Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi

On giving the membership things to do

It is often said of sharks, or of some sharks, that they would die if they ever stopped swimming: without continuous forward motion they would be unable to keep up the flow of water to their gills. I am not a marine biologist and I cannot confirm that this account of the shark is accurate. But the equivalent is uncomplicatedly true of some organizations—specifically, organizations where most of the work is done by volunteer activists rather than paid full-timers. Members may sometimes like to describe these organizations using military metaphors (strategy, tactics, headquarters, rank and file, vanguard, recruitment ); but on this point the analogy is unenlightening. A standing army is a classic example of an organization that is both professional and hierarchical. Soldiers are paid to obey whatever orders the political and military authorities choose to give. They can, of course, be ordered into battle. But they can also be ordered to patrol the frontiers, or to play the national anthem at state functions, or to assist the riot police, or to train, or just to stay in the barracks and polish their boots. There are perfectly credible armed forces that have gone decades without firing a shot in anger.

Volunteer activist organizations cannot do that. Activists usually have a certain amount of time at their disposal that they are able and willing to devote to their activism. They are not just able to put in the time, be it noted: they want to. If a given organization does not seem to need their efforts, they will probably drift over to another organization that does—and they will not necessarily drift back whenever their old organization wants to step things up again. A chess club that never actually provided its members with any opportunities to play chess would not have much excuse for surprise if the membership gradually took up line dancing, bridge, or amateur dramatics instead; nor could it blame them if they did not immediately make themselves available when a chess fixture was eventually organized. Just the same is true of, say, a local CND group that never campaigns for nuclear disarmament: if it ever decides it does want to mobilize the membership and get active again, it will find that most of the people on the telephone tree have picked up commitments to Cuba Solidarity or the Green Party or a trade union and no longer have much time for CND work. Or perhaps they will have got out of the habit of political activism altogether.

The leaders of an organization that relies on volunteer activists are therefore obliged to keep generating things for the activists to do. Unless the organization is very small and very homogeneous, these things had better be varied: some activists enjoy having a yell at street rallies or marches, others like to talk to the general public on the doorstep, and yet others prefer candlelit vigils or public meetings with a national speaker or banner-making or paper sales or pickets or any of the other usual standbys. They can probably be persuaded, within reason, to concentrate on one or another priority right now; but they will be happiest if the kinds of activities with which they feel the most comfortable are available fairly regularly.

Activist organizations therefore spend rather a large amount of their time and energy running in order to stand still. If they are to be capable of responding effectively in a crisis, they need to maintain a near-crisis level of activity all the time: otherwise the members will drift away and the organization—which only exists inasmuch as it has activists who are prepared to donate it their time—will fade into nonentity. A steady stream of campaigns must be kept up. ‘We are doing it to protect the local hospital,’ say the activists themselves. ‘They are doing it to make recruits,’ says the naïve observer. But the truth is that they are doing it simply to maintain the supply of oxygenated water to the gills. The alternative is dissolution.

As it happens, giving the activists plenty of things to do can also serve the leadership’s factional purposes: an organization where there is copious and agreeable work for everybody to get on with is one where there are few opportunities for opposition troublemaking. The agenda at every meeting will probably be too full of room hire, and draft leaflets, and negotiations with the police over march routes, and coach bookings for the next national demo; even if time can be found to debate the opposition’s complaints, it will always be child’s play to say that now is the very worst time to turn inwards and talk to ourselves. (The use of real or imagined urgency as a factional weapon will be addressed elsewhere in The Modern Discorsi.) But no self-interested motivation is required: even if the leaders are driven solely by a desire to keep the organization viable and campaign-ready, they will probably end up spending quite considerable effort on activities whose only real function is giving the membership things to do.

Sunday, 21 January 2018