Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals has been very influential in Western political circles in recent years. The book is all about putting together grassroots communities and suggests a range of approaches for activists to adopt, which can then be applied to a wide variety of situations. At its core the book suggests a cumulative process:
This involves applying a series of rules along these lines:
If your numbers are small keep quiet about them and make a lot of noise to create the impression you’ve plenty of numbers.
Stick to dealing with the experience/ comfort zone of your community.
Go outside or beyond the experience/ comfort zone of your opponents.
Call opponents to account according to their own standards/ rules.
The best tactics are those you enjoy.
The same tactics become dull to all concerned and need refreshed.
Pile the pressure on as fully as possible to maximum effect.
The threat of action is often more effective than the action itself.
Making an attack puts you in the position of having to offer a positive alternative.
Identify a target, lock in on it, make it personal and polarise opinion. Avoid structures and go for and stick to attacking a given individual.
Overall, pressuring, perhaps even taunting your opponent, to get a reaction that suits your narrative is a focus within this framework.
There are some ‘effective’ points such as some of the tactics in terms of manoeuvring opponents into difficult positions; and some essentials in terms of keeping it fresh, taking action that is enjoyable and offering positive alternatives.
However, much of what is going on is quite antagonistic, less than open and, perhaps, driven by the tactics in terms of the actions and narratives likely to result. The overall construct is essentially about win or lose; get the job done whatever; and polarise at every opportunity.
All of which sounds quite familiar; a bit like the behaviours, often reflexes, of those making misuse of power/ authoritarianism. And it’s a bit hard to see how any activism aimed at mutually constructive outcomes can go down that route.
If we wish to get results; build consensus to get things done; and avoid extremism in its many forms . . . surely a default to antagonism is going to get in the way of doing what we can for the most part all agree on - and then taking things from there.
In other words, the creation of a common enemy to confront may turn the resulting conflict into as much of a goal or target as the issue/ s you set out to protest against in the first place. That is not to say many forms of protest activism, (from marches through to even the sanctions or boycotts of governments), have not brought positive outcomes. But more to suggest that what were novel and, in some circumstances, effective ‘gather and protest’ approaches to activism have become predictable, and easy to counter, through contradictory external and internal antagonisms.
If it can be accepted that activism based on escalating polarisation is in some respects prone to be counter-productive and often quite predictable, any alternative approaches presumably need to be able to apply a fresh dynamic to existing forms of activism. Three familiar, but at times overlapping, types of activism come to mind:
Demand driven activism seeks changes in policies through opposition often involving strikes, sit-ins or demonstrations.
Needs-focused activism concerns developing or creating alternatives to current, typically failing, social structures to meet needs such as housing and healthcare. Co-operatives, squats and social centres are typical to this type of activism, which is often based around persistent collective participation.
Revolutionary activism aimed at dismantling or overthrowing existing social structures to arrive at rapid social change without stepping through reforms.
In each case options for less polarised, less predictable and more issues based activism do seem to be in some use and readily available:
Women in Iceland famously went on strike in Iceland in 1975 over equal pay and won quickly. The size and connectedness of the community helped, but they succeeded with a non-confrontational strike. In other circumstances, perhaps a withdrawal of labour could exchange picketing for transferring work to another cause, e.g. spending a strike day together doing something for a local charity. Along similar lines stand and chant demonstrations become opportunities to promote your cause when turned into family events and/ or flash performances on some level. Costume protests that challenge or satirise offer a straightforward example, as illustrated by a recent demonstration in the US where activists turned out in costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale to put across a compelling message about totalitarianism.
Co-operatives involving workers’ groups or community groups are often focused on building consensus and to some extent this is an area where the types of on-the-ground community action they often carry out encourages consensus. Longstanding contributors often pull things together and organisational structures can be light enough to avoid forming top down layers. (However, it seems necessary from the outset to assess whether or not the issues and messages are sufficiently compelling to keep ahead of the tug of individuals and organisation. There is a risk that you could end up building an organisation not to solve an issue or deliver a service, but for solely the sake of sustaining the organisation itself).
Seeking a sea change by tearing things up or through dramatic confrontation often isn’t very revolutionary at all. A revolution brings genuine change in social order to the broad benefit of society. Vaccinations for polio or the invention of anesthesia have both been revolutionary in ways few demonstrations or power grabs can claim to match. Realistically, revolutionary activism might be able to claim to be seen as genuinely revolutionary when re-inventing and re-purposing; not when lurching from political left to right or creating excuses for governments to become increasingly authoritarian. Suffragette marches provide an example of where revolutionary attitudes and demonstration combined very effectively - and largely peacefully.
Clearly, there is no shortage of alternatives to confrontational methods and options for concentrating on getting issues-based results. If these approaches are carried forward into organising and organisations the emphasis on issues and outcomes also guides how and who to work with.
Under such circumstances those primarily concerned about the issues and delivering outcomes become more significant than political factions or the loudest voice. Often these are people who can be identified with through consistency and contribution, (towards planned outcomes), instead of through insubstantial patterns of affiliation or patronage.
Where issues, messages and skill sets are put first it becomes practical to adopt organisational structures based on the practicalities of delivering the messages and related outcomes instead of wandering off into clusters of political or personal agendas. For example, if roles are assigned and developed according to consistency and contribution we find those carrying out the activism/ work directly shaping the delivery of shared messages.
Issues Not Parties
Standard political models glue people and political parties together in advance of the issues by offering a convenient route to political expression and widespread networking. This comes at the price of accepting a bundle of issues shaped as party policies and you’re part of ‘the team’ so long as you stick to set menu.
Activism can appear to escape putting political team membership in front of the issues when focusing on what appears as a single issue. However, few issues sit in isolation and a political dimension to a group or organisation will typically have or develop an internal politics. Consequently, it appears the issues and methods required to accommodate a constructive ‘political’ structure within activism need to be mapped, and agreed, in advance of political or constitutional teambuilding.
Where the issues; the messages they concern; and the related outcomes all dovetail with engagement in advance of political or constitutional alliance, people and issues can start out with an authentic basis for collaboration. Any resulting structure or organisation, however then politicised, is open to carrying forward a consensus based around core issues.
Issues-focused principles, and actions following from them, may need to be fostered and remain able to adapt to circumstances but, unlike a constitutional or political model, personal and group engagement rests on a self-negotiated platform rooted in getting done what you actually wish to get done.
Activism based, first and foremost, on tackling issues and delivering outcomes can access a different set of narratives and narrative structures from more militant and polarised politically-driven projects. Instead of seeking to manoeuvre an opponent into a difficult position through techniques like making a lot of noise, aka astroturfing, activists can look to introduce counter confrontational narratives and to introduce fresh open narratives.
An approach based on open, personal narratives can help to take activism outside the political arena where manipulation and rubbing raw opponents’ every weakness locks everyone down into a pattern of mistrust mapped by terms such as compliance, convention and collapse. A whole new vocabulary becomes available; and immediately accessible through solutions-focused terms such as prevention, ingenuity and novelty.
And it’s here, with open narratives, where boundaries become more permeable and activism is able to get beyond ‘meeting fire with fire’ or trading blows at varying distances. It can do so by stepping beyond argument and into compelling, remarkable or ‘awe-inspiring’. The last term is the one psychologists are using and switching to open narratives can be considered in terms of offering a different level of reasoning.
If someone offers a convincing evidence-based argument it can be next to impossible for those biased against the evidence to take the evidence on board through standard reasoned argument alone. They are typically thinking of their immediate concerns and falling into a pattern of confrontation instead of seeking common ground or cause. The greater the gap in shared understanding, the more likely a default to a familiar drama-centred route into defensive actions, which are fixed in our bias for sticking with information that confirms what we already hold true.
Taking both ‘sides’ out of defaulting into conflict calls for encouraging ‘the opposition’ to enter into meaningful conversation. This involves inviting them to pause to think and to consider others’ point of view from different angles, which happens when, for example, genuine rapport, spontaneity or remarkable settings catch the breath or take our thoughts down a different path.
Under these kind of conditions areas of common ground and shared purpose are less likely to lapse or default into conflict. That does not mean significant differences will be resolved or set aside, but once a few disagreements have been at least parked there’s more room to build more rapport, to drop in a suggested solution or to explore an area of agreement.
It may sound like a tall order to serve up lots of different types of compelling experiences, but activism is not about providing an expensive or glittery entertainment. The realisation of planned outcomes can, at times, be fun or creative along the way, but communicating understanding of the issues you wish to raise and the changes you want to see made are the underlying focus. Offering a cup of hot chocolate on a cold morning can be just the ticket all on its own. It’s really not necessary to lay on a rock concert or to arrive in a vintage car. You only need to be more compelling than those mostly trading in tired arguments and gloom. The people typically most focused on negative political campaigning just don’t come across as even slightly for real when they try to be compelling or spontaneous. Under such circumstances they tend to look plastic and the underlying fixed narratives are never far from the surface.
In other words, using messages based around largely positive open narratives aims to build understanding through encouraging issues-centred self-negotiation around shared goals. At the same time open narratives deprive the divisive or disruptive of many of their excuses for escalating authoritarianism.
Hold On - Where Do We Get Solutions From?
Check what works well elsewhere in fairly similar circumstances.
Research from a mix of sources and develop an understanding of how systems connect up.
In situations where efforts focus on ‘firefighting’ problems, prevention often needs to kick in to halt further deterioration.
Early interventions deliver prevention and prevention saves costs allowing further preventative interventions.
Any chain of interventions has to connect up and self-replicate in terms of a self-contained capacity to keep all the links working as intended.
See solutions not in terms of your solution, but in terms of how you build and hand over ownership of options to those in need of a solution.
Why Build Community
With most enterprises, entertainments and events a customer’s ‘journey’ rarely involves a short, straight line from first contact to shopping cart. It may look much more like this, if not quite a bit longer:
You hear about a ‘product’/ event via a friend.
Later the same day you see a related Facebook post, Like the content, and comment.
A week later you get paid and do a quick search engine trawl for comparable products.
The product you first came across is on the first page of the search results and you click through to check the details.
There’s one thing you’re not sure about so you Tweet the company and get a quick and satisfactory reply.
Finally, you’re convinced the product is a good purchase and it’s already open in another browser tab.
You buy the product/ ticket to the event.
A study by Sprout Social found that 85 percent of people have to see something on social media more than once before they would purchase it. But they will also unfollow you if you post too many promotional messages.
There are countless variants, but roughly speaking a process of persuasion is going on until a series of issues-and outcomes-focused messages pass enough of the right thresholds to arrive at an outcome. If we consider that organisationally within face-to-face or online communities it becomes apparent persuasion - whether commercial or community orientated - likely calls for engaging a great deal of connectivity, interdependency and exchange between quite disparate points of contact. Put another way, effective persuasion often involves inviting people into a community of issues and ideas.
Roll with the punches political activism, where you set off with at least a side-serving of politically defined ideals and the best of intentions, offers a familiar structure and a ‘team’. There is also the impression of adapting to on-going circumstances, which aims to help to target pressure on political opponents.
However, making large portions of a campaign up as you go along throws issues, politics and fandom into the same basket instead of forming a firm platform of clearly understood issues for any politics and/ or collaborations to stand on. So what may initially appear unpredictable within combative politicised campaigning likely leads to a politicised, if not political, activism and fans.
To sustain motivation and keep things fresh it’s important to fine-tune as you go, which is made much easier through applying changes to the politics, methods and messages set on top of a platform formed of core issues.
Plan compelling narratives to carry the messages about your issues and planned outcomes.
Communicate beyond your existing support.
If it’s fascism or totalitarianism call it by its name.
Back the genuinely progressive and innovative.
Create and pilot positive models for the future.
Stand up determinedly for your rights and those of others.
Prepare to protect the communities most at risk from extremists.
Seek genuinely universal voting rights, including auto-registration.
Reflect, learn and adapt to improve and offer novelty.
The Truth About Dishonesty
The video offers a different angle on how we get caught-up in repeating the same patterns of conflict and normalising the far from acceptable.