The Samovar

Political activism – what to do?
October 6, 2006, 1:27 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics

At some point in the next few months I will probably be going to live in a new place (quite possibly Edinburgh) and start on a new job which is very different from what I have been doing for the last 8 years of my life. (I’m hopefully going to go into the world of computational / theoretical neuroscience, after having been a mathematician.) I have been quite annoyed at myself for a number of years for failing to engage in anything politically, and I plan to change my political habits along with my academic ones as part of this new life. I’m pleased with my level of understanding and analysis of political issues, but I don’t really do anything other than complain about it. In a large part this is due to inertia and laziness (which is my own problem), but it’s also to do with the fact that no particular political activity that I could be involved in feels very worth doing to me.

So my question is – any suggestions for what I could do?

I feel like a lot of groups and campaigns put an enormous amount of effort into things which ultimately don’t do very much. I’m not criticising them at all here. I don’t know what they could be doing better, but I do feel a sense of futility about it all.

Let’s take the example of civil liberties – an issue I really get worked up about. What could I do about this? At the moment, I do my best to explain the problems I see to everyone I know (and the readers of this blog and forums I participate in), and this hopefully has some small effect on them and possibly people they pass this on to. So far so good. I think I’ve achieved here the absolute minimum duty incumbent upon me as a politically aware person, but not much more.

The No2ID group a while ago had a demonstration in London against ID cards. Great! I think they’re a bad idea too. Now a hundred people or so turned up to it, what does this achieve? If a march with millions of people against the war in Iraq had so little effect, what is a few hundred going to do? Obviously nothing directly, but perhaps it has some very small effect on the people who went on it (who meet each other and perhaps get involved more), and the passers by who interacted with the marchers. This latter would have been more or less effective depending on the attitudes of the passers by and the eloquence of the people on the march. I didn’t go on it, so I don’t know how much of this took place. So: total amount achieved, almost nothing as far as I can tell.

So anyway perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. I know it’s a bad attitude, and one ought to do one’s civic duty and participate in the political process, but it’s very difficult to motivate yourself when you know that nothing you do will have an effect.

About the only view I can console myself with is an article that Michael Albert of ZNet wrote a while ago (I couldn’t find the article to link to it I’m afraid). He agreed that the prospects for actually achieving anything positive at the moment are very slim, but that activism was important anyway because it contributes to building up a base of people who are politically aware and able to take a critical attitude towards government, media, etc. At some point in the future, all this work may become critical. Oddly, although that sounds so much more speculative and unreal than the day to day work of many political groups, to me it seems more realistic. Am I right? Is this all that we can hope for at the moment? If so, it suggests that the most important thing I can do is to take a wide interest in as many issues as possible and try to engage as many people as I can in politics, rather than focussing on one particular group or campaign and pouring all my effort into it. In practice this is what I do in a very small scale (people I know and people I argue with on the internet), but perhaps there are avenues to do this more systematically.




I would agree with the Znet author. The word “network effect” is something I have come across a lot recently, and I was also able to get a few good books on the subject. Essentially, the principle is that most things fail, but every so often, something can be successful beyond a person’s wildest dreams. And, a lot of seeding of that success is based on the establishing of a critical mass or tipping point – which essentially requires that a huge amount of failure must occur before the concept or product or genre becomes adopted by the mainstream.

I’m not a big fan of most political activism, because it often smacks of a kind of arrogance: a small cabal of people who think they know what is right for everyone trying to impose their ideas on everyone else, and when people don’t listen they become more extremist in their approaches. This of course is a gross simplification, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that many of the major beneficial societal changes of the 20th century came from activism. The thing is though, sometimes you have to wade through a lot of crap to find the diamonds in the rough. 🙂

Comment by woodpigeon01

I know that there are political activists like you describe (I’ll hazard a guess and suggest you have animal rights protestors in mind), but that’s by no means what it’s all like. Much political activism is about making people aware of things they wouldn’t otherwise even know about. That’s not just them being smug. It’s extremely hard work (almost full time work) to stay up to date about what is going on, and the information that reaches us through the most obvious channels (newspapers, TV) is highly selected and filtered. I just posted an example on H2G2.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I went on the march in support of migrant rights at lunchtime in London today – it will likely have zero effect in terms of any meaningful changes, but there are I think several effects of such action

– As you noted, it helps network. I was given leaflets by groups I never knew existed, who are doing important work. One such was the group trying to teach English to migrant sex workers so that they can talk with health workers/bosses/clients, and try and improve their own living/working standards. Someone else who got one of those leaflets and who lived in the area might well have decided to help out – there’s a solid positive effect.

– It makes the isolation and despair that can come from being radical seem less imposing – It reminded me that there are many others who see the world in the same way that I do – others who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in.

– It reminds passers-by that democracy and dissent do not end with voting – and that there are plenty of people who realise this. It might have encouraged some to read up on the issue at hand, and others to think about the issues they feel strongly about, and how they might combine those issues with activism. Reminding people about such features of democracy is particularly important in a time of growing apathy.

– It pisses off the police.

Comment by Chris

Was there any engagement with passers-by, or was it just, um, pasing by? I ask, because otherwise it sounds like the effects are largely internal to the community of people who are already radical. That’s not a bad thing, but I think it’s not enough.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I’m what’s known as ‘time poor’. (That’s my excuse, anyway. In actual fact, I’m a lazy fucker). If I ever do get more time, I’d like to get involved in some sort of charitable work which has a political focus. I don’t think it’s over-arrogant to suggest that I (or someone like you) might have something to give in addition to the (equally valuable!) routine work that others do. In the past, I’ve been the leaflet writer, as well as the leafleter. But, yes, political movements are made up of this grassroots work.

Chris mentioned migrants rights. My fantasy ideal charity work would be something working with migrants. I’d like to do a TEFL course. With this issue, I think visible support is useful, even without engagement. At very least it spreads the message that we don’t have to go along with the received-wisdom, xenophobic view.

I have, in my past, been an activist for a political party. I blush to think which one. More recently – a couple of years ago I was involved in some thoroughly dodgy stuff for the ANL, with magnificent results.

You’ll have plenty of opportunity for political engagement in Scotland, anyway. I reckon we’re about to go through an interesting phase. An SNP government is a distinct possibility as Labour’s traditional support evaporates.

If you’re through in Glasgow, let me know!

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Thanks for the comment Ed. I hadn’t registered that you were in Scotland. I do feel quite optimistic about Scotland actually. My impression is that there is quite an interesting radical tradition there compared to England. I was reading about how anarchism was quite popular in Glasgow in the 40s and 50s (I think, might be wrong). Quite possibly a more sensible radical tradition than communism.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Was there any engagement with passers-by, or was it just, um, pasing by?

It’s a tough one to say. Certainly a lot of people came out of their houses/looked out of their windows, and seemed genuinely interested, although few seemed to come and talk to the crowd. The interaction would be ideal, but the fact that there’s a march about an issue I think strikes people in a positive way. Very hard to quantify though.

Comment by Chris

Scotland’s radical tradition certainly includes communism. Of course, the British Revolution almost started in Glasgow’s George Square, but was suppressed by Churchill’s tanks. The revered John McClean was the first Soviet consul, and my favourite poet Hugh McDiarmid was a communist, along with some of the other founding members of the SNP. I think that the legendary folk plucker Dick Gaughan still carries his card. (Check out his definitive version of ‘World Turned Upside Down’ via that link). I have a fancy that’s there’s even a couple of communist councillors left in Fife. Yes, on the whole, Scotland is proud of its radical tradition. (well…Glasgow, anyway).

These days…we still have parties that Old Labour dissenters can vote for with a conscience. It’s a pity that Tommy Sheridan has torn apart the SSP out of his own vanity. He’s done a lot of good in his past, but…will I get you into legal difficulties if I call him a lying bastard on your blog?

I’m sure you did some good. Just being seen is a start.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Interesting questions. I suggest that you need to distinguish between (1) political activity whose main effect is self-gratification, and (2) activity that might eventually produce an effect in the reaql world.

In category 1 I would include almost all marches, demonstrations, individual protests, small group meetings at which identical opinions are exchanged for mutual reinforcement, with or without ferocious arguments about tactics, leafleting, and formation of new single-issue pressure groups. These are (or can be) great fun but generally have no other concrete results. The main exception is participation in a really enormous march or demonstration on an issue that millions of people are seriously stirred by, such as the anti-Iraq-war marches in 2003. These didn’t in the event force a change in government policy but they came near to doing so by making a deep impression on many Labour MPs, as the ghastly Blunkett diaries testify.

In category 2 is the humdrum, boring grind of traditional political action: first and foremost, joining a political party, going to its local ward and higher-level meetings, speaking, agreeing to serve as ward secretary or meetings officer, getting to know your MP and councillors or parliamentary and local government candidates, write to them in temperate and rational terms, propose resolutions to be passed up the line in your local party, write persuasive letters to your local newspaper and, on national issues, to the national broadsheets, join a trade union and do all the same things there — and operate a blog with numerous links to other widely read blogs which you can invite to link in return to yours, write blog posts only or mainly about issues on which you have something fresh to say (i.e. not simply repeating what other commentators are already saying but wherever possible drawing on your own experience to contribute something challenging) — and bombard your friends and political contacts with e-mails urging them to read your latest posts and to tell their friends to do so too. E-mail media commentators and your MP to draw their attention to your posts on subjects that they have been writing about, or speaking on, or voting on. Try to capture the attention of opinion-formers and decision-makers. You may have a marginal influence in these ways; but you’ll probably never know whether you have or not. Anyway, there are no short cuts!


Comment by Brian Barder

Brian, thanks for your comment. I think calling it “self-gratification” is a little harsh, but I share your concern here.

The issue that your post raises for me though is – what about changes that cannot be effected through the channels you suggest? I think all of the things you suggest are worth doing, indeed essential, but possibly not enough. Tony Benn famously said that he was resigning as an MP so that he could devote himself to politics, and I think there’s something to be said for this view when you have a Labour cabinet that so little reflects the views of most party members, and a political system that marginalises any action taken by parties other than the main two.

Here’s another question – in order for there to be a march like the big one against the Iraq war, do there have to be lots of smaller marches leading up to it to generate sufficient momentum?

Comment by Dan Goodman

If you’re looking for tangible results, you might want to consider Amnesty International. By tackling individual cases, they can improve conditions for some prisoners, secure the release of others and stop executions in other cases .

Comment by Dan in Melbourne

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