Update 25/4/21:the ‘Shell 7’ have been acquitted by jury, despite the judge stating ‘they have no defense in law’. This is a huge vindication of the strategy of the Shell 7 actions, which has resulted in significant press coverage and a proof of public support for activists who challenge governments’ and corporations’ inaction on the climate crisis-even to the extent of careful property damage.
Simon, along with six other committed activists, including Ian Bray, another XR co-founder, intended to cause at least £6000 worth of damage in order to get their case heard -and then hopefully acquitted, at the Crown Court in London. The first stage of their plan has worked -from tomorrow, April 12th 2021, the ‘Shell 7’ will appear at the Crown Court to start their ten day trial. If this trial gets enough media attention, and especially if the Shell 7 are acquitted, this could be a key nail amongst many in the coffin of this multinational which has willful deceit and complicity in murder, at the core of its policy and practice.
I watched the window smashing action on some news channel or other. I was involved in the initial Extinction Rebellion (XR) bridge blocks of November 2018 but for mental health reasons was not involved in the big London shutdown of April 2019. The destruction of property caused by the Shell 7 at such a symbolic location at the start of two weeks of peaceful Rebellion in London (resulting in over 1000 arrests) was a demonstration of tactical (although risky) brilliance. I reasoned that the wider more peaceful approach of XR -which had not generally so far involved smashing windows- would cushion with a halo this one more ‘aggressive’ action at Shell’s London HQ, giving a particular moral pertinence to it. In other words, the effectiveness of the Shell 7 action was co-creative with and relied upon the discipline of non-violence and even peacefulness displayed by thousands of XR activists during their taking of the London streets (as it turned out, on several occasions)…mass actions which involved no destruction of property. The recent smashing of a window of a branch of Barclay’s Bank by Gail Bradbrook, as part of the launch of XR’s Money Rebellion is a different tactical turn, in a different time and strategic context to the early days of XR, and much called for.
Recently I have been discussing with an American friend the difference between strategic and moral non-violence in mass social and political movements for change. My friend prefers the latter approach, from a Gandhian perspective. However with an action like that of the Shell 7, I would argue that moral and strategic non-violence are synthesised. The Shell action’s timing to kick off the April 2019 Rebellion in a passionate way, with that isolated display of ‘destruction’, was both strategically and symbolically appropriate (risking media and public backlash which turned out to be relatively minor). It was not completely non-violent by the Gandhian moral standard, but nevertheless it drew attention to the moral acceptability of the more peaceful two week rebellion that followed. The wish to cause £6000 plus worth of damage was an added tactical intent within the internal logic of the action itself, the tactical result of which is about to unfold.
Had the Shell action been performed in the middle or even at the end of the XR April 2019 Rebellion, I believe the impact in terms of media and public opinion could have been disastrous. To kick the Rebellion off, it turned out to be perfect. It is no accident that one of the Shell 7, Simon, was a key co-ordinator in the Actions and Logistics team of XR for the first mass actions in the UK.
One of my most pleasurable interviews, despite the poor internet connection, was with Lubem Gena, the media person for Extinction Rebellion Nigeria (yes, XR moves in Nigeria too).
The video below is Lubem observing one minute of silence for Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight members of the ‘Ogoni Nine’ who were executed by the Nigerian government with the complicity of the Shell Corporation.
For the sake of the Ogoni Nine and a habitable planet for human beings and a continued diversity of other species, please, support the Shell Seven and follow their trial which begins tomorrow. Write about it, shout about it, do arrestable actions in support of it…please do whatever you can.
End the #MilitaryCoupInMyanmar, because the persecuted Rohingya are likely to suffer even more under the junta than they did under the National League for Democracy (NLD). My interview with Yasmin Ullah, a Canadian Rohingya exile, goes into more depth (full interview linked underneath the clip below):
End the military coup, because over 200 protestors have been shot dead and over 1000 detained to date (unconfirmed). End the coup because my new friend Nway, a medical student from near Mandalay, fears for her own life and the lives of her family, and because many young people like her are without a future as long as the junta remain in power (full interview linked underneath the highlight clip):
I began to interview Myanmese people of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against the coup that began in February 2021, not just to do my tiny part to raise awareness but to develop my broader service to global activism and post-capitalism. I strongly hold the view that ever peaceful movement for social change -including civil disobedience against military dictatorships- has lessons to teach us for the advancement of the strategy of every movement for global systems change. By ‘global systems change’, I mean a transition, broadly, to localised and internationalist post-capitalist societies.
The work of learning from movements of civil disobedience cannot only be done on an objective level, for instance reasoning out what may or may not be working for the CDM in Myanmar. The only way forward is to engage emotionally with the Myanmese people, offering what limited support we can from outside the country, to their urgent practical situation. Fighting the corner of historically oppressed ethnic minorities in Myanmar is especially important.
I hope it will be possible for us in the global north and west, as well as around the world, to help the Myanmese advance strategically as well as learn from any strategy they may be deploying. This recent article by two Myanmese journalists seems to give a good strategic overview.
It is difficult to get information from Myanmar since the junta repeatedly cut off access to the internet and have recently revoked the licenses of five indie media outlets in the country.
However via Twitter and other platforms I will continue to reach out, to support and to learn. I personally believe there is hope and strategic insight to be gained from focusing on the border zones of Myanmar with neighbouring countries such as Thailand.
While I have a vision of a post-capitalist future, meanwhile I realise that every struggle against military patriarchy and towards at least some form of democracy must be supported. People are dying right now.
Moreover, it is more than conceivable that with the worsening climate crisis, formerly democratic but increasingly autocratic and eco-fascistic governments will take to the use of military force against their own peoples, imposing extreme austerity the likes of which most of us have never seen or experienced, rather than make the difficult structural and cultural changes needed to variously transform and put to rest the corporate-capitalist forces which are destroying a habitable Earth.
We don’t just have a duty to raise awareness of injustices around the world, with a view to ending them; our greater duty could be to learn from them, for the liberation of all of us.
Vanessa Nakate, graduate from the Makerere University Business School in Kampala, Uganda, made the BBC’s ‘Top 100 women’ list of 2020 and perhaps more prestigiously, Time magazine’s ‘Next 100’ most influential people of 2021 (linked article written by Greta Thunberg).
Vanessa is a prominent climate and climate justice activist, and her younger sisters Joan & Clare are proving to become just as active on feminist issues. Their love for their sister clearly came through in this interview I did for Epic Tomorrows on YouTube, part of a weekly series I am recording on an ongoing basis with Joan & Clare:
Joan & Clare’s ambition for the Rise Up Movement which Vanessa started, comes through clearly in this 50 second teaser clip of a longer interview yet to be released by Epic Tomorrows. Joan and Clare now have official roles in the Rise Up Movement of International Co-ordinator and Evaluation Officer respectively.
Listening to Vanessa’s contribution to a recent WIRED UK debate -about the climate injustice faced both by people living on the African continent and more specifically, African girls and women, I was both inspired and surprised. I was inspired, because clearly the forceful and insightful leadership of women like Vanessa is much needed in these times of Transition to post-capitalism (or if you don’t agree with that, to something other than the horrific neo-liberal capitalism which perpetuates and magnifies all social and ecological injustice).
I was surprised, because I didn’t expect to hear Vanessa talking about reducing population growth on the African continent as a response to the climate crisis. As a middle-class white guy from the affluent UK, I understand that for me to talk about population reduction globally could be easily interpreted as eco-fascism, as often those who do advocate population reduction measures have an agenda of protecting their own wasteful (including in terms of C02 emissions) lifestyles at the expense of poorer nations. Halving consumption in the richest nations would do more to curb carbon emissions, afterall, than halving the population of the African continent over the coming few decades, even accounting for the economic growth of ‘developing’ nations. More information here.
I am sensitive to the the issues of climate injustice faced by girls and women in Uganda and in Africa more generally. Joan and Clare, and now Vanessa, have drawn my attention to these, including:
Agriculture forms a significant part of most African economies, including Uganda. Increased water and food instability across the continent due to climate change (including both longer droughts and heavier rainfall), results in women and girls in the rural areas having to strive harder. Women and girls are responsible for much of the water and food provision as well as agricultural work for profit. Effects on their work and well-being include having to walk longer distances to collect water, thus being at greater risk of gender-based violence i.e. opportunistic attacks, including from impoverished armed groups who are also made more desperate by the worsening climate crisis.
Girls being sold off to much older husbands i.e. child marriage, because it is the only way that some impoverished families feel they can survive, after repeated crop failures and food instability due to climate change.
More pressure on girls to help at home due to water and food instability means that they drop out of school, or never go to school in the first place. This has a detrimental effect on their future career prospects and the general empowerment of girls and women in a capitalist society.
Below is a short highlight clip of Clare explaining some of these issues and more:
It is sometimes hard for me to reconcile climate justice activism and feminist activism from the global south with my own perspective on global justice, when the empowerment of girls and women seems often to be advocated through capitalist mechanisms. It is arguable that these mechanisms were instrumental in climate injustice and patriarchy in the first place.
I am fundamentally anti-capitalist or more pragmatically you could say ‘post-capitalist’ as I understand that, short of a sudden global and bloody revolution (which is the last thing I want) capitalism has to be Transitioned away from, progressively over the coming decades. Localised markets could still exist in my best-case scenario for the future, but not the overarching ‘global free market’ which currently governs human culture at the expense of life and well-being.
Mass civil disobedience in the global north will have to be one of the driving factors of the Transition.
So in the meantime, I support every effort by climate justice and feminist activists from Uganda, the African continent and indeed the entire ‘global south’, if it means that those in the industrialised north are increasingly forced to face the consequences of their turning poorer nations -and women and girls in particular from those nations- into ecological and human sacrificial zones.
Just as I came towards the end of writing this post I heard via Twitter that Vanessa Nakate bravely went off script at an international event where she was invited to speak:
More power to Vanessa Nakate, and more power to Joan and Clare.
I feel passionately about every video in my YouTube channel highlights playlist:
The first video in the playlist (above) is a rare occasion when I showed anger against ‘the authorities.’ This is footage of me disrupting a council meeting in Charlottetown, PEI, Canada, when I visited in November 2019. In a sense this was a kind of anniversary of me taking part in the disruption of London, when as part of the first mass actions of Extinction Rebellion, I did my small part to help block the city’s bridges (see header image above).
A few days previous to the Charlottetown City Hall action above, I attended the Remembrance Day ceremonies with my partner Daphnee Azoulay. I hate war and the deceitful, colonialist pomp that recalls the dead. Nevertheless on that day of remembrance I observed and took upon myself a vast lake of human feeling which I unleashed during the council meeting disruption. The theatrical action was successful in drawing attention to the climate and ecological emergency on PEI in that it made the front page of The Guardian -one of the island’s most-read newspapers. This impact wasn’t dependent on me getting arrested, which I stopped short of.
Daphnee had given me some emotional and practical coaching for the occasion which was advertised on Facebook as a ‘laugh in’. In the event I felt unable to laugh at the ridiculousness of the proceedings. Instead I burst into tears and anger.
I urge you, if you are feeling overwhelmed, upset or disrupted by the climate and ecological crisis, then break through your paralysis and do something expressive and disruptive to draw attention to it.
Sensitive strategy tip:
Well calculated disruptive actions can stop short of arrestable behaviour, and still make newspaper headlines. In Canada or the UK, you will usually get a warning before arrest. Play with the boundary between non-arrestable and arrestable behaviour and only get arrested if you think it’s truly useful to your cause, or as part of a concerted mass movement to fill jails. Play the long and epic game.
I am now talking to Stu Basden who is one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK. They have been involved from the very beginning in all kinds of capacities. I first met them at their house in Bristol when I saw an advert for a free vegan curry with some kind of chat about activism, which led to my brief involvement with the Bristol branch of the Rising Up! (RU!) group. RU! Members went on to found XR. First of all, Stu, could you explain how you got involved with XR, what your role was first of all, and what your journey has been from the beginning up until the present day, including different roles you may have taken since the start?
Sure…I am now sat in my caravan, which is parked outside the house that I used to live in, where we met. The same street where the cafe was [Cafe Connect] that the first XR meeting took place, before it was called XR…there were fifteen of us and we thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got a group here -let’s go big…’ So yeah…it is just down the road that history was made…
But maybe I’ll jump back a little bit to talk about my own journey. In 2006-7 I was studying philosophy and theology and saw all the problems in the world; justice issues etc and ‘liberation theology’ was something I was really taken by. It took me several years to find a path until 2012 when I got involved with the climate movement 350.org. I was living in Toronto at the time. We set up a local group and that became the next few years of my life, until 2015. I was very involved and became the president of the group. That was divestment fights and pipelines and all of that. Towards the end of my time there I thought, ‘There’s something missing; we need to do something bigger than this’. 350 was the big name on the block at the time. I just saw today that Bill McKibben is stepping back from his role at 350…
So I came to Europe, and travelled around Europe looking at different social movements, doing research into housing struggles in Spain, refugee struggles in Greece, anti-coal struggles in Germany and land defenses in France. Then I came across Rising Up! -this new group that was going to do an action to shut down Heathrow airport in London. I signed up for that, which was the first Rising Up! action. Then I signed up for a RU! intro training. That was Roger (Hallam), Simon (Bramwell), and Gail (Bradbrook), the three founders of Rising Up! that gave that training. Within a couple of days I was like, ‘I think I’m in. This is it! So I’ll move back to the UK… (where I’m from). Let’s do this. I like this vision. I like this strategy…a lot has been researched and laid out, so let’s see what happens’.
So I moved to Bristol and got the RU! group set up here. We spent a couple of years developing infrastructure, like the tech, but more importantly the principles and values, strategy and vision that were behind XR (XR was born from RU!). Something that really attracted me was the concept of iterations: that we’re not going to get anything right the first time, in fact we may never get it right, but we can try things, experiment, and then learn from it and do things slightly differently…pushing the boundaries of acceptable activism…to normalise non-violent civil disobedience, which is something we have had clear success with.
Great. Do you want to say more about the different roles you have taken within XR, including training roles?
Okay, so when we started XR we had 15 people, and we decided on the initial working groups (WG’s). I was initially one of the co-ordinators of the tech and infrastructure WG. I was also involved from the start in the Regenerative CulturesWG. At another point it was more or less me and Gail running the Media WG, which I wasn’t the most skilled at, so I was relieved when others took over. I also helped run lots of NVDA trainings, which partly became embedded in the ‘Heading For Extinction’ talk as well as in the XR ‘DNA’ trainings. I also ran some facilitation training. Last summer as XR was really growing around Europe I travelled around giving training. We gave trainings in 10 different countries including weekend-long trainings. We involved the whole kit: NVDA, XR DNA, facilitation instruction and some conflict resolution tips.
Early on I remember Simon Bramwell saying to me, we need more facilitators in our activism. So that was something I already enjoyed doing -running workshops and facilitating spaces…then I discovered a group facilitation leadership course, which was a year long course in Process Work. This has now led to a five year long intensive study programme on Process Work, looking at group facilitation and ‘how can we deal with these difficult dynamics that sometimes come in, and what actually is the process, in each moment? How can we really find the conversation that’s wanting to happen?’ We’ve got so many ways of avoiding and talking around, so let’s find ways to allow the difficult stuff to happen. That’s something that really excites me now.
From a personal perspective I’ve always seen you as a facilitator. I was impressed by your facilitation of one of the XR gatherings in London a few weeks previous to one of the big XR actions….I also know you’ve been an ‘actions’ person as well. Wasn’t it with RU!, previous to XR, when you were involved in an action that resulted in you being in prison for a week?
That’s right. That was a campaign about air pollution. [Stop Killing Londoners]. We went down to City Hall in London. We started off the week sitting in the street but the police weren’t arresting us, so we took to using chalk spray on London City Hall, graffiti-ing ‘Stop air pollution!’ and after about the third time of doing that, and going to the court and saying, ‘If you release us, we’re just going to do it again’ they said they had no choice but to send us to prison ‘on remand’ for a week. [My note: In the UK, being held ‘on remand’ refers to a temporary holding of ‘offenders’ – to prevent them getting into further mischief- until they are taken directly to court to deal with charges against them].
Did you do much reflecting during that time of how the prison experience might be different for people from different backgrounds? Were you all white middle class activists taking part in the action?
Yeah…maybe a few working class but most of us were middle class. Certainly the four of us who ended up in prison were all white, and it shocked me to see how much of the prison population was black -probably 80%. This was in HMP Thameside in East London. I was like, ‘This is incredible. How on Earth is this the case, that there is this much racial injustice going on?’ We stood out there. We were ‘strange people’. There were some really friendly people there, but we didn’t have much time. I was in a cell with another activist, Ian Bray. The people were like ‘Dude, you’re crazy, why didn’t you just run away?’ We said we wanted to get arrested and taken to prison and they were like, ‘Why would you want to get in here?!’ We replied, ‘We’re experimenting with this injustice system…trying to find out what would be the effect of us going to prison…will the media pick it up etc’
I’m not sure if many people realise that many of the tactics of civil disobedience used by XR were discovered during the experimentation of Rising Up! actions…So I was wondering if you could now explain how the 10 Principles and Values of XR came about?
So that was largely the work of Gail Bradbrook, as well as myself and one or two other people. There was another organisation that we pulled from, then we developed the P&V collaboratively, which is always a hard thing to do. I was responsible for the final wording of the P&V, including the ‘mitigating for power’ bit which has caused issues for being grammatically incorrect! But these are really Gail’s work. I was more of a wordsmith, to get the P&V together in a more coherent way. It took us years to work on them. There were several iterations. When we had that meeting with the 15 of us and said ‘okay yes, let’s go for it’ that was in April 2018, but 3 months earlier in January we had had another meeting where Roger Hallam had proposed, ‘Okay we’re ready, let’s go for it’ and I think at that point as a collective we said, ‘We’re not ready!’ and it was in those next 3 months that we really got those values down as we knew they were really important. That was a big part of my work for those 3 months, fine-tuning the wording and doing the longer write-ups of them. I think the longer write-ups are really important and they’re often skipped over. For instance, what it is to ‘mitigate for power’ and what it is to ‘welcome everyone and every part of everyone’; does that mean we welcome people who are intentionally disrupting the movement? Let’s get into the intracacies and not have these as blanket terms or even used sometimes to push people out or to wield power over other people. So we did our best at the time, and there’s all kinds of ripples that have come about due to things we skipped over, thinking, ‘Let’s just get something out’, you know, and there are other bits that I think have been upheld magnificently -because we put the work in initially.
I and many people appreciate the work you’ve done, but I also wonder how the P&V can be developed in the future, without damaging the work that’s been done and the coherency that they provide…can there be an ongoing collaborative evolution of the P&V? I guess different countries apply them in different ways already? I’m wary of anything becoming too set in stone.
They’re not the ten commandments, right? Anything that gets calcified or stuck will become unhealthy. That’s the nature of the changing reality that we live in. I guess one of the problems that we’ve encountered in XR is that there is no-one who has the mandate to change the P&V, and there are entangled issues around that, such as ‘What about the translation into other languages? Who are going to be the people to do this?’ I’m not sure how it’s possible [to change them now] as in many ways they are the glue that’s held the movement together so far. And you will always have people who are attached to the original. I’m not particularly attached to them but I think that they are good and serve a really good purpose.
Okay so rather than change the P&V maybe we need to encourage people to go more deeply into them, for instance having study groups on the P&V.
There have been public discussion sessions in the last few months, one on each P&V. They are about to start up again, exploring them week by week, a different one each week.
Okay great. Now I wonder if you could say something in general terms, about the way that the XR strategy has panned out? Do you think demanding the creation of citizens’ assemblies by the government to deal with the ecological and climate crisis, should still be the main strategic aim of XR?
Okay. The strategic aim of normalising civil disobedience has been central and successful. That was a really important aim in which we’ve succeeded. When it comes to XR’s demands there’s always the question of, should we have demands at all? Demands create some incoherence -to make a demand of somebody, in some sense, is a violent act. You’re demanding rather than asking or inviting. There’s an incongruence in the meaning around that. There’s also the problem of, when you make a demand, who are you making the demand of? If you say ‘We demand system change’, that’s a big enough thing that nobody can do it, whereas to demand something specific, can be too small to be big enough to change the world in the way we need. I think citizens’ assemblies are a great idea but they’re not the only political idea out there to improve democracy. Of course, we don’t live in a democracy now -we live in the shadow of a democracy. Electoral politics has been beaten by Cambridge Analytica and other ways of manipulating people on a mass scale. We know that psychological warfare and advertising are really effective at getting people to change their beliefs and behaviour. That’s being done at a manufactured scale now, so we can’t say that electoral politics is democracy even though those who are elected would love to say, ‘the only way to do democracy is through elections’. So what do we go to beyond that, is the question, and citizens’ assemblies are one possible way of doing that. I don’t know what else is out there but I believe there are other ways of doing it. It’s just not an area of XR that I’ve been involved with, discussing these things.
That’s a great response. I wonder if you could now respond to problems of leadership culture in our society which are bound to become issues in any social movement as well, as social movements are always in part a reflection of the surrounding culture, and how the media manufactures leaders, to an extent, and how XR has really fallen victim to that at points – perhaps certain people have been too prominent and perhaps still are too prominent- I wonder if you have anything to say about that and whether that’s getting better…is this issue more about efforts to decentralise within the movement, which I know are ongoing, or the tactic of the media to always go back to the same people to represent a movement? I admire and respect leading figures within XR but I would hope to see a more decentralised movement with more diverse voices platformed.
So…there’s probably many answers to that, and let me just try one…to talk about the high dream for humanity -the far reaching vision of where we could be, and we’re not there yet by any means, is to say that our lives are so meaningful, and so full, that we don’t need celebrities or leaders to project ourselves onto. When humanity is bored of projecting everything onto leaders and celebrities and politicians -then these people will be done away with. But until we get to that point, ‘leadership’ will be part of the reality we live in, that continues to cycle. It will change and it’s always changing. Since we are in this moment now where people feel like the meaning has been stripped away from their lives, and they’re feeling disempowered,and in many ways are disempowered, they’re going to look for other people to express things and do things which they don’t dare to do or which they don’t think they can do. So let me just pause and think about your question…
I’m not the biggest face of XR in any way. In fact I was intending to be a bit more of a public face. As we were preparing for the Rebellion last year, I thought ‘Oooh, a great way to be visually captivating, would be to dye my beard in all kinds of funky rainbow colours’ thinking that the media team would love it. I showed up in London with this bright beard, and the media team took a look at me, whispered a little bit and were like ‘Stu, you’re far too “hippie” to be in front of a camera. Don’t do a big spokesperson role this time’. So my life took a different direction because of a decision to dye my beard….
We’re always going to have these ‘leaders’ and leaders at this point in human history are important. We don’t want to be in a place where there is no leadership or a movement where there is no influence; when we talk about leadership we’re talking about influence and as a movement we want to influence the world. I think the struggles come when a person speaks for a larger group, who doesn’t contain all the voices of that group, therefore they’re marginalising part of the group and that part of the group is going to feel excluded and hurt and they’re going to be angry about it. We’re in this imperfect process called ‘life’ and that’s part of the nature of things. Can we do better…? Possibly, but then we need to do a lot of work around what it means to have and to access power and have influence. There has been a move to decentralise, but when Occupy! for instance, decentralised they did so too quickly and gave away the power of the movement, and got into endless general assemblies which never got anywhere and petered out in a few months. I think XR has done well as a social movement to hold things together this far. When someone comes along with the energy to make things decentralise, they get into a powerful position, as maybe they haven’t done years of work around ‘whiteness’ and anti-oppression and racism, so now they bring this other problem in of colonialism and reinforcing hierarchy. Whereas many of us who were in RU! from the start; we’ve done years of work on this. Gail Bradbrook is a good example of this. She has travelled around and learnt from many social justice movements. So do we want to take her voice away and accidentally give it away to someone who doesn’t understand whiteness and racism? Well I’m not sure.
There is a move to decentralise which is important, and to do it carefully, by people who can speak to diverse voices and be held accountable when they don’t. Some people with big positions in XR are doing that speaking, and some people aren’t doing it as well. There’s never going to be a clear answer on this. It’s always going to be something to ponder, work through and discuss. And do the work. To read the books around racism, and around strategy and tactics, and the psychology of media and messaging, whatever it is…we need people who are skilled up. I think a really important part of these times now, if you’re feeling disempowered, then find ways to skill up. If you’re in lockdown and you’re unable to go out and do the things and organise in the way that you want to, there’s loads of stuff online to read or watch….Certainly Black Lives Matter are calling for white people now, to do that more and more. I hope that white ears are hearing those voices. I’ve been telling people about this book, ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’. I was doing this for a year and a half before I realised, ‘Ah, I should probably read the book myself’ -There are no shortcuts here. We all need to do this work.
Thanks so much Stu, that was such an in-depth and broad answer to the question. I think I’ve got quite a superficial idea of decentralisation and why leadership issues arise, so I’ll be doing some more study.
Something to add is that when Standing Rock was happening and we had tens of thousands of people going to the camps and setting them up…I wasn’t there but I heard these stories of, you know, ‘So and so, the elder, has said…what we must do’, but then the question became, ‘Which elder? Under what authority are they an elder? Are they a hereditary chief? Or have they been installed by the Indian Actor some other thing? Whose community are they trusted by to say that they are an elder?’ One of the contradictions of white people doing anti-racism is that, yes we want to look first to those BIPOC voices, but ‘BIPOC’ is not one homogenous group that has one voice, so over time we have to develop our own analysis and our own understanding and have our own opinions which might at times disagree with people from those groups, or in those racial identities. How do we hold that? Saying, ‘I want to listen to you and really hear you, but I have developed my own analysis over time…I’m doing the work, but I hear your voice and don’t want to marginalise your voice.’
That’s a really important point. Otherwise, white people saying they want to centralise marginalised voices, without having a complex analysis of who they are to be saying that, becomes a patronising exercise. So moving on, I would like to talk about the article you wrote on Medium in January of 2019, ‘Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate’, the blog article which received tens of thousands of views, and which I was impressed by, at its accessibility despite its treatment of complex issues. I remember critics of XR using it as fodder on Facebook etc, saying ‘Look, see, they’re not all about the climate, they want to bring the whole system down!’ and some from XR responding with, ‘No, no, we are just a climate movement!’ -realising that those XR folk didn’t have a very deep analysis, basically.
One of the big regrets that I had about the article is that I didn’t explain its origins: it was in a group facilitation process about climate change, racism and colonialism, that I heard from a Black African woman, ‘Why would I want to get involved in the climate movement? When I’m being told that the climate movement is going to make solar panels for white people to be able to continue their exploitation, and that my continent, my land, my people have been exploited for the last 500 years. It’s built into my genetics that I’ve been fighting for the last 500 years’. I haven’t given credit to the way that this woman inspired me. She deserves the credit. She’s done a lot of emotional labour, to be able to say those things in that group, so one of my regrets was not to have centred her in my article, and to say that I feel such gratitude towards her, as so many people around the world have gained through my article, the clarity of analysis with which she spoke. That was the source that allowed this article to be written.
The other part was, after the bridges a lot of people were coming onboard to XR who hadn’t done the work around race and whiteness and were saying ‘this is a climate movement’ and of course we had intentionally talked about climate change and biodiversity loss, but then we didn’t anticipate that XR would get so big so quickly, it blew our minds (and bodies in many ways) and we didn’t have the trainings in place to talk about these larger underlying issues of anti-oppression and liberation and then I was seeing these people coming on board and saying these things, as if speaking for the movement; some decentralisation was great but people weren’t necessarily staying with the P&V of XR; a huge amount of energy was unleashed with an influx of new Rebels organising in a more decentralised way, but people were saying things which I judged to be racist. For instance ‘over-population is a problem. Look at all the brown people around the world. We need to stop birth rates in those countries’. Ouch! -you know? You get all these people talking about the climate and forgetting about the larger system that we’re involved in. So I’m glad that article did get written and did get picked up. I’m still getting weekly reports saying, ‘another 200 people this week have read the article all the way through’. At times that was thousands of people a week. I’ve not really written anything since, because it’s created such a big thing…maybe the next thing I write will be really big, but maybe it won’t be. I’ve been scared to write anything…but now I’m finally venturing out of my little cave of not writing.
I look forward to seeing what you will next make public.
It’s about the Amazon, and the Amazon being the lungs of the planet that are in danger and are very much being assaulted, and the indigenous peoples there are falling out of the global community. We need to step up and be alongside them and stop the onslaught that’s coming at them, and allow them to bring forth their wisdom about how do they look after this absolutely vital piece of the planet…It’s not just about preserving trees, it’s about preserving the tree keepers, who have patterns and knowledge about how the rest of us can also do restoration work around the world. It’s so vital and yet so threatened in this time.
What’s your perspective on XR’s ‘4th demand’ and how that’s coming about? Personally I think it’s very necessary movement building work. Maybe some people in XR have relied on the idea of mobilising without movement building first? Maybe if the language of the 4th demand, regarding climate justice and platforming historically oppressed groups, had been included from the start within the 3 demands, a highly signalled 4th demand wouldn’t now be necessary? Some people’s response to the whole 4th demand idea is that ‘we don’t need one because citizens’ assemblies are democratic and that’s what we’re arguing for’ but obviously that’s quite superficial.
Okay. I do think it is important to say that citizens’ assemblies are a way to bring in marginalised voices and give them a space. Behind that is the idea of deep democracy, valuing all voices. I am neither for nor against the 4th demand in any strong way -parts of me are going to be for it and parts against it. It’s complex. I don’t have a clear answer to it. I do have a concern that people might see it as ‘If we get a 4th demand that talks about justice, we can say, look at us, we are good white people. We’ve covered over our white guilt and we’re white saviours.’ That is a dynamic that’s present. It’s probably not present for everybody. Even if it is present it doesn’t mean that the 4th demand isn’t a good thing. Looking at what’s happening, it looks like the 4th demand is probably going to come into being in XR UK. There’s enough momentum behind it and it’s already there in several countries. Will it be adopted everywhere or will there be fights about it for years to come, I just don’t know. Like you said, if we had the language right in the first three demands and been more explicit about climate justice, that could have been better. I’ve found myself in a place where I just don’t know. I trust that those who are bringing this thing with such passion and momentum will be able to reflect on themselves and their own motivations, whether that includes ‘white guilt’ or other psychological complexes around being white.
Thanks for your openness and honesty about that. I haven’t done enough work around race and my own potential ‘white guilt’ and so on, and the concerns you’ve raised do resonate with me. Also I contacted my friend Chit Dubey, a co-founder of XR in India, assuming he would be for the 4th demand because he’s not white, forcing me to examine my unconscious racism. He is against the 4th demand, saying that XR are losing their focus and that ‘white people are obsessed with race’. I don’t quite know where that came from so I need to talk to him further.
My hope is that the people who are really trying to bring the 4th demand are not going to bring it and then stop there -they’ll take all of the energy, passion and drive, and do the work in groups together as white people -if they are white, and there are probably BIPOC people working on this as well- to go to the diasporic neighbourhoods of folk from diverse backgrounds and get into communication, have the conversations, build the trust across racial lines that have separated us for so long. It’s really comfortable in lots of ways to talk about a document and send lots of emails and have people’s assemblies but to actually get into groups where you don’t have the same accent or culture, and to get to know each other just as human beings -that is the work that I see as being really important. I also want to say, none of us have done enough work, right? It’s about keeping ourselves in a place of discomfort around this stuff, always looking for ways in which we can do more. Even that sentence, ‘looking for ways to do more’ doesn’t quite work for me! Sometimes it’s doing less but listening more…
Finally, what is exciting you now in your life? Perhaps you could talk more about the Process Work you have been engaged with and how that relates to your plans for the coming months?
Okay. I have been studying this stuff for three years and I still don’t quite know how to explain it. I think part of the issue there is that we have a language that is based on things in space, rather than processes. Everything is always in flow. I could describe a water bottle more accurately as something in the process of water bottling. It’s an active agent in this ONE process that is happening: the process that contains all the relationships between everything in the universe…Process Work is really exciting me. It’s based on Taoism; it draws from Jungian psychotherapy and core process oriented psychotherapy, it’s also called Process Science, and it’s based on quantum physics and some of the cosmology that is pushing the bounds of physicists who often retreat into equations because they haven’t got ways of talking about these things, when you can actually more accurately talk about myths to describe what happens in quantum physics, rather than normal scientific language. Process Work is drawing all of these things together -spirituality too- and asking, ‘What is the process that is happening?’ Something I’ve been playing with in my own thoughts recently is, one of the early discoveries of Process Work; things that happen in our dreams when we’re sleeping, also manifest in our bodies as bodily symptoms. So that it could be that you have a pain in your stomach and that you’ll be dreaming about fireworks. Then when you talk about your stomach you’ll get an image of explosions and you’ll go ‘Ah, this is the same process that’s happening; it’s just happening in different channels which are both the symptoms of a core process that’s trying to happen.
I was listening to Alan Watts the other day and he was talking about how the Earth is not just some rock that’s infested with humans and with life; the Earth is a geological entity that grows life. So life, and humans, are symptoms of the universe. Whatever this strange awareness process is, we are symptomatic of it. And just as a symptom in the body can also manifest as dreams or synchronicities in events around us or elements of relationships, the symptom that is ‘Stuart Basden’ is almost going to be teleporting around in various different ways -or the things that we commonly describe as Stuart Basden aren’t me in my body, but parts of something else jump into me to express themselves for a time, seconds or years, then they move on. I am in the living stage of life, but when I’m in the death stage of life, the information will still be there -nothing is ever lost. Information in the universe is never lost, as Stephen Hawkings has shown. ‘I’ will always continue…so let’s pay attention more to the process that’s happening in the moment, than the specifics of a conversation or social movement or whatever it is. There is always a dreaming reality behind what is going on. It’s invisible to us. Our eyes and ears can’t tell us directly but can pick up signals, but somehow these processes are happening.
What is exciting is doing a training, that allows me to get more in tune and to pick up the signals of the process of what is happening or is trying to happen even though what is manifest is sometimes trying to prevent it…if we can attune ourselves to what is trying to happen it will allow flow and allow us to enter into a flow of existence which will free up energy and possibilities that at the moment we can’t imagine, and we definitely need to get to places that we can’t imagine right now, to prevent human extinction within the next few decades…but maybe that extinction is what is meant to happen, but then we can trust that no information will be lost…in some ways it doesn’t really matter but in other ways it matters so much…there is something so miraculous about these bodies and about the world around us that is manifest, that putting all our intention and care into this world is a way of paying homage to it. I am deeply in love with life…It blows me away.
Really amazing…so when you talk about the essence of the Process Work being, getting in touch with the Core Process of what wants to happen, is that seen as a selfless thing that is trying to happen, or is it both selfless and of a self? Is it a combination of our personal unconsciouses, and also a universal unconscious? What is the concept of ‘God’ in Process Work or is there a kind of an agnostic perspective?
There’s a concept of the oneness, of the interconnectedness of everything which is the essence of everything, where there are no polarisations or dualisms, only relationship within a system in process. Then there is the ‘dreaming reality’ where there are the polarisations, and that’s where we have dream figures, or roles, or archetypes, we might say they are collective unconscious, or they are just in this ‘group’ or moment, while these figures inhabit us, and then there’s consensus reality -that’s the stuff that we agree on. Maybe a way to talk about this would be to say, ‘Here’s this plant: in consensus reality this plant is sorrel, a woodland plant. But then I could also talk about this plant as comforting. That’s not consensus reality, that’s the plant as it relates to me. Further from that, what is in the plant that is also in me, and in the entire universe? It’s up to us to investigate in each moment, what that is. I don’t know if there is God, or many gods. In some respects Process Work is a Nature religion. We talk about the Process having some kind of sentient essence.
Why aren’t we already naturally in touch with the maximum potential of each unfolding moment? What’s gone wrong?
I wouldn’t say anything’s gone wrong. This is the nature of the Process. Certainly we have all sorts of stories that come up that prevent us from being present in every moment and seeing what is happening in the process. That could be survival stories that we’ve had as children. It could be trauma, individual or intergenerational or collective, or species-wide, or even mammal trauma. How far does this go back? Life is trying to survive in a world where it always dies. So what are the things we’ve done to help us survive that were true in some circumstances which aren’t relevant now? It’s not just about survival but wholeness, seeing ourselves as the universe and including all parts.
Great, so how is Process Work informing your work with XR?
When coronavirus lockdown happened, everything I was organising was big summer gatherings for Rebels to come together and learn to be together…maybe have some conflict resolution processes and relationship processes…learning how to love and trust each other on a deeper level so that our work is more fluid and beautiful and enriching -that all stopped. So I thought this was a fantastic opportunity to not go deeper into XR but to skill up and go deeper into my private studies. I will probably come back into XR or another movement that has come by the time that I am ready to bring myself fully in….As for this summer and autumn, I’ve realised I’m more burnt out than I realised or have been admitting. Maybe I’ll turn up to the next Rebellion as a good soldier and get arrested a few times, I’m not sure. But the work of relating is always important and we’re always going to get into conflict. We’ll always have things that will jarr us as a movement or have tendencies to become rigid or calcified…or make us take sides and become polarised and fight things out. I’m not against this but if we stay there too long we’ll become divided and crumble, so we need ways to see the other side, not to oppress or marginalise any voice. The work I’m doing now is to facilitate and have those conversations, to create movements that are deeper and more trustful and stronger, and flow more easily…I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to bring myself fully back in, or even if I will…if I do it will probably be in a completely different way. My energy source for activism is close to depleted, so I have to find a new energy source and come in a new way. I’m not sure what that is yet. It’s important to say ‘I don’t know’.
And so ended the interview.This is me, Matthew, again. As an extra for YouTube, I did a little intro video to this interview. I’m reading from a script in the video, and it’s a bit messy, but I think I make some valuable points, so if you think you might like it, click here. (On my channel there’s also interviews with XR ‘founders’ in various countries around the world).
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 tomy 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).
For every strategy tip below, at least six approaches could be borne in mind:
The strategy tip can be applied to NVDA or mass civil disobedience.
The strategy tip can be applied to conventional activism including legal protest, political campaigning / NGO-type activism / activism as education etc.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 internationalistone.
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.
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 thesehave 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)!
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:
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.
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.
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 (!)
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.
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 bookby 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.
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.
This post is not aimed at the general public. This post is aimed at revolutionaries, ecopreneurs, sociologists, anyone who suffers from mental ill-health or who works in mental health, feminists of all kinds, political strategists, Transitioners, environmentalists and others who see the inevitability of the coming energy Descent to a more localised, resource-wise future the world over. Last but not least, this post is aimed at the Kurdish community and those who support the Kurdish experiment in radical direct democracy and feminism that is happening in northern Syria, and that is being threatened RIGHT NOW by an illegal and immoral invasion by the oppressive Turkish government of Afrin, in the Syrian north. Yes, Turkey’s invasion may be partly in response to America’s supposed (perhaps mis-stated) decision to support a Kurdish-led military presence on the northeast border between Syria and Turkey -although Afrin is in the northwest. Yes, of course, America supports the Kurds for its own geopolitical ends in the region, (not just ‘the defeat of ISIL’ which has been led by the Kurds); nevertheless, the Kurds, historically defensive as opposed to aggressive militarily, are once again the object of nation-state oppression.
In this post I hope to show that in the likely future of natural resource scarcity and hence more localised community and culture globally, experiments in self-governance such as that of the Kurds in northern Syria should be generally supported and studied, and could be key in our collective human future of a more grounded existence, within natural ecological limits and crucially free from patriarchy; a freedom the Kurds are making strides towards. Please note that a later version of this post will include more supporting references; right now I am working to a tight deadline.
‘The Kurdish Question’refers to the issue of political governance of the Kurds and their striving as an ethnic group towards independence over the years. The Kurds predominantly inhabit a region known as Kurdistan which currently has no international legal or political recognition. Kurdistan takes in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The history of the Kurds shows that the Kurds as a semi-nomadic people have achieved various levels of autonomy over the centuries in different parts of Kurdistan. However, despite international promises towards the cause of Kurdish sovereignty, since the 20th Century Kurdish moves towards self-determination have been beset by ruthless military and cultural oppression at the hands of all four of the nation states co-habiting with Kurdistan. In recent decades, Turkey has been particularly oppressive.
The situation in the region of Kurdistan as a whole is complex. For the purposes of this post I am just focusing on northern Syria. Since 2011 when the internationally manufactured ‘civil war’ in Syria began, the Kurds in the north have used the situation to their advantage, to break away from a historical narrative of oppression of their culture and people by the institution of the nation state. The ideological leader of the Kurds in Turkey and northern Syria, Abdullah Ocalan, from his solitary confinement in a Turkish prison, has argued that it is the nature of the nation state itself that has allowed the oppression of the Kurds. Although it would appear that the so-called Syrian ‘dictator’ Assad has treated the Kurds relatively well; nevertheless the northern Syrian experiment is a valid departure from and revolution against the -arguably unsustainable- nation state itself. It is in fact the aggressive institution of the nation state- particularly as modelled by America- that has invaded and broken up a Syria which was actually democratic and stable by Western standards.
Abdullah Ocalan was founder of the PKK in Turkey and Iraq, as a response against Turkish and Iraqi oppression and oppression in Kurdistan more generally. The PKK is still controversially classed as a ‘terrorist organisation’ by Turkey and its EU and US allies, although a ruling in a Belgian court in September of 2017 classed the PKK as engaging in an ‘armed campaign’ (akin to ‘freedom fighting’) as opposed to terrorism. Since the 1990’s, after reading the work of Murray Bookchin and others, from prison Ocalan underwent an ideological change which saw the PKK shift its focus from Marxist-Leninist to ‘democratic confederalist’. Ocalan builds on the Kurdish history of tribal and community decision-making to show that a so-called organised ‘anarchosocialist’ (anti-state) direct democracy model of governance, exercised from the street level upwards, is a preferable method of governance to a centralised state -whether capitalist or communist.
This model of democratic confederalism has been trialed in the so-called semi-autonomous zone of northern Syria for the last several years. The model as advocated by the staunch feminist Ocalan includes provision for all-women assemblies, all-women villages and safe houses for victims of domestic abuse. The model also includes the aim (purportedly realised on the ground) of achieving a minimum of 40% of a single gender in any elected assembly, and the provision of one woman and one man as a co-leadership of all democratic assemblies. Assemblies have proven to include all ethnicities in the Kurdish-dominated region, with Arabs and others working alongside Kurds. For more on the revolution in northern Syria see here and here.
It is particularly noteworthy that simultaneous to pioneering this promising method of feminist localised governance in the Middle East, with US support the Kurds of this region have successfully defeated so-called ‘ISIL’. (Let not the Western manufacture of ISIL detract from the corresponding reality of organised hateful jihadists on the ground which need defending against in realtime). All female Kurdish-led defense units of the YPJ have been key in this defeat.
I do not support war. Let me make that clear. Sometimes defensive actions seem unavoidable. The incredible thing about the revolution of northern Syria is that a model of equality, feminism and localisation (to a degree) has occurred amidst -perhaps because of- conditions of extreme military and patriarchal pressure, conflict and inequality; negatives arguably driven by forces implicit to the institution of the nation state.
Ecology, Earth Culture and Economics:
If democratic confederalism can work under such extreme conditions, perhaps it would be appropriate as a model to try in other regions around the world. Meanwhile, the Kurds and their local allies of Arabs and others in northern Syria, deserve our support.
Although the revolution in northern Syria purports to be ‘ecological’, in reality it is a war economy which does not currently allow deep and strategic conservation and biodiversity enhancement measures. Nevertheless, there is a present ecological awareness as integral to the literature of the revolution.
The Transition Movement and the work of Richard Heinberg in books such as Powerdown, have shown that future global society and culture will be increasingly localised, as increasing scarcity of natural resources, particularly oil, mean that vast, centralised economies and infrastructures will no longer be viable. The inevitable energy Descent that we face can either be negotiated in an easeful way (a gradual descent) or in a sudden and shocking way i.e. if we don’t adequately prepare for it. Localised polyculture food production will be central to the Descent.
Abdullah Ocalan’s work; specifically his Roots of Civilisationshows how the institution of the nation state, including its patriarchal nature, is implicit in social and environmental injustice worldwide, including the hegemony of a grossly wasteful US-led consumerist culture -enhanced by the US-dominated internet. Ocalan gives hope that democratic confederalism, or at least, let’s say some organic form of localised direct democracy including strong ecological and feminist elements, could be a widespread viable alternative. If the Descent is unavoidable, surely we should be ensuring that we don’t waste this culture-changing opportunity (and potential war-zone) in terms of feminism and social justice; not just to attempt to live ‘in a greater harmony’ with non-human culture and Earth culture as a whole as advocated by ‘Transitioners’. Specifically, integral to this harmony should be the explicit design of feminist and communal systems of locality-governance which ensure that patriarchy and cultural oppression don’t survive during and after the Descent. These systems of governance can nestle inside as well as ultimately challenge and negate centralised nation states. This is shown in the northern Syrian case, where some national infrastructure (at least administrative) is still used alongside the radically democracised one. The nation state, argued here as an obsolete, energy-wasteful and patriarchal super-structure, can be transcended during and after Descent, and allowed to peacefully decay.
For me, the role of ecopreneurs in the modern world is firstly to align with the Descent and secondly, if making profit, to redistribute wealth to ease the Descent for all. Thirdly, I suggest that ‘Descent ecopreneurs’ should have social and political justice at the forefront of their minds, and reflected in their staffing and any partnerships they make. Although there will naturally be many co-operative economies developing as part of the Descent, I think there is still an important place for innovating ecopreneurs to push forward radically equal and politically just structures and products which could propagate and support emergent localised systems of governance around the world.
Narratives of Cultural Whealth:
Ideally, as I implied in my previous post, ‘What is culture….?’ what happens after Descent is permaculture in the fullest sense of ‘permanent (i.e. deeply sustainable) human culture’. Mental health recovery must be a central focus in Descent and permaculture, and if the official field of Permaculture can develop a branch of social science to deepen its understanding of social currents and motivations, then so much the better.
The mental health of all of humanity is indirectly -and sometimes directly- related to the health of global non-human ecosystems. In ‘The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health’ John Schumaker further shows how urbanisation and degraded urban environments have a huge impact on mental health. But more than this; Schumaker shows how modern society itself has become pathological, except for some redemptive pockets that are few and far between. Reading Schumaker alongside Ocalan, it does not take too much of an intellectual leap to hypothesize quite reasonably that if social -including feminist- justice is designed into a gradual Descent / Transition to permaculture, then overall, a post-Descent world will look a lot better for human mental health than the pre-Descent one. This is even considering the change to low-consumption lifestyles we will have to make during Descent. Of course, modernity-related trauma is rife, or rather, trauma that has been made more prevalent because of the institutions of modernity (best exemplified perhaps, by the capitalist nation state). Thus, trauma release and mental health recovery will take a while; we will all be nursing our mental wounds long after Descent. Descent itself will produce additional trauma and mental illness, proportionate to how sudden it is. I hope that ecopreneurs will remain mindful of, and will even focus down on, the mental health dynamics of Descent.
Key to mental health is cultural empowerment. We must all feel able to comprehend and further influence the (now global) culture we live in. This comprehension and influence depends, in turn, on our power and agency as narrative-makers, story-tellers and engaged actors and audiences in and for the stories that are, hopefully consensually, told about us and to us. Even after Descent, it is hard to see how human culture will not remain global in some aspects. Indeed, global justice and cultural exchange should be tempered and refined dynamics after Descent; retaining the internet, somehow, could be very useful, if there is no possibility of centralised and corporate domination. Thus, the grand story of Descent that begins right now, and the post-Descent story of permaculture, must be interwoven by all of us in a way that also does justice to our very individual stories of trauma, joy, political oppression and cultural integration. And the grand stories must be livable.
Since the inception of the Transition Movement the power of positive story-telling about our collective futures has been key. Shaun Chamberlin developed this theme particularly well in The Transition Timeline. It had a big impact on me when I read it a few years back. Now I would like to see all of us develop this theme in a grand way which also does justice to all the various conscious and unconscious narratives we have lived by up until now, including considerations of feminism and social justice in general. If we do not fully admit into our consciousness as many narratives as we can, the light and the dark, then we may be derailed later by unexpected characters and plot turns in the grand future stories we are trying to manifest.
Now is the time of moving from confused global narratives towards more coherent and integrated localised ones. Globally however, our continued and remaining interconnection means that it is all our responsibilities to be involved in Descent on a global as well as a local level, if we are able. Otherwise, there is no telling what foreign conflicts may scupper local Descent plans. Certain regions, such as the Middle East, are particularly volatile. It would be wonderful if, as a species we could build on the suggestion of Abdullah Ocalan that the Middle Eastern region is calling for its own cultural Renaissance, akin to the European Renaissance. In conversation with the peoples of the Middle East, we can be inspired by the groundwork of the localised and feminist Kurdish-led governance of northern Syria. Within the context of such localised semi-anarchic power structures, where diverse ethnic tribes can work together, even remotely we can support inspiring possibilities for cultural transformation-in-Descent that draw on the rich biocultural heritage of the whole Middle Eastern region. The same can happen for all regions of the world.
Think of a golden influence spreading outwards from the Middle East in post-oil routes of culture and trade, bejewelled by the cultural traits of a thousand different ethnicities, intermeshing with an emergent vibrant global permaculture…
-It is the time of such great stories. We must live out these great stories; work hard for them, or not so hard, depending on what suits us. We must work to create the conditions for those who would be cultural heroes of the Descent; Transition prophets and messiahs of permaculture. We must nurture our children with this great Calling in mind.
This re-written post is a celebration of the 3 year anniversary of me beginning Epic Tomorrows, and the 2 year anniversary of me becoming involved with direct action civil disobedience, via Extinction Rebellion (XR). I originally published this first post of Epic Tomorrows on 30th October 2017, one year and one day before I attended the Declaration of Rebellion in Parliament Square in London which publicly began the international XR movement. On that day I shed tears as Greta Thunberg -who had travelled to the UK with her father Svante in an electric car- told me and the others assembled there, ‘It’s time to rebel!’ Regardless of the criticism that Greta has since received, and that she is sometimes co-opted by corporatist interests, I know from first-hand experience that she means very well.
When I first published this post I had a very intellectual -maybe even abstract- view of rebellion, ‘revolution’ and ‘global systems change’. Since then I think I have developed a slightly more practical approach, largely informed by my direct experience of NVDA (non-violent direct action) and civil disobedience with XR.
My approach has also developed some humanity, I hope, and interconnectedness with the approaches of others, as manifested in the Epic Tomorrows YouTube channel that I started early in 2020, and with the help of @EpicTomorrows on Twitter.
I began the Epic Tomorrows blog, with this post, in ‘arrogant confusion’ but at least I trusted that something valuable would come out of it, which I believe it has, thus:
‘I’m sat on a rock in the river Taw. Never have I seen it so high. I’m here to wash away the distractions of life that I may focus on the highest stream within me; the stream of servant-leadership. There is no point in leading except to serve whom you lead, or you are only serving yourself…
We are just days away from the Gaelic festival of Samhain that has Celtic pagan origins. I love these old Celtic seasonal observances, even though I don’t usually celebrate them outwardly. Samhain is halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice -a neat orientation point; something that raises my awareness of the passing seasons and their different characteristics…’
Since writing this first blog post I have been on an intellectual adventure which has questioned the very idea of leadership, prompted by clear problems posed by the perceived leadership within XR. Nevertheless, despite fashionable anarcho- currents on the political Left, most recently with the help of ‘The Next Revolution’ -a book of some collected essays of Murray Bookchin, I have realised that true leadership is a good and necessary thing, at least at this early stage of human evolution, and should be encouraged and made accountable to ‘the led’ in every sphere of life; irresponsible (unresponsive) leaders should be brought down.
This post will likely go through many iterations, to always be a work in progress.
Maybe I will return to the post at the same time every year, as part of my narrative sense-making of the world through the celebration of anniversaries.
A working hypothesis
In the original post I went on to offer a ‘working hypothesis’ which was to define an area of exploration, development and activism for Epic Tomorrows (ET). It was nothing radically new. It didn’t ‘work’, in the sense that I didn’t ‘work it’ or ‘work with it’. In fact over the course of a few months as ET meandered, I lost my focus and forgot all about it. I think it’s worth returning to, so I have updated it slightly:
The somewhat philosophical hypothesis is that, on one level -albeit a very deep and important level- most suffering and death in modern society is closely associated with a lack of narrativeintegration. This suffering and death is implicit in globally poor standards of individual mental health and well-being; the well-being of groups and institutions; and the well-being and sustainability of global human culture as a whole. This root lack of narrative integration that is to blame, in turn arises from the much documented (and blatantly obvious) disconnection of large portions of humanity from the rest of Nature which in modern times is co-creative with (and has been accelerated by) a neoliberal globalised capitalist system (or system of systems) which creates extreme economic inequality as well as other dynamics of oppression, including male dominance and the complete destruction of traditional human cultures, and many species of wildlife. This disconnection has grown over many millennia.
Narrative integration, out of narrative disintegration, may be a useful personal and collective, explicit (cultural) goal within the wider activism of anti- and post- capitalist global systems change(s), even on the urgent practical level of civil disobedience.
An underlying assumption to this post is that there are two main types of thought we use to make sense of the world, propositional (or logical) thinking and narrative thinking. We need them in balance. At this point I would like to suggest the grounding practice of breaking down narratives into propositions, thanks to Daniel Schmachtenberger. For a great description of this practice, watch Daniel in this video from 1.36.30 onwards. Doing this with narratives we come across in the media, or discern in our own minds / lives, can help us assess whether these narratives are functionally useful (or ‘true enough’) i.e. whether they are based enough on sound logical propositions as well as integrated with wider truths and evolving human culture, or whether they are illogical and tend towards disintegration.
To try to demystify my hypothesis, it is well established that us human beings partly make sense of the world, and of human culture, by the narratives and myths that we construct about ourselves and the world around us, as well as, more crucially, the underpinning unconscious narrative frameworks that guide our thinking and behaviour. I argue that our individual autobiographies and our collective stories and narratives have become excessively confused, hypocritical, falsely siloed, alienated and fragmented in modern society, including on the deep level of unconscious narrative frameworks, reflecting profound social and ecological injustice and trauma, and the distortion and subversion of this injustice and trauma by consumerist media manipulation. Moreover, non-consumerist narratives are deliberately disintegrated, supplanted and subjugated by consumerist narratives, at the behest of capitalist elites. Lack of conscious and unconscious narrative integration (and lack of narrative control) -including integration with non-human Nature- is the defining pathology of this situation. To re-integrate narratives -our own with our own and our own with other people’s- and to reclaim our narratives, is also to reconnect profoundly with Nature, individually, socially and through the wider culture.
-The best of this original post ended with the section above in italics, although I have added to the section substantially, including the links. In fact I am a little daunted even to finish this post. Really I’m way out of my depth, but I have always loved the risk of swimming into the deep, trusting I will find rocks to perch on before I become totally exhausted intellectually. If anything, this post will serve me, and I hope, some of you readers, as a basis for further exploration and study, and dare I write it, some renewed inspiration for activism and civil disobedience.
Narrative integration and mental health
When I originally wrote this post in 2017, I included this short section on my own mental health, which I have now expanded to include more tangible examples of disintegrated narratives-
I do not blame anyone, including myself, for any lack in my past or present life, but I do take responsibility for change.
My own life narrative of mental health is something that I’m working on. A few years ago it looked pretty shaky. However, the more I detach myself from conventional understandings of mental health -particularly the biomedical model of mental illness- the more I appreciate my unique journey and the gifts it has bestowed on me, as well as the unique challenges which could be headed under ‘mental dis-ease’. It has taken me a while to arrive at this understanding. Sometimes I struggle not to feel injured, to feel beaten black and blue actually, by the fragmented society that allowed me to be defined as medically sick and that still sometimes seeks to define me as such. Ironically, I view conventional attitudes to mental health as a contributory cause of mental ill-ness. I don’t blame individuals or even ‘society’. I am just sharing feelings and observations.
Reconnecting with Nature was key to my recovery from the worst of the dis-ease, and continues to be. Earth Nature as a whole is also key to my new, positive life narrative of mental health and purpose in life i.e. my new understanding of my journey. It is a journey of integration with non-human Nature, integration with and /or refinement of, and also some abandonment of, disintegrated and disintegrative narratives that I have dysfunctionally carried around with me, better integration with the people around me and integration with parts of myself I may have previously struggled to admit into consciousness –the ‘shadow’, according to Jung.
The catchword of ‘integration’ speaks of energy efficiency and resilience, but let us not become too resilient to the neoliberal capitalist forces which dominate us, or we will only perpetuate them.
Some of the various conflicted and fragmented narratives of modern culture that contributed to my mental illness in the first place, an understanding of which I am very lucky to write, is driving towards my liberation, are listed below. If they are not disintegrated, (whilst still posing as whole and powerfully directive by the human actors that serve them) causing conflict within me and in society in general, we can at least say that they are disintegrative or decompositional. I’m sure you recognise some of them:
A child should be raised primarily by its biological mother and father in a house isolated from other families. The parents should stay together for the duration of the childhood, and should agree on how to raise the child.
Middle-class academic children must attend university at aged 18. The working-class can go to hell.
Leaving university without a degree is shameful.
A university degree is worth more than a practical vocational qualification of a high standard.
The city is the place to be. The city is superior to the country, which is just a nice place to visit.
Using alcohol is the best way to relax.
The pornography industry is sustainable and acceptable.
Men must make the first move in relationships, and if you don’t have a girlfriend or at least a sexual partner, as a man, you are a loser.
If you are not heteronormative you are abnormal.
Monogamy is the only ethical way to conduct intimate interpersonal relationships.
Mental illness is best treated by pills, and is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
(Patriotism for) the nation state is good and necessary.
We live in a democracy.
The only alternative to capitalism is communism (which hasn’t worked, so there is no alternative).
To buy is to be. To accumulate is to succeed.
Our colonial past was terrible, but we are entitled to the ongoing stolen fruits of that past.
Slavery and colonialism are of the past.
You cannot change the law by breaking the law.
This, whatever it is, is normal. This is the way it is supposed to be.
These (bullshit) cultural narratives have intersected in various complex ways in my personal narratives and life episodes, in problematic ways, sometimes left unresolved intellectually and emotionally, including in simple remembered anecdotes and stories contained within future aspirations. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
It is Halloween, or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, the beginning of the Christian observance of Allhallowtide: three days of remembrance of the dead. (Let us not remember too fondly, dead narratives which no longer serve us.) The modern Halloween is an integration of Samhain and All Hallows practices. What positive tricks and treats of narrative integration can we share with one another?
Epic post-capitalist tomorrows
The current focus of Epic Tomorrows is the accumulating and collating of online data as well as strategic insights, to help activists and revolutionaries achieve victories on the way to global systems change(s). The more accurate and relevant information we have, the more informed and efficient will be our actions. Naturally narrative thinking -with some conscious temperance- has a role to play in this information gathering and its application.
Narrative integration / disintegration can be understood in a variety of ways and historical contexts. Recently I have read some great analyses of the current state of the neoliberal globalised capitalist order, especially Wolfgang Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ and including ‘Postcapitalism’ by Paul Mason. I now reflect on how these readings inform the narrative integration perspective.
I have also been reminded recently of the colonialism that set precedents for neoliberal neo-colonialism and imperialism (especially Euro-American imperialism); reminded by the Black Lives Matter movement and my recent interviewing of XR co-founder Stu Basden who wrote this article which went viral.
Additionally, of some relevance here might be that since late summer 2020 I have been working on the concept (and flesh) of a global meta-strategy for global systems change(s); looking at how activists and their social movements can better co-ordinate and facilitate their strategising.
Finally, I should add here in respect of synchronicity and synchronistic events (synchronistic, not synchronous) that the other day (it’s Samhain / Halloween 2020 as I write this latest version) I received an email from the website provider Wix -who I used a long time back- that my old sites ‘need upgrading’. The main site I used Wix for was ‘Rebirch’, a project that has since mutated into a theory I am developing of holistic mental health whose updated title is ‘the 13 activist bases of mental health’. The essence of this theory is partly to show that all theories / approaches to mental health include highly arbitrary components / criteria, as well as to suggest a potentially useful new contemporary, albeit still arbitrary, understanding of mental health. ‘Narrative health’ is one of the 13 activist bases for mental health, and a base that ties the other bases together.
So in light of these recent developments and the synchronistic reminder of ‘narrative health’ as a potential foundation for mental health, I would like to pose the following questions as an expansion of the ‘narrative integration’ hypothesis, and to serve narrative integration as well as more generally, the re-integration of all human knowledge to serve activism for global systems change(s):
Is neoliberal capitalism in a critical condition, unable to support its own weight and global society for much longer? If most consumerist narratives collapse, as those narratives are premised on hypocrisy and disintegration, how will their collapse reflect in those parts of our identities which have invested in them, of buying our way to joy, success, and meaning? Will we be equally relieved and confused to be without consumerist narratives? Ahead of any possible global societal collapse, how can we reconnect to and reintegrate narratives of identity which support activism for a managed transition to global industrial and cultural systems post-capitalism and post-consumerism, including the heroism that may be required for such a transition? Who will we be during and post-transition and how will we remember and tell stories about how we were before the transition, as individuals, families, communities and nations?
Were democracy and capitalism ever really integrated as systems, or did each always prevent the other from fully realising, to the benefit of capitalism (as unchecked it undermines itself) but not to the benefit of democracy? If the latter is true, how do we atone our humanity with the use of narrative?
Is an integrated info-tech based coherent global system of postcapitalism possible and / or desirable, or should we be using our narrative cognition to focus on developing diverse post-capitalist place-based (localised) narratives, first of all for our individual life-paths? Or should we be imagining ourselves into futures which are both hyper-connected and localised?
How much are our personal life stories and ambitions polluted by fragmented and trauma-inducing, as well as trauma-carrying, colonialist, imperialist and slave-holding (human and non-human) mindsets?
How can bioculturally diverse communities dislocated and destroyed by colonialist, imperialist and global neoliberal capitalist narratives, relocate and rebuild with narratives supported by the narrative-driven mission statements and strategic aims and practical visions, of a decolonised international movement of movements (MoM)?
Is the fundamental narrative contradiction / disintegration that needs to be addressed by the awakening activist, the ongoing conflict and chaos between the heroic narrative of systems change, and the decaying narrative of ‘to have is to be’?
How can ‘narrative health’ be retained and supported in all activists and all human beings for their continued mental health and well-being, as part of a wider concern for regenerative human cultures?
On this third year anniversary / development of the original post, I re-commit, better late than never, to exploring narrative (re-)integration, especially in service to activism and global systems change(s). As it is my YouTube channel that has taken off more than anything else, I will honour the commitment through the human connections that I make in interviews and online discussions that I will facilitate and upload.
Narrative and propositional thinking in balance, and the limits of ‘memetic tribes’
The following citation is from ‘How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences’ by Roy F. Baumeister and Leonard S. Newman of Case Western Reserve University. It is worth reading the entire article for a very complex and nuanced explanation of the various cognitive functions / motivations of story-telling and narrative thinking:
‘Narrative thinking sacrifices the generality of the paradigmatic mode in favour of comprehensiveness. Rich accounts can encompass many features, and so narratives are more flexible and can accommodate more inconsistencies than paradigmatic thinking. Internal coherence is the important criterion, rather than how falsifiable the stories are. Therefore, the narrative mode is well suited to reinterpreting and accommodating inconsistent information, as well as for helping people think about situations that involve conflicts or contradictions.’
Yet when the contradictions become overwhelming and profoundly traumatic, as I would argue they have become in globalised capitalist culture, the narrative function becomes highly disintegrated and dysfunctional.
It is now clear to me that although narrative thinking / narrative psychology is very important to how we make sense of the world and act upon it, ‘paradigmatic thinking’, also called ‘propositional thinking’, a general form of logical thinking, is equally as important. Nevertheless, this could strengthen rather than contest my initial hypothesis.
Baumeister and Newman again:
‘The point that propositional knowledge is useful for making stories brings up the issue of how distinct these two modes are…In practice…each individual’s accumulation of knowledge probably uses both modes in an interactive fashion’
Clearly, the current neoliberal global capitalist order (including the ‘communist capitalism’ of China) does not make logical sense. Extreme economic equality, various forms of oppression of most humans and Nature by a small handful of other humans, and the increasing destruction of the biosphere towards the point of a highly possible human extinction, are not sustainable and so do not make logical sense. On a global level, our paradigmatic thinking -our logical reasoning- is failing us, as we are allowing the destructive systems of neoliberalism and the elites that serve them, to continue. Okay, so we may be scared, but it is not logical to let that fear take us towards species annihilation.
Where narrative psychology comes back in, is that it could be precisely because our narrative interpretation of reality is currently so broken and dysfunctional, that our logical reasoning has also suffered (meaning that all forms of sense-making are currently degraded). I propose that this is happening for two main reasons. Firstly, because consciously or unconsciously, we are at a stage in human history where our thought has become ‘globalised’ -due to neoliberal globalisation and due to the internet- but without becoming coherently whole, or balanced in making sense of the world. Largely this is due to our disconnection from non-human Nature and our failure to fully comprehend or embody that disconnection.
However we are more aware than ever of our increasingly inter-connected and potentially threatening human world; perhaps falsely assuming that the non-human world that we impact -including the climate- cannot ultimately endanger us, we can’t help but defensively attempt grand anthropocentric world-encompassing narratives to make sense of things, inevitably based at least partly on sketchy, profit-driven, scare-mongering Big Tech and Big Media -manipulated representations of global events, whatever more elucidating material we may be consuming.
Overwhelmed by global data, perceived global threats and a need for global meaning to counteract the void in meaning created by a literally and culturally dislocating world system(s), our critical thinking and logical reasoning skills have suffered. When we feel forced to generalise and totalise to the extreme regarding global narratives of humanity, especially in a defensive mode, even if quite mildly so, we easily lose or subsume the practice of the leisurely, careful narrative-building that relies on and is co-creative with a fair degree of propositional thinking. As a result, not only our thinking, but our acting, is irrational.
Paradigmatic thinking requires propositions based on the law of cause and effect. Data overwhelm on a global scale, usually heavily biased even when it proposes to be objective, makes cause and effect propositions increasingly difficult. We could often be wholesale giving up on logical thinking in favour of defensive globalised narratives -often utopian or catastrophic in character. Our urgent need to make sense by story, due to this immature and fragmented stage of globalised consciousness has resulted in disintegrated stories which undermine the security and leisure we need to reason things out logically, which further disintegrates our narrative making.
Secondly, neoliberal capitalist and consumerist narratives, the deceitful outward expressions of ecocide -often as overt as consumerist fairy-tales used in advertising- have become more powerful in the world than logical thinking. The illogical personal and collective narratives that we form around the ‘to buy is to be’ mantra -illogical for our mental health and for the survival of our communities and our very species- are so profoundly a part of our identities at this stage in history, that they have undermined our capacity for propositional thinking. Moreover, we may be dissuaded from going too deeply into propositional thinking for fear of being confronted with our own hypocrisy -a hypocrisy that is central to the functioning of our lives (within the unavoidable megamachine of contemporary capitalism).
Additionally, many reasonable human beings feel forced to adopt the defensive political identity positions of either ‘globalised’ on the one hand, desperately trying to salvage internationalism from destructive neoliberalism (including as part of pro-EU narratives in Europe) or nationalist-democratic on the other, often expressing the confusion of fake narratives of democracy on the macro and global level in the micro-unfoldings of our lives, knowing all-too-well that representative democracy is increasingly unreal and subject to corporatism and financial interests.
This isn’t supposed to be a damning of narrative thinking which has an important function in sense-making, but of a dysfunctional narrative thinking untempered by logic, put on the defensive by globalisation and co-opted by consumerism. This is in addition to the very physical ways that a neoliberal capitalist system has ripped up the habitats, communities, traditions and livelihoods which have been the basis of our Life-affirming and sense-making narratives for so long, globally.
This discussion is also informed by the Rebel Wisdom ‘sense-making’ series on YouTube. This latest videoin the series, with Daniel Schmachtenberger, brings up concepts of ‘narrative warfare’ and AI-directed social media control via ‘sticky’ content which increases our addiction to / use of these profit-seeking platforms (YouTube / Facebook etc) by appealing to and maximising our tendencies to tribal identity -regardless of whether or not those tribes are artificially created or reinforced by false or highly manipulated information about what is going on in the world. These tribes are pitted against each other on the platforms by AI-sourced algorithms, an infowar and narrative war which boosts the platforms and leaves them relatively unquestioned and unaccountable (the old method of divide and conquer) as well as spilling over into other more ‘independent’ parts of the internet, and into ‘real life’.
I would add, I have friends who don’t use social media, purportedly to control their own narratives, and yet I see these friends manipulated just as destructively, if not more so, by online propaganda from sources which to me are more obviously biased, even though the bias may be belied and obscured to my friends.
Naturally, internet-dependent tribal identities encourage a further disconnection from Nature, as well as the truth in general, which means a general individual and cultural tendency towards narrative disintegration / dysfunction, except where some effort and method is made to retain an overall view, including of the corporatist interests that manipulate us, which I am trying to do in this post.
Despite the insight of Rebel Wisdom, the profound disconnection from Nature that both allows and is co-creative with online narrative warfare and disintegration, seems to be relatively unaddressed on the channel (but I haven’t watched every video). Likewise the viral The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0, which has provided some inspiration to the Rebel Wisdom sense-making series, fascinating and insightful though it is, does not do justice to the basic underlying lack of narrative integration in modern culture which is symptomatic of the neoliberal globalised capitalist (dis)order. The (dis)order that is co-creative (co-destructive) with disconnection from / destruction of, localised biocultural diversity and non-human Nature. As reflected in a disembodied internet space where appropriate locality-bound and natural resource-limited cultural coherency, potentially enhanced online by international solidarity and understanding, seem to be subservient to unaccountable globally projected egos and often hysterical virtual tribes whose narratives are largely created and maintained by corporatist interests, suffering obviously from a lack of grounding in the natural resource-bound real world.
The ‘six crises’ mentioned in the following citation are a fair enough framework for understanding the genesis of (Euro-American) memetic tribes except that the crucial underlying disconnection from localised, biodiverse Nature has been unstated:
‘We argue that six phenomena are involved in their genesis: secularization, fragmentation, atomization, globalization, stimulation, and weaponization. These ingredients respectively engender six crises: the meaning crisis, the reality crisis, the belonging crisis, the proximity crisis, the sobriety crisis, and the warfare crisis. We will examine each ingredient and crisis in turn…’
The memetic tribes article also completely fails to address its own Euro-American centrism and the implicit neocolonialism of its core arguments, blinkers which are themselves symptomatic of a global culture fragmented by its dissociation from and destruction of formerly coherent, localised biocultural diversity -and the localised democracies essential to the protection of this diversity. If the authors are aware of their bias, they don’t do justice to their arguments by leaving it unstated.
They also fail to talk about arrestable direct action activists / the civilly disobedient -ecology, climate and social justice focused- who go way beyond their tepid construction of SJA (Social Justice Activists) to challenge the institutions of representative democracy more fundamentally, often from a postcapitalist or anti-capitalist perspective. Perhaps, by their Euro-American reckoning, international movements of civil disobedience since Occupy! are not relevant to the ‘culture wars’, but this would be a strange assertion. Perhaps it is only Extinction Rebellion (XR) that has brought into the public intellectual sphere (at least the Euro-American one) the existence of the global postcapitalist movement (pre-dating XR and represented by a number of organisations) for civil disobedience triggered by the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss -despite capitalist-reformists within XR. Afterall, the memetic tribes article was written one month before XR’s declaration of rebellion.
I would argue that if the authors want to contribute more fully to an understanding of globally disintegrative narratives and dysfunctional narrative thinking in modern culture, they need to address postcapitalism and expose their Euro-American bias. Otherwise they are in danger of contributing to narrative disintegration as much as resolving it, themselves tragically subject to the AI-directed siloing of thought and narrative identity that Schmachtenberger exposes.
Covid narrative disintegration
It is hard to write about the current situation with the novel coronavirus worldwide (writing in late October 2020). I am not well-informed enough, and I am bombarded by disjointed narratives about the virus, in part reflecting the narrative disintegration discussed above. Clearly, the lack of reasoning and logical thinking symptomatic of much contemporary being-in-the-world and associated with a degradation of the function of narrative cognition, has resulted in a surprisingly large, perhaps unprecedented in scale, proportion of the global population not believing in key elements of the global coronavirus narrative, as presented by governments, inter-governmental organisations and the mainstream media. Regardless of my lack of scientific knowledge, I can offer some limited observations of what is going on on the level of narrative thinking.
Online and other media data overwhelm, from conflicting and politicised -overtly and covertly- and corporatised sources of information, including from within the supposedly objectively scientific medical professions, has fuelled the disintegration and incoherency of narratives surrounding the virus.
Online tribal polarisation largely created and manipulated by the algorithms of social media and Big Tech giants as discussed above, perhaps compounded by the confused and falsely contradictory narrative of so-called memetic tribes, also as touched on above, are further fuelling scientific misunderstanding and profound narrative disintegration (although one does not always lead to the other).
Further, a latent mass tendency to conspirituality, magnified by the internet and exacerbated by more of us spending more time online during the social restrictions imposed by the virus, is accelerating narrative disintegration surrounding the virus and weaponising totalising narratives of a shadowy New World Order (the theory goes, that has fabricated or created or manipulated the virus to impose some form of global control), providing some of the impetus for the recent rioting in the streets in response to covid lockdown measures. This is not good for the mental health of the conspiritual and everyone they come into contact with. Moreover rioting subverts and disempowers revolutionary energy that could be used in more scientific and strategic rebellions against global authorities, to achieve genuine gains towards the radical postcapitalist global systems change(s) that we need to meet the ongoing climate-ecological-economic-humanitarian crisis of humanity. On the other hand, I will be pleased if the rioting results in more financial compensation for the lockdown being distributed to the poorest.
Conspirituality is fed by very objectively justified mistrust of national governments as well as largely unaccountable inter-governmental organisations like the World Health Organisation and the World Economic Forum(partnered with the United Nations Development Programme). Neoliberal globalised capitalism, as well documented in Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ has eaten away at the institutions of representative democracy (spurious to start with) to the point that we cannot trust that governments and inter-governmental organisations are putting people before profit, even in a global pandemic, regardless of whether lockdown measures are sufficiently protecting public health for the time being. Similarly we cannot trust that (fear and panic surrounding) the pandemic isn’t being deliberately magnified towards corporatist ends. What plans are being undemocratically made for our futures by the vastly influential European Central Bank, World Bank, IMF, WEF and the institutions of the UN, whilst we are safely ‘locked’ away? One doesn’t have to believe in a conspiratorial ‘New World Order’ to be deeply worried and angry -just read Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein; events like the novel coronavirus have been progressively manipulated by corporatised governments since at the latest the mid 1970’s.
Unfortunately, right wing schizotypal populist figures like Trump manipulate anti-globalist and conspiritual sentiments for their own corporatist-nationalist ends, openly supporting and reaping the rewards of globalised capitalism on the one hand, whilst shouting loudly on the other against ‘global technocratic elites’ like WHO. To be sure WHO is corrupt, like any large inter-governmental technocratic organisation in a neoliberal capitalist system, (which is not to say there aren’t many passionate and humanity-serving individuals within WHO). Trumpists criticise global elites in a disingenuous way that does not challenge the system that creates those elites in general. Meanwhile, Trumpists benefit from the system and their confused followers. As it is right wing populist leaders that shout the loudest in criticism of unaccountable global elites, unfortunately vulnerable people of disintegrated or schizotypal mindsets, (including people I know) in situations like a novel pandemic, feeling overwhelmed, will turn to these ‘leaders’ and their bullshit disintegrative narratives, instead of more intelligent critics and critical integrative narratives of globalised capitalism grounded in science and guided by social and environmental justice.
Operating by the precautionary principle and utilitarianism, I believe it is currently right and more-or-less based in sound science to adhere generally to the lockdown measures that have been imposed in France. However, retaining my own sense of meaning and logical as well as narrative thinking skills, I see no harm in flouting the ‘no more than 1km from the house and for no more than 1 hour’ rule on daily exercise. I am currently based in a very rural area, and there are miles of gorgeous autumnal country footpaths about, conducive to mine, my partner’s and our relationship’s physical and mental health. My ‘narrative health’ also benefits, in the sense that any stories of cognition I construct around Nature and my local natural surroundings, including a deep appreciation of the changing season, distract me from the narrative disintegration of the internet, and integrate my present with previous Nature-based narratives of my self which ground and inspire me, including in my activism which is ultimately Nature-based. On a walk recently I took pleasure in recounting to my partner, similar walks I had taken in the Devon countryside in the UK.
As for the virus, the only observation I care to make is that it is real and it is novel. As for governments’ and intergovernmental institutions’ responses, and the responses of the media and various sections of the internet, the best I can do at this point is to summarise by arguing that responses and popular reactions to those responses are heavily polluted and directed by neoliberal corporate capitalist interests, and /or an understandable fear, mistrust and misunderstanding of those interests.
It’s a shame because, absent an anti-statist revolution along something like libertarian municipalist lines, strong states will be increasingly relied upon / called upon to deal with the unfolding climate and ecology-driven (neoliberalism-accelerated) global crisis. With trust in ‘democratic’ governments at an all-time low, the rioting we see now at covid lockdown measures is nothing compared to the rioting we will see in response to mistrusted (probably justifiably so) measures that governments will likely be forced to hurriedly implement during the disastrous events projected for the next few decades, associated with the ongoing global crisis of humanity.
Ideally, on the level of narrative integration to serve activism for global systems change(s), we should use the covid ‘situation’, if at all possible, to encourage the disillusioned, conspiritual, mistrustful, depressed and confused, to step (further) away from consumerist-capitalist lifestyles -‘to have is to be’ fairytales- which implicitly support corporatised governments as well as intergovernmental and private global elites -all of those interests that are most responsible for the global crisis of humanity.
Additionally, both propositional and narrative thinking skills need to be encouraged in all of us but particularly the vulnerable, in a way that promotes a localised Nature-groundedness as well as, crucially, a courageous curiosity about the experiences and stories of other human beings in other cultures around the world. We must strive for this even in the midst of global disaster, so that international solidarity takes precedence over ‘lowest common denominator’ right wing racist and nationalist narratives and responses. This will promote the holistic well-being of all of us.
If we can get away with it safely, I advocate travelling as much as possible!
Revolutionary rivers, two modes of thinking and activist strategy
It is partly thanks to the river Taw -revisited many times over the last few years- that this post has developed.
It is hard to view a river logically, in purely cause and effect terms, as it is the quintessence of flow with its infinite and ever-changing currents. To be aware of its causes and effects would almost be to be aware of every molecule of H20.
Similarly, it is impossible to view how I got here in my life, from where I was three years ago when I started Epic Tomorrows with this post, in purely cause and effect terms. The twists and turns and encounters are just too numerous and mysterious, the data too overwhelming. And so it is with personal life narratives. We remember and retrospectively create and retell our lives in ways which we believe provide meaning to our continued existence as well as, we hope, the continued existence of the communities in which we are embedded.
Remembering that I have regularly walked along the river Taw which is local to my flat, to take a break from my reading, writing, and contemplating, it is more than mere fancy to include the river in the integrative narrative of this blog post. The river breaks have given Life and breathing space to the developing mission and practice of Epic Tomorrows, including on YouTube.
It was one year and two and a half weeks since I had begun Epic Tomorrows, when on November 17th 2018 I was involved in the infamous ‘bridge blocks’ of five rivers crossing the Thames in London. This mass act of civil disobedience resulted in many arrests (including mine) and the launching of Extinction Rebellion (XR) into the international media and the activist consciousness of at least the climate movement of the industrialised global north.
The tactic of the bridge blocks according to Roger Hallam, one of XR’s main strategists at the time, was to ‘split the city in two’, which, when combined with ‘filling the prison cells to over-flowing’ with activists was intended to force the government to give in to XR’s demands. It was worth a shot but it didn’t work for a variety of reasons, mainly because we just didn’t have the numbers.
Unfortunately, when I was on the phone to a key and influential person within XR after this event, he was deluded as to the success of the actions, proclaiming with fervour, ‘the government will fall by Christmas!’ Needless to say, they didn’t. I only bring this up because this influential person was assumed to have greater strategic insight than most of the people around him, and a lot of strategy work was left to him. This is unfortunate when it seems as though he let his romantic vision and wishful narrative of strategic success cloud his practical assessment of what had actually been achieved and therefore what needed to be done next.
Narrative thinking and narrative integration must not be developed at the expense of propositional thinking. Propositional thinking is key to the strategising that we need to build successful social movements and execute their missions for global systems change(s). A little older and wiser than I was two years ago, I would now suggest widespread strategic literacy within activist movements, perhaps via strategy study groups, rather than leaving the strategising to a select few, despite what their academic and experiential credentials may be.
Naturally strategic literacy should include learning deeply from the successes and failures of as many previous social movements as possible, and if possible learning from -and where appropriate merging with- the strategies of disparate existing social movements for social and environmental justice, as long as the importance of the centrality of non-violent civil disobedience is recognised.
One area where narrative thinking actually complements strategy forming is ‘scenario planning’. This has long been used by multi-national corporations and governments and refers to the thorough mapping out of a future scenario or diversity or scenarios with a variety of PESTLE characteristics, as possible futures to plan for and put in place organisational responses to. In scenario planning it is acknowledged that the envisioned futures will be inaccurate, but they will nevertheless have features which will likely resemble features of the future that actually unfolds. Thus planning for a variety of unfolding scenarios, although simplified and inaccurate in their conception, can help organisations and social movements be flexible and responsive to unfolding events, strategically and on the ground. Comprehensive scenario-planning is also co-creative with realtime events and can help us manifest, as large organisations or social movements, the futures we desire.
The thorough envisioning of futures / future scenarios and how we might reach them, or be subject to them, is a highly creative process which makes full use of our narrative thinking skills, complemented by more specialist understandings of propositional knowledge, ideally outsourced to groups of specialists in each of the areas denoted by PESTLE.
Ongoing narrative conclusion; revolution is not the place for romance, but it is the place for heroism
To reiterate, aside from the specific function of scenario planning, we cannot afford to let narrative thinking dominate our strategic thinking for global systems change(s), although an integrated and integrative narrative thinking will always be necessary and complementary.
If we are not logical in our strategy, then we will not create the global systems changes we need to reinstate both propositional and narrative thinking as central to our sense-making and well-being in a balanced, sustainable, post-capitalist world.
Further, highly strategic thinking is directly opposed to wishy-washy romantic revolutionism (informed by Hollywood-ised fictional and ‘non-fictional’ simplified representations of direct actions and revolutions) and a lot of New Age thinking that is prevalent even amongst (partially) practical activists. This romantic and New Age thinking is partly a result of neoliberal capitalist narratives which co-opt rebellious individuals, whether they are fully conscious of it or not, with the disempowering belief that at this stage of history, true resistance, or true strategic success with a social movement (systems change or even regime change), is impossible, despite evidence to the contrary. True revolutionary power is given away to privileged New Age dreams of individual politico-spiritual sovereignty, romantic revolutionism (even amongst XR strategists!) and the occasional impotent riot. I thank Murray Bookchin for some of these insights, as expressed in the essay collection ‘The Next Revolution’.
Paradoxically, in very general terms it may, however, be necessary as well as joyful to conceive of ourselves individually as true heroines and heroes of our own lives and of our global culture and society, figures of mythical proportions, drawing from heroic archetypes to respond to the calling of our culture to facilitate or speed up a managed transition to global systems change(s) i.e. something post-capitalism. Boundaried rituals and celebrations (Celtic-inspired or otherwise) could help with this self- and community- mythologising. However this shouldn’t leak into our strategising, inadvertently taking us into a drunken feature film (which seems to be the direction that some XR groups have taken). The power of narratives of mythical heroism are to give us a moral and other-worldly courage to deliberately take large but calculated -as far as possible- risks for the sake of humanity’s future, as well as potentially to present this revolutionary mission in an attractive and deeply felt artistic narrative form, to the public -witnesses and potential recruits. But let not this presentation, this cultural expression, be confused for the more essential practical elements of any strategy, least of all by the actors involved. Sometimes the partying should be saved until after the action…
Here are 15 sensitive strategy tips for serious and heroic activists and ‘revolutionaries’, including the use of narrative thinking. I’m addressing you, the reader in the first person, but this advice applies equally to me. Periodically I intend to expand this list of strategy tips in a separate post, which will also be linked from here:
Do not be afraid of leadership. 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!
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.
Do have a strategy! Bookchin is one good source to expose the myth of ‘spontaneous revolutions’ i.e. it turns out that these revolutions are always guided by highly organised militants.
Don’t confuse your (possibly romantic) vision of global systems change(s) with what is strategically possible.
Do 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.
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 Grand Strategy, campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods. This classic bookby Gene Sharp is a good place to start.
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 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 more 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, for balanced lives in respect of our homes, families, communities and our overall well-being -including the prevention or mitigation of ‘activist burn-out’. Travel if you can.
Develop an understanding of ‘narrative integration’ as potentially key to strategic goals, as well featuring in the means to achieve those goals.