Activist Questionnaire Results
This is an attempt at a summary of the results of questionnaires, interviews and a focus group at the Dublin Grassroots Gathering in June 2008 on the theme of what is winning in horizontal activism. This was done to hopefully be part of a broader movement discussion on goals, strategies, and visions. Thanks again to everyone who participated. Long may the experiments continue! Queries and comments welcome. Thanks again!
At the Grassroots Gathering in June 2008 30 people filled in a questionnaire, 12 attended a focus group and 7 were interviewed on the topic what is winning? The question about what winning is was intended to be a way to focus in on activists and their groups’ long and short-term goals, strategy, obstacles and current optimism or lack of optimism. I also wanted to know if people would propose specific alternatives what these might be. This question also turned out to fit into a broader movement discussion as the journal Turbulence (see www.turbulence.org) had brought out a thought-provoking issue on the topic of what it means to win, in June 2007.
The Grassroots Gathering (see grassrootsgathering.wordpress.com) was a good place for this study both because the question of winning fitted in with the focus of the Gathering on horizontally organized social movements, including goals and strategy, and because the Gathering generally attracts people who are or want to get involved with such movements. A Grassroots Gathering is both more specific than a Social Forum, for example, in that people are involved in horizontal-organizing which is what I wanted to look at, and less specific than a conference organized by a particular political group. In other words there was likely to be a spectrum of people involved in horizontally-organized activism attending.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer these questions! The dedication to you reads: ‘In particular a big thank you to all of the people who participated in this study who continually experiment in entertaining ways with the change they want to see. You are everywhere and you are an oasis.’ Sorry for the delay in getting this out but was sick of the sight of my thesis by the time I handed it in 5 minutes before the deadline in September. The other disclaimer is I think or hope that I talk more clearly than I write so if this makes little sense feel free to ask 🙂
What is winning for you?
Results varied from achieving concrete goals in single issue campaigns to radical systemic political, social and economic change. Responses were a mix of the personal and political. Here I’ll attempt to draw out any conclusions I can. Answers to the question what is winning for you were diverse and give an idea of the breadth of focus respondents had so here are all of them starting with one that encapsulates most of what was written and discussed:
‘The essence of radical politics is transforming general alignment in line with the best of people’s needs, aspirations and desires to action, successfully offering new directions in a crisis of neo-liberalism as against business as usual, formulating an alternative to a new world order from above and developing dual-power institutions to the point where old structures start to lose solid grip, defeating the inevitable backlash (war, criminalization etc.)’
- Knowing without a doubt that you have done your best.
- Sustainable development, protection of environment and archaeology, devolved business and financial structure at community level, re-route the M3.
- Saving forests, making people aware.
- Ultimate, evolving diversity, recognition of control of self, self-sufficiency, but also inter-dependency, stewardship-other species, the environment, other people, culture, education etc. Elimination of labels and jargon, prioritization of science and technology, examining and balancing people’s innate need to travel.
- Not an important question to me.
- Intentional community, hospitality to homeless people, Non-violent Direct Action to war and war preparation.
- People talking about feminism, small victories.
- Living loving awareness.
- Proper, free, factual information, readily available and the end of prosecution/persecution for all cannabis related crimes.
- Independent social centre & maintaining it in medium term.
- Libertarian Communism-a society organized on the principle that that people affected by a decision get to make the decision, people co-operate and society isn’t divided between order-takers and order-givers, direct democracy and true equality.
- Achieving the best I can do everyday-opening up opportunities for others to do the same & trying to work together.
- Completing all goals.
- Making progress in your mission.
- Class struggle, overthrowing capitalism.
- Essence of radical politics is transforming general alignment with the best of people’s needs, aspirations, desires to action in line with that, successfully offering new directions in crisis of neo-lib as against business as usual and alternative to new world order from above, developing dual-power institutions to point where old structures start to lose solid grip, defeating the inevitable backlash (war, criminalization etc.)
- Achieving positive social change.
- End of social relation of property & exchange.
- The abolition of capital wage labour, the state etc etc.
- Success in local campaigns (social housing, playgrounds etc.) Getting an elected representative in government, getting publicity on TV in newspapers.
- Making a difference.
- There is no ultimate ‘winning’ it will remain an ongoing process, any general increases in justice and equality are to be welcomed.
What do you think social movements need to do now in order to win?
- Ni neart go cur le cheile
- Solidarity and networking
- Better communication, working together.
- Recognize diversity, try not to disengage too much from society, stay in contact with current events, locally and globally, that hold people’s attention. Create more interconnectedness between different ideas, see more solutions instead of problems, compromising may not be such a bad thing depending on the circumstances.
- Look at support for Bolivian government, look to Global South for what’s next, narrative strategies, confront synthetic biotechnology, resist techno-fixes for climate change.
- Community, non-violent resistance, acts of mercy to the oppressed.
- Co-ordinate, get organized.
- Evolve away from limiting beliefs.
- Connect, network, organize.
- Reach people, get more, people involved in working for a better world.
- Stronger, more organized.
- Develop parallel structures to the state, re-brand, organize immigrant and precarious workers better.
- Become the mainstream with our own newspapers, radio, tv stations etc.
- Focus on the process not the outcome- on how.
- Complete their goals.
- Join together & work together.
- Take ourselves seriously as maybe actually being able to win & not be trapped by our personal psychologies & identities or organizational & political traditions, creative alliance-building really learning from and listening to each other.
- Achieve positive social change.
- Continually re-engage with social needs & desires.
- Depends on the social movement(s).
- Join together, stand up to state oppression.
- Work together with different tactics for a common strategy.
Responses in the focus group and interviews were also varied to the question what is winning? Some themes emerged, however:
The questions discussed in the focus group were around what winning is, including what winning might look like if no current limits existed, and given current limitations what concrete achievable goals would the participants set. Answers were varied but some linked themes emerged namely: Environmental sustainability, combating consumerism and dependence, combating a service provision culture by promoting personal responsibility and combating disempowered citizenship and combating alienation and isolation by building a sense of community. The focus included living simply with less dependence, promoting the concept of enough and ‘anti-newness’ and sustainability including an appropriate sized population for the planet.
The idea of ever-widening de-commodification emerged strongly in the focus group in relation to both consumerism and social relations. This included the de-commodification of social relationships as well as undermining the logic and ethos of capitalism. Suggestions for de-commodification included doing things for free and giving things away for free, for example free shops and skills share workshops in social centres or other public places.
Some participants found it difficult to envisage ideal societies outside of capitalist power structures pointing out that such societies could not exist unilaterally as they would exist within a global system and that real autonomy was unlikely within the current system. Some participants focused on the effects of potential collapse due to a combination of peak oil, climate change and financial crises. It was suggested that in the case of a sudden collapse that left libertarians would not have ready made alternative parallel structures to replace current ones and that chaos surrounding a collapse could be as likely to lead to authoritarianism or fascism as to a horizontal society. However, another interviewee suggested that, as such a scenario would almost certainly bring actors into play that are currently uninvolved the results would be impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy.
Where ideal societies were envisaged themes were localization, sustainability and a lessening of dependence. One interviewee said that one of the challenges facing the organization he is involved in is the dependency culture that means that new participants have to change their expectations both of what organizations are and of what their roles are. Where there were proposed alternative societies these included localization and societal organization at community level, a cash free economy, free food, free energy and an end to wage labour, characterized as working when and if you want to.
Questionnaire respondents’ or their groups’ main goals were really diverse ranging from single issues such as stopping the M3 motorway, establishing community gardens or legalizing marijuana to large scale political, economic and social change. The majority of goals were far reaching anti-systemic goals, however. 11 out of 24 goals were the replacement of capitalism, 6 of which were specifically the replacement of capitalism by anarchism. This result is significant from the point of view of social movement theory because anti-neoliberalism has been largely viewed as the ‘masterframe’ or unifying concept of the ‘anti-globalization movement’ and anti-capitalism has been considered a smaller component. An exception was a 2001 study on the Australian Anti-capitalist Movement by Tom bramble and John Minns which took the activists’ perspectives as a starting point and concluded that Anti-capitalism was a stronger unifying factor than more general goals such as global justice. I’ve also found little, though increasing, research on the effect of anarchism on a wider movement. Amory Starr’s research in 2000 showed a weak but growing influence of anarchism on the movement as a whole. A 2001 study on the Australian Anti-Capitalist movement concluded tha while in 2004 the Spanish Social Movement Theorist Castells wrote that the ‘movement’ was increasingly moving in two different directions that could be characterized as an insider or reforming track, tending to be NGO led and what he calls the People’s Global Action stream, which I’d call anti-systemic and broadly Left-Libertarian. Another difference between these responses and those of previous research is the strong link between environmentalism and anarchism which showed only weak links in Starr’s 2000 research.
Reasons for believing goals will be achieved:
The majority of respondents felt that they have made good progress on their groups’ short-term goals. ‘Short-term goals- doing far better than in 1998, probably in end phase of neo-lib institutions as 60s & 70s were end phase of Keynesian/organized capitalism, in terms of a just bottom-up global society , global movements & the poor stronger now than for many years- just & sustainable soc. A long, global process.’
The vast majority see achieving their goals as an ongoing process and take a long-term view. The main reason given for believing that goals would be achieved was ‘the necessity for alternatives’, with ‘ways of organizing’ being the second highest reason for optimism. Public support for groups’ goals at a national level was viewed as low by the majority of respondents with anti-systemic goals, with a slightly higher number for global support, and viewed as high by single issue groups. External crises such as financial or environmental crises were not considered reasons for achieving goals by the majority of respondents. This is interesting as optimism did not rest on perceived levels of support or on external factors, and as respondents were divided on whether or not capitalism is currently in crisis, a belief in achieving goals is not predicated on a crisis in capitalism but is viewed instead as a long-term ongoing process. Optimism rests largely on a belief in the necessity for alternatives based on horizontal organization. This implies that it is not so much that capitalism is perceived as not working or even as destructive in specific ways but that horizontal organization is embraced as a value in itself.
Obstacles to achieving goals:
The main internal obstacle to achieving group goals were listed as fear or lack of belief in ability to succeed, lack of resources or organization and lack of numbers. These also came up in the focus group. In terms of external obstacles capitalism was the highest listed followed by corporate power and state power. Interestingly corporate power rated higher than state power, corporate media and International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund despite the focus of summits on these and on the G8.
These results show a structural understanding whereby a system has been identified, in this case capitalism, which is a primary target, while perceived instruments of capitalism such as IFIs or the corporate media are viewed as secondary symptoms. Again this is interesting as much social movement theory puts a broad spectrum of activists together under the label of ‘Global Justice’ without looking at activists’ critiques and whether they are anti-systemic or not. This may partly be because ‘class-based’ activism fell out of favour after the 1960s when ‘New Social Movement’ theorists concluded that activism was primarily identity-based and not class-based and a backlash against Marxist theory ensued. Subsequent South American movements, including landless and indigenous movements undermined this identity-based theory and were quickly termed ‘popular movements’. These, along with the ‘Alternative Globalization Movement’ in the North, have caused even some NSM theorists to admit that ‘class-based activism is back with a vengeance’. ( Donatella della Porta). However, many of the theorists still manage to write about social movements without reference to power inequalities, class or capitalism. This is one of the reasons I did this study, as although these factors may appear blindingly obvious to activists they are not to all academics.
Who were the participants?
Almost a third of the 30 respondents to the questionnaire were not involved in a group or network. Of these a third was interested in getting involved. The remainder of respondents were involved in 32 different groups. The groups included anarchist, environmental, feminist, heritage and resource protection, independent media groups and NGOs, 2 political parties and 2 religious groups. Of a list of possibilities the highest category ticked for type of group was anarchist followed by anti-capitalist and environmental. 8 out of 30 respondents said their group didn’t have a specific political basis. Of those that did the majority was a form of Anarchist or Libertarian Communist or Anti-Capitalist.
Most people were involved in more than one group and most of the groups were of 10-30 regular participants. Where groups were of 100 or more they were generally international networks, but the majority of groups listed were national. 29 out of 30 questionnaire respondents saw themselves as part of a wider movement. Interestingly, despite the prevalence of names such as the Anti-Globalization Movement, Movement of Movements or Altermondialiste when asked what they would call a wider movement only 2 such commonly used terms were listed once each, Global Justice Movement and Movement of Movements. The majority were instead extensions of the groups people were in, such as Earth First!, or their main goals such as environmental justice. This was interesting as a question about who ‘we’ are. Broadly the majority of wider movements were characterized as environmental and/or anarchist or anti-capitalist. Some of the terms used were neither specific groups nor networks nor an extension of these but an entirely personal formulation such as ‘network of empathetic activists’ and ‘alternative culture.’
A third difference between the results of this study and some previous research was in ages and occupations of participants as the age range was wider and there were fewer students than in a 2001 study on the Anti-capitalist Movement in Australia. There were also similarities with other comparable studies, however, for example the vast majority of respondents had a very high level of education and the majority were male. In terms of nationality all were European, American or Australian. Of the people who listed a gender on the questionnaire 20 were male and 8 female. This was an interesting result as the male to female ratio of attendees of the Grassroots Gathering was definitely not as high as that, being much closer to 50-50, begging the question why did fewer women fill out the questionnaires? The focus group on what winning is was about two to one male to female. When asked about imbalances in their groups the highest number of respondents chose gender followed by class, occupation and ethnicity. These last categories drew a few comments: ‘In Ireland!’ and ‘This is circular-the problem with this society is that most people can’t be fully participating in ‘winning’ their world. The reasons are capitalism, particularly racial & labour divisions. There is inevitable unevenness in those who can become active in radical politics and avoidable divergences in different kinds of radical politics.’
Other possible explanations for lack of diversity in participants include lack of publicity, lack of access or lack of interest on the part of those sectors who did not attend, or lack of clear connection between the issues discussed and their lives. Equally research shows that word of mouth is decisive and that activists are generally brought into activism through friends which makes diversity more difficult. Lack of diversity and lack of numbers were addressed somewhat in responses to questions about strategy and short-term goals. Involvement in community-led campaigns, awareness raising, publicity, getting more people involved and using independent media were all emphasised. Strategy for achieving goals ranged from direct action and non-horizontal organizing to movement building, outreach and alliance building to magazines, leaflets and rallies to advocacy and lobbying, including of state institutions. These results were interesting as there was an overlap between strategies often viewed as ‘reformist’ such as lobbying or ‘radical’ strategies, such as direct action, depending on the perceived usefulness of a strategy to achieve a particular goal.
Overall, there was a mix of ideational or personal goals and ideological ones, a variety of strategies, in particular getting more people involved, a general agreement on main obstacles and main reasons for optimism about achieving goals and an agreement on what a wider movement would need to win, namely unity, solidarity, organization and a belief in winning. Specific proposed ideal societies were few but how one would be built was though horizontal organization.