Luddites have gone down in history as a movement that resisted ‘progress’. But what they were actually resisting was a form of mechanisation that brought profit to the capitalists but created unemployment and decimated a way of life for the workers. It was one possible model of progress, one that benefited the few not the many.
But this point of view was hardly heard, neither at the time, nor (until more recently) in how the understanding of history has been shaped.
And the silencing of marginalised communities is not confined to the Luddites. CLR James wrote his account of the Haitian slave rebellion, for example, explicitly because, as he noted (in the foreword to The Black Jacobins),
“I made up my mind that I would write a book in which Africans or people of African descent instead of constantly being the object of other people’s exploitation and ferocity would themselves be taking action on a grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs”.
Along similar lines, one of author Syd Moore’s stated motivations for writing her recent novel Witch Hunt was that whilst much is known about the ‘Witchfinders’, virtually nothing is known about the about the victims. And commenting on one of the themes of the book, she also makes the point that ‘Essex girls’ these days are “on the receiving end of a whole host of perjorative judgements about gender and class, just like the witches”.
This kind of stereotyping and caricaturing can lead to certain groups being dismissed and unheard, even in debates that affect them, or even that are about them – just as is happening in the the depressing and damaging current and ongoing discourse around ‘shirkers’, ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘welfare’ etc.
This all takes us into Gramsci territory, and his argument that capitalism maintains control through cultural as well as coercive controls. That dominant ideologies set parameters around ‘accepted’ ways of thinking and close down space for alternative voices to be heard.
This is power playing out perniciously, invisibly – as Steven Lukes put it, “power is at its most effective when least observable”.
So it’s not surprising that finding a way to get the message out, and take some kind of control of the channels of communication, has always been at the heart of campaigns: from way back with John Wilkes and the North Briton, to Greenpeace taking film crews with them on the Rainbow Warrior, via Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
And now social media offers massively enhanced potential to communicate quickly and directly. New campaigning groups are taking advantage of this, with platforms like change.org helping to give people a voice they could never have had before, creating new influencing routes that, in the right circumstances, can be key to achieving change.
But the fact of an accessible communications vehicle doesn’t on its own guarantee that otherwise unheard voices now come to the fore. Democratic processes of issue selection, great in theory, can reinforce existing power dynamics rather than challenging them. Disability activist David Gillon for example has argued that the ‘popularity contest’ element in how 38 Degrees chooses issues can further marginalise already-disempowered groups.
For NGOs too, new more dynamic ways of communicating can enable closer engagement with supporters. But again, this may involve choices and trade-offs: what might be popular (with supporters) for example may not be (and is often unlikely to be) the same as what would be most impactful.
Meanwhile, and more interestingly, some NGOs – as in this example from Mind – are investing effort in developing more interactive ways of working with, and supporting, user and beneficiary groups to undertake their own campaigning.
Overall, though, the summary would be that new developments and trends offer both threats and opportunities.
In terms of bringing the voice of people who are affected to the forefront, there is no certainty of ‘progress’.
CLR James’ quote could just as easily be a contemporary reaction to Kony 2012 (for example).
So, as always, the important thing is to pay attention not just to what is being said but who is saying it. And also, what isn’t being said, and who isn’t being heard.