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Editorial: Coming out of hiding

This is a time when we can't afford just a handful of leaders, writes Michelle Zellers

June 1, 2014
3 min read


Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.


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Everything I see of 1914 tells me narrative control in the first world war was vital to the whole operation. You could get swept up in it – heroism, the myth of the enemy, plucky can-do spirit on the home front – and if you didn’t, you were a traitor. In 2014 there’s ambivalence towards the UK’s ‘long-term commitment’ in Afghanistan, but the machine still thrives on narrative.

We’re meant to believe war is inevitable. The corporate media paints a racialised portrait of who ‘the terrorists’ are. It’s no accident that conjuring the myth of a brown enemy in a white‑majority nation has facilitated daily amnesia about war for 13 years.

People do resist. When 20,000 British men of military age refused to fight in 1914–18 (see page 12), or when Chelsea Manning exposed atrocities in 2010, they did so at great personal cost. In civil society, then and now, organisers have encouraged ‘the people’ to rise up. Still too few defect, come out from under the dominant narrative to join us. I sometimes hear people say they’re ‘not creative’, ‘not good with conflict’, ‘not politically savvy’ – yet this is a time when we can’t afford just a handful of leaders.

The word ‘empowerment’ has been co‑opted, but the core concept of people becoming their fuller selves through questioning, trying things and growing remains important. The beauty is, it doesn’t work as a means to an end. A grassroots approach cannot ‘give’ people a counter‑narrative, recruit them to the forces of counter-power. But an individual can find her own meaning, her own relationship to war and peace, and then see the overlap with a multiplicity of other people’s narratives.

One ugly aspect of war is how it asks those fighting to forfeit individuality and suppress feeling. Indeed, it is that violence to the self that makes massacre, rape and torture possible.

One reason we aren’t exercising that mythic ‘power of the people’ is that inside each person is a potential person – with qualities, foresight and absolutely-needed contributions that must come out of hiding, if we are to realise the strength of the collective.

The process can challenge every tenet of the war narrative. The ‘us’ of a welcoming community is unassuming and unsuspicious; it expands for newcomers. Though war pretends to provide the prime examples of ‘brotherhood’ and bravery, pockets of empowered people offer daily examples of solidarity in action. The war machine touts the jobs it creates, but empowered people know an economy based on caring will be the only one worth keeping.

‘The people’ who transform the world won’t be a nameless mass. They’ll be connected in an ecosystem of supportive relationships. This summer the Buzz Tour is walking across England to form links between people running small, planet-friendly projects. Wool Against Weapons, with contributions from many, is knitting a seven-mile chain ‘valorising care’ over violence. If such efforts seem too slow, or too distant from the issues of war, why?

When others make us feel safe, we see beyond war and beyond fear. When we’ve formed subterranean ties we stay in social movements for the long haul.

Open and unpredictable, a grassroots model can involve people with or without kids, with or without jobs, with or without knowledge of a particular left theorist. There are no prerequisites, except perhaps the will to understand others: a process that’s complicated, painful, time-intensive – and worth it.


Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.