Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How Do People Become Radical? (Part One)

"Suddenly everything fell into place."
A few days ago, a Facebook friend asked her "activist friends":

"When did you become an activist? Have you always been one to stand up for the underdog? Did you have some sort of awakening? Is this thing nature, or nurture? I ask because we need to find a way to awaken the others. What separates us from the ones who are content to fritter their lives away watching soaps and reading The Enquirer? I'd love to hear how you got this way!"

I'd like to pick up these questions, and offer some answers. I will use the term 'radical' rather than activist, because for me activism covers every kind of protest and lobbying of the government that you can imagine, and I'm not particularly interested in Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth. Of course 'radical' has its own problems as a term (a Google image search picked up reactionaries like Islamicist preachers and Barack Obama), but I think it means anyone who (to borrow the words of Henry David Thoreau) 'strikes at the root' of the problem - capitalism itself - rather than "merely hacking at the branches of evil".

In his article How I Became A Socialist, William Morris claimed it may be of some use to describe his "conversion", but only if "my readers will look upon me as a type of a certain group of people". I agree, but the problem with my own conversion is that I doubt "a certain group of people" became radicalised in a similar way. The transformation of my outlook sounds like a 'born again' religious conversion when I describe it. Of course, this is for my own readers to judge.

In late 1999, I was eighteen. I was also more or less suicidal. I had been taking anti-depressants for maybe a year and a half, having been diagnosed with 'clinical depression'. I was consumed with self-disgust, but also disgust at the state of the world. I had a long-standing interest in politics, which in my mind went back as far as the 1984-85 miners' strike, and one of my earliest memories is the shock of watching police attacking strikers at what I now know to have been the Battle of Orgreave. I also remember advising my parents to vote Labour rather than Alliance at the 1987 general election, because "they would be more likely to get the Tories out".

By about the age of fifteen, I was becoming critical of the monarchy and nationalism, and couldn't understand why the media always talked as if Britain was the centre of the world, when it was just a small island with a smallish population. When Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997 (replacing the Conservative Party that had been there my whole life), I enthusiastically supported the government, and tried to persuade myself that they were making things better for the majority. However, early policies such as the cut in benefits for single parents (voted on while Blair was partying with celebrities), and the decision to bomb Yugoslavia, gave me pause for much thought.

'Maybe they are trying to make things better', I remember thinking, 'but there's something systematic that's stopping them'. I read some political theory, and tried to think of alternative ways that society could be organised...without much success. But I don't want you to get the wrong idea; I was more preoccupied with wondering what would happen if I killed myself, and what might be the least painful way of doing so.

Then, in maybe September 1999, my socialist grandad gave me his battered old copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell. As I wrote this June, in my review of a play version, "Suddenly everything fell into place". I understood immediately that the capitalist system itself was the foundation of all major problems in the modern world. From there it was The Communist Manifesto, and to a soundtrack of Rage Against The Machine and early Manic Street Preachers, I decided that I too was a communist. The recovery from depression was also underway. I resolved to learn how the capitalist system worked in as much detail as possible, a process that is still very much ongoing.

Next week I'll give a fuller answer to those Facebook questions, with reference both to my own experience and those of others.

Continued in Part Two
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