Fear of failure

There is a sensibility in many political organisations and projects that they must be hard-wired against failure. This might seem like an obvious concern for any organisation: what kind of organisation would entertain the possibility that it might fail in the objectives that motivate its constitution in the first place? But, there is a difference between a political organisation that aims to succeed in its goals and an organisation that is profoundly based in a fear of failure. The difference is significant because fear of failure generally produces conservative and highly managed political practices, both of which hollow out aspects of our political society.


Now, of course, any political organisation or project will be motivated by the prospect of some kind of victory. Campaign organisations always ‘frame’ their activities as the pursuit of a set of goals; this is what provides motivation. For example, political parties are motivated by the prospect of some kind of electoral victory – marginal, local, or the kind that achieves government. Even if some goals are not achieved, other successes can serve as motivational tools: an increased membership or the completion of a new manifesto. Simply put: every political organisation that wants to keep going has to pursue victory. Even those who wish for defeat do so because in defeat they see victory: as Lenin argued during the First World War and many in the Stop the War Coalition did in regard to the invasion of Iraq in 2002.


It is all about winning and therefore, surely, fear of failure is something any political organisation will hold in its heart. Success and failure are two sides of the same activist coin. But, the distinction I want to make is between taking a risk in order to succeed and securitising a political organisation so that failure becomes all but impossible. The fear of failure produces political practices within which entire strategies are choreographed in order to ensure success by making failure almost impossible. Fear of failure tends to be based in views of politics as an exercise in certainty – for example the setting and achieving of measurable targets, or assumptions that right ideas will be implemented through agreeable political change. It tends to be based in a shutting down of open discussion within an organisation. It tends to be excessively hostile to questioning from others, as if anything but the assumption that success is immanent is beyond the political or moral pale. In all of these respects, fear of failure produces conservative, defensive, and heavily-managed forms of political practice.


For those who like democracy and believe that the lifeblood of democracy’s health can be found in the richness and depth of political engagement within its polities, fear of failure is a worrying trend. Fear of failure leads to the securitisation of success. This is different from securing success through hard work, good tactics, powerful imagery, a dose of luck, or whatever. In academic research ‘securitisation’ means the depletion of a political issue into a security one that requires a minimisation of risk, a commandeering of the issue by the state, and a removal of the issue from any connections of accountability, participation or deliberation that it might have had. It these ways, academics have criticised securitisation as politically damaging and conservative, serving power and often making people scared or docile in the process. I take the aesthetics of this meaning here, but in less dramatic terms. The securitisation of success in political organisations means wedding a political cause to a minimisation or risk, a heavy managerialism, and a desire to encourage people to support a cause and to control the nature of that support.


I am arguing that fear of failure and the securitisation of success have become pervasive to varying degrees within many political organisations. Let me offer some brief and stylised examples. I will start with a campaign organisation that I researched: Make Poverty History. In some ways, this was one of the greatest mobilisations of civil society in British history. An estimated eight million people bought the white wristbands and the campaign focussed very strongly on getting the G8 leaders to make great strides towards debt cancellation, aid increases, and trade reform. The outcome of the G8 was not an unequivocal success, and by many detailed accounts the ‘asks’ of Make Poverty History were not met. What struck me about the aftermath of the G8 meeting was how venomous the debates became about whether Make Poverty History had succeeded. There was, according to a number of interviewees, a moment after the G8 summit where different spokespeople from the coalition almost came to blows behind the scenes during a press conference because some people wanted to stress how the G8 had let the campaign down (‘the people roared and the G8 whispered’) and others who wanted to say ‘mission accomplished, basically.’ The coalition’s major organisations and management team quickly retrofitted Make Poverty History as a success – up there with abolition and anti-apartheid – papering over its failures and partial successes.


This vexed denouement to the biggest development campaign in British history – in which the success narrative was superimposed over what was a partial success that had generated considerable internal tensions within the coalition – impacted extremely heavily on campaign organisations. Indeed, it was only after eight years that a broad coalition of development campaign organisations was formed again. This coalition – Enough Food If – was also fortunate enough to be researched by me. Sitting in plenary coalition meetings, I was struck by how vehemently all those speaking from the coordination team were effectively setting up a strategy that could not fail. Its targets were less specific, its demands less exacting, its politics more moderate. It did not aim to organise a mass demonstration (at the G8 this would have been very difficult but in London it would have been relatively easy). Most of the more radical campaign organisations removed themselves from the coalition. The sense of a campaign identity and a clarity of mission were weaker. All of this facilitated a relentless pursuit of success not only in terms of having ‘easy wins’, but also writing success into the organisation’s very DNA. At the final campaign meeting, the central message was that the campaign had been a success, but the evidence for this was either rather weak or a reflection of how vague and modest the aims were. There was, I thought, a palpable sense of despondency in the air (indeed, the meeting was not well attended). But, the campaign was, in a way less of a failure than Make Poverty History.


The insight I want to draw from this is that a large development campaign in 2005 based itself heavily on achieving success but found itself struggling to maintain a ‘success narrative’ because its politics worked out differently. There were disagreements, interpretations, differing positions. A campaign that explicitly placed itself as a successor to Make Poverty History emerged in 2013 substantially cleansed of political anxieties and far more concertedly focussed on securitising success. As I attended meetings and read email traffic it seemed to me that the campaign’s mixture of careful management, vague and modest goal setting, and the absence of more ‘radical’ development campaigners meant that it could not fail. The public end-point of Enough Food If was a very bland event in Hyde Park that had minimal impact on the G8 and largely celebrated the extremely modest efforts of global leaders to ‘put global hunger on the agenda’, often in ways that were strongly wedded to the mind-set and strategising of global food corporations.


The casualty of Enough Food If’s securitising of success was politics. The political dynamics of the coalition campaign were replaced by choreographed consensus building, managerialism, and an ongoing (almost therapeutic) celebration narrative about how energising coalition work was and how exciting celebrity endorsement was.


Fear of Failure and securitising success deplete politics. Let us consider (more briefly) other examples which reveal other dynamics that serve the same goals. I have already written about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Here we see a political project that seems immune to failure in spite of a frankly awful record of success. This is also something I have researched, thank you for asking. R2P’s fundamental aim is to reduce and perhaps even abolish large scale mass atrocity events such as civil war, crimes against humanity and genocide. My research on R2P started with a case study-focussed analysis of mass violence in African states that has taken place since R2P has been in some sense active (since 2005). In all cases, R2P had made negligible impact in reducing mass violence. This is a plain fact as anyone who looks in any detail at Libya, Darfur, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, northern Nigeria, or the Central African Republic will recognise. Not that you would suppose this was the case from the broader public discourses of those who champion R2P. These discourse move within a securitised success bandwidth: the high frequencies of ‘historic progress’ and low frequencies of ‘valuable lesson learned for the future’. R2P is fail-proofed.


Fail-proofing is a go-to device for projects of grand liberal idealism. It is being deployed this month by the United Nations as it shifts its global development agenda from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – which were not achieved – to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which appear to be less achievable and more numerous. In the fail-proofing discourse, the MDGs have made ‘significant progress’ and the setting of the SDGs by the UN will improve upon them, redouble global efforts and, I dare say, set up another round of success based on heavily glossed accounts of progress and a determinedly prospective vision in which what matters is not what just happened but what might happen in the brave new world of liberal capitalist progress. Does this sound cynical? Very likely, but again, this is based on some research of the detail and I think it is a fair representation. The SDGs securitise a success narrative for the MDGs by claiming to build on them without taking a full account of specifically what they achieved.


So, the securitisation of success in development campaigning led to a shallow politics of moderate and vague goal-setting. The securitisation of success in two major global political projects is built on an encompassing determination to look towards the future and repeat a narrative of incremental success that seems almost without end for as long as initiatives can be neatly overlain upon each other like comfort blankets for the politically anxious.


If this blog was read by more people, I would say ‘many will disagree with the way I have represented these case studies’. There are certainly bones of contention in there. Luckily for me, I have some longer pieces that set it all out in more detail and it is my job to engage with all of the rich pluralism that emerges out of academic research. What is motivating this blog, however, is my sense of discomfort with the fear of failure and securitisation of success. My point is a normative one: I think fear of failure can be politically damaging.


So far, you might suppose that fear of failure is political progress. You might say something like: ‘all of these political movements are generally good things and they need to keep motivated and being successful is part of that.’ Here I want to stress again that success can be politically depleting and conservative. I want to bring in another example here that is rather timely: Jeremy Corbyn’s winning of the Labour Party leadership election. You may have read about this in one of our wonderful national newspapers.


As with many Western countries, British political parties have become supreme securitisers of success. The rise of centralised party machines, the rolling out of media-friendly messaging to all party spokespeople, and the use of various technologies that supposedly maximise the electoral appeal of parties with less and less attention to policy content (what Tony Benn called the shift from parties as signposts to weathervanes – except actually parties conform to the prevailing winds that they themselves generated) have all made the Conservatives and New Labour organisations that are driven by a fear of failure, a desire to secure success at any cost and based in a considerable adversity for risk-taking. It is this reflex that is so wonderfully satirised in Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It.


This context is palpable in the Labour Party, even though Corbyn’s victory spread well beyond the ‘£3 membership’ that scrambled to support him. Right from his election to leadership MPs have been resigning before a new shadow cabinet was formed, New Labour spokespeople have offered lukewarm endorsement and stressed the need for ‘moderation’, the pro-Labour media have been remarkably consistent in producing hostile copy concerning Corbyn’s ‘extremism’.


There are all sorts of explanations for this but one salient part of the explanation is that the intellectual milieu that has produced New Labour has done so through a securitisation of the party and that securitisation is threatened by Corbyn. This is thoroughly depressing because, if one looks at Corbyn’s core policies, they look like a combination of long-standing, humane, and often popular reclamations of social democracy. The ingrained fear of failure within the party feeds Blairite hostility to a perceived ‘old-fashioned’ Labour even as the party enjoys a great flush of political energy – energy that is difficult to manage, that generates more unpredictability. Herein I think we can see the pernicious effects of a fear of failure, a pivot when the ordinary concerns of political movements to be successful turns into something that shuts down the essence of politics itself: an ability to span the gap between the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will. And, surely it is better to combine political ambition with some degree of risk and to accept that failure is part of politics itself. Samuel Beckett’s adage on the absurdity of existence and the creative process might be a useful antidote for those driven by fear of failure: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

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