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.