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Rabble Element: A Prison Diary

Letters from Prison by Milan Rai

Milan Rai is currently in prison for refusing to pay a fine arising from a JNV action against the invasion of Fallujah in October 2004. He is due to be released on 29 November 2005.

His prison address is: Milan Rai LH7974 HMP Lewes, 1 Brighton Road, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1EA

RANDOM REMARKS FOR ACTIVISTS No.1. Hairdressers and Architects

(Wednesday 16 November 2005)

We hunger for meaning. We want to know that what we do makes a difference means something. We want to feel effective. This seems universal. This general need is even more acute for the activist. She wants to feel that she is having an impact; advancing the cause; making a difference to people, animals, precious things that are threatened or oppressed. But there is a real problem of trying to find ways of being effective and even more with feeling effective. For the radical political activist, who does not want simply to stop wars, change laws and so on, but who wants to overturn or transform dominant institutions, the problem is still more acute. How to feel you are having an impact on an entrenched tyranny, or a transnational corporation?

Things are perhaps easier when you are focused on incremental changes, and the situation of particular human beings. An Amnesty International group writing to a particular prisoner of conscience cannot overthrow a dictatorship but can improve the conditions of that prisoner, perhaps save their life, perhaps free them from imprisonment. That is a powerful form of effectiveness.

I read once that hairdressers come high in terms of job satisfaction. I could imagine that, say; architects come pretty low in the rankings of self-assessed job satisfaction. Architects, many of them, perhaps most of them, spend a lot of time putting together proposals that are never built. Like actors, models, artists, advertisers and other ‘creative’ folk, there are a lot of rejections and failed presentations/ auditions. Furthermore, many architects will spend much of their working lives planning ducts and light fittings and other barely-noticed features of our new buildings. Incidentally I once met a pipe fitter – I may have forgotten his proper title – who told me he had a lot of job satisfaction. He was a highly paid specialist who was widely respected. He would be called in when architects plans for ducts, pipes, wiring and so on –which looked perfectly reasonable on paper – proved to be impossible in practice. His job was to visualise three dimensional spaces – often barely accessible – and figure out how to get cables, pipes and ducts through the spaces available. That’s what I call intellectual work. Now contrast the architect’s job with the pipe fitter. The vast army of architects (not the chief architect directing construction) work on abstract forms of hidden features which they may never actually see. The pipe fitter has a hands-on effect, solving major problems with an immediate tangible result, greatly appreciated by the builders they work with.

There is something here in this contrast about our sense of effectiveness.

Let’s go back to the hairdresser. Each and every hairdresser works with something that is highly visible and of enormous value to their client. Instead of an architect slaving away for hours on a project that, if it is built, will not be implemented for months if not years, the hairdresser can finish their work within an hour (or perhaps two) directly and tangibly having an effect, and then receiving feedback, praise (and payment) immediately. The hairdresser also works in a convivial atmosphere of friendship and intimacy, which must also, increases the sense of job satisfaction. So we see a spectrum of perceived effectiveness. The single architect working on air conditioning and heating ducts in a large building is remote in space and time from the finished article – if it is ever built – and has no hands on experience of making her ideas into reality. Crucially, the architects plan relies on many intermediaries to make it happen, supervisors, fenders, clients, builders and so on. In contrast the hairdresser is one-to-one with the raw material/client/finished product. Effectiveness felt with the immediacy of impact.

Where does this leave the activist confronting climate change or the occupation of Iraq or the nuclear weapons establishment? Well the first thing to say is that ‘the hairdresser’ and ‘the architect’ are not two different kinds of activists in different movements. They are two different modes of action, two different scales of intervention, two different time periods, two different frameworks for activism, which can operate simultaneously in the same movement and the same group. They can be two different sides of the same person. Amnesty International, for example, has person-focused letter-writing campaigns, and at the same time campaigns for an end to the death penalty world-wide. This is somewhat abstract, large-scale, and it is hard to feel you are having an impact.

Coming back to wider movements for change, it is often difficult to find hairdresser effectiveness in the midst of ‘architect’ campaigns. How do we cope with this sense of ineffectiveness –of powerlessness? When change comes slowly at the level of government policy, and has no perceptible link with grassroots action, how does a grass roots activist cope?

RANDOM REMARKS FOR ACTIVISTS No. 2 Truth and Consequences

(Wednesday 16 November 2005)

One way of coping is of course not to cope, to withdraw from action. This is often entirely rational as an assessment of the prospects for change, but can be harmful both for those at risk (perhaps future generations) and for the activist who withdraws.

Another way of coping is to detach from the consequences. There are a variety of ways of doing this. One way is to say: what I do will have no effect on what is going on, but it is important that someone registers a protest against it. Another is to say: what I made may have effects I cannot foresee, it seems pointless but I act without demanding any particular outcome and I allow the possibility of changes unknown. Sometimes what underlies either/both attitudes the imperative: I feel guilty, and what I need is to do some thing that will make me feel less guilty, regardless of the consequences. At different times in my campaigning life, I have done things with each of these attitudes, with a mix of these attitudes. The action which has led to my imprisonment now was an act of despair, not an intervention with any hope of protecting the people of Fallujah from disaster. It was a mix of these things, but in essence a feeling that something unbearable was being prepared, and it was not possible to stand aside, almost regardless of the consequences.

Detaching from consequences is characteristic of, though not confined to, faith-based activism. This kind of religiously inspired commitment can cope with a lack of tangible progress better than many secular forms of activism. In the peace movement for example I understand that the steady, unshakeable efforts of the Quakers have enabled the movement to survive rocky periods over decades. The problem with detaching from consequences is that this distancing can often be simultaneous detachment from morality. Morality is about intended consequences, about foreseeable consequences. If in the midst of an argument with your partner, you accidentally knock a knife off the table, and it falls cutting his foot, there is no moral judgement. If, in the midst of the argument, you grab a knife and plunge it into his foot, there are moral questions, to do with the kind of provocation suffered and so on.

Morality is about what you knew about the situation, the problem, and what you knew, or reasonably could have known, about the different options open to you and the consequences of each possible action. It is possible, for example, to act without knowing the consequences of your action by refusing to be aware of them. When money is tight, it is possible to blank out the consequences of buying that desirable purchase, and only later apologising that now the family has not got enough money to pay for something necessary or something promised. You could have reasonably been expected to know what would happen. You chose not to know.

This kind of behaviour occurs all the time in politics. People (and I am now talking about the general population) continually choose ‘not to know’, ‘not to think’ about painful or difficult political issues. What is remarkable is that as years go by, due to the activism of ordinary citizens, Western societies(and perhaps those of the global south, though I know too little to generalise) choose to know and think more about more of these formerly taboo issues.

In the case of the activist, however, we are talking about the ‘detachment from consequences’ that can follow from frustration or despair. If that detachment from consequences leads to a wilful recklessness about consequences, a decision not to consider the possible consequences, then that is a retreat from moral action to immoral action.


(Wednesday 16 November 2005)

Here as so often, I am merely expressing in my own way what I understand to be the position of Noam Chomsky on these matters. What Chomsky says is that what should be our primary concern in political action is the effect we have on those under threat (possibly future generations). The kind of action we carry out, and the way we carry it out, has effects for the people or other living beings, or previous matter, we are seeking to protect or liberate.

Now it is possible to set other primary criteria. One attractive criterion is to try to choose action that is ‘commensurate’ to the crime in progress. When there is mass killing, or mass torture (perhaps of animals), or mass destruction (as in the normal, legal operation of a logging company or an oil major) there is a temptation to seek action that is as intense, dramatic and forceful as the outrage. During the campaign against economic sanctions on Iraq, we were often discussing the gap between the crime we were confronting – the economic slaughter of thousands of children every month - and the protests we were able organise. It was in part to fill that gap that over a dozen people from the UK consciously and openly broke the sanctions on Iraq, by taking medicines and other humanitarian supplies there without authorisation. Many more did the same from the US, where Voices in the Wilderness was founded in 1996.

In passing, let us note that hand-carrying medicines to a sanctions-bound hospital, as a political action, as an act of civil disobedience, and delivering it to grateful doctors, was towards the ‘hairdresser’ end of the spectrum of felt effectiveness. This does not mean, however, that it was effective in terms of its external consequences, which Chomsky quite rightly says are primary. We will return to this tension.

The problem with putting ‘commensurate-ness’ as a primary criterion is that the consequences for those you are concerned with can become not merely secondary but irrelevant. It is easy to think of socially disruptive actions that one could take in relation to the war in Iraq, or climate change, which would be highly intense – like the problems they address – but which would have very little direct effect on decision-makers and would have entirely damaging effects on the general public and on opinion-formers. During the Vietnam War, another massive assault on a largely defenceless country, there were student anti-war activists who, for example, blew up student toilets in protest against the war. Compared to a march or an office occupation, that is undoubtedly a more dramatic and intense action. But it is hard to see positive consequences and easy to see many negative consequences for the people of Vietnam, and for the movement that was there to assist them.

Chomsky points to a second world war example of a Nazi who was assassinated by a young Jew (I think the Nazi was Heydrich). It is difficult to condemn this desperate action, but the consequence was that several Jewish communities were devastated in retaliation. Chomsky points out that middle-class western activists, particularly white ones, are enormously privileged in relation to the victims of western power, and can escape from the consequences of their action, very often, or mitigate them considerably. We can have enormous effects positive or negative on the prospects for our communities of concern. The question is whether we will put this responsibility at the top of our agenda. To be frank, there is a temptation in activist circles to seek action which is emotionally satisfying for the activist rather than effective for the victims of power. This is the third option.

For many of those who advocate violent protest, it is hard not to believe that what is underlying their argument is the desire to retaliate against the forces of violence- with violence; to impose to impose some undeniable cost on the perpetrator. If we focus on the nature and extent of the evil that is being perpetrated, it is not difficult to slip into the argument that the perpetrator ‘deserve’ punishment of a similar nature (we see traces here of the ‘commensurate’ perspective).

The problem here is that this obscures the situation of those still in danger. How in the future can those still in danger be brought as quickly as possible to safety? That is the primary moral question before the activist. To punish perpetrators appropriately for what they have done in the past is perhaps satisfying, but a focus on this can lead to action which damage the prospects of those who survive (or future victims). What is needed for moral action is a judgement as to the possible or likely consequences of our actions for those who we wish to assist. Reasonable will differ in making these judgements, they are difficult to make, but what is critical is that we try to make them before we act. Detaching from these questions and refusing to know withdraws our actions from the moral sphere.


(Thursday 17 November 2005)

In Bow Street Magistrates Court, I stood and listened to the evidence against me. In contrast to previous cases I offered no counter- evidence, no counter- arguments, and no legal defence of my actions. I am sure the magistrates and the clerk were puzzled. If I was not offering a legal excuse for my actions, why was I pleading “not guilty”? At the end of the trial, I was allowed to make what is called a “statement of mitigation”. This is supposed to be when you plead with the magistrates to go easy because of special circumstances of your life, or special circumstances during the events that led to your arrest.

I was thinking about of the events in Fallujah, and I spoke to the magistrates about why I had gone to the Foreign Office and painted on the front of the building, “Don’t attack Fallujah: Black Watch out” “No More War”. I said that I was pleading guilty- of doing too little too late to protect the people of Fallujah from the US violence. I said that everyone in the court was also guilty. I said that I believed my actions were morally and legally justified, but that I was fully prepared to accept the consequences of my actions. Thinking of the devastated city, my voice was choking and I had to stop constantly.

The three ‘lay’ magistrates (non-professionals) withdrew with the clerk (the legal advisor who is effectively in charge when the magistrates are part-timers). In the court, as we were waiting, there was an atmosphere I’d never experienced before. The court ‘ushers’ (the stewards) were talking to me in a friendly way, as was the prosecuting lawyer, in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The magistrates returned and said there would be no fine, no court costs to pay, a ‘conditional discharge’ (which is ‘no action’), but that I would have to pay the Foreign Office £2100 to clean up paint and fake blood. The Foreign Office is made of Portland Stone, which requires special chemicals and expert treatment to clean. I said I would not pay the compensation. The magistrates ignored this and gave me 28 days to pay. I said I wouldn’t pay in 28 days. They released me from court. I received property from a police officer, property that had been seized as evidence (shoes, trousers, fleece covered in fake blood). He was genuinely friendly. He assumed I’d given a false address to the court- he was unconcerned about that. I hadn’t given a false address- which is why I am now in cell 28, F wing, Her Majesty’s Prison Lewes.

Going into court I had half braced myself for being sent to prison. If I had been brought before a full-time professional (“stipendiary”) magistrate, I think that would quite likely have happened. Bow Street stipendiaries are battle- hardened veterans, legal machines chopping out what they see as justice. There were a dozen or so people in court, people who in some cases had travelled quite a way to support me in court. We retired to a nearby flat for a sharing of biscuits and tea and other refreshments. This is one of the costs of civil disobedience. It takes time and energy from the movement to support people through court, to raise money for fines, to support people in prison. When you do an action, you are dragging these consequences after you. Is the benefit to the movement, to the people you’re trying to help, greater than these costs, when everything is taken into account? It can be. It’s partly what you do with your action and it’s partly what other people do with your action. And I’m wondering what is happening in Fallujah, in the refugee camps, in western Iraq.


(Thursday 17 November 2005)

Grassroots activism has changed the world. Grassroots activism has made the world we live in. But grassroots activists in the West – particularly in the urban West, perhaps – must struggle with strong currents of powerlessness.

One of the sources of these feelings of powerlessness is the dominant culture, which is deeply authoritarian. The popular culture which has been constructed by corporate advertisers and the entertainment industry interlocks with and reinforces the political culture created by the major parties, and an intellectual culture created by universities, thinktanks and powerful intellectuals. The fundamental character of society in Western society is the tension between top-down authoritarianism, embodied in the corporation, and the striving for personal empowerment and autonomy, exploited and manipulated by the corporation.

The cultural scene is dominated by the star system. The basic message is that there are a few significant figures: The Few or more often, The One. The rest of us are spectators who observe, appreciate, sometimes vote for, and even more rarely interact with The Star. The world is saved by Luke Skywalker/Neo/Harry Potter who is destined to take The Action that will change history (often The Star is unaware until it happens of the nature of the magical Action). In history, the story is of equally magical characters – Nelson, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler – and so on, who move nations and alter events. In truth, there is only one historical character – Adolf Hitler – alongside whom all other historical figures are treated as secondary in mainstream culture. Hitler is the magician who bewitches a nation and carries out world-changing events all by himself.

What is missing from the conventional history story is all those powerful people who assisted Hitler with money, influence, media access and so on, because they thought he could be useful. What is missing is the hordes of disaffected men and women – often from the middle classes – who made Hitler’s party made strong. What is missing is the willing army of intellectuals and professionals whose skills in urban planning, computerised identification systems, transport logistics and so on were fundamental to the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust.

The idea of “The One” is exceptionally powerful. But it is a lie that obscures historical and present-day social realities. It is a lie that is useful to those who hold power.

What we are constantly being told is that there are certain people who are truly beautiful, truly funny, truly powerful and the rest of us can merely imitate, admire and support. In the world of politics, there are a handful of people who count, and the rest of us are irrelevant (unless it is election time, when we are of significance only in marginal races, not in safe seats).

Matthews D’Ancona of The Sunday Telegraph said that the Labour Party accepted Tony Blair as a kind of extraterrestrial who landed with extra-sensory powers over the electorate. In reality though, as Bob Worcester of the MORI polling organisation showed in his analysis of the 1997 election (explaining Labour’s landslide), the first New Labour victory could have been won by Neil Kinnock’s brand of politics, and possibly even by Michael Foot.

Yes, leaders make a difference. It would fly in the face of reality to say that individual leaders or major figures do not make a difference, but what makes someone a leader or a figure?

Chomsky has often said that if it were not for the strength of popular movements in North America, organising speaker meetings and so on, he would not be a “major figure” on the political scene, he would just be discussing politics with his friends.

Grassroots activists change the world, but we are edited out of the picture of the world constructed and transmitted by corporations, advertisers, corporate media, corporate entertainment, corporate-funded politics and the state. Our feelings of powerlessness are to a large extent the intended results of a conscious (and unconscious) campaign against the public mind, against our self-confidence, against our need to be effective in altering the world in accord with our conscience.

RANDOM REMARKS FOR ACTIVISTS No. 6. Circles of Commitment

(Friday 18 November 2005)

I have read, and believe, that the world is being driven mad by poor Powerpoint presentation. Slides should not be used for text, certainly not for long lists of bullet points, but for graphical presentations of ideas or data. Admittedly, these remarks are aimed at the radical social change activist community and the abuse of Powerpoint is not a major problem in these circles. Nevertheless, I believe this is a necessary preface to some remarks using a diagram – a diagram which I think can help us with the Super Hero complex which mainstream society uses to disempower us. (It disempowers us if we believe, as society tells us, that we are the Nothing-people on the fringes of the great. It also disempowers us if we delude ourselves into thinking we are the Elect, the Chosen Few.)

This box represents society and attitudes towards a particular cause – say Iraq. Area 1 are hostile to the movement, and opposed to withdrawal (for now we ignore subtleties). Inside the first/biggest circle, Area 2 are the neutral or open-minded. Next in are the sympathetic. Next (red circle) are those willing to take some action – signing a petition, writing a letter, going on a demo, other more forceful actions. Area 5 are those who have some connection to the movement. They subscribe to a movement paper, are members of a movement organisation, are on an email list, and so on. Next in are people who are active members of a local (or national) group. In the centre are the organizers; the people who book halls and speakers, who buy leaflets and organise stalls, who run the stewarding, legal support and media campaigning around demos and actions.

The first thing to say about this diagram is that the most important thing is NOT how big the “sympathetic” circle is. It’s important, but it doesn’t matter to the people of Iraq how many westerners want the occupation to end. What makes a difference is the red circle – the number of people who actually take some action, which puts pressure on the authorities to change policy. Attitudes are important but it is action that makes a difference (and alters attitudes).

There are many other things one could say about this diagram but here we will concentrate on one point: the aim of campaigning is to move people through to the next circle. Any particular event or conversation or street presence is only able to move someone through the next barrier. You can’t hope to move someone from ‘hostile’ to ‘ the organizer core’ in one conversation or one meeting. You can hope to shift them to ‘neutral’ or open-minded.

The objective for the campaigner is to give the other person the experience that makes it possible and natural to move to the next circle. Information is part of this, certainly, and logic. Equally important are respect for the other person’s point of view and a willingness to listen, and to seek out common ground, not as a manipulative device but as a genuine attitude of equality. You can have all the facts at your fingertips and all the arguments needed to puncture official propaganda, but if you are rude and arrogant (as I have been, on occasion) your facts and arguments will only drive people outwards rather than draw them inwards towards action and commitment. Even with leafleting ‘how you leaflet’ can be alienating or can be something that makes the movement more welcoming, inviting, more of something worth listening to, somewhere you might like to go. Closely related to this ‘one-boundary’ modesty of intention is another aspect of each encounter – how does that person feel about the movement after your encounter? Even if they are entirely unconvinced by your words, do they feel more positive towards the movement? Are they more willing to listen to what the movement has to say? Are they more resistant to official propaganda about the movement?

The campaign is made very largely out of our face-to-face conversations and encounters, in meetings, on the street, in pubs and offices, in our homes. Nothing is more powerful than word of mouth from a trusted face.

‘One boundary modesty’ is a counter to the myth of The One, the world-changer, the cataclysmic transformer. No single person gets to change the world. The world gets changed by lots of people moving. Each of us gets to move a few other people a bit, and to exert a certain amount of pressure on those who are committing crimes against the planet and its people. (We are coming near the ‘hairdresser’/’architect’ issues.)

Now one aspect of the Star system is that it infiltrates the movements. Also there are always leaders, particular people who make a contribution at a particular time. Someone who is a leader in one area may be a follower in another. Someone who takes a high-profile role at one time will take a low-profile role at another time. What the Star culture does is it creates an inner core at the heart of all the circles, and presents that core as the only circle that matters. The famous, the globally- or nationally-recognised, the notorious. These figures are presented as almost being the movement. This is disempowering for us all, and no doubt is an unwanted burden on those prominent figures themselves.

The basis of they Star system is that there are certain people who are constituted differently, who can do things the rest of us cannot do, who have talents or powers that the rest of us do not.

What Greenham Common women said in the 1980s was that ‘the only stars are in the sky’. The women’s peace movement consciously embraced and enacted anonymity, group strength, equality, democracy, solidarity. Much of radical social change culture in the West is infused with the renewal of anarchism by the women’s peace movement in the 1980s, an attack on the Star system and on authoritarianism and patriarchy.

The perspective in radical social change circles is more likely to be there are skills we can share; there are methods that can empower and liberate all of us; all of us have talents and powers that can make change happen.

Anyone who has been involved in, for example, civil disobedience circles has seen people change dramatically in their sense of self and their personal power, as they take steps out from “normal life” into an “engaged life”. That is another set of concentric circles.

One of the funny things about Famous Activists/Stars is that many of them (some of them?) are comfortable addressing large crowds, but much more daunted by small group discussions or trying to persuade a neighbour or a family member. It hardly needs saying that more change in attitudes comes from small group discussion than a big speech, and addressing a rally is confirming the beliefs of those you speak to, while with neighbours and family it often means challenging the beliefs of those you speak to. Those challenges are what makes shifts in public opinion, and re-make political realities. We may not notice the changes we make but they are real effects nonetheless. And it can be proved with Powerpoint.


(Friday 18 November 2005?)

What’s it like? Well, several prisoners have compared Lewes favourably to other prisons in the region. One said ‘They listen to you here, and they try to do something for you!’.

There is a special reason for that, but we’ll come to it. I’ve seen no behaviour by prison staff that you could complain about, and plenty that was above average.

In our group of prisoners (not a proper “wing”) there is no friction or hostility (so far) and no one who is a danger to others. I heard that there was an incident just before we got here where a young prisoner withdrawing from heroin got into a fight with his (much older) cell mate.

My cell mate Marcus is a great guy. He once had a junkie cell mate who was up all night, crashing around, turning the television on and off, unable to settle.

Our cell is an old-fashioned one – the new cells in most wings have toilets in a separate room. We also have a pretty old-fashioned regime where exercise is very irregular (3 times in 3 weeks), and ‘association’ (where you get to sit around on the landing with other prisoners? is pretty infrequent also. We have no work and no gym. Some days we are banged up for 23 hours.

I’m here because of my beliefs, with a lot of support from friends, family and the movement. I’m in here for only thirteen days. (When I was in Pentonville for ten days, someone said ‘I could do that standing on my head!’) It is not a great strain for me, but it is a pressure on the others in our group.

We are on this regime because we are a segregated group of prisoners on ‘F Wing’. ‘F’ wing is hated and reviled in every prison as the home of paedophiles and sex-killers. The guards say most people on ‘F’ wing are actually self=declared ‘vunerable prisoners’ (VPs) who are at risk of self-harm, suicide or harm from others. No one believes this.

What was supposed to happen was that as we arrived, we went to ‘K’ wing, the induction wing, for one or two nights, and then we’d get moved to the regular wing (A, C etc.). Instead there are over a dozen of us who were immediately put into ‘F’ wing as a segregated group within the wing.

Regular prisoners hate people on ‘F’ wing violently, and are liable to assault ‘F’ wingers without warning or provocation. Therefore our group has to be segregated at all times from ‘F’ wing. And that’s why we can be banged up for 23 hours a day some days. We have meals served separately, we have association separately, we can’t do work or exercise at the same time. And we have no access to the gym (so far).

All of this puts a lot of pressure on the group and that may be a reason why the staff are extra motivated to be responsive and humane.

We also believe that those of us who are in this regime are likely to serve our whole time in this way. Because if we now get moved to ‘A’ wing we will run the risk of being attacked as ‘F’ wing perverts.

As I say, this is of little significance for me, because I am here briefly and in totally different emotional conditions to everyone else.

There are things about prison I can hardly believe. The television. The kettle. The Littlewoods catalogue – you can order pretty much anything you like, if you have the money to pay for it. Inside Times, the prison newspaper, is excellent. I’m surprised they print such frank letters and that they get relevant officials to respond.

As I wrote this, ‘F’ wing is being let out for Sunday morning exercise in a huge football pitch type yard, with a grass bank on one side. Our group exercises in a tiny enclosed yard about 20 yards long and 5 yards wide.

I guess it is quite likely that other prisoners from protest movements get caught up in similar circumstances because of the crisis of prison overcrowding.

What is it like in prison? The food is poor – and ‘F’ wing food is likely to have been spat in, or worse, by the cooks. We have a former prison cook in our group, and he is not keen on eating the food. The days are long.

As a former peace prisoner just wrote to me, it can be wrenching to hear other peoples’ stories. The challenge of prison seems often to be unexpected burdens, unexpected dilemmas, unexpected pains.

Right now, for example, I have done nothing to challenge the demonisation of ‘F’ wing prisoners. I would hesitate to protect an ‘F’ wing prisoner from attack. I hope I would do it, but I’m not absolutely certain I would do it. I am afraid of being identified with them – the outcasts. If I did try to protect an ‘F’ wing prisoner, I would frame it in terms of it not being worth it, of the likely cost to the attacker in terms of punishment, rather than the likely innocence of the prisoner, or his right not to be attacked, whatever his crime. Why? Because that is something that might get through to the attacker, and because it would not risk my acceptance by the group. I’m not proud of these reflections, but they are accurate, I think. Why is ‘F’ wing hated so? I think it is partly an acceptable outlet for the anger, fear and hatred prisoners feel towards authority, which it is too dangerous to express. It is also a violent expression of heterosexual maleness, and of “protective” patriarchal attitudes.


(Friday 18 November)

One way of coping with feelings of frustration and powerlessness is to retreat into dogmatism and/or elitism, two related phenomena.

It’s always hard to know if you are being ‘self-confident’ or you’ve tipped over into being ‘arrogant’. (There’s a sentence that will come to haunt me.) Similarly, it’s hard to know if you are confident in your beliefs and your knowledge or if you’ve tipped over into being dogmatic and a know-it-all. (oh dear, more hostages to fortune.)

These problems occur against a backdrop of activists being told relentlessly and from every direction that what they think about the world, and the values they hold, are absurd, obsolete and/or irrational. Popular culture, “high” culture, intellectual journals, the mass media, and mainstream politics all treat grassroots activism for peace and justice as irrational and aberrant. Corporate domination is natural. Obedience to the state is natural. Our rulers are treated as well-intentioned (in general) or as bad apples. The idea that there might be something inherently wrong with our dominant institutions is generally excluded.

Some activists naturally take a somewhat defensive stance in response. This can end up as a dogmatic belief that whatever knowledge and understanding we’ve developed is not something provisional and imperfect, to be improved by inquiry and dialogue, but something fixed and in some sense absolutely Good. The insights and discoveries we have made so far can become, instead of a contribution to share with others as they evolve their own views, a standard or a test by which to measure others, and to distinguish The Elect from the inadequate.

This is particularly common in certain authoritarian political and religious formations. The Party and The Church tend to produce such dogmatism, unless there are strong countervailing forces.

Dogmatism in this sense leads immediately to elitism: the sense that there are Special People who are better that the common herd. Not simply ‘better’. Political elitism can harden into the conviction that those who do not conform to our own ideas/beliefs/culture are not merely ‘lesser’ but actually intellectually and morally deficient. In the 1980s this was definitely the attitude inside the punk subculture I belonged to, for example.

But these attitudes are found widely (and of course are found throughout non-activist circles).

One form of elitism found quite widely in activist circles is a quite understandable reaction to the frustration we feel that so few are (visibly) actively engaged in the struggle for change. This frustration can lead to the attitude that ‘most people’ are “Sun-readers” (the Sun being an appalling right-wing tabloid newspaper). This is taken to mean they are stupid, irrational, and driven by base emotions; immune to moral appeals. They can only be reached by appeals to narrow self-interest.

But a decision not to actively engage with the popular movements is not necessarily a sign of not caring, or being immoral. As Chomsky observes, it can be a rational decision not to engage. Your extra effort will make very little difference to the overall movement, but it is likely to cause all sorts of problems for you possibly including ostracism and/or job problems.

The anger against ‘most people’, which starts off as frustration and can grow into contempt, is often fed by the contempt of those who regard themselves as ‘educated’ towards those they see as ‘uneducated’. The disdain of intellectuals towards the lower orders is part of the ‘disease of the intellectuals’, the belief that the educated should rule on the basis of their intelligence.

Social change activists tend to be among the intellectual classes and are prey to the prejudices of this class. It’s something we have to fight: the immense appeal of elitism, which would corrupt us as it undermined our movements.


(Friday 18 November 2005)

As individual campaigners and as groups we choose particular issues and modes of action. We also choose particular target areas in society. One way of looking at this is to divide society into four quadrants. One area is the media; another is government and party politics; then we have trade unions, churches, NGOs and other sections of “civil society”; and finally we have the movement itself. As groups and as individual activists, we probably choose to work primarily in one or two quadrants. As a movement, we have to be strong in all four areas, but a single organisation cannot hope to do equally effective work in all four areas.

One interesting exercise is to assess a particular movement by slotting in organizations and groups into each quadrant, to see where the movement is strong and where it is lacking. Whether anyone is going to create new formations to meet revealed needs is another matter.

Working in a particular quadrant probably involves particular methods, and might be more effective if there can be co-operation with others working in the same quadrant on the same issue.

It’s possible that a particular local group might be able to keep a long-term campaign on a particular issue fresh and sustainable by shifting their primary focus from one quadrant to another, from one quarter of the year to the next.

The questions we can ask ourselves as a group include why we choose to work in one area; why we have never done much work in another area; whether there is another group we can learn from or work with in a particular quadrant.

Maybe the four quadrants can help us to think about our campaigning.


(Saturday 19 November 2005?)

When the court usher told me to move from the witness box, where I had given evidence to the magistrates, to the dock, I knew that I was going to prison. As he led me in, for some reason he felt the need to say, “I’m not actually locking the door”. The magistrates were still out of the room and I carried on talking to my friends, who were sitting next to the dock. I told them the story of when I was first finger-printed.

At that time the law said that the police could not use force to take your fingerprints (or your photo). This was changed later and it’s possible I had something to do with the change, as on a later occasion I successfully complained to the Police Complaints Authority about having my fingerprints taken by force. Anyhow, I had decided that I was going to resist fingerprinting. I was going to non-cooperate. I was going to lie down and go limp and refuse to take part. I was called to the fingerprint room. Before I had collected myself enough to lie down and go limp a huge bear of a policeman growled at me, “give me your hand and keep it completely relaxed or your fingers will break”. I silently approached him and silently held out my hands!

I was just about to tell them a similarly undignified story about my first court appearance when the return of the magistrates was announced. Two custody officers appeared behind me. The chief magistrate (of the three on the bench) said they had no alternative but to send me to prison as I had refused to give them any information about my circumstances or my property. 28 days. I responded with a “thank you”.

I wondered later about that “thank you”. It was an automatic politeness, and an acknowledgement that the court had treated me with respect, in particular by allowing me to speak freely for two minutes about Fallujah and so on.

A custody officer hand-cuffed me and led me down stairs – I waved to my friends as I disappeared. Several of them had also been taken out of a dock in the same way.

I was locked in a large cell by myself for several hours, and given a vegan meal. I walked in circles for over half an hour luxuriating in the spaciousness of the cell, knowing that soon I would be unable to stride around.

How did I feel? Somewhat distant from myself, entirely calm, mildy positive. There was a slight unreality about the situation, but that may have been because I only had three hours sleep the night before, trying to tie up loose ends and ‘settle my affairs’. Before being locked in the cell I had a pat-down search and almost all my possessions were bagged up and removed. Talking to the guards I was amazed to find they were private security guards. They seemed very young, rather inexperienced, and barely trained. They were pleasant enough though. They asked me questions, including my date of birth, which I refused. I have never given my date of birth to the police. I give my name and address to get bail, and that’s about it. Several times during the afternoon security guards came to my cell asking for my date of birth, or even my age to the nearest decade. I declined politely to co-operate and explained my view of the relationship between the citizen and the state. I was warned that I would be put ‘on the block’ and mistreated when I got to prison. Actually, my friend Stephen Hancock, the first person I knew who went to jail, refused to give his date of birth at Winston Green prison and was immediately punched in the stomach.

For some hours the guards said they couldn’t find any space in any prison (allegedly partly because of my non co-operation).

Double-handcuffed to a security guard (my hands handcuffed together, then handcuffed to him) I was led into a new prisoner transport van. The last time I was in one, it took about eight prisoners. This new van took only three – in roomier compartments – and was brand new. A guard sat just outside the cells, playing the radio, with shouted requests. Cells still don’t have seat belts. I thought about what would happen to us in our locked cells if there was an accident.

It was lovely to see the sea and the sunset, and the green fields of Sussex. We arrived at Lewes just after dark. I was last off the van, but first to be called to the desk. The reception desk sergeant was head-shakingly disappointed with my refusal to answer all his questions. Because I didn’t give my date of birth, he didn’t know my previous record – I could be a convicted sex offender, who should not have phone privileges – therefore I would not have phone privileges. He rang up the reception (induction) wing and told them so, in my hearing. I was photographed – this was turned into a photo badge that I have to wear the whole time – and digitally fingerprinted (thumb on top of a plastic box) and led off to Property. First I had to take off my clothes, including my underpants. I got to put those back on, and prison T shirt, sweatshirt, track suit bottoms. (I should have asked for boxer shorts and socks, as the older hands did.)

Then I went to the property desk. I’d brought over a dozen books – I was allowed to keep 10 for my cell. All my pens, paper and stamps were allowed. My mini radio was not – not still in its packaging, I was told by a prisoner later this was the reason. I was allowed to keep my newspapers and papers. Irritatingly, all the bits of paper bookmarks I’d put into the Qur’an were plucked out to be checked – for drugs I imagine. I now had a huge clear plastic bag full of books and paper and pens and so on. Oh, and envelopes. This meant I could write a letter as soon as I arrived in reception and post it when I got taken to ‘K’ wing, reception wing. There’s an office and put it in an ‘outgoing’ tray (elsewhere there’s a post box).

So three of us got led to ‘K’ wing, arriving after supper but an ‘orderly’ (trusted prisoner) gave us access to the kitchen for food. Later, when I had to throw away the excess food (you are always given three times more than you can eat) I went into the kitchen and got told off – there were bins outside and a sink for washing. I forgot to say that at reception I got given another big bag with toilet rolls, plate, bowl, mug, spoon, fork, knife (all plastic) which are mine for the duration.

On ‘K’ wing we saw a nurse straight away; lots of questions about drugs and so on. We also got interviewed by a senior officer (never call a senior officer ‘officer’) with lots of questions about drugs and so on. He was fairly pleasant, but exasperated by my refusal to answer most of his questions. ‘Pain in the arse’ and ‘polite but obstinate’ were his two verdicts. Then four of us – there was another new arrival, were led off ‘K’ wing, because the prison was too full.

If we’d stayed on ‘K’ wing we’d have been processed the next day – induction to prison, introduction to gym, etc. etc., then taken onto a normal wing the following day. This is not going to happen. We are on a special regime, just because of prison overcrowding. So we are in old-style cells, with in-cell toilets. The cell is 6’ 9” wide and 12’ 5” long with a bunk bed, a shower curtain around the toilet, a metal sink, two cupboards, two chairs and one table, and a hot water pipe (thin) and another hot water pipe (fat) which provide heat. There is a window set high on the wall (the cell is about 9’ high) which is 2’ by 2’6”, roughly. It has bars just outside the glass; we can open and close the glass windows.

The biggest difference between this cell and Pentonville ten years ago is that there is now a television in here. There is also supposed to be a kettle, but it doesn’t work. (Actually, apart from the TV and the kettle this is very similar to Pentonville ten years ago.) The television stays on from first thing to lights out (the light switch is in here, we get to choose when it’s on or off).

Television is a drug. television is the opium of the prisoners. Television is the world.


(Monday 21 November 2005)

Another way of looking at movements (and organizations) is by placing them in a three-dimensional space. There are 3 axes: atomization. empowerment and, er, I forget the third dimension for the moment. Atomization means that the membership of the movement or organization is a largely-unrelated mass of individuals. The socialist author Lu Xun described this as a “dish of loose sand” in 1920s China. He argued for social organization to overthrow feudal tyranny and colonial domination. This can come about through either authoritarianism or simple dis-organization; what has been referred to as either ‘ the tyranny of tyranny’ or ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’. If there is a committee or leadership and the membership is simply a mass of individuals, that’s one form of atomization. This is the sort of position now in many Western parliamentary democracies. The opposite of atomization is a movement composed of strong, democratic and autonomous local groups, who relate to each other, and who are the source of ideas and actions and strategic direction.

The ‘empowerment’ axis shows, at its worst, a movement that relies on the repetition of slogans, that is intellectually shallow. At the other end of the axis would be a movement of mutual education, and continual skill-sharing, a movement with the ambition of building a knowledge and skills base in each and every activist, to turn each and every activist into an educator, a public speaker, a confident and capable group participant/leader, and so on. A movement of real intellectual and practical skills.

Now, what was that third dimension again? (I first drew this diagram two weeks ago, in the margins of a Fellowship of Reconciliation conference of Young Peacemakers.) I’m not sure but I think the third dimension was top-down/grassroots-led. The first dimension was just whether the group was composed of unrelated atoms, or organized groups. This third dimension is whether the movement’s ideas, action and strategy arise from and are decided upon by a small committee (however selected) or whether the grassroots of the movement exert real leadership. (I’m not sure whether “grassroots” is/are singular or plural.)

Do these factors have any effect on the effectiveness of a movement (or organization)? Well, in the long-term, it is hard to see how a movement aiming to make a truly democratic society (national or international) can hope to do it if it is not itself deeply democratic. For most people engaged in any particular movement, the most important thing is the immediate objective pf the movement. The war, greenhouse gases, trade rules. And so on. Do thee factors affect the ability of an organization to achieve its immediate objectives? Well, it depends on your picture of how social change happens, but if grassroots mobilization is a critical factor in creating the political pressure for policy change, then it seems very likely that a movement of empowered local groups which pays attention to the knowledge and skills and confidence of each activist in each group will achieve its goals faster than a movement of atomized sloganeering individuals.

One again, this diagram is merely a way of assessing and describing a movement or an organization. It does not and cannot indicate how to move from one point to another, more effective position. Perhaps in the next eight days another diagram will emerge to help with this?


(Monday 21 November 2005)

Constantly flooded with corporate propaganda and elite culture that denigrates the activist movements, we have to struggle to keep our groups and movements together. For many movements, facing seemingly insurmountable odds, keeping up morale and bringing in new recruits can be difficult. Some causes can seem to be relics of the past. Bizarrely, despite the increasing risks of nuclear war, the nuclear disarmament movement is widely seen as obsolete, a considerable victory for the nuclear state.

For long term movements, whose goals involve challenging core elements of the state or the corporate system, there are dangers involved in an “architect” mode of activism. Abolishing nuclear weapons, for example, is an extremely long-term goal, as nuclear weapons are central to the status and power of the great powers. What shorter-term goals can there be that move the state towards disarmament and that also give that hands-on, ‘perceptible change’ experience – the “hairdresser” mode of activism?

Much the same could be said of many other major causes, including climate change, the “war on terrorism” (including Iraq), world development (including trade justice) and so on.

There are shocking, unexpected victories, like Seattle, when a blockade stopped world trade liberalisation in its tracks; or the earlier derailment of the ‘Multilateral Agreement on Investments’ (MAI).

In a way, however, it is still hard to connect any particular actions to the collapse of the MAI, and the victory in Seattle is inspiring but somewhat distant for most activists – who weren’t there.

The “hairdresser” experience is hands-on, face-to-face, and has visible results in a fairly short time period. Are there “hairdresser” experiences available even in the most unpromising fields of activism?

In a sense, the massive rally or march is an immediate, hands-on, face-to-face experience with visible results. But it can be hard to connect such events with desired changes.

The problem is that the target – policy change- is extremely hard to achieve. The question then is what other relevant targets activists can aim to influence that are easier to affect in a visible way, preferably in a short time frame.

Well, at the most personal level, the face-to-face encounter which alters someone’s attitude to the core issue is the closest thing to the ‘hairdresser’ moment. Building a mobilised majority is a crucial part of any of these long-term movements and a majority is built person-by-person.

What change could we aim for? To move someone one circle towards being a connected, engaged activist who organises others to carry out actions that pressure decision-makers. (see earlier piece about the concentric circles.)

How can we know whether we’ve changed someone in the right direction? Often by asking them to do something tangible like sign a petition or make a donation or buy a publication. It’s not whether they do it, necessarily, but the way their attitude changes, which can manifest itself in doing something physical (easier if it is financially costless), or making a pledge (perhaps to go to a meeting).

Political parties are based on a multi-stranded approach to campaigning but one key task in the electoral cycle is knocking on doors and soliciting pledges to vote from potential voters.

This is powerful communication, and also exactly the “hairdresser” experience.

On a large scale, the structure of public opinion can be measured, and campaigns to alter public opinion (either locally or nationally) can be assessed in quantitative and qualitative opinion polls. Local street polss can be educational opportunities and (in a rough and ready way) generate numbers to indicate the direction of public opinion.

In the face to face encounter, what matters is not whether someone signs the petition, but whether they move closer to the centre. If they are already supporters, what is important is to bring them into closer connection to the movement – to persuade then to be on a mailing list, to come to a meeting, to make a real commitment with some lasting value to them and to the movement.

The value of the concentric circles analysis is the way it re-focusses our attention, and makes us rethink what we are doing.

The value of the “hairdresser” analysis is the way that it focuses attention on producing satisfying activist experiences. These are not of course the only ways of framing activism. The over-arching need is to create pressure on decision-making, and in those terms what matters most is how many signatures there are. The point of these and other frameworks for re-thinking is to stimulate creativity and fresh ideas, to strengthen groups and movements. The emphasis in all these remarks is the interior life of the activist and of the movement. To discuss political activism simply in terms of the institutions and policies we confront os to tie one hand behind our backs and blindfold ourselves in the middle of the struggle.

We need to be effective and we need to feel effective if we are to have the strength to carry our campaigns to a successful conclusion.


(Monday November 21 2005)

The two prisoners in the next cell are both on methadone, a powerful heroin-substitute use for ‘detox’ inside and outside prison. Others in our group are also on ‘meth.’ Drugs crop up in conversation continually. One young prisoner, after executing a sidekick in the air, said he had done karate for six years, and would now have been working his way through the various grades of black belt if two years ago he hadn’t become involved in drugs, and stopped entirely.

The induction process into prison lays heavy emphasis on drugs, and offering drug rehab assistance and counselling. Opposite our cells is a notice board with powerful messages about drugs. One stresses the need to learn CPR to help your friends survive an overdose. Another warns of the lowered tolerance of addicts just released from jail (after a long period of abstinence). These seem realistic and likely to have an impact – whether they can change behaviour I don’t know.

I have met a prisoner who believes he has spent £100,000 on cocaine and crack – regularly spending £1000 each weekend. Even allowing for prison exaggeration, it is clear he has spent an enormous sum on an addiction he freely admits he does not control.

Drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive spending, and various other forms of addictive behaviour account for a considerable part of the prison population. Are the current methods of handling addictive behavioiurs working? Clearly not.

My own feeling is that both the problem and the solutions are being misdescribed and misunderstood. It is probably much more helpful to see a whole range of behaviours and conditions, including workaholism and various other mental illnesses as rooted in the same basic human situation.

We glibly say that human beings are social animals. What does that mean? The general sense is that human beings prefer to be in company, in the herd, that we are generally sociable. But that isn’t what ‘social’ means.

Being a herd animal doesn’t mean that we prefer to be part of a group; it means we need to be part of a group. It means that each individual is incomplete, and cannot feel complete unless part of a human group.

Q. What has all this to do with activism?
A. I am not sure, but let’s see where he is going with all this.

How is this incompleteness engineered? By making the animal’s sense of self, and estimation of self, partly dependent on the esteem of its peers, or – more accurately – what it perceives to be the judgment of its peers.

Human beings are the most complex and complicatedly social of all animals. We have an extraordinary capacity to be conscious not only of how others see us but also of how others perceive our ability to cope with how they see us, and so on, into ever more intricate halls of mirrors. I would not be at all surprised if ‘human consciousness’ – which puzzles us so much – did not arise precisely from this increasingly complex interplay of self consciousness, in an ever more complex social environment,

At the apogee of this detour, I will point out that unlike other large mammals, human beings have very considerable whites of their eyes visible at all times. In other large mammals, showing the whites of your eyes is threatening. In humans it is routine, perhaps because knowing who is looking at who, and with what emotion, is fundamental to judging the balance of power and esteem in a human group. It is a crucial part of the self-reflexive web of human society.

(Now be honest. If this wasn’t dumped into a prison notebook, would you have sat down to read such groundless speculation?)

What other people (seem to) think of us is crucial to our sense of self, to our position in society and to our physical and emotional health. There is a lot one can say here about studies of inequality, stress and health. I will focus on one aspect: emotional health linked with addictive behaviours and other disorders.

Why have rates of alcohol and drug addition been so high amongst Native Americans, or the Irish? Because both have experienced national defeat and colonization on a grand scale. It is nothing to do with genetics; it is to do with an internalized sense of defeat. When you look at other colonized people, you find the same thing. The frame of reference in which such people live is the imposed cultural and political and economic framework of the conquerors. The conquerors insist that they are the relevant peer group, and in the eyes of these ‘peers’ the colonized are worthless.

Racism has this dynamic. Addictive behaviours in western Black populations arises precisely in the situation where white people insist that they are the norm (and that it is other people who are ‘coloured.’); that they are the relevant peer group, and in that peer group the attributes of Black people are shameful and/or comical. One can say the same thing about class, where the upper middle class lifestyle is regarded as the norm, and the failures to reach this norm are felt as shameful.

Even amongst the most materially successful, drug addition is rife because what matters is not deprivation but relative deprivation, relative failure, in relation to the dominant peer group. As the gradations of social failure become finer, they cut more deeply. Those lacerations can lead to the damaged sense of self that leads to alcoholism, addition or other forms of self harm and emotional disconnectedness.

The situation of the alcoholic is that s/he regards her/himself as worthless in relation to the peer group, and living in this world is painful for that reason, because all around are people who can observe and condemn her/his past and present worthlessness. Something is needed that can remove the pain of other peoples’ perceived contempt.

The situation of the workaholic is that they regard themselves as worthless in relation to the task (as s/he defines it), to the peer group, and to the unseen judge who determines the quality and adequacy of the work that is done. Living in this world is painful because all around are people who can observe and condemn their past and present worthlessness and inadequacy. All around is the invisible Judge who can observe and condemn the failure of their efforts to complete the task (as s/he, the workaholic, believes the Judge has defined it.)

Something is needed that can remove the pain of the perceived contempt from other people and from the Judge. In truth, the workaholic feels inadequate to the world of human society.

And who said this column wasn’t about acitivism?

Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had startling results in rehabilitating addicts because the emphasis was on replacing the mental and cultural framework of white racist society with the mental and cultural framework of Black nationalism, Black Power and Black pride.

The emphasis was on harnessing the talents and energy of the addict into struggle for the benefit of the Black community. There were less savoury aspects of the programme also – the mirror image racism towards white people, for example. But the point I want to make is that this worked.

A new peer group, constructive work towards a desirable group purpose, a new evaluation of self within a new framework, some way of expunging the shame of the past and replacing it with pride and confidence, and respect and full membership of the new peer group. These are the new hallmarks of successful rehabilitation programmes, whether in Black Nationalism, al-Qaeda (as among the Leeds bombers) or Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes.

What is the relevance of all this to activists? Well, there are obvious dangers around workaholism, which must be countered if we are to have healthy groups and healthy movements. One long-suffering, resentful and dominating workaholic who refuses to delegate and who refuses to share work and responsibility can put off dozens of potential activists and drag the activity and energy of a group down to the lowest possible level above brain death. (And no, I don’t want to receive lots of letters from past victims of my behaviour along these lines, thank you).

Workaholism is an emotional problem, not a heroic sacrifice for the cause.

A little bit more generally: what we want are groups that can replicate the best characteristics of re-orientation and rehabilitation groups. Groups that can build up our confidence and self-esteem and help us to define our own peer groups, and establish our values of society. Groups that are not defensive, but self-confident, grounded in our communities, rooted in traditions of social change, and open to innovation. We can complete ourselves, our societies, and the world.


(Tuesday 22 November 2005)

Noam Chomsky once wrote, in the course of a stunning defence of the non-violent civil disobedience of Phil and Daniel Berrigan, that civil disobedience could be justified in certain circumstances but that it could also be self-indulgence.

The most important thing about any political action, and this includes civil disobedience, is the impact (the likely foreseeable consequences) on those who are powerless and at risk (perhaps future generations). Just because an action is non-violent doesn’t mean that it is guaranteed not to harm the prospects of the community at the centre of your concerns. (For the sake of brevity we will define “non-violent” as “not involving physical harm or the threat of physical harm to any human being”.)

Just because an act of civil disobedience is non-violent does not mean it is morally justified. To take an extreme example, Israeli settlers physically non co-operating with the closure of illegal settlements in the occupied territories might be impeccably, even classically non-violent, but that would not make it just.

So the foreseeable consequences and the objectives of the action are both important parts of judging the validity of an action. Crucial though is whether there is an evil of such enormity that it justifies the breaking – or apparent breaking – of the law. (often actions are entirely legal in the light of international law, but risk arrest, prosecution and conviction by court systems which ignore the larger human and/or legal context.

One of the points Chomsky makes is that while it is entirely correct to be concerned at the way civil disobedience weakens the rule of law and the bonds on which our social order is constructed, the reverse question is at least equally valid: what about the social consequences of our obedience and conformism, our unwillingness to break ranks and resist great crimes?

All this is preamble to one particular aspect of the civil disobedience question. One justification Chomsky offers for civil disobedience is that it encourages activists engaged in apparently hopeless causes.

Now perhaps we see one of the roots of this whole ‘hairdresser-architect’ discussion. (Incidentally, today I received a letter from an architect who thought the encapsulation of the architect’s position was accurate!)

How do activists keep their spirits up? One ‘hairdresser’-type experience is certainly the civil disobedience experience.

I must be absolutely clear that none of the activists I’ve ever met or heard of have ever engaged in civil disobedience in order to keep their spirits up. People I know who engage in civil disobedience do so because they are confronting massive crimes – such as the nuclear arms race (which continues without an opponent), the war in Iraq, the many-headed assault on the world’s future that we call ‘climate change’, and so on.

Nevertheless, for most folks I’ve known, civil disobedience has been empowering to some degree. Face-to-face with the State, often in proximity to key decision-makers or to the site of production/storage, non-violent civil disobedience is a hands-on experience with immediate and tangible consequences. Whether it is morally justified, or a form of adventurism and self-indulgence is another matter (I realize these questions pose themselves sharply in relation to the action that led me here to Lewes.)

Whether there are tangible gains in relation to the goals of the movement is also another question. There may be intangible gains in terms of encouraging and inspiring others, particularly if the arrest, prosecution and/or imprisonment can challenge and encourage others to extend the range and intensity of their efforts.

The interior experience of non-violent civil disobedience, for a properly-motivated, fairly stable and well-prepared activist, can be extremely empowering, even liberating. It can release enormous energies. It doesn’t necessarily do so, but it can.

Why? Because our biggest obstacles to effective action are (1) the debilitating power of mainstream propaganda, which affects us more deeply and in more ways than we are aware of; and (2) our many fears around action.

Civil disobedience is, first and foremost, an exercise in facing up to our fears. Sometimes facing up to our fears leads rationally to the decision that it is not an appropriate path at this point in one’s life.

My own path into civil disobedience started by accompanying my friend Stephen Hancock. Stephen pioneered the Ploughshares movement in the UK, and used to hold vigils outside embassies when Ploughshares activists were on trial in different countries (for hammering on military equipment).

We would stand outside embassies, the two of us, and the police would ask us to move across the road. I would comply immediately and nervously. Stephen would stand tall, look the police officer in the eye and say calmly that it was more effective to stand immediately outside the embassy that he was handing leaflets out about.

He would be threatened with arrest. He’d politely but firmly tell the officer that this was a decision for that officer. He was perfectly willing to be arrested if that was the consequences of standing on that side of the road. And he was ready to be arrested. But he never was.

Just as, in 17 years of being involved in civil disobedience, I’ve been arrested around that many times, and each time refused to give my date of birth (there’s no legal obligation to do so), and always been threatened with all sorts of dire consequences, which have never been implemented.

So this time, at the beginning of this imprisonment, I was told at the magistrates court that I must give my date of birth or I would be put into solitary (‘the block’) and punished in various ways once I got to prison.

This might have happened at some prisons, I don’t know, but here no one hinted at such a thing. I have been deprived of phone privileges – on the grounds that they can’t check my previous criminal record, and I might be a sex offender who should not have access to the phone.

The psychic effect of the kind of civil disobedience I’m talking about is that you have to be prepared to accept all the possible consequences of your action, and then be open to the decisions others make.

Strangely, in this process you have to overcome (not suppress, but some digest) your fears and by that means you gain psychological control of the situation.

By setting the limit of your co-operation with the state – in your initial action and/or during your subsequent confinement – you are not, and cannot be made into a victim. You have taken personal power.

That power is rooted in an honest appraisal of your ability to pay the cost of your actions, and a genuine willingness to follow that path to its ultimate conclusions. Just as parents cannot afford to make empty threats, activists cannot afford to take actions in the belief that they will not have the full consequences.

As they say in prison, ‘don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time’.

There must always be some uncertainty in such self-searching, and some form of faith in the face of the unknown. What helps is the personal example of others who have gone before, and the demystifying of all the procedures and possibilities by seeing them set out in full. If you see someone assert themselves, without anger or fear, as I saw Stephen assert himself, it heartens you.

There is a point of view that civil disobedience is the natural destination for all activists, and that it is the key that can unlock the energies of the movement, that it can rally the divided and downheartened. I hope it is clear from what I have written that I believe civil disobedience can be justified in certain circumstances, and that it can have powerful effects on the individual and the movement. But I am doubtful that it can be quite as powerful or as natural as some hope. I’m thinking of the present anti-war movement in particular. I have some other thoughts on movement building I’ll try to explore in the next few days. For now, I’d like to conclude with some random remarks.

Firstly, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is that fact that avowed revolutionaries, Marxists who are psychologically preparing themselves for the barricades and for urban warfare, are often the least likely people in the movement to risk arrest.

It’s those they sneer at as ‘liberals’, or ‘bourgeois’ activists (I’m not totally sure how to spell ‘bourgeois’) who end up putting their liberty and often their lives on the line. Of course one can look back to the Spanish Civil War, but in the present day is there any avowedly socialist solidarity organization as brave as the Christian Peacemaker Teams which provide unarmed bodyguards for trade union leaders in terrifying dictatorships? Where are the revolutionaries who have physically stopped warplanes from being exported to dictatorships or used in war?

There is a peculiar ‘conservatism of the revolutionary’ which can hinder popular movements (just as there is an ‘extremism of the revolutionaries’ which can also harm their development).

Nevertheless, Chomsky warns us not the make any particular tactic a criterion of ‘radicalism’. He warns that it is only the goal of a particular campaign or action that can be radical or not. The means chosen, whether it risks arrest or it works within established political channels, cannot be either ‘radical’, ‘liberal’ or ‘reactionary’.

Having said that, it seems clear that in confronting destructive institutions that dominate modern western society such as transnational corporations, the military-industrial complex, the state itself, no major social changes are likely to come about without wrenching social disruption and mass civil disobedience. When we look at the incomplete struggle for African-American liberation in the US, and the turmoil that was necessary to advance as far as we have, we see an indication of what lies ahead in struggles confronting more central elements of the current system of domination.

Coming back to the main theme of these remarks, empowerment is a common experience of those led to non-violent civil disobedience by their outrage at things-as-they are. Overcoming fears on one area can lead to overcoming fears in other areas (public speaking, media interviews, the risk of social ostracism by one’s community, financial insecurity). Engaging in civil disobedience for just ends can remove some of the boundaries that we have placed on our lives.

I personally have no doubt that I am psychologically more healthy because of the involvement in civil disobedience and the companionship of very brave and committed activists. (You may ask ‘more healthy than what?’ but let’s not go there.) Personal development was the last thing on my mind when I stepped out on this road, and it was the last thing on my mind when I approached the Foreign Office last year, but I see the effects of deep personal commitment in many people around me.

What we are finding, I think, is somewhere stable to make a stand, some voice inside that can be trusted, and that is not tempted or intimidated by what authority can offer or threaten.

Chomsky observes that the civil rights movement, at the very least, produced an enormous number of better human beings. I’ve been privileged to meet this generation’s equivalent in many places, in Britain and outside, and I think their hallmark is integrity.


(Wednesday 23 November 2005)

Yesterday (22 November) I received a letter from Nottingham Student Peace Movement, musing on the scope and limits of university activism. (Incidentally, the letter is dated 21 November, so you have some idea of how fast things are turning around at this just-in-time (or is that stuck-in-time) prison.)

Dan Robertson expresses frustration at the unwillingness of many students to ‘leave their comfort zone to take more radical positions’. Now I think by now you know what is going to happen. I’m going to take some of Chomsky’s comments on the topic, reproduce them in somewhat less elegant language, and embroider them.

As an academic, Chomsky has had a lot of time to think about the topic, but he’s rarely written about it. One point he has made about the academic scene is that there is a dramatic change of attitude between students and even young faculty, who are only a year or so away from being students themselves. He also points out the recurring pattern of students going of for summer jobs at commercial law firms, for example, thinking they are only going to earn some money, to help them with their debts, and then coming back with an entirely different outlook, often wearing different clothes.

Every radical student knows about the hidden agenda of the classroom; and the tacit lessons taught unobtrusively in the course of the school day, lessons in obedience and conformity. The same is true, even more powerfully, of the re-shaping that goes on under the surface at work – even at university.

Another foundational remark from Chomsky concerns the objectives of university reform. Now barely detectable as a live issue, university reform (in a liberatory sense) was a major concern thirty years ago. Chomsky pointed out that what mattered was not alterations to boards of trustees or such like, but the content of the curriculum and the relationship between staff and students.

In passing, one might note the same about industrial relations, and the workplace. As we have seen in Germany recently, putting a few token trade unionists on a board is more likely to lead to corruption of the labour movement leadership than real changes towards industrial democracy on the shop floor.

Universities are locations of enormous privilege and provide students and faculty with intellectual skills, wide resources and considerable leisure, which can and should be used to contribute intellectually as well as bodily to movements for social change.

Chomsky says that intellectuals should make their ideas dominant by their excellence. Quite a challenge, but it’s hard to see what the alternative there is.

Okay, back to “comfort zones”, and student activism. Why should someone become active, and take some part in a movement – “join” the movement? Why should they take a more sceptical attitude towards the mainstream media and official propaganda – let alone the accepted framework of the social sciences, for example?

The only reasons that move someone would be (a) a compelling and irrefutable picture of something that they find outrageous and (b) compelling and irrefutable arguments that undermine official lies and received wisdom.

What often provides the key for change is something that makes the picture or the argument human.

Chomsky is very self-deprecating about his own tactical judgements. One example he has given is the sanctuary offered by MIT students to a US soldier who had gone Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL) in protest against the Vietnam War. Chomsky argued against it – I think because he thought it would receive too little support, and would fall flat.

In the event, the sanctuary was a massive success, with students flocking up to the hall where Mike (I forget his surname) was staying. Teachers moved their classes there, students slept there; the sanctuary apparently changed opinion on campus. Instead of arguing in the abstract, students were confronted with a young person much like themselves, facing an appalling decision, and they changed their minds as the arguments were put in this new human framework, with a new sense of immediacy. (Face-to-face, hands-on immediate involvement. Familiar?) The sanctuary ended when Mike was arrested and taken off to face military courts. The effect on MIT seems to have been substantial and lasting.

So why would someone move out of their comfort zone – whether on campus or anywhere else? There are lots of reasons not to. In marketing, in the commercial world, there is an emphasis on understanding and resonating with the attitudes of those you are trying to influence, repeating your message regularly and in a variety of ways. Advertising is based on manipulation, campaigning is about honesty and persuasion, but there are useful lessons that we can learn, nevertheless.

Dan writes, quite rightly, ‘even the realisation that those calling for radical change are not easily pigeon-holed and derided [as] “hippies” or “nihilists”, but are compassionate and intelligent human is actually an important step in some cases.’ This applies outside university as well.

Finally, there is another attitude shift which is of equal importance, which is for intellectuals, whether “radical”, “liberal” or “conservative”, to rid themselves of the delusion that their form of literacy and education means that they are both more intelligent and (therefore) more suited to dominate and rule the less-highly-schooled.

Intellectuals must free themselves of the contempt for “the masses” which has undermined movements for social change in the past. If they can form a true partnership with other working people, intellectuals can help rather than hinder social progress.


(Wednesday 23 November 2005)

Today I received a card from Suffolk asking "What is it we can do for the best result to stop all the madness?" While only a fool would attempt to answer such a question (see below for first attempt), I have to admit that it is much more fun to be challenged than congratulated.

In the 1980s, I was certain that the most pressing issue in the world was the threat of nuclear weapons. I could not understand why anyone could put energy into any other cause when the United States was about to deploy radically destabilising nuclear weapons bringing nuclear war much closer. Today similar arguments could be be put forward for climate change, or bird flu (which has political dimensions not yet explored in the mainstream media). But today there ismuch greater awareness of the need for autonomous movements operating with common values on parallel (and sometimes overlapping) agendas. (I'm not quite sure of the agendas there.) There is much greater mutual respect between movements than there used to be - and much greater interchange in so many ways between activists in different movements.

Just as there are tensions between "hairdresser" and "architect" modes of action, so there are tensions between single-issue politics, often international in scope, and local or community workplace organising which must arise out of, and be directed by, the attitudes and perceived interests of communities or workforces.

There is no way of prioritising between these various issues + poles - all are necessary for successful social change. But each individual and each group must make her / its own priorities. What is essential for effective action is to have a clear and honest understanding of the contribution you can make as an individual on a sustainable basis, in terms of time, energy, risk, and money, and to contribute wholeheartedly in the group setting. As individuals, we are not only powerless, we are at risk of becoming psychically unbalanced in a world dominated by state propaganda. As members of a group, we can support each other, and we can multiply the power of our efforts.

As activists, we need to have the facts to support our arguments; we need the organisation to focus and channel our energies; and we need the courage to take actions that can persuade and challenge others. We need to educate ourselves and others; we need to be part of information communities. We need to form and support organisations that can mobilise our energies into politically-effective action, and that can develop out skills and confidence across a broad range of competences. We need to get out into the world and engage with the people we seek to persuade. On the street, at work, amongst family and friends, online, in our social circles. And we need to encourage each other. Amazingly, people respond better to encouragement than to criticism, however "constructive".

What's the best form of encouragement? Descriptive praise. Not giving a judgement, but a description of the things you like, and how they made you feel, or someone else feel, as a result.

Making a group work is really *hard* work. But it is laying the foundations for a better society. The bonds we make between us are the bonds that our future will be built on. There are no Special People out there waiting to be discovered, Chosen Ones who will step out and make change. Change will be made by the people around us, but not as they are; they and we will be transformed in the process of making change.

Worker's control of industry will be exercised by the workers we see around us. Community control by the neighbours around us. But we will all be different. Another World Is Possible.