!Gather for global systems change!

I feel passionately about every video in my YouTube channel highlights playlist:

My partner Daphnee Azoulay told me I wouldn’t get any dinner if I didn’t go through with this. She wasn’t able to join me as she was banned from the council chambers.

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.

More strategy tips here.

Well Hunted, Well Gathered activist resources here.

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!Sensitive & serious strategy tips for heroic activists

Featured

This post is constantly evolving. It may be messy in places, but use it! I will keep it topical by updating it regularly with links to current world events. I will also link to my video interviews with activists where I think it might be helpful. I’m facilitating the emergence of an activist community on YouTube here. In time I will consult specific activists for authorial / editorial contributions for this post, and add the names of those who provide significant contributions (if they wish).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether we are focused on the modest (but potentially challenging) aim of saving our local community centre from closure, or initiating a campaign to start or develop a society-wide revolution -we need to get organised and get ‘strategised’! Some activists are afraid of developing plans of action and the human organisations needed to implement and sustain them, because these imply the responsibility of leadership (or if we don’t like that word or concept, then ‘facilitation’, ‘co-ordination’ or ‘organisation’). See 4. below.

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

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

Moreover our ‘enemies’ or their protective institutions (including state governments) will have tried and tested strategies and tactics to deal with activists, campaigns and social movements, so we mustn’t be complacent! These can vary in severity, including the passing of regressive anti-protest laws, as we have recently seen in the UK and around the world. Activist strategy must constantly counter and account for the strategy of the opposition, as well as what we know to be their basic resources and capabilities. Again, with reluctance we can learn from military examples; a military general would not take their army to war without systematically learning everything they could about their enemy and how to win against them. On the global level, the climate, ecological, humanitarian and underlying political and economic crises are a matter of increasing genocide and ecocide, so we need to get serious. (We also need to get sensitive).

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

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

3. Don’t over-strategise (or mis-strategise)!

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

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

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

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

4. Know the difference between Grand Strategy, campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods.

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

5. 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.

6. Have a realistic and clearly defined strategic aim(s) or Grand Strategic aim.

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

6.5 Know the difference between the necessary and the sufficient.

6.6 Know the difference between socail and political movements, and know that both are needed.

7. Don’t be limited by ‘realism’. Gay marriage rights, This Is An Uprising, p 89 ‘rather than being based on calculating realism…’

8. 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.

9. Know how to frame, and declare, minor and major victories. Gandhi and ‘the minimum consistent with the truth’.

10. Set targets publicly and achieve them. This Is…page 135

7. Develop & be guided by shared visions of the ideal result or society you are working for, & a shared strategic vision of how to get there, incorporating minimum, transitional & maximum visions of change.

Understand how these visions relate to your Grand Strategy and campaign strategies (if you are working on a big enough scale to be planning more than one campaign). More to be added soon, including avoiding entropy / wasted energy across diverse groups that have the same or similar aims i.e. the development of strategic partnerships for all stages of vision. With thanks to XR, but XR doesn’t go far or deep enough. The shared vision must include a maximum diversity of voices, for strategic as well as ethical reasons.

8. Develop ‘transitional concensus’ with different groups. (Develop my own theory).

8. Be for, as much as against.

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

9. Define and then strategise to attack / influence all the pillars of power simultaneously, to bring the power down… (start top page 92 This Is An Uprising)

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

Relates to 8. below. As more people join your group, there will be more collective experience and insight to contribute to the development of strategy.

9. Power exists; deal with it! Balance between leadership and horizontal organising, including democratically sourced strategy.

This could be the issue that makes or breaks your activist group, organisation or movement, as it has made or broken many others. If you are a communalist, like I am, or if you are an anarchist, you will always be looking towards abolishing all social and political hierarchies, and therefore initiating and growing groups and movements that are as decentralised and horizontally organised as possible. Even if you are a centrist or mildly right wing, if you’ve read the corporately biased book The Starfish and the Spider you will appreciate that it is decentralised and to an extent non-hierarchical businesses and organisations that have often had the competitive edge. (This doesn’t mean everything in an organisation has to be decentralised).

Types of decentralisation…cultural, political, strategic etc

Make sure that ‘decentralisation’ isn’t done in a way which looks like ‘centralisation’. Best way is to be fully decentralised / locally autonomous as soon as you have more than a handful of people involved.

Cultivate leadership but not the cult of leaders. Do not be afraid of leadership, initiation, co-ordination, or facilitation. Make it strictly boundaried and accountable where it has to exist. Lead yourself and encourage others to lead themselves.If you are part of a social movement, let it be leaderful! The leaderless social movement or revolution is a myth. Bookchin quote…

Therefore power must be institutionalised in directly democratic structures, but movements for social and political change must also be leaderful, so that leadership and social / activist innovation are also institutionalised / held accountable / prevented from becoming entrenched, but encouraged to the extent that we need a passionate diversity of leadership and experimentation to achieve social and political change in current societies…

Incorporate again The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

Balance horizontal organising with fluid and temporary vertical organising when the situation calls for it, but beware the cult of leadership!Every group, organisation or movement needs founders or initiators. [hard strategy element]Beware the cult of leadership!Don’t letinitiators of activist organisations and movements own and direct those orgs and movements, or become entrenched spokespeople or dominators of strategy, however nice or charismatic or clever or well-researched in strategy they are.The wisdom of the crowd is greater than thewisdom of one on strategy, however much of a specialist that one appears to be, and no-one is perfect, so faults in the one that has too much power will be magnified disproportionately and have a disproportionately negative effect onthe org or movement that the one purportsto lead. Beware the manufacture of leaders by lazy and simplistic journalists and media platforms -keep relative control of your org / movement narratives! [hard strategy element]

My own guiding utopia of communalism…doesn’t have to be yours, for you to appreciate this strategy tip.

Institutionalise an ongoing democratic strategy-forming process, and allow some actions outside of the strategy.

10. Consider that different stages and domains of a growing group / movement require different frms of organisation, so holacracy could suit a rapidly growing movement but not a stabilising / consolidating one

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

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

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

12. Critical connections are more important than critical mass.

(Can happen in a bad way too -Priti Pathel and Rupert Murdoch). Many successful activist organisations and groups were started by a very small group of friends who knew each other very well and trusted one another. [soft strategy element]

13. Balance between organisation and mobilisation -use momentum-driven organising.

Page 96 This Is An Uprising

14. Be a heroine, a hero or a theyro.

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

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

More needed, including regenerative cultures.

16. Be intersectional.

Define the basic terms and language of your activism clearly and accessibly to the general population, and creatively expand definitions. For instance, consider having a fluid conception of the term ‘activist’.Ideally, most of society could be classed as ‘activist’, if only we could convince everyone of their value in fighting for what they believe in. Many people are engaged in this fight without considering themselves ‘activists’. This is not about goals and demands, but basic language. And diverse language!

17. Have leaderful movements but avoid the cult of personality (Otpor, This Is An Uprising, 68-69.)

18. Be aware of the Overton window, 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.

18. Know some history, but don’t sacrifice the present to the past. Link to NVDA database. Part of Heller’s CRITICAL PHASE.

19. Get to the real history e.g. Claudette Colvin before Rosa Parks

19. Know the present (info and intelliegence gathering).

20. Study war strategy seriously -then subvert it..

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

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

23. Employ PESTLE.

24. ACT UP! -divisiveness is unavoidable and boundaried anger is okay.

25. 240-241 This Is… Black Bloc, mostly white young men, are an insult to strategy…but they must be planned for

25. Polarisation tactic (has XR used it wisely?) Know WHEN and HOW to use polarisation and balance with transitional concensus.

24. Brainstorm dilemna actions, from history, and imagined.

24. This Is…p150 ‘A common misconception…’

25. Sharp’s political jiu jitsu, expand, including luring large forces to the wrong place

24. 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.

25. Understand the centrality of mass participation civil disobedience in social (and political, but Chaia’s qualification) change.

26. Disruption is essential

27. Sacrifice is essential to inspire public and strike fear in foe…disruption PLUS sacrifice is ideal.

28. Escalate carefully.

29. Know whether to escalate quickly or slowly (my argument for global systems change is escalate slowly),

30. including a useful reframing of the global struggle up to this historicl point)

26. 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.

27. 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.

28. 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

29. 249 This Is An….Rqdical violent flank or threat of violnec could have use, look at Black Panthers-MLK dynamic.

29. 249-250 This Is… non-violent discipline across a movement is not easy and needs frontloaded training / culture

29. 242-243 This Is… performative vioence and agent provocateurs…beat them with disciplined non-violence.

29. 244-245: Learn from the failure of the Weathermen…

29. 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 –

30. 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…

30. – ‘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.

31. p261 This is…’when it comes to mass upheaval…activity’

32. p262 ‘When mass mobilisations…to flourish’.

28. Ends don’t justify means.

28. This Is…278, ‘A healthy movement ecology…from this history’

29. Practising getting in and out…

29. 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]

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

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

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

Critical connections are more important than critical mass. (A. M. Brown).

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

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

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

Timing is important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the best a heroine can be.

Celebrate victories and anniversaries!

Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist

Taw Samhain, revolutionary rivers, narrative integration & 15 sensitive & serious strategy tips for heroic activists

Introduction

To go straight to the strategy tips, click here.

This re-written post is a celebration of the 3 year anniversary of me beginning Epic Tomorrows, and the 2 year anniversary of me becoming involved with direct action civil disobedience, via Extinction Rebellion (XR). I originally published this first post of Epic Tomorrows on 30th October 2017, one year and one day before I attended the Declaration of Rebellion in Parliament Square in London which publicly began the international XR movement. On that day I shed tears as Greta Thunberg -who had travelled to the UK with her father Svante in an electric car- told me and the others assembled there, ‘It’s time to rebel!’ Regardless of the criticism that Greta has since received, and that she is sometimes co-opted by corporatist interests, I know from first-hand experience that she means very well.

When I first published this post I had a very intellectual -maybe even abstract- view of rebellion, ‘revolution’ and ‘global systems change’. Since then I think I have developed a slightly more practical approach, largely informed by my direct experience of NVDA (non-violent direct action) and civil disobedience with XR.

My approach has also developed some humanity, I hope, and interconnectedness with the approaches of others, as manifested in the Epic Tomorrows YouTube channel that I started early in 2020, and with the help of @EpicTomorrows on Twitter.

I began the Epic Tomorrows blog, with this post, in ‘arrogant confusion’ but at least I trusted that something valuable would come out of it, which I believe it has, thus:

‘I’m sat on a rock in the river Taw. Never have I seen it so high. I’m here to wash away the distractions of life that I may focus on the highest stream within me; the stream of servant-leadership. There is no point in leading except to serve whom you lead, or you are only serving yourself…

We are just days away from the Gaelic festival of Samhain that has Celtic pagan origins. I love these old Celtic seasonal observances, even though I don’t usually celebrate them outwardly. Samhain is halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice -a neat orientation point; something that raises my awareness of the passing seasons and their different characteristics…’

Since writing this first blog post I have been on an intellectual adventure which has questioned the very idea of leadership, prompted by clear problems posed by the perceived leadership within XR. Nevertheless, despite fashionable anarcho- currents on the political Left, most recently with the help of ‘The Next Revolution’ -a book of some collected essays of Murray Bookchin, I have realised that true leadership is a good and necessary thing, at least at this early stage of human evolution, and should be encouraged and made accountable to ‘the led’ in every sphere of life; irresponsible (unresponsive) leaders should be brought down.

This post will likely go through many iterations, to always be a work in progress.

Maybe I will return to the post at the same time every year, as part of my narrative sense-making of the world through the celebration of anniversaries.

Murray Bookchin (the guy, not the cat)

A working hypothesis

In the original post I went on to offer a ‘working hypothesis’ which was to define an area of exploration, development and activism for Epic Tomorrows (ET). It was nothing radically new. It didn’t ‘work’, in the sense that I didn’t ‘work it’ or ‘work with it’. In fact over the course of a few months as ET meandered, I lost my focus and forgot all about it. I think it’s worth returning to, so I have updated it slightly:

The somewhat philosophical hypothesis is that, on one level -albeit a very deep and important level- most suffering and death in modern society is closely associated with a lack of narrative integration. This suffering and death is implicit in globally poor standards of individual mental health and well-being; the well-being of groups and institutions; and the well-being and sustainability of global human culture as a whole. This root lack of narrative integration that is to blame, in turn arises from the much documented (and blatantly obvious) disconnection of large portions of humanity from the rest of Nature which in modern times is co-creative with (and has been accelerated by) a neoliberal globalised capitalist system (or system of systems) which creates extreme economic inequality as well as other dynamics of oppression, including male dominance and the complete destruction of traditional human cultures, and many species of wildlife. This disconnection has grown over many millennia.

Narrative integration, out of narrative disintegration, may be a useful personal and collective, explicit (cultural) goal within the wider activism of anti- and post- capitalist global systems change(s), even on the urgent practical level of civil disobedience.

An underlying assumption to this post is that there are two main types of thought we use to make sense of the world, propositional (or logical) thinking and narrative thinking. We need them in balance. At this point I would like to suggest the grounding practice of breaking down narratives into propositions, thanks to Daniel Schmachtenberger. For a great description of this practice, watch Daniel in this video from 1.36.30 onwards. Doing this with narratives we come across in the media, or discern in our own minds / lives, can help us assess whether these narratives are functionally useful (or ‘true enough’) i.e. whether they are based enough on sound logical propositions as well as integrated with wider truths and evolving human culture, or whether they are illogical and tend towards disintegration.

To try to demystify my hypothesis, it is well established that us human beings partly make sense of the world, and of human culture, by the narratives and myths that we construct about ourselves and the world around us, as well as, more crucially, the underpinning unconscious narrative frameworks that guide our thinking and behaviour. I argue that our individual autobiographies and our collective stories and narratives have become excessively confused, hypocritical, falsely siloed, alienated and fragmented in modern society, including on the deep level of unconscious narrative frameworks, reflecting profound social and ecological injustice and trauma, and the distortion and subversion of this injustice and trauma by consumerist media manipulation. Moreover, non-consumerist narratives are deliberately disintegrated, supplanted and subjugated by consumerist narratives, at the behest of capitalist elites. Lack of conscious and unconscious narrative integration (and lack of narrative control) -including integration with non-human Nature- is the defining pathology of this situation. To re-integrate narratives -our own with our own and our own with other people’s- and to reclaim our narratives, is also to reconnect profoundly with Nature, individually, socially and through the wider culture.

-The best of this original post ended with the section above in italics, although I have added to the section substantially, including the links. In fact I am a little daunted even to finish this post. Really I’m way out of my depth, but I have always loved the risk of swimming into the deep, trusting I will find rocks to perch on before I become totally exhausted intellectually. If anything, this post will serve me, and I hope, some of you readers, as a basis for further exploration and study, and dare I write it, some renewed inspiration for activism and civil disobedience.

Integrate this

Narrative integration and mental health

When I originally wrote this post in 2017, I included this short section on my own mental health, which I have now expanded to include more tangible examples of disintegrated narratives-

I do not blame anyone, including myself, for any lack in my past or present life, but I do take responsibility for change.

My own life narrative of mental health is something that I’m working on. A few years ago it looked pretty shaky. However, the more I detach myself from conventional understandings of mental health -particularly the biomedical model of mental illness-  the more I appreciate my unique journey and the gifts it has bestowed on me, as well as the unique challenges which could be headed under ‘mental dis-ease’. It has taken me a while to arrive at this understanding. Sometimes I struggle not to feel injured, to feel beaten black and blue actually, by the fragmented society that allowed me to be defined as medically sick and that still sometimes seeks to define me as such. Ironically, I view conventional attitudes to mental health as a contributory cause of mental ill-ness. I don’t blame individuals or even ‘society’. I am just sharing feelings and observations.

Reconnecting with Nature was key to my recovery from the worst of the dis-ease, and continues to be. Earth Nature as a whole is also key to my new, positive life narrative of mental health and purpose in life i.e. my new understanding of my journey. It is a journey of integration with non-human Nature, integration with and /or refinement of, and also some abandonment of, disintegrated and disintegrative narratives that I have dysfunctionally carried around with me, better integration with the people around me and integration with parts of myself I may have previously struggled to admit into consciousness –the ‘shadow’, according to Jung. 

The catchword of ‘integration’ speaks of energy efficiency and resilience, but let us not become too resilient to the neoliberal capitalist forces which dominate us, or we will only perpetuate them.

Some of the various conflicted and fragmented narratives of modern culture that contributed to my mental illness in the first place, an understanding of which I am very lucky to write, is driving towards my liberation, are listed below. If they are not disintegrated, (whilst still posing as whole and powerfully directive by the human actors that serve them) causing conflict within me and in society in general, we can at least say that they are disintegrative or decompositional. I’m sure you recognise some of them:

  1. A child should be raised primarily by its biological mother and father in a house isolated from other families. The parents should stay together for the duration of the childhood, and should agree on how to raise the child.
  2. Middle-class academic children must attend university at aged 18. The working-class can go to hell.
  3. Leaving university without a degree is shameful.
  4. A university degree is worth more than a practical vocational qualification of a high standard.
  5. The city is the place to be. The city is superior to the country, which is just a nice place to visit.
  6. Using alcohol is the best way to relax.
  7. The pornography industry is sustainable and acceptable.
  8. Men must make the first move in relationships, and if you don’t have a girlfriend or at least a sexual partner, as a man, you are a loser.
  9. If you are not heteronormative you are abnormal.
  10. Monogamy is the only ethical way to conduct intimate interpersonal relationships.
  11. Mental illness is best treated by pills, and is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
  12. (Patriotism for) the nation state is good and necessary.
  13. We live in a democracy.
  14. The only alternative to capitalism is communism (which hasn’t worked, so there is no alternative).
  15. To buy is to be. To accumulate is to succeed.
  16. Our colonial past was terrible, but we are entitled to the ongoing stolen fruits of that past.
  17. Slavery and colonialism are of the past.
  18. You cannot change the law by breaking the law.
  19. This, whatever it is, is normal. This is the way it is supposed to be.

These (bullshit) cultural narratives have intersected in various complex ways in my personal narratives and life episodes, in problematic ways, sometimes left unresolved intellectually and emotionally, including in simple remembered anecdotes and stories contained within future aspirations. I’m sure it’s the same for you.

It is Halloween, or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, the beginning of the Christian observance of Allhallowtide: three days of remembrance of the dead. (Let us not remember too fondly, dead narratives which no longer serve us.) The modern Halloween is an integration of Samhain and All Hallows practices. What positive tricks and treats of narrative integration can we share with one another?

The late, great David Graeber: 1961-2020 Rest In Power

Epic post-capitalist tomorrows

The current focus of Epic Tomorrows is the accumulating and collating of online data as well as strategic insights, to help activists and revolutionaries achieve victories on the way to global systems change(s). The more accurate and relevant information we have, the more informed and efficient will be our actions. Naturally narrative thinking -with some conscious temperance- has a role to play in this information gathering and its application.

Narrative integration / disintegration can be understood in a variety of ways and historical contexts. Recently I have read some great analyses of the current state of the neoliberal globalised capitalist order, especially Wolfgang Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ and including ‘Postcapitalism’ by Paul Mason. I now reflect on how these readings inform the narrative integration perspective.

I have also been reminded recently of the colonialism that set precedents for neoliberal neo-colonialism and imperialism (especially Euro-American imperialism); reminded by the Black Lives Matter movement and my recent interviewing of XR co-founder Stu Basden who wrote this article which went viral.

Additionally, of some relevance here might be that since late summer 2020 I have been working on the concept (and flesh) of a global meta-strategy for global systems change(s); looking at how activists and their social movements can better co-ordinate and facilitate their strategising.

Finally, I should add here in respect of synchronicity and synchronistic events (synchronistic, not synchronous) that the other day (it’s Samhain / Halloween 2020 as I write this latest version) I received an email from the website provider Wix -who I used a long time back- that my old sites ‘need upgrading’. The main site I used Wix for was ‘Rebirch’, a project that has since mutated into a theory I am developing of holistic mental health whose updated title is ‘the 13 activist bases of mental health’. The essence of this theory is partly to show that all theories / approaches to mental health include highly arbitrary components / criteria, as well as to suggest a potentially useful new contemporary, albeit still arbitrary, understanding of mental health. ‘Narrative health’ is one of the 13 activist bases for mental health, and a base that ties the other bases together.

So in light of these recent developments and the synchronistic reminder of ‘narrative health’ as a potential foundation for mental health, I would like to pose the following questions as an expansion of the ‘narrative integration’ hypothesis, and to serve narrative integration as well as more generally, the re-integration of all human knowledge to serve activism for global systems change(s):

  • Is neoliberal capitalism in a critical condition, unable to support its own weight and global society for much longer? If most consumerist narratives collapse, as those narratives are premised on hypocrisy and disintegration, how will their collapse reflect in those parts of our identities which have invested in them, of buying our way to joy, success, and meaning? Will we be equally relieved and confused to be without consumerist narratives? Ahead of any possible global societal collapse, how can we reconnect to and reintegrate narratives of identity which support activism for a managed transition to global industrial and cultural systems post-capitalism and post-consumerism, including the heroism that may be required for such a transition? Who will we be during and post-transition and how will we remember and tell stories about how we were before the transition, as individuals, families, communities and nations?
  • Were democracy and capitalism ever really integrated as systems, or did each always prevent the other from fully realising, to the benefit of capitalism (as unchecked it undermines itself) but not to the benefit of democracy? If the latter is true, how do we atone our humanity with the use of narrative?
  • Is an integrated info-tech based coherent global system of postcapitalism possible and / or desirable, or should we be using our narrative cognition to focus on developing diverse post-capitalist place-based (localised) narratives, first of all for our individual life-paths? Or should we be imagining ourselves into futures which are both hyper-connected and localised?
  • How much are our personal life stories and ambitions polluted by fragmented and trauma-inducing, as well as trauma-carrying, colonialist, imperialist and slave-holding (human and non-human) mindsets?
  • How can bioculturally diverse communities dislocated and destroyed by colonialist, imperialist and global neoliberal capitalist narratives, relocate and rebuild with narratives supported by the narrative-driven mission statements and strategic aims and practical visions, of a decolonised international movement of movements (MoM)?
  • Is the fundamental narrative contradiction / disintegration that needs to be addressed by the awakening activist, the ongoing conflict and chaos between the heroic narrative of systems change, and the decaying narrative of ‘to have is to be’?
  • How can ‘narrative health’ be retained and supported in all activists and all human beings for their continued mental health and well-being, as part of a wider concern for regenerative human cultures?

On this third year anniversary / development of the original post, I re-commit, better late than never, to exploring narrative (re-)integration, especially in service to activism and global systems change(s). As it is my YouTube channel that has taken off more than anything else, I will honour the commitment through the human connections that I make in interviews and online discussions that I will facilitate and upload.

Shanthi, from Decolonise XR Belgium

Narrative and propositional thinking in balance, and the limits of ‘memetic tribes’

The following citation is from ‘How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences’ by Roy F. Baumeister and Leonard S. Newman of Case Western Reserve University. It is worth reading the entire article for a very complex and nuanced explanation of the various cognitive functions / motivations of story-telling and narrative thinking:

‘Narrative thinking sacrifices the generality of the paradigmatic mode in favour of comprehensiveness. Rich accounts can encompass many features, and so narratives are more flexible and can accommodate more inconsistencies than paradigmatic thinking. Internal coherence is the important criterion, rather than how falsifiable the stories are. Therefore, the narrative mode is well suited to reinterpreting and accommodating inconsistent information, as well as for helping people think about situations that involve conflicts or contradictions.’

Yet when the contradictions become overwhelming and profoundly traumatic, as I would argue they have become in globalised capitalist culture, the narrative function becomes highly disintegrated and dysfunctional.

It is now clear to me that although narrative thinking / narrative psychology is very important to how we make sense of the world and act upon it, ‘paradigmatic thinking’, also called ‘propositional thinking’, a general form of logical thinking, is equally as important. Nevertheless, this could strengthen rather than contest my initial hypothesis.

Baumeister and Newman again:

‘The point that propositional knowledge is useful for making stories brings up the issue of how distinct these two modes are…In practice…each individual’s accumulation of knowledge probably uses both modes in an interactive fashion’

Clearly, the current neoliberal global capitalist order (including the ‘communist capitalism’ of China) does not make logical sense. Extreme economic equality, various forms of oppression of most humans and Nature by a small handful of other humans, and the increasing destruction of the biosphere towards the point of a highly possible human extinction, are not sustainable and so do not make logical sense. On a global level, our paradigmatic thinking -our logical reasoning- is failing us, as we are allowing the destructive systems of neoliberalism and the elites that serve them, to continue. Okay, so we may be scared, but it is not logical to let that fear take us towards species annihilation.

Where narrative psychology comes back in, is that it could be precisely because our narrative interpretation of reality is currently so broken and dysfunctional, that our logical reasoning has also suffered (meaning that all forms of sense-making are currently degraded). I propose that this is happening for two main reasons. Firstly, because consciously or unconsciously, we are at a stage in human history where our thought has become ‘globalised’ -due to neoliberal globalisation and due to the internet- but without becoming coherently whole, or balanced in making sense of the world. Largely this is due to our disconnection from non-human Nature and our failure to fully comprehend or embody that disconnection.

However we are more aware than ever of our increasingly inter-connected and potentially threatening human world; perhaps falsely assuming that the non-human world that we impact -including the climate- cannot ultimately endanger us, we can’t help but defensively attempt grand anthropocentric world-encompassing narratives to make sense of things, inevitably based at least partly on sketchy, profit-driven, scare-mongering Big Tech and Big Media -manipulated representations of global events, whatever more elucidating material we may be consuming.

Overwhelmed by global data, perceived global threats and a need for global meaning to counteract the void in meaning created by a literally and culturally dislocating world system(s), our critical thinking and logical reasoning skills have suffered. When we feel forced to generalise and totalise to the extreme regarding global narratives of humanity, especially in a defensive mode, even if quite mildly so, we easily lose or subsume the practice of the leisurely, careful narrative-building that relies on and is co-creative with a fair degree of propositional thinking. As a result, not only our thinking, but our acting, is irrational.

Paradigmatic thinking requires propositions based on the law of cause and effect. Data overwhelm on a global scale, usually heavily biased even when it proposes to be objective, makes cause and effect propositions increasingly difficult. We could often be wholesale giving up on logical thinking in favour of defensive globalised narratives -often utopian or catastrophic in character. Our urgent need to make sense by story, due to this immature and fragmented stage of globalised consciousness has resulted in disintegrated stories which undermine the security and leisure we need to reason things out logically, which further disintegrates our narrative making.

Secondly, neoliberal capitalist and consumerist narratives, the deceitful outward expressions of ecocide -often as overt as consumerist fairy-tales used in advertising- have become more powerful in the world than logical thinking. The illogical personal and collective narratives that we form around the ‘to buy is to be’ mantra -illogical for our mental health and for the survival of our communities and our very species- are so profoundly a part of our identities at this stage in history, that they have undermined our capacity for propositional thinking. Moreover, we may  be dissuaded from going too deeply into propositional thinking for fear of being confronted with our own hypocrisy -a hypocrisy that is central to the functioning of our lives (within the unavoidable megamachine of contemporary capitalism).

Additionally, many reasonable human beings feel forced to adopt the defensive political identity positions of either ‘globalised’ on the one hand, desperately trying to salvage internationalism from destructive neoliberalism (including as part of pro-EU narratives in Europe) or nationalist-democratic on the other, often expressing the confusion of fake narratives of democracy on the macro and global level in the micro-unfoldings of our lives, knowing all-too-well that representative democracy is increasingly unreal and subject to corporatism and financial interests.

This isn’t supposed to be a damning of narrative thinking which has an important function in sense-making, but of a dysfunctional narrative thinking untempered by logic, put on the defensive by globalisation and co-opted by consumerism. This is in addition to the very physical ways that a neoliberal capitalist system has ripped up the habitats, communities, traditions and livelihoods which have been the basis of our Life-affirming and sense-making narratives for so long, globally.

This discussion is also informed by the Rebel Wisdom ‘sense-making’ series on YouTube. This latest video in the series, with Daniel Schmachtenberger, brings up concepts of ‘narrative warfare’ and AI-directed social media control via ‘sticky’ content which increases our addiction to / use of these profit-seeking platforms (YouTube / Facebook etc) by appealing to and maximising our tendencies to tribal identity -regardless of whether or not those tribes are artificially created or reinforced by false or highly manipulated information about what is going on in the world. These tribes are pitted against each other on the platforms by AI-sourced algorithms, an infowar and narrative war which boosts the platforms and leaves them relatively unquestioned and unaccountable (the old method of divide and conquer) as well as spilling over into other more ‘independent’ parts of the internet, and into ‘real life’.

I would add, I have friends who don’t use social media, purportedly to control their own narratives, and yet I see these friends manipulated just as destructively, if not more so, by online propaganda from sources which to me are more obviously biased, even though the bias may be belied and obscured to my friends.

Naturally, internet-dependent tribal identities encourage a further disconnection from Nature, as well as the truth in general, which means a general individual and cultural tendency towards narrative disintegration / dysfunction, except where some effort and method is made to retain an overall view, including of the corporatist interests that manipulate us, which I am trying to do in this post.

Despite the insight of Rebel Wisdom, the profound disconnection from Nature that both allows and is co-creative with online narrative warfare and disintegration, seems to be relatively unaddressed on the channel (but I haven’t watched every video). Likewise the viral The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0, which has provided some inspiration to the Rebel Wisdom sense-making series, fascinating and insightful though it is, does not do justice to the basic underlying lack of narrative integration in modern culture which is symptomatic of the neoliberal globalised capitalist (dis)order.  The (dis)order that is co-creative (co-destructive) with disconnection from / destruction of, localised biocultural diversity and non-human Nature. As reflected in a disembodied internet space where appropriate locality-bound and natural resource-limited cultural coherency, potentially enhanced online by international solidarity and understanding, seem to be subservient to unaccountable globally projected egos and often hysterical virtual tribes whose narratives are largely created and maintained by corporatist interests, suffering obviously from a lack of grounding in the natural resource-bound real world.

The ‘six crises’ mentioned in the following citation are a fair enough framework for understanding the genesis of (Euro-American) memetic tribes except that the crucial underlying disconnection from localised, biodiverse Nature has been unstated:

‘We argue that six phenomena are involved in their genesis: secularization, fragmentation, atomization, globalization, stimulation, and weaponization. These ingredients respectively engender six crises: the meaning crisis, the reality crisis, the belonging crisis, the proximity crisis, the sobriety crisis, and the warfare crisis. We will examine each ingredient and crisis in turn…’

The memetic tribes article also completely fails to address its own Euro-American centrism and the implicit neocolonialism of its core arguments, blinkers which are themselves symptomatic of a  global culture fragmented by its dissociation from and destruction of formerly coherent, localised biocultural diversity -and the localised democracies essential to the protection of this diversity. If the authors are aware of their bias, they don’t do justice to their arguments by leaving it unstated.

They also fail to talk about arrestable direct action activists / the civilly disobedient -ecology, climate and social justice focused- who go way beyond their tepid construction of SJA (Social Justice Activists) to challenge the institutions of representative democracy more fundamentally, often from a postcapitalist or anti-capitalist perspective. Perhaps, by their Euro-American reckoning, international movements of civil disobedience since Occupy! are not relevant to the ‘culture wars’, but this would be a strange assertion. Perhaps it is only Extinction Rebellion (XR) that has brought into the public intellectual sphere (at least the Euro-American one) the existence of the global postcapitalist movement (pre-dating XR and represented by a number of organisations) for civil disobedience triggered by the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss -despite capitalist-reformists within XR. Afterall, the memetic tribes article was written one month before XR’s declaration of rebellion.

I would argue that if the authors want to contribute more fully to an understanding of globally disintegrative narratives and dysfunctional narrative thinking in modern culture, they need to address postcapitalism and expose their Euro-American bias. Otherwise they are in danger of contributing to narrative disintegration as much as resolving it, themselves tragically subject to the AI-directed siloing of thought and narrative identity that Schmachtenberger exposes.

Logic can be colourful

Covid narrative disintegration

It is hard to write about the current situation with the novel coronavirus worldwide (writing in late October 2020). I am not well-informed enough, and I am bombarded by disjointed narratives about the virus, in part reflecting the narrative disintegration discussed above. Clearly, the lack of reasoning and logical thinking symptomatic of much contemporary being-in-the-world and associated with a degradation of the function of narrative cognition, has resulted in a surprisingly large, perhaps unprecedented in scale, proportion of the global population not believing in key elements of the global coronavirus narrative, as presented by governments, inter-governmental organisations and the mainstream media. Regardless of my lack of scientific knowledge, I can offer some limited observations of what is going on on the level of narrative thinking.

Online and other media data overwhelm, from conflicting and politicised -overtly and covertly- and corporatised sources of information, including from within the supposedly objectively scientific medical professions, has fuelled the disintegration and incoherency of narratives surrounding the virus.

Online tribal polarisation largely created and manipulated by the algorithms of social media and Big Tech giants as discussed above, perhaps compounded by the confused and falsely contradictory narrative of so-called memetic tribes, also as touched on above, are further fuelling scientific misunderstanding and profound narrative disintegration (although one does not always lead to the other).

Further, a latent mass tendency to conspirituality, magnified by the internet and exacerbated by more of us spending more time online during the social restrictions imposed by the virus, is accelerating narrative disintegration surrounding the virus and weaponising totalising narratives of a shadowy New World Order (the theory goes, that has fabricated or created or manipulated the virus to impose some form of global control), providing some of the impetus for the recent rioting in the streets in response to covid lockdown measures. This is not good for the mental health of the conspiritual and everyone they come into contact with. Moreover rioting subverts and disempowers revolutionary energy that could be used in more scientific and strategic rebellions against global authorities, to achieve genuine gains towards the radical postcapitalist global systems change(s) that we need to meet the ongoing climate-ecological-economic-humanitarian crisis of humanity. On the other hand, I will be pleased if the rioting results in more financial compensation for the lockdown being distributed to the poorest.

Conspirituality is fed by very objectively justified mistrust of national governments as well as largely unaccountable inter-governmental organisations like the World Health Organisation and the World Economic Forum (partnered with the United Nations Development Programme). Neoliberal globalised capitalism, as well documented in Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ has eaten away at the institutions of representative democracy (spurious to start with) to the point that we cannot trust that governments and inter-governmental organisations are putting people before profit, even in a global pandemic, regardless of whether lockdown measures are sufficiently protecting public health for the time being. Similarly we cannot trust that (fear and panic surrounding) the pandemic isn’t being deliberately magnified towards corporatist ends. What plans are being undemocratically made for our futures by the vastly influential European Central Bank, World Bank, IMF, WEF and the institutions of the UN, whilst we are safely ‘locked’ away? One doesn’t have to believe in a conspiratorial ‘New World Order’ to be deeply worried and angry -just read Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein; events like the novel coronavirus have been progressively manipulated by corporatised governments since at the latest the mid 1970’s.

Unfortunately, right wing schizotypal populist figures like Trump manipulate anti-globalist and conspiritual sentiments for their own corporatist-nationalist ends, openly supporting and reaping the rewards of globalised capitalism on the one hand, whilst shouting loudly on the other against ‘global technocratic elites’ like WHO. To be sure WHO is corrupt, like any large inter-governmental technocratic organisation in a neoliberal capitalist system, (which is not to say there aren’t many passionate and humanity-serving individuals within WHO). Trumpists criticise global elites in a disingenuous way that does not challenge the system that creates those elites in general. Meanwhile, Trumpists benefit from the system and their confused followers. As it is right wing populist leaders that shout the loudest in criticism of unaccountable global elites, unfortunately vulnerable people of disintegrated or schizotypal mindsets, (including people I know) in situations like a novel pandemic, feeling overwhelmed, will turn to these ‘leaders’ and their bullshit disintegrative narratives, instead of more intelligent critics and critical integrative narratives of globalised capitalism grounded in science and guided by social and environmental justice.

Operating by the precautionary principle and utilitarianism, I believe it is currently right and more-or-less based in sound science to adhere generally to the lockdown measures that have been imposed in France. However, retaining my own sense of meaning and logical as well as narrative thinking skills, I see no harm in flouting the ‘no more than 1km from the house and for no more than 1 hour’ rule on daily exercise. I am currently based in a very rural area, and there are miles of gorgeous autumnal country footpaths about, conducive to mine, my partner’s and our relationship’s physical and mental health. My ‘narrative health’ also benefits, in the sense that any stories of cognition I construct around Nature and my local natural surroundings, including a deep appreciation of the changing season, distract me from the narrative disintegration of the internet, and integrate my present with previous Nature-based narratives of my self which ground and inspire me, including in my activism which is ultimately Nature-based. On a walk recently I took pleasure in recounting to my partner, similar walks I had taken in the Devon countryside in the UK.

As for the virus, the only observation I care to make is that it is real and it is novel. As for governments’ and intergovernmental institutions’ responses, and the responses of the media and various sections of the internet, the best I can do at this point is to summarise by arguing that responses and popular reactions to those responses are heavily polluted and directed by neoliberal corporate capitalist interests, and /or an understandable fear, mistrust and misunderstanding of those interests.

It’s a shame because, absent an anti-statist revolution along something like libertarian municipalist lines, strong states will be increasingly relied upon / called upon to deal with the unfolding climate and ecology-driven (neoliberalism-accelerated) global crisis. With trust in ‘democratic’ governments at an all-time low, the rioting we see now at covid lockdown measures is nothing compared to the rioting we will see in response to mistrusted (probably justifiably so) measures that governments will likely be forced to hurriedly implement during the disastrous events projected for the next few decades, associated with the ongoing global crisis of humanity.

Ideally, on the level of narrative integration to serve activism for global systems change(s), we should use the covid ‘situation’, if at all possible, to encourage the disillusioned, conspiritual, mistrustful, depressed and confused, to step (further) away from consumerist-capitalist lifestyles -‘to have is to be’ fairytales- which implicitly support corporatised governments as well as intergovernmental and private global elites -all of those interests that are most responsible for the global crisis of humanity.

Additionally, both propositional and narrative thinking skills need to be encouraged in all of us but particularly the vulnerable, in a way that promotes a localised Nature-groundedness as well as, crucially, a courageous curiosity about the experiences and stories of other human beings in other cultures around the world. We must strive for this even in the midst of global disaster, so that international solidarity takes precedence over ‘lowest common denominator’ right wing racist and nationalist narratives and responses. This will promote the holistic well-being of all of us.

If we can get away with it safely, I advocate travelling as much as possible!

Naomi Klein

Revolutionary rivers, two modes of thinking and activist strategy

It is partly thanks to the river Taw -revisited many times over the last few years- that this post has developed. 

It is hard to view a river logically, in purely cause and effect terms, as it is the quintessence of flow with its infinite and ever-changing currents. To be aware of its causes and effects would almost be to be aware of every molecule of H20.

Similarly, it is impossible to view how I got here in my life, from where I was three years ago when I started Epic Tomorrows with this post, in purely cause and effect terms. The twists and turns and encounters are just too numerous and mysterious, the data too overwhelming. And so it is with personal life narratives. We remember and retrospectively create and retell our lives in ways which we believe provide meaning to our continued existence as well as, we hope, the continued existence of the communities in which we are embedded.

Remembering that I have regularly walked along the river Taw which is local to my flat, to take a break from my reading, writing, and contemplating, it is more than mere fancy to include the river in the integrative narrative of this blog post. The river breaks have given Life and breathing space to the developing mission and practice of Epic Tomorrows, including on YouTube.

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It was one year and two and a half weeks since I had begun Epic Tomorrows, when on November 17th 2018 I was involved in the infamous ‘bridge blocks’ of five rivers crossing the Thames in London. This mass act of civil disobedience resulted in many arrests (including mine) and the launching of Extinction Rebellion (XR) into the international media and the activist consciousness of at least the climate movement of the industrialised global north.

The tactic of the bridge blocks according to Roger Hallam, one of XR’s main strategists at the time, was to ‘split the city in two’, which, when combined with ‘filling the prison cells to over-flowing’ with activists was intended to force the government to give in to XR’s demands. It was worth a shot but it didn’t work for a variety of reasons, mainly because we just didn’t have the numbers.

Unfortunately, when I was on the phone to a key and influential person within XR after this event, he was deluded as to the success of the actions, proclaiming with fervour, ‘the government will fall by Christmas!’ Needless to say, they didn’t. I only bring this up because this influential person was assumed to have greater strategic insight than most of the people around him, and a lot of strategy work was left to him. This is unfortunate when it seems as though he let his romantic vision and wishful narrative of strategic success cloud his practical assessment of what had actually been achieved and therefore what needed to be done next.

Narrative thinking and narrative integration must not be developed at the expense of propositional thinking. Propositional thinking is key to the strategising that we need to build successful social movements and execute their missions for global systems change(s). A little older and wiser than I was two years ago, I would now suggest widespread strategic literacy within activist movements, perhaps via strategy study groups, rather than leaving the strategising to a select few, despite what their academic and experiential credentials may be.

Naturally strategic literacy should include learning deeply from the successes and failures of as many previous social movements as possible, and if possible learning from -and where appropriate merging with- the strategies of disparate existing social movements for social and environmental justice, as long as the importance of the centrality of non-violent civil disobedience is recognised.

One area where narrative thinking actually complements strategy forming is ‘scenario planning’. This has long been used by multi-national corporations and governments and refers to the thorough mapping out of a future scenario or diversity or scenarios with a variety of PESTLE characteristics, as possible futures to plan for and put in place organisational responses to. In scenario planning it is acknowledged that the envisioned futures will be inaccurate, but they will nevertheless have features which will likely resemble features of the future that actually unfolds. Thus planning for a variety of unfolding scenarios, although simplified and inaccurate in their conception, can help organisations and social movements be flexible and responsive to unfolding events, strategically and on the ground. Comprehensive scenario-planning is also co-creative with realtime events and can help us manifest, as large organisations or social movements, the futures we desire.

The thorough envisioning of futures / future scenarios and how we might reach them, or be subject to them, is a highly creative process which makes full use of our narrative thinking skills, complemented by more specialist understandings of propositional knowledge, ideally outsourced to groups of specialists in each of the areas denoted by PESTLE.

The Australian security-focused National Center for Climate Restoration recommend scenario-planning in their 2019 report, ‘Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach’.

The godfather of Permaculture, David Holmgren, runs Future Scenarios.

Extinction Rebellion (XR), London 2018

Ongoing narrative conclusion; revolution is not the place for romance, but it is the place for heroism

To reiterate, aside from the specific function of scenario planning, we cannot afford to let narrative thinking dominate our strategic thinking for global systems change(s), although an integrated and integrative narrative thinking will always be necessary and complementary.

If we are not logical in our strategy, then we will not create the global systems changes we need to reinstate both propositional and narrative thinking as central to our sense-making and well-being in a balanced, sustainable, post-capitalist world.

Further, highly strategic thinking is directly opposed to wishy-washy romantic revolutionism (informed by Hollywood-ised fictional and ‘non-fictional’ simplified representations of direct actions and revolutions) and a lot of New Age thinking that is prevalent even amongst (partially) practical activists. This romantic and New Age thinking is partly a result of neoliberal capitalist narratives which co-opt rebellious individuals, whether they are fully conscious of it or not, with the disempowering belief that at this stage of history, true resistance, or true strategic success with a social movement (systems change or even regime change), is impossible, despite evidence to the contrary. True revolutionary power is given away to privileged New Age dreams of individual politico-spiritual sovereignty, romantic revolutionism (even amongst XR strategists!) and the occasional impotent riot. I thank Murray Bookchin for some of these insights, as expressed in the essay collection ‘The Next Revolution’.

Paradoxically, in very general terms it may, however, be necessary as well as joyful to conceive of ourselves individually as true heroines and heroes of our own lives and of our global culture and society, figures of mythical proportions, drawing from heroic archetypes to respond to the calling of our culture to facilitate or speed up a managed transition to global systems change(s) i.e. something post-capitalism. Boundaried rituals and celebrations (Celtic-inspired or otherwise) could help with this self- and community- mythologising. However this shouldn’t leak into our strategising, inadvertently taking us into a drunken feature film (which seems to be the direction that some XR groups have taken). The power of narratives of mythical heroism are to give us a moral and other-worldly courage to deliberately take large but calculated -as far as possible- risks for the sake of humanity’s future, as well as potentially to present this revolutionary mission in an attractive and deeply felt artistic narrative form, to the public -witnesses and potential recruits. But let not this presentation, this cultural expression, be confused for the more essential practical elements of any strategy, least of all by the actors involved. Sometimes the partying should be saved until after the action…

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Here are 15 sensitive strategy tips for serious and heroic activists and ‘revolutionaries’, including the use of narrative thinking. I’m addressing you, the reader in the first person, but this advice applies equally to me. Periodically I intend to expand this list of strategy tips in a separate post, which will also be linked from here:

  1. Do not be afraid of leadership. Make it strictly boundaried and accountable where it has to exist. Lead yourself and encourage others to lead themselves. If you are part of a social movement, let it be leaderful!
  2. What do you personally mean by global systems change(s)? Make sure you are working to a definition that is intelligible to others in your group / movement.
  3. Do have a strategy! Bookchin is one good source to expose the myth of ‘spontaneous revolutions’ i.e. it turns out that these revolutions are always guided by highly organised militants.
  4. Don’t confuse your (possibly romantic) vision of global systems change(s) with what is strategically possible.
  5. Do use narrative thinking in the important work of the creative envisioning of global systems change(s), as well as scenario planning; include the envisioning of realistic pathways as opposed to just utopian end-states, important though those visions may be for keeping us emotionally engaged with our activism.
  6. Use scenario planning in a specific, boundaried way and don’t let that detract from a realistic strategy responsive to currently unfolding events.
  7. Know the difference between Grand Strategy, campaign strategy, tactics and tactical methods. This classic book by Gene Sharp is a good place to start.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Beware falsely siloed and polarised, tribal and memetic narratives and identities, manipulated if not created by social media companies and Big Tech. These narratives and identities divide our capacities for collective civil disobedience. 
  11. Be less of a fairy-tale consumerist, keep getting back to Nature and mend some broken stories -this will help ground your activist strategy.
  12. If you are privileged enough, develop a more conscious activist life strategy. By ‘activist life strategy’ I refer to the unconscious or conscious strategies, tactics and practices that we use to move forward in our lives towards the strategic activist ends that we wish to see, such as achieving targets of social and environmental justice within the movements we are involved in, in a way which simultaneously meets our requirements as holistic human beings, for balanced lives in respect of our homes, families, communities and our overall well-being -including the prevention or mitigation of ‘activist burn-out’. Travel if you can.
  13. Develop an understanding of ‘narrative integration’ as potentially key to strategic goals, as well featuring in the means to achieve those goals.
  14. Be a rational heroine.
  15. Celebrate victories and anniversaries!
Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist