!Sensitive & serious strategy tips for heroic activists

This post is constantly evolving. It may be messy in places, but use it! I will keep it topical by updating it regularly with links to current world events. I will also link to my video interviews with activists where I think it might be helpful. I’m facilitating the emergence of an activist community on YouTube here. In time I will consult specific activists for authorial / editorial contributions for this post, working towards a co-authored post dominated by the global south.

It will be obvious from reading this extended post that I lean to the Left politically, but as much as possible I have tried to make these strategy tips accessible to a variety of people from across the political spectrum (excluding the Far Right and those on the Far Left who don’t think twice about taking innocent human lives).

A strategy is ‘a plan that is intended to achieve a particular purpose’. Strategy is also ‘the process of planning something or putting a plan into operation in a skillful way’. Strategies include tactics within them. A tactic is ‘the particular method(s) you use to achieve something’ -including to achieve a strategy.

An activist is, for the purposes of this post, ‘a person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organization with particular aims’.

For every strategy tip below, at least six approaches could be borne in mind:

  1. The strategy tip can be applied to NVDA or mass civil disobedience.
  2. The strategy tip can be applied to conventional activism including legal protest, political campaigning / NGO-type activism / activism as education etc.
  3. The strategy tip can be applied to a dual, combined or ‘meta’ strategy of different groups, including where one or more are using civil disobedience and one or more are using conventional activism.
  4. The strategy tip can be applied to the meta strategy of a broad, society-wide ‘movement of movements’ (MoM) for a significant regime change or deeper systems change.
  5. The strategy tip can be applied to localised partnerships of activists and activist groups, with the purpose of furthering social or political change in their locality (a localised MoM which could also contribute to a society-wide or global MoM).
  6. The strategy tip can be applied to the processes of ‘dual power’ -creating a new society, including governmental structures, in the shell of the old (without asking for permission from the state). This includes application to localised contexts.

1. Activism is a matter of life and death! Take your activism extremely seriously and develop international perspectives.

Women of the Civil Disobedience Movement against the February 2021 #MilitaryCoupInMyanmar

I hate war, but I also see that there is a great deal of useful advice to be found in military strategy texts, when they are applied to non-violent activism. Sun Tzu, in the Chinese military classic The Art of War said: ‘War is…a road to survival and extinction’. In war, if you get it wrong, you die. In activism, if we continue to get it wrong, other people and living beings will continue to die, and ultimately the human species could be at risk of extinction. If we are indigenous people defending our lands against States and corporations, or if we are trying to reclaim democracy from a military coup, our lives may be directly at risk right now. Even if we are engaging in conventional, non-confrontational activism, for instance campaigning for political candidates within existing local governmental structures, we could still bear in mind that the political and social impacts of all our actions have a global, if sometimes subtle, reach, affecting the life chances and even the mortality of people we have never met or even thought about. The globe is irrevocably interconnected like never before, and even a potentially de-globalised future will hopefully nevertheless be an internationalist one.

It is far easier to determine the wrong reasons for engaging in activism, rather than the right ones. The wrong reasons would include:

  • Being an activist because it’s cool (or because we look cool doing it on Instagram). There is nothing wrong with feeling ‘cool’ whilst doing activism or political organising, and having an appealing image can help a cause -the problem comes when the image is the prime motivation.
  • Joining a social movement primarily to use it as a ‘security blanket’ for hard times, without actively developing ourselves as activists and therefore developing the movement (helping it to move). We have to want to win!
  • Conversely, doing it only because we are sure we will win -for the sake of an easy victory. We must be active even when victory is not assured.
  • Doing it only because ‘it is the right thing to do’, hoping to be carried forward on a wave of moral righteousness, with no thought of strategy (see 2. below). Even if there is a clear moral imperative to act, that doesn’t give us any special protections, status or guaranteed victory as activists. In fact, a clear moral imperative to act makes it all the more important that we develop our strategy carefully to maximise our chances of success.

Additionally we must consider carefully if ‘activism’ is for us, and if so, what kind of activism, and what kind of role within any activist group we may be involved with. We have to consider carefully what kind of sacrifices, in terms of well-being, job options and freedom we may be prepared to make, considering such factors as our general health before beginning, and the potential impact on our families.

2. Do have a strategy i.e. a detailed plan of action to achieve concrete (let’s say granite!) goals.

I have fond memories of attending a Theatre of the Oppressed event at this community hub in Bristol, UK

Whether we are focused on the modest (but potentially challenging) aim of saving our local community centre from closure, or initiating a campaign to start or develop a society-wide revolution -we need to get organised and get ‘strategised’! Some activists are afraid of developing plans of action and the human organisations needed to implement and sustain them, because these imply the responsibility of leadership (or if we don’t like that word or concept, then ‘facilitation’, ‘co-ordination’ or ‘organisation’).

Where mass protests or movements are relatively spontaneous and without strategy, they often die off quickly -unless some kind of plan is developed. Spontaneous protests are necessary and often play important catalysing roles, but alone they are not enough. The energy of spontaneous rebellion must be harnessed in a structured way before it dies off, or turns to impotent violence and is repressed, or is co-opted and subverted by corporate or established political interests, however progressive they may appear to be.

Many people have heard of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that occurred across the Middle East in the 2010’s, but not so many people are aware of the strategising -or lack thereof- that affected their success. As recounted in chapter 10 of This Is An Uprising, after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the original student organisers fully admitted that they committed a strategic blunder in not having a grassroots democratic organisation or plan ready to fill the power vacuum left by the departing President Mubarak. It is one thing to take to the streets and another thing to facilitate a peaceful democratic transition. As a result, elections were dominated in 2011 by the highly organised Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Morsi, once he gained power attempted to introduce measures and ‘reforms’ largely seen to be undemocratic. If plans for establishing or improving democracy are not thorough enough, anti-democratic opportunists will jump through the loopholes with potentially disastrous consequences. In response to Morsi, protestors were forced to take to the streets in massive numbers for the second time in two years.

Moreover our ‘enemies’ or their protective institutions (including state governments) will have tried and tested strategies and tactics to deal with activists, campaigns and social movements, so we mustn’t be complacent! These can vary in severity, including the passing of regressive anti-protest laws, as we have recently seen in the UK and around the world. Activist strategy must constantly counter and account for the strategy of the opposition, as well as what we know to be their basic resources and capabilities. Again, with reluctance 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. On the global level, the climate, ecological, humanitarian and underlying political and economic crises are a matter of increasing genocide and ecocide, so we need to get serious. (We also need to get sensitive).

Even if our activism is around narrow localised issues, these intersect with larger global crises. It’s a good idea to plan around these intersections. Saving our community centre today may be useless if unaddressed wider forces are likely to shut it down tomorrow.

‘Going with the flow’ in the context of activism is generally not an option; ‘the flow’ is by default heavily controlled by the opposition, including the oppositional culture that exists around us in contrast to the form and often the very essence of our activism. On a basic level we must also not confuse tactics for strategies and think that we are being strategic when employing isolated tactics, even when these have some immediate success. Tactics without overarching strategies to cohere and direct them may only provide short-term symbolic victories. We owe it to our causes to do better. For instance, the tactic of holding up placards and banners to raise awareness of an issue is fine as a tactic, but quite useless in achieving concrete (or granite!) change by itself, without a larger strategy including specific goals. Otherwise, the benefit could be little more than ‘feeling good’ or mildly irritating those in power.

3. Beware of over-strategising (or mis-strategising)!

Click on the image for more insights on how not to over-strategise (over-plan)

As we can infer from over-planning / obsessing around matters in our personal lives, over-strategising can prevent us from seeing activist / revolutionary opportunities for growth and success that are in some ways constantly unfolding all around us. This is related to the importance of designing flexibility into our strategising (see 9. below). Three factors that can drive ‘over-strategising’ are:

  1. Fear of failure / the unknown; trying to account for every possible scenario by over-detailed planning i.e. trying to entirely control the future, which just isn’t possible. The best we can do is design plans that are responsive to change, and train ourselves to be as aware as possible of the ecological and societal changes going on around us all the time.
  2. Not understanding what strategising is. For instance, writing out a detailed vision of what you want to happen is envisioning, not the strategising needed to achieve the vision or a more realistic stepping stone towards the vision.
  3. Lack of intel. i.e. information on boundaries to effective action: boundaries provided by political, economic, social, technological, legal and ecological (PESTLE) factors. A lack of information on these constantly changing factors can result in us developing meticulous plans of action that have no bearing on what is possible in the real world.

Moreover, ‘the more you plan, the more attached you become to your plan. And when you become too attached to the plan, you become inflexible. And then you tend to become frustrated and give up when the plan doesn’t go just as you imagined it.’ (Erin Gobler).

4. Be hopeless but realistically optimistic (!)

One of Extinction Rebellion’s well-known slogans

There are many problems with ‘hoping’ that things will ‘turn out okay’ in any given situation, let alone society-wide ecological, socio-economic and political crises. Fundamentally, ‘hope’ is often in place of action, disempowering to oneself and others. Hope also often implies a misplaced trust or faith in political leaders, be they local, national or global, to sort out problems which they have no track record in sorting out. It is likely that the problem, whatever it is, partly came about through a lack of democratic, accountable government in the first place. Hence the need for activism.

Similarly, assuming or hoping that ‘the market’ and its ‘invisible hand’ will remedy worsening ecological crises can now only be seen as blind neoliberal dogmatism in denial of the truth. Regardless of whether or not it is possible to have some form of ecologically sustainable functional capitalism, conservatives, liberals and leftists can all agree that unchecked globalised ‘neoliberalism’ is not working and is indeed undermining the foundations of modern civilisation (whether we agree with those foundations is another matter).

Inappropriate hope is woven into false narratives peddled to us by entrenched corporate and neoliberal interests, including the mainstream global media, to dissuade us from challenging their hegemony. Techno-utopianism is perhaps one of the worst of these narratives, having us believe that (corporatised) technological progress, without the revolutionising of economic systems and end of profit-for-profit’s-sake, will avert or reverse the climate and ecological crises and moreover improve everyone’s standard of living.

Hope is death to any serious strategy. At the extreme end, to totally rely on hope or indeed a passive faith in ‘God’ or ‘The Universe’, would be to have no strategy for social or political change. Any strategy for social or political change must be both realistic and thorough enough that there is no room in it for assuming or hoping that certain outcomes will occur. It is a sloppy or incomplete strategy that relies on certain responses from any human (re)actors or potential (re)actors within / to the strategy, or that relies on any other material outcomes. It is fine to demand the impossible, but demanding the impossible does not negate having as thorough strategy as possible to effect change.

Once we have a thorough (enough) strategy, we can pray as much as we like for a good outcome (hopefully without too much attachment to that outcome.) A thorough but flexible and reflexive strategy should also acknowledge that history is often driven by unpredictable ‘black swan’ events. We can’t strategise for black swans but we can be alert to their existence and therefore potentially pounce on them in an agile way, leveraging them through reflexive ways of organising. I will devote a whole strategy tip to black swans below…

While we cannot predict human variables for the future, geophysical and climactic futures can be systematically and successfully predicted, just as some climate models have predicted the current state of our climate. Any activism, for any cause, has to factor in geophysical realities and reasonable geophysical predictions. See 6. below.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will is in this article contextualised. ‘Determinism vs free will’ is a related debate, including ‘Marxist determinism’. Even the determinists should abandon hope in favour of action…

Active hope, from Joanna Macy, will also be investigated here.

Unprecedented crises always throw up unprecedented responses and solutions, heroines and heroes. It is reasonable to suppose that the global climate and ecological crisis, perhaps the gravest threat ever faced by humanity, will give rise to the most extraordinary achievements and activism ever birthed; even global revolutionary change. But let us not hope for it.

Rational / pragmatic optimism is good, but not if it compromises a hard, workable strategy for change.

5. Develop & be guided by shared visions of the ideal society you are working for, & a shared strategic vision of (systems) change with other social & political activists, groups & movements.

Click on the image to learn from your youngers…

Whatever the injustice you are fighting, however small or big, if you examine it and the way you are fighting it, you will often find that it reflects your own assumptions and aspirations regarding the ideal human society that you would like to see achieved in the world (or at least in your neighbourhood)…in other words, the kind of society that would not allow the injustice you are fighting against. If you are fighting for different causes which on some level contradict each other, which is very possible in our stratified and siloed modern society -arguably a result of the divisive nature of neoliberal capitalism- then you need to check your underlying assumptions or vision of the kind of world you would like to live in, which may be undeveloped. You may have to spend time envisioning a society -thinking about it, imagining it, researching it and ideally representing it artistically, which ties together the causes you are fighting for, or at least harmonises them.

The more you can discuss your visions and co-envision within your local communities and activist groups, the stronger and easier will be your strategising in those communities and groups, including the setting of granite i.e. concrete strategic aims. This envisioning work is necessarily an artistic endeavour but it must be grounded in science. See 6. below. A vision that is scientifically unviable only applies to the world of fiction.

Shared visions of change should inform shared strategic visions of change, which in turn should guide highly practical even if only remotely achievable strategic aims (or Grand Strategic Aims for larger groups, see 9. below). Also be clear on whether your initial vision is of an end result of change, or the process to achieve that change, or both. Change is both a verb and a noun, and it’s possible you may be hazily moving between the different definitions (I know have!) without realising it. Inspecificity of vision will only lead to ineffective strategising [link].

(Shared) visions of change, (shared) strategic visions, and the strategic aims themselves, are three separate things. To confuse them is death to any serious strategy.

To bring this discussion into the real world, it is very promising that Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK named the first of their 10 principles as ‘Shared Vision of Change’. However, the apparent lack of follow through on this from the movement would appear to belie a lack of insight that shared vision needs to be addressed very seriously and strategically. In simple terms, it is counter-productive and a waste of energy to have various activist groups and movements acting at odds with one another, when they could potentially align in at least some of their strategic objectives, since they often share at least some elements in their visions of a just world.

Albeit from my armchair, I would suggest that the strategic way to apply shared vision for any activist, cause, or movement, (including for XR in the UK, see below) might be as follows (with a few caveats, A. This is a just a sketch, open to improvement, B. I’m thinking big, but I suggest you could apply this on as small a scale as you like, and C. I’m not implying this stuff is easy):

  • We could begin by defining a strategic envisioning process thus: i) a shared envisioning exercises(s), including artistic but grounded in science, across diverse groups in society (or just in your neighbourhood), defined by the desired end result of change(s) (the noun) that everyone ultimately wishes to see (whether in their back yards or the whole world) could lead to ii) a broad consensus on some key elements of this end result of change(s) that many or most of us want to see, which could in turn open up iii) a strategic envisioning exercises(s) shared across the same or similar diverse groups focused on possible broad steps 1,2,3 i.e. change as a verb, towards those agreed elements (elements could require unique steps to achieve them or share steps with other elements, or a mixture) leading to iv) the specific setting of practical, achievable (if only remotely) strategic aims and strategies to reach them, by different groups in a mutually complementary way, i.e. to ‘share the work’ to attain or more realistically, significantly work towards the elements of ii).
  • Note that i) above would ideally be preceded by a co-education drive, where all the consulted voices could insist on X, Y and Z being learnt by all other consulted voices, about their perspectives / history, before engaging in this whole ‘shared vision’ process i.e. an insistence on a baseline of empathy and mutual understanding before beginning.
  • Note that as a significant preliminary to iii) a reflexive ecosystem of theories of change needs to be considered by all parties. See 8. below.
  • Note that any or all steps i) to iv) may invoke concepts of ‘systems change’. See 7. below.
  • Note that the process i) to iv) itself would be subject to discussion, scrutiny and improvement across diverse groups to start with, before deciding on it and going ahead.
  • What intelligent, reflexive, open source computer software could facilitate the process i) to iv) above (or something like it)?

In a little more detail, once adopted the steps of the process could go something like this:

  • i) A shared vision implies the act of sharing. Groups could somehow democratically gather the visions of the people they comprise and represent, including the co-created visions of small envisioning circles within the larger groups. Visions of all consultees -including unaffiliated individuals as well as groups -could somehow democratically be made available to all, perhaps even to people who chose not to be consulted at first. This first step could be open-ended regardless of the progression of steps ii) to iv). At the large scale of society, this first step in itself could constitute a regenerative movement of the Arts, as well as the beginning of an activist meta-strategy. All envisioning must take into account the unequivocal geophysics of anthropogenic climate change, including what cannot be undone. The maximum diversity and number of individuals / groups as possible must be consulted, excluding groups that have historically excluded other groups on discriminatory bases, such as those on the far right. Note: if you are campaigning to save your village hall and are envisioning simply your ideal village hall, that means sharing the envisioning process with everyone who could conceivably want to use the hall, (not everyone else in the world).
  • ii) At the neighbourhood level, right up to the global level, whatever envisioned elements of change may be agreed upon, some big questions to work through would include 1. How would the elements that weren’t agreed upon be addressed? 2. How would ‘agreement’ on certain elements be defined and refined? 3. Could steps i) and ii) be repeated, perhaps indefinitely in a way that more consensus about key elements could eventually be reached, without negating the need to move on with steps iii) and iv) in the meantime? 4. Once agreed upon elements were defined, would it be necessary to collectively discern underlying systems (for instance technological infrastructures, economies, political structures and social conventions) that would need to change and /or converge in certain ways to achieve consensus elements?
  • iii) Some questions to work through for this step would include 1. How could good literacy regarding a reflexive ecosystem of theories of change (see strategy tip 8. below) be achieved for (or at least comprehensively offered to) all participants in the envisioning>strategy process? 2. How serious; how practical should be this stage of ‘shared strategic envisioning’ of possible steps to reach the various consensus elements of change arrived at in step ii)? Dependent on the information available, should shared processes of strategic envisioning attempt to be strictly practical, or retain a highly artistic / expressive component, as in step i)? 3. Exactly how could individuals and groups be encouraged to work together in conceiving broad strategic steps to reach (at least towards) the consensus elements?
  • iv) In terms of shared strategising, this step could be the beginning of the crunch, where it could all start to come together. Different groups and organisations / movements, and smaller direct action affinity groups (AGs) within those, could between them agree upon differing but overlapping and complementary areas of influence and strategic targets to focus upon, in a way so that the strategic whole made up a collective progression of victories towards the various strategic aims focused upon by the various groups, without any one aim being the exclusive domain of any one group. The achievement of these aims would also achieve, or be a step towards achieving, the consensus envisioned elements of ii) and iii). (There must be a better way of expressing all this. I will find it…) This, to me, is the true meaning of a ‘movement of movements'(MoM). Some activities not directly related to the achievement of core aims by any one group could nevertheless play significant movement-building roles, such as mass street protests on broad issues involving as many participants as possible. It would be up to each and every group to do the tricky work of conceiving thorough strategies to achieve their specific adopted aims, whilst constantly liaising with the wider MoM. This would of course be messy, and mistakes as well as gains would be made. We can only learn by trying. Note: in any social or political movement for significant change, mass civil disobedience will likely play a central role. This doesn’t mean that all groups must engage in civil disobedience for a cd-centric strategy to succeed.

Applying this envisioning and shared strategy process to XR, the only group I have so far had significant involvement with, (including being arrested for direct action a couple of times) might go like this:

  • i) XR could build upon the connections it has already made with Black Lives Matter, Stop The Maangamizi and others, to co-facilitate a deep listening process to all sectors of society, particularly those represented by activists of all kinds. The aim would not be to convince everyone of the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis (which seems to have been XR’s main ‘recruitment’ approach so far) but to genuinely ask all demographics, ‘What is most important to you? What are you fighting for? What world would you like to live in?’ The responses of many BIPOC folk and also working class folk may not prioritise the climate, but that doesn’t mean that their preferred causes and the cause of XR could not be conjoined for the benefit of all. All issues of systemic oppression are interlinked to climate and ecocide, afterall.
  • ii) XR would probably have to ‘bracket off’ its current 3 Demands and other strategic aims, for the purpose of this new wider envisioning and strategising process. This would not mean abandoning the current XR strategy; it would be the beginning of a new strategy project which could feed into and temper XR’s current strategy on an ongoing basis. In fact if XR merely applied the steps i) to iv) detailed above, internally with its own activists, I believe it could provide fresh strategic insight and direction. Moreover If direct democracy and citizens’ assemblies featured as an element in many diverse individuals’ and groups’ visions of change, XR would do well to consider re-framing its third demand (without having to significantly alter its first two) as a demand for national citizens’ assemblies by sortition to address all injustices.
  • iii) According to the theory of change (ToC) of XR, significant social and political change (such as that demanded by the climate and ecological crisis) is only achieved by groups who employ arrestable mass civil disobedience to fill police cells (or jails) and prisons and thus overwhelm governments into accepting activists’ demands. However, no-one has a monopoly on strategy (that includes professional strategists as a group) on how social and political change occur. Many experienced commentators as well as ordinary activists have made obvious points about the shortfall in XR’s interpretation of the literature on how and why civil disobedience works. This criticism includes that most cases of successful mass civil disobedience have dealt with short term threats, tangible and immediate gains in rights, and the removal of dictators, not issues as complex as the global climate and biodiversity loss in which we are all implicated. However, it is by consulting people deeply and widely, from a variety of demographics and activist groups and movements, about the steps they believe would be needed to achieve the elements of societal (or even local) change that they desire, that XR would really learn its strategic place in a wider MoM (and guess what? It’s not only folk in XR who have studied social and political change). Civil disobedience is likely to be central, but how and when is open to debate, as are the specific demands made by activist groups like XR (are they too narrow, for instance?) Moreover there are more ways of overwhelming governmental infrastructures than blocking up the prisons and courts (what about mass strike action and what about crippling the mainstream media?). An ecosystem of theories of change (see 8. below) needs developing to inform this stage of the envisioning-strategising process, to achieve the MoM XR has formally stated it desires.
  • iv) Now we get down to the nitty-gritty. Going deeply and strategically into XR’s first principle of ‘shared vision of change’, after following steps similar to i) to iii) above, could result in an escalating MoM (founded on a deep and genuine sharing) with bigger teeth than XR currently bites with. Assuming a civil-disobedience centred meta-strategy, we can speculate that some other activist groups dominated by the white middle-class (as XR is) would be happy to join XR Rebels in the sacrifice of arrest, but in a very conscious way of being arrested on behalf of the less privileged. A more privilege-conscious arrest tactic, inter-linked with other tactics and strategies employed by other groups within the MoM could ironically draw some less privileged people to arrestable civil disobedience. We can further speculate that strike actions currently employed by the working class and middle class workers over pay and working conditions could cohere and escalate, when facilitated as part of an envisioning-strategising process, by a movement like XR which already has a relatively strong position (in the UK). Strike actions, potentially leading towards a general strike, simultaneously over climate, ecology, and neoliberal economic policies and with specific labour-led demands, could mirror escalating civil disobedience on the streets to cripple governmental infrastructures from two angles. Meanwhile, groups not focused on arrestable civil disobedience could nevertheless get some of their demands met by the civilly disobedient, in liaison with them, whilst also pursuing their own complementary campaigns involving more conventional activist tactics. Being white and relatively inexperienced in engaging with folk from BIPOC communities, I feel it’s not my place to comment on how a group like, for instance, Black Lives Matter could fit into this scenario, but I have faith that steps i) to iii) would deliver practical results in step iv). When it comes to how XR’s key aims and demands could change as a result of this whole process, that is to be worked out…

Deeply shared strategising in this way, based on sharing our visions of change, does not only make strategic sense. It is in fact a moral and ethical imperative to democratically account for a maximum diversity of voices in any group or action we are involved with and in any associated strategising. Our actions impact society as a whole, and our groups’ and movements’ actions even more so. If our actions or groups harbour narrow perspectives or privileged strategies with many and specific barriers to inclusion, potentially harmful to unconsciously or consciously excluded minorities or oppressed groups…then our activism is limited in its success and harmful in some of its consequences.

6. Get some good climate science & figure the climate and ecological crises into all your activism, in two ways.

Mitigation and adaptation.

7. If you want systems change, know what you mean by ‘systems change’.

Otherwise, the term can be very counter-productive. Which systems? Do you mean the result of the change of the process of the change, or both? Research what different folk mean by ‘systems change’.

8. Operate by a reflexive ecosystem of theories of change.

9. Know the difference between Grand Strategy (GS), campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods.

This classic book by Gene Sharp is a good place to start. More to be added soon, including regarding momentum-driven organising and the examples of XR and Social Ecology, and the relation of strategy and tactics to minimum, transitional and maximum programmes for change. Implies leadership by consent.

10. Have an optimistic-realistic and clearly defined strategic aim(s) or Grand Strategic aim.

With reference to Glasgow COP.

Including, don’t confuse your (possibly romantic) vision of global systems change(s) with what is strategically possible. (See 4. above) 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. Wishy-washy aims will produce wishy-washy movements. On the other hand, a ‘utopian’ long-term vision / aim, not time-bound or bound by current situations / resources, but made possible by the incremental strategy of the current context, is essential.

11. Check your privilege & decolonise your mind

12. Don’t be limited by ‘realism’.

Gay marriage rights, This Is An Uprising, p 89 ‘rather than being based on calculating realism…’

13. Know the difference between the necessary and the sufficient.

A series of statements in context, to demonstrate.

14. Develop minimum, transitional & ultimate demands & aims, & co-ordinate these between groups & movements.

15. Make a friend of chaos. Chaos is fertile.

Social and political movements are messy.

16. 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.

17. Critical connections are as, if not more important than critical mass when growing social and political movements.

Including, anarchism and horizontal organising do not remove the needs for trust and rich personal relationships and activist connections. Also, critical cross-movement and global connections. connecting struggles through individuals. Also, ignoring critical connections is bad as the critical connections can sometimes be bad…Stalin’s rise to poweretc

(Can happen in a bad way too -Priti Pathel and Rupert Murdoch). 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]

18. Know the difference between social and political movements, and know that both are needed.

19. Power exists; deal with it! Balance between ‘leadership’ and horizontal organising, including democratically sourced strategy & autonomous affinity groups (AG’s).

This could be the issue that makes or breaks your activist group, organisation or movement, as it has made or broken many others. If you are a communalist, like I am, or if you are an anarchist, you will always be looking towards abolishing all social and political hierarchies, and therefore initiating and growing groups and movements that are as decentralised and horizontally organised as possible. Even if you are a centrist or mildly right wing, if you’ve read the corporately biased book The Starfish and the Spider you will appreciate that it is decentralised and to an extent non-hierarchical businesses and organisations that have often had the competitive edge. (This doesn’t mean everything in an organisation has to be decentralised). Types of decentralisation…cultural, political, strategic etc Make sure that ‘decentralisation’ isn’t done in a way which looks like ‘centralisation’. Best way is to be fully decentralised / locally autonomous as soon as you have more than a handful of people involved. Strategic success requires tactically diverse AGs who are also not predictable by the enemy…Beware the tyranny of structurelessness…

20. Cultivate leadership but not the cult of leaders.

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. Bookchin quote…And beware the media!!! Therefore power must be institutionalised in directly democratic structures, but movements for social and political change must also be leaderful, so that leadership and social / activist innovation are also institutionalised / held accountable / prevented from becoming entrenched, but encouraged to the extent that we need a passionate diversity of leadership and experimentation to achieve social and political change in current societies…Leaderfulness Also, 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! Have leaderful movements but avoid the cult of personality (Otpor, This Is An Uprising, 68-69.)

21. 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 thewisdom 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 onthe org or movement that the one purportsto 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]

22. Don’t rely on professional strategists (but do listen to them).

Including, we live in unprecedented and of course unique times, and we need unprecedented change…we don’t know what will work. And Black Swan events partly drive history. And no-one has a monopoly on startegy or even a complete understanding of reality / global data…therefore as Taleb says, the wisdom of the crowd is always greater than that of the individual…many people have good ideas on startegy or would have given basic strategic literacy.

23. Ensure strategic literacy across your groups and movements -share your knowledge on strategy.

(For instance, you could discuss these strategy tips with all your members). For larger groups, consider developing strategic literacy workshops to ensure that the whole group / movement remains strategically fertile.

24. Institutionalise an ongoing democratic strategy-forming process

but ‘allow’ some actions outside of the strategy.

25. Don’t misuse or misunderstand the term ‘diversity of tactics’.

A) It doesn’t justify wanton / unstrategic destruction / viilence

B) It doesn’t justify ‘everyone doing their own thing’ without strategic co-ordination (thanks Joel).

26. Balance symbolic and instrumental demands and know when to use both.

119-120 This Is An Uprising. Movement demands are rarely purely symbolic or purely instrumental / practical

Symbolic wins can precede concrete wins, such as case of Salt March, MLK and potentially XR after symbolic wins of declarations of climate emergency and non-binding citizens’ climate assembly.

Know how to declare & frame, minor and major victories.

Gandhi and ‘the minimum consistent with the truth’.

Set targets publicly and achieve them.

This Is An Uprising..page 135

Be for, as much as against.

In the absence of alternatives, stopping an injustice will not stop the injustice occurring again.

Define the pillars of power held by the enemy & strategise to attack / influence all the pillars simultaneously.

(start top page 92 This Is An Uprising)

Make sure your strategy is flexible, but not too flexible.

As more people join your group, there will be more collective experience and insight to contribute to the development of strategy.

Different stages and domains of a growing group / movement may require different forms of organisation and decision-making.

e.g. holacracy could suit a rapidly growing movement but not a stabilising / consolidating one

Balance between organisation and mobilisation in cycles of momentum-driven organising.

Page 96 This Is An Uprising

Balance between acting to mobilise, and mobilising to act

XR example -both have been used.

Be a heroine.

(Non-hierarchy doesn’t mean no hero quest, despite colonialist, patriarchal etc myths) Self-development, risk, vitality…socio-eroticism.

A strategy is more than just the sum of its tactics.

More needed, including regenerative cultures.

Build international solidarity and be intersectional about it.

Don’t sacrifice the global struggle to identity politics.

Define the basic terms and language of your activism and campaigns clearly and accessibly.

to the general population, and creatively expand definitions. Don’t assume people know what you are talking about. 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’. This is not about goals and demands, but basic language. And diverse language!

Move the Overton window and generate Idea Counterpower for change

what its position is and how to shift it…as it shifts a movement’s stragey can evolve, e.g. XR helped shift Overton window and now uses glass breaking, whereas at the start of XR this wouldn’t have been so acceptable. Tim Gee on Idea Counterpower

Know some history, but don’t sacrifice the present to the past.

Link to NVDA database. Part of Heller’s CRITICAL PHASE.

Get to a more real history

e.g. Claudette Colvin before Rosa Parks

Know the present (info and intelligence gathering).

Study war strategy seriously -then subvert it..

Study business, management and marketing strategy seriously -then subvert it.

Study ‘personal development’ industry strategy -then subvert it.

Employ PESTLE.

Divisiveness is unavoidable and boundaried anger is okay.

ACT UP! history

  • Practice non-linear and iterative strategy
  • Don’t sacrifice all spontaneity and urgency
  • Make your strategy reflexive to ‘black swans’. Historical examples of unexpected ‘black swan’ events include…
  • Integrate Deep and Transformative Adaptation approaches, but beware how groups / communities / businesses / organisations can use these frameworks to reinforce themselves at the expense of others.
  • 240-241 This Is… Black Bloc, mostly white young men, are an insult to strategy…but they must be planned for
  • Polarisation tactic (has XR used it wisely?) Know WHEN and HOW to use polarisation and balance with transitional concensus.
  • Brainstorm dilemna actions, from history, and imagined.
  • This Is…p150 ‘A common misconception…’
  • Sharp’s political jiu jitsu, expand, including luring large forces to the wrong place
  • How to start a group (link to Activist Handbook) DIVERSE founding group with DIVERSE and always expandin / refining P&V. I will use XR’s P&V as a guide, and expand.
  • Understand the centrality of mass participation civil disobedience in social (and political, Bookchin-Chaia’s qualification) change.
  • Disruption is essential
  • Sacrifice is essential to inspire public and strike fear in foe…disruption PLUS sacrifice is ideal.
  • Escalate carefully and not too soon or too late!! (for systems change, slowly in some places, more quickly in others)
  • Reframe the global struggle up to this historicl point.
  • Use non-violent DISCIPLINE, but don’t judge aggressive or violent protest when it erupts. (Burning station to the ground after George Floyd, polled well in America) Context is everything.
  • Levels and types of non-violence -build resources for solidarity and movements, not for arguments and division. Gnadhi ‘to use violence is to co-operate with the government’ but this doen’t cover covert sabotage.
  • 237-238 This Is An Uprising, peripheral violence at marches not useful, but are there counter-examples? Look at successful disciplined actions of the Shell 7…and Money Rebellion moving forward. Need to distinguish between undisciplend and disciplined propety damage / sabotage
  • Importance of lynchpin / bottleneck actions
  • This Is An….Rqdical violent flank or threat of violnec could have use, look at Black Panthers-MLK dynamic.
  • This Is… non-violent discipline across a movement is not easy and needs frontloaded training / culture
  • 242-243 This Is… performative vioence and agent provocateurs…beat them with disciplined non-violence.
  • 244-245: Learn from the failure of the Weathermen…
  • Even if not working strategically with other groups, include all groups and movements in your vision, because they exist…e.g. support covert sabotage even as an overt non-violent movement that doesn’t use sabotage….be aware of the eco-syste of activism (an important part of intel) however make sure boundaries are clear –
  • Be wary of working with strong, established, structured orgs, however radical they purport to be…they have a lot to lose, are not agile in the face of opportunity and revolutionary change and may be an obstruction to our goals (especially if they hierarcgical / dominated by a few minds)… This Is…page 255…they may be useful in early days for recruitment / prmotion etc and in later days but don’t count on them…
  • ‘mixing civil disobedience and monkey-wrenching is suicidal’ Judi Bari, but that was a moment of history, surely it depends on the discipline, and where the Overton window is at, and clear boundaries between groups performing different functions.
  • p261 This is…’when it comes to mass upheaval…activity’
  • p262 ‘When mass mobilisations…to flourish’.
  • Ends don’t justify means.
  • This Is…278, ‘A healthy movement ecology…from this history’
  • Practising getting in and out…
  • Winning over the army could be easier than winning over the police 93-94 This Is an Uprising
  • 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] ToC: mass civil disobedience essential for significant social change -but what about truly political change?
  • 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] Tactical diversity does not mean violence!
  • 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]
  • 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]
  • 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.
  • Timing is important.
  • Look at factors in successful businesses as examples of social entities in the wider environment, and competitors with enemies [2x approaches to learning from businesses])
  • Know the difference between an organisation and a movement, and between organising and mobilising.
  • Don’t take the ‘3.5% rule’ too narrowly: ‘…the victorious [movements] uniformly fostered broad-based public sympathy.’ p109 This Is An Uprising…Also expansion of theory, what is 3.5% of global population, and of internet users…?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Employ the regenerative action cycle.
  • 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.
  • Don’t assume you will live to see your aims achieved.
  • Be the best a heroine can be.
  • Celebrate victories and anniversaries!
Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist

2 thoughts on “!Sensitive & serious strategy tips for heroic activists

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