The following is a semi-faithful transcript of an address I gave in Leeds last weekend. I was invited to speak for ten minutes on how we “widen the movement for social and environmental justice, and work to shift popular opinion towards progressive alternatives and away from hate and fear” on the opening panel of Educate, Agitate, Organise! Some people liked what I said and asked me if it was written anywhere. It wasn’t, so here it is, mostly from memory and scribbles on paper. It may be in a different order and include bits I intended to say but didn’t have the time to flesh out and others I forgot to include. I’ll be editing it as I remember bits over the next few weeks. I hope it’s useful.
Thanks so much for inviting me to speak. All my notes are on scraps of paper I’ve written on the train up. Ive accepted after all the years of doing this that I just think in long hand so Ive given up on trying to type all this stuff up, so excuse me if I momentarily get lost in my bits of paper.
It’s been a huge privilege to work at War on Want over the last almost eleven years. We have great campaigns and programme partners and do inspirational work. But I don’t want to talk about that. If you want to talk to me about the work we do, come find me at the stall, I’ll be here all day, or come to the workshop we’re co-running. What I want to talk about is the atmosphere, what I’d like to call this neoliberal soup we find ourselves swimming in today.
First though Id like to point out an assumption in the question posed to this panel. There is an assumption that growing the movement leads to leverage. The assumption that if we just get more people over to our side, believing the stuff we believe, doing the stuff that we do we will achieve the change we want. It’s an assumption which many of us, including myself operate under. It’s a question, though. Over two million people marched against the war on Iraq in 2003 and didn’t stop the war. So there is a question there about how we relate to power and to achieve what ends, and a question about what our theory of change is.
Right, anyone who knows me from campaigning and organising inside or outside War on Want knows I’m a ‘form over content’ person. I think our content is great. We have the truth, justice, equality, facts and all these great things on your side. But just because you have these things or “good politics” doesn’t mean people will join you. I believe it’s the form in which we present our work and politics which make people come to you, join you and stay with you. and it’s in this spirit that I’d like to address the question posed to us today about building the movement and shifting popular opinion.
We need to appreciate the logic of neoliberal capital which pervades our very existence in England in 2017. It’s central to the way we relate to each other and the world, and it is only through seeing the soup for what it is, that we will be able to struggle through it and get onto the island. It is not just the economic which is central to how capitalism functions, but the mechanism which makes it almost impossible to imagine a world outside itself and its own logic.
So Id like to offer ten points from my experience of working at War on Want, in the global justice movement, before and after the financial crash, but also from my experience of just being a human being living in London over the last 15 years. So I’d like to offer you Nadia’s Ten Point Plan, so here we go:
1. Slow down and take stock
The number one thing I’ve seen activists do in reaction to austerity measures, the erosion of rights and increased oppression and brutality is arrrrrrrrrrrrgh arrrrrrgh arrrgghhhh! More more more! We need to do more! And this sort of hyperventilating, hyperactive reaction to late-capitalism’s ills. Don’t mimic the system’s rhythm of instantaneous reactions and snap decisions. Get off the treadmill. If we let ourselves be in this state of panic, we wont be able to cope, people are already burning out and retreating into themselves, internalising and feeding off individualised distractions as a coping mechanism.
And we need to talk about mental health. And the privatisation of mental health where we are told that the symptoms we feel of depression, stress and that although we know that We Are All Very Anxious, this is our individual problem alone and that the solution is to take certain medication or go to a councillor to solve our individual problems. So even though we all know that many people are suffering from similar symptoms, and there is in fact a crisis of mental health, the hegemonic discourse does not engage with the problem beyond viewing it as a series of individuals’ problems.
The truth is of course structural and the perpetuation of anxiety is part and parcel of the system and how it operates. If you are in a precarious job and housing situation like many people are, you will have less mental space for political action, and will often be way too exhausted and stressed out to go to that campaign meeting on how to save this or that or fight yet another fire.
And here I have to pause and do something I never do. In the fifteen years of doing this sort of thing I have never said ‘read this book’ because I generally don’t think it’s useful for people to inform themselves about the detail of exactly how everything is being destroyed or taken away; I think that has a numbing and demoralising effect actually. But today I’m going to recommend you read Capitalist Realism this great 80 page book by Mark Fisher. Mark tragically took his own life a few months ago, and Red Pepper magazine invited me to write a short obituary, which in the end I didn’t finish because I felt there were many others who knew Mark much better than I did who were writing at the time. However, my unpublished piece was titled He Gave Me Words, and this book and in fact all of Mark’s work gave me words, through which to understand this atmosphere we’re living under and how it functions to control us.
So other than anxiety and mental health, the other thing I want to talk about in terms of taking stock is the silencing and policing of our minds which is going on, not just through overtly coercive tactics but by micro-aggressions and subliminal training of us into compliance, to keep us in line. Control of this sort only really works if we are complicit in it. Take for example these wristbands we are wearing. Since when do we have to wear wristbands to participate in a university event? I really want to tear it off. But I wont of course. Because I find myself not wanting to get the organisers of this event in trouble, who I really like, have worked really hard to put this event on and want to maintain a relationship with. So myself, and the organisers, and all of you are colluding in this mechanism of normalising tagging and the wearing of wristbands, to mark us some how as official, or alternatively as if we are all collectively going to prison or something.
Also for the first time ever in years of being asked to speak on panels, I was sent a form by the student union asking me to sign a declaration that I wouldn’t say this or that or incite hatred or be discriminatory against ‘any groups’. I mean does that include the government or multinational corporations or the mega-rich? Are they groups? And what this does is set the tone, that yes this is a radical event, but actually there are strict perimeters of how you can behave and what you can say. And why is a student union at a university in a position where they have to send out these forms to speakers? We need to call this stuff out, and opt out of these mechanisms. All of us. Together.
So what I mean by all of this is it’s important to take a minute and slow down together, and have an awareness of how we are operating in the world and how everyday mechanisms may be stifling our ability to take action and be conscious actors and resistors in this struggle.
And that was all number one! Ok ill have to rush through the other nine…
2. Don’t entertain the lies
I mean this literally. The lies need entertainment to stay alive. Step away, dont pander to them by internalising them. Disengage your mind.
a. Capitalism is not only the most wasteful, but also inefficient and bureaucratic system that ever existed. Dont let anyone tell you otherwise. Challenge people who state capitalism’s efficiency as a statement of fact imply it as common knowledge. We all know that things aren’t working for us in the everyday. For example why do all have individual home internet contracts? Why can’t a whole building of flats all have one internet connection like this university does? We all know the pain and frustration of speaking to call centres to rectify a problem with a utility bill, which isn’t even your fault in the first place, and how everyone’s time and money is wasted, even though you’re paying for this service, no wonder people get so stressed out they cant attend political meetings!
b. The choice rhetoric. Choice is not freedom. I don’t want the choice of ten hospitals I can go to but need to travel miles on expensive public transport to arrive at a hospital full of overstretched, underpaid staff being choked by the cuts. I want one properly funded local hospital where everything works. Too much to ask in one of the richest countries in the world? I think not.
c. Mental health is your problem individually. We’ve just talked about this. It’s not.
d. Austerity is ideology. In fact it’s actual fundementalism. The cuts are a deliberate choice to extract profit and transfer power and resources from poor to rich.
e. You cannot buy justice.
3. Know your own history – your history has power
We stand on the shoulders of giants. Learn your history, while rejecting the nostalgia. The minimum wage, votes for women, ending Apartheid in South Africa, all these things happened because a small group of people started something. Learn from what people did before, and take courage and inspiration from them. Some amazing battles were won.Know where you are in history. We lie in a long lineage of people who have fought for justice. Be knowledgable. Be proud.
4. The people responsible have names and addresses
This phase of neoliberal capitalism makes it feel like no one is responsible. Things always seem to be someone elses problem, some one else’s decision. And when people can’t put a face to their oppression and decrease in living standards they turn on people who do have faces; people in their communities and their neighbours, because some one somewhere must be responsible for making my life worse, and turning on the person next to you at least makes you feel like you have some sort of control. But we have to make visible those in power who make the decisions that make the poor poorer and the rich richer and tear our cities and communities apart.
5. Dont let inclusively mean anti-intellectual
Dont dumb down your politics or patronise people. Dont let the quest for inclusively mean that everything needs to be over simplified. Also refuse to be treated as a child by advertising telling you how to behave in public places or in your own home.
6. It’s ok to lead
It’s ok to be a leader, an inspiration, an organiser. Not everyone wants to can do that thing. If it’s you, then just do it. Dont worry about it too much.
7. Look up and look out
From your phone, from the floor, from the screen, out of the window and importantly out of yourself. There lies the power and inspiration.
8. Visions vs Alternatives Vs Firefighting
I’m keen on removing barriers to justice and having a vision rather than firefighting all the time or feeling the pressure that we have to have some coherent alternative. I don’t buy that argument. It’s difficult to build alternatives within our lived reality. Let’s remove the barriers to justice, then we’ll talk. The onus isn’t on us to prove we can build a better world. I’m not playing that game. Capitalism isnt my elder, I need to prove myself to. If anything it’s the other way round.
9. Make the Left a nice place to hang out
We have the joy. We have the joy and the love and the camaraderie on our side. We know that it is good, honest relationships which make people fulfilled and happy. Throw the best parties and bake the best cakes. Replace vacuous hedonism with meaningful hedonism full of strong bonds and good times. Take as much space as you can. And when you come up against obstacles in trying to throw the best party, make it visible how and why you weren’t allowed to.
10. Collectivise everything
Childcare, admin, gardening, cooking, fixing, thinking, writing, mental health, and refuse, refuse; to be inside yourself.
As the wonderful Angela Davis said, either no one is an activist or no one is – let’s make sure that we too are not using activist as a category to separate us from others, and let’s start from the belief that we, as a collective, all together, have power.
Ill stop there, thanks very much for your time.
Disclaimer – the views expressed in this piece are the culmination of every single conversation I’ve had, book ive read, laugh of my grandmother, paving stone I’ve skipped over, cloud I’ve seen, song I’ve sang, dream I’ve dreamt and blue-tit I’ve watched eat peanuts from the bird feeder.
The notion that these thoughts and ideas are ‘solely my own’ is totally ridiculous and I dont possess the arrogance or ideological blindness to make such an outrageous statement.