Why playing ‘more activist than thou’ is a game with no winners

by Michelle La Guilla

In March of last year, a small controversy erupted concerning this blog and the other blog I co-run, kickingtoryassonwelfare@wordpress.com.  (My response is embarrassingly belated; I’ve been kind of missing in action).  I had posted a piece on KTA advocating the declaration of lawful rebellion, according to an old paragraph in the Magna Carta and achievable by simply writing to the Queen: http://kickingtoryassonwelfare.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/when-all-else-fails-write-to-the-queen/  Soon after, Will Taylor published a strongly worded piece on Rad Uni whereby he critiqued the KTA piece as, essentially, advocating going cap in hand to figures from the establishment and the elite asking for a better deal; something which, in Taylor’s view, ‘surrenders political agency to the already powerful . . . so much better to organise amongst the powerless to increase their agency’.  You can read the whole piece here: https://radicaluniversity.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/why-writing-to-the-queen-and-lawful-rebellion-is-a-monumental-waste-of-time/

 

Well, yes.  Despite causing a minor hullabaloo at the time, prompting us to create a safe spaces policy for Rad Uni (obviously a good thing) due to the original wording of Taylor’s piece, and whereby I was pretty damn pissed off to be put in the position of either censoring Rad Uni or be, as I felt at the time, humiliated on a forum which I had created; despite all this, I by and large agreed with Taylor’s points.  Since the publication of the KTA piece, which I wrote semi-ironically after seeing lawful rebellion discussed in one of the welfare campaigning groups I belong to on facebook (and admittedly knowing very little about it beyond this), I’ve come to agree that it was perhaps a naïve move considering the history of lawful rebellion and its co-option by lots of highly unpleasant right wing elements.  Yet I stand by my original intention in writing the piece.

 

Taylor’s piece in its final form was articulate and well argued; however, it’s my belief that he and I were looking at the same issue from utterly different angles.  My intention in writing the KTA piece was simultaneously quite light hearted – no one really thinks that writing to the queen will effect change, that she will receive such a letter and immediately exclaim ‘I had no idea things were so bad, let me immediately depose the government!’ – but also a serious attempt to offer something practical KTA readers could do.  We know the queen doesn’t give a shit; however, what Taylor in my view failed to consider is that KTA is a forum aimed at the most powerless people in society; our readers are on benefits; some are disabled or mentally ill; they are by and large not people that get listened to, rather in the current climate they are daily heinously slandered.  They – we, because I am among that number; on benefits due to severe mental health problems all my adult life – are also, scandalously, still dying; just this week the Guardian reported on a man with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and an eating disorder who starved to death after being found fit to work, despite a letter from his GP stating he was ‘extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever’ (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/28/man-starved-to-death-after-benefits-cut). 

 

The point I was trying to make – arguably rather poorly – was that with all these odds and injustices stacked against you, sometimes you just have to do something, that the outcome isn’t necessarily the point, the point is to – as Anais put it quite beautifully during the whole short lived acrimony – own your own reality.  To say, by whatever means are available to you, not in my name.  This is wrong.  I dissent.  And those means aren’t equitably distributed; when you’re housebound by disability, or struggling with severe depression and the hideous revolving door of medical/appeal/medical, a letter or a signature on an online petition may genuinely be the most you can do. Not that they are ‘medicals’; no doctors are involved; and regarding that revolving door, I was called to another assessment while my first was still under appeal.  I was told by welfare rights that unfortunately this was in fact lawful, as I was appealing my fitness for work related activity and they would be testing my fitness to work.  Such pedantic semantics and relentless hounding, for people who are already ill, can easily crush the spirit completely; hence the many suicides and hence how doubly important it is to be able to do anything, however small and ultimately inconsequential, that feels like fighting back. 

 

Not everyone is able to engage in street protest and direct action, for a multiplicity of reasons; therefore to suggest implicitly or explicitly that these are the only worthwhile forms of resistance is both offensive and facile.  Mental illness and disability do, unfortunately, often breed isolation whether that’s because of mobility issues, the horrible feeling of not wanting to inflict your deep depression on others, or being literally too afraid to leave the house.  ‘Organising amongst the powerless’ is a wonderful ideal, but it can be very difficult to achieve in practice.  I can no longer go to street protests due to my anxiety, with the very real fear of police violence and kettling compounded by my panic reaction to busy streets and crowds.  But I do what I can; I blog, and even when I was in the grips of suicidal depression last year, signing online petitions enabled me to feel I was still fighting the good fight in my own small way.  It was the only thing I was physically and mentally able to do, and hopefully the petitions achieved what they were aiming for; but on a personal level, when I was utterly broken and utterly powerless, they made me feel I was still using my voice even though it was hushed to a whisper.  At such times, ANYTHING that helps you to feel, if only ever so slightly, more in control of your own destiny is a good thing.

 

Of course there’s also a broader issue here; many activists do, unfortunately, have a somewhat condescending attitude to clicktivism, which I am defining here as any political action done via computer, such as blogging, writing to MPs, signing online petitions, even posting political content on social media.  Yet clicktivism can be an incredibly powerful tool; I’d suggest that both Rad Uni and KTA in their different ways have been dynamic forces for good.  Rad Uni acts as a political voice for any left wing writer with something to say; a branch of Lancaster University Anti Capitalists (formerly Lancaster University Against the Cuts, in whose writing group its first seeds were sown), collecting LUAC press releases and comment in easily accessible form; and a showcase for comment, art, series, even poetry, on a broad range of activist issues.  KTA, on the other hand, was set up by myself and Laura C in response to the devastatingly unjust cuts to benefits and in particular the death toll after Atos assessments.  As well as posting pieces on the relevant issues, we also give support, advice and signposting via our email address; we don’t pretend to be experts and always direct people to welfare rights and CAB in addition to ourselves, but we do know enough to give useful information and, crucially, the reassurance that people don’t have to struggle on alone with this.  We’ve had countless messages of thanks and I think that personal support is the reason why; I know as well as anyone how isolating, frightening and overwhelming it is to wrestle with a benefits system which aims only to shed claimants at any cost and as such is no longer fit for purpose.  One piece I wrote, again in March last year, about negotiating ESA and the work capability assessments, has had almost 5000 hits at last count and I am still receiving lovely messages about it today.  This kind of thing is quieter, more low key than street protest for sure; but I feel that Laura and I have done a great deal of good with KTA and it’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my whole life.

 

It’s all too easy – and unfortunately, common – to dismiss those not out on the streets protesting by taking a ‘more activist than thou’ attitude.  Yet this is hugely counterproductive, belittling and alienating those who already feel forgotten.  Street protest and direct action are hugely important and I salute the bravery and commitment of those who risk police brutality and arrest to stand up for their cause; if, however, this twists into an attitude of disdain and superiority for those who can’t, we risk selling out the very powerless and oppressed populations we claim to stand for.  And if that is the case, how are we any better than the right wingers who preach that the poor and dispossessed are in fact workshy and feckless?  Sneering at fellow activists – at fellow human beings – is a dangerous game, and it can never have any winners.

 

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2 thoughts on “Why playing ‘more activist than thou’ is a game with no winners

  1. Beau Nafyde

    Well done for writing this mate. I think it needed to be said. Also love the way you refer to Will as Taylor throughout- makes him sound like a naughty schoolboy!!!

    the only slight thing I’d add- I wouldn’t ever mock those who for various reasons are restricted to only online awareness-raising, as you explain so well, this work is hugely important, and will only become more so as technology becomes more all-pervasive and ubiquitous. But, I do still take issue with those who simply can’t be bothered to try and make the world a better place, or the middle-class ethical shopping and recycling brigade who act like by signing a petition or donating to charity they are doing ‘their bit.’ if people’s mental or physical health prevents them from offline action they have my sympathy, but if people simply can’t be bothered or think they have ‘better things to do’ they do not.

    The old “I’m a better activist/radical/protestor/subversive etc. than you’ thing is a pain in the arse. It creates a stupid hierarchy of respect within the left where some people almost want to get arrested for the sake of it to get respect whereas people who do the less glamorous but no less essential work of admin/outreach/media/organising etc. are left feeling undervalued to say the least.

    I understand somewhat why it exists, which is perhaps the extent to which the actions you take impact your life: no matter how many petitions you sign that action has not cost you as much as getting arrested and beaten up and saddled with jail time and a lifetime criminal record.

    On the other hand, as Michelle writes, often people have no idea how hard it can be for someone to take what appears to be the smallest of actions. Furthermore, even if person A has in fact ‘sacrificed more’ for a movement or whatever than person B, does not mean person A is deserving of greater status or respect. We should aim to respect all equally and all be of the same status.

    The alternative is a weird converse race for status where people compete to have ‘had it hardest’: “yeah, you’re depressed and managed to still do good online work, but I did a lock on last month and got a conditional discharge” “Meh, conditional discharge is just childsplay, I got a suspended prison sentence for spitting in Cameron’s eye” and so on ad nauseum…

    Reply
    1. radicaluniversity Post author

      thanks Beau! i totally agree about the ‘recycling brigade’; but as you say many people really DO care very much, just are not in a position to do the frontline stuff. i have so much respect for those who do risk arrest and brutality for the cause; i’ve done it myself in the past, but having a non activism related criminal record already, that is another reason i can’t do it any more; there are already avenues blocked to me forever, and unfortunately the tactic of arrests and harassment to intimidate activists works; lots of people do fear this, especially perhaps student activists who may find themselves locked out of their chosen fields for daring to attend, let’s say, an anti fracking protest. i was going to put in the criminal record issue but i had so much to say anyway i decided not to complicate matters further, but it’s a really important point. interesting that you also linked to this article yesterday; think she really expresses a lot of what i was trying to say and far better than i did so thanks: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jessie-thompson/left-wing-people_b_4941582.html?utm_hp_ref=tw i’d encourage everyone to read it if you’ve not already done so!

      Reply

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