This post is constantly evolving. It may be messy in places, but use it! I will keep it topical by updating it regularly with links to current world events. I will also link to my video interviews with activists where I think it might be helpful. I’m facilitating the emergence of an activist community on YouTube here. In time I will consult specific activists for feedback on this post, and add the names of those who provide significant contributions (if they wish).
It will probably be quite 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 extreme Left who don’t think twice about taking innocent human lives).
A strategy is ‘a plan that is intended to achieve a particular purpose’. Strategy is also ‘the process of planning something or putting a plan into operation in a skillful way’. Strategies include tactics within them. A tactic is ‘the particular method(s) you use to achieve something’ -including to achieve a strategy.
An activist is, for the purposes of this post, ‘a person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organization with particular aims’.
For every strategy tip below, five 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 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 what is known as ‘Dual Power’ -creating the new society we wish to see -including governmental structures- in the shell of the old (without asking for permission).
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 internationalist one.
It is far easier to determine the wrong reasons for engaging in activism, rather than the right ones. The wrong reasons would include:
- Being an activist because it’s cool (or because we look cool doing it on Instagram). There is nothing wrong with feeling ‘cool’ whilst doing activism or political organising, and having an appealing image can help a cause -the problem comes when the image is the prime motivation.
- Joining a social movement primarily to use it as a ‘security blanket’ for hard times, without actively developing ourselves as activists and therefore developing the movement (helping it to move). We have to want to win!
- Conversely, doing it only because we are sure we will win -for the sake of an easy victory. We must be active even when victory is not assured.
- Doing it only because ‘it is the right thing to do’, hoping to be carried forward on a wave of moral righteousness, with no thought of strategy (see 2. below). Even if there is a clear moral imperative to act, that doesn’t give us any special protections, status or guaranteed victory as activists. In fact, a clear moral imperative to act makes it all the more important that we develop our strategy carefully to maximise our chances of success.
Additionally we must consider carefully if ‘activism’ is for us, and if so, what kind of activism, and what kind of role within any activist group we may be involved with. We have to consider carefully what kind of sacrifices, in terms of well-being, job options and freedom we may be prepared to make, considering such factors as our general health before beginning, and the potential impact on our families.
2. Do have a strategy i.e. a detailed plan of action to achieve concrete (let’s say granite!) goals.
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’). See 4. below.
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 great, but how can we harness their energy before it dies off each time, or turns to violence and is repressed, or is co-opted and subverted by corporate or established political interests, however progressive they may appear to be?
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. In other words, if our plans 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 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 achieving success as activists is generally not an option; ‘the flow’ is by default heavily controlled by the opposition, including the oppositional culture that exists around us in contrast to the form and often the very essence of our activism. On a basic level we must also not confuse tactics for strategies and think that we are being strategic when employing isolated tactics, even when these have some immediate success. Tactics without overarching strategies to cohere and direct them may only provide short-term symbolic victories. We owe it to our causes to do better. For instance, the tactic of holding up placards and banners to raise awareness of an issue is fine as a tactic, but quite useless in achieving concrete (or granite!) change by itself, without a larger strategy including specific goals. Otherwise, the benefit could be little more than ‘feeling good’ or mildly irritating those in power.
3. Don’t over-strategise!
To be added soon.
4. Know the difference between Grand Strategy, campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods.
This classic book by Gene Sharp is a good place to start. More to be added soon, including regarding momentum-driven organising.
5. Have a realistic and clearly defined strategic aim or Grand Strategic aim.
Including, don’t confuse your (possibly romantic) vision of global systems change(s) with what is strategically possible. We owe it to everyone to make concrete advances towards emancipatory strategic goals. ‘Fighting’ willy-nilly against an adversary just because it is morally the right thing to do, without a deeper consideration of realistic strategic objectives, can actually be counter-productive and obstruct serious social movements from making gains. Additionally, don’t aim too high, or too high too soon. Wishy-washy aims will produce wishy-washy movements.
6. Be for, as much as against.
7. Develop & be guided by shared visions of the ideal result or society you are working for, & a shared strategic vision of how to get there, incorporating minimum, transitional & maximum visions of change.
Understand how these visions relate to your Grand Strategy and campaign strategies (if you are working on a big enough scale to be planning more than one campaign). More to be added soon, including avoiding entropy / wasted energy across diverse groups that have the same or similar aims i.e. the development of strategic partnerships for all stages of vision. With thanks to XR, but XR doesn’t go far or deep enough. The shared vision must include a maximum diversity of voices, for strategic as well as ethical reasons.
8. Make sure your strategy is flexible, but not too flexible.
Relates to 8. below. As more people join your group, there will be more collective experience and insight to contribute to the development of strategy.
9. Power exists; deal with it! Balance between leadership and horizontal organising, including democratically sourced strategy.
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.
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…
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…
Incorporate again The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
Balance horizontal organising with fluid and temporary vertical organising when the situation calls for it, but beware the cult of leadership!Every group, organisation or movement needs founders or initiators. [hard strategy element]Beware the cult of leadership!Don’t letinitiators 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]
My own guiding utopia of communalism…doesn’t have to be yours, for you to appreciate this strategy tip.
Institutionalise an ongoing democratic strategy-forming process, and allow some actions outside of the strategy.
10. Don’t rely on professional strategists (but do listen to them).
11. 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.
12. Critical connections are more important than critical mass.
(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]
13. Balance between organisation and mobilisation -use momentum-driven organising.
14. Be a heroine, a hero or a theyro.
(Non-hierarchy doesn’t mean no hero quest, despite colonialist, patriarchal etc myths) Self-development, risk, vitality…socio-eroticism.
15. A strategy is more than just the sum of its tactics.
More needed, including regenerative cultures.
16. Be intersectional.
Define the basic terms and language of your activism clearly and accessibly to the general population, and creatively expand definitions. For instance, consider having a fluid conception of the term ‘activist’.Ideally, most of society could be classed as ‘activist’, if only we could convince everyone of their value in fighting for what they believe in. Many people are engaged in this fight without considering themselves ‘activists’. This is not about goals and demands, but basic language. And diverse language!
Know yourself as an activist. What stage are you at and where could you be most useful? Do you feel able to work within an existing group, organisation or movement?If not, are you really sure?Perhaps it is personal psychological insecurity / unresolved issues rather than a genuine lack of alignment that is preventing you from working with a pre-existing group? If you are sure you want to go it alone, what impact do you intend to have?If you want to start a new group, organisation, or movement, do you have the friends / skills to achieve this?Alternatively, perhaps you consider your role to be a free-floating supporter and magnifier of existing movements, groups and campaigns, whether you do your amplifying work face to face or on digital media [soft strategy element]
Know some history, but don’t sacrifice the present to the past. Link to NVDA database. Part of Heller’s CRITICAL PHASE.
Know the present (info and intelliegence gathering).
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, but Chaia’s qualification) change. In particualr, climate and ecology:
Be non-violent, 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.
Ends don’t justify means.
Don’t think that you don’t have good ideas on strategy! The best strategies are crowdsourced. [soft strategy element]
Learn to discern between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ strategy elements, or yang and yin. Hard does not equate with strong and soft does not equate with weak.In fact, over the long term of an activist campaign or movement, it is the so-called ‘soft’ strategy elements which are likely to sustain it the most. Learn to appreciate when you have too much hard or too much soft in your strategising and strategy. All strategy elements will have a ratio of soft to hard in them. The soft / hard categorisations in this list are my own subjective choices [soft strategy element]
Emergent strategy covers a range of soft strategy elements. It is advisable to become familiar with the classic text on soft strategy, ‘Emergent Strategy‘ by Adrienne Maree Brown.From the book: ‘Emergent strategies are ways for humans to practice complexity and grow the future through relatively simple interactions’. [soft strategy elements]
Have an understanding of the pivotal importance of non-violent direct action (NVDA) and mass participation civil disobedience to achieve the radical social changes that we need to see across the world to respond to ongoing planetary crises, including the climate crisis. Since 1988 when James Hansen first warned the US government about anthropogenic climate change, over 30 years of conventional political campaigning, petitioning, marching, protesting, lobbying and Green politics has failed to stop greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from rising. This is why direct action must be central to all activism moving forward -history shows that mass civil disobedience can work, where other methods have failed. [hard strategy element]
Do not throw the baby out with the bath water, regarding conventional activism. Everything and everyone is interconnected. We can only move forward to a new changed reality by utilising every existing element in our favour. Thus, although direct action should be central to any serious global movement for radical societal change, other ‘softer’ forms of activism can still be useful and complementary. The best strategy looks to incrementally gather support from all quarters of society, or as many as possible. [hard strategy element]
Use tactical diversity. According to research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, the most successful social movements for regime change have been the most tactically diverse. This means that any overarching strategy must allow for and encourage tactical diversity on the ground. Tactics can in turn be employed by a huge diversity of tried and tested methods, and plenty of untested ones. See Gene Sharp’s famous 198 Methods of Non-Violent Action for some ideas. There are many methods not included on Gene’s list. [hard strategy element] 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]
Critical connections are more important than critical mass. (A. M. Brown).
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.
Know the difference between an organisation and a movement, and between organising and mobilising.
Don’t take the ‘3.5% rule’ too narrowly.
Use scenario planning in a specific, boundaried way and don’t let that detract from a realistic strategy responsive to currently unfolding events.
Know the difference between regime change and systems change.
What do you personally mean by global systems change(s)? Make sure you are working to a definition that is intelligible to others in your group / movement.
Improve your propositional / logical thinking and research skills. See through media spin, and critically analyse deeper deliberate or unconscious media narratives and other narratives that serve ruling elites -including some CEO’s and bankers- but also don’t be co-opted by totalising conspiritual ‘conspiracy narratives’ that encourage you to ‘come to your own conclusions’ by rejecting logical thinking to link together disparate emotive events and facts that have been presented to you as related, for obscured and potentially right wing anti-globalist ends. Seek out anti-globalist narratives which are intelligent, scientific, and directed by social justice. Encourage others away from dodgy narratives and towards narratives of global systems change(s) to post-capitalism.
Become aware of the cognitive function of narrative thinking. Become aware of when you are using narrative thinking in a strategically useful way, and when you are not. Become aware of the cultural narratives that may have co-opted and disintegrated your life and your mental health. This will be highly person- and context- specific.
Beware falsely siloed and polarised, tribal and memetic narratives and identities, manipulated if not created by social media companies and Big Tech. These narratives and identities divide our capacities for collective strategising and civil disobedience.
Be less of a fairy-tale consumerist, keep getting back to Nature and mend some broken stories -this will help ground your activist strategy.
If you are privileged enough, develop a conscious activist life strategy. By ‘activist life strategy’ I refer to the unconscious or conscious strategies, tactics and practices that we use to move forward in our lives towards the strategic activist ends that we wish to see, such as achieving targets of social and environmental justice within the movements we are involved in, in a way which simultaneously meets our requirements as holistic human beings. These requirements include our need for balanced lives in respect of our homes, families, communities and our overall well-being -including the prevention or mitigation of ‘activist burn-out’. Do this in a way which supports the less privileged. Travel outside of your comfort zone.
Develop an understanding of ‘narrative integration’ as potentially key to strategic goals, as well featuring in the means to achieve those goals.
Use narrative thinking in the important work of the creative envisioning of global systems change(s), as well as scenario planning; include the envisioning of realistic pathways as opposed to just utopian end-states, important though those visions may be for keeping us emotionally engaged with our activism.
Be the best a heroine can be.
Celebrate victories and anniversaries!