Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.

The Entangled Activist-talking with Anthea Lawson

Anthea Lawson is an associate of Perspectiva, a collective of thought leaders and writers attempting to improve the relationship between systems, souls, and society. A reporter at The Times newspaper, before working for campaign organisations such as Global Witness and Amnesty International, Anthea has published investigations and launched several highly successful campaigns. In recent years, she has been exploring why activism often ends up replicating the problems it's trying to change, and believes that inner development and awareness is an important ingredient in how activism is approached. Her book: The Entangled Activist: Learning to recognise the masters’ tools will be published by Perspectiva in May 2021.

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.

From Newspapers to Campaigning

3rd Space: Welcome to 3rd Space, Anthea. Could you begin by telling us about how you came to be concerned about some of the underlying issues in how activism is often approached? And how did this lead to the idea of the Entangled Activist?

Anthea: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about this. Inner development and campaigning did not come together in my own life for a long time. They were perhaps running parallel, but on what felt like entirely separate tracks.

I originally worked as a newspaper journalist and a news reporter, and then moved into campaigning. I wanted to align my work more with my values, and realised there were limitations to changing the world through being a reporter. So, I took my journalism skills and knowledge of how the media works, in terms of human rights and environmental organisations, into my work as a campaigner.

I worked for five years on campaigns to control aspects of the arms trade. I worked with Amnesty and Oxfam on achieving an arms trade treaty. And I worked for a coalition of gun control organisations, looking to control the second-hand trade in weapons, which is a very big part of the problem. I also worked for a long time at an NGO called Global Witness, which looks at the links between natural resource extraction, conflict and corruption, and environmental devastation.

This involved the role of banks in the financial sector, in facilitating corruption and effectively creating poverty. I was publishing investigative reports and doing campaigning on the back of it. I worked on a campaign calling for transparency over the names of the real people behind companies, because you can hide your ownership by setting up a trust in the Cayman Islands. There are ways of doing it using British companies as well. Britain is also tax haven. However, as a result of a lot of work by many people, we were able to get the laws changed. 

Qualms and Desiccation

So that looks sort of successful. But I was starting to have qualms about things I was noticing in the way that people working in human rights organisations can treat each other very badly; about how we were unthinkingly using some of the assumptions of the economic system that we so want to change, in our own work.

For example, the assumption behind mainstream economics of Homo Economicus: that a person will act rationally, weighing up the pros and cons, the costs of doing things, and then choose the most economically sensible option. Well, we know this is not what actually happens. And if we pursue that route, we cut out everything else that matters. So, I started to collect this list of things we were doing, that seemed to mirror some of the deeper problems underpinning the systems that we wanted to change.

There is a ‘movement ecology’, where we can each intervene to help. But I was becoming frustrated with the particular intervention that I had been doing for a long time. I saw that we were in effect arguing for changes to the system of extracted capitalism, only to make it play a bit more nicely, be a bit less devastating in its effects.

But it was becoming clear to me, that a system based on endless extraction and endless economic growth, is going to land us without a liveable biosphere, in this lovely planet that we call home. And it no longer felt okay to be doing that. So, for that reason, I wanted to step back.

There was also this other sense that something was missing, that I experienced while I was climbing mountains on the weekends, to recover from my exertions during the week at work. I felt almost desiccated, as if I was using only part of my capacity as a human being to try and bring about the changes that I wanted, and I was curious what was missing.

3rd Space: Were you alone in that? Or were there other people that felt the same way? 

Anthea: It was in my own internal process for several years while I was doing the work. Then I began to connect with people about the desiccation aspect, in the context of nature. 

 I was going off and sleeping on the top of mountains in my spare time, because that’s what I was feeling called to do, before I even realised there were people who guide that work, drawing on cultures that have never lost that connection. But it didn’t feel possible to have these conversations in the organisations we were working in. It was too far from the practicalities. 


3rd Space: So, what happened then?

Anthea: So, when I started looking at these questions, that there was something missing, and that we were replicating what we were trying to change, I did a bit of initial research, and spoke to a few dozen activists.

And guess what? It was a shared sense. Most people were saying, oh my goodness, yes, I really want to talk about this. Now, I was selecting carefully, so I can’t claim that I did an extensive survey, but with no difficulty I was able to find people who had similar stories and had reached the same conclusion. 

What I then started to see was the extent to which my own privilege had shaped my perspective. I’m white and I’m middle class, and I was working with a university degree in a professionalised NGO environment.

When it started to dawn on me that we were replicating aspects of the system in the way we were going about our campaigning work, it felt like news to me. I realised this was because I had been protected from having to think about that.

It was very striking that when I spoke to people who had been fighting for their own identity, or the conditions of their life, or both, about this. They would tell me that of course we need to talk about how our inner lives are implicated and immeshed as activists in what we’re doing, and how the system is perpetuated through the ways we try and change it. But to them that was not new.

So, it was humbling to realise the extent to which I’d been campaigning for a long time without being able to see this.

The Entangled Activist – how entanglement works

3rd Space: You have come up with the concept of the entangled activist, and I think you’re now touching on some of the issues to do with what that might mean.

Can you tell us more about it?

You’ve also said that there are different levels to it, some of which are harder to see. How did you come to this understanding of entanglement and its relationship to activism? 

Anthea: Well, I’m nervous to make any claims about having come up with it. I was in conversation with a Nigerian philosopher and thinker, called Bayo Akomolafe, who’s writing I really recommend; and he was talking about how entangled we are with everything else that is.

That was definitely part of how the concept entered my consciousness. And over the course of a number of conversations and books I was reading, the idea of the entangled activist started to take form.

To say that as activists we are entangled in what we are trying to change, sounds rather obvious. But it’s actually quite counterintuitive, and also countercultural in activist and campaigner culture.

One of the things that happens when we work with others to change the world, and we find communities through which to do it, is that we tend to feel quite different to those other people…over there… where the problem is. The problem is those people, or that power structure over there. It is very easy to forget that we are entangled. 

One of the other ways that the entanglement works is how our culture, premised upon individualism, impacts the way we relate to ‘others.’ There’s us and then..everything and everyone else.

The dominant culture is not structured or equipped to recognise how interdependent we are. For the last forty years, we’ve been in a political and economic culture, namely neoliberalism. This culture has removed the safety nets, and the ties of community that previously held people together. It has created greater separation. As a result, we automatically assume that we’re not entangled.  

This matters for a number of reasons. One of which relates to an activist’s entanglement in relationship to power. That’s what I was talking about in realising the extent of my own privilege. It affects the assumptions that you make. It encourages what you don’t understand about the people that you think you’re trying to help. This is a form of entanglement which needs to be taken account of. But it very often isn’t, particularly in professional organisations that are set up to help. 

Another entanglement is the way we think about cause and effect. We think we are just going to pile in and fix the problem by putting in this particular intervention. We don’t take account at all of the very complex things in an environment. In many of these environments, linear cause and effect is not really relevant. But the cultural assumptions that we have, often lead us to think that way.

Another one, is the burnout question, which is a real problem in campaigning. It boils down to the constant activity of a culture that values doing over being. It is constantly extracting from the earth, from each other, and from ourselves – that’s capitalism. Burnout is absolutely endemic in all forms of activism. 

So, there are multiple ways of thinking about entanglement in relationship to activism. What I found interesting about entanglement as a frame, is that it’s a way of bringing these together. I think there are things they have in common, as well as what we can do about them. It begins with acknowledging the entanglement. This can allow us to start our intervention as activists from a different place, and with a different disposition towards it.

The Influence of the Enlightenment and Extractive Capitalism

3rd Space: One thing you have touched on is how we have been educated to objectify the world. This obviously impacts the way we approach activism, in fact how we approach everything.

Could you say more about the impact of this kind of objectification in relationship to activism? Could it be looked at in a different way?

Anthea: Yes. At the heart of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and the thinking which has proceeded from them, is this idea of objective thinking, which requires a thinking subject, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”. And so, there is the thinking subject, that’s ‘me’, and what I can know and understand about an object.

So first of all, this is isolating. It has the effect of separating us off as an individual. This is at the heart of individualism. We are in our lonely little castle and it turns everyone else into an object. Now that’s not explicit, of course. But it underpins how we relate to other people.

Then on the back of that thinking, we have developed an economic system, extractive capitalism, which has the same premise. This has happened at the same time as expeditions of colonial plunder and enslavement. Colonialism is based on the idea that other people, other lands, other places, are there to be extracted from.

That’s an indivisible knot of thinking. I learned this from decolonial thinking. I needed to see the dominant system from the outside, in order to really understand it.

The Saviour Mentality

3rd Space: How does this affect the way activism is approached?

Anthea: I see it in that the people who are trying to help, are people with privilege. They are acting on the basis of feeling injustice and wanting to do something about it. They want to help, or they want to ‘save’ the person who’s in that object position.

Again, this is implicit and not explicit, although the way it manifests can look explicit. I don’t think many people doing that work from that position, would say that’s what I’m doing. But that’s the effect it has – seeing other people as objects.

I think it’s very hard to disentangle this sort of ‘saviour’ behaviour, I have certainly done work for this stance, from the subject/object ways of relating that are at the heart of the modern imaginary.

There are also interesting ways of looking at this from psychoanalytic thinking. I was reading Jessica Benjamin, who’s a relational psychoanalyst, and her work is all about ‘doer and done to’ dynamics, and the inevitability, particularly in a culture which encourages this way of thinking, of relating to other people as if they are the objects, and we are the subject.

It’s very difficult ongoing work to be able to relate to everyone else, or to anyone else, in a truly interdependent way – as a meeting of two subjects. It is countercultural because of the way our perception has been shaped by these underlying ways in which the dominant culture works. That’s how deep the entanglement goes.

A Wiser Form of Activism

3rd Space: So, what do you think a wiser form of activism would look like?

Anthea: Well, I think it’s got a few aspects. One of them is recognising ourselves and our position, knowing ourselves and where we’re coming from a bit better; also, being open to acknowledging our entanglements. That can change both the long-range approach, and the next conversation we have.

I think another is, and I heard this from Satish Kumar, who’s been doing activism for many, many, decades. He said, it’s a practice, not a destination. It’s very easy, when you need to set some goals in order for your work not to be woolly and diffused, and hard to manage; to mistake the goal for the whole thing. And that can very easily lead to burnout.

Very often we don’t reach those goals, the forces arrayed against us are too strong. But that doesn’t mean we should drop them. Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully about how we don’t know what the knock-on impact of all the things that we’re doing is, in ways that we can’t even measure. 

3rd Space: What Satish Kumar said about it being a practice, does that speak to you?

Anthea: Very much so, because I can be quite driven. I can get very results oriented and give myself a hard time. I have experienced burnout and had a scorching case of chronic fatigue in my mid 20s, when I was working as a journalist. That feeling of having reached empty. I’ve come close to it in my campaigning.

One of the things I’ve realised is that I was putting too much of myself in it, there’s a sort of egoism about that. It’s all about you achieving the goal – you can say I did this.

We’re all encouraged, social media has made it far worse, to look at ourselves from the outside and say, well, what can I say about myself? What does my CV look like? What can I claim about myself? Ironically, I find myself saying, I achieved this as a campaigner in order to have myself taken seriously as somebody with the right to speak about activism. And yet, in all of that kind of goal-ness, we’re making it a bit too much about ourselves.

But if I’m lightly holding the goal, I’m doing what I can, when I can. I have limited time and energy, and I also have small kids. That practice-ness feels much more sustainable. But I also want to be careful saying this, being the person who’s choosing to do activism, and who could walk away saying, oh, well, you can only do a certain amount a day. So, there’s a real nuance and balance to some of this.

But, yes, that practice not a destination, has made a real difference to my approach to my own work.

There was one other thing I wanted to mention. The practice of wise activism is not starting with ourselves. This sounds contradictory, because I just said we have to look at ourselves, we have to look at our own inner lives, we have to acknowledge our own entanglements.

But I suppose we have to look at ourselves, and develop some awareness both immediately and as an ongoing life practice, in order to then be able to put ourselves a bit more to one side, and say what is the issue here? How can I be of service? Rather than, here’s the goal!

I think embarking on campaigning work in solidarity is ultimately going to be more effective, if we are able to not do that narcissistic thing of, I’m doing this, and I’m doing that.

A Movement Ecology

3rd Space: Yes. I’m thinking about the intersubjective nature of this as well. We start to see things in a broader way. Our focus becomes less narrow, perhaps.

I think you spoke earlier about the movement ecology that is taking place in response to some of these endemic issues to do with our civilisation.

I can see how when we’re not so focused on ourselves, then we can start to be aware of how connected we are to others who are also questioning some of the fundamentals about our civilisation and how it functions, and how we’ve been taught to think. It connects us to a lot of different approaches. There’s not just one way of doing this.

Anthea: That’s right. I’m finding I’m in the process of learning about these approaches and finding my own way to describe them…There are so many ways to think about this.

Every wisdom and spiritual tradition have ways of thinking about them. Because we’re ultimately talking about the dilemmas of being human. And, in all of these points about what might wise activism be, I feel that all of them are really about having slightly more porous boundaries of our self.

If we’re not doing this very, very focused thinking that precludes so much; if we can broaden our awareness and our peripheral vision, and make it a bit less about us, the kind of intersubjective relating and openness to ‘other’ in the very broadest sense of the word, can happen.

That’s actually one of the deepest changes we can make. Because, arguably, many of the problems that we’re facing, come from a worldview that has separated us off from everyone and everything else human and non-human, which is why this is such radical work.

For more information on Anthea, her work and new book, visit here.

With thanks to Anne Ruthman for her photo, and Olu Amoda for the illustration of the Missla Liksekal sculpture

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