published recently in Peace News.
The Defiant Ones
“Run!!” The activist yanked on the plasti-cuffs tying him to the academic. “Run THIS way NOW.”
They fled. They fled the tear-gas and the screaming and the thud thud thud overhead. They ran through streets littered with abandoned placards, past puddles of blood and reefs of glass. Ducking into shops, out back exits, through alleys and over fences, leaving the terrifying kettle and the mass de-arrest behind them.
They walked along the pavement, holding hands as if they cared about each other and needed each other. They were looking for a hardware store.
The activist kept a casual smile on his face. “What were you doing, just standing there as the cops came charging down that street?”
“I, er… I -”
“Did you think they wouldn’t re-arrest you once you’d explained that you are some junior lecturer at Rummidge Polytechnic?”
The academic winced. “The disjuncture between my previous predictions and the empirical …”
The activist cut in “Stop hiding behind words. You froze. That’s fine. Most of us do, the first time. But we’re tied together now, until we find a way to get this off. So don’t freeze again!”
The academic’s eyes clamped shut briefly, a shallow nod of the head and a noise something between a sigh and a whimper.
“What were you even doing there, after the march was dispersed?”
“I needed to be. We’re writing a paper – ‘Contested and contesting corpo-realities: the psycho-physical enaction of dissent in …’”
“Enough! You wanted to have some eye-witness crap for some article you’re cobbling together. Yeah. We get that a lot – you academics come ask to study us, all chummy and promising collaboration. Then you disappear to write something that doesn’t come out for years, and when it does in some weird journal behind a paywall. And in language none of us can understand. Were you planning to dress up your banalities with – let me guess – that Derrida guy. Or maybe ‘Fucko’?”
“It’s Foucault, and…”
“No shit Sherlock! Look, keep looking for somewhere that might have some heavy-duty pliers.”
They walked on. After a minute the academic spoke. “Ranciere and Badiou are more contemporary theoreticians of …”
The activist stopped. “Keep this up, and I am walking us to the nearest police station, you hear me? Christ on a bike, why couldn’t I have gotten chained to Noam Chomsky??”
The activist looked on in admiration as the academic’s forearm moved up and down rhythmically. The plastic was fraying, heating and bending against the exposed metal of the bookshelf
“I gotta hand it to you. I thought they had us back there.”
The hardware shop plan had come to nought as sweeper squads spread out. They’d seen other pairs rounded up, but, with the benefit of luck and a single staff library card, they had left the mean streets for an oasis of calm and knowledge.
The academic tried some rusty French: “C’est une tour ivorienne. Esperons que l’Etat ne voit rien…”
The cuffs gave way…
The activist rubbed his wrist, and moved his watch over the tell-tale band. It wouldn’t pass close inspection. He looked at the time. “We’d better stay put until there’s a shift change. Now’s your chance to convince me.” He gestured around the huge room, with miles of books. “All this – all this scribble scribble scribble – how do you think it matters to what we are trying to do?”
The academic grimaced. “Are you a Luddite?”
The activist rolled his eyes. “First, some of my best friends are Luddites. Second, you’re mis-using the term. And third, if you’re asking am I anti-intellectual, that’s a straw man. You’re pretending that all academics are intellectuals, and all intellectuals are academics. It ain’t necessarily so.”
The academic reluctantly nodded. “There’s that quote by…”
The activist raised a warning finger. “This better be good!”
“Gramsci: “All men are intellectuals, but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.”
“People, sure. I don’t believe in retrofitting non-sexist language onto quotes like that. We should remember how far we’ve had to come. Give me five minutes.”
The academic disappeared into the shelves….
The academic dropped a stack of books on the desk. “They may meet your need for rigorous but relevant research.”
The activist picked up the top one. “Debbie Louis: And We Are Not Saved?”
The academic nodded – “It’s an account – by a participant- of the mechanics of the black civil rights struggle, and what happened to it after the ‘success’ – the academic made finger “air quotes” – of the Civil Rights Act.”
The activist tilted his head – a grudging thank you. He picked up the next one.
“Kathleen Blee: Democracy in the Making- How activist groups form.” He read the author details. “Louis was a doer. Why should I care what some pointy-headed sociologist thinks?”
“Because Blee mixes theory and her own experiences of watching activist groups fail as well as thrive. And her commitment to the communicative endeavour in the absence of terminologica-”
“You mean she writes English, not academese?”
There was a rueful smile in reply.
“Hmm, okay. What else ya got?”
“There’s a huge field of social movement studies – Tilly, Doug McAdam. Stuff on repertoires, framing – that’s David Snow etc. Emotions and how they are used in social movements– James Jasper and others. Spill-over, social movement learning.”
The activist held up his hand. “Wait up. You’re the bookworm. I’m trying to stop drone attacks on innocent peasants, prevent GM food from ending up on supermarket shelves and stop the poor paying the price for climate change ‘solutions.’ So have you got one single book I should read?”
The academic’s shoulders slumped. “It doesn’t work like that. But if you put a gun to my head… you could try Suzanne Staggenborg’s “Social Movements.” But there’s so much more to academia than just reading about yourself. There’s the politics and economics of social change, there’s resilience…”
The activist looked again at his watch. “I don’t know about you, but I am starving. I could eat a slab of tofu the size of a horse. You got five minutes on change and then resilience. Then we go our separate ways.”
The challenge was accepted. “So how and when do things change? From, say, sail ships to steam ships, or horse-and-cart to cars, or -”
“Fossil fuels to renewables?”
“Exactly. They’re called ‘socio-technical transitions.’ And the best way – in my opinion – to think about these is using the “Multi-Level Perspective.”
“Oh yeah, baby. That terminology is really gonna fly at our next skill-share.”
The academic ploughed on. “Well – and this is crude because you’ve only given me five minutes. Let’s take your grassroots social change efforts as an example. At the ‘top’ you’ve got the landscape – the collapse of communism, the attacks on the welfare state, the growing sense that things are unsustainable, the Arab Spring.”
“Police surveillance and physical restraint?” The activist showed his plasticuff.
“Yes. Among other things. And then at the ‘regime’ level you have organisations that mediate protest and dissatisfaction – the unions, the established NGOs, with their budgets and their relationships – with funders and government – to protect. And then you’ve got the niche –actors.”
“Climate Camp? UK Uncut?”
“Yes, among many others. And the niche actors experiment with new forms of protest. Some get abandoned, repressed. Others get adopted and adapted by the big beasts…”
“And nothing changes?”
The academic shrugged. “Peut-etre. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
The activist pondered. “This ‘multi-level perspective’? Can I find some stuff on the web?”
The academic smiled. “I’ll send you links. Now, on ‘resilience’ – you’d like a piece by MacKinnon and Derickson on how the word “resilience” is constraining activist thought and reinforcing elite conceptions of security.”
The activist conceded the point. “’In theory’, I would. And all of it safely tucked away in places like this, or behind paywalls set up by a bunch of plutocratic academic publishers?”
“ Much of it you can find for free, or via academia.edu. Or you could even email the academics and ask for under-the-table copies. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“And maybe we could get you to translate it into English for us?”
The academic winced. “That’s time-consuming. I’m not trained in it, and I wouldn’t get any Research Evaluati…”
The activist’s jaw dropped. “You fucker. You come along and write these articles on the back of our activity. You write these turgid theoretical…”
A breaking point: “Fuck you right back, you complacent self-righteous little prick. You’re forever proclaiming your moral superiority and how you’re a volunteer. Well, either you’re a trustafarian or you’re probably doing it for a couple of years after university until something better paid comes along. You never read history, you never try to learn anything. You make sweeping statements based on how you want the world to be. And then you expect ME to do all the translating? Would you even meet me half way? Eh?”
They froze, as a security guard walked into the room. He could sense the tension, but since they were silent, he walked out. The spell was broken…
* * *
“Thanks for coming. Let me buy you some fair-trade coffee and vegan cake to apologise for my behaviour.” The activist beckoned her into the social centre, with its mismatched chairs, its passion and hope.
He guided them to a table where she would be sat looking a rack of leaflets and booklets. Her eyes grew saucer-like as she plucked up a very new booklet. She held it in her hands, and raised an eyebrow
“The Defiant Ones”, or “Looting the Ivory Tower: Why and how activists can learn from what academics write.” “You wrote this?”
He grinned and shrugged. “Well, we both did – but you can’t use it towards your citations target. I just nicked what I could remember from our screaming match after we left the library…”
She smiled. “Cake. I was promised cake.”
While he fetched cake, and left her ten quid in the tips jar, she flicked through it. It had sections on how academics and activists faced similar pressures of time and uncertainty, and had – like any sub-culture – encrusted jargon, and rituals of status-seeking that cut against their professed goals.
And she pondered the epigram, from Susan George:
Study the rich and powerful, not the poor and powerless. Any good work done on peasants’ organisations, small farmer resistance to oppression, or workers in agribusiness can invariably be used against them. One of France’s best anthropologists found his work on Indochina being avidly read by the Green Berets. The situation becomes morally and politically even worse when researchers have the confidence of their subjects. The latter then tell them things the outside world should not learn, but eventually does. Don’t aid and abet this kind of research. Meanwhile, not nearly enough work is being done on those who hold the power and pull the strings. As their tactics become more subtle and their public pronouncements more guarded, the need for better spade-work becomes crucial. If you live in an advanced country, you undoubtedly have the social and cultural equipment to meet these people on their own terms and to get information out of them. Let the poor study themselves. They already know what is wrong with their lives and if you truly want to help them, the best you can do is to give them a clearer idea of how their oppressors are working now and can be expected to work in the future.
The police were waiting for her outside the centre, asking who she’d talked to and why.
She thought of all the things she could say, all the things she knew. And what she should say.