19 Feb 2016, Auckland
First of all, I am very sorry I cannot be there in person. I know there is an amazing line up of speakers today and great discussions planned, and also it would be great to meet and talk with you all, people gathered together to discuss the important topic of how we create positive change in the world.
I also want to thanks Rowan, Rebecca and Niki for organising this event and all the support team. I think this is an important and timely discussion.
My background in social change begins with my family. I grew up in a house where discussion and debate was part of life. I remember long slow Sunday breakfasts where the family would sit around and talk about things, all kinds of things – personal events, what was happening with family and friends, and what was happening in the world around us.
These discussions were always tempered and underlined by a suspicion of power – the corporate and political elites. My father was a Hungarian revolutionary, forced to flee his homeland after the 1956 uprising. My mother had grown up as a middle class coloured woman in South Africa and had left her country alone to live in a strange land around the time that Apartheid was being constructed. They met in England and I was born there, and came out to Aotearoa in the mid 1970s. My parent were what I’d call ‘progressive’ although I grew up with a very clear awareness of the consequences of both left wing and right wing tyranny.
After school I went back to England and was living in the North during the great miners strike. I got involved with strike support work, and later become actively involved in the anti-nuclear movement, especially at Molesworth Peace Camp. I joined up with the peace convoy in 1985, where I witnessed vicious police brutality first hand when they smashed the Stonehenge Free Festival.
I returned to Aotearoa in 1987, where I became active in anarchist politics, drug law reform and civil rights education and advocacy. I was also on the fringes of the Unemployed Workers Right movement where I met the fabulous Sue Bradford, who was speaking today. I later became involved with Native Forest Action alongside Steve Abel, who is also here. I co-founded the Hemp Store in 1997 as a platform for activism and in 1998 I joined the Green Party and established the Wild Greens, a direct action group that was involved in a range of activities, including free e-testing at dance parties, critical mass bicycle rides and the anti-GE campaign. I became a Parliamentary activist in 1999 and since leaving Parliament in 2008 I have been mostly trying to work out what it would mean to create an ecological civilisation, in particular how Permaculture Systems Design can be applied to social, economic and political change.
My theory of change is rooted in Non Violent Direct Action. At its simplest, Direct Action is based on the understanding that people do not usually give up power just because you ask them nicely. It can be worth trying that, but Direct Action is about taking power into our own hands to create the change that we want, as far as we are able. To illustrate, climbing up a coal fired power station chimney stack and hanging a banner to protest is communication technique. Occupying the power station and closing it down, even for a few hours, is a Direct Action. An anti GE march is a protest. Uprooting GE crops is a direct action. Petitioning for the regulation of power companies is lobbying. Establishing a community owned power company is Direct Action. The key thing is, that it is directly linked to the un-mediated achievement of your goal.
A good Direct Action, IMO, is one where, if your opponents leave you alone and you get to continue doing what you are doing, you win, and if they try to suppress you, you win, because it galvanises broader support for your campaign. This is important because sometimes we do actions without thinking through – ‘what happens if they just leave us alone?’ The danger of getting what you want.
I want to make it clear that I do not oppose lobbying, marching, protesting or hanging banners. I have done most of those. All of those are tools for social change that can be useful either alone, prior to, or in conjunction, with Direct Action. I am simply making the point that if we do not have an awareness of the value of and the right to do direct action, to take power directly into our own hands, we remain supplicants, begging for change rather than making it ourselves.
So my first principle is that, as fully functioning human beings, we have the right and the power to create change.
My second principle is that in order to do that we need to unite our allies and divide our opponents.
There are so many elements to that simple statement, and it should be a basic consideration when planning any action – essentially doing things that make your movement more attractive and make your opponents more repellent. But I just want to focus on the one element that I think is the most important. In fact I would argue that this is actually the single biggest issue facing us. The most politically attractive thing we can do is articulate a compelling vision for change. Without a clear, if broad, picture of what we wish to create, positive change is impossible. How can we make a better world if we don’t know what it looks like? Why would people join us if we don’t know where we are going? How can we expect people to leave the comfort of what they know unless they think it will be better than where they are now? Because people know things can get a whole lot worse than they are, including under the leadership of idealists who want to change the world.
I am strongly of the view that actually people do want change. I think there is a significant enough number of people (and it doesn’t need to be a majority) who see that we cannot possibly go on like this – ecologically, socially even economically things cannot go on like this – I think there is enough to create a groundswell for change that it could sweep our opposition before it. But change to what. People cannot see what the alternative looks like. And to be honest, neither do we. Perhaps a few do, but most activists are defined more by what we are against than what we are for. More by what we hate than by what we love. And love and hope are what will empower people. Fear and despair are disempowering.
I have recently been running workshops for groups of people – many of them change agents – to begin to envision a positive future. Most of them have never imagined what a positive future might look like. Some find it almost impossible to do so. How can we possibly create a better world when we cannot imagine that there could even be one? How can our actions have energy and power if we cannot imagine that anything good will result from them? On the other hand one of the most interesting insights to come from a workshop was from a man who saw for the first time how close it is – how everything we need is here and within our reach.
So, after many years of political and social activist, I think that this is the most important insight I have. That we need to collectively create a compelling vision for change if we want to build a more powerful and broader movement.
I think we all have bits and pieces of it, but not in a coherent or explicit way. Of course some people are doing things, organising discussions and forums around new economics, social justice issues, environment but we spend a lot more time rehearsing how bad things are getting, than we do talking about how things might be if we succeed in this struggle to reclaim our world. I think this is a critical task for us, to keep our eye on what we want, to build energy and enthusiasm and engagement around the new world that we are making, and especially to connect that vision with our work as activists and change agents. By doing this, we become capable of taking the initiative rather than just reacting. And the time is right – the anti-TPPA campaign (and massive respect to the organisers all over the country and supporters) has brought into question in many people’s minds the whole neo-liberal project. To benefit from that, we need to articulate something better, that resonates with people’s basic values and which they can see themselves in.
The danger of this approach is that it can become too idealistic. History has many examples of the lofty ideals of social movements being co-opted and betrayed by so called friends, or crushed by their enemies. Open mindedness, generosity of spirit, visionary thinking does not mean to become naive or unaware. Our vision must be grounded in our work and in the structures we create to make it real – in our creative direct action.