There aren’t that many UK dissidents around these days. Most of them have been sucked dry or bought an easier life in mere opposition. Agitation is not a popular term on the lips of politicians, even those from the Left whose tradition is replete with examples. Indeed, dissent has been called sedition all too frequently. The nature of popular politics has changed in very significant ways over the last forty years and the power of numbers seems to have changed with it. When half a million turn out to oppose the policy of austerity or to oppose the war in Iraq, little changes, yet many political careers are altered in fundamental ways by joining or failing to join such protests.
Much fundamental rejection of the status quo has gone online. Movements – not just websites – such as 38 Degrees have bridged the gap between those who feel concern about global (and national) events and the pressure tactics of numbers. But online petitions – mere clicktivism as such actions are often called by deriders – do not draw people together into solidarity or build a sense of mutual engagement. Still less do they allow those who are suffering the abuse or denial of rights or facing persecution to actually determine how their cause is represented or indeed to lead the fight.
Getting the Majority Engaged
So in the UK we are left with a range of small scale groups each valid in their own right but unable to work effectively with the next group. Too often Monty Python’s Life of Brian comes to mind: ‘We are the People’s Front of Judea. They are the Judean People’s Front.’ When organisations with similar but vitally different visions for change try to get it together, there is often much heat and not much light shed on the way forward.
So what happened to the majority of the opposition forces? Where are the millions of normal people who are being trampled on by this headlong rush for profit? Where did they go? Well the truth is that they are still there, just cowed and silenced by consumerism and the rhetoric of austerity. The vocal leadership of the past is swamped in the plethora of voices calling for change in many different directions. It often feels as though the progressive dissenting voices are just as concerned with their ‘brand’ as the capitalists! Yet dissent is at the core of democracy; without it we are condemned to oligarchy or autocracy.
Community building is often presented today as an alternative to neo-liberal state policies and bureaucratic programmes. Marilyn Taylor in her fine book Public Policy in the Community traces the way policy-makers have for decades looked to ‘community’ (or their vision of community) to soften or overcome the negative aspects of their policy prescription. Thankfully the theory at least has moved away from focus on the deficits and failings of individuals and families toward attempting to work at the collective causes and solutions at community level. However the emphasis today is on community connection as the panacea for all community ills; civil society alone has the answers. According to many commentators, social capital, community cohesion and stronger networks will make a fundamental difference to deprived communities.
Looking for a Deeper Analysis
Yet, little or no attention is paid to structural factors or power relations that restrict the flow of resources to such communities. The problem is analysed as though that wider context were no longer relevant. If it were relevant, then other remedies would also be prescribed such as seeking powerful allies, engaging both the public and private sectors and perhaps rethinking biases and assumptions that trap the unwary in fruitless effort. And this is where dissent and agitation needs to play its part. We have lost a vital route to understand our context and we are in dire need of such analysis.
Desperately Seeking Structural Change
Organisers have a ready made tradition of power analysis that points out of the impact of outside forces in determining much of the experience of oppression and exclusion. The route to transformation is to start from the relationships that offer authentic engagement and depth of trust. But having secured a base in community, organising is not constrained by the local but recognises that real lasting change can only be fought for in wider spheres of influence as well. Linking with other agencies with similar goals elsewhere, joining hands with social movements for racial, gender or environmental justice and forming alliances with diverse interests in line with the goal is necessary. These strategies give the local efforts purchase on the wider structures and enables the root causes of issues to be examined and addressed.
Organising and Dissent
Dissenters are those who stand against the tide, who work against the grain and who ask difficult questions of the powerful. They are often seen as lone voices calling for the alternative when all around are convinced that the current direction of travel is all there is. Agitation is the role of organisers in the group, raising the question of ‘Why?’ again and again: ‘Why is it that you feel so worn down? Why do you want more goods? Why do you get so little reward for so much work? Why do we all see things the same way?’ Such questions transcend place and enlarge on local engagement; such people bring in a broader perspective and open eyes to the situation shared by so many at the bottom of society.
Conflict to Challenge
Organising has contention at the core of its practice. Whilst relationships of trust and respect are vital to creating the base from which action develops, conflict forms a key part of the way organisers act and create a movement. Organisers give people a way to define their opponents – those whose interests are completely different, who are not seeking the common good – and to mobilise against their purposes. There is an important ‘us vs. them’ dynamic to organising that cannot be lost without ceasing to engage for justice. For organisers, power and interests are central as they recognise the basic inequality of power in any situation of injustice. Organising goes beyond mere community projects or service delivery to use the power of numbers to challenge structural power. Organising is a modern form of dissent but, sustained within the network of respectful trusting relationships formed by authentic encounter, it becomes a collective act of solidarity, a new grassroots democracy.
Marilyn Taylor (2011) Public Policy in the Community (2nd Edition) Palgrave
James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge ‘Community Organizing Theory and Practice: Conservative Trends, Oppositional Alternatives’ in Robert Fisher (ed) (2009) The People Shall Rule: ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice