Why we need activism and open dissent by James Derounian
It is good news that open dissent and activism is busy and growing – the alternative would be the death of local democracy
Citizens getting together to run the library or a community-owned pub are hardly contentious, but mass occupations of public spaces, like Occupy London taking over St Pauls are less well received by the government. These are both examples of people power, but the big question is where does community-based action end and rebellion begin? An inquiry into activism and dissent from the National Coalitiion for Independent Action (NCIA), a group in support of the right to act collectively and independently from the government, has attempted to answer this question. A government-favoured thinktank, Respublica, has also published its own response to this debate, called Responsible Recovery: a social contract for local growth. This inquiry argues that the long-term unemployed have often been last in line to benefit from recovery, and that localism is necessary to create vital work opportunities. These reports show that we must include the poorest in society or we risk civil unrest. The NCIA asks where resistance and alternatives to injustice can be found. It goes on to look at power as the root of manipulation and obeisance. The inquiry found rising frustrations and anger amid political despair and fear about the extent and impact of government cuts. It claims that the role of dissenting activist is critical to collective health and wellbeing.
Martin Luther King Jr famously said that "the saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority". In principle, few would argue that creative maladjustment is what we are all about. When it comes down to practicalities and detail, conformity and compliance are the order of the day. Survival of the fittest and paying homage to those in charge are cited as barriers to co-operation across voluntary bodies who are accused of allying themselves with their funders – knowing little about dissent and activism. According to NCIA's inquiry, localised dissent is usually fragmented and on a small scale. These alliances are usually made up of individuals rather than groups and based on informal links.
Unions, as a home for activism, appear routinely. And dissent ranges across a spectrum from openly challenging injustice, to subversive dissent, operating within the system. Others dissent through self-reliance, and some within voluntary agencies who are caught in the headlights, trying to determine whether or not to be dissidents. Interestingly though, dissent does not necessarily equal conflict — some express contrasting views through collaboration. In this alleged age of localism and big society, community development services act as a means to support local activism, with peer support, but they are not a home for political and social action itself. If the slogan "power is never given ... power is taken" is correct, then the pressure cooker of open dissent means frustrations will build and be released. This is better than the alternative, which would be an explosion that could destroy our democratic society. With that in mind, I take it as good news that dissent is busy and growing in all forms.
James Derounian is principal lecturer in community development and local governance at the University of Gloucestershire