Activist Burnout I: An Anatomy

Alice B. Reckless tweets at @AliceBReckless and blogs at alicebreckless, where this post originally appeared.

[Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide, police violence, mental breakdown.]

“its hard to beat the Black Bloc
but I’ve seen them beaten down.”
– Decca Muldowney

A note here on context: over the last – suddenly ten and more – years I’ve been involved in various campaigns around climate change, education, immigration, the rights of women and trans* people, and against war, and probably other things that have slid from my mind just now. For the purpose of this particular post, I am drawing primarily from my experiences in the student and anti-cuts movement which began in 2010 and was characterised by a series of beautiful and hopeful occupations and a series of clashes with the police. Subsequent posts in this mini-series will address different movements and different aspects of burnout. The next post will be on burnout and gender, which is an important and frequently overlooked conversation.

I’ve been writing and writing and writing about burnout and trying to put together a blog-post. Which I mention from time to time, and everybody cheers, as if they are thirsty and I’ve just announced my card’s behind the bar. Because we need to talk about burnout. Even people who have never been involved in activism beyond really big demonstrations, who want to act now because of the depth of the cuts and the brutality of the Tory government, are looking on us, some old hands, and some just a season or so into a life that’s built around actively fighting, and they are scared and despairing.

Because what do we look like right now?

It’s there physically in a lot of us. Our skin’s pale, there are bags under our eyes. We’re fatter or thinner than we habitually are, or were last time we were happy. We lose our tempers really, really fast. We talk to people with moderate politics as if they are evil or as if they are stupid.

When I say we lose our tempers fast: I mean, really REALLY fast. And I’m pretty sure by now it’s not just me. The slightest indication that someone can’t see that the situation is fucked and that ordinary people are being aggressed against, and that suicide among the more precarious members of society is a direct effect of government policy, that we are therefore actually being killed at present, is a massive trigger, quickly producing tears, shouted insults, incoherent rage.

That’s a symptom of burnout: that you’ve sustained “reasoned argument”, often alongside radical direct and demonstrational action, for as long as you possibly can and you’ve got nowhere. And whether it’s true or no, it becomes impossible for those of us with combat fatigue to believe that everyone really is a distinct person with the capacity to reason and have their mind changed, because we’ve HAD THIS CONVERSATION BEFORE, and it didn’t convince liberals f our part and it lead to us being against police lines in kettles, hungry and cold in the dark, having cavalry charged at us, being criminalised, having our faces smashed in. It’s lead to friends in prison, comrades in hospital.

Another reason that we lose it, that we fall apart, isn’t just that we’re traumatised and by saying that you think demonstrations went “to far” and that activists were violent you’re triggering us to fuck, beyond what we can reasonably be asked to cope with.

You’re also reminding us that we’ve believed and fought and hoped and offered alternatives and fought and fought and FOUGHT, and given up our time and our lives and our sanity, and we pretty much think it’s too late. Because there are STILL people who don’t side with the government who haven’t taken up arms against them and still want to have a calm and quiet conversation about it, even though it’s now so expensive to attend university that pretty well everyone who attempts it will be expected to live in debt more or less forever; even though people are, as I have mentioned, dying; even though racism and fascism are manifestly on the rise on our streets and the far right are frequently represented on television as if they represent a legitimate political concern.

You looked at those facts and couldn’t see how necessary it was to oppose them, and now, almost like an exercise, you’re asking an activist to explain to you exactly what’s so bad?

Well FUCK. RIGHT. OFF.

That’s how we feel. We feel like that maybe twice a day on a good day. And the bonds that have tied us together, our resistance and our belief in what is right, have become externally defined by our having suffered and been traumatised, together. Of course there are times when we see in each other’s faces the bright and beautiful spirits that dreamed another option – when I was in the Old Schools occupation in Cambridge in 2010 I had fleeting, momentary glimpses of the kind of university that these minds would be capable of creating together, just like at climate camp it was possible from time to time, for instants in that temporary, experimental space, to re-imagine the village – there are times when we see those great, generous hearts beating full of potential. And at all times we know how lucky we are to keep the company we do.

But so much of the time we are sitting together in anger and sorrow. Even when we’re not fresh from the fight and shaking and in tears and hurt, we are caged by totalising powers that mean every day at work we’re faced by alterations to process demanded by new legislation, we’re inspected, prodded, poked, bureaucratised and asked not to trust our colleagues and the people around us. And it makes us angry – which is right. And it hurts us when we hear of suicides, and it hurts us when we hear of disabled people literally tortured by being denied the support they need and forced to work. And seeing your friends angry all the time makes you angry on their account too: someone is hurting them and that agent is too big for you to fight.

Because last time you fought, you lost.

In the last few years we’ve fought an increasing number of losing battles.

It’s funny, it’s taken me a long time to realise how much of this is to do with the concrete fact of having lost every battle we’ve fought. I thought it was just about being exhausted because the enemy is so big, being stretched too thinly, and about the real-terms violence that we have faced even in the UK where an activist’s life is still pretty okay in global terms. But it’s also about the feeling of having given everything for a long time and having failed. It is psychologically hard to recover from repeated, consistent failure.

And we burn out because there is nowhere for us to go to charge our batteries. There is no escape from capitalism or from patriarchy. It defines the terms of our existence.

So we drink or we take drugs to get out of our heads, or we find some other means of running away.

And we’re really creative and imaginative people, and plenty of us have begun to take our balls home. I wrote previously about preparing to go on the last big march against university fee hikes. I didn’t write about the run-ins that I had with the police, the way that I was manhandled for WALKING DOWN A STREET or the subsequent night that I spent in my friends’ arms shaking and crying. Like, disintegrated into bits. No more capacity to keep a handle on my emotions. It is frightening to feel like that and it is probably unhealthy to pursue situations that will make you feel like that again. So I, for one, have looked out alternative spaces where I can be creative and imaginative and which are in no intrinsic way radical, which are doing nothing to change the exterior situation, but which let me feel like I have sometimes felt, glimpsing the best of all possible worlds. And I’ve gotten stronger and started to cry less and to be less filled with rage.

But I have conscience, and I know that I am not helping right now, and I know that I need to find a way to rejoin the fight. So this post constitutes a sort of characterisation of how it feels to have burnout, what it is like to inhabit that particular mental state from day-to-day. Over subsequent posts, I will address particular aspects of the condition – I sort of want it to be recognised as a Real Legitimate Thing – which derive from structures of organisation and behaviours within movements, rather than from how we interact with those who are not with us. Out of that, I’ve challenged myself to try to imagine something better – maybe just psychological tricks, hopefully something more profound: if I can dream the resistance I want, maybe I can start to recognise aspects of it, in the resistance as it is.

I’m not the only one who’s stuck and I’m not the only one who wants a change – and I’m not condemning any of the current struggles: indeed, I stand in solidarity with all voices raised against capitalism and against the government and against a complicated web of further oppressions. This isn’t an attack. It’s just that right now all I can do is talk – and I have promised to do all that I can.

3 thoughts on “Activist Burnout I: An Anatomy

  1. Wonderful post, but dripping with privilege. The people you are “fighting” for have it worse off. Maybe doing some work with the impoverished to improve their situation? You are lucky enough to have the choice, please always remember that.

  2. Thanks for this post. That we burn out never “goes without saying” and reading your experience is helpful for others as it helps break through the isolation that is a big part of burnout (I’m also speaking for myself here also). A.Gilmore the post wasn’t for you as you clearly demonstrate by your comment that you know nothing of what is being spoken. And it’s often fighting, not “fighting”.

  3. great post – struck deep chords. As someone active for decades and had my health wrecked by it you have summed up how I have felt at many moments, and even now I struggle to sustain an even temper about the whole thing. And to Gilmore, bullshit – so many of those who burn out do not have the safety-nets of privilege to fall back on. Its part of the reason why burn-out is there. And what a choice – to walk away when shit is going down…

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