(Are we) the Mechanics of Change?

It was great to read the essays by Neal Lawson, Indra Adnan and Jeremy Gilbert. They are inspiring and insightful. But… (and there’s always a but!) for me they have very little to say about some core questions –

  • what have “we” been doing wrong
  • what can we learn from people who have been succeeding – business and the military.
  • what do (rather smart) academics have to tell us about how change happens

I’d like to offer this short essay to try out some thoughts around these questions.

I am going to start from the assumption that “we” – the “left” (or whatever label we care to adopt) – have been losing steadily for a generation or more, at least in Europe, North America and Australia. The forces of privatisation, domination, separation, have created new forms of “common sense” that have survived both the financial crisis of 2008 and the unfolding and metastasizing environmental crises (not just climate – the collapse in biodiversity on land and in the oceans, the nitrogen cycle etc). Despite the fact that capitalism and its state handmaidens are clearly are condemning the species to a miserable fate, still they persist.

How does change happen? For a minute, let’s forget about external shocks to the system (wars, asteroids, and coalition governments) and think about internal change.

Change happens after ‘successful’ experimentation.

So, who experiments? Is it the comfortable, who are already winning? Nope – it’s pretty rare for big/routinised/stuck-in-their-ways organisations to take chances.

Experiments are done by the small, the dissatisfied, the curious, the committed and the desperate. I am assuming that the people who will be attending Change: How will consider themselves well-described by one or more of the above adjectives. And many of them will have spent years (decades!) conducting “experiments”; campaigns, community groups, projects of a thousand different shapes and sizes and purposes, both proactive and ‘defensive’. Many of those projects will have fallen flat. Others will have struggled for a bit, and changed into something else. Still others will have become “successful” insofar as they achieve mainstream status. For instance treating women, gays, ethnic minorities with basic respect was once an outlandish idea, but is now considered normal. Other groups are still of course struggling to achieve the privilege of “normality”. [Other species? Waaaaay behind – they ought to vote more, do more die-ins than dying.]

Experiments happen in “niches,” in subcultures and alternative spaces. Those spaces are harder and harder to find, thanks to the hunger of consumer capitalism for novelty. This quote from William Gibson’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” sums it up –

…Harwood blinks. ‘It’s what we do now instead of bohemias,” he says.
“Instead of what?”
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.”
“We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of Geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to re-commodification, not in the same way. We don’t know why exactly.”‘

There’s an excellent short article by two academics at the University of East Anglia that I wish I could get everyone to read. It’s about “strategic niche management” and the lessons that might have for the Transition Towns movement. In it the authors, Gil Seyfang and Alex Haxeltine, point out that “successful” experiments can bring about change by either

  • being replicated elsewhere
  • expanding in size
  • or being taken up (assimilated/co-opted, whatever you want to call it)

But that’s assuming an experiment succeeds. So, what do they say that the literature on “strategic niche management” says that you should do to improve your chances?

Three things –

  • manage expectations (don’t promise the world, since you won’t deliver that)
  • build your network (make sure the barriers – personal, professional, demographic – are minimised)
  • learn (make sure you learn from failures, successes and everything in between. Don’t just hold occasional “skill-share” events, make sure there is social learning)

I’ve been in this country almost twenty years, and lived through (and participated in/been complicit in) several hype-cycles of extra-parliamentary action (roads protests, GM foods, ant-globalisation, anti-war, climate camp, austerity/Occupy and some of their various tactics – tripods, fax blockades, camps, street parties, occupations etc).
Management of expectations? I haven’t seen much of that. The revolution is always just around the corner, the beach always just underneath the next set of cobble-stones. And while I completely get that we need a radical and virtually instantaneous transformation of society – I’ve read my Kevin Anderson – banging on about it and then not looking for some quick wins to get momentum, connections and morale going, is a recipe for repeated failure that burns out activists and creates entirely justifiable cynicism in potential activists and supporters.

I’ve seen endless repeated exhortations for networking, and the same people doing the networking – the trustafarians, the students, the ones who’ve found accommodations with (bits of) the system. They are not bad people, but their groups rarely reflect even a simulacrum of the demographics of the real world.  (The more honest activist groups admit that, and the even more sensible ones realise that it doesn’t always matter. Marx was middle-class etc etc ). More seriously, these groups often organise meetings that they claim are “open to anyone” but are exclusive in dozens of subtle ways.  But, like goldfish in water, they struggle to see what’s going on.  If I could make everyone read Kathleen Blee’s magnificent short book “Democracy in the Making: how activist groups form” I would!

Learning? Nope, very little of this. Just the same old hype-cycles, the same old tactics dusted off and used over and over again, more for their familiarity, convenience and status-building-within-the-subculture rather than their efficacy.
Frank Turner is in many people’s eyes a phoney, but he nails it with these lyrics, from “Love and Ire” –

Well it was bad enough the feeling, the first time it hit
When you realised your parents had let the world all go to shit
And that the values and ideals for which many had fought and died
Had been killed off in the committees and left to die by the wayside
But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left
And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest
Yeah by idiot fucking hippies in 50 different factions
Who are locked inside some kind of 60’s battle re-enactment
And I hung up my banner in disgust and I head for the door

So, clearly now I’ve set myself up as some amazing sage, I’m supposed to state “What is to be done?”

Well, here’s some ideas.

Manage expectations by setting – gasp- reformist goals. Ones that you can measure in some way Preferably not “column inches in the newspaper” or “likes on facebook” (though these aren’t automatically bad). How about “numbers of new members who are still in the organisation six months/twelve months down the line” or  “Increase in skills level among the core group on skills a, b and c and knowledge x, y and z”?   If you promise the world (Transition Towns, Climate Camp) then you not only demoralise those who turn up, but also those who never did.

Network  holding public meetings in ways that are genuinely participatory, that don’t just allow the same old people to make the same old points and so meet their (unquenchable?) ego-needs. Think it through from the perspective of someone who has never been to a meeting before. Do they get what is going on? Is their input welcomed? What about all the people who cannot – or would not – come to your meeting? How are you keeping them in the loop, how are you allowing them to participate without being at your meetings? A new website (which, to be fair, probably won’t have much content by next Saturday) called “Healthy Movements” seeks to offer some simple and free tools for dealing with some of the common problems that affect meetings and groups. [2nd Dec – Website delayed!]

Learning. The biggie. When this or that campaign is gone and forgotten, what is left? If we had, for the last twenty years, been making sure that alongside this occupation, or that march, that people in our groups were gaining the skills they wanted, sharing the skills they had, then what would remain is skilled up, connected and confident activists. – That’s a no-lose situation, isn’t it?

“By emphasising the network form McLeish argues that the flows of information and interaction between groups and individuals are more important that (sic) the points of convergence. The ‘nodes’ – the points at which multiple flows connect – may represent a key moment during a movement’s history but have a tendency to create ossified traditions, incapable of reacting to changing political opportunities. ‘Organisers thrown up by events, who find themselves serving or surfing these waves of history narcissistically imagine themselves their authors. Last year’s bright creative movement becomes a fossilized bureaucracy or an inert ritualistic subculture.” [emphasis added]
page 279 of a PhD thesis “Meaning in Movement: An ideational analysis of Sheffield-based Protest Networks Contesting Globalisation and War” by Kevin Gillan.

An established but under-populated website called askfortheworld.net talks about how we can divide pretty much any skill or knowledge-set that you can think of into four categories (novice, practitioner, expert and ninja) and quickly find out who in the room is at which level for various skills by using “novice lines”.   Why does all this matter?  Because if we don’t skill-up ourselves and each other, when we lose (and let’s face it, we lose a lot), we are worse off rather than better…

Some Immodest proposals.

Learning from the Men with Guns.

The received wisdom seems to be that the military is rigidly hierarchical, with orders flowing from the centre and initiative actively discouraged. No matter how many times serving and ex-soldiers insist that it doesn’t actually work like that, they seem not to be believed. Partly it’s Hollywood’s fault (isn’t everything) in that rigid control versus personal conscience supplies a great climax for any number of action films.

But the military know that it’s impossible to micromanage a battle – ever since Clausewitz talked about “the fog of war” soldiers have been trained to show initiative within the overall context of the “Commander’s Intent.”
There are specific tools and methods of thinking through goals, of communicating, that activists would do well to understand. Here are some of them (it’s a non-exhaustive list)

Commander’s Intent.
“Five Paragraph Orders” (or SMEACs)
METT-T (Mission Enemy Troops Terrain Time)
OODA Loops

And even remembering Manuel de Landa’s point that logistics trumps strategy and tactics, there’s still this;
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Learning from the Greed Heads
Similarly, let’s think about how organisations try to innovate/problem-solve against a background of their members having vastly different cultural baggage, types of education. Not, sadly, NGOs and social movement organisations, but rather Multi-National Corporations. Sure, following Sturgeon’s law (90% of everything is crap) most management literature is faddy, facile nonsense. But then, isn’t that the case for lots of what we read in the ‘activist’ press?

My fear is that if we don’t come to admit that moral outrage and the creation of opportunities for us to vent our anger to each other, and display our rectitude (most of our marches, demonstrations, rallies etc), then we will continue to be ever more irrelevant. If we continue to prioritise mobilising (visible, ‘easy’) over movement-building (invisible, thankless, messy), we will continue to lose. If we want change, we need to stop doing the same things over and over and over again. So, the format of this event leaves me cautiously hopeful…

References and reading that I found useful
Anon (1998ish) “Global Warming: No one ever is to blame
Blee, Kathleen (2013) Democracy in the Making: how activist groups form. Oxford University Press
Seyfang, G and Haxeltine, A (2012) Growing grassroots innovations: exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30 (3). pp. 381-400. ISSN 0263-774X. See video about this
Rowbotham, S, Segal, L, and Wainwright, H (1979) Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the making of socialism Merlin Press


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