The political world has become more confusing and less understandable, so it is often argued, by such unexpected events as the election of US President Donald Trump and the vote for the UK to leave the European Union.
So how might an informed and sensitive citizen respond? What ideas and actions might be appropriate? Inside or outside the conventional political system?
One of the more successful single-issue activism campaigns of the recent past in terms of media attention gained was Occupy. Micah White, a former leader, said on TV around the time of Donald Trump’s election that Occupy had once united right and left wing activists in a single issue but now the two camps had been split. He felt that activist groups now had to build towards the old-fashioned target of winning elections to legislatures and executives.
In turn, former US President Barack Obama, in his farewell speech in Chicago, encouraged his audience to participate politically both through community organising and through elected office.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that any social and political challenges might be best addressed by “the technology sector” rather than in “politics”. I interpreted his term “politics” as meaning in the party and electoral sense in which he had been so successful rather than in street protests. By “technology”, he may mean private technology companies, private-public partnerships or future life-transforming inventions.
In the past, single issue campaigns often gained separate long-term and substantial support within electoral and party politics. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign – I’m sure they all still lobby at political party conferences and other big events. We all remember the past cross-party celebrity-led campaigns against third world poverty and debt, against apartheid in South Africa.
Single-issue campaigns seem to have lost their profile in recent years. Organisations like Amnesty International do sometimes gain a media platform for their arguments, but equal if not greater attention seems to now go to the well-funded think tanks like the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Tax Payers Alliance, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).
How is political activity carried out now? People often create new personalised political protest groups rather than join existing ones. The internet, especially the existence of Facebook and Twitter, has allowed events to be quickly organised but has also led to the phenomenon of “clicktivism”, by which people do little more than read a website or e-mail the promise of a donation. I have also long felt that users of Twitter express their political views in a particularly aggressive and unhealthy way and have long felt alarmed by the way that the mainstream press and TV depend on it so heavily.
Although relatively young at 36, activist artist Ellie Harrison is part of an older tradition. Her most recent project, The Glasgow Effect, got a huge amount of media attention when it was launched a year ago and rather less during its year-long progress. The talk she gave last month when the project ended was thought-provoking in its analysis of the allocation of wealth and public resources within Glasgow and further afield and how people might work to improve it. .
A practitioner in the conceptualist tradition, Harrison sees the artist as being someone who can and should channel his/her creative energies away from career indulgence, which merely adds “unnecessary objects to the world”, and towards efforts to create a more just society. The personal qualities which artists possess and develop, like persistence, willingness to work hard, confidence, arrogance, flexibility and spontaneity, make them particularly suited to such activism.
Following that dictum that artists should not merely create new objects, Harrison stated that, during the 12 months of her funding by Creative Scotland, she spent most time and energy in organising and participating in political events and campaigns, and her literary output consisted mostly of newsletters and e-mails and Facebook posts canvassing support for and reporting on these.
Old fogies like me are used to hearing younger people exalt modern technology (just like we did to our parents) so I was especially interested that Harrison feels like me that social media is not a good forum for activism. It is good for organising public events, she agrees, but otherwise it is “a beast out of control” where people behave much more badly than they do in public spaces or in one to one contact. “It is not social in the slightest”, she added; the individual user is already usually in a private space and the technology tends to increase the sense of isolation.
Harrison’s talk referenced an earlier project where she devised guidelines by which artists (by which she probably means everybody) might live their lives fruitfully in the modern world. These guidelines included: view the world objectively, analyse critically the way it works, develop ways of working outside established institutions, work collectively rather than competitively and resist career ambitions.
So it might be said that Ellie Harrison has reached similar conclusions as has Carol Craig – mentioned in a Leaf Collecting post last month, if from a different direction and through a slightly different perspective. By further coincidence, Think Globally Act Locally – a phrase recalled in that previous post – was an earlier working title of Harrison’s project.