Friday, 13 January 2012

Making a living and changing the world: "career advice"

I've been thinking for a while about how people manage to make a living and change the world at the same time. There's a certain kind of Irish "realism" (probably not only Irish) which assumes that changing the world for the better is "idealistic". Changing it for the worse, by working in a job which is about pushing us further down the road of making the rich richer and the poor poorer while destroying the planet on the way, apparently, is realistic.

And if by self-interest you mean "put making money above everything else" rather than "do something with your life which is actually worth doing", and "always go with the flow" rather than "find yourself having to face real opponents", there might be something to this: capitalism does tell us that money is all that counts, after all. My sense is that many would-be radicals are afraid not so much that this might be true (it is not that hard to decide for yourself what really matters in your life) as that they might have to choose between what they really care about and making a living.

One obvious answer to this is that for every genuinely well-off person there are ten or twenty people talking about it, obsessing about it, and thinking they're very clever each time they manage to pull off a trick (preferably at someone else's expense) - and the figures just get worse if for "well-off" you substitute "famous", "powerful" and so on. The whole point of neo-liberalism, after all, is to concentrate wealth and power in as few hands as possible. Putting the pursuit of money above everything else, in this sense, is a bit more rational than playing the Lotto - but not that much.

Another and more important answer is that many people become, and remain, activists, community educators, local organisers, or even revolutionaries and are no worse off than they would otherwise have been. For many, probably most, this is because they never had the chance - or never wanted - to take up the kind of work which is about putting yourself first at other people's expense. After all, no society could survive if most people were not doing the work which is actually needed (paid or unpaid): actual human needs have to be met before there's scope for classes which live off other people's work.

In this post I want to put down some practical information for people who are thinking about these questions for themselves, and perhaps wondering whether to do the MA CEESA, or some other course which might involve an "activist career". Of course many people who take the MA are already practitioners who are either taking time out for themselves to refocus and take a wider view before going back to their existing work, or "between jobs" and wondering what to do next - hopefully this can also be useful to them.

This is drawing in part on what research exists (mostly internationally), but also on meeting a very wide range of people in different social movements, from liberal NGOs to far left parties and from community activism to alternative communities, over the past 25 years - particularly in Ireland but also in other west European countries. It's not a scientific survey but may be helpful as an overview of the situation for people who are considering their life choices.

Perhaps the most important thing to say is that there is no single "right" way to be an activist / be involved in social movements / change the world. Effective activists come in many different shapes and sizes and many different life situations:

How do activists make a living?

1) The day job 

Throughout history most social movement activists have followed whatever trade was available to them, and have become politically active either through that (in trade unionism etc.) or in their spare time. Most activists, in other words, have day jobs which they do not need to be ashamed of, and do what they can, when they can - going to evening meetings, coming to weekend demos, helping out where they can - around the edges of their paid work (and sometimes borrowing the office photocopier, it has to be said) and their caring responsibilities for children, sick partners or aging parents.

Historically some jobs have been particularly good ones for activists, and this can be worth thinking about when reflecting on the practical meanings of particular jobs today. In the 18th and 19th century some trades, like cobblers and later printers, seemed to be particularly radical because they involved a lot of skill and self-respect; if you were employed by someone else it was a moveable skill so that you weren't dependent on the one employer; and you had a lot of time on your own to think (and sometimes to read). Writers have some of these circumstances but there is often more sucking up to rich and powerful patrons (or these days publishers and the media), which tends to dampen critical thought. Other jobs, like weavers or miners, bred a lot of radicals because of the conditions and the solidarity of people working in the one place.

These days quite a lot of activists seem to be in IT (which can have some of the independence of the printer if you are in the right situation, though much IT work is grunt work). Like printers in the 19th century, IT is something which movements today typically need so there is a lot of crossover. A fair number of activists have jobs in academia, though (like writers in the past) the pressures there are greater, so that there are fewer established academics involved in social movements than there are postgrads and junior academics.

Of course any job can work as a day job for activism if it gives you the time and independence for political work. These are also important questions for quality of life and workplace conditions in general, so they are worth thinking about from that point of view as well: how not to be subject to over-intrusive line management, how to have some control over your time and work, how to be free to have your own opinions and so on.

One reader rightly comments that there are day jobs that actively facilitate activism in some way, day jobs which have to be kept completely separate, and day jobs that may in some ways be part of the problem. In everyday conversation we often politely avoid raising questions about the ways in which each other makes a living - but at what point does personal survival justify working for an actively destructive organisation? And how far is it really possible not to identify with the people who feed you, particularly if your work involves some kind of professional responsibility? This is clearly one of those conversations To Be Continued...

2) Occasional activism

Most people who get involved in social movements are not long-term activists in this sense. They are "occasional activists": people who get involved in specific campaigns which affect them or which they feel strongly about, for a period of time, people who go to particular demos or actions, or people who manage their involvement at a low level (the monthly meeting, clicktivism, donations etc.) If we needed to separate this from being an activist with a separate day job it might be that the occasional activist is someone who sees being involved with politics as a normal part of adult life but not the core of their personal identity.

Social movements wouldn't exist without people like this and the part-time activists discussed above, and the really big movements (and revolutions) depend on tens and hundreds of thousands of people in this situation feeling that they can become active without having to have a lifelong activist CV or prove their commitment etc. As one reader points out, the idea that such people are "hobby activists" is offensive and plain wrong. Effective organising, in fact, often consists of finding a way to enable everyone to find their own level of involvement rather than a one-size-fits-all model which is going to wind up only working for a hard core of full-time activists. 

Involvement in occasional activism tends to go up and down, as particular issues become important (e.g. the fracking issue across Ireland is likely to bring a lot of people out of the woodwork, and the economic crisis may yet do so), and in line with people's "biographical availability" (bringing up young children, starting a career, caring for sick or elderly relatives, building a house etc. all take it out of you as do your own ill-health, periods of poverty and isolation, etc.

3) Unemployed activists

In the later 1970s and the 1980s, many activists - like much of the population - were unemployed. Rarely were they unemployed out of choice (or because of being politically active), but what set them apart was that they put being unemployed to work, and brought their anger and skills to campaigning. Of course they had to battle against attempts to force them into futile "training" schemes (ever notice how in recessions governments start insisting on the importance of being trained for jobs that don't exist?) and to check up that they were sitting around waiting for job offers (or writing off for more non-existent jobs) rather than doing something useful for other people with their time, but on the whole they managed it. Community organisation, of course, was born out of this situation and it is only in recent years that most community organisers are "employed" (on precarious terms and within narrow limits) by the state.

So far the situation in this recession is pretty anecdotal, but it seems that much of this is happening again. It might look as though people are subject to more high-tech surveillance though of course in practice the civil service is also getting cut and much of these tasks are either outsourced or carried out by people without the resources to do them thoroughly (leading to much injustice as well as incompetence of course). It is in any case a fair assumption that there will continue to be a shortage of work in Ireland for some time - and a lot of skilled and motivated people suffering from it. 

Some, perhaps many, will decide to take real action around the lack of jobs instead of playing what might be called "Joan Burton monopoly" - pretending that there are jobs out there if only they make enough effort. If history is on our side, that might even mean pushing towards a non-Burton kind of society: one in which the state is not mostly engaged in blaming the poor and workers while transferring vast resources to multinational oil companies and the creditors of private banks.

4) Work in funded organisations

In the heyday of Irish "social partnership", many social movements became converted into fragmented service-delivery organisations for different parts of the state apparatus. More generally, all sorts of movement organisations - from community development to the women's movement and from environmentalism to majority world solidarity - came to feel that professionalisation, and dependence on state funding, were the only game in town. I've talked here about the reasons for this, and the damaging effects on movements both in terms of popular participation (as only those able to play the games of media strategy, funding proposals, policy lobbying etc. stayed involved) and in terms of their political purposes (as campaigning was subordinated to service-delivery and dissent was punished by withdrawal of funding).

In terms of the future, the real point is that the collapse of partnership also means a severe decline in this kind of work. The Irish state no longer feels it needs to pay its own in-house "loyal opposition" now that it has become clear that most organisations in question no longer have the capacity to mobilise significant numbers of people, and austerity politics means that the scope for concessions is smaller and smaller. The net effect is that being employed by other people (a funded organisation) on the basis of technical qualifications (in policy analysis, research, media or legal services) is far less likely than it was ten years ago. 

It will, however, continue to exist (as it did in the UK through the Thatcher years) but under increased political constraints; the situation which gave rise to the famous In and against the state pamphlet. How can, or how did, people remain active as activists, and not simply as poorly-paid, precarious, subcontracted workers for a state bent on imposing an "inequality agenda"?

One answer is that people learned to separate their personal politics from the organisation, in effect to treat it as a day job. This was helped by the situation of short-term contract work, and can be seen in some Irish NGOs today. What works against this is often the fear of gaining a "reputation" among possible employers as a "troublemaker" - a situation remarkably similar to that of skilled workers in the nineteenth century. Then as now, the antidote is having an alternative: being able to take your trade elsewhere, perhaps moving in and out of academia or journalism, or in a field like development work being able to alternate between working in Ireland and abroad. 

Conversely, it has to be said, the poison is in coming to believe the self-delusion that goes with the whole clientelist setup: liking the Minister of the day because of some supposed personal connection, thinking that arrangements made with your own organisation are sacrosanct, believing that a particular project is really "clever" because it fits in with some agenda within the Department or some new set of criteria, and so on: propositions which really just reveal a desperate desire to be approved by authority figures rather than any genuine political realism. The latter, of course, would say "don't trust them further than you can throw them" and "what real pressure can you bring to bear?" as well as the wider-view realism of asking whether service delivery and band-aid actions are worth it if the cost is abandoning your actual reason for existence as an organisation (or turning securing funding into that reason for existence).

5) Self-employment

Almost certainly what the next few years will bring is a rise in activists (trying to) find ways to employ themselves rather than be employed by a rapidly-evaporating pool of funding. Selling your qualifications to an interview board is going to be less important than having the skills to actually create an organisation which can fund itself. The last recession saw a boom in radical media and publishing for this reason, just as it saw the creation of cooperatives providing research and technical services to social movements, and of course the rise of member-funded organisations (as well as many other initiatives and attempts in similar directions). 

Here radically-minded activists have something of an advantage, in that they are less concerned to offer something which they think a prospective employer might like and more focussed on actually doing something worthwhile and then seeking a way to finance that. (For people who argue that this is somehow an argument for the privileged, it is worth remembering that this is how unskilled workers built mass unions. The ha'penny due for something which was desperately needed but had to be argued for - and which people took risks joining - stood opposite the top-down charities formed by the wealthy to "do something" for the poor and keep them quiet.)

The present time is seeing a rise in small collective projects of this nature (including in Ireland); The revolution will not be funded has some really interesting examples of organisations tackling difficult issues like domestic violence in tough circumstances like US black and Latino communities.

6) Work as an organiser

It is easily forgotten, but organisations which are genuinely mass-membership need organisers, and often pay them. Many large-scale radical and movement organisations work in this way; of course it demands very different skills to providing technical services to a funded organisation largely consisting of professionals. "Organiser" can mean something very different in a trade union, a political party, a radical publication, an online advocacy organisation, popular education and so on - but all need to involve large numbers of people, and wind up employing activists. 

Usually the way into this work is by doing it on a voluntary basis first (and of course this is true for much activist work of any kind); training is valuable, but has to go hand in hand with experience. 

7) Activist skills

All activism, of course, involves doing something specific, whether that is organising events or teaching, administering organisations or cooking, engaging in dangerous stunts or reporting on actions, editing magazines or fundraising. Sometimes people who have those skills, formally or informally, from some other context drift into activism, or find ways of doing what it is they do - from writing to gardening to faciliting committees to supporting people emotionally to renovating buildings - in political ways and contexts. At other times people find that the skills they have developed in their activism can become how they make a living, whether in a movement or mainstream context, or on the borders between them. Historically, whole professions or semi-professions (from women's refuges via community education to union organisers) have come out of social movements, for good or bad. 

Keeping what you actually do, what you enjoy doing and what you are good at clearly in view - separately from whether it is something that somebody else pays you to do, a technical skill you "donate" or something you have taught yourself to do as an activist - can help not only with sorting out how you want to make a living, it can also help lower the pressure that comes from feeling guilty about the choices you make as an activist about where you put your energies most.

The next ten years

At the risk of being disproved, it seems very likely that the next ten years in Ireland will see further pressures on the "funded" sector (whether dependent on the state or on private foundations etc.), making employment considerably scarcer, pushing wages down and increasing precarity while further constraining freedom of action. By contrast, there is likely to be a return to self-funding organisational models, and hence both to self-employment (collective and individual) as well as work as organisers for mass-membership organisations. At its simplest, it will be less useful to have a "saleable qualification" in a purely technical area suited to funding-driven organisations and more useful to actually be able to organise. More generally, the crisis is likely to see a growth in unemployment as well, more positively, in occasional activism and the "day job" model.

It is always hard to think in terms of the big picture, whether that is in terms of understanding what the new historical period will bring, how the situation differs in different countries, or what the political implications of individual choices are - but we are nevertheless affected by these whether we like the questions or not. 

Becoming clearer about your own motivation and what you really enjoy is important, as this is what will make it possible for you to keep going over the long haul. Similarly being honest with yourself about what you need from your movement involvement is fundamental, or you will find your needs and your politics in conflict with each other. Lastly, finding the support you need to negotiate a complex and uncertain area (and offering the same to others!) is an important part of being able to do it; solidarity matters even more within movements as in the outside world.

It is also really important - if you are thinking of taking your life in this direction - to talk to as many people as you can who have done the same as you. Reading biographies of famous activists, who are by definition in very unusual situations, is probably less helpful than reading oral histories like Staughton and Alice Lynd's The new rank and file or Nancy Naples' Grassroots warriors to get a sense of the real "lives less ordinary" lived by people whose lives will never be turned into movies.

The MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism

CEESA doesn't set itself up to be an answer to all of these problems, though we are happy to help as much as we can. What we do is to work with people who are already motivated to place social change towards the centre of their lives, and to support them in doing that. In particular, we give you the tools to think about the bigger picture in terms of understanding how inequality works in the wider society and what equality might mean; effective organising tools in the form of community education methodologies; an understanding of political choices; as well as skills in a range of areas from personal and movement sustainability via critical media skills and participatory action research tools to understanding the politics of social movements. 

The course is designed for people who are not so much planning on finding work providing narrowly-defined technical services in a specific sector but rather thinking about how they can put a genuine passion for social change to work in an uncertain future which carries no guarantees - other than that genuine political substance, a commitment to real needs rather than criteria defined by policy-makers, the ability to convince others and to mobilise effectively, thinking strategically and building alliances are all key parts of a life dedicated to social justice.

Some of our participants are relatively new to the idea of shaping their lives around community education, equality or activism and wondering what that means in practice, while others have been doing it for a while, perhaps affected by the crisis of the sector and asking themselves "what now?" or needing to step back from the daily grind of social change work and think about the bigger picture.

Not everyone is in a position to take a year-long masters (though we do contain classes within two days to facilitate people with caring or work responsibilities), and this website is in part geared towards making some of the resources we use in the course available more widely. I hope you find it useful and that it is a genuine contribution to social change.

Although the course is only in its second year, we do get very positive and supportive feedback from people working in the area and other educators for change, as well as from past course participants (see this video) and prospective employers. As one past participant put it, the course supports people to become someone who is "reflexive, expressive, critical, creative, thinks outside the box", which is really important in a time of change. We don't yet know in any detail what participants go on to do, other than to say that from the first cohort some continued with their existing activism; some changed direction in smaller or larger ways and found work (some paid, some unpaid) in their new direction; some set up their own organisation; and some want to continue in education.

Lastly, to come back to the start: it is really important to stress that people who want to, do find a way of dedicating their lives to social change, whatever their circumstances, personal "issues" or movement orientations. The longer I have been involved as an activist, teaching organisers, researching social movements and so on, the greater the variety of people I meet and the wider range of situations they are active in and from. It might not always seem so, but there are as many old activists as young ones (sometimes in different kinds of organisations or taking different roles), and as many different ways to "be an activist" as there are activists. Which is just as well...

Laurence Cox is co-director of the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism. This post is written in a personal capacity. Many thanks to LD, SL, RM, MM, SOD, TOK and GR for comments on an earlier version of this post.