I wrote The Entangled Activist after many years of working as a professional campaigner at organisations including Amnesty International and Global Witness, investigating the arms trade and the activities of banks, oil companies and tax havens. I was curious about why activists so often replicate aspects of what they want to change, and wanted to reflect on my own experiences in the light of interviews with other activists, and reading into psychoanalytic and decolonial literature.
I have observed the same feelings of superiority, the same righteousness, in every form of campaigning I’d done, over two decades. The very idea that the only problem is ‘those bastards’ who are ‘over there’ emerges from the same form of thinking that created the problems we are trying to tackle: the extractivism, at the heart of the economy, that says we can obtain resources or labour or dump waste ‘over there’ — anywhere but here. As activists trying to tackle the ‘over-there-ness’ of an abusive economic system, we are prone to thinking in ‘over-there’ terms about those who are responsible for it and those who benefit from it. ‘Over-there’ thinking also contributes to the saviour syndrome, in which those who are being ‘saved’ or ‘helped’ are made the repository of projections and assumptions from those doing the ‘helping’, denying them their humanity and agency.
When activists do not see that we are part of what we are trying to change, it is hard for us to see the ways in which the problems that we are trying to tackle end up manifesting, too, in us. We see that the logic of endless economic growth harms the biosphere and we are busy arguing for alternatives, but it is harder to see the connection to our own logic of endless activity leading to frequent burnout. We see the urgency of protecting people from conflict, violence and human rights abuses, but it is harder to see that our own conflicts with colleagues and collaborators may share psychological roots with the abuses we are fighting.
We see the centuries of damage and horror caused by colonialism and enslavement and are working to overturn these histories and their current manifestations in inequality, poverty and racist policing and border policies. But for those who have benefitted from these histories, it is harder to see how the racist and hierarchical thinking may be manifesting in our own interactions with the people we think we are trying to help — or, indeed, that the entire frame of ‘helping’ is suffused with unhelpful notions. We have developed the sharp eye to observe abuses of power wherever we look, yet do not want to see the internal forces that drive our own will to control.
When activists do not see that we are part of what we are trying to change, it is hard for us to see the ways in which the problems that we are trying to tackle end up manifesting, too, in us.
And if activists cannot see that the problem we are trying to solve runs in us, then we cannot see the extent of the problem. When we understand the extent to which we are entangled, our real task comes into view: to change not just the rules of the system, but the perceptions and thinking behind the system. Unless we can ‘see’ this perception and thinking we remain in its thrall, seeing ‘through’ it, as a lens colouring our vision. As long as we continue to insist that ‘the system’ — whatever is ‘out there’ — is what needs changing, we avoid seeing the perceptions that we still share with the people who run it: that we are above nature, that rational analysis is the only tool we need, that control is the answer, that anything we do can have simple cause and effect.
Why is it so hard for activists to see what we are doing when we are caught up in righteousness, sacrifice and saviourhood? Some of it is about the workings of our own shadow; our splitting off of what we don’t want to see in ourselves. And some of it involves culturally-learned patterns. It is hard to see how the culture shapes our perception, because it is the water we are all swimming in. And it is hard to talk about, because language constrains the extent of what we can imagine, and English is short on words that adequately describe how we, simultaneously, are a product of the world and we produce the world.
The lifeworld and the imaginary
If we are going to talk about the ways that activists are entangled in what we are trying to change, then we need a suitable language for this overarching shared context of thought and perception that needs to change, if the changes are to be lasting. What are the options?
Activists sometimes talk about ‘changing the paradigm.’ We do this when we are trying to think big, towards culture shifts: beyond the laws and policies that can be simplest to get changed. The term was coined in 1962 by the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. For Kuhn, a ‘paradigm shift’ is what happens when a scientific framework of understanding starts to buckle and break down under the impact of new research and then, suddenly, shifts — like the move from Newtonian to quantum physics. The idea quickly escaped into more general use, to mean a worldview or intellectual framework. It’s not a bad word, and I do find myself using it. But it only hints at what is going on. It doesn’t adequately convey how the unthought-about ideas, assumptions and practices that constitute a paradigm become part of our inner worlds, or, conversely, how we generate them.
There are two other words that do seem to say a bit more about how we are held in the world while generating it: the ‘lifeworld’ and the ‘imaginary’. The ‘lifeworld’ was suggested in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl, a philosopher who studied our experience of consciousness (a field called phenomenology) and was later built upon by the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas. The latter saw the lifeworld as the shared background understandings to the lived experience of people and communities. It is a form of collective consciousness that we take for granted. Any social grouping has its lifeworld of shared meanings and understandings. Activists, for example, will have a lifeworld that is mutually intelligible — of values, priorities, and lifestyles that underpin their ways of thinking and communicating with each other. Groups that differ in outlook still share a wider-scale lifeworld that allows their different ‘languages’ to be, more or less, translatable. So activists share, with everyone else, the lifeworld of the society of which we are part: the assumptions and social norms that come with shared language and culture.
For Habermas, the ‘lifeworld’ is in contrast to the ‘system’: the market’s commercial imperatives and the state’s administrative bureaucracies, with their instrumental rationality. In traditional and pre-modern societies, lifeworld and system were tightly interwoven. But as societies become more complex and stratified, with economic activity separated from family and home, lifeworld and system grew apart. The personal and inter-personal were removed from the public realm, in which the market and the state now set the terms. This allowed the ‘system’ to become complex. But the cost of modernity’s complexity, Habermas said, was the shrinking and ‘colonisation’ of the lifeworld by the system.
What does this look like in reality? It’s what market-driven society does to people’s ways of relating to each other in communities and as citizens, by monetising transactions that were previously done through mutual support, or by changing the relations between extended family members when the working-age adults have to spend more time at work. The system starts to predate upon the lifeworld. And activism is resistance against various colonisations of the lifeworld. The concept of ‘lifeworld’, then, suggests a way of understanding what activists are trying to do. We want to restore a lifeworld that we sense has been profoundly deformed. It also suggests what may be happening when activists speak and are not understood. We are speaking, from our own lifeworld, with its assumptions and values, to a ‘system’ which speaks a language that works in different terms.
Activism is resistance against various colonisations of the lifeworld ,,, We want to restore a lifeworld that we sense has been profoundly deformed.
But is it a way to describe all of what we are shaped by? On its own the lifeworld is insufficient for the task, because, by definition, it does not encompass the ‘system’. And activists are as shaped by the intrusions of the ‘system’ as much as anyone else. When the system demands, for example, that we see ourselves only as individual consumers, and leads us to do so through its structuring of government, public services and education, then this is a powerful influence on how we do activism that we need to be able to take account of. This brings us to the concept of the ‘imaginary’, another term I am borrowing from sociology and philosophy. At first glance it appears to have some things in common with the ‘lifeworld.’ It is a way of describing the shared background assumptions to what we think and do. But by being a bit less specific, it can hold a bit more. For the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the social imaginary is the ‘common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.’ It’s the unconsciously-held — or at least, rarely thought-about — set of ideas that govern how we relate to each other, and what we think is normal or ought to be.
‘Imaginary’ seems a tricky word when we meet this idea for the first time. We are used to hearing it as an adjective rather than a noun, one that means ‘not real’ and is used pejoratively to suggest we have made something up that is in contrast to what is real and true. Encountering the word as a noun, it is hard, at first, to get past this feeling that we are being asked to think about something that is ‘not real’. The ‘imagine’ in ‘imaginary’, though, is being used in the generative meaning of the word: it is what we generate with our imaginations. This is what makes it very useful for thinking about activism. Activists are living in the shared imaginary of our culture and are ourselves affected by it, while simultaneously perceiving that it could be different and that changing it could be worth the effort.
‘All of us make the imaginary, it is how we imagine things to be,’ says Sam Earle, whose work investigates the philosophy and practical application of thinking in terms of imaginaries. It holds ‘the capacity to reproduce existing tropes that help to cement collective identity, and, conversely, the capacity to conceive of radically new ways of being in, and relating to, the world.’ For Earle, the imaginary of each society has a unique constellation of ideas, that are either reinforced, or shifted, by our actions as well as our thoughts. ‘Our actions are the backbone of the social imaginary: they are our imagination made visible,’ she says.
So the imaginary is a way of describing the world and our place in it that takes account of what activism is trying to do. If activism is a work of imagination that can see that something could be different — and all activism must start with such seeing — then the imaginary starts to shift as soon as some people start to see differently and to act differently in response to their new sight. It also, however, contains an implicit recognition that this ‘seeing’ can fail. We can fail to see the terms of the dominant imaginary we are living in. We can fail to see how its terms hide from us the nature of our relationship with the world. We can keep on trying to change a ‘system’ without seeing the assumptions that lie behind it. The dominant imaginary frames our thinking and our acting, while hiding, in plain sight, the fact that it is doing so.
What both of these ideas — the lifeworld and the imaginary — help to illuminate is the complexity of the activist’s task: that we are trying to change a system we are implicated in. We are entangled in an imaginary that says we are separate from everyone and everything else: an imaginary that insists we are not entangled. No wonder it can be so hard to see our predicament. The answer is not to turn away. Nor is it to suggest we must disentangle ourselves from our context. Indeed, if we think we can, we’re probably still entangled in modernity’s delusion: in the very idea that we can be separate from everyone and everything else that is.
There is a constructive way forward. But it requires getting real; about where we’re starting from and what we’re bringing, and where anybody else might be starting from and what they are bringing. And this can be painful to acknowledge. One longstanding activist told me that she had had to grieve when she let go of the hope that she would ever find an organisation or group or movement that is free of mirroring the unhealthy systems it wants to change. We might need to grieve, in such realisations — and some of us might need to apologise — for the difficulty and pain that is caused when activism reinforces problems while trying to solve them. But perhaps we are also grieving for the loss of certainty of what some of us had always been told was our place in the world: the idea that we are an independent actor, free of constraints.
The Entangled Activist : learning to recognise the master’s tools by Anthea Lawson was published this summer by Perspectiva Press. Copies can be bought here: https://www.centralbooks.com/entangled-activist-the-learning-to-recognise-the-master-s.html
IMAGE: Deru Anding
Topas Tana ’01 (Forest Cover)
Sharpie pen on Fabriano paper
The roots of life, the forest cover, and the foundation of the living nature. Without trees and plants, water will dry, and without water this forest will die. Trees are made of the natural elements that are not trees. Trees provide natural habitats to millions of the living organisms in the forest. Forest is not a static place, but it is a living nature, everybody home.
Deru Anding is a London-based artist. He was born and raised in north-west Borneo, Malaysia. He moved to London in 1998, trained as an architect, and has since lived and practised his creative works as an artist and designer. His detailed monochromatic artworks reflect the natural world he once inhabited.