Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Tyranny of Coffee

Before I became an activist, coffee was not a usual part of my diet, outside of the occasional late-night writing (or gaming) stint.

The best photo of myself drinking coffee I could find...

But in the last couple of years, as I've become a full-time activist, I've found myself drinking coffee more and more, to the point where now I generally feel like I'm not firing on all cylinders if I haven't had one to start the day. So i thought I'd take a minute, while I'm buzzing on this morning's coffee, to reflect on what that means.

I think coffee is a fine thing, and probably no more hurtful than any other mildly addictive substance (let's not forget the conditions of alienation, increasing automatisation, atomisation, etc for the majority in current first-world capitalist nations, in which material context such things have to be considered). I'm more interested, though, in the role "coffee" has to play in social activity and activism.

I've been to many meetings in my day over a cup of coffee (this way was my first real introduction to regular coffee-drinking). It's a good shot of zest for those early morning picket lines or stalls, long skype meetings, tedious days of email and data entry, etc... And meetings over coffee are a great way to get to know new members of your organisation or campaign group, sketch out ideas, and bond with people (and let's not forget that, as Eddie Izzard pointed out, "coffee" dates can often have a more adult connotation too...)

But if coffee dates are the primary way of getting stuff done in an activist group (even if between meetings), I think there's some issues. It's hard for there to be accountability to an informal gathering in a cafe (or a pub, or wherever). A coffee meeting doesn't have a constitution, and it's open only to those already in the circle. Even with people who are well-intentioned or don't mean to be cliquey or exluding, there are some implicit assumptions in coffee meetings - that people know each other and are friendly, that they have the right to make decisions and act on them, that attempting to involve more people in the process is at odds with formal meetings. Those who work during cafe opening hours are excluded; those who can't afford to drink coffee are excluded.

I'm not saying such meetings should be banned by serious activists, just that any organisation which wants to grow, involve more people and lead them in doing something needs to be open, accountable and easy to get involved in and take on responsibility in; coffee dates, pub lunches and other informal meetings have their place in this, but collective and democratic decision making meetings are essential.

Now, I'm off to put the percolator on...

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