Strange times call for direct action

May you live in interesting times, goes the supposedly ancient backhanded Chinese curse. We surely do.

I’ve admittedly been a bit too preoccupied with Brexit lately.  To tell the truth, I’m just as incandescent today as I was in the weeks following the 2016 referendum – on reflection, I’ve hardly rested my outrage since. The UK is still busy tearing itself apart both externally (in its chaotic attempts to extricate itself from the European Union), and internally (in the ever-more-toxic schism between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters), and the whole thing is tearing me apart too. It’s a shitshow, but I’m beginning to remind myself that Brexit isn’t the only show in town… It isn’t even the only shitshow in town either, sadly.

The planet is burning. Standards of living are continuing to fall for most people, and there’s a palpable dearth of hope and optimism in society. Most people I know are either ‘weathering the storm’ of what is now ten successive years of stagnant or worsening economic and social wellbeing, or they’re depressed – compelled to turn their general sense of despair inwards; to exchange their sense of foreboding for one of hopelessness and an NHS prescription for antidepressants, or a too-regular evening beer habit in my case.

People seem to be angrier where I live too. Grouchy, intolerant, harbouring a quiet malevolence toward one another. This is a bit puzzling because in a town dubbed the most pro-EU in Britain you’d think there’d be a comradely atmosphere. I think everyone’s just exhausted with this whole epoch if I’m honest. It’s not that Aberystwyth’s particularly or actually malevolent, I’m mean, this isn’t Harlow or anything, it’s just that there seems to be a general lack or reasons to be cheerful, which is actually pretty naff.

But there’s some good really stuff going on too, here and in other parts of the UK and the world. Like a lot of people, I’m buoyed, for example, by the recent climate protests of Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the School Strike movement headed by Greta Thunberg. Why? Because they’re shaking things up that need to be shook up, offering alternatives to the downward spiral many of us feared was cemented as the inevitable path of civilisation. It’s their methods, too, that are exciting. The central method – non-violent direct action (NDA) – says: I am not going to hurt you or oppress you, and I am not going to threaten you or destroy your property, but I am going to be fucking rude to you sometimes; There will be inconvenience and disruption to your activities which you will not like, don’t take it personally, but you have to change your ways. Enough of half measures and duplicitous platitudes, change must happen, and it’s probably going to be painful.

So far at least, it’s working. Although XR has inevitably attracting some criticism, it has more often than not been these criticisms themselves which have found themselves under the spotlight. XR has held a mirror up to society and showed us what we are, and told us unequivocally that we have been insufficient in our actions, hypocritical in our pledges, and, still, complicit in the demise of life on Earth. XR’s message is that this is a major fire, things are exploding, and we’ve been behaving like it’s a weekly fire drill. The time for positive-sounding (and ultimately, empty) soundbites and incremental change, and deferral, has passed. Now, vital changes must be forced through, non-violently, but disruptively. XR and the NDA tactics they deploy are disturbing and disruptive in the same way as an unpleasantly shrill fire alarm. Like a fire alarm, they serve an important purpose.

Following decades of profound disconnection – when we were trained to self-identify as consumers, and learnt that the only way that it was possible to enact social change was to shop ‘ethically’ and recycle the packaging – to rediscover the potency of direct action feels really good.