Thoughts on Activism in Australia

So a young activist friend recently asked in despair what the left should be doing right now. This has been part of a longer conversation I’ve had with her about my time in left political movements in Australia from the 1990s onwards as well as discussions about the current state of the left-wing activism in Australia. Marisa Wikramanayake posted up a response here, which I think offers a great list of practical things you can do (but also very focused on individual action). 

I promised this activist friend a while ago (as well as a few other friends) I would write more of my thoughts and experiences on leftwing politics in Australia, so this seems like an opportune time. I have an aversion to lists which present a strict series of orders or dos and don'ts, but I also understand why these are popular. Maybe it's because our memeified culture tends to reproduce these lists at an alarming rate and it feeds directly into a culture of individualistic entrepreneurialism.

Tony Abbott Hopeless poster, Melbourne, 2015.

Tony Abbott Hopeless poster, Melbourne, 2015.

But it's also because, for me, political empowerment doesn’t come from being told to write a letter or sign a petition, it comes through cultivating political awareness, consciousness raising and skill sharing through political action. Signing a petition or writing a letter aren't political unless you know what you are writing, what the document stands for, and you are doing it in order to contribute to some kind of change - no matter how small or impossible that change may seem. Furthermore, political movements have to be responsive to their particular historical conjuncture.

That's all to say I’m afraid I don’t have a ‘5 easy steps to political liberation’ program. I don't think of myself as a particularly good activist role model in any case. What I have instead are some observations gathered over 15 years of on-and-off political activism, of some successful and many unsuccessful campaigns. If I were to pin down the difference between successful campaigns and unsuccessful ones in my experience, I see three main differences: emotionally mature leadership, strategic mobilisation and political intervention.

Emotional Leadership: If a campaign is to be successful the organisers will need to build a broad movement and this means creating the relations and the space that can sustain such movements. Such a space requires mature, emotional leadership.
  • The current discussions I see online and in political activists circles are full of grandstanding, self-righteousness, and displaced moralism that are just as likely to perpetuate lateral violence as to call anyone in real power out. Movements need leaders who take the emotional work of activism seriously (and by leaders I don’t mean charismatic, patriarchal leaders leading from the front, but anyone taking on the responsibility who can just as easily lead from the side or even from behind).

  • Emotional leadership is more than just telling people to take time out or indulge themselves in self care ready to come back to the same burnt out space of demoralisation. It means diffusing tensions, refocusing the collective, bringing people together in hope and mutual respect. Long-term campaigns/movements are able to create these spaces of hope and senses of belonging. By contrast groups marred by in-fighting don't tend to last. So take time out for self care, sure, but also do the work of preparing yourself emotionally for solidarity. This applies particularly for men to ensure they are not emotionally burdensome on fellow women activist to play mother.

  • It also means being aware of those that emotionally ‘drain’ activist spaces and taking steps to deal with them or, if need be, ask them to leave and come back when they are more ready to work collectively. It means cultivating emotional awareness in junior activists to prepare them for the work ahead. It means preparing spaces that are resilient enough to have difficult debates and even long-standing disagreements that do not jeopardise the movement, while recognising that this necessary discomfort is different from emotionally draining individuals.

  • Campaigns and movements will also need to consider different activist spaces and its effects on organising. Online discussions at the moment are a ‘ranty’, rambling mess of incohesive opinions, which are easily derailed by a single troll. At a collective face-to-face meeting, there are a number of different ways of dealing with derailing behavior that are not possible or less useful in online spaces. We need better tools for managing online discussion and debate and we also need to commit to continuing those discussions in person. Many 'fights' are resolved quickly face-to-face, which might have boiled over for days online.

Strategic Mobilisation: Prioritise campaigns, not actions. If I compare the campaigns I was involved in that were successful versus campaigns that were unsuccessful, one of the differences is the existence of strategy.
  • Don't just jump into action every time someone calls for an action or asks you to sign a petition and try not to pass these on or create them as well. Constantly getting people involved in useless actions creates an expectation that things will change and when they don't (because there is no campaign), this can lead to demoralisation. Constinuously demoralised activists eventually leads to demobilisation.

  • Question what is the campaign? what are its long term and short term goals? what is the overall strategy? who is being targeted? with what demands? and will it be effective? Without these kinds of questions and discussions, political movements simply leap from rally to rally, slowly leaving activists burnt out and overly cynical.

  • When there is no strategy it also easy to distract the movement, since members are not clear on their goals. A clever opposing strategist can make them leap from media event to media event fighting shadows and symbolic wars while allowing prevailing structures free reign. Lack of strategy also enables the cooptation of our movements by celebrities and others better at manipulating media events than your average punter.

Political Intervention: Finally, devise strategies that actually work in the systems of power you live within. In order to effect politics there has to be some power that you can leverage. The movement must be attentive to the political processes, institutions, and formations in order to effectively intervene.
  • When I look at succesful campaigns it was because we leveraged a lot of different kinds of power. Sure we organised people power and held rallies, but this was supported by clear messaging in successful long-term media strategies, lawyers using cases to push on the legal front and politicians pushing on the legislative front. We also built broader alliances across multiple movements for support. However, if the campaign/movement attacks all journalists, academics, intellectuals, lawyers, politicians, etc. as 'elites' and 'sell outs' then you can't be surprised when your strategy fails to intervene in the prevailing, dominant political structures and institutions.

  • This also means being attentive to the different kinds of values and roles that your members can play with the skills, talents and networks they have. Know your collective and ask for their help in appropriate things. This not only builds confidence and allows people to feel helpful and useful, it generates far more interesting and successful movements because a more diverse body of people can see themselves reflected in the movement. A movement needs all types and talents and leaders that understand and appreciate the variety of skills available and how they work in and through and leverage various kinds of power.

  • Having said that, there are many instances where you cannot rely on certain kinds of power or where it will actively be opposed to your campaign. If this is the case, must also find ways to deal with opposing forces in the context of your campaign and take account of them in your overall strategy. This is part of being attentive to the political systems you live within.

  • Finally, being attentive to the political systems and processes also means paying attention to the fact that Australia is not America or the UK and that we have our own political institutions, processes, formations, protocols, history, culture, etc. that we need to engage. Simply copying American or British movements in Australia does not necessarily work unless you’ve done work to understand the local political, social and economic contexts. I’ve seen many ‘activists’ insist on running American-style campaigns in Australia and when it inevitably fails, the first thing they do is attack fellow activists and Australians or Australia more generally. This is perhaps one of the more recent but highly pernicious forms of demoralisation I’ve noticed recently, particularly in anti-racist activism.

As I said, I don't really like lists. These are more notes of things I've learnt over the years. Hopefully, these lessons are useful for others too.