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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Activist Burnout Part II: Gender.


This piece has been, if anything, harder to write than the last, as it is introspective: I’m talking about things we do to one another that make people drop out or cause people to expend all of their energy deflecting personal attack, and fighting for internal change – distracting from whatever ideal it was we joined the movement to oppose.

I can only write as a white, cis-female, relatively middle class and highly educated, activist. I have tried my hardest to be properly intersectional – if I need helping out with anything, please call me on it.

Gloss for those unfamiliar with the term: to be “cis-gendered” means to broadly identify with the gender that you were assigned at birth.

I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist, so I don’t have any statistics to offer in support of what I’m saying. I have to ask you to believe me. If you don’t believe me: perhaps you should hold that in mind as you read this article.

I’d be willing to bet that more women, trans* and genderqueer people experience more acute, or at least faster-acting or simply MORE, activist burnout than cis-gendered men within the movement. It is certainly my experience and the experience of many of my sisters that our own burnout has been exacerbated by explicitly gendered factors within leftwing organising of all stripes. Broadly, I would identify those factors as they appear to me into the following categories: “”everyday sexism:  recreating and endemicising pre-existing inequalities; “repetitive strain”: fighting the same fight time and again; rape; rape apology. I have kept the final two categories distinct for reasons that I hope to make clear. I have tried to structure this analysis systematically so that you can see how, from my perspective, each of the more basic flaws and the kinds of things we let roll, lead to the more obviously catastrophic and heartbreaking consequences further down the list.

 Everyday Sexism.

A fundamental part of this conversation is about hierarchy: any kind of hierarchy is liable to replicate power dynamics as they already exist in wider society. That’s an assertion it’s really hard to back up, but I think it’s worth looking at the composition of central and executive committees, and any committees with a particular degree of power, in hierarchical leftwing organisations. My experience is that even in the organisations which make a real effort to have prominent female full-time activists, there are less of them than there are men; trans* people are almost invisible, especially in the longer-standing organisations and people of colour are also pretty few and far between compared to the actual racial composition of the country.

This isn’t the space to explain exactly how those power structures work: what I want to talk about is how this relates to burnout. It is the experience of women and trans* people in the movement that:

  1. They are nearly invisible in the “higher” levels of some forms of organisation.
  2. It is manifestly the case in all forms of organisation besides spaces that exclude cis-male participation that there will be a tendency for men to talk over women and that women’s voices will be de-prioritised.
  3. In practical situations, men assume people of other genders to be less capable than them.
  4. Those who are effective activists are often revered and fetishised rather than respected and treated as equals.
  5. They’re STILL treated differently according to what they look like.
  6. They spend as much of their time calling out people and groups for sexism and misogyny as they do organising for whatever the banner aim of the organisation was.

I haven’t given examples for all of these – but if you need them, ask the women and people of other genders around you in your home movement. Pretty sure you’ll find evidence quickly enough.

Repetetive Strain.

I have written previously about how exhausting it is, to constantly fight losing battles. It is true that battles within the movement can sometimes be won and that our ways of organising do move forwards. It is nevertheless the case that I, personally, as one individual, have been involved in feminist interventions into the organising structures of: Climate Camp groups; Trotskyist groups; Student and anti-cuts groups; Occupations and Occupy groups; if I enumerate every campaign or event that I’ve needed to intervene into, I lose count somewhere after ten. That’s way, WAY too many. And I’ve been out of commission for a while and I’m pretty green by most standards ANYWAY.

And even after all of these interventions, there are still times when many of us feel that our voices can’t be heard, that our skills aren’t valuable, that we’re ignored because of what we look like – and that what we look like is the only reason that people are listening to us.

I’ve found it really interesting looking over blogs about Occupy in the UK how few theoretical discussions are led by women, and how many of the articles by women are about gender. And how many of the articles about gender are in fact about rape, and how many of the conversations about rape in women’s writing are picked up on by their male comrades.

Thing is, you see, they’re not.

If we don’t think you’re listening, we stop talking.

If we don’t think you care about us and about whether we’re safe, we will not put ourselves at risk by coming near you.

Rape within Leftwing Communities.

Imagine the man you’d been going out with and struggling beside for more than a decade, and had started a family with, turned out to be a cop.

Imagine if engines of the state believed it was okay to rape you because of your political beliefs.

Imagine holding political beliefs that meant the state thought it was okay to rape you – in pursuit of other people, more important than you!

Imagine trusting people intimately in spaces that were built around those political beliefs.

Here I abandon this trope because I will not ask you to imagine what happened to women at Occupy camps. It can be terribly triggering to be in any way reminded of rape or sexual assault. If your aggressor wears a mask, that mask may well become a trigger. And if everyone around you is wearing that mask all of the time? How long are you going to stay around that movement for? And if accounts of what happened to you and other women like you (I’ve heard stories of women being raped in very nearly every Occupy camp I’ve heard about) aren’t even part of the criticism of that tactic, that way of organising, if the criticism is “this lacks momentum” or “this is not permanent” rather than “this space is not safe for women” – how much energy are you going to put into rescuing it?

We don’t just burn out from exhaustion. We also burn out in anger, fear and despair.

I return here to power structures: in the SWP, Martin Smith, who had already in previous years faced allegations of violence, which I believe, received APPLAUSE at a public conference for obfuscating what had happened and in actuality saying that he wasn’t going to let puny rape allegations stand in the way of his continuing to be prominent in the organisation and part of key decision-making processes.

We also burn out in disappointment and humiliation.

There are other stories I can’t tell because they’re not public knowledge and I haven’t asked the survivors’ permission to talk about them. Just know that there are more stories.

Rape Apology.

Don’t tell us that things that have happened within the movement are not symptomatic of the movement. They obviously are. Don’t try to pretend that your form of organisation is exempt, because it’s horizontal or whatever. It’s obviously not. Don’t try to blame individuals. Especially don’t try to blame individuals if the group didn’t try to do anything about it. Don’t say you never heard about it – why was that? Why couldn’t the survivor speak out?

Any tactic or mode of organising has failed if a member of the group using that tactic is raped or sexually assaulted by her comrade and it is time to re-structure; to think not only about means of reporting and addressing such violations after the event, but also organising in such a way that people are at less risk. Maybe ask us, the vulnerable members of your group, what we think might be best.

Listen to us more.

You haven’t excused the police tactic, right? And you’re freaked out about the presence of agents provocateurs making everybody and especially women more vulnerable? I don’t know what we do about that aspect of it, yet. But I know that other things we are doing as a movement are making women similarly vulnerable – and we ought to not only talk, but to act, on that.

Love us better. You need us.

The next instalment in this series will address some state – policy and policing – tactics that have contributed to increased burnout levels among activists recently and that I think we ought to take into consideration when we’re taking stock and designing methods of organisation.

I still hope to get to a little Positive Visualisation eventually.

Thanks for sticking with me here. Again, this is just hard to talk about in any way that doesn’t sound like an attack. It’s not meant as an attack: it’s an approach and an appeal.

Love, Reckless. X X X X X X X

Activist Burnout I: An Anatomy.

[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of suicide, police violence, mental breakdown.]

“its hard to beat the Black Bloc
but I’ve seen them beaten down.”
– Decca Muldowney

A note here on context: over the last – suddenly ten and more – years I’ve been involved in various campaigns around climate change, education, immigration, the rights of women and trans* people, and against war, and probably other things that have slid from my mind just now. For the purpose of this particular post, I am drawing primarily from my experiences in the student and anti-cuts movement which began in 2010 and was characterised by a series of beautiful and hopeful occupations and a series of clashes with the police. Subsequent posts in this mini-series will address different movements and different aspects of burnout. The next post will be on burnout and gender, which is an important and frequently overlooked conversation.

I’ve been writing and writing and writing about burnout and trying to put together a blog-post. Which I mention from time to time, and everybody cheers, as if they are thirsty and I’ve just announced my card’s behind the bar. Because we need to talk about burnout. Even people who have never been involved in activism beyond really big demonstrations, who want to act now because of the depth of the cuts and the brutality of the Tory government, are looking on us, some old hands, and some just a season or so into a life that’s built around actively fighting, and they are scared and despairing.

Because what do we look like right now?

It’s there physically in a lot of us. Our skin’s pale, there are bags under our eyes. We’re fatter or thinner than we habitually are, or were last time we were happy. We lose our tempers really, really fast. We talk to people with moderate politics as if they are evil or as if they are stupid.

When I say we lose our tempers fast: I mean, really REALLY fast. And I’m pretty sure by now it’s not just me. The slightest indication that someone can’t see that the situation is fucked and that ordinary people are being aggressed against, and that suicide among the more precarious members of society is a direct effect of government policy, that we are therefore actually being killed at present, is a massive trigger, quickly producing tears, shouted insults, incoherent rage.

That’s a symptom of burnout: that you’ve sustained “reasoned argument”, often alongside radical direct and demonstrational action, for as long as you possibly can and you’ve got nowhere. And whether it’s true or no, it becomes impossible for those of us with combat fatigue to believe that everyone really is a distinct person with the capacity to reason and have their mind changed, because we’ve HAD THIS CONVERSATION BEFORE, and it didn’t convince liberals f our part and it lead to us being against police lines in kettles, hungry and cold in the dark, having cavalry charged at us, being criminalised, having our faces smashed in. It’s lead to friends in prison, comrades in hospital.

Another reason that we lose it, that we fall apart, isn’t just that we’re traumatised and by saying that you think demonstrations went “to far” and that activists were violent you’re triggering us to fuck, beyond what we can reasonably be asked to cope with.

You’re also reminding us that we’ve believed and fought and hoped and offered alternatives and fought and fought and FOUGHT, and given up our time and our lives and our sanity, and we pretty much think it’s too late. Because there are STILL people who don’t side with the government who haven’t taken up arms against them and still want to have a calm and quiet conversation about it, even though it’s now so expensive to attend university that pretty well everyone who attempts it will be expected to live in debt more or less forever; even though people are, as I have mentioned, dying; even though racism and fascism are manifestly on the rise on our streets and the far right are frequently represented on television as if they represent a legitimate political concern.

You looked at those facts and couldn’t see how necessary it was to oppose them, and now, almost like an exercise, you’re asking an activist to explain to you exactly what’s so bad?


That’s how we feel. We feel like that maybe twice a day on a good day. And the bonds that have tied us together, our resistance and our belief in what is right, have become externally defined by our having suffered and been traumatised, together. Of course there are times when we see in each other’s faces the bright and beautiful spirits that dreamed another option – when I was in the Old Schools occupation in Cambridge in 2010 I had fleeting, momentary glimpses of the kind of university that these minds would be capable of creating together, just like at climate camp it was possible from time to time, for instants in that temporary, experimental space, to re-imagine the village – there are times when we see those great, generous hearts beating full of potential. And at all times we know how lucky we are to keep the company we do.

But so much of the time we are sitting together in anger and sorrow. Even when we’re not fresh from the fight and shaking and in tears and hurt, we are caged by totalising powers that mean every day at work we’re faced by alterations to process demanded by new legislation, we’re inspected, prodded, poked, bureaucratised and asked not to trust our colleagues and the people around us. And it makes us angry – which is right. And it hurts us when we hear of suicides, and it hurts us when we hear of disabled people literally tortured by being denied the support they need and forced to work. And seeing your friends angry all the time makes you angry on their account too: someone is hurting them and that agent is too big for you to fight.

Because last time you fought, you lost.

In the last few years we’ve fought an increasing number of losing battles.

It’s funny, it’s taken me a long time to realise how much of this is to do with the concrete fact of having lost every battle we’ve fought. I thought it was just about being exhausted because the enemy is so big, being stretched too thinly, and about the real-terms violence that we have faced even in the UK where an activist’s life is still pretty okay in global terms. But it’s also about the feeling of having given everything for a long time and having failed. It is psychologically hard to recover from repeated, consistent failure.

And we burn out because there is nowhere for us to go to charge our batteries. There is no escape from capitalism or from patriarchy. It defines the terms of our existence.

So we drink or we take drugs to get out of our heads, or we find some other means of running away.

And we’re really creative and imaginative people, and plenty of us have begun to take our balls home. I wrote previously about preparing to go on the last big march against university fee hikes. I didn’t write about the run-ins that I had with the police, the way that I was manhandled for WALKING DOWN A STREET or the subsequent night that I spent in my friends’ arms shaking and crying. Like, disintegrated into bits. No more capacity to keep a handle on my emotions. It is frightening to feel like that and it is probably unhealthy to pursue situations that will make you feel like that again. So I, for one, have looked out alternative spaces where I can be creative and imaginative and which are in no intrinsic way radical, which are doing nothing to change the exterior situation, but which let me feel like I have sometimes felt, glimpsing the best of all possible worlds. And I’ve gotten stronger and started to cry less and to be less filled with rage.

But I have conscience, and I know that I am not helping right now, and I know that I need to find a way to rejoin the fight. So this post constitutes a sort of characterisation of how it feels to have burnout, what it is like to inhabit that particular mental state from day-to-day. Over subsequent posts, I will address particular aspects of the condition – I sort of want it to be recognised as a Real Legitimate Thing – which derive from structures of organisation and behaviours within movements, rather than from how we interact with those who are not with us. Out of that, I’ve challenged myself to try to imagine something better – maybe just psychological tricks, hopefully something more profound: if I can dream the resistance I want, maybe I can start to recognise aspects of it, in the resistance as it is.

I’m not the only one who’s stuck and I’m not the only one who wants a change – and I’m not condemning any of the current struggles: indeed, I stand in solidarity with all voices raised against capitalism and against the government and against a complicated web of further oppressions. This isn’t an attack. It’s just that right now all I can do is talk – and I have promised to do all that I can.