Don’t judge a book by its cover? The value of looking closely at anti-austerity activist culture

Don’t judge a book by its cover? The value of looking closely at anti-austerity activist culture

Emma Craddock

The perennial cornflower is a violet rhizomatous plant with thistle-like flower-heads. Despite its delicate appearance, the flower is enduring, described by gardeners as “tough as old boots”, reflected in the word ‘perennial’, which means lasts a long time, or happens repeatedly. It is rhizomatous, meaning it has a horizontal network of roots that branch out, and is part of the wider knapweed family of wild flowers which are typically found on road verges, clifftops, hedges, – at the edges. It is often mistaken as a weed, yet it is a vital part of the ecosystem, being a source of good quality nectar, and thus a favourite among bees and butterflies, and a central sustaining feature of the environment. Additionally, its seeds provide food for birds, helping the flower to spread across countries.

I chose an image of this flower as the cover of my recent book, Living Against Austerity: A Feminist Investigation of Doing Activism and Being Activist, as I felt it was symbolic of the activists who took part in the research which this book draws on. The white background both depicts the starkness of austerity, and combined with the green and purple of the knapweed, is a subtle nod to the Suffragette colours. This is perhaps a rare case where you should ‘read a book by its cover’.

Nevertheless, the sentiment behind the popular saying ‘never read [judge] a book by its cover’ is still relevant; namely, that we need to look more closely at things and not make quick judgements based on appearances. It is only by carefully considering the different layers of meaning present within the image of a pretty purple flower that we start to uncover the depth and nuance of its symbolism. Similarly, looking closely at individuals’ stories, experiences, and feelings of participating in anti-austerity activism reveals insights that otherwise would be missed and which combine to weave a rich tapestry of meaning. As Jasper (1997: 9–10) asserts, ‘who are we humans, who protest so much? Most prominently, perhaps, we are symbol‑making creatures, who spin webs of meaning around ourselves’. It is these webs that constitute ‘culture’, with the researcher’s task being to interpret these strands of meaning and the ways they create specific cultures. Utilising a cultural and feminist approach that pays such close attention to the everyday lived and felt experiences of doing activism and being activist reveals the messy and complex processes of making and practising anti-austerity activist culture.

The phrase ‘being activist’ reflects how the activist identity and its meanings are embodied. In this respect, ‘activist’ is not merely a descriptive label. ‘Being activist’ both evokes traditional philosophical notions of ‘being’; the nature and essence of a person, and encapsulates the active and evolving process involved that the term ‘being an activist’ cannot adequately capture. Drawing on Calhoun and Sennett (2007) and Thompson (1963), I deliberately use the words ‘making’ and ‘practising’ to emphasise the active processes and effort involved; as Calhoun and Sennett (2007: 5) assert, ‘culture is practice: embodied, engaged, interactive, creative and contested’. Thompson’s conceptualisation of the making of the English working class emphasises the importance of agency and relationships in making cultures, as well as the need to pay attention to particular contexts.

Paying close attention to the everyday experiences of anti-austerity activism, makes visible the previously invisible, developing new insight into the motivating and sustaining factors of activism. The affective (emotional and cultural) dimension plays a central role in answering the question of ‘why’ individuals become and remain mobilised for political action. Drawing on data from 30 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with individuals involved in anti-austerity activism and my own participation in the local anti-austerity activist culture for over 2 years, I contend that anti-austerity activism is motivated and sustained by three core elements; emotion, morality and relationship. Individuals are motivated by an emotional response to perceived injustice combined with normative ideals about how society should be and how we should act in relation to others. Anti-austerity activism is not solely concerned with reversing austerity or defending social protections of the past such as state welfare, it is also about imagining a potential better future and what it means to be human, and enacting this in the present.

At the same time, in-depth exploration of this context reveals the ambivalence and contradictions present. There is a contradiction between the centrality of empathy as a motivating and sustaining factor for doing activism and the notion that only those with lived experiences can truly understand the issues and therefore be authentic activists. Another problematic contradiction is that between the assertion that ‘anyone and everyone can and should do activism’ and the reality that this is not always the case, which is compounded by how the activist identity is constructed and the existence of a hierarchy of activism, where doing direct action is prioritised over online activism, which is often disparaged as ‘slacktivism’. This attitude ignores the accessible nature of online activism, particularly for women with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities. Furthermore, it results in anxiety about doing ‘enough’ of the ‘right’ type of activism to be deemed an ‘activist’, with those who fail to meet the criteria feeling guilty. Notably, it is women who experience this negative impact, in addition to other gendered barriers that prevent them from doing activism. It emerges that while portrayed as an abstract individual, the ‘ideal activist’ is actually the white, able-bodied male, given the criteria that defines it. Thus, in-depth analysis of a specific activist culture uncovers implicit power relations between activists, which are often neglected by studies that focus on movements that seek to resist elite power.

It is important to consider not only the interactions within a specific culture but also how that culture interacts with the wider political and social context. Anti-austerity activism exists within, and against, neoliberal capitalism, a form of economic and political liberalism that emphasises free markets, individualism and the role of the private sector above the public, which produces the dehumanising attitude of ‘profit above people’. Activists find creative ways to subvert and reinterpret neoliberal capitalism’s dominant discourses. The responsibilisation discourse which places responsibility on individuals to compete with others and succeed in economic terms, is reinvented as being part of a collective and having a moral duty to act in ways that protect this collective and fight against injustice.

However, the insidious nature of neoliberal capitalism makes it impossible to fully exist outside of it. This is demonstrated by how this socio-economic context both restricts the space for political action and infiltrates spaces of resistance. Ironically, the ‘ideal activist’ is perhaps actually the neoliberal capitalist activist, with its criteria informed and defined by the conditions of neoliberal capitalism. The drive to constantly do more activism in order to reach an undefined bar of ‘enough’ reflects the inherent capitalist logic of continual accumulation; while the desirability of the ideal activist identity introduces competition between individuals in the activist field. Moreover, the identity reproduces the sexism, ableism and racism that are embedded within this wider structural and political context, with the ‘ideal activist’ actually being the white, able-bodied male who also enjoys a position of dominance in the wider political context of neoliberal capitalism.

The presence of such contradictions and tensions might leave us feeling hopeless that any solutions to existing barriers and exclusions to doing activism and being activist can be realised. It is perhaps because of this resulting pessimism that the dark side of activist culture (chapter 7), where individuals are shamed by others for not performing the ‘ideal activist’ identity and for flouting activist cultural values, is hidden so well. Bringing it to light risks undermining the positive, enabling features of doing activism and being activist, and could function as a further barrier to individuals becoming politically involved. However, it would be disingenuous to mask the complexities of individuals’ lived and felt experiences of anti-austerity activism. Instead, it is hoped that illuminating this dark side of activist culture will enable spaces of communication, sharing, reflection, and care to be created and that this information can be used by the individuals involved to challenge problematic features of activist culture.

The local anti-austerity activist culture, reflecting Alexander’s (2013) conceptualisation of modernity, is thus ‘Janus-faced’, containing both enabling and positive elements that empower individuals and a darker, hidden and damaging side, which is multi-layered and distinctly gendered. Revealing and exploring this ambivalence demonstrates the value of looking closely at individual and collective experiences of political participation and situating these within the wider social, historical and political contexts. Despite the seeming failure to impact on policies of austerity, individuals find creative ways to become politically active and to sustain this activity, by fostering positive emotions such as solidarity and hope that an imagined better future will be realised. Therefore, it is vital that we pay close attention to the meanings that individuals ascribe to their actions so that we do not miss the nuances that exist here, and, in this context, resist judging a book by its cover.

Alexander, J.C. (2013) The Dark Side of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Calhoun, C. and Sennett, R. (2007) Practicing Culture, Oxford: Taylor and Francis.
Jasper, J.M. (1997) The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thompson, E.P. (1963) The Making of the English Working Class, London: Penguin Books.


Emma Craddock is Senior Lecturer in Health Research at Birmingham City University. Her PhD research utilised a feminist methodology and a combination of qualitative research methods to produce an in-depth exploration of anti-austerity activist culture. A research monograph that draws on this research – Living Against Austerity: A Feminist Investigation of Doing Activism and Being Activist is now available. Twitter: @emmacraddock8