By Chris Neill
A psychosocial perspective on the April 2019 Rebellion
Until two years ago I was a hard-working psychotherapist whose mind was mostly preoccupied with looking underneath the surface of events for an understanding of what they actually meant. I retired for a quiet life in the garden (although now I seem to have become a hard-working environmental activist instead). Letting go of the professional duties doesn’t mean you stop thinking like a psychotherapist and I found, anyway, that the powerful significance and intensity of the Rebellion brought an automatic re-connection – emotionally, spiritually and mentally – to that way of experiencing and relating to things.
Like very many of us, I’m sure, I found myself drawing on old skills as well as learning many new ones during the frenetic build-up to April 15th and the tumultuous unfolding of the 11 days afterwards. A key thing in psychotherapy is self-reflection and as the pace of things slackened in the final couple of days, as we all began, however reluctantly, the heartfelt process of withdrawal and dis-engagement, turning our attention again to the concerns and demands of the ‘real’ outside world (which now seemed less real than it ever had) I found myself wondering how to understand the narrative of what had happened.
By using the word ‘narrative’ I mean deliberately to suggest that a sequence of events tells more than just its own story. Most often, it also tells us something deeper about ourselves. There is a tradition of thought running through most of the the central theories and philosophies used by psychotherapists – whether they be Freudian analysts, Jungians, Gestalt humanists or transpersonal psychologists – which says that the things we do, individually and together, ranging from brief personal actions and simple physical gestures through to extended periods of complex social interaction – can be understood as enactments and re-enactments of deeper unconscious realities. These things – from simple ‘Freudian slips’ to the repetitions of history with global impact talked abut by people like the contemporary communist psychoanalyst Slavo Zizek – reveal ideas and truths that are not yet fully conscious. By studying the narrative, then, we may be able to see something which is trying to emerge.
So, as I found time for pause and reflection while shuffling between the tea tent, the people’s assemblies and the drumming bands at Marble Arch on the penultimate day of the London rebellion, I found myself wondering about this story that we seemed to have just told ourselves about ourselves. Other than the fact that we had made a tremendous, incredible collective effort which had brought about a radical change in public consciousness, what else did the narrative tell us?
The thought which impressed itself upon me most strongly, and which I had already found myself mentioning to many people I spoke to, was that this was a story about collaboration and determination, goodwill,, kindness and creativity. Even though parts of the media were still trying to run a story which was about police inefficiency or collusion or about work-shy dreamers who had no idea about reality, the obvious truth was emerging for all to see if they wanted to: when people act together and are connected to a worthwhile sense of purpose, and when they do so whilst seeking to stay connected to higher values like Truth, Beauty, Will, Love and Wisdom, astonishing things can be achieved. This, perhaps, is how we will address the huge global problem of climate change. We will consider and plan carefully and we will act decisively with urgency and discipline. We will dedicate ourselves to this cause, acting without self-interest, sharing generously of ourselves and our resources. We will care for each other and ourselves, making sacrifices to the greater good without losing sight of of our own rights and dignity. The idea that everyone is responsible will spread like a wildfire and become the new ’normal’. We will climb with exhilaration a steep learning curve in which a process of creative collaboration feeds upon and nourishes itself. We will rapidly develop new skills, exchange knowledge and information at breakneck speed in order to meet the escalating challenges which present themselves to us. In doing so we will amaze others and ourselves with the truth of the proposition that a small group of people can change the world.
Even as I considered the evident and inspiring truth of this, however, I could not escape another truth – which is that we had, ultimately, failed. We had not continued “until we win” as the mantra had been Yes, I know we are not in the least finished, and the rebellion is only paused, it is is only the beginning, etc. And I truly believe all that. But the narrative of April 15th-25th does also have less cheerful things to tell us. It tells us that that, notwithstanding our Herculean efforts and all the marvellous variations of Love and Will which were expressed, we were in the end defeated. Our roadblocks were taken down. The glorious symbols of our defiant audacity, the pink boat, the lorries, the trees, the solar panels, were removed. Our people, one by one, were carried away. In the last days , there had been plentiful evidence of our weakening. Resources ran low. People got dirty and tired and ill. Some looked skeletal. It was harder to think and make decisions and communicate effectively. There was more evidence of fracture and discord in relationships. On Waterloo Bridge we ate bread and jam instead of delicious vegan stews. Drinking water became scarce. As we abandoned one site after another, Marble Arch became too overcrowded, too noisy. People lost valuable possessions and lost track of each other. Even as we continued to assert our triumph, we could not deny that we were all exhausted, completely done in. This, of course, is what may happen in the story of the battle against climate change. We will make wonderful, unbelievable progress and it will be a heart-opening and joyful experience, but in the end we will fail.
As i thought about this, I began to consider more specifically the role of the police in this narrative. What had they been doing and what did that mean or represent? We all kept saying how good they had been and how kind and non-judgemental, how they were ‘“just doing their job”. How might this be understood? It struck me that the police in this narrative might best be seen as the forces of nature – not unkind, nor intolerant nor even indifferent, but implacable nonetheless. In the end, if a few thousand people come to occupy London, to erect roadblocks and kitchens and performance spaces and toilets and yoga spaces and meditation tents and gardens and tree houses and skate ramps in the streets of the capital, the police will marshal their forces and dismantle them and arrest the people who put them there however much they sing and dance in defiance. This is as much the ‘law of nature’ as is the fact that if we keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere, cutting down forests and destroying wildlife then the oceans will rise, the icecaps will melt, the land will become desert and we will all die. The police were just doing what the police do. It is as foolish to complain about supposedly ‘unfair’ tactics like issuing Section 14 notices or publicising the details of people charged with offences or cordoning off demonstration spaces as it would be to complain about average global temperature rising. Nature, like the police, is not unkind nor inflexible but it has its limits, If we push it far enough it will destroy us. In the last days we became simply unable to combat the rising power of the police, just as we may be unable to keep up with the escalating challenges with which nature presents us. Torn between responding to one emergency or another – do I rush to reinforce Parliament Square, or Waterloo Bridge or Oxford Circus? – undermined by emotional stress and depleted by a lack of rest and nurture, we will be simply overwhelmed.
But even if that it is an accurate understanding of the narrative, this should not be depressing; because it is only a narrative. And a narrative, like any myth or fairy-story, does not tell us what is going to happen but only what will happen under certain conditions. If. like Icarus, you fly too close to the sun, you fall. If, like Rapunzel, you cannot free your inner feminine, you end up locked in a tower. If, like two of the Three Little Pigs, you build a house of straw or sticks, it will get blown away and you will be at the mercy of the wolf.
The condition we need to pay attention to in our story, I think, is simply to do with numbers. This narrative of the April 2019 Rebellion shows us what will happen if we do not have enough people on our side. Fortunately, we have some time; not much, but enough to have another go, another practice, maybe even two, in order to get it right, so that we tell a different story, one of real triumph which ends with us living in glorious harmony with nature and in right relationship with ourselves and each other.
From what I saw over the 11 days in London we could not have tried harder or better. We were really amazing. We were magnificent. But we lost. Yes, I know we won too and did so much more that any of us dared to expect but the actual story, within its own frame, is not one of victory, and it is crucial that we pay attention to that. How we will win next time or the time after is that there will be a lot more of us. We must learn from the story that we just told ourselves about ourselves. We must give ourselves a little time to recuperate and heal and then we must start to nurture the immense appreciation and goodwill which our actions have seeded in the general public. Already many of us are aware of people in our local communities sparked, stimulated, even clamouring to join us. This must be grown and protected and harvested so that whatever ‘next time’ looks like and whenever it happens we will be three times, five times or ten times bigger and stronger. When we have that many people with us, working in the same wonderful way, we will be actually unstoppable. And this amended story, with its happy ending, will, I believe, inform and inspire a realistic and ultimately successful endeavour in that ‘real’ life, in which we will come to be at last in harmony with ourselves, each other and the natural world.