Nervous conditions

February 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 book is awesome, I just finished reading it today. On the intersection between patriarchy and colonialism, and their similarities; if you buy into the system you might get certain opportunities to move ahead but at the same time will be subordinated and psychologically damaged in the process; if you resist it is quite likely you will be crushed. On the final page of the novel Dangarembga says it was about four women but does not name which characters she has in mind; I’m not 100% sure I know which women are included in her four and which are not, because it seems to me that five women are central to the novel’s plot. But one of those does not stand up against patriarchy and colonialism at all, so perhaps the book is about the four who do, and how they are positioned differently, which means their experiences are different to each other, while at the same time they face similar challenges because they are all African women facing a patriarchal-colonial system which pushes down on them.

Oh, and today marks 100 years since women got the vote in the UK.


Garden Buildings Direct Sales Rep lied to me about FSC Certification

April 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

So I’m buying a wooden garden shed, because I’ve reached that stage of life where one buys a wooden shed. I want it to be made from timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. I know FSC Certification is not perfect or a panacea for what humans are doing to forests (and their inhabitants) across the world. But I think it probably still makes sense to buy FSC Certified timber where possible.

I saw a shed I liked, for sale by Garden Buildings Direct, a brand name of Kybotech Ltd. On their website it doesn’t mention FSC Certification so I called them to ask. Their Sales Rep (based in the Philippines) told me they are FSC Certified. The FSC website disagrees:

Kybotech 1

I then tried to ask the same question in their online customer support chat, and got no answer:

Kybotech 2

Garden Buildings Direct/Kybotech Ltd. aren’t getting my money. I bought from instead.

(Apologies for the poor quality photos.)

Incidentally, there is an organisation called What Shed? that reviews companies that sell garden sheds. Niche market, right? Which would make you think that their reviews would comment on aspects that are specific to sheds, which are almost always made from wood. But reviews by What Shed? make no mention of FSC Certification at all. Here is their review for Garden Buildings Direct, which is very positive.

Coincidentally, today I also got a quote for repairing sash windows. I asked if the wood used was FSC Certified. The guy giving me the quote said “Now you’re getting all technical on me. What’s FSC?”

Finally, here are some thoughts on this story, shared by a friend on Facebook (where I posted a link to this blogpost):

i’m loving this: As one of the largest manufacturing company’s in this sector they [Garden Buildings Direct] are a specialist in selling high volumes of products at very competitive prices. As such please take this into account when dealing with them. By this we mean they are very focused on a lean operation so they have a company owned customer service center in the Philippians [???] and they offer many options to help you customise your building to the specification that is right for your budget. As such if you are expecting the level of customer service and product quality you would expect from Roles Royce all from a UK based call center then this company might not be right for you.

so basically, please stop having Rolls Royce level expectations from uneducated, third-world folk…. also according to the reviewers “On this page you should find everything you could ever possibly want to know about Garden Buildings Direct”
ergo, FSCs are not the sort of thing you need to know about before buying a shed.

I replied:

Or, alternatively, “On this page you should find everything you could ever possibly want to know about Garden Buildings Direct” means “We are assuming you want to be as happy as possible with the product you buy. We are also assuming that if you know that their FSC certification has been suspended, you will be less happy than if you don’t know this. Therefore, logically, this is not something you could possibly want to know about the manufacturer. So we won’t tell you.”

The moral of the story: don’t go round making assumptions.



Workshop: “Activism, anthropologically speaking: Sociocultural analyses of efforts to re-shape social worlds”, 16 Feb 2017, University Constant, Germany

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Up to now, most anthropological studies of activism have used concepts and categories originally developed by specialists of other disciplines, such as the figures of ‘social movements’ or ‘non-governmental organization’. With this workshop, we seek to discuss the potential conceptual contributions of anthropology to the study of activism to highlight our discipline’s particular focus. We therefore aim to develop an anthropological framework to better understand emerging efforts to actively re-shape the world. In order to do so, the workshop looks at activist discourses and practices in the ‘centres of calculation’ of activism as well as with a view to the differences and intersections between this notion and a variety of others such as ‘volunteering’, ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘social movements’. We understand ‘activism’ as being culturally informed, therefore requiring attention to contextuality, situatedness and (g)local sense-making for an anthropological analysis.

Reclaiming the University of Aberdeen

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

On movement activists and community organisers

November 17, 2016 § Leave a comment (Published 2014)

The principle of “no electoral politics” took hold in the Alinskyite tradition based on the idea that community organizations should be pragmatic, nonpartisan, and ideologically diverse — that they should put pressure on all politicians, not express loyalty to any. Historian Thomas Sugrue writes that Alinsky “never had much patience for elected officials: Change would not come from top-down leadership, but rather from pressure from below. In his view, politicians took the path of least resistance.” Alinsky himself was not anti-state — as sociologist P. David Finks writes, for him “the problem was not so much getting government off our backs as getting it off its rear end” — but the focus of his efforts was outside the electoral arena. The IAF’s lingering pride in its “independent, nonpartisan” status reflects its desire to recruit members from across the political spectrum in any given community, not merely to engage the usual suspects of progressive activism.

This “nonpartisan” avoidance of ideology also relates to perhaps the most interesting precept in the Alinskyite tradition: the one which distances community organizing from mass mobilizations. As Rutgers sociology professor and former ACORN organizer Arlene Stein wrote in 1986, “community organizers today tend generally to shun the term movement, preferring to see themselves engaged in building organization.”

Why would someone promoting social change see themselves as wary of movements? There are several reasons, and the way in which the terms “movement” and “organization” are understood connect to some defining aspects of the Alinskyite model.

Ed Chambers, Alinsky’s successor as IAF director, expresses an aversion to movements as a part of his long-term commitment to community members. As he writes in his book Roots for Radicals, “We play to win. That’s one of the distinctive features of the IAF: We don’t lead everyday, ordinary people into public failures, and we’re not building movements. Movements go in and out of existence. As good as they are, you can’t sustain them. Everyday people need incremental success over months and sometimes years.”

Alinsky, too, saw a danger in expecting quick upheavals. He argued, “Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change…. To build a powerful organization takes time. It is tedious, but that’s the way the game is played — if you want to play and not just yell, ‘Kill the umpire.’” Before entering a neighborhood, Alinsky planned for a sustained commitment. He would not hire an organizer unless he had raised enough money to pay for two or more years of the staffer’s salary.

Beyond setting expectations for timeframe, a dedication to “organizations not movements” is reflected in several other Alinskyite norms. These include the tradition’s connection to churches and other established institutions, its selection of bottom-up demands rather than high-profile national issues, and its attitude toward volunteers and freelance activists.

Alinsky believed in identifying local centers of power — particularly churches — and using them as bases for community groups. The modern IAF continues to follow this principle, serving as a model of “faith-based” organizing.

Instead of picking a galvanizing, morally loaded, and possibly divisive national issue to organize around — as would a mass movement — Alinsky advocated action around narrow local demands. Mark Warren’s Dry Bones Rattling, a study of the IAF, explains: “As opposed to mobilizing around a set or predetermined issues, the IAF brings residents together first to discuss the needs of their community and to find a common ground for action.” Practicing what is sometimes called “stop sign organizing,” those working in this vein look for concrete, winnable projects — such as demanding that city officials place a stop sign at a dangerous intersection. The idea is that small victories build local capabilities, give participants a sense of their power, and spur more ambitious action.

They also meet some of the immediate needs of the community — far preferable, in Alinsky’s view, to social movements’ far-off calls for freedom and justice. Throughout his career, Alinsky spoke the language of self-interest. He looked to build democratic power among community members seeking to improve the conditions of their own lives. He was suspicious of volunteer activists who were motivated by abstract values or ideology, people drawn to high-profile moral crusades. That movements were full of such people did not sit well with the Alinskyites. As Chambers writes: “Activists and movement types are mobilizers and entertainers, not democratic organizers. Their script is their persona and their cause. They tend to be overinterested in themselves. Their understanding of politicalness is superficial or media-driven. They lack disinterestedness.”

Moreover, Chambers contends, movement activists’ expectations for change are far too short-term: “Their time frame is immediate. ‘What do we want?’ ‘Freedom.’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’ ‘No justice, no peace,’” he explains dismissively. “Movement activists appeal to youth, frustrated idealists, and cynical ideologues, ignoring the 80 percent of moderates who comprise the world as it is…. Organizing is generational, not here today, gone tomorrow.”

Chambers’s view may seem harsh, but it is not atypical of those drawn to community organizing. As Stein explains, “[T]he revival of Alinsky-style organizations in the 1970s and 1980s often defined itself against the social movements of the previous decade — especially the civil rights, women’s, and student antiwar movements — which it tended to view as promoting collective identity formation over the achievement of strategic goals.”

Patient base-building, long-term strategy, incremental local wins. These ingredients would contribute to a lasting and influential organizing model. They would also, in the turbulent 1960s, put Alinsky at the center of an activist culture clash.

* * *

At the same time that Alinsky became a popular speaker on 1960s campuses, his vision of organizing put him at odds with many of the era’s leading activists — both its student militants and its more high-profile leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965 and 1966, tensions between “organization” and “movement” surfaced when King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council came to Chicago, Alinsky’s home turf, to mount their first Northern civil rights drive.

During the campaign, Nicholas von Hoffman, a close Alinsky lieutenant, had a chance encounter with King in Memphis, Tenn., in the hospital where activist James Meredith had been taken after being shot while marching in support of black voter registration. Von Hoffman gave King his advice about Chicago: “I told him I thought it could succeed if he was prepared for trench warfare, which would demand tight, tough organization to take on the Daley operation,” von Hoffman writes. “I added it could not be done in less than two years.”

Von Hoffman was not convinced that King was listening. He knew that the SCLC — coming off of mobilizations in Birmingham and Selma — had grown accustomed to much shorter campaigns, sometimes lasting just months. Nor was he impressed by King’s decision to move his family into an apartment in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, which von Hoffman dismissed as a “dramatic gesture” of little utility. “Organizing is akin to stringing beads to make a necklace,” von Hoffman argued. “It demands patience, persistence, and some kind of design. King’s campaign in Chicago was short on beads and bereft of design.”

Alinsky and von Hoffman regarded the SCLC leader as a “one-trick pony” who relied too heavily on media-seeking marches, and they held his team in low regard. As von Hoffman contended, King and the outsiders he brought into Chicago “were, as far as I could tell, a hodgepodge of young white idealists, college kids, and summer soldiers, most of whom had no knowledge of the people they were supposed to recruit. In the South the youthful white idealists were useful civil rights cannon fodder; in Chicago they were dead weight.”

Von Hoffman noted the contrast with his tradition. “It was the antithesis of an Alinsky operation where outside volunteers were generally shooed away not only because they got in the way but also because they didn’t have any skin in the game,” he noted. “Laudable as it is to volunteer to help other people wrestle with their problems, effective organizations are built with people who have direct and personal interest in their success.”

This type of analysis reflected Alinsky’s broader critique of civil rights organizing. In a 1965 interview he argued, “The Achilles’ Heel of the civil rights movement is the fact that it has not developed into a stable, disciplined, mass-based power organization.” He believed the movement’s victories owed much to uncontrollable world-historical forces, to “the incredibly stupid blunders of the status quo in the South and elsewhere,” and to the contributions of church institutions.

He added, with King as his unnamed subject: “Periodic mass euphoria around a charismatic leader is not an organization. It’s just the initial stage of agitation.”

For Alinsky, stressing the importance of strong organization was also a matter of bridging a generation gap. Those yelling “kill the umpire,” in his view, were the members of the New Left. Alinsky felt that people his age were partially responsible for the youths’ ignorance. In writing Rules for Radicals, he sought to communicate with 1960s activists whom he saw as suffering from a lack of mentoring — the result of a missing generation of organizers. “Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the 1950s,” Alinsky wrote, “and of those there were even fewer whose understanding and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation just were not there.”

As a consequence, young leftists were too easily seduced by quick fixes, Alinsky believed. In an afterward to a 1969 reissue of his first book, Reveille for Radicals, he wrote, “The approach of so much of the present generation is so fractured with ‘confrontations’ and crises as ends in themselves that their activities are not actions but a discharge of energy which, like a fireworks spectacle, briefly lights up the skies and then vanishes into the void.”

The creation of an alternative methodology — what Stein describes as “a highly structured organizing model specifying step-by-step guidelines for creating neighborhood organizations” — was an understandable response, and one that has shown great strengths. But, in recent decades, we may have seen its limitations as well.

The question is whether too close an adherence to a hardened model has created missed opportunities — chances to integrate structure-based organization and momentum-driven movements, and to harness the power of both.

Ok but WHY did the white men do this? Thoughts on Trump’s victory

November 10, 2016 § 2 Comments


By whitney waller (connect-the-dots) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In this blogpost I take as my starting point Eric Kaufmann’s article “Trump and Brexit: why it’s again NOT the economy, stupid” (on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog). I think Eric has got some useful data but I am not convinced by the way he joins the dots and constructs his story of cause-and-effect. The story I would find more convincing would be to half-agree and half-disagree with him: I think he’s right to say it’s not class, but wrong to say it’s not the economy. I think he’s right to say that there is a values divide (“between those who prefer order and those who seek novelty” as Eric puts it), but he doesn’t convincingly explain the cause of the rise in ‘Right-Wing Authoritarianism’ (which he doesn’t link to white supremacy and misogyny, but should). His argument is that “rapid ethnic change [nationally or locally] leads to an increase in anti-immigration sentiment and populism.” This argument raise a new question: why?

He thinks the answer is that the rise in anti-immigration sentiment and populism is the response of those who can’t deal with rapid ethnic change – because of their values, which favour cultural continuity and order over novelty and diversity. I think there’s some truth in that, but I think that to suggest this is the whole explanation and that the economy has nothing to do with it – which is what Eric seems to do – is bizarre.

A quick look at the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun newspapers in the UK, or a quick listen to Trump’s speeches, suggests that anti-immigration sentiment is not simply “they’re not like us, our culture is being eroded”; instead, a really strong narrative stoking anti-immigration sentiment is “they are stealing our jobs and our taxes are going to give them houses and welfare benefits.” In other words, anti-immigration sentiment is closely tied to the economy. In the UK, this narrative goes further in order to target both the EU and human rights legislation: the immigrants are getting jobs and houses and benefits at the expense of natives because the EU’s human rights laws gives them preferential treatment over natives – so we need to get rid of the immigrants, the EU, and human rights legislation. In both the UK and the US, out-of-touch liberal elites are seen as favouring immigrants over natives.

At its core, this is not about Right-Wing Authoritarian voters feeling that rapid ethnic change threatens cultural continuity and order. Instead, it is about these voters coming to believe a narrative, promoted by right-wing populist voices in politics and the media, which sees rapid ethnic change as the cause of specific problems these voters face. Eric is right to say their decision about how to vote didn’t have “much to do with personal economic circumstances,” but only in the sense that rapid ethnic change is not, in fact, the real cause of the problems these voters face.

What he misses is that their decision about how to vote had everything to do with their perception of the cause of their personal economic circumstances. These voters feel as if the immigrants are the cause of the problems they face. They accept that narrative, and ignore data that suggests immigrants are not the cause. And crucially, the problems these people attribute to immigrants are economic problems. The narrative they find compelling and based their voting decision on is about clash of civilisations and competition, and yes, part of that competition is cultural, but a lot of it is economic: it’s about jobs, and who benefits from how the government spends tax revenues.

I think this narrative is factually incorrect insofar as the elites are not really favouring immigrants over natives; instead, I think the elites are favouring themselves over everyone else, and then turning the natives against the immigrants to prevent the natives and immigrants forming an effective coalition against the elites. Values matter insofar as they make divide-and-rule possible, by making it possible to construct immigrants, Muslims, and ‘nasty women’ as scapegoats for what elites are doing to non-elites. And this has been happening to an ever-increasing extent since the 1970s, hand-in-hand with increasingly precarious employment and living conditions for all non-elites. No non-elites like this very much, but non-elites respond to these conditions in different ways, depending on their values. Right-Wing Authoritarians respond by saying “Stop the world, I want to get off.” And more than anyone else, it is white men who say this. Why is that? I think Naomi Klein’s explanation works quite well:

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.

For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.

Naomi Klein points the finger at the rise of the Davos class, and I think she is right to do so. What this means is that while Eric is right to say it’s not the working-class who voted for Trump, he is wrong to say it’s not the economy. It is the economy: it’s neoliberalism. Moreover, it is class, too: but rather than it being about the working-class, it’s about everyone outside the Davos class.

Criticism as solidarity

October 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

This comes from the guidelines for reviewers for Interface journal:

.1. Helpful criticism (criticism as solidarity)

Our job as reviewers and editors is generally in trying to help people who are making an effort in a direction that we share to some degree, to develop their ideas more clearly, with more insight and in ways that are more helpful to the movements we work with as researchers, theorists, writers etc. The most helpful comments are neither those which gloss over real problems in an article nor those which condemn without showing how things could be done better; they are those which identify difficulties, explain (gently) why they are difficulties, and suggest alternative approaches.

I wish more reviewers, editors, writers and people commenting on papers presented in seminars would keep this advice in mind. The fact that so many of them don’t reinforces my suspicion that in fact we don’t “share” “a direction”, even though there is often an implicit or explicit assumption that we do.

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