!Sensitive & serious strategy tips for heroic activists

Do have a strategy i.e. a detailed plan of action to achieve concrete goals! Take your activism extremely seriously. ‘Spontaneous revolutions’ are a myth i.e. it turns out that these revolutions are always guided by highly organised rebels. Where mass protests or movements are completely spontaneous and without any strategy, they often die off quickly, unless some kind of plan is quickly developed. Spontaneous protests are great, but how can you harness their energy, before it dies off, or turns to violence and is repressed, or is co-opted and subverted by corporate or established political interests, however progressive they may appear to be? Be assured that your ‘enemies’ or their institutions will have tried and tested strategies and tactics to deal with activists, campaigns and social movements, so don’t fall victim to these! Your strategy should counter and account for theirs. It is good to detest war, but we can learn from military examples. A military general would not take their army to war without systematically learning everything they could about their enemy and how to win against them. Remember, the climate, ecological, humanitarian and underlying economic crises are a matter of increasing genocide and ecocide. Let’s get serious! (But also, let’s get sensitive). [hard strategy element]

Define the basic terms and language of your activism clearly and accessibly to the general population, and creatively expand definitions. For instance, consider having a fluid conception of the term ‘activist’.Ideally, most of society could be classed as ‘activist’, if only we could convince everyone of their value in fighting for what they believe in. Many people are engaged in this fight without considering themselves ‘activists’. [balanced element]

Don’t over-strategise! (Out of fear.) Know when to give less attention to structure and planning, and more attention to spontaneity, movement and momentum. (Thanks for the reminder Daphnee) [hard strategy element]

Know yourself as an activist. What stage are you at and where could you be most useful? Do you feel able to work within an existing group, organisation or movement?If not, are you really sure?Perhaps it is personal psychological insecurity / unresolved issues rather than a genuine lack of alignment that is preventing you from working with a pre-existing group? If you are sure you want to go it alone, what impact do you intend to have?If you want to start a new group, organisation, or movement, do you have the friends / skills to achieve this?Alternatively, perhaps you consider your role to be a free-floating supporter and magnifier of existing movements, groups and campaigns, whether you do your amplifying work face to face or on digital media [soft strategy element]

Know the difference between Grand Strategy, campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods. This classic book by Gene Sharp is a good place to start. [hard strategy element]

Don’t think that you don’t have good ideas on strategy! The best strategies are crowdsourced. [soft strategy element]

Learn to discern between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ strategy elements, or yang and yin. Hard does not equate with strong and soft does not equate with weak.In fact, over the long term of an activist campaign or movement, it is the so-called ‘soft’ strategy elements which are likely to sustain it the most. Learn to appreciate when you have too much hard or too much soft in your strategising and strategy. All strategy elements will have a ratio of soft to hard in them. The soft / hard categorisations in this list are my own subjective choices [soft strategy element]

Emergent strategy covers a range of soft strategy elements. It is advisable to become familiar with the classic text on soft strategy, ‘Emergent Strategy‘ by Adrienne Maree Brown.From the book: ‘Emergent strategies are ways for humans to practice complexity and grow the future through relatively simple interactions’. [soft strategy elements]

Have an understanding of the pivotal importance of non-violent direct action (NVDA) and mass participation civil disobedience to achieve the radical social changes that we need to see across the world to respond to ongoing planetary crises, including the climate crisis. Since 1988 when James Hansen first warned the US government about anthropogenic climate change, over 30 years of conventional political campaigning, petitioning, marching, protesting, lobbying and Green politics has failed to stop greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from rising. This is why direct action must be central to all activism moving forward -history shows that mass civil disobedience can work, where other methods have failed. [hard strategy element]

Do not throw the baby out with the bath water, regarding conventional activism. Everything and everyone is interconnected. We can only move forward to a new changed reality by utilising every existing element in our favour. Thus, although direct action should be central to any serious global movement for radical societal change, other ‘softer’ forms of activism can still be useful and complementary. The best strategy looks to incrementally gather support from all quarters of society, or as many as possible. [hard strategy element]

Use tactical diversity. According to research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, the most successful social movements for regime change have been the most tactically diverse. This means that any overarching strategy must allow for and encourage tactical diversity on the ground. Tactics can in turn be employed by a huge diversity of tried and tested methods, and plenty of untested ones. See Gene Sharp’s famous 198 Methods of Non-Violent Action for some ideas. There are many methods not included on Gene’s list. [hard strategy element]

Have a laugh! Use humour in your tactics. This can be at the expense of your adversaries.’Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon’ said the community organiser Saul Alinsky, on page 128 of his classic, Rules For Radicals. A social movement that is famous for using humour, including ridicule, is Otpor. [balanced element]

Critical connections are more important than critical mass. (A. M. Brown). Many successful activist organisations and groups were started by a very small group of friends who knew each other very well and trusted one another. [soft strategy element]

Avoid cliquiness, especially in initiatory / founding groups of orgs or movements. Cliquiness is a barrier to the application of a strategy of mass mobilisation. [soft strategy element]

Do not be afraid of leadership, initiation, co-ordination, or facilitation. Make it strictly boundaried and accountable where it has to exist. Lead yourself and encourage others to lead themselves. If you are part of a social movement, let it be leaderful! The leaderless social movement or revolution is a myth. Balance horizontal organising with fluid and temporary vertical organising when the situation calls for it, but beware the cult of leadership! Every group, organisation or movement needs founders or initiators. [hard strategy element]

Beware the cult of leadership! Don’t let initiators of activist organisations and movements own and direct those orgs and movements, or become entrenched spokespeople or dominators of strategy, however nice or charismatic or clever or well-researched in strategy they are. The wisdom of the crowd is greater than the wisdom of one on strategy, however much of a specialist that one appears to be, and no-one is perfect, so faults in the one that has too much power will be magnified disproportionately and have a disproportionately negative effect on the org or movement that the one purports to lead. Beware the manufacture of leaders by lazy and simplistic journalists and media platforms -keep relative control of your org / movement narratives! [hard strategy element]

Low barriers to inclusion in your groups and organisations are essential. [hard strategy element]

Orientate your strategy to an ecosystem of theories of change, but don’t take that ecosystem too seriously or rigidly.

Don’t confuse your (possibly romantic) vision of global systems change(s) with what is strategically possible. We owe it to everyone to make concrete advances towards emancipatory strategic goals. ‘Fighting’ willy-nilly against an adversary just because it is morally the right thing to do, without a deeper consideration of realistic strategic objectives, can actually be counter-productive and obstruct serious social movements from making gains. Additionally, don’t aim too high, or too high too soon.

Timing is important.

Know the difference between an organisation and a movement, and between organising and mobilising.

Don’t take the ‘3.5% rule’ too narrowly.

Use scenario planning in a specific, boundaried way and don’t let that detract from a realistic strategy responsive to currently unfolding events.

Know the difference between regime change and systems change.

What do you personally mean by global systems change(s)? Make sure you are working to a definition that is intelligible to others in your group / movement.

Improve your propositional / logical thinking and research skills. See through media spin, and critically analyse deeper deliberate or unconscious media narratives and other narratives that serve ruling elites -including some CEO’s and bankers- but also don’t be co-opted by totalising conspiritual ‘conspiracy narratives’ that encourage you to ‘come to your own conclusions’ by rejecting logical thinking to link together disparate emotive events and facts that have been presented to you as related, for obscured and potentially right wing anti-globalist ends. Seek out anti-globalist narratives which are intelligent, scientific, and directed by social justice. Encourage others away from dodgy narratives and towards narratives of global systems change(s) to post-capitalism.

Become aware of the cognitive function of narrative thinking. Become aware of when you are using narrative thinking in a strategically useful way, and when you are not. Become aware of the cultural narratives that may have co-opted and disintegrated your life and your mental health. This will be highly person- and context- specific.

Beware falsely siloed and polarised, tribal and memetic narratives and identities, manipulated if not created by social media companies and Big Tech. These narratives and identities divide our capacities for collective strategising and civil disobedience. 

Be less of a fairy-tale consumerist, keep getting back to Nature and mend some broken stories -this will help ground your activist strategy.

If you are privileged enough, develop a conscious activist life strategy. By ‘activist life strategy’ I refer to the unconscious or conscious strategies, tactics and practices that we use to move forward in our lives towards the strategic activist ends that we wish to see, such as achieving targets of social and environmental justice within the movements we are involved in, in a way which simultaneously meets our requirements as holistic human beings. These requirements include our need for balanced lives in respect of our homes, families, communities and our overall well-being -including the prevention or mitigation of ‘activist burn-out’. Do this in a way which supports the less privileged. Travel outside of your comfort zone.

Develop an understanding of ‘narrative integration’ as potentially key to strategic goals, as well featuring in the means to achieve those goals.

Use narrative thinking in the important work of the creative envisioning of global systems change(s), as well as scenario planning; include the envisioning of realistic pathways as opposed to just utopian end-states, important though those visions may be for keeping us emotionally engaged with our activism.

Be the best a heroine can be.

Celebrate victories and anniversaries!

Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist

One thought on “!Sensitive & serious strategy tips for heroic activists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s