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This re-written post is a celebration of the 3 year anniversary of me beginning Epic Tomorrows, and the 2 year anniversary of me becoming involved with direct action civil disobedience, via Extinction Rebellion (XR). I originally published this first post of Epic Tomorrows on 30th October 2017, one year and one day before I attended the Declaration of Rebellion in Parliament Square in London which publicly began the international XR movement. On that day I shed tears as Greta Thunberg -who had travelled to the UK with her father Svante in an electric car- told me and the others assembled there, ‘It’s time to rebel!’ Regardless of the criticism that Greta has since received, and that she is sometimes co-opted by corporatist interests, I know from first-hand experience that she means very well.
When I first published this post I had a very intellectual -maybe even abstract- view of rebellion, ‘revolution’ and ‘global systems change’. Since then I think I have developed a slightly more practical approach, largely informed by my direct experience of NVDA (non-violent direct action) and civil disobedience with XR.
My approach has also developed some humanity, I hope, and interconnectedness with the approaches of others, as manifested in the Epic Tomorrows YouTube channel that I started early in 2020, and with the help of @EpicTomorrows on Twitter.
I began the Epic Tomorrows blog, with this post, in ‘arrogant confusion’ but at least I trusted that something valuable would come out of it, which I believe it has, thus:
‘I’m sat on a rock in the river Taw. Never have I seen it so high. I’m here to wash away the distractions of life that I may focus on the highest stream within me; the stream of servant-leadership. There is no point in leading except to serve whom you lead, or you are only serving yourself…
We are just days away from the Gaelic festival of Samhain that has Celtic pagan origins. I love these old Celtic seasonal observances, even though I don’t usually celebrate them outwardly. Samhain is halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice -a neat orientation point; something that raises my awareness of the passing seasons and their different characteristics…’
Since writing this first blog post I have been on an intellectual adventure which has questioned the very idea of leadership, prompted by clear problems posed by the perceived leadership within XR. Nevertheless, despite fashionable anarcho- currents on the political Left, most recently with the help of ‘The Next Revolution’ -a book of some collected essays of Murray Bookchin, I have realised that true leadership is a good and necessary thing, at least at this early stage of human evolution, and should be encouraged and made accountable to ‘the led’ in every sphere of life; irresponsible (unresponsive) leaders should be brought down.
This post will likely go through many iterations, to always be a work in progress.
Maybe I will return to the post at the same time every year, as part of my narrative sense-making of the world through the celebration of anniversaries.
A working hypothesis
In the original post I went on to offer a ‘working hypothesis’ which was to define an area of exploration, development and activism for Epic Tomorrows (ET). It was nothing radically new. It didn’t ‘work’, in the sense that I didn’t ‘work it’ or ‘work with it’. In fact over the course of a few months as ET meandered, I lost my focus and forgot all about it. I think it’s worth returning to, so I have updated it slightly:
The somewhat philosophical hypothesis is that, on one level -albeit a very deep and important level- most suffering and death in modern society is closely associated with a lack of narrative integration. This suffering and death is implicit in globally poor standards of individual mental health and well-being; the well-being of groups and institutions; and the well-being and sustainability of global human culture as a whole. This root lack of narrative integration that is to blame, in turn arises from the much documented (and blatantly obvious) disconnection of large portions of humanity from the rest of Nature which in modern times is co-creative with (and has been accelerated by) a neoliberal globalised capitalist system (or system of systems) which creates extreme economic inequality as well as other dynamics of oppression, including male dominance and the complete destruction of traditional human cultures, and many species of wildlife. This disconnection has grown over many millennia.
Narrative integration, out of narrative disintegration, may be a useful personal and collective, explicit (cultural) goal within the wider activism of anti- and post- capitalist global systems change(s), even on the urgent practical level of civil disobedience.
An underlying assumption to this post is that there are two main types of thought we use to make sense of the world, propositional (or logical) thinking and narrative thinking. We need them in balance. At this point I would like to suggest the grounding practice of breaking down narratives into propositions, thanks to Daniel Schmachtenberger. For a great description of this practice, watch Daniel in this video from 1.36.30 onwards. Doing this with narratives we come across in the media, or discern in our own minds / lives, can help us assess whether these narratives are functionally useful (or ‘true enough’) i.e. whether they are based enough on sound logical propositions as well as integrated with wider truths and evolving human culture, or whether they are illogical and tend towards disintegration.
To try to demystify my hypothesis, it is well established that us human beings partly make sense of the world, and of human culture, by the narratives and myths that we construct about ourselves and the world around us, as well as, more crucially, the underpinning unconscious narrative frameworks that guide our thinking and behaviour. I argue that our individual autobiographies and our collective stories and narratives have become excessively confused, hypocritical, falsely siloed, alienated and fragmented in modern society, including on the deep level of unconscious narrative frameworks, reflecting profound social and ecological injustice and trauma, and the distortion and subversion of this injustice and trauma by consumerist media manipulation. Moreover, non-consumerist narratives are deliberately disintegrated, supplanted and subjugated by consumerist narratives, at the behest of capitalist elites. Lack of conscious and unconscious narrative integration (and lack of narrative control) -including integration with non-human Nature- is the defining pathology of this situation. To re-integrate narratives -our own with our own and our own with other people’s- and to reclaim our narratives, is also to reconnect profoundly with Nature, individually, socially and through the wider culture.
-The best of this original post ended with the section above in italics, although I have added to the section substantially, including the links. In fact I am a little daunted even to finish this post. Really I’m way out of my depth, but I have always loved the risk of swimming into the deep, trusting I will find rocks to perch on before I become totally exhausted intellectually. If anything, this post will serve me, and I hope, some of you readers, as a basis for further exploration and study, and dare I write it, some renewed inspiration for activism and civil disobedience.
Narrative integration and mental health
When I originally wrote this post in 2017, I included this short section on my own mental health, which I have now expanded to include more tangible examples of disintegrated narratives-
I do not blame anyone, including myself, for any lack in my past or present life, but I do take responsibility for change.
My own life narrative of mental health is something that I’m working on. A few years ago it looked pretty shaky. However, the more I detach myself from conventional understandings of mental health -particularly the biomedical model of mental illness- the more I appreciate my unique journey and the gifts it has bestowed on me, as well as the unique challenges which could be headed under ‘mental dis-ease’. It has taken me a while to arrive at this understanding. Sometimes I struggle not to feel injured, to feel beaten black and blue actually, by the fragmented society that allowed me to be defined as medically sick and that still sometimes seeks to define me as such. Ironically, I view conventional attitudes to mental health as a contributory cause of mental ill-ness. I don’t blame individuals or even ‘society’. I am just sharing feelings and observations.
Reconnecting with Nature was key to my recovery from the worst of the dis-ease, and continues to be. Earth Nature as a whole is also key to my new, positive life narrative of mental health and purpose in life i.e. my new understanding of my journey. It is a journey of integration with non-human Nature, integration with and /or refinement of, and also some abandonment of, disintegrated and disintegrative narratives that I have dysfunctionally carried around with me, better integration with the people around me and integration with parts of myself I may have previously struggled to admit into consciousness –the ‘shadow’, according to Jung.
The catchword of ‘integration’ speaks of energy efficiency and resilience, but let us not become too resilient to the neoliberal capitalist forces which dominate us, or we will only perpetuate them.
Some of the various conflicted and fragmented narratives of modern culture that contributed to my mental illness in the first place, an understanding of which I am very lucky to write, is driving towards my liberation, are listed below. If they are not disintegrated, (whilst still posing as whole and powerfully directive by the human actors that serve them) causing conflict within me and in society in general, we can at least say that they are disintegrative or decompositional. I’m sure you recognise some of them:
- A child should be raised primarily by its biological mother and father in a house isolated from other families. The parents should stay together for the duration of the childhood, and should agree on how to raise the child.
- Middle-class academic children must attend university at aged 18. The working-class can go to hell.
- Leaving university without a degree is shameful.
- A university degree is worth more than a practical vocational qualification of a high standard.
- The city is the place to be. The city is superior to the country, which is just a nice place to visit.
- Using alcohol is the best way to relax.
- The pornography industry is sustainable and acceptable.
- Men must make the first move in relationships, and if you don’t have a girlfriend or at least a sexual partner, as a man, you are a loser.
- If you are not heteronormative you are abnormal.
- Monogamy is the only ethical way to conduct intimate interpersonal relationships.
- Mental illness is best treated by pills, and is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
- (Patriotism for) the nation state is good and necessary.
- We live in a democracy.
- The only alternative to capitalism is communism (which hasn’t worked, so there is no alternative).
- To buy is to be. To accumulate is to succeed.
- Our colonial past was terrible, but we are entitled to the ongoing stolen fruits of that past.
- Slavery and colonialism are of the past.
- You cannot change the law by breaking the law.
- This, whatever it is, is normal. This is the way it is supposed to be.
These (bullshit) cultural narratives have intersected in various complex ways in my personal narratives and life episodes, in problematic ways, sometimes left unresolved intellectually and emotionally, including in simple remembered anecdotes and stories contained within future aspirations. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
It is Halloween, or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, the beginning of the Christian observance of Allhallowtide: three days of remembrance of the dead. (Let us not remember too fondly, dead narratives which no longer serve us.) The modern Halloween is an integration of Samhain and All Hallows practices. What positive tricks and treats of narrative integration can we share with one another?
Epic post-capitalist tomorrows
The current focus of Epic Tomorrows is the accumulating and collating of online data as well as strategic insights, to help activists and revolutionaries achieve victories on the way to global systems change(s). The more accurate and relevant information we have, the more informed and efficient will be our actions. Naturally narrative thinking -with some conscious temperance- has a role to play in this information gathering and its application.
Narrative integration / disintegration can be understood in a variety of ways and historical contexts. Recently I have read some great analyses of the current state of the neoliberal globalised capitalist order, especially Wolfgang Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ and including ‘Postcapitalism’ by Paul Mason. I now reflect on how these readings inform the narrative integration perspective.
I have also been reminded recently of the colonialism that set precedents for neoliberal neo-colonialism and imperialism (especially Euro-American imperialism); reminded by the Black Lives Matter movement and my recent interviewing of XR co-founder Stu Basden who wrote this article which went viral.
Additionally, of some relevance here might be that since late summer 2020 I have been working on the concept (and flesh) of a global meta-strategy for global systems change(s); looking at how activists and their social movements can better co-ordinate and facilitate their strategising.
Finally, I should add here in respect of synchronicity and synchronistic events (synchronistic, not synchronous) that the other day (it’s Samhain / Halloween 2020 as I write this latest version) I received an email from the website provider Wix -who I used a long time back- that my old sites ‘need upgrading’. The main site I used Wix for was ‘Rebirch’, a project that has since mutated into a theory I am developing of holistic mental health whose updated title is ‘the 13 activist bases of mental health’. The essence of this theory is partly to show that all theories / approaches to mental health include highly arbitrary components / criteria, as well as to suggest a potentially useful new contemporary, albeit still arbitrary, understanding of mental health. ‘Narrative health’ is one of the 13 activist bases for mental health, and a base that ties the other bases together.
So in light of these recent developments and the synchronistic reminder of ‘narrative health’ as a potential foundation for mental health, I would like to pose the following questions as an expansion of the ‘narrative integration’ hypothesis, and to serve narrative integration as well as more generally, the re-integration of all human knowledge to serve activism for global systems change(s):
- Is neoliberal capitalism in a critical condition, unable to support its own weight and global society for much longer? If most consumerist narratives collapse, as those narratives are premised on hypocrisy and disintegration, how will their collapse reflect in those parts of our identities which have invested in them, of buying our way to joy, success, and meaning? Will we be equally relieved and confused to be without consumerist narratives? Ahead of any possible global societal collapse, how can we reconnect to and reintegrate narratives of identity which support activism for a managed transition to global industrial and cultural systems post-capitalism and post-consumerism, including the heroism that may be required for such a transition? Who will we be during and post-transition and how will we remember and tell stories about how we were before the transition, as individuals, families, communities and nations?
- Were democracy and capitalism ever really integrated as systems, or did each always prevent the other from fully realising, to the benefit of capitalism (as unchecked it undermines itself) but not to the benefit of democracy? If the latter is true, how do we atone our humanity with the use of narrative?
- Is an integrated info-tech based coherent global system of postcapitalism possible and / or desirable, or should we be using our narrative cognition to focus on developing diverse post-capitalist place-based (localised) narratives, first of all for our individual life-paths? Or should we be imagining ourselves into futures which are both hyper-connected and localised?
- How much are our personal life stories and ambitions polluted by fragmented and trauma-inducing, as well as trauma-carrying, colonialist, imperialist and slave-holding (human and non-human) mindsets?
- How can bioculturally diverse communities dislocated and destroyed by colonialist, imperialist and global neoliberal capitalist narratives, relocate and rebuild with narratives supported by the narrative-driven mission statements and strategic aims and practical visions, of a decolonised international movement of movements (MoM)?
- Is the fundamental narrative contradiction / disintegration that needs to be addressed by the awakening activist, the ongoing conflict and chaos between the heroic narrative of systems change, and the decaying narrative of ‘to have is to be’?
- How can ‘narrative health’ be retained and supported in all activists and all human beings for their continued mental health and well-being, as part of a wider concern for regenerative human cultures?
On this third year anniversary / development of the original post, I re-commit, better late than never, to exploring narrative (re-)integration, especially in service to activism and global systems change(s). As it is my YouTube channel that has taken off more than anything else, I will honour the commitment through the human connections that I make in interviews and online discussions that I will facilitate and upload.
Narrative and propositional thinking in balance, and the limits of ‘memetic tribes’
The following citation is from ‘How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences’ by Roy F. Baumeister and Leonard S. Newman of Case Western Reserve University. It is worth reading the entire article for a very complex and nuanced explanation of the various cognitive functions / motivations of story-telling and narrative thinking:
‘Narrative thinking sacrifices the generality of the paradigmatic mode in favour of comprehensiveness. Rich accounts can encompass many features, and so narratives are more flexible and can accommodate more inconsistencies than paradigmatic thinking. Internal coherence is the important criterion, rather than how falsifiable the stories are. Therefore, the narrative mode is well suited to reinterpreting and accommodating inconsistent information, as well as for helping people think about situations that involve conflicts or contradictions.’
Yet when the contradictions become overwhelming and profoundly traumatic, as I would argue they have become in globalised capitalist culture, the narrative function becomes highly disintegrated and dysfunctional.
It is now clear to me that although narrative thinking / narrative psychology is very important to how we make sense of the world and act upon it, ‘paradigmatic thinking’, also called ‘propositional thinking’, a general form of logical thinking, is equally as important. Nevertheless, this could strengthen rather than contest my initial hypothesis.
Baumeister and Newman again:
‘The point that propositional knowledge is useful for making stories brings up the issue of how distinct these two modes are…In practice…each individual’s accumulation of knowledge probably uses both modes in an interactive fashion’
Clearly, the current neoliberal global capitalist order (including the ‘communist capitalism’ of China) does not make logical sense. Extreme economic equality, various forms of oppression of most humans and Nature by a small handful of other humans, and the increasing destruction of the biosphere towards the point of a highly possible human extinction, are not sustainable and so do not make logical sense. On a global level, our paradigmatic thinking -our logical reasoning- is failing us, as we are allowing the destructive systems of neoliberalism and the elites that serve them, to continue. Okay, so we may be scared, but it is not logical to let that fear take us towards species annihilation.
Where narrative psychology comes back in, is that it could be precisely because our narrative interpretation of reality is currently so broken and dysfunctional, that our logical reasoning has also suffered (meaning that all forms of sense-making are currently degraded). I propose that this is happening for two main reasons. Firstly, because consciously or unconsciously, we are at a stage in human history where our thought has become ‘globalised’ -due to neoliberal globalisation and due to the internet- but without becoming coherently whole, or balanced in making sense of the world. Largely this is due to our disconnection from non-human Nature and our failure to fully comprehend or embody that disconnection.
However we are more aware than ever of our increasingly inter-connected and potentially threatening human world; perhaps falsely assuming that the non-human world that we impact -including the climate- cannot ultimately endanger us, we can’t help but defensively attempt grand anthropocentric world-encompassing narratives to make sense of things, inevitably based at least partly on sketchy, profit-driven, scare-mongering Big Tech and Big Media -manipulated representations of global events, whatever more elucidating material we may be consuming.
Overwhelmed by global data, perceived global threats and a need for global meaning to counteract the void in meaning created by a literally and culturally dislocating world system(s), our critical thinking and logical reasoning skills have suffered. When we feel forced to generalise and totalise to the extreme regarding global narratives of humanity, especially in a defensive mode, even if quite mildly so, we easily lose or subsume the practice of the leisurely, careful narrative-building that relies on and is co-creative with a fair degree of propositional thinking. As a result, not only our thinking, but our acting, is irrational.
Paradigmatic thinking requires propositions based on the law of cause and effect. Data overwhelm on a global scale, usually heavily biased even when it proposes to be objective, makes cause and effect propositions increasingly difficult. We could often be wholesale giving up on logical thinking in favour of defensive globalised narratives -often utopian or catastrophic in character. Our urgent need to make sense by story, due to this immature and fragmented stage of globalised consciousness has resulted in disintegrated stories which undermine the security and leisure we need to reason things out logically, which further disintegrates our narrative making.
Secondly, neoliberal capitalist and consumerist narratives, the deceitful outward expressions of ecocide -often as overt as consumerist fairy-tales used in advertising- have become more powerful in the world than logical thinking. The illogical personal and collective narratives that we form around the ‘to buy is to be’ mantra -illogical for our mental health and for the survival of our communities and our very species- are so profoundly a part of our identities at this stage in history, that they have undermined our capacity for propositional thinking. Moreover, we may be dissuaded from going too deeply into propositional thinking for fear of being confronted with our own hypocrisy -a hypocrisy that is central to the functioning of our lives (within the unavoidable megamachine of contemporary capitalism).
Additionally, many reasonable human beings feel forced to adopt the defensive political identity positions of either ‘globalised’ on the one hand, desperately trying to salvage internationalism from destructive neoliberalism (including as part of pro-EU narratives in Europe) or nationalist-democratic on the other, often expressing the confusion of fake narratives of democracy on the macro and global level in the micro-unfoldings of our lives, knowing all-too-well that representative democracy is increasingly unreal and subject to corporatism and financial interests.
This isn’t supposed to be a damning of narrative thinking which has an important function in sense-making, but of a dysfunctional narrative thinking untempered by logic, put on the defensive by globalisation and co-opted by consumerism. This is in addition to the very physical ways that a neoliberal capitalist system has ripped up the habitats, communities, traditions and livelihoods which have been the basis of our Life-affirming and sense-making narratives for so long, globally.
This discussion is also informed by the Rebel Wisdom ‘sense-making’ series on YouTube. This latest video in the series, with Daniel Schmachtenberger, brings up concepts of ‘narrative warfare’ and AI-directed social media control via ‘sticky’ content which increases our addiction to / use of these profit-seeking platforms (YouTube / Facebook etc) by appealing to and maximising our tendencies to tribal identity -regardless of whether or not those tribes are artificially created or reinforced by false or highly manipulated information about what is going on in the world. These tribes are pitted against each other on the platforms by AI-sourced algorithms, an infowar and narrative war which boosts the platforms and leaves them relatively unquestioned and unaccountable (the old method of divide and conquer) as well as spilling over into other more ‘independent’ parts of the internet, and into ‘real life’.
I would add, I have friends who don’t use social media, purportedly to control their own narratives, and yet I see these friends manipulated just as destructively, if not more so, by online propaganda from sources which to me are more obviously biased, even though the bias may be belied and obscured to my friends.
Naturally, internet-dependent tribal identities encourage a further disconnection from Nature, as well as the truth in general, which means a general individual and cultural tendency towards narrative disintegration / dysfunction, except where some effort and method is made to retain an overall view, including of the corporatist interests that manipulate us, which I am trying to do in this post.
Despite the insight of Rebel Wisdom, the profound disconnection from Nature that both allows and is co-creative with online narrative warfare and disintegration, seems to be relatively unaddressed on the channel (but I haven’t watched every video). Likewise the viral The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0, which has provided some inspiration to the Rebel Wisdom sense-making series, fascinating and insightful though it is, does not do justice to the basic underlying lack of narrative integration in modern culture which is symptomatic of the neoliberal globalised capitalist (dis)order. The (dis)order that is co-creative (co-destructive) with disconnection from / destruction of, localised biocultural diversity and non-human Nature. As reflected in a disembodied internet space where appropriate locality-bound and natural resource-limited cultural coherency, potentially enhanced online by international solidarity and understanding, seem to be subservient to unaccountable globally projected egos and often hysterical virtual tribes whose narratives are largely created and maintained by corporatist interests, suffering obviously from a lack of grounding in the natural resource-bound real world.
The ‘six crises’ mentioned in the following citation are a fair enough framework for understanding the genesis of (Euro-American) memetic tribes except that the crucial underlying disconnection from localised, biodiverse Nature has been unstated:
‘We argue that six phenomena are involved in their genesis: secularization, fragmentation, atomization, globalization, stimulation, and weaponization. These ingredients respectively engender six crises: the meaning crisis, the reality crisis, the belonging crisis, the proximity crisis, the sobriety crisis, and the warfare crisis. We will examine each ingredient and crisis in turn…’
The memetic tribes article also completely fails to address its own Euro-American centrism and the implicit neocolonialism of its core arguments, blinkers which are themselves symptomatic of a global culture fragmented by its dissociation from and destruction of formerly coherent, localised biocultural diversity -and the localised democracies essential to the protection of this diversity. If the authors are aware of their bias, they don’t do justice to their arguments by leaving it unstated.
They also fail to talk about arrestable direct action activists / the civilly disobedient -ecology, climate and social justice focused- who go way beyond their tepid construction of SJA (Social Justice Activists) to challenge the institutions of representative democracy more fundamentally, often from a postcapitalist or anti-capitalist perspective. Perhaps, by their Euro-American reckoning, international movements of civil disobedience since Occupy! are not relevant to the ‘culture wars’, but this would be a strange assertion. Perhaps it is only Extinction Rebellion (XR) that has brought into the public intellectual sphere (at least the Euro-American one) the existence of the global postcapitalist movement (pre-dating XR and represented by a number of organisations) for civil disobedience triggered by the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss -despite capitalist-reformists within XR. Afterall, the memetic tribes article was written one month before XR’s declaration of rebellion.
I would argue that if the authors want to contribute more fully to an understanding of globally disintegrative narratives and dysfunctional narrative thinking in modern culture, they need to address postcapitalism and expose their Euro-American bias. Otherwise they are in danger of contributing to narrative disintegration as much as resolving it, themselves tragically subject to the AI-directed siloing of thought and narrative identity that Schmachtenberger exposes.
Covid narrative disintegration
It is hard to write about the current situation with the novel coronavirus worldwide (writing in late October 2020). I am not well-informed enough, and I am bombarded by disjointed narratives about the virus, in part reflecting the narrative disintegration discussed above. Clearly, the lack of reasoning and logical thinking symptomatic of much contemporary being-in-the-world and associated with a degradation of the function of narrative cognition, has resulted in a surprisingly large, perhaps unprecedented in scale, proportion of the global population not believing in key elements of the global coronavirus narrative, as presented by governments, inter-governmental organisations and the mainstream media. Regardless of my lack of scientific knowledge, I can offer some limited observations of what is going on on the level of narrative thinking.
Online and other media data overwhelm, from conflicting and politicised -overtly and covertly- and corporatised sources of information, including from within the supposedly objectively scientific medical professions, has fuelled the disintegration and incoherency of narratives surrounding the virus.
Online tribal polarisation largely created and manipulated by the algorithms of social media and Big Tech giants as discussed above, perhaps compounded by the confused and falsely contradictory narrative of so-called memetic tribes, also as touched on above, are further fuelling scientific misunderstanding and profound narrative disintegration (although one does not always lead to the other).
Further, a latent mass tendency to conspirituality, magnified by the internet and exacerbated by more of us spending more time online during the social restrictions imposed by the virus, is accelerating narrative disintegration surrounding the virus and weaponising totalising narratives of a shadowy New World Order (the theory goes, that has fabricated or created or manipulated the virus to impose some form of global control), providing some of the impetus for the recent rioting in the streets in response to covid lockdown measures. This is not good for the mental health of the conspiritual and everyone they come into contact with. Moreover rioting subverts and disempowers revolutionary energy that could be used in more scientific and strategic rebellions against global authorities, to achieve genuine gains towards the radical postcapitalist global systems change(s) that we need to meet the ongoing climate-ecological-economic-humanitarian crisis of humanity. On the other hand, I will be pleased if the rioting results in more financial compensation for the lockdown being distributed to the poorest.
Conspirituality is fed by very objectively justified mistrust of national governments as well as largely unaccountable inter-governmental organisations like the World Health Organisation and the World Economic Forum (partnered with the United Nations Development Programme). Neoliberal globalised capitalism, as well documented in Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ has eaten away at the institutions of representative democracy (spurious to start with) to the point that we cannot trust that governments and inter-governmental organisations are putting people before profit, even in a global pandemic, regardless of whether lockdown measures are sufficiently protecting public health for the time being. Similarly we cannot trust that (fear and panic surrounding) the pandemic isn’t being deliberately magnified towards corporatist ends. What plans are being undemocratically made for our futures by the vastly influential European Central Bank, World Bank, IMF, WEF and the institutions of the UN, whilst we are safely ‘locked’ away? One doesn’t have to believe in a conspiratorial ‘New World Order’ to be deeply worried and angry -just read Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein; events like the novel coronavirus have been progressively manipulated by corporatised governments since at the latest the mid 1970’s.
Unfortunately, right wing schizotypal populist figures like Trump manipulate anti-globalist and conspiritual sentiments for their own corporatist-nationalist ends, openly supporting and reaping the rewards of globalised capitalism on the one hand, whilst shouting loudly on the other against ‘global technocratic elites’ like WHO. To be sure WHO is corrupt, like any large inter-governmental technocratic organisation in a neoliberal capitalist system, (which is not to say there aren’t many passionate and humanity-serving individuals within WHO). Trumpists criticise global elites in a disingenuous way that does not challenge the system that creates those elites in general. Meanwhile, Trumpists benefit from the system and their confused followers. As it is right wing populist leaders that shout the loudest in criticism of unaccountable global elites, unfortunately vulnerable people of disintegrated or schizotypal mindsets, (including people I know) in situations like a novel pandemic, feeling overwhelmed, will turn to these ‘leaders’ and their bullshit disintegrative narratives, instead of more intelligent critics and critical integrative narratives of globalised capitalism grounded in science and guided by social and environmental justice.
Operating by the precautionary principle and utilitarianism, I believe it is currently right and more-or-less based in sound science to adhere generally to the lockdown measures that have been imposed in France. However, retaining my own sense of meaning and logical as well as narrative thinking skills, I see no harm in flouting the ‘no more than 1km from the house and for no more than 1 hour’ rule on daily exercise. I am currently based in a very rural area, and there are miles of gorgeous autumnal country footpaths about, conducive to mine, my partner’s and our relationship’s physical and mental health. My ‘narrative health’ also benefits, in the sense that any stories of cognition I construct around Nature and my local natural surroundings, including a deep appreciation of the changing season, distract me from the narrative disintegration of the internet, and integrate my present with previous Nature-based narratives of my self which ground and inspire me, including in my activism which is ultimately Nature-based. On a walk recently I took pleasure in recounting to my partner, similar walks I had taken in the Devon countryside in the UK.
As for the virus, the only observation I care to make is that it is real and it is novel. As for governments’ and intergovernmental institutions’ responses, and the responses of the media and various sections of the internet, the best I can do at this point is to summarise by arguing that responses and popular reactions to those responses are heavily polluted and directed by neoliberal corporate capitalist interests, and /or an understandable fear, mistrust and misunderstanding of those interests.
It’s a shame because, absent an anti-statist revolution along something like libertarian municipalist lines, strong states will be increasingly relied upon / called upon to deal with the unfolding climate and ecology-driven (neoliberalism-accelerated) global crisis. With trust in ‘democratic’ governments at an all-time low, the rioting we see now at covid lockdown measures is nothing compared to the rioting we will see in response to mistrusted (probably justifiably so) measures that governments will likely be forced to hurriedly implement during the disastrous events projected for the next few decades, associated with the ongoing global crisis of humanity.
Ideally, on the level of narrative integration to serve activism for global systems change(s), we should use the covid ‘situation’, if at all possible, to encourage the disillusioned, conspiritual, mistrustful, depressed and confused, to step (further) away from consumerist-capitalist lifestyles -‘to have is to be’ fairytales- which implicitly support corporatised governments as well as intergovernmental and private global elites -all of those interests that are most responsible for the global crisis of humanity.
Additionally, both propositional and narrative thinking skills need to be encouraged in all of us but particularly the vulnerable, in a way that promotes a localised Nature-groundedness as well as, crucially, a courageous curiosity about the experiences and stories of other human beings in other cultures around the world. We must strive for this even in the midst of global disaster, so that international solidarity takes precedence over ‘lowest common denominator’ right wing racist and nationalist narratives and responses. This will promote the holistic well-being of all of us.
If we can get away with it safely, I advocate travelling as much as possible!
Revolutionary rivers, two modes of thinking and activist strategy
It is partly thanks to the river Taw -revisited many times over the last few years- that this post has developed.
It is hard to view a river logically, in purely cause and effect terms, as it is the quintessence of flow with its infinite and ever-changing currents. To be aware of its causes and effects would almost be to be aware of every molecule of H20.
Similarly, it is impossible to view how I got here in my life, from where I was three years ago when I started Epic Tomorrows with this post, in purely cause and effect terms. The twists and turns and encounters are just too numerous and mysterious, the data too overwhelming. And so it is with personal life narratives. We remember and retrospectively create and retell our lives in ways which we believe provide meaning to our continued existence as well as, we hope, the continued existence of the communities in which we are embedded.
Remembering that I have regularly walked along the river Taw which is local to my flat, to take a break from my reading, writing, and contemplating, it is more than mere fancy to include the river in the integrative narrative of this blog post. The river breaks have given Life and breathing space to the developing mission and practice of Epic Tomorrows, including on YouTube.
It was one year and two and a half weeks since I had begun Epic Tomorrows, when on November 17th 2018 I was involved in the infamous ‘bridge blocks’ of five rivers crossing the Thames in London. This mass act of civil disobedience resulted in many arrests (including mine) and the launching of Extinction Rebellion (XR) into the international media and the activist consciousness of at least the climate movement of the industrialised global north.
The tactic of the bridge blocks according to Roger Hallam, one of XR’s main strategists at the time, was to ‘split the city in two’, which, when combined with ‘filling the prison cells to over-flowing’ with activists was intended to force the government to give in to XR’s demands. It was worth a shot but it didn’t work for a variety of reasons, mainly because we just didn’t have the numbers.
Unfortunately, when I was on the phone to a key and influential person within XR after this event, he was deluded as to the success of the actions, proclaiming with fervour, ‘the government will fall by Christmas!’ Needless to say, they didn’t. I only bring this up because this influential person was assumed to have greater strategic insight than most of the people around him, and a lot of strategy work was left to him. This is unfortunate when it seems as though he let his romantic vision and wishful narrative of strategic success cloud his practical assessment of what had actually been achieved and therefore what needed to be done next.
Narrative thinking and narrative integration must not be developed at the expense of propositional thinking. Propositional thinking is key to the strategising that we need to build successful social movements and execute their missions for global systems change(s). A little older and wiser than I was two years ago, I would now suggest widespread strategic literacy within activist movements, perhaps via strategy study groups, rather than leaving the strategising to a select few, despite what their academic and experiential credentials may be.
Naturally strategic literacy should include learning deeply from the successes and failures of as many previous social movements as possible, and if possible learning from -and where appropriate merging with- the strategies of disparate existing social movements for social and environmental justice, as long as the importance of the centrality of non-violent civil disobedience is recognised.
One area where narrative thinking actually complements strategy forming is ‘scenario planning’. This has long been used by multi-national corporations and governments and refers to the thorough mapping out of a future scenario or diversity or scenarios with a variety of PESTLE characteristics, as possible futures to plan for and put in place organisational responses to. In scenario planning it is acknowledged that the envisioned futures will be inaccurate, but they will nevertheless have features which will likely resemble features of the future that actually unfolds. Thus planning for a variety of unfolding scenarios, although simplified and inaccurate in their conception, can help organisations and social movements be flexible and responsive to unfolding events, strategically and on the ground. Comprehensive scenario-planning is also co-creative with realtime events and can help us manifest, as large organisations or social movements, the futures we desire.
The thorough envisioning of futures / future scenarios and how we might reach them, or be subject to them, is a highly creative process which makes full use of our narrative thinking skills, complemented by more specialist understandings of propositional knowledge, ideally outsourced to groups of specialists in each of the areas denoted by PESTLE.
The Australian security-focused National Center for Climate Restoration recommend scenario-planning in their 2019 report, ‘Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach’.
The godfather of Permaculture, David Holmgren, runs Future Scenarios.
Ongoing narrative conclusion; revolution is not the place for romance, but it is the place for heroism
To reiterate, aside from the specific function of scenario planning, we cannot afford to let narrative thinking dominate our strategic thinking for global systems change(s), although an integrated and integrative narrative thinking will always be necessary and complementary.
If we are not logical in our strategy, then we will not create the global systems changes we need to reinstate both propositional and narrative thinking as central to our sense-making and well-being in a balanced, sustainable, post-capitalist world.
Further, highly strategic thinking is directly opposed to wishy-washy romantic revolutionism (informed by Hollywood-ised fictional and ‘non-fictional’ simplified representations of direct actions and revolutions) and a lot of New Age thinking that is prevalent even amongst (partially) practical activists. This romantic and New Age thinking is partly a result of neoliberal capitalist narratives which co-opt rebellious individuals, whether they are fully conscious of it or not, with the disempowering belief that at this stage of history, true resistance, or true strategic success with a social movement (systems change or even regime change), is impossible, despite evidence to the contrary. True revolutionary power is given away to privileged New Age dreams of individual politico-spiritual sovereignty, romantic revolutionism (even amongst XR strategists!) and the occasional impotent riot. I thank Murray Bookchin for some of these insights, as expressed in the essay collection ‘The Next Revolution’.
Paradoxically, in very general terms it may, however, be necessary as well as joyful to conceive of ourselves individually as true heroines and heroes of our own lives and of our global culture and society, figures of mythical proportions, drawing from heroic archetypes to respond to the calling of our culture to facilitate or speed up a managed transition to global systems change(s) i.e. something post-capitalism. Boundaried rituals and celebrations (Celtic-inspired or otherwise) could help with this self- and community- mythologising. However this shouldn’t leak into our strategising, inadvertently taking us into a drunken feature film (which seems to be the direction that some XR groups have taken). The power of narratives of mythical heroism are to give us a moral and other-worldly courage to deliberately take large but calculated -as far as possible- risks for the sake of humanity’s future, as well as potentially to present this revolutionary mission in an attractive and deeply felt artistic narrative form, to the public -witnesses and potential recruits. But let not this presentation, this cultural expression, be confused for the more essential practical elements of any strategy, least of all by the actors involved. Sometimes the partying should be saved until after the action…
Here are 15 sensitive strategy tips for serious and heroic activists and ‘revolutionaries’, including the use of narrative thinking. I’m addressing you, the reader in the first person, but this advice applies equally to me. Periodically I intend to expand this list of strategy tips in a separate post, which will also be linked from here:
- Do not be afraid of leadership. Make it strictly boundaried and accountable where it has to exist. Lead yourself and encourage others to lead themselves. If you are part of a social movement, let it be leaderful!
- What do you personally mean by global systems change(s)? Make sure you are working to a definition that is intelligible to others in your group / movement.
- Do have a strategy! Bookchin is one good source to expose the myth of ‘spontaneous revolutions’ i.e. it turns out that these revolutions are always guided by highly organised militants.
- Don’t confuse your (possibly romantic) vision of global systems change(s) with what is strategically possible.
- Do use narrative thinking in the important work of the creative envisioning of global systems change(s), as well as scenario planning; include the envisioning of realistic pathways as opposed to just utopian end-states, important though those visions may be for keeping us emotionally engaged with our activism.
- Use scenario planning in a specific, boundaried way and don’t let that detract from a realistic strategy responsive to currently unfolding events.
- Know the difference between Grand Strategy, campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods. This classic book by Gene Sharp is a good place to start.
- Improve your propositional / logical thinking and research skills. See through media spin, and critically analyse deeper deliberate or unconscious media narratives and other narratives that serve ruling elites -including some CEO’s and bankers- but also don’t be co-opted by totalising conspiritual ‘conspiracy narratives’ that encourage you to ‘come to your own conclusions’ by rejecting logical thinking to link together disparate emotive events and facts that have been presented to you as related, for obscured and potentially right wing anti-globalist ends. Seek out anti-globalist narratives which are intelligent, scientific, and directed by social justice. Encourage others away from dodgy narratives and towards narratives of global systems change(s) to post-capitalism.
- Become aware of the cognitive function of narrative thinking. Become aware of when you are using narrative thinking in a strategically useful way, and when you are not. Become aware of the cultural narratives that may have co-opted and disintegrated your life and your mental health. This will be highly person- and context- specific.
- Beware falsely siloed and polarised, tribal and memetic narratives and identities, manipulated if not created by social media companies and Big Tech. These narratives and identities divide our capacities for collective civil disobedience.
- Be less of a fairy-tale consumerist, keep getting back to Nature and mend some broken stories -this will help ground your activist strategy.
- If you are privileged enough, develop a more conscious activist life strategy. By ‘activist life strategy’ I refer to the unconscious or conscious strategies, tactics and practices that we use to move forward in our lives towards the strategic activist ends that we wish to see, such as achieving targets of social and environmental justice within the movements we are involved in, in a way which simultaneously meets our requirements as holistic human beings, for balanced lives in respect of our homes, families, communities and our overall well-being -including the prevention or mitigation of ‘activist burn-out’. Travel if you can.
- Develop an understanding of ‘narrative integration’ as potentially key to strategic goals, as well featuring in the means to achieve those goals.
- Be a rational heroine.
- Celebrate victories and anniversaries!