The People’s Front of Judea
I read an excellent article on Alternet the other day about one of the perils of getting involved with any kind of activism:
Should We Fight the System or Be the Change?
By Mark Engler and Paul Engler
It’s long, but if you have the time I highly recommend reading it in full. For me, it demystified one aspect of the well documented inability of social reformers throughout the ages to get their respective acts together, a problem so brilliantly lampooned in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ all those years ago.
For brevity, in a nutshell, the Engler’s are saying that there are two vastly different approaches to activism:
1: ‘Fight the system’ – strategically attempting to reform and evolve existing structures for the benefit of all and the betterment of society in general through various means (this need not be done violently as the word ‘fight’ implies, it simply means engaging directly with the problem)
2: ‘Be the change’ – living differently, outside of the existing systems, in the hope that this will foster organic change on a larger scale over time.
The thrust of the article is that in order for real change to come about, both these approaches are useful and need therefore, ideally, to come together in some way – but that this is more often than not impossible due to the apparently conflicting nature of the two approaches and the people adopting them.
Although I’d never really thought about it that much until reading this article, I realise now that I instinctively try to ensure that my personal activism incorporates both these approaches to one degree or another, depending on the issue.
The latter approach is important because, as my friend, author and activist Cornelius Crowley recently commented elsewhere, by living a certain way we can “create social change underneath their feet, at the grass roots, in our schools, churches, synagogues, libraries, county halls and pubs, etc…” For this reason, I choose to live my life in a way that ensures I have as little as possible to do with systems and structures that I see as contributing to the continuation of the various endemic social problems that we as a species face.
The problem is, if that is all that we as activists are doing, it’s not enough. Because established power will still be able to use force to shut down and undermine these grass roots movements and it undoubtedly will whenever it can get away with it. Without actually addressing the structural and systemic problems that make that possible, at the same time as establishing grass roots changes by living our lives differently, tyranny remains the likely end result.
It follows then, that in order to be successful, activists and social reformers need to adopt both approaches in tandem. This is the reason why I devote so much time to making the case for NOTA, not to the converted, but strategically, to those who have the power to bring the issue to a head i.e. the mainstream media, the PR obsessed mainstream political parties, sympathetic members of the establishment and the like.
The Popular People’s Front (“Splitter!”)
An almost text book example of the extremely damaging gulf between the two approaches outlined above is the perceived split in the NOTA campaign between those campaigning for an actual ‘None of the Above’ option ‘with teeth’ on the UK ballot paper (NOTA UK, est. 2010) and those that believe mimicking it by playing the game of standing candidates on a supposedly NOTA platform is the same thing (Notavote / The NOTA party, est. 2012/3 – not 2007 as some of their members claim!).
For many in this latter group, NOTA appears to primarily represent a lifestyle choice, an opting out of society as a whole, a rejection of any and all governance. As such, they are ‘being the change’, to a degree, and are akin to the ‘prefigurative‘ groups referred to in the article – groups that were initially useful in terms of facilitating a shift in consciousness but, ultimately, an albatross around the neck of those strategically campaigning for the systemic and structural changes that all parties claimed to seek.
No doubt, many a potentially world changing movement has been scuppered by the short-sightedness and inability to see the bigger picture of the well meaning ‘prefigs’.
To confuse things further, in the case of NOTA, this perception of a divide is actually a false one, as the seemingly ‘prefig’ element doesn’t actually embody the changes us strategists seek at all. They are in fact conflating being able to withhold consent meaningfully in elections with some kind of uprising or revolution, rendering it an entirely separate enterprise in practice (which they then claim IS the real NOTA campaign – frustrating isn’t the word…). Although they would no doubt claim that what they are doing falls under the banner of strategically ‘fighting the system’, their misconstruing of what NOTA is and their promotion of it as a symbol of being ‘outside’, places them firmly under the ‘be the change’ banner, albeit in a somewhat ironic and inverted manner. Their election winning, establishment rocking fantasy appears to be merely an extension of that ethos.
Add to that the fact that some of their members routinely lie and use smear tactics against us in order to present themselves as the true face of NOTA (‘We were founded in 2007!’ / ‘We’ve already got NOTA on the ballot!’ / ‘NOTA UK? Talk about sour grapes!’), and the ‘prefig’ comparison starts to seem rather generous. These tactics hardly embody the principles that a campaign group seeking political reform ought to have, indeed they scream ‘more of the same’, I would suggest. A better definition for their approach to politics then, would perhaps be ‘non-figurative’. As in ‘abstract’.
Either way, these two groups are clearly not divided factions of the same movement, as they are often perceived to be. They are two totally separate crusades. One is campaigning for a structural, systemic change to the electoral system, the other is holding up that same concept as symbolic of its desire to live outside the constraints of established society. And there’d be absolutely nothing wrong with that – if it weren’t for the fact that the overlap caused by the latter is in danger of making it considerably harder for the former to do its job properly!
Tempting as it is, for the reasons outlined above, the all too easy ‘PFJ vs JPF vs PPF’ analogy in relation to those campaigning for NOTA at this time simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. So the next time you hear someone utter it, feel free to send them to this article.
Without a strategy that involves forming alliances with established power brokers to tackle and reform the systemic and structural reality of the injustice you are seeking to remedy (in this case NOTA UK’s approach to electoral reform), no amount of opting out of engaging with the injustice as it stands (Notavote’s ultimate destination, given how far removed their approach to NOTA is from the actual problem) is ever going to make a difference.
The injustice will trundle on regardless.
By Jamie Stanley
Founder, NOTA UK
UPDATE: On 28th October 2014, I became aware that Notavote, who were once infiltrated by known far right types Eva Silver and Junior Powell (see here: http://exeteredlnews.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/eva-silver-facebook-spam-lawful-rebellion-and-the-english-volunteer-force/), are now employing Britain First style tactics to promote themselves. Memes detailing Iain Duncan Smiths’s treachery and the like, things that people instantly want to share. Except that the text reveals that these are in fact adverts for a political party claiming to represent a bonafide None of the Above option simply by registering themselves as another one of the above. If you support our campaign for real NOTA, please spread the word about this, I cannot emphasise enough how potentially damaging to our prospects of achieving our goal this misguided group could be if they are allowed to hijack our campaign and undo all the good work we have done.