Practicing for the revolution
There are always at least two things we are doing when we activist. At face level, we are campaigning for peace, justice, earth, animal and human rights. Sometimes we make concrete gains, sometimes we don’t see any tangible results. Either way, we are, almost always, engaged in a second struggle: to ‘build the movement’. For me, this second struggle is the long game. ‘Building the movement’ requires that we actively dismantle the inequalities and dominating structures that divide us. It requires us to face our own position within hierarchies and power structures and to address our own harmful behaviours. It requires us to reach across the limits of our socialisation and connect with humans who have divergent experiences and world views. To shift our thinking from ‘I’ to ‘we’. To engage in collaboration not competition. The second struggle is challenging. At the same time, the second struggle can offer immediate and tangible results that enhance life and endure long term. The long game requires us to consciously work to create humane, loving community. I think about it as practicing for the revolution. Or the apocalypse. Or the revolution within the apocalypse. Observing, developing and facilitating this longitudinal work of creation is my main game when I activist.
There are two main reasons people withdraw from (or never engage with) activist work. The first is to do with the effectiveness of the activism. People can feel that the activism has ‘failed’ because the campaign goal has not been met. Many of my cohort, who were activists in their twenties, withdrew their energies from campaigning, gave up in a sense, because they could not answer the question ‘What is the point?’. Large rallies were ignored, direct actions did not ‘get the goods’, strikes and pickets were smashed or sold out by union officials. The profiteers keep on profiting and the climate is still overheating. Measuring activist success by the number of campaign ‘wins’ we have is pretty depressing. Sometimes NGOs and grassroots groups contribute to activist attrition by overstating the likelihood of campaign success in their ‘theory of change’. ‘If we do this, we will be able to change government policy on coal.’ More often, the campaign goal is assumed by the humans as the only goal of the activism, so if that goal is not attained, a feeling of failure and defeat can overwhelm the human. An investment in winning a campaign is usually not enough to keep a person engaged in activism. There is, or can be, much more at stake.
The second reason people withdraw from activism is to do with their experience. Our ecosystems are literally collapsing in fire and flood, profiteers run rampant over human bodies and cultures, there is destruction and exploitation everywhere we look. Activism involves looking at and facing these realities. It’s hard. Not everyone can emotionally manage this hardship over time. This is where it is essential that we also play the long game. Facing horror and engaging in struggle is much more possible if we feel held by the care and support of other activists. Our love for each other can get us through almost anything, yet the vital importance of the heart in activism is rarely recognised in Australia. Many people come and go from activist spaces without ever feeling connected or loved. There is little or no emotional reward for their efforts. Campaigns are taxing, emotionally and materially. When the second struggle, the long game of movement building, is not attended to, burn out is quick and terminal.
The revolutionary power of play
One of the ways I attend to the long game in activist spaces is to bring the fun. The climate-wrecking patriarchal white supremacist colonising extractivist military industrial death machine is full of terrors. Our initial bond with each other is usually in a mutual recognition of these terrors. It is a relief to be surrounded by others who are willing to resist the death machine. Bonds forged in opposition are powerful but are not enough to sustain us on their own. Facing the harsh realities of the world is a little easier if we have a shared vision of the world we will bring; and if we bring that world with us as we go. For both our sanity and our longevity, I find it essential to create activist spaces where fun is integral. In such spaces we can engage the revolutionary power of play.
Play is drilled out of most of us during corporatised education and labour. Play is denigrated and demeaned as the realm of children and imbeciles. Artists and activists, however, who question dominant paradigms and institutional dogma, can – must – engage in play. Play subverts everything we are inculcated to know about authority, rules, domination and protocol. Play frees our minds from unnecessary burdens of propriety and shame and enables new learning and connection to take place. We begin to bond through joy and discovery. We are able to experiment and explore our capacities, shedding limits and preconceptions. Think of the freedom of the three year old child and claim this as your birthright. Now, with all the fire in the belly and with the improvisational capacity of the child, place yourself in the space of protest. Play is a fundamental tool of liberation. Play can heal our movements and destroy the death machine. Play can set us free.
A second concept I hope can heal our movement is a culture of radical respect. Most activists will speak of inclusion, diversity and equity as core values in their groups. Despite this, there exists a destructive amount of criticism, judgement and exclusion in our movements for peace and justice. I have tried to step outside the activist vortex of perfect ideology in my organising. The participation agreements I use have but two requests. One is not to harm other living beings. The other is to be respectful of other participants. Being respectful precludes any kind of bigotry or hate speech or discrimination, of course. But we can go further, do better than this. We can engage our whole hearts and turn down the competitive, comparative noise in our minds, and treat each other with love, kindness, generosity: radical respect.
Radical respect entails deep solidarity, based on our interconnectedness, our shared predicament on this earth. It entails a broadening of our tolerance to accept and accommodate difference, including different philosophies or styles of protest. It asks that respect travels in every direction, so that more conservative activists respect radicals and vice versa. It asks us to see each other’s humanity, to honour each other’s dedication and to uplift our unity even when our tactics are wildly disparate. An excerpt from the Disrupt Land Forces handbook describes the culture:
Practice Radical Respect
We do not seek to limit or control the ways people express themselves in protest at Disrupt Land Forces (other than the ‘no harm’ agreement). We ask that you extend radical respect to each other, offering kindness, compassion and support to other activists even and especially when you do not understand the way they express themselves. Some people at Disrupt will use prayer. Some might be naked. Some folks will swear. Some might throw flowers or hold art interventions. You will not relate to all of the ways that people express themselves here. Let that be ok with you. There is no right way to protest.
No right way
If there was a right way to protest that was guaranteed to succeed we would have worked that out by now. We would have fixed everything and we wouldn't have to protest any more.
The Disrupt Land Forces crew has created an abundant space for protest. We invite you all to fill that space with whatever style of protest feels meaningful to you. Try stuff out. There's no wrong way. This is an experiment in creative social change. Go for it.
Is it counterproductive?
It is counterproductive to not turn up. It is counterproductive to publicly disrespect other activists to the media or on social media. It is counterproductive to spend hours agonising over the right way to take action. Want to know why someone chooses a particular tactic? Engage in curiosity, not judgement. Ask, don't tell :)
Radical respect is very challenging. There have been dozens of times I have wanted to intervene in someone else’s discourse or tactics. I’m certain others also experienced discomfort at the easing of the control and censure we are accustomed to practicing in activist spaces. The rewards, though, have been magnificent.
Saving time! The time saved by allowing small, decentralised crews to self-organise, in the confidence that their action will not be slammed by anybody, without the need for every word on every banner being approved by a big, long meeting, was fantastic. Engaging a ‘no harm’ rule and a radical respect culture means NO BIG MEETINGS! Unless you want one.
Feeling happy and safe! Activist attrition in Australia can be attributed in great part to people feeling unhappy or unsafe in activist groups. Knowing that no-one will shame you or condemn you, even if you make a mistake, is a huge step towards feeling confident to try something new. Trusting that people will support us to learn rather than attack us for a perceived wrong makes us feel happy and safe.
Trying new stuff! The field is then open for experimentation and play. You know your heart is in the right place, and others know it too. You can try something out, work with new people, make up your own chant or banner, explore a discourse, freely.
Genuine diversity! Radical respect means that the field is wide open. Any group or community with a shared vision and commitment (eg to peace, climate justice, land back) can enter the space on an equal footing, bringing their own discourse, tactics and expressions with them.
Collaborative possibility! Once we are all in the melting pot of an activist space where fun and play are integral, and a culture of radical respect is practiced, the scope for collaborations across cultural, age, gender, class or any other difference is vast.
Climate disasters are coming thick and fast, wars over land and resources are still being waged and the war against the environment shows no sign of slowing down. The climate justice movement has not attained the critical mass we need. I don’t believe I have all the answers to the question of how to heal our movement. I’m not sure I have any answers at all. I do know that bringing fun and play into movement spaces has been productive. I have seen the relief on people’s faces when they hear there is ‘no right way’ in this space and then joy as they go on to invent incredible feats of activism. I hope that it is possible to shift our activist culture away from introspection and judgement and towards something more liberatory, joyful and loving. Perhaps this IS the revolution we are practicing for.