Thinking outside the circle

When I was a young activist, we made our decisions in circles. Particularly at forest blockades, ‘circle-work’ was our term for sorting things out, healing rifts, solving problems, bringing the group back in togetherness if it was in danger of fracturing. We pitted this circle against the dominant social model of decision-making, which rests on hierarchies and majorities, but in a more fundamental way, the consensus we used in our circles is the principle of all human engagement. It operates invisibly between friends and family members when they’re deciding what to eat, how to run a party, how to spend a Saturday. It underpins any group of two or more that deems the cohesion of the group itself more important than any of the daily decisions that group might make.

We thought of circles as inclusive and egalitarian, but of course, that was not quite right. A circle includes with open arms all that are part of it, but anyone stuck on the outside sees only backs and arses. If you had the misfortune to make the kind of error that would put you in the centre of the circle, you experienced the spotlight of attention of every one of your comrades, with no escape.

Milan Kundera illuminates the cruelty and limitation of circles in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back. It is not by chance that the planets move in circles and that a rock coming loose from one of them goes inexorably away, carried off by centrifugal force. Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles.

A circle is predicated on consensus, and uses consensus to maintain its shape and power – the shape and power of the collective. In a collective, the individual finds belonging, and what George Eliot called ‘the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self’. We put down in relief the burden of a selfhood asserting itself against the world and struggling solo through the puzzles and trials of human wending. But becoming part of the collective is also a tension: it introduces the need for negotiation and compromise.

In our hurly-burly times, it seems that the circle is no longer the shape to form in decision-making, or in organising social change.

A collective is defined by its spaces and means of communication and the shape of our shared life has radically changed with the decentralisation of communications technology. There is no longer, for example, such a thing as ‘the masses’. Tony Judt observed that the concept of mass movements arose when people were coming together in large numbers to work and live, and utilising technologies and modes of work that brought them together into a mass that could have a mind. Mass transport, mass labour and, in the form of newspapers, mass communication.

We know how fundamentally the internet has changed our society, but has Australian activism fully comprehended the social and cultural changes that have taken place? Some have become adept at deploying internet tools, but if we’re using them as a means of capturing, inspiring and enlisting ‘the masses’ in a cause, are we too anachronistic to have impact? Internet software is not mass communication. There is very little structure and no authority on the internet. Every single person using it, with only the smallest pains, can establish a voice, a channel and even a following for themselves to say anything that pops into their minds. There is no need to slave over books to become learned in the subject you’re addressing; there is no need to acquaint yourself with other people’s views on the topic, or why they came to them. There is no need to have taken any action, met any people or achieved any goal in real life to be able to speak.

When we are online, we are among a large number of other ‘people’ (some of whom could turn out to not be people at all) but we are not a mass: we are a screaming, teeming multitude of individuals. The dynamic is different. In a mass, you surrender your individuality and your selfhood to the greater whole. This was the source of the impressive power of organised labour and newspaper proprietors, now waned. People used to be willing to smudge their lines and features to be part of a mass. The notion of collective good, and making deep personal sacrifice ‘for the good of society’ made sense in this dynamic. But in a multitude of individuals this does not happen. You cling to, celebrate and refuse to relinquish what makes you unique, even if it something very trivial.

This does not mean we don’t still yearn to be part of the collective, but the shape of that collective has changed. It’s not a circle, but a network. In this network, every node is a free agent. Everyone is a uniquely designed cupcake, and we relentlessly assert our individuality to the point of epidemic intolerance. Bouncing around social media the voices clamour: my feelings are paramount – take me as I am or fuck off. The multitude is plural and heterogeneous, a beautiful thing to behold. But it is also filled with friction. The negotiation and compromise that we used to do in large circles has shrunk to the self – almost every minute, we encounter another unique cupcake with whom we must negotiate. It gets tiring. Tempers flare.

Groups become smaller and smaller as the number of people who share precisely the same features, ideas, language and interests as we do shrinks. It is not just digital communication that has provided the conditions for this triumph of individualism. Consumerism and marketing rely on the yearning in each of us to be special, set apart, one of a kind. They have told us the story of who we are for five decades: you deserve it, you exceptional and untameable bundle of primal urges! Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do or have anything you want. In broader politics, this culture is enervating. Every policy and decision must be populist, every budget is handed down with headlines that asks us, ‘What’s in it for you?’

This pattern is repeated in activism, of course. At all levels, activism is being driven by the individual. New supporters are recruited on the street or on the phone with the aid of ‘personal narrative’ – a technique of radical personalisation of issues imported from the US. You tell them what experience or feeling made you decide that it was important to save forests, stop mining fossil fuels, cease the intolerable cruelty we inflict on refugees. This prompts in the recruit a corresponding desire to share their personal motivations, a pattern recognisable to everyone who uses Facebook. At the other end of the spectrum, at blockades and protests, the locus is the same: the activity of the day is determined in large part by the desires of the individual that ‘wants to get arrested’. All of this amplifies the idiosyncrasies that throw up obstacles to activism achieving any sort of social goal, rather than just being an outlet for the expression of your feelings (or your ‘untamed desires’, in the words of an anti-G20 promotional zine).

Anne Coombs wrote recently for Griffith Review about the teeming claims being made on the attention and the wallets of liberal, environmental, progressive or compassionate people as public interest advocacy splits and shatters into countless groups, projects, campaigns and drives online. In the network, internet petitions get signatures, but they have little effect on decision-makers. A large rally, too, no longer commands the respect and awe it once did, because it resembles but does not operate as a mass. It won’t act with a collective mind to challenge and frighten those in power. Can we really expect the cupcake that was recruited via the personal narrative to act as an anonymous face in a crowd led by a charismatic megaphone holder? I don’t think so. Such tactics put energy into a structure that is no longer there, rather than utilising the locus on power in our network: each bleating self.

As an alternative, activism might instead adopt structures, tactics and decisions that accommodate the ideas, experiences, prejudices, identities and voices of every one of those teeming individuals. In the plural, decentralised network, consensus is more important than ever. It is the only way to achieve mutual progress. It’s worth looking, as Coombs did, at Lock the Gate as an example of how a network structure can accommodate individuality by building and renewing a consensus that is rooted in shared values and common goals but which accommodates a startling range of cupcakes. The Lock the Gate mantra is ‘find the thing you can do’, and this is largely how it works. Within the network there is no authority and very little structure. When people do come together in large numbers, as they did at the Bentley Blockade, which peaked at ten thousand people, the weight of all of those autonomous souls agreeing with each other, and operating cooperatively and collectively, had an overwhelming impact on politics in NSW and has made a lasting change in the Northern Rivers communities that took part in it.

Facilitating and reaching consensus in a diverse network such as our society has become exhausting. We might feel some wistfulness for a less self-centred society, but take comfort that the network is far more egalitarian and inclusive than our old circles were. Any node can join hands with another and the network grows and grows, almost without awareness that it is growing. In the circle, the energy goes round and round, but a network spreads messages and ideas broadly, adapting and changing them as they go. As the radical individuals of the internet age, our challenge is to enjoy our extraordinary freedom and autonomy, but at the same time, not spend so much time watching videos of cats, crane collapses, and game play that we do not notice the people with money and power taking our rights and liberties by stealth, or committing atrocities in our name. Our freedom is not a given, and our stable climate, abundant food and water and peaceful neighbours certainly aren’t. We must work collectively to maintain them, utilising the seemingly endless energy each individual has for promoting itself and acting in its own interests.

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Georgina Woods

Georgina Woods is a poet and environmental activist living and working in Newcastle, home of the world's largest coal exporting port.

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  1. So well written George and extremely insightful. Yes, the collective can work well with nodes aligning provided individuals are willing and able to set aside ego for the greater good in varying situations. I have witnessed ego destroy important relationships which greatly saddened me but also strengthened some groups. Ego is a dirty word….when the main mission is forgotten about. We need to be like reeds bending in the wind and listen….really listen to those around us so they all feel heard…and take time to debrief often with generous amounts of tolerance and praise for work well done as a collective.

    Love this piece. 🙂

  2. Wonderful article, George, which can be applied to a number of other groups and minorities than the climate action activists. Thank you. xx

  3. That’s great Georgina, perhaps what we are discovering is a more complex appreciation of the paradox between Union and separateness, whether as humans atoms or particles we function as a dynamic interaction of both. It’s what emerges from networks that matters now, our work is to enable such emergence.

  4. Interesting article, thank you
    What I thought at the end was, having been present at large blockade circles as well as other ways of organising and building consensus that used small groups based on circles to feed into larger groups as well as living in intentional community, is that the circle definitely has a place but perhaps you over-rate its use here as a means so it can be posited against a network?
    Most campaigns seem to really take off when they move from small coherent(ish) groups into large unwieldy networks – everyone going in the same direction in whatever way they feel to. But the small groups, the circles that build a sense of community and a shared approach (eg NVA) have been essential to build that momentum.
    I think the trouble can come when the use of the circle is extended beyond what its capable of, and also when its members fail to notice that others may want to be part of it/gatekeep entry.

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