Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Where is the Movement?

Posted by jembendell on July 18, 2011

This week is the 10th anniversary of the mass protest against the G8 in Genoa, Italy. Hundreds of thousands of protesters called for a systemic change in the global economic system, forming something called an ‘anti-globalisation’ movement by the mass media, or what was known by many activists as the global justice movement. In Genoa, behind huge metal barriers, leaders met while anti-aircraft missile launchers scanned the skies. We thought it a bit of an over-reaction; but we didn’t have the benefit of memos about Bin Laden. The (now proven) agent provocateurs helped the black block protestors create conditions for police to then brutalise many peaceful protesters. One protester, Carlo Giuliani, was shot and killed by a policeman. The violence led many people, myself included, to question whether they wanted to be involved in such demonstrations in future. Perhaps that was the intention of the reactionary elements in the Italian government. Yet there was another limitation to the protests. The movement had become defined by the media as the protest, because the cameras showed up at demonstrations. Yet a movement is motivated by the values and awareness of people, and that exists all year round, not just during a protest. It was the values and vibrancy of the activists that was key, and expressed in many other ways all year round, such as choices of work, ways of working in the community.

10 years on its a good time to look back, recall the mood and spirit of the activism, and see how the vibrancy of that time throws light on the choices many of us have made since. To conjure up a sense of the feelings involved back 10 years ago, here is a snippet from my last book:

“Rolling onto my back, I lay my head on a rucksack, staring into the night sky. The tarmac still pushes up through my sleeping bag, but somehow it feels more comfortable this way. I think of the few times I have slept out in the open, in fields after parties, or on beaches while travelling—times when I could revel in the sense of floating through the immensity of space, secured on the edge of a cosmic plan, or comic fluke, called planet Earth. But tonight I can’t drift away with thoughts of the infinite expanse of space. Police helicopters hover above, their cones of light traversing the car park like manic stilts. Dreaming is not permitted. It’s the G8 Summit in Genoa, 2001. I stretch my neck. My face feels sticky with the residue of vinegar I was told would help me during tear-gas attacks. Are we being searched for or spotlighted, I wonder? If they shine their lights on us for long enough, perhaps they’ll discover what they’re looking for? Perhaps we’re all here to discover what we’re looking for—something different, something possible? I can’t sleep and turn to Rik, a guy I met on the streets during the day. ‘D’you want to hear my poem?’ he asks. ‘Yeah, why not . . . ?’

Possessed by possessions
Lord and Master of all we owe
Belonging to belongings
It’s a disaster, I know
Chained to the mundane
Our reference frame is physical
Every day the same old same
Nothing metaphysical
And if God’s not dead
He must be mad
Or blind
Or deaf and dumb
Or bad
Still smarting over Christ, perhaps
The way the people have been had
But in our defence
I’d like to say
We nearly chose the proper path
But lost the plot along the way
You’ve got to laugh
It’s not our fault
It’s just the toys we made
Made such a lovely noise
And girls and boys
Are high and dry
Time to bid
All this
Goodbye.”

Rik Strong’s The Sermon, which he recited to me as we ‘bedded’ down in a carpark during the demonstrations at the G8 Summit in Genoa, captured some of the emotion that drove many of us to protest. There was certainly a lot of anger at the suffering being caused by economic systems, and the lack of accountability of political systems to the people. There was also an angst about something more deeply wrong about modern life. Western society didn’t relate to how we felt inside. Publicly people didn’t seem to care for each other, yet we knew that deep down they must do—surely? For us there had to be more to us than working, shopping and looking out for Number One. This was a holistic critique, and one that connected professional and lifestyle, the political and personal.

Yet 10 years on its difficult to say exactly what or where “the movement” is now. Many people who were active in protests back then have this nagging thought: We were everywhere, we went everywhere, but we got nowhere. What was it that led to the weakening of what seemed at the time to be a global awakening?

The level of violence certainly turned many away from protesting. But there were other factors that helped to corrupt some of the creative spirit. As the old Left woke up to the new wave of anti-capitalism sentiment and became involved with groups such as ‘Globalise Resistance’ they brought with them their hierarchical we-know-what-you-really-want-and-how-to-win politics. For some, this was a politics of envy not personal liberation. This led to splits and aggressive criticism from those who rejected instant political solutions freeze-dried in the 19th Century. And so egos clashed. When, during a demonstration in Brighton I mentioned to one activist ‘leader’ that his organisation was critiqued in a Schnews pamphlet, he just asked “was I name-checked?” Meanwhile career-conscious band-wagon jumpers leapt like crazy on to talk shows and into best-seller lists and newspaper columns, and misrepresented some of the core democratic anti-hierarchy values that permeated much of the organising and the aspirations of protesters.

But the biggest impact was 9/11. Soon after, the protest groups refocused on anti-war campaigning. The mass media closed ranks around the march to war. The critical analysis became more about the dreadfulness of one President, rather than a more informed critique of the whole system and its alternatives. The “war of terror” knocked the global justice movement aside, by making activists focus on symptoms, not causes.

For many people, the political philosophy that was shared by activists from very different walks of life, concerned about different issues, was a sense of everyday democracy, where all processes, whether political or economic, should be open to their participation and mutual control. John Isbister has noted that “an ideal democracy would give a voice to everyone who is affected by a decision. The real democracies with which we are familiar cannot reach this
standard.” For example, poor children are affected by welfare systems but have no vote. Women in poorer countries are affected by family planning funding decisions in the United States but have no vote in their elections. Instead, we can remember that democracy is an aspirational goal, for situations where individuals and communities participate effectively in shaping the social limits that define what is possible for them, without impairing the ability of others to do that for themselves. The goal is therefore an everyday democracy where all organisations enable participation. It is also inherently a global goal, because it is an organisational response to a universal principle of people being able to pursue their individual freedoms.

The 1960s student leader Gregory Calvert has reflected that in their student movement they came to understand that their commitment to democratic principles came from the heart, and had a spiritual dimension. Activism inspired by this consciousness seeks to challenge large incumbent unaccountable institutions, whether in the public, private or civic spheres of life. What excited many people in the process of campaigning, was that they were connecting to a sense of purpose greater than themselves, a story of a common humanity. It filled a need, because there was, as there remains today, some angst about the purpose of our lives, the story of our existence. For some people our story of existence is one of a secular, scientific, mechanical world without meaning. For some it is the story of a God creating us to struggle to return to ‘Him’. For many people that story seems more like a fairytale – a nice idea, something they don’t really believe but find it helpful to entertain the idea, perhaps once a week or so. To others this story seems like a nightmare with a “blind, deaf, dumb, mad or bad” God. Thus Thomas Berry, writing in 1990, felt that we had lost faith in the story of our relationship with a God and, therefore, who we are; “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it… sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes and energized our actions. It consecrated our suffering and integrated our knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children.”

This faltering between stories has sometimes been talked about as the ‘death of God’. Hence the angst and spiritual void captured in Rik Strong’s The Sermon. Set against this angst there was a real energy and hope, perhaps similar to the hope felt by people in the recent protests in the Arab world. On the streets of Genoa the T-shirts read “Another world is possible” – a world that would enable us all to be all we could be. In our hearts we felt that world already existed, but we didn’t really have a way of speaking in chorus so that the rest of society could hear us and join in the singing.

So what is this new story? I picked up some ideas from discussions of activists 10 years ago….

First, is creativity. In the west pop-culture gurus like Pat Kane were talking of a play ethic to replace the work ethic. By this he meant that the most natural, and perhaps highest, state of being is to play – to be creative, to be expressive, to test, try, experiment, to have fun in becoming all we can be. As Jean Paul-Sartre said, “As man apprehends himself as free and wishes to use his freedom, then his activity is to play.” The parallels with eco-centric thought on the irrepressible diversity of the natural world are clear. Pat suggested that this play ethic comes from the new generation of young professionals, who: “have shaped their identities through their… cultures of play – a whole range of self-chosen activities that have anchored them in a different orientation towards a meaningful life. These are the backpackers of Alex Garland’s The Beach, using cheap flights and travel literature to make the world their playground. The ultimate playfulness is to help each other to play together.”

Second, is a global consciousness, a sense of a common community of mankind. For many people nationalism is no longer a belief system and just a bit of fun, to be enjoyed in an ironic sense. Nationalism is being replaced for many by a planetary patriotism – we might call this Planetism. This means a deep concern for the health and well-being of the planet and all its peoples. Another aspect to this Planetism is a spiritual reawakening, as people see a common essence to all the world’s spiritual teachings, no matter how twisted they may be through religious institutions. This reawakening has been helped in secular society by the club culture, as ‘ravers’ grew up but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) “forget those blissed-out moments of transcendence, when drugs and beats blurred the boundaries of their selves”, according to Pat Kane. These states of consciousness were something that ecocentrist Thomas Berry pondered. If the universe is not alive in a psychic spiritual sense as well a material one, then “human consciousness emerges out of nowhere… an addendum [with] no real place in the story of the universe” he wrote. Thus the potential for a common storyemerges amongst the diverse traditions of eco-centric, religious and secular thought – an autonomous yet interconnected spirituality that supports self-expression. The new story of humanity is about our growing understanding of our relationship to our planet, including all its people and their spiritual selves. Therefore it is the story of our relationship to ourself – who we really are. The new story is that there will be infinite stories to unfold. Thus, in protests around the world people were saying one No and many Yes’s. “We’re not going to play your games anymore – thrill to your icons, your hip soundtracks, your latest double-stitch or lycra mix. We’re going to play our own games” wrote Pat Kane. And so play we did, from our use of the web to co-ordinate global protests, to the subversion of advertising, from the rave atmosphere of street parties, to the humour of slogans, from the creation of alternative currencies, to the launching of our own social businesses.

So what happened to this story of global creativity? What happened to the anger at a controlling exploiting system? What happened to the confidence that rejected the legitimacy of incumbent institutions and leaders and the old politics of left and right?

The rent. The mortgage. The debt. The pension plan. The fear of being left behind. The insecurities that make us want to be accepted and respected in the mainstream. The temptation from the story that integrating our hopes into the mainstream is the best way to live our values, to honour our memories of higher states of consciousness by our cold-light-of-day choices.

And so, if there’s anything to learn from the last 10 years, its the need to change the system that creates this apparent necessity for compromise. Jessie J may write cool music, but it IS all about the money, money, money, because if we don’t change the monetary systems, we will be subject to the incentives and disincentives that draw us into stultifying compromise. We cant rely on mass levels of mindfulness to escape the day to day corroding pressures that arise from debt-based monetary systems. Redesigning the way money is created, to remove the debt burden from our governments, economies, communities and own families, will be key to unleashing a creative globe of local and international democratic communities.

4 Responses to “Where is the Movement?”

  1. Despite the relative success of the “Arab Spring” and others to come, I’m not so sanguine as to suggest, or even think, that the collective and global Movement will attain ascendancy this century.

    I think there are too many entrenched inhibitors, beginning with modern capitalism, and closely followed by irrational belief systems that tend to maintain power structures which either support capitalism (e.g. the broad base of Christian religions) or oppose it, either maliciously (e.g. elements of Islam) or benignly (e.g. Buddhism et al).

    Moreover, the overarching need for all humanity is, first, for food and water, neither of which is available for many others, as easily as they are for you and me. It will take a long time for that global “availability” to be achieved, despite the ongoing parallel developments to bring people those basics.

    There are, I think, some key points in your essay, the first of which is “The goal is therefore an everyday democracy where all organisations enable participation.” Some organizations will comply more easily than others, obviously, but success very much hinges how one defines participation.

    Your point about creativity is well-taken with its relationship to the work ethic; when work is fun it can be likened to play. I’m just not certain that the idea is applicable to all work, as we know it now. Perhaps in the distant future, when – to paraphrase Jeremy Rifkin – we humans have truly arrived at the end of work?

    And, you would think that global communications and Internets would allow a better and faster sense of global community – that “sense of a common community of mankind” you mention. Many people online, however, have only pseudo community ideals, prefer to remain anonymous or adopt false identities, and the young, growing generations are becoming more fixated on gaming as a surrogate for community, it appears. Moreover, thinking ahead to mid-century and beyond, how will anybody tell the difference easily between a real human and a humanoid robot or cyborg? And, what will the latter’s proliferation do to that sense of common humanity?

    Finally, I heartily agree with your conclusion that “…if there’s anything to learn from the last 10 years, its the need to change the system that creates this apparent necessity for compromise.” That’s a tall order, however, given the long period whereby capitalism and its modern derivatives have achieved such a strangle-hold on the global economy. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with capitalism per se, I think: the problem is the manner in which it has been abused and misused by the few to service the few, largely. To me, changing the system means changing the method by which wealth is created and distributed because, in the final analysis, everybody wants to be wealthy according to their ideals and goals. Probably, most people will not achieve that.

    Capitalism is now spearheaded by global corporations and global shareholders. Until those two prongs of the spear are fundamentally changed to serve the workers and society as a whole, the Movement, I think, will continue to lag behind.

  2. Jem said

    Thanks Roger. The current protests in the Arab world, and now in Greece and Spain, arise from a collective self interest, with specific wrongs being challenged. Whether they connect to a broader philosophy of governance and community, and lead to specific proposals and outcomes that address some of the systemic problems with economic systems and unaccountable power, is still to be seen. I hear concerns that the arab protests will be manipulated for domestic and foreign commercial gain, and that the European protesters do not yet have an understanding of the flaws of debt-based monetary systems that have created the crisis, so policy options appear limited. Perhaps an insight from these recent uprisings is that even in apparently quiet times, when we are busy doing our own local well-intentioned work, that we should still work towards creating a sense of collective movement towards a transformative goal of a very different economic, political, cultural and indeed spiritual basis for society. Then we might be able to help more when events come along such as protests against cuts, or against dictators. In my own field of work, helping promote more responsible and sustainable enterprise, I have sought to promote “movement thinking” amongst fellow professionals, and shown how it also helps increase impact within individual organisations. http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/productdetail.kmod?productid=2767

    Clearly there have been a variety of usefully disruptive activists in the past 10 years, with wikileaks being a recent example, so progress is being made in throwing light on systems of exploitation and control.

    But I think, reflecting on the vibrancy of 10 years ago, I could be bolder in my current work, and also seek means of connecting with “a movement” more consciously today. And perhaps a movement that isnt defined by street fights!🙂

  3. and lo, there was Occupy Wall Street

  4. Hi Jem. I found the comment you left on my youtube video, which led me here. Funnily enough, I had been thinking about our chance meeting in 2000 around the time you found my video… I had planned to make some short films out of my poems but on careful rereading, decided they were just too bleak o want to dwell too much. The world has undergone drastic changes since 2000 and many millions have ‘woken up’ since then. I’d rather work on accentuating the positive, both in my own life and in society at large. Living in various countries and cultures over the last decade has helped. Anyway, I’ve started keeping a blog at makeyourselfuncomfortable.net. Hope you can stop by sometime. Rik

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