While sitting on a train bound for Manchester, I read over an article I’d drafted for Radical Rumours, a housing and workers co-operative zine. The piece encouraged the Radical Routes network to break out of guilt-based activism which permeated our communities. As I read the piece I had a lightbulb moment: I’d written the article for myself.
A few months earlier, I had been involved in the No Dash for Gas occupation of West Burton gas-fired power station. It was a very successful action; 21 of us walked onto the power station site, 16 of us climbed up two chimneys, our presence created a health and safety hazard which forced the site to shut down, we stayed for a week and came down of our own free will. We cost the power company EDF £5 million which they tried and failed to sue us for, we saved 20,000 tonnes of carbon, and got lots of national coverage.
Not only was the action a success, the group had picked a good target. Osborne’s ‘dash for gas’ is a pivotal point within current energy and climate politics. If the government go ahead with their plans the UK loses any chance to meet its climate change targets, and will be stuck within a system controlled by the Big Six energy companies who will continue to make profits while passing on rising gas prices to consumer energy bills.
All in all, it was a great action to be involved in, so why had I been feeling so uncomfortable about it? When friends and colleagues congratulated me for being involved, I cringed. I’d be thinking: ‘I didn’t put as much effort in as others, I’m not worthy of your praise.’ Up on the chimney during the occupation, I never really felt comfortable about being there. And that wasn’t because of the height, I loved that bit.
On my train ride to Manchester I realised that what had motivated me to get involved with the action had been guilt. I’d said yes because I thought I should. It was about me ‘doing’ something, being ‘good’ enough, being worthy. The paradox is, it was never going to be enough. I hadn’t taken on the most difficult jobs, I hadn’t worked the hardest, and so I never deserved the praise. Trying to fulfil my sense of worth through activism was not going to work.
The reason I’m sharing this is because from conversations with friends, housemates and others in the ‘activist’ network, I believe this guilt-mentality work-complex engulfs our networks and communities. It perhaps comes from the capitalist societal ethic we have all grown up within where, as children, and throughout our lives, we are valued when we ‘work hard’, rather than being valued for simply being ourselves.
By saying this, I don’t mean to promote never working, it’s just that looking for our intrinsic worth through the work we do could be dangerous. Not only will the constant drive to work physically and mentally run us down, it promotes competition between friends, self-deprecating feelings of ‘they are so much more on-it and better than me,’ and unequal power dynamics in groups.
If we want to create the radical world a lot of us share a vision of, guilt-based action won’t get us there. Climate change, fascism, poverty, and so on are all things we are struggling against the odds to change. In this struggle we need to re-remember our motivation – the care, anger and love, feel enthusiasm for what we do, and be motivated by this, not by guilt.
Of course we want to create a more just world, but perhaps it needs to be remembered that that starts with ourselves. Let’s be radical and take a moment to assess our motivations. Let’s not perpetuate the unsustainable burn out-cycle of guilt activism and guilt living. Let’s free ourselves to be well, and act from a place of internal confidence and strength, rather than beat ourselves up like those monks with spiky bush things!