Friday, March 30, 2007

Activists and civilians

I've been musing about the gap between "ordinary people" and political activists and I've got some scrappy thoughts about some of the inherent contradictions contained within the relationship between people who are politically active and those who support their aims, in general, but are not currently able or willing to take an active role in shaping the movement.

Activists - how does this go down with 'normal' people?I guess the first thing to say is that the distinction is not necessarily one of informed and uninformed individuals. Often those who are not active have been involved in some protest or political event at some point in their lives, and of course some of them are ex-activists themselves.

Also in terms of political education non-activists have not been living in a cave. They've been reading books, watching TV and arguing with their friends. Big political events may well have politicised them - but not necessarily in a way that brings them out leafleting. A lot of the time lefty non-activists know more about a subject than the people actually organising on the issue.

But where people are not consistently politically engaged the likelihood of an uneven development in their political consciousness is far greater than with the political activist. Whilst the activist has to, necessarily, deal with a number of subjects and will come across those who don't agree, the anti-war sympathiser on the other hand will not have had to think about how these views fit with other issues like capitalism, race, the environment or class. Of course political consciousness can be *too* even can't it? Too homogeneous. Too party line. Too party speak even.

The activist is also drawn into a number of questions of technique that the arm chair politico does not have to consider. When writing a leaflet what do we say? Do we denounce big business when organising a party against racist attacks? Do we call for the victory of Hezbollah when denouncing the actions of Israel? If we go "too far" we may put off those who would naturally support the aims of the specific action we're building - if we don't go "far enough" perhaps we're dumbing down and not being honest about our own politics. Whilst the non-activist simply thinks what they think.

This can be especially difficult because you could be trying to cater to an audience that you literally never see all in one place. That makes it very hard to ask them and you end up imagining what they might think - which easily leads to self censorship. Added to the problem is that any leaflet is going to leave some potential supporters cold, critical or crimson with rage whilst appealing to others.

The other difficulty is that the arguments going on in activist circles are fairly likely to be rather different to those in the wider public. Various Trotskyists groups may have had heated debates over whether the slogan should be "troops out" or "troops out now" but the majority of those who see the placards will not register the distinction. So whilst the activists are getting heated over what may or may not be a important point the public will simply be focused on the argument against the war.

There's a very interesting piece written a couple of years ago on activistism, which I heartily recommend to anyone involved in building radical activity. The phenomenon which the authors describe is that where activism becomes completely cut off from the outside world and is simply performing functions that serve their own needs rather than address the real political issues. "This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hypermediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a 19th-century temperance crusade."

The authors even haul in that old ideological war-horse, Adorno, to say that this part of the progressive movement "refuses to reflect on its own impotence". Damning stuff, and all too obvious for those who like to reflect and think *as well as* be involved in political activity.

It's not just a problem for the left of course. You can see this problem with previous Tory leaders who have hyped up the dread of immigration because it plays well with their own troops, but it has left those outside the blue circle utterly unmoved. It seems to me that half of Blair's speeches in the last four years or so have been addressed directly at those who still want to support a Labour Government rather than attempting to persuade the critics.

Likewise on the left we can get lost inside our own ideological worlds whilst the rest of the human race are left a little puzzled. A great example of this is the majority of socialist papers who seem to have a zealous adherence to speaking in a particularly *convinced* way leaving no room to breath let alone think. These papers are virtually unreadable at times and certainly do not come across as reliable news sources because it is absolutely inconceivable that any news that does not fit with their world view could even get into the pages of the paper. These papers are only really suitable to innoculate the troops against outside ideas.

It's a big subject that can't possibly be tackled in one post - but that tension between activists trying to push the debate forwards and organise concrete action and those that they seek to pull out onto the streets or persuade of their point of view is not something we can wish away - but it is something we should be aware of.


Alan Howe said...

Nice piece.
Derek has blogged on the potential for the title of leader to corrupt.
Most people have no trouble with equating “He who pays the piper calls the tune” with party funding. Even if donations are benign the Party will be quite aware that if they stray of-line their benefactors may cease to cough up. You have blogged on why the Trade Unions should not give any dosh to the Labour Party.

I have known organisations where the “activists” consider their views should take precedence because they do all the work. This is a danger too. However, the civilians are often under-rated by the activists through lack of contact as you say. These are people who teach their children, talk to their neighbours and friends in the pub. Maybe even write to the local rag. We are all ambassadors for the organisations we belong to. “Every little helps” to coin a phrase.

There is also a tension between the “intellectuals” and Jo(e) Public. This is mostly one of language and labels. I once had the dubious pleasure of analysing two speeches, one by Tony Benn and one by Enoch Powell. The task was to determine from which political ideology their ideas stemmed. Both drew from all political ideologies. To me there is no Left or Right, there is just sense, common if you wish.

Daniel S. Ketelby said...

It's important to recognise that people are legimitately capable of or disposed to many levels of political activity - ranging from all day every day down to an hour a decade.

If you're any kind of political organiser, it's important to geniunely accept and welcome that fact - I think that some parties and organisations give off overt and subtle signals that tell people, hey, if you can't give at least three evenings a week, don't bother.

In South West Hants, we've found holding occasional 'Green Party and friends' socials effective in welcoming new and previously inactive members, encouraging people to be a bit more active. We've tended to invite the membership and sympathetic fellow-travellers. We've only done this in the last year or so - I suspect that we had a slightly dour image before.

Plus, once people see that activists are people too, it encourages them to get more involved. I think the next stage is structuring our canvassing so that it explicitly includes a social element, introductory briefing pairing with an experienced canvasser etc... if we're going to get anywhere, we need to grow our activist base, and many people have a mental block about political activity, an inner discouraging voice which tells them it's complicated and no fun. That voice must be confronted and defeated, comrades.