From the political to the personal and back again…

By Anthea Lawson


Perspectiva was founded to explore the link between our inner and outer worlds, between the personal and political. In our new initiative, Beyond Activism, we want to investigate how activism – the attempt to change the world outside – might be better understood and potentially enhanced by incorporating a richer understanding of our inner lives. How, for instance, do our hopes, fears, love, hate, biography, trauma, projections, virtues, vices and more influence our capacity to effect meaningful change in the world? This blog is an introduction to how we’re thinking, and a call for contact with activists who share our curiosity and our conviction that this is a timely and important inquiry.
Let’s start with something that looks political.
I had this picture on the wall next to my desk for several months in 2011. It made me smile every time I looked at it, and I’d be lying if I claimed it doesn’t still make me smile now. I’m not into flash cars: I’ve no clue what these are. I liked what it seemed to represent: justice and victory.
These sillywagons belonged, for a while – along with dozens of others, equally expensive – to Teodorin Obiang, vice-President of Equatorial Guinea and son of the dictator President Obiang, Africa’s longest-serving leader. From 2007, French anti-corruption campaigners pursued the younger Obiang through the courts in the ‘biens mal acquis’ (ill-gotten gains) case, arguing that his property and cars in France could not possibly have been bought with his official salary. The photo was taken when some of those cars were confiscated from his home in Paris.
Equatorial Guinea started pumping oil in the mid-90s and has failed, spectacularly, to spread the benefits to its population. The campaign organisation I was working for, trying to modify the economic rules, was also investigating him. We revealed his ownership of a mansion in Malibu and outed the banks and lawyers who were shifting his funds into Europe and the US. Whenever I met bank regulators to tell them why they should stop banks assisting this vast theft of public funds from people living in poverty, Teodorin and his cars were the top example. You put them next to pictures of people who don’t have enough sanitation and healthcare and it’s not hard to see a problem.
Teodorin was recently convicted (in absentia) of embezzlement by the French courts; more than 100 million euros were confiscated. This is extraordinary; grand corruption on this scale is almost never prosecuted. If a kleptocrat has stitched up the rule of law sufficient to be helping himself to the contents of his country’s treasury, prosecution is certainly not going to happen at home. But extraterritorial prosecution by another state is riven with difficulty, in the first instance prioritising it when there is so much domestic competition for the judicial budget, and then having to prove a theft that took place overseas. So hats off – throw them in the air – to the campaigners and lawyers at Sherpa and Transparency International France who were celebrating a massive campaigning victory that took a decade of hard work.
What happens now? Obiang’s lawyers have said they will appeal, and campaigners are trying to work out how to get the money back to good causes in Equatorial Guinea without it being thieved again. That powerful picture of the cars being taken away, along with a similar picture from Switzerland and news of Obiang’s 2014 settlement with the US authorities that lost him his Malibu house and more cars (they couldn’t get hold of the $1m crystal-studded Michael Jackson glove which was in Equatorial Guinea) will no doubt dissuade aspiring kleptocrats from moving their money to the west. They’ll now set up more circuitous pipelines for their money that lead to Dubai and Hong Kong instead, and will continue to find plenty of lawyers and bankers to help. The banks in France, Switzerland and the US that helped him will continue to turn a blind eye to the less ostentatious stolen public funds and tax-evaded funds they have already accepted.
“The problem is some central beast…around the edge of which endless separate groups of activists were fighting: human rights here, environment there, austerity over here, mental health over there. It felt like such an appalling waste of energy not to join forces.”
In Johan Galtung’s terms, the dynamic that allows women in Equatorial Guinea to die in childbirth when there are vast oil revenues that could increase the health budget is classic structural violence: a form of violence that can be distinguished from personal violence because it doesn’t have a direct perpetrator. The extraordinary visibility of kleptocrats such as Teodorin Obiang as a personal representation of this structural dynamic – which I helped contribute to, by publishing gleeful details of his spending exploits – moves the story closer to sounding like personal responsibility. (Human rights lawyers interested in corruption are still seeking ways to make this real in law.) But this is distracting. The presence of a compelling lead actor in the story hides the structural violence from our attention. And it’s not just the role of the financial sector, as I alluded to above, that gets hidden.
Equatorial Guinea continues to extract and sell its oil. Divestment campaigns aside, we continue in practice to consume that oil, which is woven into the fabric of our lives. We continue to participate in an economy predicated on endless growth that is, in terms of the biological limits of our home the earth, almost certainly suicidal. Extraction of resources to fuel that economy continues to push people off their land or they die, in increasing numbers, defending it. Public values of success still look like they are based on wealth accumulation and ownership of luxury items; it’s arguable that Obiang is at the extreme and criminal end of a spectrum of status-seeking consumption behaviour, much of which is normalised. Celebrities hold party on bigger celebrity’s luxury yacht at Cannes? Yeah, stick it on page three, nice big picture please. Dictator’s son from poor but oil-rich country tries to buy 380 million dollar luxury yacht? Boo, what a scandal. Maybe we’ve got room for a few paragraphs at the end of the international pages.
So was this justice and victory? Nobody working on Obiang’s case would claim that convicting him is the only answer, emblematic and delightfully pleasing though this event was. They know that he is an extreme illustration of a much wider problem: that money is still, decades after the end of colonialism, flowing from poor to rich countries in far greater amounts than the other way round. Increasing numbers of people in rich countries are realising this (people in poor countries already know it, of course), but many still have not. And activists have to choose where they’re going to spend their energy. So changing the narrative, showing that it is not people’s fault if they are poor, but that there are systemic forces at work creating poverty and the globalised financial system is at the heart of them… it’s a useful place to start. I would say that, as I did it for nearly ten years.
But after a few years of working away at campaigns to change the economic rules, I started to realise that we – and many other NGOs – were doing so without seriously questioning the bigger framework that governs those rules. It dawned on me that the same system of extraction of wealth is what is driving the biological basis of our life on earth to its limits. The distinction I’d experienced between human rights and social justice campaigning, on the one hand, and environmental campaigning, on the other, collapsed. And at that point, the idea that the problem is some central beast – which I understood at that point as capitalism, its endless need to grow, to convert living things into dead things in order to create more capital – became a visual image in my mind. A huge blob (not unlike the one in the film of that name), around the edge of which endless separate groups of activists were fighting: human rights here, environment there, austerity over here, mental health over there. All – separately – busting a gut to mobilise the public, raise funds, mark out their turf, win their battles. It felt like such an appalling waste of energy not to join forces and recognise the underlying issue we were fighting, such a manifestation of the very separation from human connection that designing a society around market forces engenders. All that work, yet the blob gets bigger and – to continue with the film’s imagery[1] – consumes some of those activists. Partly because it is very strong, and also because, in the absence of obvious alternatives, consumerism and capitalism now feed, by proxy, parts of our psyches that have legitimate needs, such as status and personal growth.
I grew to understand that I couldn’t separate myself from the problem. We’d be looking at the corruption and human rights abuses caused by oil, and were painfully aware that we were flying around the world to do our investigations and speak at conferences. We tried to fly less and do more on Skype, but we also knew that how we are living, every day, is part of the problem. And it’s not just about oil consumption, but our very approach to the world: competition, fighting, having to win and control, the deep battle metaphor at the very heart of the word ‘campaign’.
At the same time as I was realising all this, I was piling into a shared car or a train most Friday evenings with a bunch of rucksacks, ropes, smelly boots and mountaineers to spend my weekends rock climbing and hillwalking. It was an escape, a way of equalising the pressure of what I was doing during the week. But I couldn’t really escape: the altered state of consciousness that being in the hills wrought in me (and others may find this through religion, meditation or psychedelics) was a route to understanding how deeply everything is connected, and that we might therefore need to look at activism differently. If my first waking up was a political awakening to the state of the world and that made me an activist, then my second awakening felt like a spiritual one, to how I fitted into the world and am therefore part of anything I try to change.
As with all timely realisations, others were having versions of it too. The Smart CSOs Lab and funders like the Guerrilla Foundation have been looking into what a more systemic activism, grounded in Donella Meadows’ systems thinking, would look like – one which recognises the need to tackle root causes rather than symptoms, and that the way we approach our activism can help reinforce the values underpinning the current system. There are moves in some organisations towards a deeper and more transformational organising model that creates new leaders and activists, rather than mobilising the public for particular events and actions. Towards a new narrative strategy (see here, here, here and here) that recognises how language, by activating deep metaphorical frames that order how we think, can trigger people’s underlying values and help shift their priorities.
The seeds of a new way of approaching activism are germinating and being carefully tended. But these moves in the right direction are not yet widespread. For those activists experiencing their version of that second awakening I’ve just described, it can be hard to ground their experience when the same old mayhem is going on around them. It can arrive in the form of burnout that leads to cynicism or despair. The desire to find the root-cause place in which to intervene can lead to a potentially infinite regression: here I am working on housing but maybe it’s not about housing, it’s about economic inequality; it’s not about inequality, it’s about capitalism and economic growth; it’s not about economic growth, it’s about fear of mortality, and… shit! What on earth am I going to do about that? Plus, there is plenty in the cultural status quo that discourages us from looking within: the busy-busy mode that activists have unthinkingly copied from capitalism, a queasiness about spirituality, a default physical-chemical approach to psychology: you sound depressed here are some pills, off you go.
“there is plenty in the cultural status quo that discourages us from looking within: the busy-busy mode that activists have unthinkingly copied from capitalism, a queasiness about spirituality, a default physical-chemical approach to psychology”
However they arrive at this point, some activists decide that the route is not trying to change anyone else. They’re going to live a life that is honest to themselves: doing their own emotional work so they’re not sublimating hidden needs in consumption or projecting unacknowledged childhood rage onto campaign targets, and contributing something generative to the world, whether that is a well-composted garden, a secure child who doesn’t think shopping is the answer, or a community choir. Charles Eisenstein has explored this beautifully in his essay The Cynic and the Boatbuilder and his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
All of these are the beginnings of a move into recognising subjective experience and its two-way relationship with the external world that activists so want to change. It can feel like activism has got there late: it’s nearly 40 years since Margaret Thatcher pronounced that ‘Economics is the method. The object is to change the heart and soul.’ The advertisers, of course, have been there for decades, as Adam Curtis showed so clearly in his documentary ‘The Century of the Self.’ The neoliberal project, by refashioning every human endeavour it can get its hands on into a market, has changed us, and this can be measured in our altered behaviour.
But while this can feel very new to those of us who’ve been busy banging our heads senseless against the unmoving walls of corporate priorities, it’s not new, of course (nothing ever is). It’s Gandhi’s ‘be the change you want to see’, although he didn’t say it exactly like that. In 1989 the French theorist Félix Guattari explored the subjective aspect of environmental activism in his last book, The Three Ecologies. Here we are trying to protect the environment, he said, while failing to take sufficient account of two other ecologies: those of our own minds, and the society which those minds create. Feminism has long strived to make the personal the centre of the political, to make the political acknowledge just how much of the personal has been – and continues to be – left out. As Jeremy Gilbert explores in his recent essay ‘Psychedelic Socialism: the Politics of Consciousness, the Legacy of the Counterculture and the Future of the Left, the potential of the consciousness-raising experiments of the radical 60s and 70s have yet to be fully harnessed. There is an intriguing connection, he points out, between the ‘higher’ consciousness attained through mysticism, meditation or yoga, and the politically awakened consciousness of those who’ve done the work to realise that their personal circumstances are actually part of something much larger and structural – and that can be changed.
One of the ways Perspectiva wants to explore the inner and outer worlds of activism is by looking at some of the underlying aspects of personality and behaviour that make us rather more like our ‘opponents’ than we might like to think. Activists like to think that we are right, that we are righteous, that our indignation is justified, and that others will ultimately realise that we’re right. But so, funnily enough, does everyone else. We want to look at theories from moral psychology about why we hold our political views; about the role of emotion in politics, about how our suppressed knowledge of our own mortality affects everything we do. We’ll also look at notions of the sacred – because even those of us who are allergic to anything religious or spiritual are holding something sacred, and it’s probably a good idea to work out what it is before we go trampling across others’ sacred ground.
We’re interested in exploring how the various forms of ‘subtle’ or ‘conscious’ or ‘sacred’ or ‘integral’ activism are manifesting. We’re also interested, though, in charting the various routes between the meditation cushion and the barricades. I make reasonable compost (though my mother thinks it could be improved) and seem to spend rather a lot of time on my knees (both practically and metaphorically) looking after my small children, but then I hear about something that’s just happened in the world and my first reaction is either ‘Bastards!’ or ‘No! That Cannot Pass, Let’s Do Something.’ I’m back up against power, the power that constructs and maintains the economic and political system as it is, and not confronting that power when something bad is going on right now does not feel like an option. That feeling is what made me an activist in the first place, and it hasn’t gone away, despite my desire to do it differently by taking account of our inner worlds. So when we say ‘beyond’ activism, we’re not leaving it behind. We’re looking into it, from it, through it, around it.
So this Perspectiva project is an inquiry into how we might take the best of activism: the passion, the commitment, the ethics, the energy, the solidarity, the critique of how power operates – but without getting lost in the shadow of those things. We’ll be looking at questions of identity, sacrifice, control, anger, having to be a saviour, and how they are tied up with our activism.
“What might it look like to ‘do’ activism, but from a recognition that we can’t operate from the same false assumptions about rational behaviour that economics makes?”
What might it look like to ‘do’ activism, but from a recognition that we can’t operate from the same false assumptions about rational behaviour that economics makes? How might activists try to make the world a better place from a more grounded place in the world themselves? How, in practice, do we activate Charles Eisenstein’s injunction to ask the question, what is it like to be you? I suspect that the Craftivism activists are coming closer to that than I’ve yet managed. What would happen if we could ask that question to Teodorin Obiang? To the bankers who helped him steal that public money for so many years? Can we get past putting facts or noise in front of those we’d seek to change, and expecting them to change in response? Can we engage with them as real people like ourselves?
We’re going to be exploring these questions over the next months – and new questions are emerging with each new conversation. A lot of people are thinking about all this, even if the organisations they campaign with are taking longer to shift. The climate campaigner Iris Andrews has a great description of what this is about: she calls it the ‘inside job’ and the ‘outside job’. We’re keen to hear from activists of all stripes who have views on this central question: what does the relationship between the inside job and the outside job mean to you, and how might we bring them closer together?
Please do get in touch with your thoughts at We’d love to hear from you.
[1] Though we’ll have to leave it there, because the screenwriter solved the problem by having the Blob vulnerable to cold, so they spray it with fire extinguishers then lift it to the Arctic and leave it there, hoping the ice won’t melt. Yup. It was 1958.

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