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Post Brexit: Is ‘self care’ enough? What about collective care?

In the months post-Brexit the importance of ‘self care’ has become a hot topic of conversation. Campaigners, activists, many on the left have been struggling to find hope in these bleak political times. We definitely need to look after ourselves. But I don’t think self care is enough – we need to look after each other, to get through tough times and to organise for the future we want.

How has Brexit felt? 

First off, for many who care about progressive social change in the UK, it’s something of an understatement to say that it’s been a very difficult time. The Parliamentary left has collapsed into increasingly absurd infighting while UKIP have risen in the polls, and the new Governmental ministerial line up is the most right wing in my lifetime. The rise in visible xenophobia and racism is truly terrifying. I haven’t experienced this directly but I have heard many stories from migrant and black friends and colleagues who have felt increasingly anxious and unsafe in the country that is their home.

Burning out

For those of us invested in trying to make the world a better place in or outside work, this all feels pretty heartbreaking. Many I know have felt overwhelmed by despair, having to check out of social media and withdraw from any news or activism. I’ve also heard increasing stories of campaigners ‘burning out’, like this incredible blog from Joe Hall (not instigated by Brexit as far as I know, but a very eloquent and honest description of burnout from the inside). I’ve been going through a tough time myself, coming out of a 10 year relationship and doing some serious re-evaluating of my work and life plans. I’ve had days where I’ve struggled to cope, bouts of insomnia, and even had a couple of panic attacks, which I’d never suffered from before.

Self care?

Enter the call to prioritise ‘self care’- in my work circles and on social media this is advice I’ve played a role in giving. Self care is important and the society we live in doesn’t value it enough or encourage us to make space for it. This lovely piece entitled 101 self care suggestions for when it all feels too much sums up what this means and gives some great advice. I’ve taken lots of it myself and I’ve managed to move from a place on the brink of meltdown to feeling much calmer and healthier – I’ve been meditating every day for months now and it’s made a huge difference to my quality of life.

However, I think it’s important to recognise that while self care is a tool we need, it isn’t the solution.  Firstly, we need to acknowledge there are massive fundamental problems with the structure of our society and economy that make people sick. We’ve got patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism and many other intersectional hierarchies which pervade the structures of our institutions and our minds, dictating whose lives are most important, whose opinions and experiences are ‘normal’ and valuable, and ultimately who has money and power. Self care won’t change these, but it will help us be better equipped for the hard work of trying to navigate and transform them.

What about collective care?

Secondly, one of the big problems of globalised neoliberalism is the way it frames everything in terms of individual action and self interest. Self care clearly isn’t enough – we need collective care. This means we shouldn’t just be taking responsibility for our own well being, we must take care of each other. We’re social creatures that exist in interdependence with each other. As David Mitchell (the author) puts it:

Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

We don’t just need to collectively support each other through tough times – collective care is essential for effective radical campaigning. The incredible Barcelona En Comu, which has seen anti-evictions activist Ada Colau take over as Mayor of the city, came from the inspiring anti-austerity movement spanning Catalunya and Spain. At the heart of this broad movement were many communities practicing daily collective care, looking after each other’s children, eating together, resisting together. Here in London, Sweets Way and the more recent Sisters Uncut occupations have also been built around these principles. We need to organise, in and as communities, to bring this fractured country back together and collectively shape the future so it works for the many and not the few.

We all need to be picking up emotional labour

The danger of saying we all need to be looking after each other is that the emotional labour involved in doing this is picked up disproportionately by women. This is a great guide to what is meant by emotional labour, but basically it means all the work that is done to be considerate of each other, make social interactions run smoothly, empathise etc etc. Yeah, I can already hear some of you saying ‘not all men’… But as the author I linked to writes:

“Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction.”

That said, this does hold as a general truth. Our society conditions women to work hard at this as part of the way we perform our femininity – on the flip side, men are conditioned not to pay nearly as much attention to it. When we’re thinking about this we need to watch out for taking structural problems personally – I recently heard Black Lives Matter Dallas activist Chaedria talk and she labelled this as ‘privilege fragility’. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. It’s hard to hear we’re behaving in ways that oppress others and not take this personally. But we’re playing out much wider structural problems, and to address these we need to start with listening and reflecting.

What to do?

I’ve been having lots of conversations with friends and colleagues about what to do now. There’s been a huge surge of interest and passion to get involved with politics and campaigning, which has been fighting a wave of despair at what’s going on in the world. So as I think I’ve made the argument above “take care of yourself, and each other.” That has to come first. Make sure you’re not burning out, take time to do whatever feels right to look after yourself (I’m really excited about going on a mindfulness for social change course with Ecodharma in October). Ask others how they’re doing. Care for friends and family. Make the effort to take things on for people who aren’t doing well, and make space for them to be able to talk to you about it / ask for help if they need it.

And when you feel ready to engage…

There’s so much going on! From the incredible #ShutDown actions which kicked off the launch of Black Lives Matter UK to the rise of Sisters Uncut, there’s a lot to be excited about. Do some research, google local groups working on the issues you care most about. If the thing you most want to get involved with doesn’t exist, think about whether you have time to help start it yourself. I’m looking at starting my own organisation to help build strong UK social movements, but I’m taking time to do lots of reflecting and research while taking care not to overstretch myself.

But the movement doesn’t just need people to take radical action, we need organisers, skills of all kinds, introverts and extroverts. You can even start with something as simple as finding a way to have a conversation with friends and family who disagree with your politics, if you’re able to listen to them without becoming angry. Or volunteering in a local project to get out of your bubble and meet people in you community.

Space for hope

I want to finish with a quote from Rebecca Solnit that I’ve had on my wall at home and next to my desk at work. I find comfort in it right now. As well as being a trying time where it seems like everything is going wrong, we’re also in the middle of a big historical shift, and that means opportunity for great change if we work together to steer things in the direction we want.

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.

Hope should shove you out of the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal…

To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment is what makes the present inhabitable.

P.S. I saw Josie Long’s work in progress stand up show in Edinburgh and she described exactly how I felt about Brexit and came on stage with a copy of  the book this quote comes from! Plus she was hilarious. Go see her if you can🙂

P.P.S. Massive thanks to my friend Kat Wall for suggesting I write this

Hahrie Han

Activism or Clicktivism? Or both?

As a social change geek, I spend a lot of time wondering what approaches work best to making change actually happen, and what role NGOs can play. There’s so much money flowing through civil society organisations with admirable long term goals. But are such organisations really on the right path to achieve things like ending global poverty and inequality, or structuring human society so that it can exist sustainably on this planet? From where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like we’re winning.

I think most UK NGOs have the wrong understanding of, and approach to, people power. US Academic Hahrie Han thinks so too, and has some fascinating insights in her recent book ‘How Organisations Develop Activists‘. Together with  a few others, I’ve arranged for Hahrie to visit London this spring. Tickets are already available for the campaigner training and the free lecture we’re organising. Below I explain a little about why I’m interested in Hahrie’s ideas, what she says, and how you can get involved.

As I explained in my first blog on here I’ve come full circle in my thinking about how campaigning can be most effective. I started out as a grassroots activist, then journeyed through professional roles focused on things like lobbying and e-campaigning, coming back again to believe activism is key to social change.

Why do I think this? It’s because sustainable changes to human society happen when we manage to convince a majority to change their minds. A relatively small number of committed activists taking visible action can actually swing the spectrum of opinion. When they’re deeply engaged and organising in communities, they can convince passive allies to get involved and support their cause, shift friendly neutrals to becoming allies… This forms the basis of a social movement which is what ultimately shifts the middle ground of opinion on an issue. If this pressure is built and sustained, laws and policies change. It is an approach that builds power from the bottom up.battle for pop support cropped

The diagram above is from the incredible Momentum training I attended a couple of years ago and shows the battle for popular support. You can map this for many causes  – think about women’s right to vote or same sex marriage. After success in one country or region, successful movements slowly spread around the world.

Most NGO campaigning does not take this approach. The professional campaigning sector tends to target decision makers for incremental policy changes without much of an eye on building a long term movement.  With (increasingly) online actions we seek to lower the barriers to entry, attracting large numbers of people who already agree with us to take a very easy action supporting our cause. In a campaigning sector increasingly squeezed by lack of funds we’ve become less ambitious in achieving change, setting goals we know we can achieve that are easily measurable, to justify our value to donors and management.

In Hahrie Han’s book she studies two American NGOs and their local chapters, looking at why some managed to engage many people and others few. Essentially she identified three strategies that have different outcomes. The first is the ‘lone wolf’; Hahrie is talking about individual activists but this could equally apply to organisations. Lone wolves don’t try to engage people at all – they target decision makers directly with strong policy expertise, conducting research, feeding into consultations etc.

The other two strategies Han found operating did seek to engage public support through two different approaches – mobilising and organising. Mobilising is building membership, engaging people where they are, building the power of the organisation (the kind of campaigning most NGOs do). Organising is very different. This approach builds people’s leadership, starting with a transformational training which organisers then pass on to others they train and so on, in a chain reaction. Organisers have a lot of independence and autonomy. They are building their own power and that of others.Jim Coe has done a great job at summarising these approaches on his blog for those who want more detail.

Han found that chapters taking an organising approach engage many more people deeply, but also many more broadly and deeply at mobilisation level (e.g. signing petitions). Their reach is much wider and deeper. So instead of slamming clicktivism (in a Micah White style way), I actually think it’s a useful tool in the box. But it’s not the be all and end all of people power. Organisations need to cede power to the people whose interests they represent and invest in intense long term organising approaches. Then NGOs could really build a powerful force for social change.

There’s another important point to be made too. Self selecting activists that organisations attract are unlikely to be the most marginalised. As Hahrie says:

When people lack equal opportunities to exercise voice, or when people disengage from politics, distorted and unequal political outcomes can emerge. Participation is crucial to making democracy function, but generating participation is hard.

Civic associations play a crucial role in making democracy work because they help cultivate people’s inclinations for civic and political action. People can learn to be activists through role models, conversations around the dinner table, participation in catalyzing political events or myriad other avenues. Many of these pathways to action are the result of episodic, biographical circumstances. Participation in civic associations, however, is not.

ActionAid’s Activista youth network, where it exists in our local rights programmes in poor and marginalised areas around the world, is a great example of an organising approach engaging those who would never otherwise get their voices heard. There are great examples in the UK too – for example Acorn has had some impressive success organising in marginalised areas in Bristol, London, Newcastle and Birmingham.

Tom Baker (who blogs as the Thoughtful Campaigner), Neil Kingsnorth from Friends of the Earth, myself and a few others want to share Hahrie’s ideas as far and wide as we can across the UK campaigning sector. So we’re organising the following:

Wednesday 30th March – All day campaigner skillshare, focused on what you and your organisation can do to build networks of activists that deliver change. This is now full.

Thursday 31st March (evening) – Free lecture at the University of Westminster, in association with their Masters in Media, Campaigning and Social Change. This is also fully booked, but the waiting list is open and we will have a livestream link to share soon.

Friday 1st April (am) – Funders breakfast, hosted at Barrow Cadbury. We want to get trusts, foundations, major donors and more interested in funding people-powered sustainable change.

If you’d like to know more about any of these events, or discuss these ideas, comment below or tweet me @tashahester.



Do it like a woman

How patriarchy is like The Matrix

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching the film Pride. It’s a feel good activist film based on a true story (if a little on the cheesy side). BUT I had a pretty major problem with it as a feminist.

In case you haven’t seen it, Pride tells the story of the amazing solidarity group LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). The group formed at the 1984 gay pride march, where they started shaking buckets to raise cash for the striking miners. It’s a wonderful story about one oppressed group reaching out to support another. Their solidarity was reciprocated and the miners union subsequently played an important role in getting the Labour party to support LGBT rights.

There’s lots that’s good about the film – the success of an unlikely solidarity movement is really moving and inspiring. The working class small town Welsh miners they support are at first very wary of the ‘perverts’ who want to give them money. But their clear goodwill and persistence wins them round in a heartwarming way.

I’ve just spent my weekend running an activist training for ActionAid UK Local Organisers where we explored the importance of storytelling and the values and morals underlying different tales. The clear values underlying this film are equality, solidarity, uniting against oppression, the importance of friendship with those ‘not like you’ – it’s almost the perfect film for inspiring activism and campaigning (aside from the sexism I’m coming to explain below).

There’s a lot to celebrate about how some female characters are portrayed too. For example, it tells the story of Sian James whose involvement in the strike inspired her to carry on campaigning, eventually becoming a Labour MP. It smashes the Bechtel test with a few strong women. BUT (here it comes)… it sneaks through some shocking misogyny, and the ratio of men to women overall is about 3:1.

The film tells the story (true to real life) of how some women split from LGSM to form their own group – LAPC (Lesbians Against Pit Closures). Ray Goodspeed, an LGSM member, said that: “The men in the meetings were generally like men in most meetings”. Meaning they dominated speaking and decision making. LAPC wanted a safe space for women where members would be heard and decisions would be made democratically.

These women were upset about the structural problem of ‘mansplaining‘ – the way men interrupt women and dominate conversations. Women are socialised to be considerate and defer to put others first; men are socialised to dominate and take the lead. This is as much of a problem 30 years on as it was in the 1980s, and the problem often isn’t recognised. Men don’t generally realise they are doing this, and studies show they think women speak more than they actually do.

The need for women’s voices to be heard is delivered in the film as a ridiculous joke when the (male) LGSM leader is talking about an important decision he’s about to make. In an interview with the New Statesmen, lesbian activist Wendy says “when I told people about LAPC they often snorted with derision, so [the film] was accurate!” She’s understandably bitter.

It’s really messed with my head! Why is the film so positive about two oppressed groups – working class striking mining families and their gay metropolitan London supporters – and yet totally gender blind when it came to the way LGSM treated its marginalised female members?

The short answer is that Pride was written and directed by men, so  the film takes a male perspective. Plus it’s much easier to tell a story of binary good and bad, where the heroes are 100% good, united in fighting a common enemy (in this case the Thatcher government). It’s harder to share the nuance of how the heroes were themselves oppressing another group because they live in a society which privileges a male perspective & therefore doesn’t understand women’s issues.

Caroline Criado-Perez describes the essence of the problem with social representation of gender beautifully in her LSE talk discussing her new book. She describes the phenomenon of ‘male default’ – if we think of a person, especially anyone in a position of importance or power, we automatically think of a man. Politician, musician, scientist, etc. The little green man is male, stick figures are male. Women are denoted with a little triangle added to a stick figure – ‘modified’ men.

Intersectionality means that groups that are multiply oppressed have big issues getting their voices heard in activist groups (and wider society). Gay women, for example, can be marginalised in gay groups (when men dominate) and in women’s groups (when straight women dominate). When you bring race into the equation, things are even tougher. In this film showing the relative privilege of different groups, the person who has suffered most structural oppression is black, gay and female.

Society is structured from a male, white, cis-gendered, middle aged, middle class perspective. This is the male default. Any deviations from this are ‘otherings’ that mean groups of people enjoy less privilege, less visibility and less social consideration. In the top 100 grossing films of 2014, only 12% of protagonists were female & just 30% of speaking parts were given to women. 74% of these women were white. These media representations are a sad reflection of social privilege.

Criado-Perez is passionate about the issue of women’s representation. Having founded The Women’s Room, a database of female experts for media interviews, and having won the campaign to get Jane Austen on the £10 note, she has just published Do it Like a Woman: And Change the World. The book celebrates the stories of many remarkable women, proving that women can do pretty much anything as well as (often better than) their male peers. Here’s what she says about patriarchy:

“I always think of patriarchy as something like the film The Matrix. You are living in it every day, but you don’t see it. Indeed, it is because you are living in it that you don’t notice it: it’s everywhere, in everything. How can you know, when you don’t know any different? But then something happens to make you see the world in all its carefully organised inequality, all the hundreds, thousands of strands that make it up – and suddenly you can’t stop seeing it.”

I guess my argument is that we all need to check our privilege and ask others from different groups about their experience of discrimination. We need to start listening. This especially applies to activists – if we’re trying to achieve social and environmental justice in the wider world we need to first address diversity, power and privilege within our own movement. If you’d like some tips on how to do this, ex Friends of the Earth staff Jannat Hossnain and Shilpa Shah have written a great piece on How to take the environmental movement out of its white, middle class ghetto.

Please feel free to share this with any aspiring writers or directors of activist films…

The biggest global protest ever - London march against the war in Iraq

A to B (or not)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ‘A-B’ marches – do they make any difference? Are they an important tactic or a useless irrelevance that’s easily ignored? Yesterday the People’s Assembly Against Austerity march attracted a quarter of a million people. A few weeks ago, the documentary We Are Many about the record breaking global day of protest against the war in Iraq hit cinemas. This post is going to take a little look at the history of the protest march and bring in some organising theory from the incredible Movement Mastery in the US.

On February 15th 2003, over 15 million people marched against the war in Iraq in 800 cities around the world. Demonstrations were held across  Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa and even a remote research station in Antarctica joined in. I was on the demonstration in London and it was incredible. I’ve done a lot of marching in my time – one of my earliest memories is of attending a CND march with my mum as a toddler. But this march was different, it wasn’t just the usual suspects, and many were marching for the first time. There were banners saying things like ‘Winchester Rugby club against the war’ and ‘Oxford Women’s Institute against the war’. It was more of a shuffle than a march really – there were so many people, my small group only covered about half a mile in hours.

But then, obviously, the decision was made to go to war anyway. Instead of this escalating the protest, and although the Stop The War coalition continued to organise, the momentum was lost, the majority gave up and felt the movement had failed.  David Babbs is on record as saying this perceived failure was the impetus to found 38 Degrees. We Are Many puts a much more positive spin on the legacy of Feb 15th, arguing that it helped escalate global protests on a variety of issues, and that it has prevented western countries going to war in similar interventions (citing Syria as an example).

Personally, I think asking whether or not a march is effective on it’s own is a daft question. The perceived failure of the Iraq war demonstration and the rise of clicktivism are partly to blame for this impatient approach to change. One single march for any cause, even if it’s really big, won’t ever achieve long lasting change on its own. It needs to be part of a much bigger movement, sustained over a serious period of time (sometimes we’re talking decades). And its just one of a variety of tactics that can be employed to achieve change – it needs to work with other approaches. 

But why didn’t the 2003 march escalate protest? Why were people so easily defeated? I attended some excellent training run by Carlos Saavedra last year which explored these questions. Carlos was a key organiser in the US DREAM movement, and subsequently founded Movement Mastery to reflect on and share his learnings from a decade of organising. Saavedra combines the organising approaches which he refers to as structure and momentum to propose a recipe for social movements to succeed.

The structural organising tradition is epitomised by organisations like Citizens UK (and many NGOs). These institutions are funded, staffed and organised hierarchically. They target decision makers for incremental change, and build the power of the organisation. The momentum approach, on the other hand, is embodied by much looser movements like Occupy. These coordinate horizontally through a shared strategy with only the most basic structure, building people power through active popular support, and seeking to achieve transformation societal change through achieving symbolic victories. Successful social movements need structure and momentum combined. Indian Independence, votes for women, the abolition of slavery and many other historic victories were won when social movements managed to combine structure and momentum, building public support and escalating the cause.

Saavedra talks about ‘moments of the whirlwind’ when suddenly a cause takes off and achieves mass popular support. The 2003 Iraq war march was one of these moments; the Occupy movement another. Occupy has a hugely impactful legacy, with the concept of the 99% vs the 1% commonly used and understood around the world, but it fizzled out as an active thing because it didn’t have an organisational structure to absorb support into. The Stop the War coalition did have a structure, but it was nothing like the scale needed to absorb the huge flood of support in 2003. Even if it had been ready for this truly daunting task, it would probably only have attracted support of a fraction of those who marched as Stop the War’s politics don’t appeal to everyone who opposed the war.

So what about the huge #EndAusterityNow demonstration of June 20th 2015? I think people were right to march. I’ve always found it inspiring to come together with other people en masse who passionately share my politics. Marching is also a show of strength, and the more who attend the harder it is for mainstream media to ignore reporting on the event and the issues. This isn’t the end – it’s just the beginning. The People’s Assembly have been doing an excellent job of combining structure and momentum, organising locally and escalating mass gatherings. It’s a promising start for some serious resistance to this government and its austerity agenda. We’re going to need all the support we can get to escalate and build the movement though – so please do more if you can. Take action online and campaign in your community. Show movement solidarity with all those who share your vision for the future, whatever tactics they’re using. Direct action has an important place too – it doesn’t have to be an either/or. A to B marches for the wins! Eventually…

Sweets Way

The Sweets Way revolution you might have missed

I’m very excited to share this guest post from activist author Liam Barrington-Bush. Many activists across the UK left have been despairing since last week’s election result, and discussing ‘what next’ endlessly in pubs, workplaces and on social media. One recurrent theme people seem to agree on is the need to organise in communities and build power at the grassroots. This is exactly what Liam has been doing – I hope you find his story as inspiring as I have.

Tucked away in the North London borough of Barnet, a revolution is brewing. As housing campaigns have sprung up across the capital, the families – and children – of the Sweets Way estate have fought back against the so-called ‘regeneration’ of their estate and have maintained the longest-running housing occupation in London since the start of the housing crisis.

I first heard about Sweets Way in mid-February, when someone Tweeted me about the mass evictions playing out at the former-MOD barracks, to make way for the first phase of a private ‘redevelopment.’ Shortly after, I cycled up to Barnet to meet a few other housing activists from Barnet Housing Action, and the dozen or so families left on the estate, following the initial purge.

The atmosphere was tense, with some expecting bailiffs that morning. Images of lives thrown into chaos scattered the extensive greenspaces of Sweets Way. Clothing, broken furniture, children’s toys and other remnants of lives uprooted too quickly, appeared as glimpses into the stories of the now-former residents of the estate. Tears flowed freely, as families met in the common areas that cold February morning, preparing for their community to be wrenched apart by the forces of the free market.

Meanwhile, a few of us shared stories from Focus E15, the New Era estate, and Our West Hendon with those gathered. Though there is never a template for this kind of organising, highlighting that others have actually come together and fought against social cleansing seemed to spark a powder keg of built up resentment about the mistreatment Sweets Way families had been subjected to.

An hour later, families were pushing their ways through security into the Barnet Homes offices across the road, blockading the front doors, with kids, home from school for half-term, at the frontlines. Everyone there managed to secure meetings with senior staff at Barnet Homes that same afternoon, and less than three weeks and two cramped gatherings in residents’ living rooms later, we were occupying 60 Sweets Way together.

In the time since, Sweets Way Resists has organised on four main fronts (though none of these truly capture the breadth and depth of what has happened):

1) Radical case work: Families and supporters actively advocating for one another in meetings and engagements with Barnet Council, inspired by Focus E15 in Newham and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL)

2) Media campaigning: Carrying out stunts and public actions to draw attention to the social cleansing of Sweets Way, Barnet, and London as a whole, targeting both Barnet Council and private developers, Annington Properties

3) Local awareness raising: Running a weekly street stall inspired by the backbone of the Focus E15 campaign

4) Occupation: Maintaining a community house where families and supporters come and go, highlighting the quality of houses slated for demolition in the development plans, while using the space to organise events and actions

We have achieved change on several fronts, in a very short time. This has ranged from getting individual families rehoused in better accommodation and garnering extensive media coverage of the issues, to forcing those responsible for the situation into the public spotlight, and inspiring the emergence of other housing campaigns further afield.

What has made all of this possible is a culture of mutual support and collective resistance. The issues faced by families have been utterly crushing at times, with council and developer intimidation regularly bringing people close to break-down.

However, being there for one another and realising the power of collective action to change the story playing out has kept everyone going, through the dark days and nights in recent months. We have practically and emotionally supported one another through trauma, and become collectively and individually stronger through the process.

For me, as a relative outsider who has become thoroughly immersed in the day-to-day realities of life at Sweets Way, the collective response to the recent election stands as a symbol of what we have been able to create together.

After waking up on May 8th to a torrent of misery and despair on Facebook and Twitter, I went to the occupied community house for the seventh birthday of Daniel, a child recently evicted from the estate. What was most notable there, was the absence of any real concern about the election. There was a magician, karaoke, discussions of campaign tactics, parents, kids, occupation rotas, and cake, but not a lot of talk about ‘politics,’ per se.

A few comments were made about Tory bastards, but it was hardly the abysmal front page news my Facebook feed had suggested. Of course the fight ahead will be a monumentally hard one, but at Sweets Way the election was not the crippling loss so many elsewhere perceived it to be.

This is because we have been creating our own power at Sweets Way. It is not a power that was fazed by election results, but one that has emerged in spite of politicians, and which will continue to grow without them.

This is the Sweets Way revolution. It is knowing that democracy is not about which posh white men hold public office, but about what we do to shape our lives together in the places we live. You’re always welcome to join us!

The Sweets Way community house is located at 76 Oakleigh Road North, Barnet, N20 9EZ. You can follow the campaign online at and sign a petition calling on Annington homes to stop the evictions and the demolition here.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator and author. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades

If you’re interested in getting involved with some grassroots campaigning but don’t know where to begin, there are lots of meetings and events in the wake of the election where you can meet others and find out what is going on near you.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity is organising meetings and demonstrations across the UK:

In London, The Brick Lane Debates are hosting a Radical Left General Assembly on Saturday 23rd May 1-7pm. 

polling card

What this election isn’t

With the UK general election almost upon us, I thought I should talk about it. I am not going to tell you how to vote, or whether or not to vote. I want to talk about the poisonous mainstream media and then look at what this election isn’t, rather than what it is. I’m going to swing via an eclectic set of radical thinkers including Adam Ramsey, George Monbiot, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Ursula Le Guin and Kurdish revolutionaries in Rojava. Bear with me.

Most UK residents will have seen the horrific headlines in the Mail and Sun today attacking Miliband in a pretty ridiculous way (and the #JeSuisEd response of people eating sandwiches badly in solidarity on Twitter). As part of their campaign against Rupert Murdoch’s dominance of the UK media, Avaaz has been doing some work to combat this, collaborating with Open Democracy to track election coverage in the rightwing press. The resulting research charts a change of approach from heaping the insults on Miliband to a focus on the danger the ‘poisonous dwarf’ Nicola Sturgeon represents (yes, really). As well as smearing ‘the horror’ of any Labour/SNP based Government, the papers keep insisting the biggest party should win.

Open Democracy uses this to re-assert Adam Ramsey’s argument of weeks ago that the newspapers are ‘preparing for a coup’. (Owen Jones seems to have jumped on this bandwagon in yesterday’s Staggers, repeating what Ramsey said a while back). Essentially, the papers are trying to de-legitimise a possible Labour Government if Labour isn’t the de facto biggest party. We don’t have a proper constitution as such, but what we do have certainly doesn’t say the biggest party should automatically form a Government. Unfortunately, people don’t really understand our electoral system, and the corporate press is capitalising on this in its own interest. It’s so blatant – Murdoch literally told the Sun they need to be more negative in editorials about Labour as the party threatens the dominance of Newscorp.

So this is all pretty bad. But actually there’s a lot more missing from this election and what the papers are talking about, as George Monbiot summarises in his Guardian piece today. For example, Monbiot points out that while the UK public wants progressive taxation, for the rich to pay a greater percentage in tax than the poor, the poor currently pay more. He goes on to address the myth that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, which is going totally unchallenged:

All major parties and media outlets are committed to never-ending economic growth, and use GDP as the primary measure of human progress. Even to question this is to place yourself outside the frame of rational political debate. To service this impossible dream we must work relentlessly, often in jobs that deliver no social utility and cause great harm.

This is absolutely correct. And pretty depressing – brings the following Chomsky quote to mind (thanks to my friend Andy for sharing this quote with Monbiot’s piece on Facebook).

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Noam Chomsky

So I would like to argue that what is not being talked about in this election is actually a lot more important. The election outcome will be a more or less pleasant shade of grey in its result (depending on your political persuasion). The real work needed to make our society sustainable and equitable is going to have to be done outside mainstream politics until this work becomes so successful that it changes politics itself.

Naomi Klein makes this the central thesis of her latest book ‘This Changes Everything’ (nice interview on the book with activist author Liam Barrington Bush here). Klein argues that we need to find a new way to live, starting locally and networking with others, decentralising power and strengthening democracy. Her book provided the inspiration for a recent London conference of the same name, which sought to start making connections between the UK climate movement and other movements for social justice (like the work of the Radical Housing Network). It was a really inspiring event – attendees joined a Facebook group and set up various working groups to try and take concrete work forwards. Hopefully just the start of something important…

Back to my thinking about what is outside the limits the system (media/ political) is imposing on our thought. We need the inspiration of big thinkers and bubbles of beauty, alternative societies that work. I’ve always loved utopian and dystopian science fiction. Such big literary imaginings free us to believe that radically different forms of human organisation are possible. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Dispossessed’ by the incredible Ursula K Le Guin (now 85 and still awesome). The book contrasts neighbouring societies on different worlds. One world is organised in a patriarchal capitalist system with yawning inequality and a decadent elite (sound familiar?). The other is an egalitarian anarcho-syndicalist world organised around the principle of mutual aid. This second world is not a wealthy world, and has many problems, but it is a beautifully imagined alternative.

These ideas aren’t just being explored in fiction. There are some incredibly inspiring alternative models already taking shape. Look at what’s happening in Rojava, in northern Syria, for example. In a sea of war and chaos, three Kurdish cantons are organising themselves “In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability.” The Charter, signed by the people in these areas and used as the basis for collective organisation and self-governance “proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society”. You can read more about it here in Ceasefire Magazine. Closer to home, there’s also the rise of Podemos in Spain, the new political party on the verge of power that has arisen out of the 15M movement, organising on the principle of radical participatory democracy. Rojava and Podemos are far from perfect, but they’re important revolutionary experiments.

On election day, I’m going to try not to get too distracted by the immediate outcome. I will obviously be happier or sadder depending on the direction things take. But for me, building a peaceful long term movement for genuine change, outside the boundaries imposed by our current system, is the really important political work. Lets not let the corporate media and broken political system stunt our imagination of what is possible.

It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval… It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed.Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfil my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls.

Ursula K Le Guin – The Dispossessed

My book haul this week

Direct action and artivism

It’s been an activist geekery heavy week. I’ve squeezed in the book launch of Mel Evans’ Artwash, looking at the relationship between big oil and the arts, and a direct action training session run by two lovely Reclaim the Power activists. At first glance these two things seem pretty far removed from each other, but actually they have a lot in common.

Artwashing and Art Not Oil

Firstly to talk about Artwash. Author Mel is an artist and activist (or artivist) associated with Liberate Tate and Platform. For those who don’t know, Liberate Tate is one of a growing number of performative protest groups targeting big oil sponsorship of UK art institutions – the ‘Art Not Oil’ movement. There have been some incredibly creative actions that have won deserved press and public attention. If you’re interested take a look at BP or Not BP (formerly Reclaim Shakespeare) who now also target oil sponsorship in cultural institutions. There’s also the Fossil Free network, which takes a slightly different approach, targeting institutions to divest from fossil fuels rather than end oil sponsorship. At her book launch, after reading from the first chapter Mel was presented with an oily canvas by a silently black veiled procession of activists; a playful nod to Liberate Tate’s ‘Parts Per Million’ performance (one of my favourite pieces of performance activism).

I went to the launch primarily out of interest in the incredible creative activism coming out of the Art Not Oil movement. I wrote my masters dissertation on performance as protest so I really love this stuff. I try to inject as much as I can into my work At ActionAid, like the successful tax dodgers walking tour of Mayfair I run with my friend Tom Barns. But at the event I found myself buying the book, and on reading the introduction was struck by the author’s definition of artwashing – similar to greenwashing but meaning that companies seek positive association from high art rather than environmentally friendly practice.

Evans writes: “Performance is a core part of communication. This rule applies from public relations to protest. To artwash is therefore part public relations and part theatre.” She sees the act of oil company sponsorship, with its branded presence in art institutions, as one form of performative communication – the activism that disrupts this is another.

While I love the activism, and I definitely frown on big oil trying to artwash its way out of the climate and environmental chaos it’s responsible for, I also have a tricky relationship with London’s big galleries. I find the economics of art very problematic. The market for high art is created by representatives from the wealthy elite – they decide what is worth money and therefore much of what is culturally valuable, from historic royalty commissioning portraits to collectors like Charles Saatchi paying millions for works of contemporary art.

The point I’m trying to make is that for me, while I love galleries, they are are not without their problems – so association with them is not necessarily a positive thing either. But whatever my thoughts about art institutions, Artwash is excellently written and pretty thought provoking – it also has a nice chapter devoted to the opposition of oil sponsorship with some good pictures of actions like ‘The Gift’ (when Liberate Tate delivered a 16.5m wind turbine blade to the Tate Modern).

Direct action training

Moving on to the direct action training, this was part of the campaigns skillhare programme run by NEON (the New Economy Organisers Network). The training was held in the idyllic Greenpeace garden and was attended mostly by radical housing and environmental activists. The trainers offered a whistle-stop tour of direction action, from examples to theory and practice. We got to try out D locks and arm tubes – structures activists use to attach themselves together to blockade in such a way that it takes the police hours to remove them without injuring them.

We discussed what defined direct action but it was hard to pin down. The general consensus was that it refers to actions taken for political reasons designed to communicate a message (direct communication) or disrupt space and activities physically – often both. It’s largely ‘real world’ although things like denial of service attacks online count too. It’s often explored as a ‘last resort’ – when other campaigning and lobbying tactics have failed, or there’s some urgency in the situation. And it’s generally done without permission.

Blockading or occupying, actions with immediate legal consequences, are the things that spring to mind for most of us when the words direct action are used. For many this has negative connotations – there’s a lot of disapproval for radicals who might damage buildings or equipment in the name of their cause in much of the mainstream press. At the training, we talked about how a strong social mandate makes direct action more likely to win public hearts and minds. For example, as the climate crisis leads to floods and extreme weather in the UK, activists occupying power stations are enjoying increased public support.

Direct action can also be much fluffier. Glitter bombing, throwing a circle line party or a cream pie, disrupting oil sponsorship of public institutions through performance – all these and more are forms of direct action. There are many ways creative interventions can disrupt dominant narratives and call attention to campaigns.

One of the participants made the point that no social movement for systemic change has succeeded without an element of direct action. I think this is something NGO campaigners should bear in mind. We should be asking ourselves where we can add most value to movements pulling in the direction of our vision for a better future. And how we can get creative with our own tactics to make the most impact.

Now for the doing and changing…

If you’re interested in getting involved with some direct action Reclaim the Power action camp from 29th May – 2nd June at Didcot power station in Oxfordshire is a great opportunity.

The book launch was held at Rich Mix – if you’re a lover of the venue you might want to sign this petition to stop legal action by Tower Hamlets council that threatens to close it down.