I saw a tweet from Holly at Plan To Win (@HollyPTW) about taking nonviolent direct action (NVDA) for something positive. Is the implication that our actions are usually negative ( “No!”… ” Down with….!” … “Stop….!”). Plenty of folk would say so. It may not be exactly what Holly was pondering, but it made me think of one of the classic NVDA arguments, and an important one.
The argument often runs that NVDA is all about stopping bad stuff happening. That makes it an essentially negative force (however necessary). I think it’s an argument we need to challenge because it leads to a number of problems that weaken us as a movement.
Disconnection – if we get into a mindset of NVDA as only about stopping stuff, of it as a negative, we risk losing our connection with the aspects of our psyche that help keep us balanced, sane and happy – the positive forces in our lives – the natural world, the sun on our faces, friends, family. And that way burnout lies
Burnout – if we internalise the argument that NVDA is negative it becomes hard to maintain our activism. In short it contributes to burnout. Even the most ‘hardcore’ of us requires some positivity, something life-affirming in our lives. Running round trying to ‘stop’ stuff, especially when you can’t succeed every time, isn’t sustainable. No wonder people move on from NVDA to spend more time with family, children, growing veg, getting more involved in community arts and so on.
Splitting the movement – once internalised the argument also opens a rift within the movement. I saw this very clearly a recent Transition Town debate over transition and activism in which several contributors dissociated Transition from activism. Their choice of Transition over activism was about exactly this, it seems – wanting to be making a positive difference which they perceive activism as failing to do.
So it’s not surprising that the forces of darkness like to paint NVDA in this negative light, and prey on our own doubts about it. When a large corporation rolls into town kindly offering to tarmac the latest the last green space to provide us with a wonderful retail experience (cue Joni Mitchell), they accuse activists of saying “no” to jobs, “no” to progress, “no” to choice. Doesn’t really matter what the argument is, as long as they can portray us as the ones saying “no”.
But can we really counter that argument? Am I being disingenuous when I say that I see NVDA as a positive force for social change, one that says “yes” to life, to real choices, to our basic humanity, to liberation? You decide.
The core argument to me is all about intention. What is our motivation when we find ourselves sat on the bulldozer with our “Down with all this sort of thing!” placard? To me it’ firmly about preservation –
- preserving the integrity of the natural world (and recognising our small part in that web),
- preserving meaningful human interaction – local jobs, meaningful jobs, not factory farm jobs
- preserving the possibility of a better future – putting a foot in the door to ensure some light still gets in
The Man may argue a good case, put a wind turbine on the roof of the new shopping centre, and call it something meaningful like ‘Oaklands’ (in honour of the acres of Oaks they felled to build it) but his intention is clear: profit before people, profit before planet.
Method in our madness
Good NVDA walks its talk – it doesn’t wait for some utopian future, it tries to work in utopian ways here and now. For me that’s the main rationale for affinity groups – building small utopian communities now, so that when we take action we’re doing so in a way that speaks to our values, that models the possibilities of future human relationships.
Scale that up and you have mobilisations such as Climate Camp. Now, I’m not an uncritical fan of Climate Camp, but it did try, did intend, to create a temporary, autonomous utopian space. Run by consensus (however flawed), powered by the sun and the wind, grey water systems, organic vegan food, creativity, art, music and of course action (again, however flawed).
The joy of resistance
Personally I’ve found NVDA is the only thing to sustain me in moments when the world really does seem to be going to hell in a handcart. It’s not the winning, nor coming close to winning. It’s the vision of something better, of standing up for that in the face of destructive power. Resistance in that light isn’t wearing or negative, but as vital as the air we breathe.
Action taken from this base is not negative, but an expression of a wildly optimistic view that humans can build a better future, at least for ourselves, and possibly for the non-human species we share the planet with. It’s an affirmation of life and liberty, and frankly there needs to be more of it
It’s no surprise that many direct activists also regard many overtly ‘positive’ activities as NVDA – community gardens, community co-ops, housing co-ops, social centres and much, much more – these are all part of the holistic view of NVDA. All part of the same positive picture. So, can we do positive NVDA ? I think many out there would say they already do.