Zombie, dinosaurs and crocodiles

It’s that time of year when everyone seems to review the past year and plan for the next one. Seems an appropriate time for me to blow the dust off a draft post I started near the beginning of 2013 but never quite completed. Why appropriate? Because it’s about looking back and looking forward.

Zombies, dinosaurs and crocodiles? No, not some dynamic new icebreaker game, but a summary of an ongoing conversation Rhizome folk started in 2013. We’re always talking about the role of Rhizome in the wider world and we often find ourselves critical of the social action movement, including, sometimes, those who support it with training and facilitation (and yes, we do include ourselves in that category).

photo: Bob Jagendorf

photo: Bob Jagendorf

It all started with a comparison of the social action movement with a zombie. (Un)dead on its feet but staggering on regardless, moribund. That’s not to say there’s no change or innovation, but it’s often within the same tired paradigm. A bit harsh? Maybe, but there’s a good deal of merit in the argument that it’s a movement that needs to revitalise or become irrelevant

And talking of things no longer alive, as part of the same

Barry Kid Photography

Barry Kid Photography

conversation we paused to ask ourselves whether Rhizome was in fact a collective of dinosaurs. Just a bunch of out of date fossils with a nostalgic view of how change should be made (cue: “in my day we didn’t have t’internet. Our office were in a paper bag in a septic tank and had to weave our own campaign banners out of cold gravel…and we considered ourselves well resourced”…. “Office? You had an office?….”).

After all we talk a language of community building and collective action but not in a ‘Big Society’ way. Our ideas of community might seem a bit pre-Thatcher.We promote face-to-face interaction, and we do so by delivering most of our work face-to-face – no  e-learning, no youtube channel. If it wasn’t for this blog, who knows where we’d be? We put most of our effort into supporting group-work, not building the capacity of individual key mobilisers, or whatever the jargon is at the moment. We champion participatory collective action which seems to fly in the face of ever-increasing individualism. And individualism isn’t something that just happens when we’re acting alone. So many of our group meetings are full of individuals working towards their individual agendas. It’s one big reason why we’re not more effective and one of the reasons we ask groups to take the time to work on their internal processes despite the seeming urgency of the issues they’re working on. We continue to promote consensus decision-making despite the (often valid) critiques of how it has been used by Climate camp or Occupy.

For goodness sake we’ve recently written a document citing the nonconformist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Isn’t it time we stopped harking on about the past as if it were some kind of utopia and get on with building the future utopia? Do we just need to get with the times or put ourselves out to grass?

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, we settled on an image of ourselves as crocodiles – more or less prehistoric but surviving and thriving to this day where many younger species have failed.

We look at the social action movement and see quite a few babies being hurled out with the bath water as change after change is made in everything but mindset. We see NGOs struggling to find a model that delivers the maximum change – networks of groups, well-resourced individuals, mobilising masses of supporters in 5 minute armchair actions

When I look back on the work Rhizome has done over the past few years, I believe we have a lot to offer present and future change-makers. We focus on changing mindsets, values, and attitudes over giving people skills and tools. Tools without appropriate understanding are next to useless. The inspiration we draw from participatory movements of the past is all about building a new culture of democracy, helping individuals to genuinely co-operate and work collectively for their utopia, whatever that might be. We want to build diverse communities not movement of individuals. You might find that if we build those communities, we’re living utopia long before we’ve “won” all our campaigns. See you in 2014.

Matthew