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.
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.
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 non-violent civil disobedience, via Extinction Rebellion (XR). I originally published this first post of Epic Tomorrows on 30th October 2017, one year and one day before I attended the Declaration of Rebellion in Parliament Square in London which publicly began the international XR movement. On that day I shed tears as Greta Thunberg -who had travelled to the UK with her father Svante in an electric car- told me and the others assembled there, ‘It’s time to rebel!’ Regardless of the criticism that Greta has since received, and that she is sometimes co-opted by corporatist interests, I know from first-hand experience that she means very well.
When I first published this post I had a very intellectual -maybe even abstract- view of rebellion, ‘revolution’ and ‘global systems change’. Since then I think I have developed a slightly more practical approach, largely informed by my direct experience of NVDA (non-violent direct action) and civil disobedience with XR.
My approach has also developed some humanity, I hope, and interconnectedness with the approaches of others, as manifested in the Epic Tomorrows YouTube channel that I started early in 2020, and with the help of @EpicTomorrows on Twitter.
I began the Epic Tomorrows blog, with this post, in ‘arrogant confusion’ but at least I trusted that something valuable would come out of it, which I believe it has, thus:
‘I’m sat on a rock in the river Taw. Never have I seen it so high. I’m here to wash away the distractions of life that I may focus on the highest stream within me; the stream of servant-leadership. There is no point in leading except to serve whom you lead, or you are only serving yourself…
We are just days away from the Gaelic festival of Samhain that has Celtic pagan origins. I love these old Celtic seasonal observances, even though I don’t usually celebrate them outwardly. Samhain is halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice -a neat orientation point; something that raises my awareness of the passing seasons and their different characteristics…’
Since writing this first blog post I have been on an intellectual adventure which has questioned the very idea of leadership, prompted by clear problems posed by the perceived leadership within XR. Nevertheless, despite fashionable anarcho- currents on the political Left, most recently with the help of ‘The Next Revolution’ -a book of some collected essays of Murray Bookchin, I have realised that true leadership is a good and necessary thing, at least at this early stage of human evolution, and should be encouraged and made accountable to ‘the led’ in every sphere of life; irresponsible (unresponsive) leaders should be brought down.
This post will likely go through many iterations, to always be a work in progress.
Maybe I will return to the post at the same time every year, as part of my narrative sense-making of the world through the celebration of anniversaries.
A working hypothesis
In the original post I went on to offer a ‘working hypothesis’ which was to define an area of exploration, development and activism for Epic Tomorrows (ET). It was nothing radically new. It didn’t ‘work’, in the sense that I didn’t ‘work it’ or ‘work with it’. In fact over the course of a few months as ET meandered, I lost my focus and forgot all about it. I think it’s worth returning to, so I have updated it slightly:
The somewhat philosophical hypothesis is that, on one level -albeit a very deep and important level- most suffering and death in modern society is closely associated with a lack of narrativeintegration. This suffering and death is implicit in globally poor standards of individual mental health and well-being; the well-being of groups and institutions; and the well-being and sustainability of global human culture as a whole. This root lack of narrative integration that is to blame, in turn arises from the much documented (and blatantly obvious) disconnection of large portions of humanity from the rest of Nature which in modern times is co-creative with (and has been accelerated by) a neoliberal globalised capitalist system (or system of systems) which creates extreme economic inequality as well as other dynamics of oppression, including male dominance and the complete destruction of traditional human cultures, and many species of wildlife. This disconnection has grown over many millennia.
Narrative integration, out of narrative disintegration, may be a useful personal and collective, explicit (cultural) goal within the wider activism of anti- and post- capitalist global systems change(s), even on the urgent practical level of civil disobedience.
An underlying assumption to this post is that there are two main types of thought we use to make sense of the world, propositional (or logical) thinking and narrative thinking. We need them in balance. At this point I would like to suggest the grounding practice of breaking down narratives into propositions, thanks to Daniel Schmachtenberger. For a great description of this practice, watch Daniel in this video from 1.36.30 onwards. Doing this with narratives we come across in the media, or discern in our own minds / lives, can help us assess whether these narratives are functionally useful (or ‘true enough’) i.e. whether they are based enough on sound logical propositions as well as integrated with wider truths and evolving human culture, or whether they are illogical and tend towards disintegration.
To try to demystify my hypothesis, it is well established that us human beings partly make sense of the world, and of human culture, by the narratives and myths that we construct about ourselves and the world around us, as well as, more crucially, the underpinning unconscious narrative frameworks that guide our thinking and behaviour. I argue that our individual autobiographies and our collective stories and narratives have become excessively confused, hypocritical, falsely siloed, alienated and fragmented in modern society, including on the deep level of unconscious narrative frameworks, reflecting profound social and ecological injustice and trauma, and the distortion and subversion of this injustice and trauma by consumerist media manipulation. Moreover, non-consumerist narratives are deliberately disintegrated, supplanted and subjugated by consumerist narratives, at the behest of capitalist elites. Lack of conscious and unconscious narrative integration (and lack of narrative control) -including integration with non-human Nature- is the defining pathology of this situation. To re-integrate narratives -our own with our own and our own with other people’s- and to reclaim our narratives, is also to reconnect profoundly with Nature, individually, socially and through the wider culture.
-The best of this original post ended with the section above in italics, although I have added to the section substantially, including the links. In fact I am a little daunted even to finish this post. Really I’m way out of my depth, but I have always loved the risk of swimming into the deep, trusting I will find rocks to perch on before I become totally exhausted intellectually. If anything, this post will serve me, and I hope, some of you readers, as a basis for further exploration and study, and dare I write it, some renewed inspiration for activism and civil disobedience.
Narrative integration and mental health
When I originally wrote this post in 2017, I included this short section on my own mental health, which I have now expanded to include more tangible examples of disintegrated narratives-
I do not blame anyone, including myself, for any lack in my past or present life, but I do take responsibility for change.
My own life narrative of mental health is something that I’m working on. A few years ago it looked pretty shaky. However, the more I detach myself from conventional understandings of mental health -particularly the biomedical model of mental illness- the more I appreciate my unique journey and the gifts it has bestowed on me, as well as the unique challenges which could be headed under ‘mental dis-ease’. It has taken me a while to arrive at this understanding. Sometimes I struggle not to feel injured, to feel beaten black and blue actually, by the fragmented society that allowed me to be defined as medically sick and that still sometimes seeks to define me as such. Ironically, I view conventional attitudes to mental health as a contributory cause of mental ill-ness. I don’t blame individuals or even ‘society’. I am just sharing feelings and observations.
Reconnecting with Nature was key to my recovery from the worst of the dis-ease, and continues to be. Earth Nature as a whole is also key to my new, positive life narrative of mental health and purpose in life i.e. my new understanding of my journey. It is a journey of integration with non-human Nature, integration with and /or refinement of, and also some abandonment of, disintegrated and disintegrative narratives that I have dysfunctionally carried around with me, better integration with the people around me and integration with parts of myself I may have previously struggled to admit into consciousness –the ‘shadow’, according to Jung.
The catchword of ‘integration’ speaks of energy efficiency and resilience, but let us not become too resilient to the neoliberal capitalist forces which dominate us, or we will only perpetuate them.
Some of the various conflicted and fragmented narratives of modern culture that contributed to my mental illness in the first place, an understanding of which I am very lucky to write, is driving towards my liberation, are listed below. If they are not disintegrated, (whilst still posing as whole and powerfully directive by the human actors that serve them) causing conflict within me and in society in general, we can at least say that they are disintegrative or decompositional. I’m sure you recognise some of them:
A child should be raised primarily by its biological mother and father in a house isolated from other families. The parents should stay together for the duration of the childhood, and should agree on how to raise the child.
Middle-class academic children must attend university at aged 18. The working-class can go to hell.
Leaving university without a degree is shameful.
A university degree is worth more than a practical vocational qualification of a high standard.
The city is the place to be. The city is superior to the country, which is just a nice place to visit.
Using alcohol is the best way to relax.
The pornography industry is sustainable and acceptable.
Men must make the first move in relationships, and if you don’t have a girlfriend or at least a sexual partner, as a man, you are a loser.
If you are not heteronormative you are abnormal.
Monogamy is the only ethical way to conduct intimate interpersonal relationships.
Mental illness is best treated by pills, and is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
(Patriotism for) the nation state is good and necessary.
We live in a democracy.
The only alternative to capitalism is communism (which hasn’t worked, so there is no alternative).
To buy is to be. To accumulate is to succeed.
Our colonial past was terrible, but we are entitled to the ongoing stolen fruits of that past.
Slavery and colonialism are of the past.
You cannot change the law by breaking the law.
This, whatever it is, is normal. This is the way it is supposed to be.
These (bullshit) cultural narratives have intersected in various complex ways in my personal narratives and life episodes, in problematic ways, sometimes left unresolved intellectually and emotionally, including in simple remembered anecdotes and stories contained within future aspirations. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
It is Halloween, or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, the beginning of the Christian observance of Allhallowtide: three days of remembrance of the dead. (Let us not remember too fondly, dead narratives which no longer serve us.) The modern Halloween is an integration of Samhain and All Hallows practices. What positive tricks and treats of narrative integration can we share with one another?
Epic post-capitalist tomorrows
The current focus of Epic Tomorrows is the accumulating and collating of online data as well as strategic insights, to help activists and revolutionaries achieve victories on the way to global systems change(s). The more accurate and relevant information we have, the more informed and efficient will be our actions. Naturally narrative thinking -with some conscious temperance- has a role to play in this information gathering and its application.
Narrative integration / disintegration can be understood in a variety of ways and historical contexts. Recently I have read some great analyses of the current state of the neoliberal globalised capitalist order, especially Wolfgang Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ and including ‘Postcapitalism’ by Paul Mason. I now reflect on how these readings inform the narrative integration perspective.
I have also been reminded recently of the colonialism that set precedents for neoliberal neo-colonialism and imperialism (especially Euro-American imperialism); reminded by the Black Lives Matter movement and my recent interviewing of XR co-founder Stu Basden who wrote this article which went viral.
Additionally, of some relevance here might be that since late summer 2020 I have been working on the concept (and flesh) of a global meta-strategy for global systems change(s); looking at how activists and their social movements can better co-ordinate and facilitate their strategising.
Finally, I should add here in respect of synchronicity and synchronistic events (synchronistic, not synchronous) that the other day (it’s Samhain / Halloween 2020 as I write this latest version) I received an email from the website provider Wix -who I used a long time back- that my old sites ‘need upgrading’. The main site I used Wix for was ‘Rebirch’, a project that has since mutated into a theory I am developing of holistic mental health whose updated title is ‘the 13 activist bases of mental health’. The essence of this theory is partly to show that all theories / approaches to mental health include highly arbitrary components / criteria, as well as to suggest a potentially useful new contemporary, albeit still arbitrary, understanding of mental health. ‘Narrative health’ is one of the 13 activist bases for mental health, and a base that ties the other bases together.
So in light of these recent developments and the synchronistic reminder of ‘narrative health’ as a potential foundation for mental health, I would like to pose the following questions as an expansion of the ‘narrative integration’ hypothesis, and to serve narrative integration as well as more generally, the re-integration of all human knowledge to serve activism for global systems change(s):
Is neoliberal capitalism in a critical condition, unable to support its own weight and global society for much longer? If most consumerist narratives collapse, as those narratives are premised on hypocrisy and disintegration, how will their collapse reflect in those parts of our identities which have invested in them, of buying our way to joy, success, and meaning? Will we be equally relieved and confused to be without consumerist narratives? Ahead of any possible global societal collapse, how can we reconnect to and reintegrate narratives of identity which support activism for a managed transition to global industrial and cultural systems post-capitalism and post-consumerism, including the heroism that may be required for such a transition? Who will we be during and post-transition and how will we remember and tell stories about how we were before the transition, as individuals, families, communities and nations?
Were democracy and capitalism ever really integrated as systems, or did each always prevent the other from fully realising, to the benefit of capitalism (as unchecked it undermines itself) but not to the benefit of democracy? If the latter is true, how do we atone our humanity with the use of narrative?
Is an integrated info-tech based coherent global system of postcapitalism possible and / or desirable, or should we be using our narrative cognition to focus on developing diverse post-capitalist place-based (localised) narratives, first of all for our individual life-paths? Or should we be imagining ourselves into futures which are both hyper-connected and localised?
How much are our personal life stories and ambitions polluted by fragmented and trauma-inducing, as well as trauma-carrying, colonialist, imperialist and slave-holding (human and non-human) mindsets?
How can bioculturally diverse communities dislocated and destroyed by colonialist, imperialist and global neoliberal capitalist narratives, relocate and rebuild with narratives supported by the narrative-driven mission statements and strategic aims and practical visions, of a decolonised international movement of movements (MoM)?
Is the fundamental narrative contradiction / disintegration that needs to be addressed by the awakening activist, the ongoing conflict and chaos between the heroic narrative of systems change, and the decaying narrative of ‘to have is to be’?
How can ‘narrative health’ be retained and supported in all activists and all human beings for their continued mental health and well-being, as part of a wider concern for regenerative human cultures?
On this third year anniversary / development of the original post, I re-commit, better late than never, to exploring narrative (re-)integration, especially in service to activism and global systems change(s). As it is my YouTube channel that has taken off more than anything else, I will honour the commitment through the human connections that I make in interviews and online discussions that I will facilitate and upload.
Narrative and propositional thinking in balance, and the limits of ‘memetic tribes’
The following citation is from ‘How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences’ by Roy F. Baumeister and Leonard S. Newman of Case Western Reserve University. It is worth reading the entire article for a very complex and nuanced explanation of the various cognitive functions / motivations of story-telling and narrative thinking:
‘Narrative thinking sacrifices the generality of the paradigmatic mode in favour of comprehensiveness. Rich accounts can encompass many features, and so narratives are more flexible and can accommodate more inconsistencies than paradigmatic thinking. Internal coherence is the important criterion, rather than how falsifiable the stories are. Therefore, the narrative mode is well suited to reinterpreting and accommodating inconsistent information, as well as for helping people think about situations that involve conflicts or contradictions.’
Yet when the contradictions become overwhelming and profoundly traumatic, as I would argue they have become in globalised capitalist culture, the narrative function becomes highly disintegrated and dysfunctional.
It is now clear to me that although narrative thinking / narrative psychology is very important to how we make sense of the world and act upon it, ‘paradigmatic thinking’, also called ‘propositional thinking’, a general form of logical thinking, is equally as important. Nevertheless, this could strengthen rather than contest my initial hypothesis.
Baumeister and Newman again:
‘The point that propositional knowledge is useful for making stories brings up the issue of how distinct these two modes are…In practice…each individual’s accumulation of knowledge probably uses both modes in an interactive fashion’
Clearly, the current neoliberal global capitalist order (including the ‘communist capitalism’ of China) does not make logical sense. Extreme economic equality, various forms of oppression of most humans and Nature by a small handful of other humans, and the increasing destruction of the biosphere towards the point of a highly possible human extinction, are not sustainable and so do not make logical sense. On a global level, our paradigmatic thinking -our logical reasoning- is failing us, as we are allowing the destructive systems of neoliberalism and the elites that serve them, to continue. Okay, so we may be scared, but it is not logical to let that fear take us towards species annihilation.
Where narrative psychology comes back in, is that it could be precisely because our narrative interpretation of reality is currently so broken and dysfunctional, that our logical reasoning has also suffered (meaning that all forms of sense-making are currently degraded). I propose that this is happening for two main reasons. Firstly, because consciously or unconsciously, we are at a stage in human history where our thought has become ‘globalised’ -due to neoliberal globalisation and due to the internet- but without becoming coherently whole, or balanced in making sense of the world. Largely this is due to our disconnection from non-human Nature and our failure to fully comprehend or embody that disconnection.
However we are more aware than ever of our increasingly inter-connected and potentially threatening human world; perhaps falsely assuming that the non-human world that we impact -including the climate- cannot ultimately endanger us, we can’t help but defensively attempt grand anthropocentric world-encompassing narratives to make sense of things, inevitably based at least partly on sketchy, profit-driven, scare-mongering Big Tech and Big Media -manipulated representations of global events, whatever more elucidating material we may be consuming.
Overwhelmed by global data, perceived global threats and a need for global meaning to counteract the void in meaning created by a literally and culturally dislocating world system(s), our critical thinking and logical reasoning skills have suffered. When we feel forced to generalise and totalise to the extreme regarding global narratives of humanity, especially in a defensive mode, even if quite mildly so, we easily lose or subsume the practice of the leisurely, careful narrative-building that relies on and is co-creative with a fair degree of propositional thinking. As a result, not only our thinking, but our acting, is irrational.
Paradigmatic thinking requires propositions based on the law of cause and effect. Data overwhelm on a global scale, usually heavily biased even when it proposes to be objective, makes cause and effect propositions increasingly difficult. We could often be wholesale giving up on logical thinking in favour of defensive globalised narratives -often utopian or catastrophic in character. Our urgent need to make sense by story, due to this immature and fragmented stage of globalised consciousness has resulted in disintegrated stories which undermine the security and leisure we need to reason things out logically, which further disintegrates our narrative making.
Secondly, neoliberal capitalist and consumerist narratives, the deceitful outward expressions of ecocide -often as overt as consumerist fairy-tales used in advertising- have become more powerful in the world than logical thinking. The illogical personal and collective narratives that we form around the ‘to buy is to be’ mantra -illogical for our mental health and for the survival of our communities and our very species- are so profoundly a part of our identities at this stage in history, that they have undermined our capacity for propositional thinking. Moreover, we may be dissuaded from going too deeply into propositional thinking for fear of being confronted with our own hypocrisy -a hypocrisy that is central to the functioning of our lives (within the unavoidable megamachine of contemporary capitalism).
Additionally, many reasonable human beings feel forced to adopt the defensive political identity positions of either ‘globalised’ on the one hand, desperately trying to salvage internationalism from destructive neoliberalism (including as part of pro-EU narratives in Europe) or nationalist-democratic on the other, often expressing the confusion of fake narratives of democracy on the macro and global level in the micro-unfoldings of our lives, knowing all-too-well that representative democracy is increasingly unreal and subject to corporatism and financial interests.
This isn’t supposed to be a damning of narrative thinking which has an important function in sense-making, but of a dysfunctional narrative thinking untempered by logic, put on the defensive by globalisation and co-opted by consumerism. This is in addition to the very physical ways that a neoliberal capitalist system has ripped up the habitats, communities, traditions and livelihoods which have been the basis of our Life-affirming and sense-making narratives for so long, globally.
This discussion is also informed by the Rebel Wisdom ‘sense-making’ series on YouTube. This latest videoin the series, with Daniel Schmachtenberger, brings up concepts of ‘narrative warfare’ and AI-directed social media control via ‘sticky’ content which increases our addiction to / use of these profit-seeking platforms (YouTube / Facebook etc) by appealing to and maximising our tendencies to tribal identity -regardless of whether or not those tribes are artificially created or reinforced by false or highly manipulated information about what is going on in the world. These tribes are pitted against each other on the platforms by AI-sourced algorithms, an infowar and narrative war which boosts the platforms and leaves them relatively unquestioned and unaccountable (the old method of divide and conquer) as well as spilling over into other more ‘independent’ parts of the internet, and into ‘real life’.
I would add, I have friends who don’t use social media, purportedly to control their own narratives, and yet I see these friends manipulated just as destructively, if not more so, by online propaganda from sources which to me are more obviously biased, even though the bias may be belied and obscured to my friends.
Naturally, internet-dependent tribal identities encourage a further disconnection from Nature, as well as the truth in general, which means a general individual and cultural tendency towards narrative disintegration / dysfunction, except where some effort and method is made to retain an overall view, including of the corporatist interests that manipulate us, which I am trying to do in this post.
Despite the insight of Rebel Wisdom, the profound disconnection from Nature that both allows and is co-creative with online narrative warfare and disintegration, seems to be relatively unaddressed on the channel (but I haven’t watched every video). Likewise the viral The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0, which has provided some inspiration to the Rebel Wisdom sense-making series, fascinating and insightful though it is, does not do justice to the basic underlying lack of narrative integration in modern culture which is symptomatic of the neoliberal globalised capitalist (dis)order. The (dis)order that is co-creative (co-destructive) with disconnection from / destruction of, localised biocultural diversity and non-human Nature. As reflected in a disembodied internet space where appropriate locality-bound and natural resource-limited cultural coherency, potentially enhanced online by international solidarity and understanding, seem to be subservient to unaccountable globally projected egos and often hysterical virtual tribes whose narratives are largely created and maintained by corporatist interests, suffering obviously from a lack of grounding in the natural resource-bound real world.
The ‘six crises’ mentioned in the following citation are a fair enough framework for understanding the genesis of (Euro-American) memetic tribes except that the crucial underlying disconnection from localised, biodiverse Nature has been unstated:
‘We argue that six phenomena are involved in their genesis: secularization, fragmentation, atomization, globalization, stimulation, and weaponization. These ingredients respectively engender six crises: the meaning crisis, the reality crisis, the belonging crisis, the proximity crisis, the sobriety crisis, and the warfare crisis. We will examine each ingredient and crisis in turn…’
The memetic tribes article also completely fails to address its own Euro-American centrism and the implicit neocolonialism of its core arguments, blinkers which are themselves symptomatic of a global culture fragmented by its dissociation from and destruction of formerly coherent, localised biocultural diversity -and the localised democracies essential to the protection of this diversity. If the authors are aware of their bias, they don’t do justice to their arguments by leaving it unstated.
They also fail to talk about arrestable direct action activists / the civilly disobedient -ecology, climate and social justice focused- who go way beyond their tepid construction of SJA (Social Justice Activists) to challenge the institutions of representative democracy more fundamentally, often from a postcapitalist or anti-capitalist perspective. Perhaps, by their Euro-American reckoning, international movements of civil disobedience since Occupy! are not relevant to the ‘culture wars’, but this would be a strange assertion. Perhaps it is only Extinction Rebellion (XR) that has brought into the public intellectual sphere (at least the Euro-American one) the existence of the global postcapitalist movement (pre-dating XR and represented by a number of organisations) for civil disobedience triggered by the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss -despite capitalist-reformists within XR. Afterall, the memetic tribes article was written one month before XR’s declaration of rebellion.
I would argue that if the authors want to contribute more fully to an understanding of globally disintegrative narratives and dysfunctional narrative thinking in modern culture, they need to address postcapitalism and expose their Euro-American bias. Otherwise they are in danger of contributing to narrative disintegration as much as resolving it, themselves tragically subject to the AI-directed siloing of thought and narrative identity that Schmachtenberger exposes.
Covid narrative disintegration
It is hard to write about the current situation with the novel coronavirus worldwide (writing in late October 2020). I am not well-informed enough, and I am bombarded by disjointed narratives about the virus, in part reflecting the narrative disintegration discussed above. Clearly, the lack of reasoning and logical thinking symptomatic of much contemporary being-in-the-world and associated with a degradation of the function of narrative cognition, has resulted in a surprisingly large, perhaps unprecedented in scale, proportion of the global population not believing in key elements of the global coronavirus narrative, as presented by governments, inter-governmental organisations and the mainstream media. Regardless of my lack of scientific knowledge, I can offer some limited observations of what is going on on the level of narrative thinking.
Online and other media data overwhelm, from conflicting and politicised -overtly and covertly- and corporatised sources of information, including from within the supposedly objectively scientific medical professions, has fuelled the disintegration and incoherency of narratives surrounding the virus.
Online tribal polarisation largely created and manipulated by the algorithms of social media and Big Tech giants as discussed above, perhaps compounded by the confused and falsely contradictory narrative of so-called memetic tribes, also as touched on above, are further fuelling scientific misunderstanding and profound narrative disintegration (although one does not always lead to the other).
Further, a latent mass tendency to conspirituality, magnified by the internet and exacerbated by more of us spending more time online during the social restrictions imposed by the virus, is accelerating narrative disintegration surrounding the virus and weaponising totalising narratives of a shadowy New World Order (the theory goes, that has fabricated or created or manipulated the virus to impose some form of global control), providing some of the impetus for the recent rioting in the streets in response to covid lockdown measures. This is not good for the mental health of the conspiritual and everyone they come into contact with. Moreover rioting subverts and disempowers revolutionary energy that could be used in more scientific and strategic rebellions against global authorities, to achieve genuine gains towards the radical postcapitalist global systems change(s) that we need to meet the ongoing climate-ecological-economic-humanitarian crisis of humanity. On the other hand, I will be pleased if the rioting results in more financial compensation for the lockdown being distributed to the poorest.
Conspirituality is fed by very objectively justified mistrust of national governments as well as largely unaccountable inter-governmental organisations like the World Health Organisation and the World Economic Forum(partnered with the United Nations Development Programme). Neoliberal globalised capitalism, as well documented in Streeck’s ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ has eaten away at the institutions of representative democracy (spurious to start with) to the point that we cannot trust that governments and inter-governmental organisations are putting people before profit, even in a global pandemic, regardless of whether lockdown measures are sufficiently protecting public health for the time being. Similarly we cannot trust that (fear and panic surrounding) the pandemic isn’t being deliberately magnified towards corporatist ends. What plans are being undemocratically made for our futures by the vastly influential European Central Bank, World Bank, IMF, WEF and the institutions of the UN, whilst we are safely ‘locked’ away? One doesn’t have to believe in a conspiratorial ‘New World Order’ to be deeply worried and angry -just read Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein; events like the novel coronavirus have been progressively manipulated by corporatised governments since at the latest the mid 1970’s.
Unfortunately, right wing schizotypal populist figures like Trump manipulate anti-globalist and conspiritual sentiments for their own corporatist-nationalist ends, openly supporting and reaping the rewards of globalised capitalism on the one hand, whilst shouting loudly on the other against ‘global technocratic elites’ like WHO. To be sure WHO is corrupt, like any large inter-governmental technocratic organisation in a neoliberal capitalist system, (which is not to say there aren’t many passionate and humanity-serving individuals within WHO). Trumpists criticise global elites in a disingenuous way that does not challenge the system that creates those elites in general. Meanwhile, Trumpists benefit from the system and their confused followers. As it is right wing populist leaders that shout the loudest in criticism of unaccountable global elites, unfortunately vulnerable people of disintegrated or schizotypal mindsets, (including people I know) in situations like a novel pandemic, feeling overwhelmed, will turn to these ‘leaders’ and their bullshit disintegrative narratives, instead of more intelligent critics and critical integrative narratives of globalised capitalism grounded in science and guided by social and environmental justice.
Operating by the precautionary principle and utilitarianism, I believe it is currently right and more-or-less based in sound science to adhere generally to the lockdown measures that have been imposed in France. However, retaining my own sense of meaning and logical as well as narrative thinking skills, I see no harm in flouting the ‘no more than 1km from the house and for no more than 1 hour’ rule on daily exercise. I am currently based in a very rural area, and there are miles of gorgeous autumnal country footpaths about, conducive to mine, my partner’s and our relationship’s physical and mental health. My ‘narrative health’ also benefits, in the sense that any stories of cognition I construct around Nature and my local natural surroundings, including a deep appreciation of the changing season, distract me from the narrative disintegration of the internet, and integrate my present with previous Nature-based narratives of my self which ground and inspire me, including in my activism which is ultimately Nature-based. On a walk recently I took pleasure in recounting to my partner, similar walks I had taken in the Devon countryside in the UK.
As for the virus, the only observation I care to make is that it is real and it is novel. As for governments’ and intergovernmental institutions’ responses, and the responses of the media and various sections of the internet, the best I can do at this point is to summarise by arguing that responses and popular reactions to those responses are heavily polluted and directed by neoliberal corporate capitalist interests, and /or an understandable fear, mistrust and misunderstanding of those interests.
It’s a shame because, absent an anti-statist revolution along something like libertarian municipalist lines, strong states will be increasingly relied upon / called upon to deal with the unfolding climate and ecology-driven (neoliberalism-accelerated) global crisis. With trust in ‘democratic’ governments at an all-time low, the rioting we see now at covid lockdown measures is nothing compared to the rioting we will see in response to mistrusted (probably justifiably so) measures that governments will likely be forced to hurriedly implement during the disastrous events projected for the next few decades, associated with the ongoing global crisis of humanity.
Ideally, on the level of narrative integration to serve activism for global systems change(s), we should use the covid ‘situation’, if at all possible, to encourage the disillusioned, conspiritual, mistrustful, depressed and confused, to step (further) away from consumerist-capitalist lifestyles -‘to have is to be’ fairytales- which implicitly support corporatised governments as well as intergovernmental and private global elites -all of those interests that are most responsible for the global crisis of humanity.
Additionally, both propositional and narrative thinking skills need to be encouraged in all of us but particularly the vulnerable, in a way that promotes a localised Nature-groundedness as well as, crucially, a courageous curiosity about the experiences and stories of other human beings in other cultures around the world. We must strive for this even in the midst of global disaster, so that international solidarity takes precedence over ‘lowest common denominator’ right wing racist and nationalist narratives and responses. This will promote the holistic well-being of all of us.
If we can get away with it safely, I advocate travelling as much as possible!
Revolutionary rivers, two modes of thinking and activist strategy
It is partly thanks to the river Taw -revisited many times over the last few years- that this post has developed.
It is hard to view a river logically, in purely cause and effect terms, as it is the quintessence of flow with its infinite and ever-changing currents. To be aware of its causes and effects would almost be to be aware of every molecule of H20.
Similarly, it is impossible to view how I got here in my life, from where I was three years ago when I started Epic Tomorrows with this post, in purely cause and effect terms. The twists and turns and encounters are just too numerous and mysterious, the data too overwhelming. And so it is with personal life narratives. We remember and retrospectively create and retell our lives in ways which we believe provide meaning to our continued existence as well as, we hope, the continued existence of the communities in which we are embedded.
Remembering that I have regularly walked along the river Taw which is local to my flat, to take a break from my reading, writing, and contemplating, it is more than mere fancy to include the river in the integrative narrative of this blog post. The river breaks have given Life and breathing space to the developing mission and practice of Epic Tomorrows, including on YouTube.
It was one year and two and a half weeks since I had begun Epic Tomorrows, when on November 17th 2018 I was involved in the infamous ‘bridge blocks’ of five rivers crossing the Thames in London. This mass act of civil disobedience resulted in many arrests (including mine) and the launching of Extinction Rebellion (XR) into the international media and the activist consciousness of at least the climate movement of the industrialised global north.
The tactic of the bridge blocks according to Roger Hallam, one of XR’s main strategists at the time, was to ‘split the city in two’, which, when combined with ‘filling the prison cells to over-flowing’ with activists was intended to force the government to give in to XR’s demands. It was worth a shot but it didn’t work for a variety of reasons, mainly because we just didn’t have the numbers.
Unfortunately, when I was on the phone to a key and influential person within XR after this event, he was deluded as to the success of the actions, proclaiming with fervour, ‘the government will fall by Christmas!’ Needless to say, they didn’t. I only bring this up because this influential person was assumed to have greater strategic insight than most of the people around him, and a lot of strategy work was left to him. This is unfortunate when it seems as though he let his romantic vision and wishful narrative of strategic success cloud his practical assessment of what had actually been achieved and therefore what needed to be done next.
Narrative thinking and narrative integration must not be developed at the expense of propositional thinking. Propositional thinking is key to the strategising that we need to build successful social movements and execute their missions for global systems change(s). A little older and wiser than I was two years ago, I would now suggest widespread strategic literacy within activist movements, perhaps via strategy study groups, rather than leaving the strategising to a select few, despite what their academic and experiential credentials may be.
Naturally strategic literacy should include learning deeply from the successes and failures of as many previous social movements as possible, and if possible learning from -and where appropriate merging with- the strategies of disparate existing social movements for social and environmental justice, as long as the importance of the centrality of non-violent civil disobedience is recognised.
One area where narrative thinking actually complements strategy forming is ‘scenario planning’. This has long been used by multi-national corporations and governments and refers to the thorough mapping out of a future scenario or diversity or scenarios with a variety of PESTLE characteristics, as possible futures to plan for and put in place organisational responses to. In scenario planning it is acknowledged that the envisioned futures will be inaccurate, but they will nevertheless have features which will likely resemble features of the future that actually unfolds. Thus planning for a variety of unfolding scenarios, although simplified and inaccurate in their conception, can help organisations and social movements be flexible and responsive to unfolding events, strategically and on the ground. Comprehensive scenario-planning is also co-creative with realtime events and can help us manifest, as large organisations or social movements, the futures we desire.
The thorough envisioning of futures / future scenarios and how we might reach them, or be subject to them, is a highly creative process which makes full use of our narrative thinking skills, complemented by more specialist understandings of propositional knowledge, ideally outsourced to groups of specialists in each of the areas denoted by PESTLE.
Ongoing narrative conclusion; revolution is not the place for romance, but it is the place for heroism
To reiterate, aside from the specific function of scenario planning, we cannot afford to let narrative thinking dominate our strategic thinking for global systems change(s), although an integrated and integrative narrative thinking will always be necessary and complementary.
If we are not logical in our strategy, then we will not create the global systems changes we need to reinstate both propositional and narrative thinking as central to our sense-making and well-being in a balanced, sustainable, post-capitalist world.
Further, highly strategic thinking is directly opposed to wishy-washy romantic revolutionism (informed by Hollywood-ised fictional and ‘non-fictional’ simplified representations of direct actions and revolutions) and a lot of New Age thinking that is prevalent even amongst (partially) practical activists. This romantic and New Age thinking is partly a result of neoliberal capitalist narratives which co-opt rebellious individuals, whether they are fully conscious of it or not, with the disempowering belief that at this stage of history, true resistance, or true strategic success with a social movement (systems change or even regime change), is impossible, despite evidence to the contrary. True revolutionary power is given away to privileged New Age dreams of individual politico-spiritual sovereignty, romantic revolutionism (even amongst XR strategists!) and the occasional impotent riot. I thank Murray Bookchin for some of these insights, as expressed in the essay collection ‘The Next Revolution’.
Paradoxically, in very general terms it may, however, be necessary as well as joyful to conceive of ourselves individually as true heroines and heroes of our own lives and of our global culture and society, figures of mythical proportions, drawing from heroic archetypes to respond to the calling of our culture to facilitate or speed up a managed transition to global systems change(s) i.e. something post-capitalism. Boundaried rituals and celebrations (Celtic-inspired or otherwise) could help with this self- and community- mythologising. However this shouldn’t leak into our strategising, inadvertently taking us into a drunken feature film (which seems to be the direction that some XR groups have taken). The power of narratives of mythical heroism are to give us a moral and other-worldly courage to deliberately take large but calculated -as far as possible- risks for the sake of humanity’s future, as well as potentially to present this revolutionary mission in an attractive and deeply felt artistic narrative form, to the public -witnesses and potential recruits. But let not this presentation, this cultural expression, be confused for the more essential practical elements of any strategy, least of all by the actors involved. Sometimes the partying should be saved until after the action…