Digging into the organisers a little bit, I found that they were a collection of decidedly left of centre activists, ranging from the Marxist wing of the Labour party, to the Respect party, to one guy there who just thinks "no matter who you vote for, the government always wins" and therefore seems to eschew politics altogether. They were, in short, not from the "sensible centre" of British politics. Which is fine by me. Personally, I respect anyone who gives their time and effort to making the world closer to their vision of a good place to live. In America especially, the lunatic right has a strong voice whereas anyone further left than John Edwards practically doesn't exist in the public debate (Dennis Kucinich and Michael Moore being the exceptions that prove the rule). So I've got no problem with someone whose views are further left than mine working for their causes - to the contrary, I think a more balanced public debate, with the extremes on both side getting a reasonably hearing, will recalibrate the political discussion in a helpful way - the choice between far right, right, center right and center left isn't exactly a balanced range of options, is it?
But what I often DO get frustrated by in leftist activists is a certain self-absorbed self riteousness that seems to congratule itself on it's purity of thought rather than doing the hard work of actually persuading others to that point of view.
So in speaking at this event, there were a few things I wanted to achieve. I was certainly curious to meet the people - and there were some interesting folks there, for sure. Also a couple of jerks (I will not be blogging about the Masked Man from Anonymous, though he was indeed a jerk, because 1) I think he wants the attention and 2) apart from being online bullies I don't think they count as actual activists). But mainly I met well meaning folks, including some interesting bloggers.
I did want to respond to one speaker, though, who summed up his presentation with a small dig at the Obama campaign, arguing that they were "not an activist-led" campaign, and essentially that we shouldn't emulate their model because we should be striving for "more activist-led campaigns". Being a bit slow on the uptake, I sat there going, "huh?" and missed my chance to respond to this. Mainly because I couldn't initially work out what on earth he was arguing.
Obama himself definitely came from the activist tradition - local community organising is the purest form of direct activism I know. Barack first came to public attention by speaking at an anti-war rally, for heavens sake! Surely this is the sterotypical vision of an activist, yes?
And the other campaign leaders, David Plouffe, David Axelrod et. al. were far from insidery types - Axelrod actually got his start as a campaigning journalist in Chicaco, and Plouffe developed a campaign plan that was based to an unprecedented degree on building local grassroots organisation and keeping our core supporters fired up and active.
And certainly on grassroots level, it was activist led by definition, right? All these hundreds of thousands of Americans, young and old who gave up their evenings and weekends or even in some cases their jobs to work for no pay in support of a common goal - thousands of people who had never been active before. Thousands more for whom the Democratic party in the past had been too far right, or left, but who believed under Barack it could be just right. Millions of people who gave money, small and large, even in tough economic times, because they believed it was an investment in their future. These people aren't activists?
Only after the conference did I have my big, "well duh" moment and realise: No. To him, these people are not activists. He, and I'm sorry to say a lot of other people in the room, seem to give credit for genuine community spirit only to people who already think and act exactly like them. Mainstream political organising isn't activism. The community organising that Barack did in Chicago wasn't activism. All those previously non-political people who got inspired by Barack and spent months of their lives traipsing through rain and snow for him - that didn't make them activists.
I think it's the worst kind of snobbery. And, worse, I think it guarantees failure.
By definition, if you're a left of center activist, the majority does not already agree with you. Spending all your days talking only to the people exactly like you and looking down your nose at everyone else as philosophically impure isn't going to achieve a damn thing. So if you really care about what you claim to believe in, you're going to have to haul yourself out of your comfy little world and start formulating arguments.
The analogy that I oh-so-gently made in my presentation was to the underpants gnomes.
You know about he underpants gnomes, right?
No? Well, in short - they steal people's underwear in a scheme to get rich.
Their business plan is as follows:
Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit!
Activists, I would urge, should work on their phase 2 planning. Lots of protests have a business plan somewhat similar to this. For example, let's say you are trying to end the war. You decide to hold a protest. Does your action plan resemble this?
Phase 1: Gather lots of people for a protest.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Peace!
If you don't have a phase 2, you're just playing self gratifying games. And that's not an activist led campaign.