Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Organising good, activism bad

There's a great article by Al Giordano about the difference between activism and organising:

"Activism is the practice of preaching to the choir, rallying the already converted, and trying to convince other "activists" to do your work for you. Activists like to make declaratory "statements," hold "meetings," invite other activists (usually fairly hegemonic of the same socio-economic demographics as them), engage in group "process," make "decisions," veto (or attempt to do so) others from taking initiative outside of the groupthink that too often happens in activist projects, declare "party lines," enforce them, and claim that one is part of a "movement" even when there is no evidence that one really is. This dominant tendency in "activism" becomes a circular, self-reinforcing, self-marginalizing, chest-thumping, bureaucratic and anally-retentive activity and a big waste of time with little impact on the issues or policies it seeks to change or defend."

"In contrast, Organising is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, "put a stop sign in the neighborhood," or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States). Here's a simple yardstick by which to measure: If it doesn't involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it's not organizing. If it doesn't involve face-to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it's not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that's not organizing either."

"As for when Organizing for America's priorities differ from mine or other organizers, it's pretty obvious what we'll do: We'll organize independently. Here's an example: One of Obama's campaign positions was not to rule out nuclear power...I don't worry myself about it. Why? Because I know from experience how to organize to stop a nuke from being built or fired up. I even know how to organize to shut an existing one down. These are things I've done in this life: by organizing, going door to door, reaching out and calling people who are apolitical or apathetic and even those that start out disagreeing to win them over, and then by organizing an authentic movement (one that we organized in an era before there was an Internet) at the grassroots, local, level. We did it under the presidencies of Carter and Reagan, and if need be we'll do it under Obama. It doesn't matter if the federal government is with us or not. It doesn't matter if Obama is with us or not: the people will be with us against nukes in their backyards, and we'll win again. So why would I scream hysterically over a piece of legislation when I and others like me are holding the real veto pen in our own pockets?"

If there is a Tory government after the next election, then all of us who are Labour activists will need to get organising from day one, starting with short term, small goals to win local improvements and resist harmful government policies and building up to winning the following election. For some of us, that will involve doing more of what we're doing at the moment, for some others it will be about relearning old skills, and for others still it will mean learning something completely new. All are welcome, and although it will be daunting and difficult, it will end up being well worth the effort.

What is troubling is that there seem to be a lot of the Great and the Good in the Labour Party who seem to want to respond to possible election defeat as activists, rather than organisers. I've discussed before the activist strategy which Neal Lawson and John Harris from centre-left group Compass are calling for.

Now from the other wing of the Labour party, there is this terrible rubbish from Luke Akehurst, which actually argues that the top priority after the election will be for activists to focus on fighting the good fight against lefties in the Labour Party to ensure that the correct GC delegates get elected and that right-thinking people control the internal committees or whatever.

Playing at re-enacting internal struggles in the Labour Party during the 1980s may well be a niche hobby that some enjoy. But it would be hard to imagine a better example of a "circular, self-reinforcing, self-marginalizing, chest-thumping, bureaucratic and anally-retentive activity and a big waste of time with little impact on the issues or policies it seeks to change or defend."

Rather than spending time on making sure that such and such a motion is defeated by six votes to five at a branch meeting, skip the meeting and spend the time working together with local people who aren't yet members of the Labour Party.


At 8:59 am , Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

But if you lose all the votes because you don't turn up, the party will end up with candidates and a manifesto (council and national) that are so unappealing that the "local people who aren't yet members of the Labour Party" won't want to touch us with a bargepole.

You have to do both - keep the structures sane (in the broadest sense) and work hard in the wider community.

You can't have two Labour parties running in parralel - a bonkers one controlling the formal structures while the good people go off and do worthy deeds, because sooner or later the people you have ceeded control of the party structures to will start removing you from the panel of council candidates etc just like they did in the early '80s.

At 5:46 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Don you have given a perfect illustration of why we need to keep our ice picks sharp and handy.

The quasi revelutionaries came within inches of destroying the Labour party in the past, and I fore one have no intention of allowing them back on board, let alone anywhere near the bridge or engine room.



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