Occupy: learning from Climate Camp? Part 2

We’ve had a lively 3 way conversation about what the Occupy movement can learn from the experience of movements such as Climate Camp. We (Dwight Towers, Seta and myself) ranged quite widely – leadership, accountability, meetings that work even for those with little time and so on. One area we didn’t cover was vision and values.

I’ve heard many conversations about how Climate Camp lost its way. It started as a direct action focused, radical, one-off event to kick-start climate activism in the UK. There are those that would argue that by its second year (one-off, remember) it was already losing focus on action, especially affinity group direct action, and instead becoming more about education with a set piece mass action of dubious value. And yet, talk to some of the people who came into the movement via Climate Camp and they’ll often rave with enthusiasm about the very same event being written off by the original visionaries as having lost its way.

Wherever you sit on the issue, what happened and why? How can Occupy guard against the same thing happening? Indeed, should it?

Does a clarity of vision, especially radical vision, alienate others or inspire them? Can we bring new folk into a movement that’s taking a stance that the mainstream would see as hard-line, even extremist? As always I have my own views on all this, but I’m more interested in yours….


Rage, rage against the dying of the light…

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Groups die. Networks die. Movements die. It’s meant to happen. It’s part of a natural cycle and we should embrace it rather than rage against it. Why? Because like most cycles it has its own rebirth built in to the process, so it’s not really death after all, just change. That’s not to say that change cannot feel as difficult, even as traumatic, as a death.

Why these rather sombre thoughts? I started this post soon after Climate Camp’s decision not to hold the annual mass gathering in 2011 and it’s sat in our drafts folder for months. I had a couple of conversations over Friday and Saturday that turned my mind back to the topic of the life cycle of campaigns and campaigning movements.

There are many people out there who spend a lot of their time and effort trying to prevent groups from dying. Some of them are formal “capacity builders” employed or volunteering for an NGO. Others are just group members trying to keep their campaign going. They support groups to recruit and retain members, to try new processes that make the group more open and give it more chance of a long life. It’s a large part of our work here at Rhizome, too. That’s because groups are fragile even if they don’t always appear to be, and they can fall prey to a whole host of diseases that cause untimely death: lack of clear and shared leadership, poor process that excludes potential members, lack of resources, burnout of core people, and much more. But given the right conditions they can thrive, grow and set their own seed.

Sometimes our capacity builders (formal and informal) are left waiting for a group to die. To say that they will the group to do so would be unkind, but every network has groups that are not moving with the times, are stagnating, and are an obstacle to new energy emerging in that town, city or region. What do you do?

It’s a bit like the mature tree that blocks light to the forest floor preventing saplings getting enough light to thrive. Sometimes good forest management requires us to fell the old and diseased trees to let new ones grow in their place. The old tree has done its work. Year after year of leaf-fall has created a rich humus on the forest floor. Its roots have broken up the hard soil. New groups can grow in its place feeding off the composting wood. Nothing about the old-timer is wasted. Without the old tree the soil wouldn’t have been enriched to the point at which a new tree could establish quickly and healthily. But do we wait or do we wield the axe?

Before wielding an axe, I’d encourage capacity builders to check their assumptions and ensure that perception and reality are the same. I’ve seen too many organisations making assumptions about the vigour of a group based on factors such as the age of the participants. I’ve seen too many solvable group dynamics issues presented as wider social “problems” – ‘young activists don’t want to work alongside older activists’, ‘people give up activism after university and only come back to it later in life when their kids are older’. When you dig down it’s often more a case of the way we hold meetings fails to attract and retain people. Especially as within the same network or movement there are usually plenty of groups that contradict the assumptions. What’s needed is sometimes just minor tree-surgery and not wholesale tree felling. However sometimes groups aren’t able to be receptive to the changes that would solve their problems….

There’s a similar pattern to the growth of activist movements and NGOs. Movements start small, young, vigorous, supple, eager for growth. Just breaking through the soil with a first action, first media story, first substantial donation can seem almost unbelievable. But those that survive the early stages often start to lignify, to become established like a tree or woody shrub. And from here on in there is tension. For some this is the aim – to have more heft, more gravitas, more pull in the world. Bigger is better if you want to stand head and shoulders above the top of the forest canopy. Others find this establishment an affront to their vision for youthful vigorous action. The dizzy heights of the canopy are too far from the forest floor where the real action happens.

And this struggle is not always pleasant. There can be bad feeling on both sides. I think the bigger picture is that the two are intimately entwined. Some plants need to develop to a certain stage before they can produce viable seed. Some plants send out runners which soon establish themselves and the connecting rhizome or stolon rots away leaving them independent, though genetically linked. Others grow from the crown out – each year another layer of young growth is added to the outside of the plant whilst the centre of the crown slowly loses its vigour.

Of course there are other plant life cycles that are relevant here such as those of many annual plants that live short and often colourful lives ending with the self-sowing of thousands of seed. Each has its own delivery mechanism for the seed – pods that burst and scatter the seed, seed designed to be picked up in the wind and so on. No-one can dictate where the seed lands. And maybe that’s important. Though often of course we try to control the cycle – extend the naturally short but spectacular life, control precisely where the seed is sown and so on. Perhaps we shouldn’t?

So what, if anything, can we learn?

  • That one of the roles of a movement is to spark new movements.
  • That the tension is natural, even desirable – it’s part of the life cycle.
  • That sometimes we need to let light down to the forest floor or ignite a forest fire to create the conditions for new seeds to germinate.
  • That however much we admire the majestic forest canopy nothing lasts for ever, nor should it.
  • That there’s a debt of gratitude owed to a dead or dying group or movement – it’s enriched the soil for new growth.
  • That we shouldn’t rely on Dylan Thomas for movement-building advice.
  • That it’s OK to burst onto the scene spectacularly and fade away equally as quickly as long as we have a mechanism for sowing some seeds in that time, preferably far and wide. Longevity isn’t everything.
  • That maybe we try to control the growth and spread of movements too much instead of focusing on preparing the soil so that wherever a seed lands its chances of germination are improved.
  • That you can stretch a metaphor just a little too far.

Occupy: Learning from Climate Camp?

Until recently in the UK Climate Camp could, with some justification, have been called the most dynamic force in activism. Now that baton has passed to the anti-cuts movement, and specifically the Occupy movement.

There are lots of similarities between Climate Camp and Occupy.

  • Both have strong anti-capitalist leanings (it’s not true to say that to a (wo)man they’re all anti-capitalist)
  • Both have their primary tactic in the title
  • That tactic usually involves taking and holding a symbolic location and creating an autonomous and sustainable zone, however temporary
  • Those autonomous zones are one element of practicing alternative social structures. Other aspects often include using consensus decision-making and non-hierarchical organising, or at least attempting to
  • Both use direct action
  • They believe themselves to be useful entry points for newcomers to their particular form of activism
  • Their core support is the mainstream of activist culture in the UK – white, middle class and educated, although both might consider themselves at the radical end of that culture
  • They’re proactive with the media and have caught the attention of the mass media

Given the similarities it seems appropriate to have a conversation about lessons that Occupy groups could usefully learn from Climate Camp. Climate Camp had some undoubted successes, but slowly and inexorably self-destructed (or at least ground to a halt). So we’re going to have that conversation, and who better to have it with than you and Dwight Towers, a fierce critic of some of Climate Camp’s choices and culture, and an equally fierce proponent of effective movement building.

So lets start nice and broad and see where it gets us…. We’ll use the comments function to keep the conversation going over the next week or so, so bookmark the page, and more importantly join in. Over to you and Dwight.

QUESTION: What are the most important lessons that Occupy Groups can draw from the Climate Camp (here in the UK, or the many international Camps) or indeed similar movements?

March them up to the top of the hill and then march them down again?

In a few days time there will be a march in London. The TUC have called a March for the Alternative for Saturday 26th. I’m hearing excitement from various quarters and even seen an email speculating it’ll be as big as the million strong 2003 march against the Iraq war. Simultaneously there’s a call to turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square through a 24 hour protest on the same day.

Earlier this week I read Mark Rudd‘s post How to Build a Movement in which he also draws on the millions-strong 2003 marches to stop the war. I was struck by his distinction between activism and organising:

The current anti-war movement’s weakness, however, is very much alive in young people’s experience.  They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect.  ”We demonstrated and they didn’t listen to us.”  Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a massive shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today.  The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement’s long-term weakness.

I first got an insight into articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow (Nation Books, 2005).  Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement that first radicalized him, “Dear Punk Rock Activism,” criticizes the conflation of the terms “activism” and “organizing.”  He writes, “activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change.  Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations.  Organizing is a process—creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.”  In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”

Aha!  Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.

Marching can be joyful, full of solidarity, fun, exciting and empowering. But is it powerful? And by that I mean will it make the change advertised on the poster? I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but if we just march time and again we fail*.

There has to be more to it. Even if, as seems likely, the government aren’t listening to us over the cuts, we can still make change if the marches are acts of movement-building and not just self-expression if they’re a springboard to local and national action (and not just more marches but a diverse range of tactics with well thought out strategic impact), to the formation of well-functioning action groups and networks, to newcomers being welcomed into an accessible and growing movement. So if you’re going along on 26th don’t just march, build a movement. Make connections, plan for action, and seek out and welcome newcomers.

Thanks to Dwight Towers for the nudge to Mark Rudd’s post and to other posts on movement building by Cynthia Peters and Michael Albert both of which deserve a post of their own, and who knows, may get one.

*I’m talking UK context here. There are marches, for example Burmese monks marching in the face of a brutal military junta, and all of the recent uprisings in the Middle East that are an altogether different thing. They are powerful acts of civil disobedience and revolution in the face of significant repression. Our marches need to be a tool to peer-educate and empower people to powerful acts of civil disobedience and not an end in themselves.

Words to inspire

I’m going to send you over to Dwight Towers blog (again!) – not for his usual righteous anger about the lack of participation in activist meetings, events and movements, but for some bona fide participation-building inspiration. In his post Gay marriage rally and movement building he gives us the speech he would have made had he had the opportunity.

If you’ve ever wanted to stand up and give a powerful appeal for people to stop passively listening to speeches, and get out there, work together for change, and build a participatory movement then this could be the text you’re looking for. Dwight had just returned from a gay marriage rally, but the issue could be anything. Cut and paste as appropriate. Here’s a flavour:

We can give each other heart, we can learn and teach from others’ mis-steps and our own. There is someone within five metres of you who has something to teach you. There is someone within five metres of you who has something to learn from you. That’s the power of this moment in our movement.