HIGHLIGHTS, with commentary, of Epic T’s interview with skilled facilitator & frontline activist Shanthuru Premkumar
#TellTheTruth #Racism #XR
Shanthuru Premkumar is an anti-racist movement and a riot unto theirself.
Below this HIGHLIGHTS video of my interview with them, check out the paraphrased transcription of their comments (these HIGHLIGHTS are a selection from the longer interview which will be released soon), and then further below, a blog post of related commentary from me.
“People with privileges, they’re comfortable; they don’t want to work. They want to sit & relax. They’re like, ‘Why should I read a book about a nice racism or why should I read a book titled Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race?’
I’ve been calling out, calling out, calling out…Extinction Rebellion, within, because I love the movement. I still love them. I think it’s such an important movement; it gives you hope…but for whom is extinction? Is it the extinction of the people who live in the north western hemisphere?
Many people are going to come; they’re going to come from different parts of the world, with different worldviews, with different realities. How are we going to support these people…?
I believe Extinction Rebellion has to immediately change. I don’t know, we talk about Tell The Truth, Tell The Truth, Tell The Truth, and here you have a leader who is blind…literally, and he then invites other blind people who are #@?%**# colour blind, and then they say racist stuff.
They don’t even apologize; I’ve been with XR for what, two and a half years; they don’t apologize; they ask somebody else to send me an email to say sorry. You can’t talk to me directly?! You’re afraid or what? Why are you doing ‘nonviolent direct action’ then?! ‘Tell The Truth’..?
You know, you’re not telling the truth, you’re telling, the most convenient truth which is helping you!
DAF -Deep Adaptation Forum, is another white supremacy group, and you can quote me on that. Jem Bendell…or whatever his name is…is a very smart person; I loved the writing, it was brilliant, but very Europe-centric.
They did have a BIPOC DAF group, an advisory group for DAF to try to become a bit more inclusive…
Nazism, thanks to Martin Heidegger…and thanks to many other thinkers, German thinkers like Hegel etc…systematically built up to the moment where somebody like Adolf Hitler could come to power…
If most countries around the world are rich, including Canada, the UK… it’s because of colonization, and you continue doing that…if you didn’t have colonization you would not have the infrastructure or science or anything…you have it thanks to us. It’s a human rights violation to me, the fact there is no concept of reparations to those people from whom you stole.
You didn’t ask, you didn’t take nicely, you stole from us…just give us back the money, just give us back what you stole from us…and here I’m talking for Sri Lanka right, I’m going for my country, a small island; just give us back the money, and I tell you, my mother would not have been killed because of the war, my father wouldn’t be in prison, so many Tamils would not have been murdered and killed…
Since the time that colonization started, carbon emissions have increased…
All the BIPOC people who quit XR, I understand, you had to do it, I also wanted to; you asked me to quit many times and I didn’t quit, but I think it’s time that we reclaim XR and everything else around it as well. Reclaiming doesn’t mean that we need to push out all the white people from the movement; it means just decentre the conversation; if Roger Hallam doesn’t see colour, doesn’t understand the importance, and only sees the emergency, ‘Roger, you are a proto-fascist!’ This is problematic! And if you don’t want to hear the truth, take out your first demand, ‘Tell The Truth.'”
Epic T’s (Matthew’s) piece:
I’ve been involved with Extinction Rebellion since the beginning. These days I consider myself a critical friend, rather than a hardcore Rebel. This is the only way that I can continue my wide studies of what makes and breaks social movements; the only way I can steer clear of certain cult dynamics that are sometimes present in XR circles, dynamics which would make it hard for me to maintain and develop my holistic and inclusive view on global resistance / rebellion / revolution / regeneration.
However, even the study above failed to acknowledge that by focusing on the UK it is in danger of reinforcing the colonialism of XR as a global movement; by concluding that XR UK is still implicitly racist, the assumption is that the whole global movement of XR is racist. This seems like a big mistake to make (even if the assumption is true), not least because XR on social media is still dominated by UK perspectives. It is only very recently that the XR UK YouTube channel, in true colonialist fashion, finally conceded to pressure to rename as ‘Extinction Rebellion UK’, from ‘Extinction Rebellion’; the original naming seemed to claim / reclaim a relative monopoly on XR video content from around the world. When YouTube is not just an entertainment and social media platform, but the second largest search engine in the world, second only to its parent company Google, this was a big problem.
XR, at least in the UK, has done well to decentralise some of its functions and processes. I have observed this happening since 2018. However this hasn’t yet fully occurred in the domain of Media & Messaging (XR lingo: ‘M&M’) including on Facebook. This somewhat disempowers any decentralisation that has happened elsewhere in the movement. When monopolised and inherently white supremacist social media channels keep propagating content, especially regarding social movement strategy, that platforms the same white faces / voices; from people who have demonstrated no significant action on racial inclusiveness, then a tragic lack of diversity and community cohesion in XR is continually reinforced, (regenerative white supremacist culture).
Sometimes, exceptional content breaks through, particularly from the XR Internationalist Solidarity Network, but basic structural colonialism in XR’s social media channels remains unaddressed. Moreover, the admins of these channels are relatively anonymous and appear, at least from the outside, to be subject to no mechanisms of accountability in what they post.
Steps are apparently being taken within XR UK to decentre white perspectives and promote BIPOC people to positions of power and leadership, as well as roll out anti-oppression training, as has been explicitly promised in XR UK’s 2021 and 2022 strategy documents. However the dangers in this liberal approach, which doesn’t demand deeper supportive democratic structures of decision-making in XR, and makes the anti-oppression training optional to those who are conscious enough of white supremacy to engage with it, are that it could be a little ‘hit and miss’ and create fresh power imbalances. These imbalances could be further uncritically magnified by centralised social media channels.
So, in the absence of a truly decentralised, democratic and diverse global movement (including on social media), for anyone who feels responsibility or solidarity towards XR, the only supportive thing to do at this stage, it would seem to me, as regards both BIPOC and working class demographics, would be to throw ourselves into the imperfect work of supporting diverse individuals to break through the power structures and white supremacy of XR, if they want this support (and obviously, if they even want to be in XR!). Crucially, this must involve decentring XR UK within XR the global movement, as well as decentring / counterbalancing white (supremacist) perspectives within XR UK.
This is not to deny that, as a friend of mine commented on social media after I shared the first version of this post, ‘deeper conversations on what racism and colonialism really are, are needed… claiming to be antiracist and against colonialism without ever having done the work to understand what these really mean to us, is merely reactionary and not helpful…’ (thanks M).
This short post is the first in a series where I will be making my small contribution to the ‘decentring’ work referred to above. This series will be written in support of my friend Shanthuru Premkumar (Shanthi) a Sri Lankan born member of XR Belgium and the co-ordinator of Decolonise XR Belgium. Shanthi is a talented and experienced facilitator within XR and other activist groups, and has recently been appointed to key roles within Greenpeace Belgium and Greenpeace International. For Belgium they are the Justice, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion & Safety Engagement (JEDISE) officer.
Unfortunately, I feel called to promote Shanthi as hard as I can within XR (seeing as they have chosen to remain in XR). Unfortunately, because the lack of diversity within XR demands a strong push-back, and also unfortunately, because despite their humour-filled assertiveness (as a BIPOC person, would Shanthi get away with being so assertive if it wasn’t done with such good humour?) I know that Shanthi is humble at heart and does not seek to be the next ‘great XR leader’. But they are game, and they play a good game. Let the Empire of white supremacy end across the climate and environmental movements. This, is the Return of the JEDISE…
Connect with Shanthuru on Twitter here, and LinkedIn here.
News Headquarter is a commercial newspaper seeking to branch out to diverse perspectives, including those that are anti-capitalist and anti-colonial.
Since I have developed a friendship with the Editor-In-Chief Lubem Gena, I have been excited to discuss with him a broadening scope for his publication, including written material from climate and ecological activists from the global north working to decolonise their activism.
I have launched a booster GoFundMe fundraiser to help Lubem continue the publication, as Covid times have been hard. Please consider donating to the fundraiser, and please share it.
Long-term, we are looking at developing a global platform unparalleled for diversity and grassroots representation, incorporating both citizen and professional journalism worldwide.
Well Hunted, Well Gathered Strategy Bulletin for Systems Change #1:
Global Scientist Rebellion (SR) begins on April 4th 2022, a movement of non-violent mass civil disobedience on climate, with scientists from 20-25 countries taking part, including over 10 countries from the Global South. Visit https://scientistrebellion.com/ for more. SR are not to be confused with ‘Scientists for XR’.
The strategic relationship with Extinction Rebellion UK’s April Rebellion is timing. XRUK April Rebellion begins April 9th 2022.
A key aim is to get 1000 scientists per continent entering into civil disobedience on climate.
Hundreds of scientists and academics globally have signed the SR demands letter here.
SR is more decentralised from the outset than XRUK. Additionally, a co-founder Mike Lynch White is keen that SR is held accountable for any colonising or unconsciously white supremacist content put out by SR. Early connections of SR pioneers with scientists in the Global South are encouraging.
If you are wholeheartedly engaged with XR, get involved in supporting SR also, for Movement of Movements potential.
If you are ambivalent about XR due to centralisation and white supremacy within the movement, pivot to supporting SR instead, which, although currently white-facilitated, is more inclusive than XR from the outset, including significant Global South connections. For scientists to enter into civil disobedience is key to the global climate movement.
Additionally, for moral as well as strategic recruitment reasons, support and follow those BIPOC voices within XR and the climate movement in general who are working hard to centre the marginalised, such as Shanthuru Premkumar and Vanessa Nakate.
To help prevent pathways to (eco)fascism, support risky nationalistic civil disobedience movements such as Insulate Britain and Fireproof Australiaonly if within a robust anti-fascist rhetoric and understanding. For more on anti-fascism within XR in Europe, and related groups and movements, join the XR Anti-(Eco)Fascism & Refugee Support Facebook page, which includes a systematic organisation of posts / information into Guides.
Use April Rebellions to build global momentum for climate justice, with a keen eye on events related to climate justice that are happening in April, especially led by groups in the Global South. Such events can be leveraged by actions of SR/XR which are Global North based, and in media coverage of SR/XR.
It was a great learning experience to interview Helen Beynon for E.T. YouTube, regarding her book Twyford Rising. Twyford Rising is about the Twyford Down direct action road protest that kick-started the road protest movement of the 90’s in Britain. This was a movement which, although many don’t know this, had a pivotal influence on environmental campaigning thereafter, in the UK and further afield.
Helen also has other books in the pipeline, including Faultlines, an exploration of communities and landscapes affected by fracking and The Unbounded Land, a book about common land in Britain today. Visit Helen’s main website here.
High points for me of our chat include:
Learning about the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in British history (no, it’s not Extinction Rebellion)
Learning about the importance of knowing your history, when it comes to protest and rebellion!
Finding out about the solidarity between the Twyford Down protest and the women of Greenham Common
Discovering that consensus based decision making can be used, and has been used, in the rapidly changing context of a street protest or march
Helen is not just a writer and recorder of significant recent history regarding environmental activism in the UK; she is a frontline activist who has been arrested many times by the police. She’s also easy-going and down to earth.
If you are a serious activist in the UK, let me strongly suggest that you learn about Twyford Rising.
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. I will keep it topical. I will also link to my video content where I think it might be helpful. I am not a strategy ‘expert’. I am good at collecting together multiple pieces of information and perspectives, from my own and others’ study, packaging them together into a coherent and accessible whole. This is what I offer you. If your activism is ‘simply’ to save your community centre from closure, you will likely find something of use here. If your activism has the grandest aim of ‘global systems change’, you will also find some useful material. For most of you who will be somewhere in between, I can guarantee that there will be something in this post which adds to your strategising.
On this platform I’m facilitating diverse connections and strategy between activists worldwide, because diversity plus organisation equals strategic capacity. This blog post is partly a reaction against the lack of diversity, and hence strategic capacity, of social movements I have been involved with, or had contact with, in the past. In time I will consult specific activists and groups for authorial / editorial contributions to this post. Feel free to follow me on Twitter. Subscribe to my regular Well Hunted, Well Gathered (WHWG) Strategy Bulletins, as well as other blog posts, here.
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 recklessly violent elements on the Far Left). I am actively anti-fascist. I also see that some causes and campaigns demand collaboration between the Left, liberals and conservatives, in order to succeed.
For every strategy tip below, there are at least eight applications:
The strategy tip can be applied to non-violent direct action (NVDA) or mass civil disobedience.
The strategy tip can be applied to conventional activism including legal protest, political campaigning and lobbying / NGO activism / activism as education etc.
The strategy tip can be applied to a dual, combined or ‘meta’ strategy of different groups working together, 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 within a single country or across more than one country.
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 immediate 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 in localised contexts.
The strategy tip can conceivably be applied to campaigns of property damage and sabotage (although I don’t explicitly recommend it).
The strategy tip can conceivably be applied to the use of defensive or offensive force (although I don’t explicitly recommend it).
1. Activism can be a matter of life and death. Take your activism seriously and develop international perspectives.
I love Life, and I hate war. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of useful advice to be found in military strategy texts that can be applied to non-violent activism or movements dominated by non-violent tactics. 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, when we we get it wrong, other people and living beings continue to suffer injustice and maybe even to lose their lives. Ultimately, the human species could be at risk of extinction. It would be wise to figure this in to everything, somehow, even to small and local activist initiatives to protect community services. 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.
If we don’t take our activism seriously i.e.if we are not correctly motivated, then our strategising will be misguided and inefficient. We could also 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. This is even the case if we are engaging in conventional, non-confrontational activism, for instance campaigning for political candidates within existing governmental structures. The globe is irrevocably interconnected like never before. A potentially de-globalised future could nevertheless be an internationalistone. So let us develop international perspectives by learning about what is happening elsewhere and asking ourselves how the way we strategise / act may help or hinder other struggles around the world. (This is one step short of active solidarity, which will be discussed in another strategy tip below).
In chapter one of his book Full Spectrum Resistance, volume 1, Aric McBay gives some serious reasons for engaging in activism, for ‘why we fight’, especially on the social movement level, including:
Because dictators, sociopaths and corporations are immune to persuasion. (McBay quotes Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and slavery abolitionist in the USA mid 19th C, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will’.)
Because the institutions of democracy have failed, on the local level, the national level and globally.
Because some people are unable or unwilling to fight for what is right.
Because activism has been proven to work; because we can win.
We can also determine some essentially wrong reasons for engaging in activism. Some wrong reasons would include:
Being an activist because it’s cool or will make us more popular. 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. Likewise we should enjoy the attention and community we gain when we engage with causes that are bigger than us. But let us not be motivated by the perceived prestige of being a radical or a leader. Many activists abuse such prestige by taking advantage of others, including materially and sexually.
Because it’s exciting,exotic, remote ordangerous. It’s easy to campaign against injustices happening far away, but not so easy to reform or revolutionise our neighbourhoods. After interviewing resistors to the military coup in Myanmar of February 2021, I realised that my motivations were not pure. At the start of this project I was excited to be part of a life-and-death scenario (although safely removed from it) as well as having more noble and strategic motivations. I largely dropped my interviews when the global media dropped Myanmar as newsworthy. Meanwhile, the torture and execution of Myanmar citizens worsened. Just recently I have renewed my commitment to the Myanmar revolution and picked up the interview series once more. So, our motivations can always be improved.
Doing activism solely as a career. This is a tricky one. Clearly, when capitalism dominates social relations across the planet, most of us have to generate financial income, not least to fund our activism. If we are skilled enough in providing services that other activists need on a freelance basis, or employing our skills to serve an established NGO, sometimes it can be useful to position ourselves as professional activists, perhaps alongside other paid work. Sometimes NGO’s do some good work and sometimes we can develop creative, niche freelance services that are genuinely useful to activists. Professionalised activism can also help us learn more about the causes we are pursuing in our own time, help us to network / build coalitions, and ultimately to strategise our way towards success in our activism. However, this can be problematic for at least six big reasons. 1) If activism as a career is, or becomes, a focus for us, we are easily influenced by the weight of capitalist culture to be more loyal to the career, than to the causes and communities the career professes to help. 2) Professional activists working for NGO’s are easily sidetracked, railroaded or otherwise pressured or co-opted into (often unknowingly) accepting sham solutions to social and political injustice, by governments, corporations, or other corrupt institutions, or even by the very NGOs they are working for. 3) Many large NGO’s, as sprawling bureaucratic institutions embedded in advanced capitalist culture, are notorious for harbouring internal economic inequalities as well as wasteful and corrupt organisational practices. For instance, excessive spending on glossy magazines, or reinforcing of social injustices in the field by not training their staff sufficiently in anti-racism and anti-colonialism 4) Some NGO’s have implicitly colonialist agendas. 5) If (neoliberal) capitalism is largely responsible for many of the injustices that professional activists claim to campaign against, whether freelance or working for an NGO, their activism will have limited value. When activism is embedded in a capitalist context, it is to some extent colluding with destructive capitalist culture. 6) ‘Services for activists’ shouldn’t ultimately be provided according to ability to pay. Justice does not have a price tag and is not just for the middle-classes who can afford it, or the pet activist projects of the middle-classes (although some of these may serve the poor).
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, starting or joining something 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, and this is when we can learn to strategise i.e. to plan, most thoroughly.
Fighting 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.
There will be other wrong reasons I haven’t covered. Just ask yourself, ‘What am I really doing, and why am I really doing it?’
We are all activists at heart, on something, or at least even the laziest of us would be given a little motivation; we all have views on how things should be different to serve people better. But egos aside, we have to seriously consider what kind of activism, and what kind of role within an activist group, we would be suited to. We have to think carefully on what kind of changes, developments or sacrifices we may be prepared to undertake in our own lives. These could be related to our long-term well-being, training and study we might need to do to engage in activism, paid work options we may be limited to as serious activists, and freedoms that we may lose or gain. We can consider such general factors as our physical and mental health before beginning, opportunities and restrictions related to how we manage our time, and the potential impact of our activism on family members and friends. Careful commitment is a pre-requisite for effective strategic development.
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.