted to share his optimism.

One week later Nowhere was a deconstruction site, reverting to a barren dustbowl. Many people left early on Sunday, to return to work on Monday, putting away their dusty booty shorts for another year. The community dispersed, maintaining threads of shared experiences and dreams. I met other friends and continued on the road, exchanging labour for experience, facilitated by the internet based HelpX. Our first hosts were building a straw bale house, and were escaping soulless timetabled ‘modernity’ for a more integrated lifestyle. In another valley we stayed with an offshoot of Rainbow gatherings, people hoping to gain a permanent escape from ‘Babylon’, as they referred to capitalist society, through becoming a permanent nomadic egalitarian community. The atmosphere resonated with that of Nowhere- a focus on existing in the present, coupled with a hope that this rightness could spread in the world. My friend, meanwhile, was frustrated with the self-contained contentedness of the gathering. “But how will they actually change the world?” he demanded.

Four weeks later I was at the Camp for Climate Action- 1500 activists living in a temporarily autonomous zone on Blackheath, within sight of the Gherkin, united by the aim of demanding ‘social change, not climate change’. Here people were united, not just in living a vision of alterity, but in pushing to radically change society.

Climate Camp justifies itself in terms of its political purpose. Despite this, the driving emotion may be shared with that of Nowhere, Rainbow gatherings and seekers of alternative lifestyles elsewhere- a desire to declare otherness from the apathetic inertia of a flawed society. Some ways in which this optimistic yearning for change is realised may be more explicitly and effectively engaged with reality than others. It seems, though, that they all draw on the energy expressed in the grand narrative of a ‘Great Turning’ – a term used by David Korten to describe an awakening into a better era, placing us as “the ones we have been waiting for”.

IF we talked about Food Sovereignty…

Food sovereignty is absolutely critical. NOW. AND WE CAN DO STUFF! Wait a minute. How much have people even heard of food sovereignty? Out of curiosity:

So, global hunger. Big problem, right? We’ve all seen the snapshots, the comic relief films, the ads, since we were too small to understand them. So let’s go through what we know…

Where’s it a problem?

The global south/ third world/ areas of drought/famine/war/disruption to systems.

So who should lead the solution?

The farmers based in the global south, who still feed 70% of the world using smallscale agriculture.

What are they saying?

Food Sovereignty.

What have the G8 and its newly formed body,the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and the IF coalition of NGOs lobbying the G8 done about Food Sovereignty?

They have actively pushed it off the agenda.

I first heard of Food Sovereignty a few years ago, from friends who live a nomadic lifestyle supporting different self sufficiency – food sovereignty – projects in the UK and beyond. It grabbed me as the absolute key aspect of global justice that I wanted to engage in, and I took the opportunity, studying anthropology & development, to read as much about it as possible. Food Sovereignty is an idea which fundamentally threatens the colonial institutions of development, and this is why we do not hear about it from the G8 and the NGOs who spend their efforts asking the G8 for solutions.

Food Sovereignty is a concept that has been developed in the global south. La Via Campesina is often described as the world’s largest social movement, with around 200 million members, and uses food sovereignty as a framework. What Food Sovereignty means is the ability to produce food to feed oneself without dependency on any external corporation, system or institution. The Food Sovereignty movement works to reduce dependencies (whether on local, regional or national levels) on others for land, seed, equipment, distribution systems and other necessities for producing food. MST (Movement for the Landless, Brazil) is a major member of La Via Campesina, and since it formed, the balance has shifted from farmers wanting to use modern industrial farming methods to agro-ecological methods becoming dominant. Agro-ecological methods use mixed cropping methods, which produce higher yields per land. The higher labour required, in the context of rapid rural-urban migration creating massive social problems, can be, if anything, an advantage.

Autonomy in food production makes people less vulnerable to external pressures, whether these are global neoliberal capitalism or an oppressive national regime. Agro-ecological methods maintain biodiversity and thus the flexibility necessary for resilience in the face of climate change. And, the framework of food sovereignty links up the local to the global. Here, in the UK, we can engage with food sovereignty in two ways. On the one hand, we can develop our own local food sovereignty and link into the global movement formed by La Via Campesina and others, taking their lead. We can also take advantage of our unfairly privileged position in global politics, and put pressure on the international powers of our politicians, NGOs, and corporations to stop actively undermining food sovereignty and instead support it.

Developing our own local food sovereignty can be done on many fronts. Choosing to consume local, organic, non-GM options is one thing, but one where affordable options are limited.  So, let’s work on more affordable organic,local food supply solutions – some are suggested here! Growing your own, individually or in communities is a great solution. But, to do so, people need access to land, and time. Get involved in land struggles. Every little helps a trend – finding spaces to be claimed and cultivated as commons can happen on every street corner, park, workplace and school. There may well be a project near you that is looking for more support. Project Dirt is one of many attempts to build links and a network of individual projects. One place to start finding out more about larger scale landclaims is Reclaim the Fields . An immediate threat in the UK is further changes to squatting law, which would criminalise the use of abandoned land. Look out for ways to try to prevent these proposals.

Time and skills are also needed. The unequal distribution of free time, opportunities to access knowledge, and income are intertwined, and all are damaging. Check NEF’s 21 hours report, because we need to get a shorter working week as an option for everybody, from overworked highflyers, to overworked and underpaid double working cleaners. This is inextricable from campaigning for living wages. People must be able to support themselves, and have time and options to explore new ideas, permaculture and food cultivation being only one of these. Growing our own food sovereignty, we increase our resilience, and can start to withdraw from mass agricultural exchanges of cheap grain produced in the industrial north for southern markets for luxury goods produced at the expense of subsistence crops. And, we are working alongside others around the globe, and need to learn from their struggles and experiences.

Now, to our influence as citizens of a nation with disproportionate power. We have a prime minister who is chair of the ‘hunger summit’. We have celebrities who film themselves with him for their charity fundraiser hit. We must battle this sickening PR with the truth – that Cameron works consistently, hand-in-hand-in-pocket with the big agriculture corporations – against the interests of the global poor. This is a battle to fight in the streets, outside the headquarters of agribusinesses, their financers, with our MPs, in our schools, in our universities, in our community gardens, in the media, and everywhere. Join a group to work together – and take whatever initiative you can, wherever you can. The film ‘Seeds of Freedom’ is free to download in HD – could you watch it? Watch it with some friends? Arrange a public showing and discussion about actions people can take?

45 000 people turned up to Hyde Park to support an agenda put together by Western NGOs to be utterly unthreatening to their funders, at the cost of silencing the issues that really matter. We have to beat that. We’d better be in this for the long haul.

And finally, something immediate. In May 2012 the G8 launched the ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’. It actively undermines the work of the democratically mandated UN Committee on World Food Security. The UK’s DFID has just announced it will be contributing £395 billion from the UK aid budget to this unaccountable, private sector investment organisation. Find out more and sign this petition here – only 3 minutes of your time, and pass it on.

And, if you read this before Friday 14th June 5pm, come to THIS. The G8 are gathering next week, and they need to know that there are voices close to home in solidarity with people across the world.

Written with inspiration from a workshop at The Spark.

beautiful chaos

I wrote this in 2010 or early 2011, for the Nowhere community, in parallel to writing up my dissertation on Nowhere. Some thoughts last night on attending a Q&A meet-up with Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, have prompted me to post it up. 

Saturday night, Nowhere 2010

beautiful chaos in the jungle dome

this space was without straight lines, an immersive space,  with the huge, bulging, glowing cephadaria filling the top half of the dome, ropes enabling the fantastically present and highly decorated humanity to spill upwards, the dancing filling the whole dome, blending into the green foliage-esque decor. it was utterly beautiful chaos. I immersed myself to dance, withdrew to the edges to take air, inverted myself at the edge to experience a new perspective, shared this excitement with other revellers. I realised that a game I had learnt in the woods with a children’s charity was ideal for the moment. I set up two people playing- one person is a ‘camera’ and the other controls what they see. The ubiquitous use of digital cameras often transforms the present into something to be filed away and remembered in the future, the documentation of doing something. To be a human camera is to focus on a beautiful image that your friend seeks out to show you- to have the appreciation of a sight that is often expressed with photography, but without the removal from the present.

“it’s hilarious. everyone’s so utterly fucked in there” a man in board shorts shared with me. I didn’t like this phrasing of it. In sixth form I hung out with people who would become drunk and do ‘hilarious’ random things. Like downing dirty pints, non-consensually drawing on passed out people. When I snogged a female friend, something which made perfect sense at the time, this was presented to me on Monday as ‘hilarious’. I resented this label (but accepted it at the time, for social reasons, innit). The things we do when we are partying, in chemically altered states, are sidelined in mainstream culture, into a space where they are groaned about and laughed at the next day. People distance themselves from revelations about the importance of love, appreciation of beauty, the hollowness of their employed life or their will to change the world by the words ‘I was wasted’. I once overheard a lucidly drunk banker on the tube at 6.30am spill out revelations to his friend, feeling he had worked down to the core of his psyche, describing his utter disconnection to his work. He was going to go to work on Monday, putting on what he recognised as ‘a face’. His mate would probably remind him ‘you were so fucked on the tube, remember?’.

How do we deal with liberated openness at nowhere, whether combined with altered states of minds or not? Is it different from the ‘default world’?

Dumping the ‘we’ to return to my own perspective… I didn’t first find the attitude of accepting open self expression or questioning the world at Nowhere. I found it in various places, and took it inside myself, and I seek out these places. It didn’t stand out to me during my first year at Nowhere, I found people working together voluntarily natural to me, though I noted that it was remarked upon as remarkable by others. I was distracted from the event on its own terms by relationships with the people I’d come with. This year (2010) I immersed myself more in the community, hearing from many people how transformative Nowhere and Burner culture had been for them. It seemed most important personally for the people who found it an utter contrast to their experience of the ‘default world’. Inspiration leaks, however, from Nowhere to the lives of participants, and the inspiration generated at Nowhere is only what participants bring with them, given a platform to be expressed and to grow. The surreality of the event- the physically extreme location and abnormality of costuming creates an environment where people can feel removed from their everyday routines, and so are free to question them without having to immediately be confronted with a situation where they must either drastically change their habits or else admit hypocrisy. Recognising the efficacy of Nowhere in creating a platform for transformative thought and experience made me value it as more than a fun place to be. I realised I was interacting with people who I would normally have no connection with, as they move in such different ways from me in their daily lives, through income, age and inclination. People at Nowhere are away from their usual life paths, and are reduced to our shared humanity- we can interact as beings in the world without regard for social divisions that might normally be between us.

At Nowhere it seems there is a culture which does not ridicule openness displayed during the night before in the daytime. Is this because the day of Nowhere is still within the event, and the event is to the return to the default world as the lucid night out to the following week?

I believe this is partially true. The entirety of Nowhere is a space where openness, and distance from one’s routine is explored and celebrated. However, while this is partly dismissed and boxed away -“yes, I know when I was doing that I thought it was beautiful, but that was at Nowhere. Wasn’t it crazy!!”, the insights gained through experiencing Nowhere also spill out. We learn that we can enjoy interacting with strangers, that we can express ourselves without fear of ridicule. Some find it difficult to take these things from the context of the desert to elsewhere,  others they already know these things in other contexts. The appreciation of the beauty of humanity existing at its best, once freely experienced, can be tapped into again.

frankie and I climbed the mountain for sunset It w150187187056

note: photos are from nowhere 2009. and not closely related to what I’m talking about here!