Lessons in positivity from Colombia

People in Colombia have a tendency to be positive about things. That’s a bit of a general statement of course but the tendency is strong enough that I suspect it accounts for the recent slightly odd result of Colombia being surveyed as the happiest country in the world. I say ‘odd’ because much of the country lives in terrible poverty and amidst an ongoing armed conflict.

But one form of positivity you don’t see so much of in Colombia is the bouncy, almost patronising positivity that certain NGO’s  give out in an attempt to make us feel empowered. “Poverty Over!” announces Christian Aid in their latest slogan. We can do it! Even though it didn’t work when we said “Make Poverty History”! This time it’s for real!

“Together, Avaaz members are changing the way the world works!” says Avaaz. As a statement of reality it lacks substance (Avaaz hadn’t greatly impacted on the advance of neo-liberalisation last time I checked) but perhaps that sheer optimism can make it real! Fingers crossed!

In Colombia, this country full of optimists, I have not seen much of this type of optimism, and I think I know why. In Colombia you cannot afford to be mistaken about how much power you have. You don’t have much, and if you try to get more you might end up with a bullet in your head and your relatives will discover that the police aren’t very interested in investigating.

People in the UK don’t have much power either and a lot of people know this. I think that’s why most people don’t bother to vote. I know for sure that a lot of people don’t go on protests because ‘It doesn’t work’. And I’ve lost count of the number of times  people have shrugged at me about some gross act of corruption or abuse by the government and said “But what can you do?”

So the effervescent optimism of certain NGO campaigns seems to be intended to counterbalance this. On some level they know how powerless people feel and they’re trying to jolly us out of it. However, if you (or I) suggest to such NGO campaigners that we need actual structural changes to our democracy and to our economic institutions in order to gain more power, they will happily point out to you how unrealistic that is. Negativity about the power we could have is allowed apparently, while negativity about the power we have now gets you looked down upon as a naysayer and a party pooper.

As I say, here in Colombia, negativity about the power you have now is a necessary survival tactic. Above is a video of ESMAD, the Colombian riot police in action. Actually I could just as well have posted UK riot police in action, but a lot of the super-positive NGO campaigners never meet them. The difference in Colombia is that there are potentially much worse things than being attacked by the police. Like being on the death list of a paramilitary group friendly with the police. The question is – and Colombian campaigners have had to answer this – once you experience the blunt end of power and you want to find something to be positive about, where do you look?

I think that where Colombian NGOs are positive is that they believe in their ability to slowly, over time, create a level of collective organisation that can mount challenges to the government. They are positive about the power Colombian people could have one day, if enough effort is put into it. It’s a difficult thing to be positive about because the goals are so long term and the organising sometimes so dispiriting. But the campaigning NGOs in Colombia pull it off.

I like this, I suppose because it chimes with my own positivity. When people hear my comments on NGOs and political campaigning in the UK they often think me negative. But my own positivity is focussed on what is possible in the future, not in trying to make the present look better than it is. Right now we are powerless, we are not on the verge of changing the world, we are not about to end poverty. In the future, by organising together, we could change all that. It will take long term organisation, long term campaigning, and learning new ways of working together in a society that doesn’t do ‘together’ very well.

Positivity about our ability to organise together means being positive about some other things. I do not think that the society we have now reflects a selfish ‘human nature’, and while I don’t think we will ever have a better model of human being, I do think we can create social dynamics that encourage us to behave in different ways. British people are negative about these things where many Colombians are not.

Why is this? The reasons are no doubt complex, and clearly the countries have very different histories. But I would guess that in part it probably reflects the greater ideological penetration of the ruling system into people’s minds in Britain. People believe both their positivity about the present and their negativity about the potential for broader changes to be ‘normal’ or ‘rational’. I think those things are taught to us, often propagated by those at the top end of society.

Perhaps there are advantages to being in a country where the state has never had full control. It gives you space to be positive outside of the framework of how society and institutions function right now.

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