Over the summer and early autumn of 2012, Penny Waterhouse from NCIA gathered information about activism springing up locally and about the different models of radical support for this action. She collected 54 personal contributions and 22 examples from trawling the internet (to see the paper click the link in red below).

Her investigation threw up a number of questions that are particularly important for activists, including:

Where do we put our energies – to save voluntary and community services from the grasp of the state and to urge them back into their communities? To get established umbrella groups to do their job properly? To focus on campaigning?

What is being built from all the agitation - how can we make it more, what links and common cause can be built across different or potential dissenters? Which will give us the greatest chance for social and economic change – all approaches or only certain ones?

On the 30th November thirty people from a wide range of organisations came together to discuss the findings of Penny's research.  Only so much can be done in three hours.  This is an opportunity to widen and prolong that discussion

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Human history has, to a large extent, been the domination and exploitation of the many by the powerful few. Prior to the advent of modern political democracy, armed rebellion was virtually the only effective response to oppression. Open dissent and organised activism can, fortunately, occur with a modicum of safety within a politically democratic situation like ours. Since no given situation is likely to suit everyone, dissent and activism will probably never cease - unless it's obliterated.
The research Penny recently conducted confirms what most of us instinctively realised, that today's activism comes in many shapes and sizes and is constantly evolving in a kaleidoscope of diverse activity.
The driving force behind activism is often a highly motivated individual on a mission, more likely to embrace support rather than direction and guidance.
Activism usually occurs at a local level. It's rare for an entire nation to become enraged, on mass, by a hated national policy, such as the poll tax, and even rarer for an issue to gain wide international support, like Save the Whales. 
It is difficult to bring together massive numbers in a common cause and even more difficult to achieve the object of united action by bringing sustained and unrelenting pressure on those responsible for the status quo. What was achieved by the UK's biggest ever public demonstration, that against the Iraq War?
The situation within the UK has changed somewhat since the coalition government came into power.  Now we are up against 'Austerity', the elite's chosen response to their financial crisis.
Many people now realise that, since the deregulation of the financial sector in the 70's, the power of trans-national corporations has grown to overwhelm that of national governments. The traditional remedy of democratically changing the ruling government no longer works as all the major political parties now cater to the 'Market', not the electorate.
Interesting but extremely worrying times we live in.
So where does that leave Dissent & Activism?

It's really important to stand 'for' something. It ain't good enough any more to be simply 'against' things. This, for me, is the part of the struggle. How do I get to 'nirvana' ?  More to the point how do we change things in the face of the overwhelming hegemony of a neo-liberal system that just won't listen?

What we do is tell the story to whoever does want to listen. The story goes like this: Once upon a time there was a group of people who had slightly more than others. They got together and set the rules in their favour. This meant that they got significantly more than others because of how they had organised things. The more they got; the more influence they got; the more influence they got the more power they had to create the world in their image. One of the things they did was tightly control the real means of production...money. They created it out of thin air and controlled almost everything. They had a monopoly! What they didn't reckon on what that reality had a habit of interfering. Reality came along and peeped behind the facade of their 'money creation' racket and showed it up for the pantomime that it really was. The whole system was revealed in all it's glory as having a fur coat and no knickers. The emperor was naked! The supporters of the naked emperor rallied round and bailed out the nudey ruler with clothing stolen from the hoi poloi (which is Greek for 'the people'). This left the people cold and hungry and austere and asking themselves 'hang on this isn't right, what can we do about this?'. It seemed like no one was there to help them, not the Press, not the hoi politician, nor the judges, nor the public servants. However underneath it all there was a bunch of people who were called activists or occupy, or NatCAN or NCIA or the Scouts or 'the people who are so pissed off with things they are thinking the unthinkable' who gathered together in small or large groups to ask really awkward questions about who can create money and who controls things. They asked their awkward questions and then came up with awkward solutions and things changed for the better and we all lived happily ever after.

Keep on keeping on!


on the topic of the stop the war coalition being the biggest action for years and not achieving anything, i'd say this. the main difference between then and now is that there was a labour govt in charge. their traditional leaning (in rhetoric at least) towards supporting the likes of anc, plo, sinn fein etc left many of threir supporters to believe they supported peoples groups against oppresion. when they presented the iraq war in terms of stopping oppresion, many of their root and branch supporters were behind them. while they were happy to voice their opposition (the marches), they werent prepared to sustain a long campaign on the ground which would threaten their hold on govt.

Thank you Joe for posting and Penny for assembling.

Very interesting! "The bad news is that most local voluntary and community groups, as agencies, are not involved in active resistance".....yes a 'corporatist' approach.......trading 'good behaviour' for contracts, grants etc....


However.....a glimmer of hope maybe the thousands of "below the radar" small community groups and their activities......? [More on this from 3rd Sector Research Centre at B'ham  Uni/Angus McCabe]




in overcast Chelters

Hi James
When you say "most local voluntary and community groups, as agencies, are not involved in active resistance," let's be clear. Voluntary Sector organisations act as agencies (often using members of the community willing to work, under direction, for nothing) and they are not involved in active resistance because the can afford to be. Community Groups are involved in active resistance - it's where most of the active resistance come from.  Also, "the thousands of below the radar small community groups" is an understatement - they actually number in the hundreds of thousands and make up, by far, the bulk of 'civil society', 'the third sector', 'the VCS' - call it what you will (Big Society?).
NCIA has for years been fighting a losing battle against the take-over of the Voluntary Sector by which ever government happens to be in power, to the degree that it has become little more than an arm of the state - conclusively underlined by the now infamous letter from magnificent 14 (984 views as of now to the Not In Our Name discussion)
One of the other questions arising from Penny's research was:
Do we give up on the voluntary sector and their umbrella groups as allies in resistance?
Would be interested in a few opinions on that particular topic, thought it's not the major item by any means.
The research paper has opened up a wide debate on very important issues as far as 'activists' are concerned and there is a lot to be discussed before any sort of consensus about a possible way forward can  reached.
So let's discuss - and bring people as many as possible into the discussion.

I like the old slogan 'resistance is fertile'. It comes in different forms in different places, and different things will grow at different times. But whether it succeeds or fails, it does two things at least. First, it keeps alive the idea that there are alternative ways of thinking (many alternatives, not just 'an alternative'). Second, it provides something tangible others can join in with if they wish.

I'm with Bren in saying that it's not enough to be against things: you have to articulate what you stand for and how you think it should be achieved. 

The voluntary sector is a broad church by anyone's standards and will include supporters of the current government as well as its opponents. And to be an 'activist' doesn't require you to have a particular political mindset. So we need to identify the issues where we can make common cause and have shared values. Is this a battle against government, against certain elements within government, or against the people who have decided that survival means engaging with government? Are we standing for a particular political position, or more broadly in support of the people who are suffering as a result of central and local government decisions? 

I think there are three things that are worth putting energy into, and they're not mutually exclusive:

1 Seek to influence the wider political debate with a coherent, thought-through 'manifesto for communities' that can be put before politicians and policy makers over the next year or two;

2 Get involved in local, on-the-ground networks that chime with your own concerns and interests and influence what happens where you are;

3 Through our own behaviour, model the kind of actions we want to see taken at a wider scale. Don't spend money with tax dodging corporations unless you have no choice; stand up for people who are bearing the brunt of austerity; make a positive difference in whatever way you can, however small; vote actively for people with a better vision of the future.

I think these will have more lasting and positive effects than arguing about the failings of voluntary sector umbrella groups.

In response to Penny's research:

Totally agree re "the right to dissent, as part of a healthy democratic society."

She goes on to say that "most local voluntary and community groups, as agencies, are not involved in active resistance"; implying that their staff - as individuals - may well be (engaged in resistance).

BIG Q 1 - "where do we put our energies?"; my view is that we are about alleviating immediate poverty & suffering and campaigning for medium/longer term change...

"people is the biggest limit".....interms of numbers? Skills/lack of?

What lessons from the inquiry? I'd suggest we acknowledge that there will be short & longer-term joiners; those committed, those less so, those semi-detached! And that all are welcome...and that each can contribute according to their own skills, interests and enthusiasms....ALL ARE WELCOME!

James :)

At the NCIA Planning Group on 30th November, 30 people active in campaigns, community groups and unions debated, argued and sparked ideas for future action on these and other big questions. Ideas for action, locally and nationally, are:

 Small groups and individuals affected by cuts are the backbone and reality of resistance – encourage the growing connections between groups and individuals. Personal relationships are what it’s all about.

 Look for concrete actions around which to organize across different interests

 Gather together and share the alternative manifestos which are beginning to spring up. Find common understandings and rallying points for joint action. Make it practical and concrete, to tackle the material pressures on people.

 Use social and other media to broadcast these demands and to challenge the status quo

 Find the politics and stories in these manifestos, to share and debate

 Use the language of morality and reality: plain and honest vocabulary to express our ideas and relationships

 Create alliances and homes across all types of dissidents who share a common cause, whether inside or outside the system

 Be out there and visible, to make the changes.

We were also left with many big questions hanging:

 Can unions become again a home for resistance and alternatives?

 Where is the left? Is it relevant to see the left as a rallying call or is it divisive?

 Are voluntary services now too compromised by funding to speak out for people affected by cuts and austerity?

 How can we support each other in our different struggles and acknowledge our differences too?

Here's another source (sauce) to keep the pot boiling!

'The Enabling State - A Discussion Paper' from Carnegie UK Trust; just out -




I wonder whether the lack of the thing we are arguing FOR is not going to be ultimately critical.

This is not so true when we focus on a clear injustice - e.g. the poll tax. But it is critical when we face wide-ranging injustices which (per each injustice) most people experience only indirectly (it will just hurt them). For example, when the Campaign for a Fair Society was launched a designer took our finding - that 25% of all cuts fell on 2% of population (those with most severe disabilities) and discussed this with students. They said - 'that's good... that means those cuts are not falling on us.'

I think that arguments that focus on the merits of Keynesian economics or macro-economic failures of the government or which propose that we just need to 'roll the clock back' to some ideal state in the past all miss the point. It seems to me that this is a particular challenge for the Left because it simply has not developed a robust account of what social justice in the modern world looks like. The previous government now just looks like a pale imitation of this government.

Campaigns against things can work. But campaigns against capitalism, neo-liberalism or whatever world view we think our current crop of leaders subscribe to will not work.

So we must forge a positive and critical account of what we are fighting for.

Certainly the Campaign for a Fair Society has some ideas and it would also be very keen to build a stronger and broader alliance around those ideas.

 in response to the call from joe and others for ideas of what we are FOR (and how it might happen), as dissent is crucial but not sufficient.

My answer is that we need to find a model of organisation that works for loads of people living and working in neighbourhoods - that has practical immediate benefits for people and orgs doing voluntary and paid community work and civic satisfaction for those not currently involved. But also provides a platform for challenging the status quo and creating an alternative. My concept of this is a form of community democracy - local forums (or neighbourhood assemblies or community councils) on approximately ward level, that can act as coordination groups for practical (inc funding) benefit to existing groups, campaigning and voice for those not currently active (esp those in particular need such as young people, people with disabilities, unemployed) but also can involve those with a desire for real local democracy (inc a wide variety of people from quite conservative people to radical activists/anarchists), these groups should be federated together at various levels to increase their power.

The aim isn't political demands within the current system but a plan for creating a whole new system of democracy in which all our needs can be properly debated and met. In practice however, these new institutions will in the short term be campaigning voices within the current system but will have much greater weight due to their democratic legitimacy and broad composition.

In my area I've found that such an idea is difficult to convince people of from scratch (I think mostly because people are already too busy and see a new group as just more work) so I'm trying to launch it very softly by explicitly appealing to local groups immediate needs, and calling a co-ordination meeting to work out how we can all work better, pool resources, make joint bids etc. and that this coordination can then evolve as an when people are comfortable.

to summarise i like to think of it like a pathway - with a pretty ambitious destination that is an alternative vision that can get quite wide support but some really practically beneficial steps along the way - different people will be enthusiastic about different parts and then come together to move along the pathway.

In a recent essay I did about conflict I argued that things started kicking off when there was a breakdown between the governed and the governors. I used the London riots and the Egyptian uprising as examples. This got me thinking about what James is arguing for and I think a call for a new model democracy is positive dissent and needs growing. World to Win and NCIA as well as many others are wrestling to articulate this approach that seems to stretch from a written constitution through to wholesale participatory budgeting models. Thanks James you've got me thinking again. I wonder how we could pull this all together?


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