This was originally written for a student zine called ‘Free Lunch’ at the University of York in late 2013. In 2015, however, there is no such thing as a (zine called) Free Lunch… so I thought I’d re-post this one here.
Older people often come to universities and tell younger people what do to. Often they are paid to do so and some even make careers of it. This is not without merit, but should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when it relates to certain kinds of organising advice.
Below is a non-comprehensive list of advice for young organisers, coming from the ‘adult’ world of social change, that may well do more harm than good.
‘Be serious if you want to be taken seriously’
One of the underpinning beliefs of the ‘adult’ world of social change is that it shouldn’t be fun. If it doesn’t offer real and practical potential for burn-out in the short-to-medium term, you’re not doing it right. A big piece of this is about ‘seriousness’ – it’s in how you dress, what kinds of meetings you have, what types of actions you take – and it sucks the life of activism, turning it into an exercise in self-flagellation, rather than something that can feed and nourish you, while affecting the wider world. Those who don’t take you seriously for being involved in organising efforts that are fun or silly, need to look themselves in the mirror for a minute and see where all their seriousness has got them.
‘Someone has to be in charge!’
‘Now this consensus-based, leaderless hippie stuff is fine for now,’ you might hear, ‘but eventually someone’s gotta step up and take charge if you want to make a real difference.’
What they’re really saying is a continuation of the ‘be serious if you want to be taken seriously’ crap – that you need to act like dull and oppressive institutions, if you want to be effective.
They have leaders therefore you should have leaders… presumably so they can then co-opt them into fitting into a pre-set mould, or discredit them if they don’t follow an established narrative of how change should happen. When there are no individual leaders to point to, or hierarchies through which decisions are made, it is far harder to manipulate a group into becoming an extension of the groups that have come before it.
Telling you that you need leaders, is a way of making your activist group less threatening to those who have assumed a certain kind of power and influence around the issues they address.
‘Effective change involves getting yourself a seat at the table’
Replying to similar advice offered by countless pundits to the Occupy movement in 2011, New York City activist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote: “If one were compiling a scrapbook of the worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honourable place.”
Essentially, he says, well-meaning institutions have spent decades trying to influence government policy to reflect the kinds of change we need, and have still presided over the greatest deterioration of workers’ rights, the environment, social inequality, etc that we have ever seen.
‘Getting a seat at the table’ has broadly come to mean the ability to mend a patient’s paper cut, while ignoring their gaping knife wound. When we take the seat at the table (while occasionally a necessary stop-gap measure), we end up playing by a set of rules that are broadly working against our interests. While many still cling to the value of such approaches to change, several decades in, its failure is becoming clearer and clearer.
‘Focus on the detail’
Much as lots of seasoned voluntary sector and civil society bods will emphasise the importance of trying to change governments from the inside, this approach inevitably leads to a principled insistence on spending unimaginable amounts of time trying to get three words in a 50-page piece of destructive legislation changed, while the legislation itself basically sails through. Then that change is touted as a major victory.
Focusing on the minutia of policy detail can at times be a necessary survival strategy, but when it becomes our primary focus it broadly allows those who are writing shitty legislation to shape the terms of the debate. By engaging with every consultation and every draft bill, we hand-over our power to change the discussion entirely.
This one is a killer. Never have two such innocuous words ground down the passions of so many committed organisers. They are code for ‘Stop trying to imagine something too much better than what we’ve got.’ They are the formula for a special breed of jaded cynicism which has never changed the world. ‘Realism’ is the stuff of the present, and we are certainly more imaginative than to think we simply want more of what we’ve already got!