Challenge The Narrative

November 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Challenge the dominant narrative – that’s what we’ve learned from smartMeme. Up until now, the coalition government has managed to lay the blame of our economic woes at the door of public spending – even though the recession was caused by the behaviour of the big banks, or more accurately – the structure of our financial system. This slight of hand has allowed for the vicious cuts in public service provision which Cabinet Ministers themselves admit are driven by ideology more than economic sense.

That’s why False Economy is such a strong campaign. Have a look at the video –

It firmly juxtaposes the detrimental impacts of the cuts with the reason why we’re in such a mess – a global deregulated banking system that was too big to fail.

Two Voices To Make You Think

November 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Democracy Now! is where I find out about news that the mainstream media doesn’t consider important enough to share. They focus on peace, our environment, social movements – everything I enjoy with my early-morning cup of tea.

They must have known yesterday was my birthday, as they filled the hour with two interviews – one with the economist Manfred Max-Neef, and the other with author Derrick Jensen. I hadn’t heard of either before, but both spoke powerfully and are worth sharing.

Part 1 and 2 of Manfred’s interview:

My favourite section of the interview is Manfred Max-Neef laying out the principles of economics:

The principles, you know, of an economics which should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.

Two, development is about people and not about objects.

Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.

Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.

Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

And here are parts 1 and 2 of Derrick’s interview.

One of the problems that I see with the vast majority of so-called solutions to global warming is that they take industrial capitalism as a given and the planet which must conform to industrial capitalism, as opposed to the other way around. And that’s literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality, because without a real world, you don’t have any social system. You don’t have any social system at all. You don’t have life. You know, we’ve come to believe that our food comes from the grocery store and that our water comes from the tap, and that’s because it does. And that’s an extraordinary thing that the system has done, has been to interpose itself in between us and the real world, because if your experience is that your water comes from the tap and your food comes from the grocery store, you’re going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you, because your life depends on it. If, on the other hand, your water comes from a river and your food comes from a land base, you will defend to the death the river and the land base, because that’s what your life depends on. And so, that’s part of the difficulty, is this culture has inserted itself between, and it’s done that for us and then also happens all over the world.

Enrol At The University Of Strategic Optimism

November 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

This is brilliant.

Your readings this week include Milton Friedman, Rousseau and Mark Fisher – find out more here.

And remember, you will not need your fire extinguishers.

Student Protests

November 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

The student protests have filled the media again today. Here are some brief thoughts for those of us who are thinking about how these exciting developments fit into a larger strategy. Because strategy is fun.

The opportunities

– The student protests have successfully owned the moral high-ground – even amidst incidents of violence. The press is still widely following the ‘they are the future’ narrative, and today’s images of boys and girls in school uniform being kettled by aggressive-looking police in riot gear should push that further. That will change. The story of these protests is ready for the next chapter.

– The thousands of young people taking to the streets for the first time are being radicalised by new ideas they encounter, feeling a sense of power amongst their fellow protestors and media coverage, and witnessing cases of police brutality. These ‘beyond-the-usual-suspects’ youth can become one of the central constituencies of future actions on various different anti-cuts issues. Those protests will, of course, need to include their student identity and concerns.

The dangers

– Protesters come in three groups – radicals, idealists and realists. Opponents are already marginalising the radicals (focusing on the fire-extinguisher and the damage done to the police van left conveniently inside the area being kettled today – particularly the story of a handful of younger girls in school uniform holding hands around the van to stop further damage being done), and will then turn the idealists into realists. That leads to failure.

– In a wider anti-cuts perspective, the worry is that each issue-group will be taken down one-by-one. First the students, then the NHS, then forests and the environment etc. All of these issues need to be woven into a larger story.

What needs to happen next

The first step already happened today – localising the issue. Up and down the country we’ve seen sit-ins at universities, and classes walking out of school to demonstrate. To get organised, students will need manageable groups – and locality is the best way for that to happen.

– Experienced organisers need to get in the game and share their knowledge. The lack of coordination has certainly played well so far – telling a story of anger bubbling up all over the place, new faces protesting etc – but if this is to have political impact and go beyond November 2010, we need organisers doing their thing. This means some basic activist skills –  have a buddy when at a big march, know your rights if police get involved, how to organise a meeting, how does a movement work, strategy 101 etc.

– Other issue groups need to vocally support student protests. This is a great opportunity to build a wider anti-cuts narrative that can weave into financial reform etc later on. Particularly public service providers would do well to build alliances with young people.

– A clear theory of change needs to emerge. Is it focused on Nick Clegg and breaking apart the coalition government? Is it focused on Michael Gove and forcing him to split the Cabinet? Is it focused on George Osborne? Where do students have pressure – perhaps via a secondary target? Headteachers and University Vice-Chancellors?

Other thoughts?

EDIT: This video is classic – as one young man approaches to further damage the honey-trap police van, students in school uniform ask ‘why are you here if you don’t give a fuck?’

Ronnie Moipolai Plays Guitar Like Nobody Else

November 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

This is just amazing – I’m tempted to draw all sorts of metaphor about what the West can learn from the rest of the world by looking at things differently…

The Big Society

November 21, 2010 § 4 Comments

Whilst travelling through the US, people were surprised to learn that our Conservative Prime Minister’s big idea for Britain was the concept of the Big Society – surely a naturally progressive idea? Six months into Cameron’s Premiership, I thought I’d put some thoughts down on paper.

It’s been particularly interesting to see how the third sector has dealt with the idea. Some have embraced it with open arms, using it’s language, defining itself as naturally at home within the concept (and funding structures..). Others see it as a linguistic land-grab of their work to fit into a political agenda, and dryly point to the public sector spending cuts (and inevitable increase in private sector service provision) as the wolf underneath the sheep’s clothing.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify what the Big Society is. As Tory Minister Tim Loughton has commented,

“The trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it. What actually is the Big Society, let alone is it good or not? Exactly how big is it now or is it going to be? Is it in fact Ann Widdecombe?”

A good place to start is the Big Society Network website. Or watch it’s CEO Paul Twivy introduce it.

Paul is also the founder of The Big Lunch (which was viciously attacked in a meeting I was in recently by a leading public engagement practitioner and a former employee…). It seems to me he genuinely wants a better society. But listening to him, his vision sounds more like the 1950’s, with milkmen who had electric milk-floats and churches where the Vicar knew your name. Naturally, before The Big Lunch/Society he was in communications (ring any bells anyone?).

From what else I could find online, the team of 15 has precisely one woman on staff and fourteen men (remember – this is a community development network…), and they overwhelmingly come from management consultancy and conservative public policy think-tanks. No doubt in an effort to increase their diversity, they tried to recruit a leading queer, female environmental activist friend of mine. She said no.

So, with such a narrow view of Britain, it’s no wonder that their analysis of why a Big Society message is necessary is so hideously wrong. Take this lovely picture for starters.

Really? The reason why we have record levels of loneliness, of mental health problems, of fear of crime is because we have an over-reaching government? Our monotone-High Streets, our empty community centers, our lack of a British identity all come from a government that tries to do too much? As Shilpa Shah noted to me – surely a critique grounded in the deep and long-established causes for identity-attrition, consumerism and increasing atomisation, the privatisation and sanitisation of public space, family breakdown, rapid demographic changes within fragile communities, the criminalisation of youth, increasing income inequality, the Great Retreat Indoors and a barking steroid-enraged media stoking up fear of difference offer a more convincing understanding of how we’ve got to where we are today?

So even though some policy suggestions (a National Citizenship Service, the Big Society Bank) are things I can get behind, the Big Society doesn’t give us a compelling context of how they will make this country better.

Reading Margaret Wheatley’s Finding Our Way this afternoon pointed out perhaps the greatest flaw in the Big Society idea. If the government wants to put control of public services into the hands of communities, we obviously need communities. But do you feel like you live in one? I don’t. I just happen to live next to people, and work with others. My friends are spread all over the world. No wonder there are worries that the narrative of the Big Society is a slight of hand that’ll allow mass privatisation – just look at NHS reform.

Some other text-book issues;

  • calling itself ‘a movement’ when it’s set up by communications professionals
  • using partisan language – ‘roll back government’
  • astro-turfing – claiming they are an ‘organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens’
  • thinking that involvement (deciding how my child’s school should be run) is the same as control (actually running the school)

Perhaps this debate between Anna Coote of nef (who have a great series of ‘Questions for the Big Society‘) and Jonty Oliff-Cooper of the Big Society Network really gives you the best analysis. (Skip the BBC guy. Dull.)

As Anna says, ‘The Big Society story makes the public spending cuts possible, but the cuts make the best ideals of the Big Society impossible to realise’.

And yet, and yet…. Because of the enormity of the work that lies before us, we have to work with those we’d never usually work with. We have to trust those we have previously deemed untrustworthy and to keep our focus on the potential future, not the painful past.

This Beats The X-Factor Any Day!

November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Why Artists Matter

November 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

An academic writes a report, the scientist does a study, the activist protests.

And yet none of them can say it like the artist.

Every thread of creation is held in position
By still other strands of things living
In an earthly tapestry hung from the skyline
Of smoldering cities, so gray and so vulgar,
As not to be satisfied with their own negativity,
But needing to touch all the living as well.

And every breeze that blows kindly is one crystal breath
We exhale on the blue diamond heaven:
As gentle to touch as the hands of the healer,
As soft as farewells whispered over the coffin.
We’re poisoned by venom with each breath we take
From the brown sulfer chimney and the black highway snake.

And every dawn that breaks golden is held in suspension
Like the yolk of the egg in albumen.
Where the birth and the death of unseen generations
Are interdependant in vast orchestration,
And painted in colors of tapestry thread
When the dying are born and the living are dead.

And every pulse of your heartbeat is one liquid moment
That flows through the veins of your being.
Like a river of life flowing on since creation
Approaching the sea with each new generation,
You’re now just a stagnant and rancid disgrace
That is rapidly drowning the whole human race.

And every fish that swims silent, every bird that fly freely
Every doe that steps softly,
Every crisp leaf that falls, all the flowers that grow,
On this colorful tapestry, somehow they know
That if man is allowed to destroy all we need
He will soon have to pay with his life for his greed

Every thread of creation is held in position
by still other strands of things living.
In an earthly tapestry hung from the skyline
of smouldering cities so gray and so vulgar,
as not to be satisfied with their own negativity
but needing to touch all the living as well.

Every breeze that blows kindly is one crystal breath
we exhale on the blue diamond heaven.
As gentle to touch as the hands of the healer.
As soft as farewells whispered over the coffin.
We’re poisoned by venom with each breath we take,
from the brown sulphur chimney and the black highway snake.

Every dawn that breaks golden is held in suspension
like the yoke of the egg in albumen.
Where the birth and the death of unseen generations
are interdependent in vast orchestration
and painted in colors of tapestry thread.
When the dying are born and the living are dead.

Every pulse of your heartbeat is one liquid moment
that flows through the veins of your being.
Like a river of life flowing on since creation.
Approaching the sea with each new generation.
You’re now just a stagnant and rancid disgrace
that is rapidly drowning the whole human race.

Every fish that swims silent, every bird that flies freely,
every doe that steps softly.
Every crisp leaf that falls, all the flowers that grow
on this colourful tapestry, somehow they know.
That if man is allowed to destroy all they need.
He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed.

The Double Food Pyramid

November 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

We all know the old food pyramid – well, let me introduce you to the new, improved version! This not only explains the nutritional benefits, but also the environmental impact.

Smug vegetarian? Me?

America – Democracy

November 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Midterm Elections

This week America went to the polls, voting on House, Senate and Governor races around the country. As you know, the Democrats just held control of the Senate, but were trounced in the House and gubernatorial elections. The Tea Party won some big victories, but Sarah Palin’s ‘Mama Grizzlies‘ also failed in Delaware, Nevada and California – giving some hope of sanity.

One surprise for me was just how many things are on the ballot when US voters go to the polls. State-wide: Governors, Lieutenant Governors, Senators, then regionally: Representatives and judges, locally: school boards, Mayors, Deputy Mayors – and to top it all off, propositions: make cannabis legal? block any gay-marriage legislation? stop taxing oil companies? tax oil companies more? make Ronald McDonald President-elect?

It seems to me that voters don’t have a sophisticated choice on each of these options. I wouldn’t either! They like the name/party and they vote. Or more often than not (in fact, in every state except Vermont according to the polls), they are voting against something – and right now, that’s Obama. This piece in the LA Times by Marshall Ganz has the best analysis of the Obama Presidency so far in my books. The central point is that people voted for him because he promised transformational change – and ended up being only transactional.


But things can change. While I was in New York, I took part in a community consultation for PlaNYC – the city’s effort to turn New York into a sustainable urban space by 2030.

With 100 people from lower Manhattan in a school gym hall, we broke into issue groups – each on one table – ranging from Green Jobs, Water, Food, Brown Sites, Transport etc. The evening was led by a former Move.On organiser who was full of phrases like ‘Do I have everyone with me?’ and ‘Are we all agreed on the objectives for tonight?’. He set the right tone, and managed our expectations well – but then came the table facilitators… Each one a junior person from City Hall with titles like, ‘Assistant to the Chief of Staff for Personnel’ who had clearly never engaged with the public before. I joined the ‘Food’ table, with young urban farmers, a mum who had changed her kids’ school menu to include sustainable food, and the NYC Slow Food co-founders – these people knew what they were talking about. Our young West-Wing-Wannabee facilitator outright ignored the women on the table, created conflict with every answer and then left early – the ultimate ‘How Not To Facilitate’ experience..

I’d asked Marshall Ganz whether participative democracy was possible, and he said ‘It has to be – otherwise we might as well give up’. Indeed, organisations like Involve here in the UK have rich examples of how to do this type of work well – and I believe that as campaigners, we need to be much better at listening, and bringing people’s voices into the heart of our work. It seems Organizing For America has learned that painful lesson this week with the elections – and is launching Listening Tours around the country to try to salvage what they can from the ’08 campaign.

Rally For Sanity

In the run-up to voting day, the topic for many progressives while I was in the States was the Rally For Sanity, brought together by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and supported by the Huffington Post. Former Secretary of State under the Clinton Presidency, Robert Reich, who I was lucky to meet after his class at Berkeley, argued that it was an impressive rally, but failed to have political impact because it wasn’t ‘for something electable’. Others, including many former colleagues at saw it filling the void left by progressive organisations after Glenn Beck’s rally a couple of months ago. Either way it had some brilliant protest signs

BONUS: This piece from Cognitive Policy Works is full of phrases like, ‘Our enemy is not a party.  It is a system designed to manipulate public perceptions about what it means to be American.  And it is unraveling the tapestry of our culture and destroying our democracy.’ Worth the read!

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