Organising to win
The Mexico City subway was jam-packed that morning in November 2003 when my friend Saul and I rode it into the Zocalo together. We had to stand in the aisle, pressed tightly together by the crush of the crowd. Saul Landau was sixteen years my senior and had been making documentary films and writing about political subjects for most of his life. His films include The Sixth Sun, about the Mayan uprising in Chiapas.
I wanted to take advantage of this precious opportunity to ask someone with so much knowledge and experience of anti-systemic politics why – after so much hard work organising and protesting and working on alternatives – the anti-globalist movement at the turn of the millennium seemed to be getting nowhere.
Saul looked me straight in the eye and said “Because they don’t want to win.” Seeing my taken-aback expression, Saul expanded on his answer. In essence, his view of the ‘anti-globalisation’ protesters who had disrupted the WTO biennial meeting in Seattle in 1999, and similar global economic and political elite gatherings elsewhere in the world since then, was that each of the good causes represented by their bodies at the protests was being presented as a stand-alone issue, and there was no melding into one movement which included all of those causes but was focused on taking and properly managing the ultimate prize – the commanding heights of the economy. By way of example, he told me that so long as the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Cristobal, the capital of Chiapas, was on the side of the poor and oppressed of that state and working for their economic and political interests, he could and would work with him. In the happy event that the commanding heights of the economy of Chiapas (and/or Mexico) were won, at that point he’d fight with him over their polar opposite views on abortion rights.
It took me a while to digest what Saul had said and think it through, but that moment on the subway keeps recurring to me as the one which forced me to re-examine my rosy view of the anti-globalisation ‘movement’ to date, and realise that it (like so many so-called movements since) did not deserve the title ‘movement’. This is because – while there was much to commend about the analysis, goals and tactics of the activists – some of the key elements essential to a successful movement which can bring about significant change were missing.
Fifteen years went by, and although the major protests against exploitation, injustice and tyranny continued (think Arab Spring, Occupy) and echoed around the world, the economic inequality statistics kept climbing, both within and between countries. So did the greenhouse gas emissions which threaten us all, but particularly those already worse off. I also noted that when representatives of the common people were permitted to express contrary opinions to those occupying the commanding heights of the global economy (who gather at the literal height of 1560 metres/5,120 ft once a year at Davos in Switzerland – a safe, rabble-excluded place from which to view and plan the destiny of the globe) they are received with either polite indifference or active pushback. This was what happened to Greta Thunberg and Rutger Bregman at the 2019 World Economic Forum meeting.
A similar lack of traction was occurring within the democratic parliaments of the world. The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had given rise to the Green parties which started to be represented in parliaments from the 1980s, had scored some policy wins, especially on local and national level environmental issues. But they were not only as far as ever from the commanding heights of the economy, they had mostly been co-opted (passively or actively) into the neo-liberal economic management consensus of the major right and left parties in their parliaments.
With this sobering recent history in mind – and being of an inquisitive frame of mind – I began to wonder if there was any science on what it takes to organise successful political movements in ‘Western’ style parliamentary democracies, which can and do win. Were any sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists or other qualified people studying this question? Indeed they were, and from a variety of angles – even including linguistics. And what about the activists themselves? Did any of them have some wisdom and advice to share?
Once I started looking, I found that while this is far from being a mainstream area of research, there are some very fine minds applying themselves to the subject, from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. I have made a list of my main sources below, and here are the key points I learned from them (all of which are in line with my own experience).
1 Be very wary of the technosphere
For the past fifteen years social media platforms have been running interference on democratic politics of all kinds, from parliamentary to grassroots levels, and recently they have been facilitating and enabling violent extremism and distorted outcomes in elections. Social media and the internet generally are only part of the global technosphere which has us all in its bearhug embrace, as explained by Transition activist Naresh Giangrande in It’s time to talk about We. Another careful critic of the technosphere, and why and how it is no substitute for proper movement organising, is political scientist and activist Zeynep Tufecki.
Every new technology should be examined carefully for what it does or does not enable the user to do. If you want to make a sponge cake and not build a shed, why would you need or use a hammer? Digital technologies are much harder to examine and understand than egg beaters and hammers, but the same principle applies – start from the preferred end outcome and then work back to whether the technology is fit for the desired purpose. Also (especially if you are a climate activist) be aware of how much energy is required to build, maintain and grow the technosphere, how global usage of this energy is currently extremely unequal, and how it can never be equalised while maintaining a planet safe to live on. Ever.
2 Understand the difference between organising and mobilising, and why the former must take precedence
In the social media era, mobilising is easy, but organising for the long haul (to capture the commanding heights of the economy?) is a different thing altogether, and requires different tools and techniques. On the crucial differences between mobilising and organising, political scientists Hahrie Han and Zeynep Tufekci have lots of useful things to say about the importance of good leadership. Such leadership is committed, trustworthy, consistent, and in constant supportive communication with members. In Han’s view the purpose of organising is the same for both the organisation and for each individual member of it – to cultivate agency. Agency, as defined by Martin Luther King, is a sense of purpose, coupled with the autonomy to act in individually appropriate ways to realise that purpose. Han notes that over the past fifty years the American population’s sense of agency has been declining, and that this has resulted in less and less civic engagement, from being on school committees to voter turn-out at all levels of government. So it becomes even more important that organisations which claim to be working for just and empowering changes pay particular attention to cultivating agency.
3 Prioritise relationships of trust, care and support
Han has looked at lots of studies of political organisations, from all points on the political spectrum. Most challenging (for those who see themselves as progressive) is the extent to which the groups which they oppose (e.g. anti-abortion and pro-gun lobby groups) have been very successful at building committed memberships, and that this is not on the basis of the initial strength of new members’ views on abortion or guns, but rather on the supportive social relationships they encounter in those groups.
The significance of good relationships is so important that Han returns to it over and over. It is crucial to the distinctions she makes between mobilising and organising. 1 These cover the differences in communication styles between organisations focussed on mobilising and those focussed on organising. The mobilisers prioritise marketing; the organisers prioritise relationships. It’s the difference between talking at rather than talking with, and one-way rather than two-way communication.
Good relationships are based on skilful sharing of feelings and ideas – how we express them and listen to them being expressed. Also important are the organisational structures we create and the ‘making decisions together’ practices we use which either help or hinder good relationships. I have found that Nikki Harre, Les Robinson, Richard Sennett and Deborah Tannen (references below) all have useful things to say on this subject.
4 Build good relationships with other political actors, but be alert to and resist co-optation
As well as relationships between movement activists, the relationships those activists have with other political actors have to be factored into consideration. Hahrie Han and Carina Barnett-Loro, in their 2018 paper To Support a Stronger Climate Movement, Focus Research on Building Collective Power. They cite research showing that relationships with decision-makers are as important or more important than membership numbers and money in terms of influence on policy outcomes. On the other hand, they also warn that ‘policy is not power’, so getting an elected representative to adopt your organisation’s policy is not the same thing as getting it put into practice.
In fact, it could be an example of co-optation, as George Lakey points out on pp 174-175 of How We Win (2018). Lakey has been a human rights, peace and environmental activist for over 60 years, and an educator in formal and informal settings. His book is a invaluable guide to NVDA (Non-Violent Direct Action) campaigning. The last two chapters deal with turning isolated campaigns into a strong movement, and then using vision to create a movement of movements – an independent power base from which activists can negotiate policy outcomes with decision-makers from a position of strength.
Lakey is delightfully optimistic (see him talking about his book at George Lakey speaks about How We Win) about the possibilities inherent in our seemingly dire current political situation (but then he has been on the winning side of many past campaigns). The academics are more circumspect and want to keep looking for evidence either way. If we want to win, we need both perspectives – experienced and successful activists, thoughtful and questioning researchers. We need to learn from them, and apply their findings. Well, I don’t know about you – but I do, anyway. Because, like Saul – I want to win.
Note 1 Hahrie Han’s Mobilizing vs Organising Distinctions
Organising: Cultivate agency
Levels of commitment
discrete amounts of time
Strategy for power
Mobilizing: more numbers
Organizing: transformative leadership
Mobilizing: centralized responsibility
Organizing: distributed responsibility
Types of asks
Note 2 Activist organising theory and practice – references and resources
bergmann, carla and Montgomery, Nick (2017) Joyful Militancy thriving resistance in toxic times, AK Press
Giangrande, Naresh (October 2018) It’s time to talk about We
Han, Hahrie and Carina Barnett-Loro (2018) To Support a Stronger Climate Movement, Focus Research on Building Collective Power
Han, Hahrie (2017) Keynote Address – Climate Change Lobby 2017 Conference
Han, Hahrie (2013) How Organizations Develop Activists Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harré, Nikki (2011) Psychology for a Better World Strategies for Sustainability
Lakey, George (2018) How We Win A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning, Brooklyn: Melville House
Lakey, George (2010) Facilitating Group Learning Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Lakoff, George (2014) The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! White River Junction: Chelsea Green
Robinson, Les (2013) Changeology How to enable groups, communities, and societies to do things they’ve never done before, Melbourne: Scribe.
Schneider, Nathan ( May 2019) Co-ops Need Leaders, Too
Sennett, Richard (2013) Together The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation London: Penguin Books
Tannen, Deborah (1998) The Argument Culture Stopping America’s War of Words New York: Ballantine Books
Tufekci, Zeynep (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, New Haven: Yale University Press