Laurence Cox in context

http://ireland.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/ring.html

http://ireland.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/meditation.html

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Buddhist meditation for beginners

Link to Buddhafield Ireland web page

Starting meditation


This is an introduction to basic Buddhist meditation techniques for developing awareness and friendliness – two mental qualities which are of value to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. It is not primarily intended as a “teach-yourself” course; if you have the chance, you are much better off to learn meditation face-to-face, ideally from a recognised meditation teacher (which means someone who other meditation teachers recognise as competent), or – failing that – from someone approved by such a teacher as able to give basic instruction. (This is because responses to meditation can be quite idiosyncratic, and it is useful to be taught by someone who is able to respond to the more unusual experiences and problems.) Failing that, a good book designed to teach meditation (such as the sources listed in the “Sustainable Meditation” section) is the next best thing.

However, it is possible for a range of reasons to be in the unfortunate situation of having neither teachers nor books to hand, and in this case these notes may be of use to a dedicated practitioner who is willing to work systematically until something better comes to hand. The face-to-face course these notes were produced for was intended to give beginners the tools to be able to develop and sustain a practice of their own at the end of eight weeks of practice; the most effective way to use these notes in this way would be simply to read each section carefully and follow the suggestions in it over the following week, setting aside 20 minutes a day for the practice.

My main reason for putting this up on the Web is the hope that it may encourage some people to explore the practice of Buddhist meditation further, in the best circumstances available to them. I have tried to write it in as down-to-earth and non-religious a way as possible, on the grounds that happiness is (or should be) a basic human birthright.


Week one: What is meditation?
Week two: Developing mindfulness
Week three: Working with the mind
Week four: Becoming friendlier
Week five: Meditation and integration
Week six: Orientation in meditation
Week seven: Taking practice further
Week eight: Sustainable meditation


About this course

These are the notes from a course I ran for care workers in Waterford in 1998 and 1999, and for newcomers to the Waterford Meditation Group in 2000. They offer a basic introduction to an accessible form of meditation practice, and have been written with a view to giving students sufficient tools to sustain a practice of their own in isolation if need be.

I developed this course with the support of Dharmachari Ratnabandhu in response to the needs I could see among the care workers I was teaching for a reliable source of awareness and emotional resources, after trying and failing to bring down a formal meditation teacher. (We finally managed to bring a teacher down to set up the Meditation Group.) Since first writing this page, I have been using and developing this material in running introductory meditation weekends for the Wexford Meditation Group, with the support of Dharmachari Sanghapala. I am not a qualified teacher, but have been practicing for 11 years.

The course is anything but original, and follows the basic lines of teaching developed in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), implementing two practices (the anapana sati and the metta bhavana) which can be found in the Pali Canon and in Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhimagga.

I do not encourage anyone to use this material on its own unless they have no other resources available to them. I know for myself, however, that it is possible to be deprived of any contact with the Dharma, and have seen committed students achieve wonders in relative isolation. If, as a reader, you can find other and more qualified sources for meditation teaching, please go to them. If you cannot, I hope this may be of some use in developing mindfulness and friendliness in everyday life.

Within Ireland, the annual Buddhafield Ireland retreats, which are now in their fourth year, are designed among other things to make introductory meditation teaching available to those who for whatever reason find it difficult to come to regular classes or attend a traditional weekend. The 2003 Buddhafield Ireland retreat was run as a child-friendly retreat, making it possible for single parents to gain at least an introduction to the practice of meditation, and hopefully this tradition will continue into 2004.

Laurence Cox

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http://ireland.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/bandb.html

The Buddha and the Barcode

Laurence Cox, The Buddha and the barcode: understanding 21st century Buddhism. Reading: South Street Press, 2000.

This short (15,000 words) book will be published this autumn. Here’s the blurb and contents listings.


There are over a million Buddhists in western Europe today. From remote Scottish islands to busy Birmingham suburbs, people are turning to Buddhist ethics, meditation and wisdom to meet the challenges of everyday life in the 21st century. This book explores what is going on.

The Buddha and the Barcode looks at the essentials of Buddhism and how it came to Europe. It asks how it is changing in its interaction with modernity and what contemporary Buddhist practitioners actually get out of it. It also looks at why Buddhism is in the news: Hollywood celebrities, media scandals and majority world politics.

The Buddha and the Barcode focusses throughout on what Buddhism means in practice: how it works, why ordinary people dedicate themselves to Buddhist practices, how it has been understood and misunderstood, and where it is going on the edge of the 21st century.

Meditators and marketers, hermits and activists, lamas and tourists play through the scenes of Buddhism’s encounter with modernity, making of it something new each time but drawing on Buddhism’s fundamental challenge of transformation – awakening, freedom, and happiness.

The Buddha and the Barcode is an ideal introduction to Buddhism as it is lived today, explaining the fundamentals without long discussions of mediaeval philosophy and history. It is a challenging and original discussion of an ancient tradition in globalised modernity.


Contents

  • Introduction
  • Acknowledgements

Chapter one: basic Buddhism

  • “There must be some way out of here…”
  • Bad habits, good habits and no habits
  • Communities of transformation

Chapter two: Buddhism as a best-seller

  • Why Buddhism?
  • Building Buddhism in the west
  • Inside the Buddha boom

Chapter three: twenty-first century religion?

  • Religion in the age of the mobile phone
  • Can Buddhism bridge the gap?
  • Who are the new Buddhists?

Chapter four: what are the benefits?

  • Buddhism as a way of life
  • The promise of transformation: myth or reality?
  • A new force for social change?

Chapter five: media images and real politics

  • Celebrity Buddhism and the big screen
  • Power, money and scandals
  • Virtual Tibet: the ghost in the machine
  • Conclusion
  • Further reading

http://ireland.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/dharma.html

Finding the Dharma in modernity

This article was commissioned for the Buddhist zine Dharma Life on the strength of the manuscript for The Buddha and the Barcode. On seeing the completed article, Dharma Life felt it wasn’t quite their thing. Which is fair enough – DL is a good zine, but has quite specific purposes and a very particular audience. So here, for perhaps a slightly different audience, is the article.

Laurence Cox


Perhaps the most dramatic change in human history, after the “neolithic revolution” that developed agriculture, has been the rise of modernity over the past five centuries. It has penetrated all human experience with the logics of capitalist economics and bureaucratic organisation, colonised the planet, forced participation in the global market and transformed the natural world. For the individuals caught within it, modernity means a constant exposure to the winds of change:

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned…(1)

Seen from one side, this experience of change, deconstruction and precariousness is no challenge to the Dharma. The Buddha’s world was itself a kind of proto-modernity, in which international trade along the silk routes had transformed the “heroic” societies of the Homeric and Vedic periods, with the development of new cities and great states, a new mobility of merchants and the dispossessed, and the collapse of previously taken-for-granted beliefs(2). The suttas of the Pali Canon represent the Buddha challenging the view that traditional practices were sufficient to achieve liberation, and engaging with the new ideas of the wandering seekers who populated the towns and forests of northeast India.

From the other side, however – that of ordinary Buddhists and Buddhist institutions operating within samsara – modernity has been a rude awakening after its comfortable coexistence with the long Asian middle ages. From the late nineteenth century, the Buddhist response to colonialism, Christian missionaries and the challenge of development has included a new flowering of meditation teaching and practice, a transformation of Buddhist studies, and a greater engagement with movements for social change. As the Dharma has moved west in recent decades, the project of building vessels that can weather the seas of modernity, not simply the slow rivers of the mediaeval world, has become a global one, connecting forms of Buddhism that had been out of touch with one another for many generations.

Coping with modernity

This experience is an immensely challenging one, not just for the Buddhist sangha, one of the two oldest institutions on the planet, but also for ordinary people – Buddhists and otherwise – caught up in the storms of modernity. Our responses are extremely varied, but three general trends can be identified, three ways in which we try to deal with the experience of constant transformation, of every idea being “up for grabs”, and of our inability to find the happiness we are looking for.

The first is fundamentalism: a basic tendency to search for our magical island, fortify it with strong sea-walls against the gales, and dig in. We might find our island in religious texts, or in what we imagine the remote past to have been like, in a local community or behind the alarms and walls of a detached home and family.

At its roots, fundamentalism is a manifestation of aversion towards modernity. This is expressed in the attempt to impose sharp boundaries between an inside imagined as “pure” and an outside imagined as “impure” – boundaries which are of course at a constant risk of dissolving. It also comes out in an authoritarian reaction to “impurity” within, particularly when people attempt to escape the power relations of family, community and culture; and, when it controls modern states, by aggression towards the outside world.

The manifestations of our desire to avoid modernity, then, are crime panics and “police actions”, censorship and repression of sexuality, an obsession with personal purity and the attempt to flatten diversity. Even temporary success in these fields, however, depends on the tools of modernity, from TV evangelism and electoral focus groups to deportation and high-powered weapon systems. While the technical knowledge of modernity cannot be excluded forever, the liberating possibilities of modern culture can, so that the magical island becomes ultimately a wilful development of ignorance and a form of self-imprisonment.

A second kind of response is affirmative modernism: surfing the waves of modernity, going with the flow, delighting in the speed and the power of the storm. We might immerse ourselves in the rivers of electronic communication and the mass media, let ourselves be swept away by the crowds in the shopping malls, or swirl downstream from lunch-date to party, meeting to mobile phone-call, airport lounge to international conference.

Affirmative modernism is an expression of craving for modernity, an attempt to have it all, a bit like a demented magpie on speed, and a desire never to have to separate ourselves from anything, to swallow up the world within ourselves. The likelihood, obviously, is that it is us who become swallowed up by the world: we become fragmented, exhausted, confused but maintain the fixed grin that shows we’re enjoying it. At worst, we can come to identify ourselves fully with this shiny, happy public self; at “best”, we might have one language for the market-place and another one at home or in church.

The problem with this strategy is that it ultimately cancels itself out: if Buddhism, for example, is “really” no different from Christianity, or psychology, or chat-shows, or shopping, why bother doing any of them? Affirmative modernism works well, in a sense, for people who are born into a religion and want to retain that affiliation for social reasons. For converts, it allows them to display a prestigious designer label without having to make any significant changes to the person within. In the last analysis, it is a wonderful way of getting caught up in the dream-landscape of modernity so thoroughly that even the idea of waking up seems like madness.

A third kind of response is a critical modernism, which recognises the nature of the landscape we find ourselves in and tries to find a way of navigating that terrain without losing sight of the vision we are ultimately pursuing. Like the Buddha’s wanderers looking for alms, the critical modernist walks the streets of the modern metropolis, but does so mindfully; they speak the language of the people they meet, but speak to the core of the matter, not about trivialities.

This means trying to transform the aversion of fundamentalism into a wise (and relaxed!) clarity about what the Dharma is and is not, an ability to know what we are trying to do and how it differs from other possible goals, and a willingness to change our lives. Or it could mean trying to turn the craving of affirmative modernism into an open-hearted readiness to engage with the possibilities and horrors of the world, to look beneath the surface of experiences and communications that repel us to see the jewel of Buddha-nature buried in the heart of modernity.

Unlike fundamentalism – which refuses to touch what it sees as soiled – and affirmative modernism – which simply takes everything as it finds it – critical modernism is a craft, an attempt to discover the nature of the world as it is (which includes ourselves and our understanding) and work with it, transform it in line with its own possibilities and our own visions. An open-hearted reading of the history of Buddhism over these last two centuries can give us a sense of the developing efforts of ordinary (and extraordinary) people transforming existing institutions, finding new ways to speak the Dharma, and perhaps most wonderfully working with themselves in the exploration of the treasure-rooms of the mind.

Modernity and the promise of liberation

The Visuddhimagga identifies particular personality types, each with particular potentials for spiritual development, closely connected to their particular weaknesses. We could extend something of this figure of thought to kinds of society, and suggest that each has affinities with particular aspects of the Dharma, potentials which perpetually run the risk of collapsing into traps that are the more seductive because of their close relationship to the possibility of liberation.

The conventional English translation of bodhi, awakening, as “enlightenment”, tells such a tale. Although the European Enlightenment and the Buddha’s are clearly not the same thing, the translation carries echoes of a central myth of modernity, a myth of clear vision, understanding, liberation and the creation of a new society.

Like any powerful myth, this tale can be told in many guises – as the struggle for the freedom of individuals to come together seeking their own salvation, a tale of liberation from the darkness of ignorance through open-minded discovery and free discussion, or as a vision of human beings coming together to break the chains of poverty and their own mental shackles in the creation of a world which would enable everyone to develop to the fullest of their potential.

Also like any powerful myth, its use by state authorities and powerful institutions has involved a multitude of injustices and mystifications, from the fake education of exams and the false freedom of TV to the destruction of whole populations and ecosystems in the name of progress, the horrors of the gulag or of IMF-imposed starvation policies. Because myths are powerful things, an attitude of uncritical admiration is as problematic as a blanket denial.

Thus freedom from the phantoms of the mediaeval mind can flip over into a “flat” world where workplace quarrels, the private lives of celebrities and the bank statement are reality. The image of pure freedom, of the human being liberated from all arbitrary social ties, free to follow nature or reason, can leave individuals thoroughly exposed to the chill winds of modernity, without the inner or outer resources to do anything with their freedom other than do their jobs, have their families and cheer themselves up in their spare time. And the vision of self-creation, of the development of our powers without limit in an aesthetic transformation of the self and a creative community of liberation, can become swallowed up by strategies of managerial culture in multinational corporations or harnessed as a source of energy by the modern state.

Modernity, then, is an unfinished project(3), or a dream which has gone sour. Can Buddhism offer any solutions? Or are Buddhists themselves caught up in these same traps?

Subjectivity and creation

Traditionalism, as a mode of thought and action, makes subjectivity relatively unproblematic. “Who I am” is given by birth into an intense web of social relationships that constrain and direct people’s actions within an apparently fixed world. The illusion of selfhood is very solidly built into traditionalism.

In modernity, by contrast, subjectivity is perennially problematic. We have the choice between remaining in a constant crisis state, and falling back into a kind of stupor in which we perform well below our potential so as to avoid questioning the particular, arbitrary set of routines we call “me”. Hence a central problem for many Buddhist practitioners is dealing with “issues” which are simply about our ability to exist in a day-to-day way as reasonably intelligent, reasonably creative, reasonably together human beings.

One solution that Buddhism offers here is that of commitment: going for refuge to the vision of our own transformation and the realisation of our highest possibilities; to the steady, determined attempt to think through what is involved in that and develop a way of practice that will help us achieve this goal; and to communication and cooperation with other people who share this goal and are working in the same direction.

Here the openness of modernity is a great ally. Because social relations are not as fixed and “solid” as in other societies, we have a greater freedom to develop commitment, to create living communities that embody it, and to transform ourselves not only inwardly but also in our relations with other people. In this sense, the lack of limits that modernity opens up connects directly with a central teaching of Buddhism.

In practice, however, fully committed Buddhists in this sense are a minority of new Buddhists. Far more people are “night-stand Buddhists” – people who think of themselves as Buddhists, might have a how-to book about meditation for bedtime reading, and who go to events, courses and retreats in a range of Buddhist and non-Buddhist centres, without taking their commitment further(4).

The openness and speed of change of modernity cuts both ways: if it undermines “fixed, fast-frozen relations” in a way that opens up space for dedication to more creative projects, it also undermines those new projects impartially. On an individual level, while some people are capable of giving themselves wholly to a particular spiritual path – even without the benefit of appropriate institutions – most find it extremely difficult.

A particular problem here is that of intentions, always crucial in Buddhism. While the intention of liberation and of developing ourselves leads us to break free from the tighter, more claustrophobic social relations we may have grown up in – of family and church, school and small town, workplace and pub – it seems threatened by the idea of committing ourselves once again, even as a matter of choice, to new human ideals, new kinds of self-discipline, and new institutions(5). As a result, there is a strong tendency to get so far and no further, to escape from the island only to find ourselves adrift on the open sea with no sense of where we want to go, no ability to navigate and no oars or sail.

Conclusion

If these dilemmas are real, there is no easy way out, no straightforward way to practice Buddhism in modernity. But spiritual practice has never been a straightforward thing – and the oscillation between self-doubt (“I can’t commit myself to anything”) and attachment to rites and rituals as ends in themselves (“just tell me what I’m supposed to do”) is not a new one. As practicing Buddhists, we have to live with these problems, and an appropriate conclusion is simply to describe some of the ways other Buddhists have found of tackling them.

All involve connecting the two aspects of modernity – openness and creation. The most overarching relationship, so powerful it can be invisible, is that of a market, exemplified in “audience cults” based on books and lectures and “client cults” based on therapy-like relationships with no real community, in a division of labour between “producers” and “consumers”, where the producers create institutions and the consumers can float freely from one to the next(6). On an institutional level, a thoughtful way of responding to this is with a division between an “inner circle” of the genuinely committed and an “outer fringe” of those attracted to some aspect of the project, on the educational assumption that people will gradually move from the margins to the centre – and of course the assumption that those on the “inside” know what they are doing. On the personal level, what many Buddhists do in their own lives is to move between these different positions as their needs and skills change and develop, sometimes moving “inwards” towards greater commitment, but sometimes, having found the resources they need to carry on alone, making the journey in the opposite direction.

The most important resource in the long run is understanding – not in any very abstract sense, but rather the wisdom and integrity to be able to be able to articulate our needs and visions, a clear sense of the links between ourselves and others, and the kind of practical “sea-sense” for modernity that helps us find new possibilities for freedom and continue our journey as best we can, whether taking shelter from the storm or following a favourable wind.

Laurence Cox


References

1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The communist manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 83. See Marshall Berman, All that is solid melts into air (London: Verso, 1983). Back

2 See Michael Carrithers, The Buddha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). Back

3 See in particular J�rgen Habermas, The philosophical discourse of modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1990). Back

4 Thomas Tweed, “Night-stand Buddhists and other creatures”, pp. 71 – 90 in Duncan Williams and Chris Queen, American Buddhism (Richmond: Curzon, 1999). Back

5 For an illustration of this argument in a slightly different context, see my “Power, politics and everyday life”, pp. 46 – 66 in Paul Bagguley and Jeff Hearn, eds., Transforming politics (London: Macmillan, 1999). Back

6 See Thomas Robbins, Cults, converts and charisma (London: Sage, 1988), pp. 156 – 158. Back

FWBO discussion

http://ireland.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/buddhist/fwbo.html

In late 1997, the Manchester Guardian’s article on scandals in the FWBO sparked a flamewar that raged across the Internet. In the relative quiet of the BUDDHIST mailing list, it was possible to think a bit more calmly about some of the issues it raised….

Like a number of people who feel themselves close to the FWBO (I’ve been involved for 4-5 years, but am neither ordained nor a mitra -roughly a team member at a local centre), I was disturbed by the Guardian article and some of the issues it raised, or raised again, not just from the POV of my interest in the FWBO, but because many of these issues – in varying forms – seem relevant to any discussion of Buddhism in the West. In particular, I’ve been asking myself:

– Should I be bothered by Sangharakshita’s past, or more generally what should I expect of or look for in a Dharma teacher?

– Is there something about the nature of the FWBO that make situations like the Croydon case particularly likely, or more generally are there problems with the shape of Buddhist organisations in the West?

– Where do these views about gender come from, and what should I make of them as a “male feminist” involved in the FWBO, or more generally how do Buddhists come to hold views that go beyond the scope of the Dharma?

Here are some of the answers I’ve come to from listening to the various postings on this subject here and on Buddha-L and from thinking and reading about the subject. I’m not sure they’re right, or even particularly new at this stage (at least for Buddha-L subscribers). But the delete button is always close to hand….

Sex, Sangharakshita and the role of the teacher

SR’s past seems to raise strong views on both sides; otherwise calm Buddhists have come perilously close to the unskilful speech acts of harsh speech and gossip on the subject. For me, it seems unresolvable whether SR, as is claimed, broke his vows while still a monk. Senior Buddhists whose views I’d take seriously claim that he did, but on the basis of second-hand reports. Others, who I’d take equally seriously, deny it vehemently. The story is complicated further by the very public breach between SR and the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara over issues of lifestyle and deportment – in other words, over differing conceptions of how a “proper monk” should act.

More convincing seems to be the charge that SR’s sexual experiments after he disrobed didn’t draw a sharp enough line between the Dharmic context of teacher-student or kalyana mitrata relationships and sexual ones. My own sense of what comes across from the different versions that have been posted is that the same events may have had a very different meaning for a self-confident and charismatic teacher and for those he was in contact with. What from one side is seen as a context of “ordinary friendship” may from the other side have much more than that invested in it in terms of people’s spiritual hopes and psychological projections; similarly, what looks like open experimentation to one person may feel like manipulation to another person.

These are difficult areas which Western Buddhist lay teachers are still grappling with. Jack Kornfield’s A path with heart devotes a thoughtful and Dharmic chapter to these issues, and includes an appendix with the house rules developed by the Insight Meditation teachers to cover this area. The eclectic school of Chinese philosophy held that the excellence of each individual philosopher was at the same time their weakest point. It seems possible at least that the excellence of SR’s teaching – his activist emphasis, his focus on commitment to the Dharma, and his radical orientation towards achieving stream-entry – may at the same time be something of a “shadow” in its impatience with, and relative lack of attention to, the nature of the mud in which the lotus grows. But I only know him at second-hand, through his pupils and his writings, so I may be very wrong here.

But does it matter? I’m not convinced. It certainly matters to me to take my own teachers (incidentally, both pupils of SR) seriously as people. Otherwise it would be hard to give them the kind of confidence that’s needed, say, in a retreat. This doesn’t mean demanding perfection, though, any more than it makes sense to demand perfection from partners, parents, friends or anyone else I take seriously. Similarly, I think, with the Dharma. What SR has to say, or Trungpa, or Kornfield – or Hakuin or Buddhaghosa for that matter – is valuable to me because I work with it: I find what seems to be helpful, try to come to terms with the views of more experienced Buddhists, ask myself what sense I can make out of it. I don’t, and I don’t think anyone can, somehow adopt the whole of somebody’s views en bloc, still less somehow absorb their personality. Spiritual development is not some sort of cloning process, turning out carbon copies of the Master!

Sexual harassment, ideology and organisation

The department I work in teaches child-care workers in a country which has gone through a number of very public scandals involving family and clerical sex abuse. I’m not myself an expert, but you come to hold definite views in a situation like this; it is in any case something you can’t avoid thinking about.

Sexual harassment, almost by definition, comes out of a power relationship. To coerce people into sexual definitions of situations requires a definite imbalance of power of some kind. Such situations are extremely widespread: they include families, workplaces, residential institutions of all kinds, therapeutic relationships, and religious contexts. The power available in religious contexts includes emotional power and intellectual power – the power to define the meaning of an event.

I’m extremely sceptical of the view that specific ideologies are more or less conducive to this form of abuse. Abusing parents will make use of the normal rhetoric of the “ideology of the family”; abusing priests will make use of religious rhetoric. (In the 60s, left-wing radical men and male hippies used their own ideologies to justify exploitative relationships with women.) Pretty much any set of ideas, and any language, can be abused for the purpose of manipulation; and I suspect it could happen without language.

In particular, the FWBO seems an odd target for this form of criticism. SR’s views on sexuality, relationships and family life are considerably more tolerant than the dominant ideas of traditional Buddhism, which enjoin complete chastity (monastic ordination), in some cases at least are strongly anti-homosexual (recall the debates on this in Tibetan Buddhism), and see the “household life” as the opposite of the religious life (particularly in Theravada). A brief scan through the Visuddhimagga or the Bodhicaryavatara gives a sufficient indication of how little “pro-family” traditional Buddhism has been. If raising questions about the value of relationships and families is a problem, then it is a problem for the whole Buddhist tradition, and one within which SR’s views are remarkable for their mildness.

The FWBO could certainly be criticised from the other side, for being too lax, too samsaric in its approach and its willingness to ordain people in all kinds of sexual relationships. “Commitment is primary, lifestyle secondary” could be seen as a gateway to all sorts of unspeakable abuses. One reason I’m sceptical of this is my doubt that there is *any* necessary link between ideology and abuse: an abuser can in principle manipulate anything. A more specific objection is that the experience of Irish Catholicism – probably the most rigidly anti-sex Catholic church around – does not suggest that an ideological hardline is any guarantee of anything. Priests abused children. Monks abused children. Good Catholic parents abused children. If anything, my sense would be that the institutional power of the Church – the unquestioned access of churchmen to young people, their unquestioned power over them, people’s unwillingness to believe accusations against priests – made abuse more, rather than less, likely; but this is about power, not about ideas. (Incidentally, the Irish experience makes me sceptical of the view that traditional Asian Buddhism had no problems of abuse. It may simply be a question of institutional power preventing such abuse coming to light; in Ireland, abuse cases have started to surface as the Church’s power has been eroded.)

So power relationships seem to be the key. Here again my initial reaction was to be sceptical that this was a peculiar weakness of the FWBO. Again by comparison with traditional Buddhist groups, institutional power is very weak: the legal independence of the different FWBO centres, the emphasis placed on kalyana-mitrata between people at similar levels rather than on teacher-student relationships, the willingness to explore all the different schools of traditional Buddhism rather than to take one as an unquestioned orthodoxy, the rejection of the idea of anyone speaking on behalf of the Order, all undercut the authoritarian tendencies of Buddhist organisations. (Again, one could argue from the other side that the FWBO is too anarchist rather than too authoritarian.) Coming from a political background, these were the kinds of things I was looking for, rather than religious versions of Leninist or managerial organisational strategies.

But over time I’ve come to the view that there’s more to it than the formal power structures, and I’d like to offer some ideas on how this might work. This is really speculation as far as the mechanism goes, but it’s based on my own experience of the FWBO. Although formally the movement is extremely decentralised, in practice there are strong informal hierarchies. While in theory there’s little orthodoxy in the movement, in practice there is strong deference shown to a particular set of views. Although SR has AFAIK no longer any formal organisational role, his influence on the movement’s direction is still very strong.

To use FWBO language, there is a strong “group” element to the FWBO; it is by no means the simple association of individuals presented as normative. While the sangha is formally encouraged to avoid the “power mode” entirely and to function only in the “love mode”, in practice the two tend to coincide to a great extent. Part of this experience may come from the sharp distinction between the Order and the movement. It’s possible that the Order’s own internal relations are considerably more open than this suggests. >From the “outside” – i.e. the situation of most people involved in the FWBO – it’s impossible to tell, and the overall power relations seem fairly clear: on the one side a number of Order members whose organisational and ideological role is very clear; on the other, FWBO members and perhaps many Order members, whose primary choice is between putting up with this situation and leaving.

Maybe I should stress here that this is coming out of my own strong attraction for the movement: I’ve learned meditation from Order members, I take part in as many retreats and seminars as I can, and I still intend to deepen my involvement as far as I feel able to without compromising my own sense of integrity and honesty. While it’s hardly surprising that life in samsara is subject to all sorts of samsaric processes, there’s still some disappointment when this turns out actually to be the case!

On to the speculation, then. One of the purposes of education – formal or informal – is to socialise people for their future work situations. For most people, who will be working under fairly direct surveillance and fairly tight controls, it’s sufficient for people to learn how to work in a disciplined manner, how to manage a steady workflow and take orders. For professionals, though, who typically have a greater degree of immediate freedom in their work, there’s naturally a concern over how they will behave. A doctor, for example, or a social worker has a considerable amount of discretion, and supervision is typically retrospective, if it occurs at all. With the more independent professionals – for example psychotherapists or lawyers with private practices – there are few control mechanisms available except the blunt instrument of striking them off the relevant register. So professional socialisation in these cases involves – formally or informally – trying to build in forms of internal discipline, inner motivation, ethical and professional standards, codes of practice, and all the rest of it. If people cannot be externally controlled, they can learn how to control themselves.

Now consider the situation of the lay meditation teacher. As they are not in a formal monastic institution, with its strict ethical rules and wide variety of institutional control mechanisms, they will have a very great amount of freedom and power in their teaching situations. As we see from the Croydon case and similar situations in other Buddhist groups, this is quite a problematic situation, and not just because of the potential of sexual abuse. There is scope for problems around money, power and stimulants; there is scope for wide divergences in the ideas and practices that are being taught, and more general categories that an earlier age described as “bringing the institution into disrepute”. So for many reasons, some thoroughly honourable and some perhaps less so, it makes sense to try to emulate the formal professions.

In one sense, this is built into the whole business of meditation training. By the time anyone has reached the stage in a particular movement where they might start thinking of becoming a teacher themselves, they have of course been confronted with a wide variety of ethical precepts, meditation practices and Buddhist ideas which themselves form a strong safeguard against abuse. (On the whole, I’d find the fact that someone is a consistent meditator one of the strongest reasons for trusting someone.) At the same time, it’s clearly not enough; as Kornfield puts it, people can be very highly developed in some areas without having carried the consequences of that through to other parts of their life. (The same principle is illustrated in the Pali canon with reference to the effect of past lives on some of the Buddha’s disciples.)

>From this point of view, it strikes me as significant that the Western Buddhist Order, over the years, has changed the meaning of ordination considerably. Initially, it was (according to FWBO literature) relatively easy to become ordained, as it is of course in most traditional Buddhism. Increasingly, however, ordination has become something quite difficult to achieve, and to depend in particular on the “Going for Refuge” retreats for would-be ordinands. I haven’t been on these retreats, but the central theme appears to be around the area of commitment to the business of spiritual development. This is hardly something to be objected to, and in my view the fact that someone has been ordained within the Order is a major recommendation for that person: the process is clearly an effective one both from the point of view of increasing people’s commitment to spiritual development and from the point of view of preventing people who aren’t yet ready for it from becoming ordained.

(At a lower level, mitrahood also entails strong commitment – in the requirements that the mitra build kalyana-mitrata relationships with other people in the FBWO, that they avoid other religious groups, that they make themselves available to work voluntarily for the movement, and that they have a regular meditation practice. Again, this is hardly objectionable in itself.)

At the same time, as the history of Buddhism suggests, there are often unintended effects even from Dharmically praiseworthy developments. My own impression is that the very commitment which I see as valuable in the Order is at the same time one of its weaknesses, in that there is a strong tendency to “groupism” – to purely organisational loyalties, to a “common line”, to a strange kind of what used to be called “democratic centralism” perhaps – which operates largely without any formal supports. This is perhaps strengthened by the natural emotional slippage between commitment to the Dharma and commitment to SR’s interpretation of the Dharma, between commitment to the Sangha and commitment to the Order, and so on.

Whether this “explains” sexual harassment is another issue entirely. In my view the power situation alone is sufficient to explain that. But it does seem that there may be more general problems in this area, problems which are perhaps not unique to the FWBO. In family situations, people may become confused around areas like sex if their parents are sending out double messages: verbally saying that it’s OK to have partners, for example, but denying it with their emotional responses. In some ways, my experience of the FWBO has been a bit like this. The surface message – in terms of ideas, organisation and so on – is very attractive. But sometimes the underlying emotional tone belies the openness of the message. This is probably natural in any group that’s exploring new territory, and certainly it’s common enough. But it may also be something to work on.

Gender, views and competence

So many keyboards have been battered over this subject in the last few weeks that I’m reluctant to add anything to the flames. I’d like to try and make a different kind of point.

As a working sociologist, I notice a number of areas where senior figures in the FWBO hold views which I disagree with. This is natural, and hardly something to get upset about. What worries me, rather, is the situation where something comes to be presented as the “party line” – in other words, as in some way binding for the movement – without being grounded in anything solid. Kornfield’s story, of the lama who advised a couple on natural childbirth without knowing anything other than Tibetan folklore, springs to mind.

In the FWBO this kind of thing is rarely a problem. As far as I can tell, what SR, Subhuti and so on say does typically grow out of issues they’ve come across in teaching. Thus the question of the different feelings men and women have around commitment, say, how students react to teachers’ claims to competence in certain areas, political criticisms of Buddhist ethics or the different kinds of art that people find useful are all issues that teachers are likely to think about and respond to. Here, as in the area of meditation experience, I will listen quite carefully to what is being said.

One of the difficulties, though, is that I find SR and Subhuti – and many other Buddhist teachers! – rarely draw this line themselves. There seems to be no sense of the distinction between the practical observation that men and women, as they are now, in our current society, react to things differently, and the ontological view that these reactions are driven by different biologies. To know this would require an engagement with philosophical, biological and sociological issues which are simply ignored. This is of course how everyday thought works, but it’s disappointing (to say the least) that Dharma teachers too are not really aware of the limitations of their own knowledge, particularly within a tradition which places so much stress on the distinction between methodology and ontology.

Similarly, Subhuti’s work on citizenship appears innocent of any knowledge of e.g. the foundations of liberal and democratic political theory. Sangharakshita’s theories on culture have failed to register the existence of four decades of cultural studies, and so on. I’m not of course arguing that they should really try to become academics, far from it. But I am bothered that people whose understanding I respect very strongly in some areas should seem so unclear about where the limits of this knowledge are.

For me this really came out when I listened to my own teachers give talks on environmentalism and on economics. In each case it was painfully clear to me that they simply didn’t know what they were talking about. (I’m sure the Buddhologists on this list can sympathise with the feeling of listening to people make a fool of themselves about subjects you’ve put a lot of thought into.) Instead, what was coming out was simply “views”, and more accurately “views about views” – not the actual engagement of Buddhists with specific issues, but a reaction to second-hand opinions and things they’d seen on TV or heard from other Buddhists. There may well be a need to react to the emotional, ethical etc. content of those views, but it helps to be clear that that is what’s going on, rather than providing “a Buddhist solution to the environmental crisis” or whatever.

It seems likely that most people, placed in a position where their views are taken seriously, will tend to give opinions on things that they are less than qualified to pronounce on, and as a teacher I can hardly object! But the situation within the Sangha involves giving rather more attention to your teacher’s views than one might in a college; it rather depends on having a certain amount of confidence in their understanding. So there are ethical questions about abusing that confidence. I think there also have to be questions about a situation where “views” of this kind become the unofficial dogma of a religious movement – particularly if it’s one that one is actually committed to!

This seems more than enough for the moment. I’d like to stress again that I’m not trying to attack the movement. At present I still hope to become a mitra once I’m in a position to get involved more fully, and to seek ordination at some future stage if the Order can tolerate me and vice versa – and presumably to do my bit in making the soup, as Richard puts it. But, like Kolya, I have some very mixed feelings about the movement, and I think they raise issues which are by no means house specials of the FWBO.

With metta,

Laurence

http://ireland.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/buddhist/politics.html

Buddhism and politics

Responding to Richard Hayes on the politics of Buddhism

On 21 Jun 97 at 14:54, Richard Hayes wrote:

[Laurence:]

> >Given the tendency in the western counter culture over the

> >past three decades or so for religion to appear as an

> >alternative lifestyle option to politics, maybe we should

> >turn the question on its head and ask in what ways our own

> >religious choices have been conditioned by our social and

> >political context – and what the implications of that might

> >be for our spiritual practice.

[Richard:]

> It is no accident, I think, that less than 5% of all

> non-Asian Buddhists in the United States are registered

> Republicans. It is not because there is anything intrinsic

> to Buddhist doctrines as such that would oppose liberal or

> even ultra-liberal (or, as Americans call them,

> conservative and ultra-conservative) political values.

> After all, Buddhists and Republicans both tend to oppose

> any but the most minimalist government. And both love

> elephants. Rather, I think, the reason for Euro- and

> Afro-American Buddhist disinclination to support the

> Republican Party is that in the United States the

> Republican Party has linked itself with patriotism,

> conservative Christian (and especially Protestant) moral

> values, and the interests of corporate business. People

> who favour such “mainstream” American values are not the

> ones who tend to drop out in various ways (such as by

> becoming marginalized academics who teach arcane subjects

> such as Sanskrit grammar and medieval Indian philosophy).

> So far, non-Asian Buddhism in the United States has been

> most attractive to people who are alienated from

> “mainstream” values. Most converts to Buddhism in the

> United States are from the social margins: unusually

> highly educated people, academics, homosexuals, political

> radicals, former drug users, performing artists and other

> people who have very little real influence or political or

> economic power (and very little interest in having real

> power). These are the very people many Republicans point

> to as the root of nearly all of society’s ills. (I am sure

> that if more Republicans knew anything at all about

> Buddhism, at least some of them would be opposed to

> extending the rights of religious freedom to practising

> Buddhists.)

> In short, I think most Euro-American and Afro-American

> Buddhists are Buddhists as part of their social and

> political alienation, and that this alienation also

> expresses itself in the form of being apolitical or

> politically active against the goals of most Republicans.

> It is not that being Buddhist is the cause of being

> non-Republican, but that being Buddhist and being

> non-Republican both have a deeper root cause, namely, some

> form of personal alienation and social disenfranchisement.

> As Lawrence Cox suggests, this alienation could have

> serious implications for one’s Buddhist practice. The

> question is: what are those implications? Any ideas?

Well, I was hoping that someone else would jump in here, but no such luck. So I suppose I’ll have to do my thinking for myself….

Over the past three to four decades, new forms of oppositional culture (neither the traditional working class nor the traditional intelligentsia) have sprung up across western societies, to the extent that wandering through Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, George’s Street in Dublin or Ottensen in Hamburg are in some ways remarkably similar experiences (and all sharply distinguished from the broader cultures that surround them). These cultures share not just a context but a history.

Part of this history is the search for specific ways to organise one’s own experience and practice of opposition. One of the forms in which this has been done has been political, geared to criticising and dismantling the external structures of contemporary society; one has been cultural, geared to criticising and dismantling its internal experiences and ways of feeling. (The “anti-rationalist” turn in Buddhism then makes sense within this context, as part of the same historical movement as the exploration of psychedelics, the rise of alternative medicine and the resurgence of interest in occultism.)

There tends to be quite a tension between these two forms. The more systematically one organises one’s thinking around political change, the harder it becomes to orient oneself to cultural change, and vice versa. Marxism and Buddhism are good examples: as systems of thought and as traditions, it is very difficult to raise within either one the kinds of concerns that are central to the other. At a more basic level, the kinds of pressure that the “mainstream” is always exerting mean that it’s enough of an effort for most people to step out of line in one area of life and defend that; sustaining a different way of life on every count is extremely difficult.

So while there is certainly a tendency for Buddhists not to be on the far right, and for Marxists not to be fundamentalist Christians, there seem to me to be surprisingly few people sustaining a systematic interest in both internal and external change. Not that there aren’t honourable exceptions (Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Williams come to mind), but they’re precisely exceptions. Even movements like the women’s movement and the ecology movement have tended to diverge along these lines – here the political activists and the sociologists, there the poets and the mystics.

Hence I think the tone of some of the discussion on this topic (including myself, I should add – for some reason I find making these posts far more stressful than making the odd comment on matters mystical, and it seems from what one or two other people have said that they feel the same). The amount of tension around the idea of political activism reflects a sense that this is a possible alternative, within our own kinds of cultural contexts (in a way that, say, developing an obsessive interest with golf is unlikely to be): “there but for the grace of Avalokiteshvara go I”….

Similarly, I’m sure that if I made posts on the relevance of spiritual practice to, say, the anarchy-ireland list I’d be howled off. (Our local anarchist bookshop just banned the local pagans on the grounds that they were an organised religion. Disorganised religion might have been closer to the mark….) At street level, the Hare Krishnas and the Socialist Workers exemplify both the antagonism and the similarity quite nicely. The similarity is what’s really interesting here….

Let’s say that one characteristic of movements like our own is that one of their attractions is to offer something “completely different” to the mainstream. This means in effect something which offers the appearance of starting from scratch and rethinking the world on the basis of what has to be (in the nature of things) a fairly limited set of ideas. So we have, say, a Zen fundamentalism in which what’s initially learned seems to be simply a style and a set of attitudes – but which can be used to generate a response to any problem that turns up. (Of course, actual Zen practice might well deepen people’s understanding far beyond this. But these are the most general “ideas”, as David says, not the “realisation” that they might later give rise to). This may also make some sense of the tendency to “a la carte Buddhism”, where people adopt what is for them a workable set of core ideas along with stock rejections of other, associated ideas whose intellectual or historical connection to the views they hold isn’t clear to them. Anti-intellectualism and irrationalism (both of course practised by intellectuals and in the form of communication) help to prop this up.

I think there’s some of this style of thought in the belief in many posts that one can simply deduce both the nature of politics and how it should be done from a few simple ideas that fit in with one’s own particular style of Buddhist rhetoric. (Presumably the same is true of playing an instrument, speaking a language or doing ethnographic research.) Unfortunately, this viewpoint isn’t likely to be resolved by greater sophistication in and understanding of Buddhist teachings, but only by a broader engagement with experience (in whatever form). I think this is underlined not just by the angry denial that there might actually *be* conflicts in society that need to be expressed in the form of movements and parties, but in particular by the absence of any recognition of the conflict of interests that in a broader sense is part of daily life for most if not all of us – in the workplace, in the family, in the community or wherever.

The rise of this kind of autodidactic intelligentsia is by no means a bad thing: it corresponds to a context where older subcultures (the traditional cultural elites, conventional religious subcultures, the traditional working class and so on) have become increasingly closed, unable to engage with social change and more concerned to exclude new social groups than to interact with them. So most of us educate ourselves to a greater or lesser extent (even if we’re holding student cards at the time!), picking and mixing from what’s around us. (EP Thompson described this, a little nastily, as a lumpenintelligentsia.)

One of the great advantages of this world of drifters and seekers is that it offers us a great deal of space in which to define our own directions and make our own mistakes. Because we value this, we quite rightly find it difficult to identify with highly organised groups or systems of thought. Thus the seekers outnumber the committed, and the rate of turnover even of the latter is high. Socialist radicals turn into ecomystics, and acid freaks become anarchist activists. It’s certainly easier than trying to be both simultaneously. But it also makes it difficult to ground our thinking not just in our own experience, but also in other people’s. Ruth [Rickard] puts this better:

[Ruth:] > I’m an old hippy, always in revolt against authority and

> discipline, but I’ve found it true these last years that

> the more time I spend really trying to understand what two

> thousand five hundred years of scholars thought worth

> understanding, the more I have an understanding I can take

> refuge in.

We tend, I would think, to be dogmatic groups of one (not unlike Trotskyists…), defending our own hard-won ideas (and even realisations) but finding effective communication threatening, particularly when it brings us the bad news that other people don’t see things the way we do. Sooner break off communication with a dogmatic assertion of our own superior realisation than learn why someone else sees things the way they do. Our attempts to develop autonomously, because they run in different directions to other people’s, tend to keep us separate from other people. The really difficult skills, of accepting the existence of diversity and conflict and still trying to communicate and cooperate, take a lot of work. I’ve met people who are convinced that it’s wrong to try and convince other people of anything….

At the same time, the fact that we are trying to do things differently and on the basis that (in principle at least) nothing is sacred makes any kind of sustained activity quite an achievement. One of the advantages of taking things for granted and not asking too many questions is that it makes everyday activity easy to produce. Once everything – the reasons for an action, the state of mind we are in when we produce it, the way we go about it, how we link it to other actions – is up for grabs, it’s relatively difficult to act. Joy [Vriens]put it this way:

[Joy:]

> I am not an old hippy and also think authority is an

> outdated structure. I do think some discipline is

> necessary, not by imposing oneself hardships and ascesis,

> but by being true to oneself and the choices one has

> made in one’s life.

So one way of thinking about the kinds of things many of us have been looking for from Buddhism is that we’ve been looking for a way to challenge everyday ways of thinking and feeling, to develop our own independent position and perspective, and to find ways of stabilising what we’ve learnt. Personally, I think this is an extremely valuable project; I’d go so far as to say that we’re collectively very fortunate to live in a time and place where this kind of project is relatively easily accessible to so many people.

At the same time, apart from the difficulties I’ve outlined, it is a quite different project from that of many Buddhists through the ages. Most notably, it is a polar opposite of the way monastic Buddhism has traditionally been organised. In most traditional Buddhist countries, “serious Buddhists” have tended to become monks or nuns. This has typically entailed extensive study of a single scriptural and commentarial tradition, along with a single school of practice. So people have been required to accept and practice a single, shared, form of Buddhism, ratified by the weight of teachers and tradition, as opposed to a situation where at its extreme everyone has their own “unique” brand of the Dharma.

At the same time, their other activities have been extremely curtailed and formalised, as any collection of monastic rules makes clear. Far from life being extremely open and fluid, one of the points of monastic rules is in a sense to focus people’s attention on what are defined as the key issues.

These divergences don’t invalidate modern Buddhism (if its validity depended only on a single, unchanging institution its lifespan would be considerably shorter than the 5,000 years traditionally predicted). But they do mean that it’s liable to characteristic pressures. If there is a tendency to scholasticism in monastic Buddhism, there’s a tendency to shallow and unsystematic eclecticism in contemporary Buddhism. If there’s a pressure towards the dead weight of authority and ritual in the monastery, there’s a tendency for incoherence and bricolage in our own practices. To find the middle way, we need to have a sense of the specific directions we’re being pushed in, and of their strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure other list members can find deeper and more helpful ways of thinking about this kind of issue.

In his biography of Blake, EP Thompson situates him in precisely this world of religious and political drifters and seekers, of conflicts within the Swedenborgians and of the attempt to combine a cultural alternative to utilitarian rationalism with a political alternative to the reactionary monarchy of his day. He argues that Blake’s iconography draws on that of the Muggletonians, a curious sect born out of radical Dissent and political nonconformism that Blake’s mother was apparently a member of.

No better place to wind up this post than this: “In 1968 I gave an early lecture on Blake at Columbia University, at a time of excitement when some kind of campus revolution against the Moral Law was going on, and I startled the audience by acclaiming William Blake as ‘the founder of the obscure sect to which I myself belong, the Muggletonian Marxists’. Instantly I found that many fellow-sectaries were in the room.”

Maybe we need an analysis of the forms and practices of Muggletonian Buddhism….

With Metta,

Laurence

http://www.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/rev/interview.html

Ireland from Below:

Grassroots Organizing

By Robert Allen

This article and interview originally appeared in Blue vol. II #86, June 15th, 2003. Robert Allen is one of Ireland’s most experienced radical journalists, and author of “Guests of the Nation: People of Ireland versus the multinationals” (London: Earthscan, c. 1990).

“A change is slow in coming

My eyes can scarely see

The rays of hope come streaming

Through the smoke of apathy”

Loreena McKennitt

GRASSROOTS GATHERING # 5

Dublin, June 27-29

What this fifth Gathering is for:

* Create a bridge for non-hierarchical & direct action activism between the mobilisations against the war mobilisations against the World Economic Forum in the autumn;

* Encourage networking between different movements, with workshops that encourage people to mix between different movements, rather than primarily issue based themes;

* Develop diversity within the movement by inviting participants from different movements, particularly inviting variety of activists to give 5-minute intros to each individual workshop.

Agenda: grassrootsgathering.freeservers.com

When Ireland’s commentators, journalists, spin doctors, economists, politicians, bureaucrats and business people speak of their homeland they see a reality that to them represents economic growth, wealth and prosperity. Their Ireland is a rich one, of economy and technology and modernity and growth – a thing they began to call the ‘Celtic Tiger’ during the boom years of the 1990s. It is epitomised by people like Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the low-fare airline Ryanair, who received ir�17 million for his shares after the company went public. Others who have benefited from the success include Smurfit chief executive Ray Curran, who was awarded $2.48 million in 1999 and public transport chief executive Michael McDonnell, whose salary was increased 80 percent from ir�100,000 to ir�181,952 in 2000 – even though the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness agreed between the state and trade unions to control wages only allowed workers a five percent increase.

According to Ray MacSharry, a politician who is credited with creating the policies that led to the economic boom when he was finance minister in the late 1980s, and Padraic White, managing director of the Industrial Development Authority of Ireland during the 1980s when the IDA was fending off criticism of its methods, the Celtic Tiger economy has transformed Ireland and benefited all its people. “Sustained high growth,” they wrote, “has produced virtual full employment with low inflation, a sharply declining debt burden and large budget surpluses, all helping to complete this virtuous circle.”

Capitalism flourished throughout the late 1990s making landlords and speculators and developers and business executives and politicians rich beyond their dreams. Since the early 1990s Ireland has become a building site. A crane towers over every church and scaffolding seems to climb like ivy over every other building. Pubs do a roaring trade, especially at weekends even in places where people and money are not constant companions, cornershops are being refitted as small supermarkets and the buses and trains are always full. There is no shortage of jobs in Dublin and its hinterlands. The place is truly booming, it appears to the casual traveller. At the turn of the millennium it was possible to look at Ireland’s cities, towns and villages and believe that the economic boom euphemistically called the Celtic Tiger was actually improving the quality of peoples’ lives.

MacSharry and White saw Ireland’s economic regeneration as a consequence of the change from a predominately agricultural rural economy to an industrial urban society. “In 1922,” – when partial independence was gained from Britain – they stated in 2000, “over half the labour force was engaged in agriculture and two-thirds of the population lived in rural areas. Today, just one in ten work on the land, while two-thirds live in towns. And there are encouraging signs that the Irish Diaspora, which had left Ireland with perhaps the highest rate of emigration of any European country in the past two centuries, is finally being reversed. Labour shortages in Ireland oblige the state agency FAS to use employment roadshows in Germany and other European Union member states to try and recruit workers for unfilled vacancies in financial-services and electronics firms at home. Just over a decade ago, that would have seemed an impossible dream, just like the Celtic Tiger economy.”

This gives a false impression. It tells only part of the story and crucially it leaves out the stories of people who see a different Ireland, people like Laurence Cox and those who can see Ireland from a totally different perspective. Despite its position in the first world Ireland is a third world country. All of the factors inherent in third world politics exist in Ireland. Once an agricultural economy with the potential to self-sufficiency, Ireland is now a politically partitioned island with an industrial economy completely dependent on the success of globalization, on the unimpeded flow of capital and the exploitation of its labour and its environment. It is ruled by bureaucrats and politicians in Dublin and Westminster, and controlled by the CEO’s of the corporate world – the people who dictate the rules and practices of globalization.

For much of the last decade of the 20th century the process of controlling the domestic budget by suspending wage increases and public spending while encouraging consumerism contributed to the success of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. Immigration replaced emigration with net increases to the population bringing the total number of people to almost six million. No one has been able to successfully identify the specific factors that have led to this economic success, why Ireland’s economy has fared better than anyone else’s in Europe and why, in third world terms, it has become a model for other underdeveloped countries. Perhaps the reason is not so complicated. Those who are given the task of explaining advanced capitalism in an economy like Ireland’s are unable to do so because they actually do not understand how the free market really works. Ask a Marxist and you’ll get a baffling economic treatise. But ask a low paid worker and you’ll be given the answer. It won’t be an economic analysis either.

It has been said by many commentators on Ireland that Irish society had no desire to be modern, that it delighted in its pleasant green land image, its people trapped in nostalgic narcissism and somnolence, clinging to antiquated beliefs and traditions – until everyone woke up the 1980s.

Ireland, significantly the west of Ireland, has been caricatured by anthropologists, sociologists, politicians, churchmen, the media and other commentators as a place out of step with the modern world in every era. Anthropologists have been among the worst culprits, portraying Ireland and its rustic communities, according to Adrian Peace, “as a dying society, a culture in demise, a social system characterised by pathogenic tendencies.” Ireland has suffered particularly at the hands of foreign anthropologists, “the yank in the corner,” as Michael Viney once put it in a scathing attack on their ethics. Peace said that the “ambitious generalisation from the particular case study has been a marked feature of the anthropology of Ireland in the past.” These studies, in particular Hugh Brody’s Inishkillane: Change and Decline in the West of Ireland, published by Penguin in 1974, described rural Ireland as one distinctive place peopled by saints, scholars and schizophrenics (the title of Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ study of mental illness in rural Ireland) rather than “a richly diverse and heterogeneous economic and political landscape, a multiplicity of spaces and places in which the proliferation of cultural difference is the order of the day.” It was, they said, a society rooted in 17th, 18th and 19th century value systems, a point made by Senator Joe Lee when he said that the “value system of a society” was at stake in Irish communities. “Experts, and particularly economists, have no authority whatsoever to impose their value system on anybody else.”

There is also an argument that Ireland did not become a fully paid up member of the 20th century until some of its people agreed to join the European Economic Community (latterly the European Union) – a decision that delighted those who saw capriciousness, competition and selfish desire as ideal human characteristics, and much to the horror of those who abhorred apathy, cynicism and ignorance. Irish society was in transition, it appeared. Its image as an agricultural backwater was being gradually changed. Economically, politically and socially Ireland was being transformed into a postmodern state. Sociologists like the Maynooth-based Frenchman Michel Peillon observed “not so much transition as a profound mutation, and it is this that makes difficult the task of describing and giving an overall picture of Irish society.” Peillon also noted, paradoxically perhaps, that the ideological attachment we show towards rural Ireland “has prevented Irish society from seeing itself as it really is.”

That may have been true when Peillon expressed this opinion in the 1980s; 20 years later, as his younger Maynooth colleague Laurence Cox will tell him, Irish society has grown up and it now knows what it looks like. One of the reasons for this has been the work of Cox, who returned home in 1991 after several years involved with activists in Norway, France, Germany and Italy and decided to try to understand his country’s social movements. Those with ideological attachments towards celtic Ireland might have described Cox as a “warrior-poet” because he had set out to blend academia with activism, even if his inspiration was the global social movements of the 1970s and 1980s rather than the nationalistic politics that divide Irish people.

Cox returned to an Ireland that was caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the state and the hard place was the people themselves who struggled to embrace the kind of radical grassroots political action that was changing continental Europe and would soon spread around the globe. Cox, like many frustrated Irish eco-social activists, could not understand why Ireland’s radicals were unable to develop from the street politics of 1968 into a cohesive social movement, and more significantly why the only opposition to state policy and globalization was coming from communities. The fragmentation of the anarchist, socialist and environmental factions after Carnsore – where the state was forced to abandon its plans for nuclear power – underlined what many believed was an entrenched Irish attitude. People seeking to change society simply could not work together because of their ideological differences.

Cox gradually came to an “understanding” of this fragmentation, particularly “why the Dublin Left didn’t look like the [European] scene”, which was enough for him “to know that we didn’t have to be all in our separate boxes – by which I don’t just mean the business of trying for isolated reforms, but also the kind of Left sectarianism which isn’t interested in working (or working honestly) with anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.”

Cox’s first move was to see if it was “possible that the Green Party could be a social movement party.” This led to the formation of a radical, green magazine involving a “bunch of different people (not all from the party).” They called it An Caorthann (The Rowan Tree) and announced that it would be a quarterly magazine of discussion and information for the green and alternative movement. Their editorial perspective was radical for an Irish society that was still coming to terms with environmentalism. “We aim to encourage debate around relevant issues, and to develop networking within the movement. Themes covered: waste, refugees, gender, national identity, green economics, red-green coalitions, our relationship to the natural world and green spirituality.”

The Rowan Tree was the beginning of a realisation among Irish people, particularly Irish greens, that social politics could embrace anarchism and ecology and still leave room for that ideological attachment to celtic Ireland. The first issue came out at L�nasa in 1994 and for a while, particularly when another collective published Catalyst and yet another published Pobal an Dulra, the mid-1990s in Ireland appeared to suggest that the blacks, reds and greens could work together, albeit as writers rather than as activists. But that was changing.

Cox was among a number of people who could see that Ireland was not isolated from the politics of globalization and that the opposition to globalization was simply being manifest in Ireland in many different forms and ways. “It’s turned out that that was really just one strand among many, which were moving in the same direction,” he says now. “So it’s been a bit like coming out of the wilderness over the last few years.”

But in that wilderness was the germ of an idea that is now transforming Irish politics and showing that the different ideologies can work as activists for social change and for ecological stability. That idea was Ireland From Below. Cox, by the mid-to-late 1990s, was well established in Waterford at the Centre for Research on Environment and Community where he was conducting and instigating research into social movements. This led to a call on the social movements email list for discussion in the form of workshops. Maeve O’Grady of ACCESS 2000 and Waterford Women’s Resource Centre, Richard Moore of Citizens for a Democratic Renaissance and Cox of CREC got together to put out a call for people to attend the first Ireland from Below Gathering in Cavan in May 1999. At the time Cox said the point of the gathering “was to bring together people from as wide a range of different social movements within Ireland as possible to explore areas of common ground and differences around three questions:

* What are the problems or challenges we are engaging with?

* What are the strategies or solutions we are developing for working with those?

* What visions do we have of the kind of world we would like to live in?

“The reason for asking those questions here and now (on my part at least) was the perception that the nature and situation of social movements in Ireland is changing rapidly, that we need to reflect on that, and specifically that the political context is now such that if there is to be any alternative to ‘business as usual’ it will come from us – social movements – or nobody.”

Cox and his friends then did something unusual in Irish politics. They excluded no one. “To make this discussion possible, it seemed important not to start with any preconceived views as to which movements were or weren’t compatible with one another, but to allow that to emerge from the process itself; to enable as wide a range as possible of different ways of interacting with one another – from formal talks through workshops to rituals to doing the cooking together; and to be definite that the Ireland From Below space was a communicative space for activists to reflect on the nature and context of their own practice, not an organisational event and not an event aimed at mobilising people who weren’t already active.”

Only 20 people turned up but this was a very good start and Cox was delighted. “Perhaps the most important thing about the event – and for me the best indication that we were asking important questions – is that with hardly any exceptions, all of the participants were deeply impressive individuals, with long histories of activism and pretty amazing life-stories.”

He has since said that he came to two specific realisations as a result of the workshops. “One was a shared recognition of the existence of structures of power and exploitation, which we confront both in our activism and in our daily lives. The other was a particular kind of grounding in and attention to everyday life, running from discussion of the politics of shopping and looking after kids through issues of health to a more overtly spiritual (and perhaps also artistic) interest in working with emotions, our relations with others and the world. I think this is important not only for meeting each other as whole human beings and for inspiration and ’emotional fuel’, but also as a means of opening up the range of questions we’re asking as far as possible and bringing in areas of our lives which are not normally seen as ‘public’ or ‘political’. Many participants mentioned the phrase ‘the personal is political’: the way in which we do the personal has power implications, and power relations happen in ‘personal’ as well as ‘impersonal’ areas of the world.”

What was more significant was Cox’s realisation that “a reasonably wide measure of common ground can be found between different movements from below in Ireland around potentially radical directions.

“To say this is obviously not to create the kind of communication and cooperation which can make that a living reality, but it is to say that for me at least the weekend amply demonstrated that it is well worth putting more energy into this kind of process and into feeding it back as far as possible into our own activism and our own movements.” So Ireland from Below was important because it showed “that it was possible for people from a wide range of different social movements to connect effectively with each other, but the follow-up showed the limits of communication and cooperation. It was possible to outline a vision of where to go next, but in the end there was no clear sense of where to go next.”

Cox now jokes that the next move, the Grassroots Gathering, worked precisely because it wasn’t his idea, the initiative coming from various anarchists. “Which is a flip answer,” he says, “but wisdom does have to do with spotting when you’re just getting the kind of answer you’re expecting, and recognising when the world is genuinely talking back to you and there is a real conversation happening. So the idea was coming out of existing discussions between anarchists and radical ecologists around the anti-globalization movement in the rest of the world. We were starting to feel some of those ripples in Ireland.

“At the same time the whole social partnership thing at home was starting to look rocky. Now this is crucial, because it’s one of the main things that separates movements from each other. It keeps them in separate boxes, lobbying different departments and trying to distance themselves from each other – and within those boxes it has a tendency to set them competing with each other if they’re not careful. So the increasing unease in the community sector, and the rumblings in the trade unions, were major things.

“We still haven’t really got to a convergence between those two situations of the kind you can see in a country like Italy, but what’s happening globally is pushing a lot of local activists out of our inherited boxes, at the same time as those boxes are becoming less sustainable places to be for the major social movements in Ireland. And that is very important.”

The first Grassroots Gathering took place in a small club in Dublin on November 24, 2001. About 80 people turned up and immediately agreed that an anti-war demonstration at Shannon airport should be set up. “The first Gathering was a real shot in the dark – we just put out the letter and organised the gathering on the basis of a social forum style discussion process in the Teachers’ Club, followed by a ‘what next?’ session the next day in Spacecraft. But we had maybe 100 people, and people came from a real variety of movements. Since then they’ve kept on happening – we’re holding the fifth in Dublin on the weekend of June 27-29 (http://grassrootsgathering.freeservers.com) – they’ve been to Belfast, Cork and Limerick – and even when they were held in a ‘secret location’ that was only announced the day before there were still 50 people at it.

“Probably the biggest thing that came out of them was the GNAW (Grassroots Network Against War), which organised the mass direct action at Shannon and seemingly shocked lots of people with the thought that it might be OK to break a law to prevent a greater harm. In the meantime that lesson has been learned, and some of the same people who were accusing the protest of being violent are now happily organising blockades of the Dail etc.

“There are still limits, particularly around the diversity of the Gathering, and we’ve taken that as the theme for this next one in Dublin. We’re working really hard to reach out to movements, which are only tangentially involved – particularly community activism, anti-racist and solidarity groups – as well as trying to get beyond ‘the usual suspects’ in terms of individual participants.

“That’s not for tokenistic reasons, but because once again the way to achieve real change is to bring all those different voices and struggles together. So it’s about getting beyond the natural tendency of any group of people (including us) to define ‘politics’ (or whatever they call it) as being the kind of thing they do, define ‘activists’ (or whatever) as being the kind of people they know, and so ignore and fail to communicate with other people and struggles.

“Basically our strength, as people who want to change very fundamental aspects of this society, lies in each other. And so we constantly have to move beyond our own comfort zones, at the same time as hoping that other movements and individuals are doing the same kind of thing themselves. Which is one definition of a revolutionary period, incidentally.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that Cox is optimistic about the future of radical politics in Ireland and once again he believes it is tied to what happens in the rest of the world. “The huge protest on February 15, 2003 wasn’t quite the first time that ordinary Irish people got involved in the anti-globalization and anti-war activity that’s been happening across the globe since Seattle and 911, but it was a real shift in gear. Before that these were pretty marginal movements in Irish life, and now they may not be.

“One of the real acid tests will be seeing what happens when the World Economic Forum comes to Dublin in October, which the Irish Social Forum and ourselves are preparing for. These set-piece events are important beyond the specific issues, because they give ‘us’ – people who are being hurt by the way things are – a chance to see each other and get a sense ‘yes, we are powerful, we don’t have to accept the official definition of what is possible and what isn’t’.

“One thing I think will be fundamental is connecting up the large-scale social movements, which bring together large numbers of ordinary people struggling for change (starting with their own lives) and the smaller movements, which are maybe prepared to ask bigger questions, to push the boundaries of what we see as possible, and to take what happens elsewhere seriously. And those are maybe slightly polarised ways of putting it, but the point is to break down those polarisations.

“So on the one hand you have let’s say a range of different groups on the non-hierarchical or non-dogmatic left who are taking the anti-globalization and anti-war movements around the world very seriously. There are different ecological, development, feminist, anti-racist etc. activists and groups who are also very much alive to the whole thing (along with the groups which are really running for cover because it’s all getting too political for them in one way or another).

“And you have young counter-cultural people, not all of them from ‘nice leafy suburbs’ by any means, who maybe resonate more emotionally with the idea of really shaking up power relations between people.

“Now because of ‘peripherality’ it’s often been the case that these groups have more real resonance, links etc. outside the country than they do on the ground at home, though there are honourable exceptions who have always tried to make that link in practice.

“On the other hand you have … working-class community development or development based on ‘communities of interest’ – class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc. – and the radical potential within trade unions and industrial struggles more generally, basically the whole complex of working-class institutions, which does include the rural poor and marginalised to the extent that they are in a position to organise themselves.

“One of the important things, which is happening here is that the capacity of the system to offer anything significant to these groups is waning dramatically. This was very visible in the recent partnership negotiations, but if you talk to people on the ground that discontent has been building and building over the last few years.

“In effect what is happening is that as Ireland’s involvement in global neo-liberalism sharpens, there is less and less room for the kind of corporatist partnership which has, by and large, helped the state to ‘keep the rabble in line’ over the last decade or so. And so that is a very interesting situation indeed – it’s risky for the Berties [Bertie Ahern, prime minister of Ireland] of this world, who depend on being able to offer a little something to everyone.

“And there is the possibility there that those larger movements, and the smaller more radical ones, will be able to come together around shared issues like opposition to neo-liberalism, seeing the way partnership sets limits which we’re not allowed to question (around the big decisions, macro-economic policy etc.), and tackling racism and war. But it won’t happen by magic, it will happen through a lot of difficult conversations and learning to work together.

“But I think these are learning processes. And basically we learn through cooperating with each other around practical issues, like the war, or opposition to the World Economic Forum in October, and through talking to each other in things like the Gathering or the Irish Social Forum. And along the way people change, organisations change, and the whole process is reshaped.”

This means that Irish society must think of itself again as a society where the meithel [the mutual aid the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin advocated in 1902] is the defining force in politics, and the individualist and nationalist politics that have defined Ireland since partition in 1922 become history. Easy said than done, as Cox admits. “Of course there are also a lot of gobshites, but the point is that these emotional responses are not the private property of a small group of activists surrounded by an uncaring mass. And that translates into the ability of many activists – not all, but many – to remain human, not to be traumatised by the pressures of the situation, to look after themselves emotionally and to support each other. And those are very important things – and the sense that things are changing, that we don’t really know where we’re going but the sense of possibility is becoming bigger, and the future is seeming more open. Which is absolutely wonderful, not simply to be playing a part in a script that’s already written, but to be present in making our own history and feel that that’s the case.”

� Robert Allen

NOTE: At the time of writing, ir�1 = �1.25

Interview with Laurence Cox, June 2003:

BLUE: What is your background and biog?

Laurence Cox: I grew up with Amnesty, CND and anti-apartheid as a kid, so I took things like torture, nuclear war and racism seriously as part of the real world that needed a response. I started becoming active in my own right in school, including head-on conflicts with the authorities over religion. (It was the 1980s, and it was still a touchy subject.)

When I got out of that I was lucky enough to move around a fair bit (along with college radicalism) and see a bit of activism in Norway, France, Germany and Italy. I spent a year in Hamburg at the time of the second Gulf War, trying to be involved in everything that was going on, which was really helpful in terms of seeing different possibilities for radical politics.

I came back from that in 91 and settled down with a bit of a longer-term perspective, some good comrades, and got stuck into what was pretty much a ten-year research project trying to understand social movements, while being very much involved in different ways at the same time. At a certain point the funding ran out and I got a job teaching in Waterford.

Which was a blessing in disguise, because there I started to make contact with working-class community activists, which has been really important for me on all sorts of levels. Community development is possible the single biggest social movement in Ireland in terms of active participants, and a lot of it is very radical. It’s also much more grounded in the lives of the people who do it than many other movements.

Right now I’m lucky enough to be one of the handful of people on this island who can make their living studying social movements. Obviously I’m also involved in a range of different activist projects – like the Grassroots Gathering and the Irish Social Forum. I also do what I can to make links between the two: for example I run an MA programme [at Maynooth college] where I support activists doing participatory action research on their own practice.

BLUE: What inspired you to become involved in this kind of work?

Laurence Cox: I think two contrasts. One was between periods like 1968 when so many different movements came together and the fragmentation of the late 80s and early 90s. The other was between what was left of the alternative scene in countries like Germany or Italy and what I was familiar with from Dublin. Those gave me real visions of what it could be like to organise around the basis of working for a different kind of society, grounded in the different movements for change that already exist within this one.

Later I got more of an understanding of why things had fragmented after ’68 and why the Dublin left didn’t look like the Hamburg scene, but it was enough to know that we didn’t have to be all in our separate boxes – by which I don’t just mean the business of trying for isolated reforms, but also the kind of left sectarianism which isn’t interested in working (or working honestly) with anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

So I started out after Hamburg seeing if it was possible that the Green Party could be a social movement party and pulled together a bunch of different people (not all from the party) to work on Caorthann, a green/alternative zine that was supposed to bring together material from different movements around the country.

Out of that I found my way into different kinds of networking projects over about 5 years (Dublin Infoshop project, Mustard Seed II, alternative press networks, Ireland from Below get-togethers, etc.) And then as the global “movement of movements” has started to make an impact it’s turned out that that was really just one strand among many which were moving in the same direction. So it’s been a bit like coming out of the wilderness over the last few years.

BLUE: What led you to believe the Grassroots Gathering could work?

Lawrence Cox: Partly the fact that the initial idea didn’t come from me! Which is a flip answer, but wisdom does have to do with spotting when you’re just getting the kind of answer you’re expecting, and recognising when the world is genuinely talking back to you and there is a real conversation happening. So the idea was coming out of existing discussions between anarchists and radical ecologists around the anti-globalization movement in the rest of the world. We were starting to feel some of those ripples in Ireland.

At the same time the whole social partnership thing at home was starting to look rocky. Now this is crucial, because it’s one of the main things that separates movements from each other. It keeps them in separate boxes, lobbying different departments and trying to distance themselves from each other – and within those boxes it has a tendency to set them competing with each other if they’re not careful. So the increasing unease in the community sector, and the rumblings in the trade unions, were major things.

We still haven’t really got to a convergence between those two situations of the kind you can see in a country like Italy, but what’s happening globally is pushing a lot of local activists out of our inherited boxes, at the same time as those boxes are becoming less sustainable places to be for the major social movements in Ireland. And that is very important.

BLUE: What has been your experience of its beginnings?

Laurence Cox: The short answer is that it’s worked. The first Gathering was a real shot in the dark – we just put out the letter and organised the gathering on the basis of a social forum- style discussion process in the Teachers’ Club, followed by a “what next?” session the next day in Spacecraft. But we had maybe 100 people, and people came from a real variety of movements.

Since then they’ve kept on happening – we’re holding the fifth in Dublin on the weekend of the 27-29 – they’ve been to Belfast, Cork and Limerick – and even when they were held in a “secret location” that was only announced the day before there were still 50 people at it.

Probably the biggest thing that came out of them was the GNAW (Grassroots Network Against War) which organised the mass direct action at Shannon and seemingly shocked lots of people with the thought that it might be OK to break a law to prevent a greater harm. In the meantime that lesson has been learned, and some of the same people who were accusing the protest of being violent are now happily organising blockades of the Dail etc.

There are still limits, particularly around the diversity of the Gathering, and we’ve taken that as the theme for this next one in Dublin. We’re working really hard to reach out to movements which are only tangentially involved – particularly community activism, anti-racist and solidarity groups – as well as trying to get beyond “the usual suspects” in terms of individual participants.

That’s not for tokenistic reasons, but because once again the way to achieve real change is to bring all those different voices and struggles together. So it’s about getting beyond the natural tendency of any group of people (including us) to define “politics” (or whatever they call it) as being the kind of thing they do, define “activists” (or whatever) as being the kind of people they know, and so ignore and fail to communicate with other people and struggles.

Basically our strength, as people who want to change very fundamental aspects of this society, lies in each other. And so we constantly have to move beyond our own comfort zones, at the same time as hoping that other movements and individuals are doing the same kind of thing themselves. Which is one definition of a revolutionary period, incidentally.

BLUE: Where do you see the eco-social movements going to in Ireland?

Laurence Cox: I think a lot depends on what happens in the rest of the world. There has been quite a head of steam built up in different networking processes – not just the ones I’ve mentioned – and to some extent this has been putting the framework in place, but now the question is whether that framework is going to be filled out with ordinary people.

We can’t make that happen – it will be made happen by neo-liberalism and the Bush administration’s choice for permanent warfare as a way of keeping the rabble in line, or it won’t happen and people will accept those. It does look as though (despite all the obituaries for the movement after 911) we are still moving forward. The huge protest on February 15 wasn’t quite the first time that ordinary Irish people got involved in the anti- globalization and anti-war activity that’s been happening across the globe since Seattle and 911, but it was a real shift in gear.

Before that these were pretty marginal movements in Irish life, and now they may not be. One of the real acid tests will be seeing what happens when the World Economic Forum comes to Dublin in October, which the Irish Social Forum and ourselves are preparing for. These set-piece events are important beyond the specific issues, because they give “us” – people who are being hurt by the way things are – a chance to see each other and get a sense “yes, we are powerful, we don’t have to accept the official definition of what is possible and what isn’t.”

One thing I think will be fundamental is connecting up the large-scale social movements which bring together large numbers of ordinary people struggling for change (starting with their own lives) and the smaller movements which are maybe prepared to ask bigger questions, to push the boundaries of what we see as possible, and to take what happens elsewhere seriously. And those are maybe slightly polarised ways of putting it, but the point is to break down those polarisations.

So on the one hand you have let’s say a range of different groups on the non-hierarchical or non-dogmatic left who are taking the anti-globalization and anti-war movements around the world very seriously. There are different ecological, development, feminist, anti-racist etc. activists and groups who are also very much alive to the whole thing (along with the groups which are really running for cover because it’s all getting too political for them in one way or another). And you have young counter-cultural people, not all of them from “nice leafy suburbs” by any means, who maybe resonate more emotionally with the idea of really shaking up power relations between people.

Now because of “peripherality” it’s often been the case that these groups have more real resonance, links etc. outside the country than they do on the ground at home, though there are honourable exceptions who have always tried to make that link in practice.

On the other hand you have particularly working-class community development, or development based on “communities of interest” – class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc. – and the radical potential within trade unions and industrial struggles more generally, basically the whole complex of working-class institutions, which does include the rural poor and marginalised to the extent that they are in a position to organise themselves.

And one of the important things which is happening here is that the capacity of the system to offer anything significant to these groups is waning dramatically. This was very visible in the recent partnership negotiations, but if you talk to people on the ground that discontent has been building and building over the last few years.

In effect what is happening is that as Ireland’s involvement in global neo-liberalism sharpens, there is less and less room for the kind of corporatist partnership which has, by and large, helped the state to “keep the rabble in line” over the last decade or so. And so that is a very interesting situation indeed – it’s risky for the Berties of this world, who depend on being able to offer a little something to everyone.

And there is the possibility there that those larger movements, and the smaller more radical ones, will be able to come together around shared issues like opposition to neo-liberalism, seeing the way partnership sets limits which we’re not allowed to question (around the big decisions, macro-economic policy etc.), and tackling racism and war. But it won’t happen by magic, it will happen through a lot of difficult conversations and learning to work together.

BLUE: What has the progress been like these past few years?

Laurence Cox: Better than I’d expected, but slower than I’d hoped. There are now a lot of experienced activists – I’m not just talking about the Gathering, of course – who have realised that the anti-globalization and/or anti-war movements are significant, and have started to come together around those.

And at the same time there have been a lot of younger people getting involved, meaning that this kind of coming together is now a reality in terms of Irish movements in a way that wasn’t true even a couple of years back. The movement has had a lot of popular resonance – not just February 15th, but also say in response to the Garda attack on the Reclaim the Streets demo, or response to the Chavez documentary [Chavez: Inside the Coup]. And a lot of people, not only in the cities, have taken at least some practical action at one point or another, particularly of course around the war issue.

It’s slower in that as I’ve said there is still a gap between this development of a kind of mini-“movement of movements” against neo-liberalism and war and what’s happening in the community groups and trade unions. It’s not that there’s no contact, and certainly not that there’s a lack of understanding of what the issues are. But there are practical difficulties in identifying genuinely shared struggles at an immediate level, effective ways of cooperation, goals which would mean something to all those different groups, etc.

And of course at some level there is still a lot of complacency within the movements as well as outside. Internally this manifests itself as cynicism, as reducing everything down to what’s already known, and perhaps most of all as “organisational patriotism” – that the real goals often remain limited to organisation-building or to very local goals.

Externally it’s this thing of on the one hand genuinely not liking the way things are going, but not really believing that “we” can do much about it, and also separating off one thing from another. Particularly I guess at the moment that means not really making the links between the difficulties that neo-liberalism has in gaining popular support anywhere and the deliberate choice of the US administration to move towards a strategy of permanent warfare as a means of control. And it also has to do with a kind of fragmenting attitude to issues, talking about winning or losing purely in local terms.

But I think these are learning processes. And basically we learn through cooperating with each other around practical issues, like the war, or opposition to the World Economic Forum in October, and through talking to each other in things like the Gathering or the Irish Social Forum. And along the way people change, organisations change, and the whole process is reshaped.

BLUE: What are the positives of the movement?

Laurence Cox: Incredible courage I suppose is the first thing. I’m thinking particularly of people like the International Solidarity Movement volunteers who’ve been putting their lives on the line in Palestine, or of some of the people who’ve engaged in non-violent direct action at the big summits or in opposition to the war. These are people who don’t have to do that, who could walk right away from those situations, and yet they don’t. And that compels respect.

Another thing I feel quite powerfully is the openness to ordinary human responses. Now in Ireland we’re quite lucky that still very many people do have a healthy human response of not accepting specious excuses for war, caring about things like the coup in Venezuela, taking other people’s poverty seriously, seeing how difficult it is to be a refugee or homeless, and so on.

Of course there are also a lot of gobshites, but the point is that these emotional responses are not the private property of a small group of activists surrounded by an uncaring mass. And that translates into the ability of many activists – not all, but many – to remain human, not to be traumatised by the pressures of the situation, to look after themselves emotionally and to support each other. And those are very important things.

I guess lastly just the sense that things are changing, that we don’t really know where we’re going but the sense of possibility is becoming bigger, and the future is seeming more open. Which is absolutely wonderful, not simply to be playing a part in a script that’s already written, but to be present in making our own history and feel that that’s the case.

BLUE: Anything else you’d like to add?

Laurence Cox: Just one academic reflection. Because capitalism has been global for a long time (since the start of the colonising period in fact), it builds networks between people around the world, and every so often those people come together in opposition to what that system is doing to all of them. Peter Linebaugh has a great book about this called The many-headed hydra, looking at slaves, sailors, etc. in the early modern period.

So this manifested itself in the “Atlantic revolutions” at the end of the 18th century – the American revolution, the French revolution, 1798 and so on. It manifested itself in 1848, when half the cities in Europe revolted. It came out very powerfully between 1916 and 1923, when there was one revolution after another from Dublin to Petrograd, and three empires collapsed. It came out in the Resistance to fascism, and again in 1968, which happened around the world from Mexico to Japan, as well as from Prague to Paris. So we seem to be in one of those periods, where the latest twist of capitalism – neo-liberal globalization – is pushing very different groups of people together in opposition to that system. And that makes this a time of great potential, a time when at the very least the cards are being seriously reshuffled. It is one of those times when ordinary people are making history.

And so we need to take this fact on board very seriously. Over a very short period indeed, the “leaders of the free world” have been pushed into a kind of retreat to Versailles. Instead of the usual show-piece get-togethers, they have to hide behind massive fences, on cruise liners, in absolutist monarchies or in inaccessible mountain resorts. When Clinton came to Ireland nearly quarter of a million people were supposed to have come out to welcome him. When Bush came, the only civilians he met were military families.

We have given them a bad scare – which is partly where the new strategy of indefinite warfare comes from, as well as being where things like the attack on Reclaim the Streets is coming from. We’ve won quite a few battles – stopping the WTO agreement in Seattle, breaking the MAI, reversing water privatisation in Cochabamba, and so on.

So we need to take ourselves seriously, and take each other seriously. Otherwise, if we stick with the usual cynicism – which is basically a lifestyle pose designed to allow us not to take action – we’re going to buy into what they would like us to think, which is that we haven’t a chance of changing things, that there really is no alternative, and that the only serious political question for the next ten years is going to be in fighting over who has to tighten their belt most. Which would be the worst kind of selling out, selling out to their definition of reality.

http://www.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/

Tools for change:

Pessimismo dell’intelligenza ottimismo della volontà – deve essere la parola d’ordine di ogni comunista consapevole degli sforzi e dei sacrifizi che sono domandati a chi volontariamente si è assunto un posto di militanza nelle fila della classe operaia – Antonio Gramsci, 1920

Tools for change is a linked archive of resources – from whole books to project outlines and from mailing lists to zine articles – whose common theme is that they are all about change: social movements from below challenging structural relationships, spiritual practices geared towards transforming ourselves and our interaction with others, and attempts at radical educational practice of various kinds.

This rag-bag of stuff has been produced by various people across two decades of politics, spiritual practice and intellectual effort – most but not all of it coming from the last five years or so. It represents a lot of collective and individual work which has wound up here for a range of reasons. Being the kinds of projects they are, few of them made any systematic attempt to get the kind of mainstream publishing which provides permanent and accessible records: librarians call this stuff “grey literature” (presumably because our paper and printing hasn’t always been the most commercial in quality…) Because I was often involved in doing the publishing, writing stuff or keeping records, I wound up with a large pile of documentation, which seemed worth trying to organise and make more generally available. So this archive is the result!

I thought it was worthwhile sticking this stuff up on the Web because I’ve become convinced over time that trying to change things is a skilled activity, which means that we can learn by looking at each other’s efforts and reflecting more on our own practice. Putting this up here gives me a chance to do a bit of reflection, mirrors their own work back to the original creators, and hopefully it’ll encourage other people to put up some of their own stuff. Some of these projects worked brilliantly; others fall under the heading of “don’t do this”. I’ve tried to indicate something of this in the notes at the start of each different section.

The original introduction, put up in November 2000, included this comment:

Despite the technophiles, we don’t yet know whether the Web will actually prove to be particularly useful as a tool for change: many activists and spiritual practitioners I know still keep a wary distance, and there often seems to be an inverse relationship between Internet presence and involvement in face-to-face networking. The trick, presumably, would be to bridge the gap between the two and overcome the polarisation between virtual isolation and local parochialism, which is a difficulty for a lot of movements at present. How to do that is something we’re still struggling with.

Things have changed, and perhaps even in 2000 this was a rather partial view of things. Certainly the “movement of movements” which has gone around the world since 1999 has made great use of the Net (particularly Web pages and discussion lists) to get itself organised. More recently, the Net has become a useful tool for organising within Ireland in a way that simply wasn’t true a few years ago. At the same time, it remains the case that some of the most radical and grounded activism has little or no Web presence, and the Internet version of the “paper organisation” is still very much a reality. But the Net has certainly become another terrain of struggle and organising in the attempt to transform the world.

Part of the process of transformation involves deconstructing the ways the world is presented to us – seeing through reification to process and power – and rethinking the totality we find ourselves in, its hidden conflicts and our relationship to them. Rather than break up these resources under different headings, I’ve arranged them as a ring, so that western Marxism and contemporary Buddhism, social movements and academic research, do not appear as existing on different planes, but start to share some kind of communicative space. You can enter the ring at any point, or move from one document to the next one on the ring.

The authors of the documents on this site include Robert Allen, Deborah Ballard, Colin Barker, Kieran Bonner, Gerard Boucher, Giovanni Cappelletti, Isolde Carmody, Deirdre Clancy, Mary Condren, Mark Connolly, Donna Cooney, Laurence Cox, Ramor Dagge, Nuala Donlon, Peter Doran, Máire Dorgan, Tanya Drum, Shane Dunphy, Peter Emerson, Andrew Flood, Martin Geoghegan, Anne Good, John Goodwillie, John Gormley, Claire Harron, Antje Herrberg, Monica Heynen, Peter Hill, Fergus Hogan, Tim Howells, Roy Johnston, Simon Jones, Jason Kirkpatrick, David Landy, Ronit Lentin, Lothar Lüken, Gillies MacBain, Pat McBride, Finian McCluskey, Carol MacKeogh, Pauline Maguire, Peter Mansfield, Laura Maranzana, Anna Mazzoldi, Richard Moore, Caitríona Mullan, Marcos Muñiz Torres, Damian Nolan, Paul O’Brien, Mary O’Connell, Maeve O’Grady, Sadhbh O Neill, Alex Plows, Dónal Quirke, Jocelyne Rigal, Heleen Riper, Road Alert!, Gillian Ryan, Raymond Ryan, Trevor Sargent, Dermot Sreenan, Gary Thompson, Roland Tormey, Claire Wheeler, Caroline Whyte, and others. Many more people took part in the organisations that produced these documents, notably the editorial team at An Caorthann, the other participants in Ireland from Below and Mustard Seed II, posters to the social-movements mailing list, and everyone in the Ballymun Oral History Project.

Some of these documents have been slightly altered to protect the innocent. In no case does this affect the sense or the substance.

http://www.fringethoughts.org/?cat=3

http://cwcs.ysu.edu/teaching/syllabus-library/working-class-dublin

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