Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76

“We ask to be moved so our children live. We ourselves are already dead” – the power of solidarity with a mother’s struggle against a mining corporation.

You can taste the pollution at Kankoyo. Not just smell it, you can taste the air.

Welcome to Kankoyo, Zambia, welcome to the Mopani Mufulira mine that has made many millions for a rich few and made whole communities sick from the filthy air and water, made farms unfarmable and a whole town unliveable. Watch out for the sinkholes. Watch out for the security – private, public – who are not there to protect the innocent but the guilty.

Have a look at the tin roofs of the houses – notice how the metal is eroded by the poisons from the mine. Now imagine, the community point out to us, if it does this to metal, what it does to their bodies. They don’t have to imagine. They have seen their friends die. The lucky ones quickly. The unfortunate ones slowly.

We are here at the invitation of the community with an international solidarity group of activists from over a dozen countries as part of the international Fight Inequality Alliance of unions, social movements and NGOs. The local people have cried themselves hoarse with their demands to be moved from this place. “Our children are being poisoned, our community is being destroyed. We have asked the same thing over and over again. But the government and the mining company seem not to hear us. Please tell our story. Perhaps they will listen to you.”

Campaigning works. I have seen time and again how people uniting for change secure justice. But sometimes the odds seem impossibly high. This is David against Goliath, if Goliath owned the referee and David had no sling. How does a mother from a poor community take on a huge international corporation which seems immune not only from accountability but from shame? I’m trying to think through a path to victory, of how to influence the influencers to tip the scales back to humanity, and I can’t. How do they keep going?

“We ask to be moved so our children live. We ourselves are already dead, we just keep going by grace.”

Perhaps they cannot win. Perhaps even when people will lose it is better at least to die in dignity, to die defiant, to remind oneselves that the cruelty is undeserved. But I am still scanning in my head to try to work out a path to victory. I can’t.

Then my colleague and friend from El Salvador, youth activist Alejo Labrador, stands up to speak. He is in tears. “We in El Salvador won a victory against the metal mining corporations to save ourselves from this suffering. But it took 12 years. And in that 12 years we never knew if we would win. So I want to give you this” – and he takes off his bandana from around his neck  – “because your struggle is our struggle, and people who fight are people who win.”

So, what is the path to victory? We do not know. Perhaps there is not one. But Prisca Mutale – one of the leaders who has emerged from the Kankoyo community – begins for the first time at the meeting to smile. Her suffering is unchanged, but she is not alone. I took these pictures of Prisca not at the mine dump she is forced to live beside but at an oasis that looks like the place she is working to bring about and which she deserves.

We reach out to Glencore, who own most of the mining corporation, and to the government and local MP. Glencore does not reply. The government does not reply. Silence. Then we get this message from the local MP: “Just tidying up some loose ends. Mass relocation for the identified areas to follow. Mopani fully on board.”

Resistance doesn’t always work. But acceptance always doesn’t work. Every struggle that has won has been filled with periods of despair, and times when even those who took the first steps could not see the path ahead. It would be naive to put our hope in an MP’s promise (it was not a great surprise that when we followed him up on the promise he made to us of relocation, he repeatedly refused to say when it will happen). But is it naive to put our hope in what ordinary extraordinary heroes like Prisca can do with determined friends from around the word like Alejo? “The moral arc of the universe is long,” pointed out Martin Luther King, “but it bends towards justice.” He did not mean that cosmic intervention would fix it. He meant that folks Prisca and Alejo were already at work, and that in time enough of us would join them.

What do we need to do to win the fight against inequality? An activist-researcher seeks your advice.

As activists we sometimes talk as if we know the answers. As researchers we get to admit that we don’t (until publication, of course :-)). As both an activist, and a researcher, I’m asking for your advice.

I’m really delighted to be starting a new role this month as Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute at Notre Dame. It’s wonderful to join a place with such brilliant colleagues, and one rooted in values of service to society. And it’s a great privilege to be given the opportunity to step away from day-to-day organising to spend time in deep thinking, exploring, and testing ideas with others. There’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some activists about whether time in the academy is something of indulgence. (I love the 1930s story of two friends: “I’ve been away fighting the fascists in Spain,” declares one, proudly, and the other replies, “No, my friend, you’ve been away writing about fighting.”) And there’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some academics that activists lack the objectivity needed for proper investigation. (I confess that I absolutely have a side – what the church has unashamedly termed “a bias to the poor” – and that I am interested in research into the fight against inequality in order to help advance that fight.) But I do think that both of those nagging doubts that activists and academics have about each other are ones to work through, not to send us our own ways. The academy is enriched in practicality by exchange with those working for change, and those working for change are “armed” (non-violently!) through learning from exchange with the academy. And the more I have got involved in working on inequality, the more I have appreciated that it is both possible but also very hard to win the fight against it – because it is a fight where so much power (in wealth, in social dominance, and in hegemony of ideas) is weighted against it. So it’ll need a huge movement, and it will also need for that movement to be as well prepared as possible for the struggle, which is something I hope my research will help with.

I’ve had a joyous and wonderful time helping to launch the Fight Inequality Alliance which has grown from just an idea into a vibrant coalition of over 300 NGOs, unions and social movements building power from below to press for change, and I am really excited about where it is heading. (Look out for news of some of the mobilisations happening later this month – I’ll be reporting from the one in Mexico, others from events in the Philippines, India, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, the UK and many others.) I’m also really excited about the brilliant and diverse broad leadership of the alliance today – especially from women and youth from Global South communities who have been at the sharpest end of inequality, whether neglected rural areas or marginalised urban slums. This is where the leadership of a international social justice movement must come from for it to live its values, and for it to succeed. (An issue I covered in more detail in this Guardian piece from 2013.) I’m really excited to support this new leadership and to start a new role of service through research at Notre Dame into how best to organise to fight inequality.

So now here is my request for advice. There has been a lot of excellent work on how inequality has gotten so extreme, why it is harmful, and what kind of policies could help tackle inequality, and to that work my research will be deeply indebted; I’ll try to summarise some of it in the book, but I won’t be adding much to that. Instead my focus will be on how help build the social and political context for such policies to make the journey from paper proposals to enactment to implementation to sustainability. In other words, complementing the what with the how. Learning from social movements of today and of history seems key to that. My aim is to produce a book to help those working to fight inequality. Advise me please: What are the key learnings to build on? What book on social movements fighting inequalities has most inspired you? Which activist or researcher would you particularly recommend I link with? What are the current and past examples I should explore? What have been the key learnings from your own work? How can I make sure this is a book that is fun to read and helps people bring change? You can tweet or DM me @benphillips76 or email me ben.phillips@fightinequality.org – or even send an old-fashioned letter to me at Ben Phillips, Kellogg Institute, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.

Thank you for your help, your solidarity, and for all that you do to fight inequality.

I think, in the end, we’ll win. Together.

Ben

Remembering Brian Matyila, Fees Must Fall Young Lion

 

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When you meet your heroes, you wonder what they will be like in person. When they are really as special as they seemed from afar, that’s inspirational. When your heroes are younger than you, it’s a whole another thing.

I met Maliviwe Brian Matyila, a 22 year old South African activist of the Fees Must Fall movement, at a gathering of the Fight Inequality Alliance in South Africa. Fees Must Fall is, as Brian put it, “a group of South African University students who are mobilizing broader society to call an end to commodification of education as this further broadens inequality in society in a country that has one of the most unequal societies in the world.” What more formalised organised civil society had failed to do – challenge the South African government on inequality, mobilise in large numbers, and win some real victories – had been managed by a group of young people who had had to learn campaigning, and go to school, while doing it.

I listened in rapt attention to a young man who had taken on such responsibility, and finally asked him, “is it difficult?” “Yes,” he said. “Being a student who could get thrown out for activism can make it hard for family. The pressure from authorities, too. The repression. Being black in university is anyway a pressure. And being a young gay man too.”

Brian was a young man who, like his comrades, took huge responsibility on his shoulders, carrying the burden of centuries of injustice and putting himself on the line. He and his comrades were tough and challenging – much less indulgent of whites who tried to steer direction than earlier generations had been. He was bold, fearless, and deeply serious. He was also huge fun – and his conversation would flit from detailed discussions of policy and reflections on political theory to joking about the troubles of dating. He and his Fees Must Fall comrade Lesedi found themselves in different camps of South African politics but remained wonderful and supportive friends. Here is Brian and friends signing the beautiful anthem, Nkosi Sikel ‘iAfrika;

And now he has passed. He will go down not only as a future leader that has been lost but also as a leader that already was. I feel so fortunate to have known him. I hope he will one day be in books about politics and history.

As I went through our old facebook messenger conversations I found an interview we did that I planned to publish as a part of a series. Now it stands on it’s own. Here is what Brian told me.

How would you describe in a sentence or two the current state of your struggle?

The movement has gained a lot of traction in society, we are now in the process of educating everyone on the pillars of the movement and ensuring that we build a movement that is grassroots based and consolidated nationally.

What motivates you personally? 

I am motivated by my own personal sufferings. I look at my family, being the only one in my family who is in University and how education is still seen as a privilege whereas it should be regarded as a basic right. I wake up everyday praying to work hard to ensure that more rural, black kids like myself have access to education.

What are the hardest times, and how do you deal with them?

The State has responded to our cries with repressive and oppressive methods with arrests, rubber bullets and intimidation being a daily experience in our spaces. I think some of the hardest times for us is when we time and time again find one of us being sent to prisons with bail being denied. We gain strength from the support we give to each other and more especially the support we receive from the elderly and international allies.

What do you have to face in terms of resistance by the powerful?

The repression that our movement has received from the State and our Universities in enormous. It often feels like the State has brought back apartheid security tactics to silence us. It frustrates us to see that the very same government we voted for and see as a democratic government time and time again refuses to listen to its youth but chooses to imprison, intimidate and “deal with”

How would you describe public opinion in relation to your activism? How do your families relate to your activism? What are the misconception and how do you counter them?

The general public initially failed to understand FeesMustFall as a movement that includes all, including those who are outside of the University space. It has taken a lot of community engagements and education for us to correct this perception and we are now seeing more and more community based movements, trade unions, religious groupings and other members of civil society coming together to not only pledge support but recognize themselves as an integral part of the movement. Families tend to be skeptical of our involvement in the movement as they fear their children being victimized by the state as they have seen the extents in which the state has adopted to silence us. The greatest misconceptions about the movement in the public’s eye are around the violence that has played itself out in the eyes of the public in our protests. This violence is usually as a result of private security and police literally beating protesters and being physically abusive, Media has a number of failed to report these incidents factually.

How best can you inspire more people to join you?

The simplest form of inspiring people to join us is by explaining how expensive University fees affect all parts of society and how these fees hinder a lot of people with great potential from accessing education leaving the have nots poorer while those who already have grow their knowledge and wealth.

Describe how it was to meet activists fighting inequality from Tunisia and Brazil and elsewhere? What do you see as the commonalities of the experiences and struggles in different places?

Meeting activists from other parts of the words was truly inspiring for us. We tend to be too invested in our struggles and we end up failing to realize that there are other people who face as much hardships and struggles as you do. There was a great lot to learn from each other and we learnt the importance of connecting with others and learning from each other because indeed it is true that in unity we are much stronger.

What would success look like in the short and long term? 

In the short them success for us would be unconditional access to higher education of all who are academically deserving without any financial burdens and in the long term it would be a decommodified, afrocentric education that seeks to service the youth of South Africa.

What has been the most important thing you’ve learned after becoming an activist?

I have learnt that inequality is a reality and we must all do our utmost best to fight inequality.


Hamba Kahle Brian. Go well. In the so many others you have inspired, you live on.

Elites claim we’ve persuaded them to fight inequality, but it’s only activism that can make them do it

The words we never thought they’d say have recently turned from a trickle into a mighty river. The very building block of any decent society, commitment to reduce inequality, which governments had rejected for decades, has now become the cornerstone of official policy. We in civil society pinched ourselves when the IMF started saying it. This week even the G7 – yes, them – have joined them. Has our dream come true?

Both wings of the rivalrous South African government now say that they are focused on tackling inequality; elite opinion-leaders from the FT to Davos regularly beat the anti-inequality drum; the European Union says reducing inequality is key to its own and global harmony; Indonesia’s President says it’s his top priority; even the world’s richest men highlight rising inequality as a threat to stability and progress. New French President Macron declared at his inauguration that social division has driven extremism, and that to heal the divisions the government must fight inequality.

That such statements would be made was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. And yet government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. Try listing every country that has signed up to fight inequality under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and you will run out of breath. Try counting every government taking the action that ensures a markedly more equal society within their term of office, and you won’t need to use more than one hand. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery.

This is partly because the current crop of world leaders are a poor imitation of better days. At a recent pan-Africa feminist meeting I attended, no one there felt they could name any current leader who matched Sankara, Mandela, Lumumba or Machel. And in the North, well, let’s just say that Americans have started saying they miss George W Bush. Yes – him. Our leaders will not lead us. But it is also because even when leaders are more inclined to change they cannot act without the wind at their back that civil society can give them. Remember how President Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King “I know what I have to do, but you have make me do it.” Politicians are currently under so much pressure from the ever more powerful 1% that, if they are well-intentioned, they need our pressure. And if they are not, well, we need to pressure them even more.

As a person who came from the mainstream NGO advocacy tradition, part of my own journey has been one of unlearning, of realising that the most important change isn’t brought by the professionals but by the amateurs. As friends from Kibera who stopped a slum eviction told me when I asked them how they did it, “we have no other home to go to.” Former Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “we’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.”

This is why, in the #fightinequality alliance I am part of, we do less “lobbying” and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to us, it will be fought for by us.

The leaders are there – but they are not in government. My hope these days comes from young civil society leaders like Aya Chebbi from Tunisia who was part of the Tunisian revolution and is now challenging the IMF restructuring of her country; Lamin Saidykhan who helped found Gambia Has Decided which toppled Jammeh and now leads support for youth activism to fight inequality across Africa; Brian Matyila who helps lead Fees Must Fall and also fights for LGBT rights; and Brazilian youth activist Lira Alli challenging austerity. Through the #fightinequality alliance they are learning from, and teaching, leaders who have led struggles for decades like Anti-Apartheid activist Jay Naidoo who hosted the first global #fightinequality gathering and Filipino debt campaigner Lidy Nacpil who hosted the second. Change is always collective, never individual, and the folks I’ve just mentioned would modestly point instead to other names. This is great – we are leaderful. I list these few to say that if we are looking for leaders, we will find them – but it is more likely nowadays we will find them active on the ground and not in the corridors of power.

Despite the claims of the elites that we have persuaded them to fight inequality, we are in a period that in the short term will likely see it get worse. In many respects, we have entered a dark tunnel, but it is one we will get through, and it is the fire of courage of activists which will light the way. The social movements who constitute the #fightinequality alliance have been out on the streets in the Philippines, Brazil, South Africa, the US and elsewhere challenging the policies which favour the 1% and hurt the rest. Together social movements are building a collective power that can shift power. And when that starts to happen, we really will have won.

Meeting Martin McGuinness

“Ben, Martin, I have to introduce you to each other,” said an Irish writer who knew us both.

It was Dublin March 2016, and we were there to commemorate Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising against British imperial rule. I, an Englishman with what friends tell me is the most English accent ever, was there as a descendant of 1916 Irish rebel leader, Padraig Pearse; Martin McGuinness, former Provisional IRA man, was there as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK.

As a student of history, follower of politics and staunch supporter of the Peace Process I had become, from a distance, and intellectually only, an admirer of Martin McGuiness. He’d ended a war and was central to the new Northern Ireland of inclusivity and progress. He was a super smart politician. Tony Blair once shared at a talk I attended about how in the Peace Process he’d come to like Irish Republican leaders Adams and McGuinness “almost too much”.

And yet I remain an Englishman, steeped in the culture and conversations of my people. To many in England, including amongst those closest to me, McGuinness remained a hate figure, a Bogeyman. In any conversations in which I contextualised what had happened in Northern Ireland I was told back: “no, no, he’s a terrorist, nothing justifies it, nothing.” “But I’m not justifying it, I’m …” “No, no, stop. He’s a terrorist.” And the brutality of the conflict, of which he was a central part, was truly horrific. I strongly opposed the paramilitarism he embodied. Not only did I understand why he personally filled so many with dread, I felt some of it myself. And I felt it surge in me at the very moment we met.

We started talking about the beautiful service of remembrance that had just taken place, what it meant for the elderly relatives. Then we talked about the events being commemorated. I said, as if in challenge, “it wasn’t just about nationalism, it was about a society where all were cherished equally.” “Oh yes yes,” he replied, “that’s what inspires me most about it, how progressive it was: it was 1916 Ireland, and their proclamation begins ‘Irish men and Irish women.’ We’ve still a lot to do on that score.” “Ben is a descendant of Pearse,” our mutual friend shared. “Oh I love his poetry,” McGuinness replied.

He seemed to be doing too well at being gentle and charming, and I worried that I was letting down my English folk, perhaps even my own English self. “I’m English,” I said, “as you can hear from my accent. Pearse’s sister, my great-grandmother, married an Englishman, and we’ve been English ever since.” I smiled in challenge to see his response. “Oh there’s nothing wrong with being English. One of my nieces came to me and said ‘Uncle I’m going to marry an Englishman’ and she waited for my reaction and I said ‘is he a good Englishman?'” And he laughed. And I couldn’t help laugh back.

He asked me about my life as a development worker and shared what he’d learnt from South Africa. He asked me to get in touch if he could ever help my work.

Martin McGuinness had shaken hands with the Queen and made a friendship with the firebrand Protestant Ian Paisley, so befriending an English descendant of an Irish rebel was nothing compared to that. But in my case it was a private conversation with a person irrelevant to political gain and from which he could have extracted himself with ease. And yet he chose not to. Making peace can be the smartest strategy, the best calculation, and it is clear that the strategy he chose was a smart one and that he had especially acute political nous. But that day we met I couldn’t put it all down to that. For all the contradictions of any life, and he was clear that his had been one of both light and dark, it seemed he really was, deeply, a man who sought peace, and his achievement in bringing it was not only political but personal. And it taught me that even our Bogeymen, perhaps especially our Bogeymen, can be our teachers, and that we can learn not only to love our enemies but even to like them. May Martin rest in peace.

Austerity economics has just been smashed. By the IMF.

A powerful new report finally kills off any remaining intellectual veil for a broken economics that is breaking society.

Sometimes an ideology is so brilliantly propagated that observers might not even notice it’s an ideology. In the corridors of power and in mainstream discussion, it ceases to be questioned. Then it goes catastrophically wrong. And it begins to seen again for the ideology it is. It becomes questioned again. And, if they are smart, leaders hear this and start to self-correct. This is where we’ve got to with neoliberalism, austerity, and rising inequality. Except for the self-correct part. Right now, instead of self-correction, we’re seeing many mainstream politicians unable to shift away from dead economics, and what seems in too many countries like the start of social breakdown. Change is well overdue. Who can prompt leaders to drop the old economic nostrums that are causing so much harm?

Enter the IMF with a sledgehammer. Progressives duck in case in the sledgehammer is meant for them. But then the IMF demolishes the case for neoliberalism and austerity. It sounds extraordinary, and it is.

Today the IMF will launch a new report, “Macro-Structural Policies and Income Inequality in Low-Income Developing Countries”, the latest in series that mark the intellectual journey the IMF research department has been travelling in recent years. Packed with detailed quantitative analysis it demonstrates that much of what elites have been advancing as unquestioned economics is demonstrably harmful both to economic growth and to public wellbeing.

Of course what makes this surprising, and what may make some progressives unenthusiastic about welcoming this, is also what makes it so powerful: an institution that has been, for far too long, a defender of the free market story and the Washington Consensus – the idea that liberalizing trade, privatizing everything possible and cutting down public spending was a one-size-fits-all solution to any government in trouble – has now refuted it.

This paper is not the first by the IMF to take a stand on inequality, but it is notable because it claims in no uncertain terms that public spending – i.e. the opposite of the budget cuts that it once advocated for – decreases income inequality. They even have a formula – a 1% increase in public spending, they report, leads to a 2.3 decrease in inequality after 5 years.

The paper also takes a strong stand against prioritizing indirect taxes, such as VAT, showing that they increase inequality.

The paper not only demolishes neoliberal economics but also helps build the evidence base around the kinds of policies that are necessary to reduce inequality. Those include some of the things that NGOs like ActionAid have been talking about: emphasizing direct taxes instead of indirect taxes, spending on social services (this paper focuses on infrastructure, but we would see that more broadly), support for cash transfer programmes, and the need to ensure that any programs that are likely to increase inequality are offset by measures to decrease inequality.

Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model. And now, in countries around the world, the lack of action in inequality is leading to a resurgence of xenophobic nationalism and the far right. Broken economics is breaking society. But too many leaders still seem trapped in the belief that there is no alternative. So let them know that today the IMF – yes, the IMF – has comprehensively set out why that broken economics must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

 

 

Update: The IMF report is now online here

2016 has shattered outdated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world.

A dominant worldview amongst many progressives in recent times has been that over time things will keep getting better, sometimes with exhilarating speed, sometimes too slowly, and sometimes disjointedly, but broadly, over time, better and better. 2016 has shattered that. Let us state it plainly: the simplest summary of where we are right now is that things have started getting much worse.

This is not a counsel of despair but one of action to fix the crisis. But to fix it, we have to confront the failure of many progressive organisations to assess and respond effectively to what has been happening.

The first failure has been failing to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis. The broken economics of ever increasing inequality has broken society and politics too. Elites have seemed at times to not see the crisis, or cynically worked to accrue as much as possible while good times lasted, or even more cynically readied themselves for deals with the hate-filled forces now ascending. Many progressives (NGOs included) meanwhile have been failing to take on this crisis with the strength and imagination needed, consoling themselves with marginal reforms and allowing themselves to grow ever distant from the lives of millions cast aside, imagining that their own closeness to the establishment would ensure they could always bring change. Or they have finally found the courage to name the crisis but even still have found themselves couraged-out when it came to approach, carrying on almost as before, following a radically new diagnosis with a similar treatment. The 2008 crash showed that the world’s prior way of doing business was broken – and by and large the world responded with some tweaking here or there. And from that dysfunction has emerged the obscene politics of the far right that threaten every social gain of the twentieth century, and risk a return to its horrors. We cannot rely on institutions to prevent evil at a time when increasingly there is not much justice, just us. We will need to depend on solidarity, on each other. This is not new…

For the second failure has been failing to learn from the elders. We hear that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It has been no such thing – it is only been the worst year that those who have discarded older traditions have seen. And so part of ensuring that our futures surpass the present is to rediscover lessons of our ancestors. We need to go deeper than tactics and ask how did older generations keep hope alive in times of hate? Let us re-read King, let us re-read about the resistance of the 1930s, let us re-read about those who fought slavery and colonialism, let us re-read the great stories about hope under Babylonian captivity. Older worldviews, from the Buddhist to the Celtic, have seen life as more cyclical.  Older worldviews have demonstrated a capacity to walk through the valley of death without fear. More recent approaches have implied that with an x at election time and a click for every crisis, things would only get better. This was wrong. There is a need to relearn the capacity for long-haul struggle. And yet there are those who have been living up to those histories, but they have not been given the backing they deserve…

For the third failure has been failing to learn from the youth. The progressive establishment have been lecturing them to compromise more, smooth their edges, be more “grown up” – patronizing them with the claim that they agree with their ends but that the youth are just not doing it right. It is what Martin Luther King powerfully lambasted as “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”. But 2016 has shown that the future is being written by the determined. The comfortable world of consultations and reports built on projects won’t ever be enough to bring about the deep changes in power structures that are needed to build a society that works for everyone. It is from the courage of grassroots young activist groups that the opportunity of a better future will grow.

My own sense of despondency after the events of 2016 was lifted by joining in December a global gathering of activists at a community farm in South Africa. Organisers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, and community leaders from 15 countries – South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Zambia, India, Australia, UK, USA, Denmark, Tunisia, Uganda, and Malawi – gathered in Rustlers Valley, Free State, South Africa for a two-day sharing of experiences, discovery, challenge, music, hiking, spirituality, and planning a campaign to fight inequality from local to global level. Veterans of the struggle against Apartheid, from the ongoing struggle of the Brazilian landless movement, and of the first nations of the Americas dialogued with love and respect with brave young activists for Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, human rights, climate justice, economic justice and more. They climbed the nearby rocks together, reconnecting the personal and political. The gathering signaled a shift in the roles of different organisations too, with the INGOs there accepting the challenge put forward by social movements for INGOs to support those at the sharp ends of the struggles in their leadership.

The activists at the meeting recognized that we are at a moment of global crisis, in which the dominant economic and political systems are broken and must be transformed; that a radical democratising of institutions must be fought for; that the intersection of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy has produced a dramatically dysfunctional and unequal world in which elites find it easy to accumulate more and exclude the vast majority from power; that only people united and organised from below and beyond borders are capable of bringing the changes we want in our world.

This approach, rooted in an intersectional feminist analysis and in a commitment to challenging the power structures which perpetuate injustice, is a very different way of looking at the crisis we face today than the approaches with which many progressives have been operating for the past decades. And to change is hard. But as King said, “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

As a student of history I am worried that 2008 was 1929. And we’re in it. And my kids are in it. The stakes are existential. And if we carry on as we are, we’re losing. Times like these remind us that campaigning isn’t a job, it’s a calling. And right now it’s so vital that we hold hands and build anew. Two roads: we organise, and win (or at least go down honourably trying), or we each try to duck and hide and compromise and survive in shame. 2016 was a reminder of the impossibility of being neutral, and the moral obligation to ensure love wins. We do not know whether we will prevail. But we do know that if we do not change, if we do not organize ourselves to fight back, if we do not build power from below and across borders, then we will certainly lose. And that if we do fight back then resistance in itself will help to restore our common dignity, and the restoration of that dignity provides a basis for building a world where everyone is precious.

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”  Wrote Albert Camus at only twenty-seven.

2016 has shattered out-dated assumptions, but if we change ourselves to fight inequality, it need not shatter our world. This isn’t about project wins in the next two or three years, it’s a generational struggle – but generations before us have fought them, and won.