Another Strategy Tool

How can we organize against the multiple wars of the U.S. and at the same time plant the seeds for the future mass radical movement that’s required to end the war system itself? As Adele Oliveri points out in her Commentary written from Spain in February, "the international anti-war movement should recognize that the threat of a permanent war is the natural consequence of an economic order rewarding greed over solidarity, power over cooperation, ruthlessness over tolerance."

The great strategic weakness of radical analysts who in the past have urged that a particular evil (war) be put in the context of the macro system of which it’s a part, is that they often end up disempowering their audience. "Oh, great," says the activist in the street, "not only am I to stop this war but I’m to bring down the whole bloody system. I might as well go to the movies and escape!"

To do anything but bay at the moon, radical analysts need colleagues who propose positive vision (what will replace the dysfunctional system?) and strategy (how can we imagine that the system can actually be changed?).

Lately some of us have been experimenting at the grassroots with a strategy tool that gives heart to activists who are organizing now, at the same time as it raises the possibility of structural change. Since activist response to the last strategy tool I passed along has been enthusiastic, I’ll share this one. (For the last one see ZNet Commentary "Strategizing Against the Iraq War," October 2002.)

Matt Guynn, a Training Associate of Training for Change, reports from the heartland of Indiana one example of the use of this tool. (We’ve also tried this tool out in several countries and so far it seems to travel across cultures.) The group of 40 included postal workers, high school students, local pastors, a former mayor, and quite a mix of ages. In the beginning of the meeting many revealed anxiety and discouragement about the Iraq war.

Matt began by asking what kind of support the US war effort needs, and wrote the group’s ideas up on newsprint: arms makers, media, silent citizens, military advisors, etc. The list was long, and Matt asked the people to identify five or six from the list and form groups around those.

The six groups worked simultaneously in different parts of the room. Each developed two or three very specific actions (not general concepts) that they could take to withdraw the support their group lends to the war effort. While they worked, Matt placed a large mattress in the middle of the room. After five or so minutes of group work, each small group sent two representatives to the middle. Matt told them the mattress represented the U.S. push toward the war in Iraq, and asked them to lift the mattress over their heads, using only one hand each.

Each group then sent a delegate in from the team on the sidelines, to loudly announce one of their actions and remove one of their team members from supporting the war effort. The religious groups made a nationally televised public statement criticizing the war as unjust. The silent majority began to speak up to their co-workers about their concerns. The media started to print, once in a while, an alternative and critical perspective on the war. As the supports were withdrawn, the war effort started to sag. . . and it finally came toppling down!

After reveling in the exhilaration and really enjoying the feeling that the "fall" brought, the next step was to ask, "in what ways are the supports already being withdrawn from the war effort?" And the list grew! As the group built the list, Matt asked what people in this community would like to be working on together.

This proceeded into six self-selected working groups that continued to plan together to take specific actions that made sense in terms of this larger picture of power. "The group left feeling energized and activated," Matt writes, "with connections made with many other citizens who hadn’t known each other before."

Moreover, the exercise introduced in a vivid way the very same principle which enabled the young people of Yugoslavia to overthrow dictator Milosevic three years ago: the ruler’s power and policy depends on the compliance of the ruled.

That’s the principle that also enabled the people of Iran to overthrow the Shah. AND enabled the people of East Germany to overthrow the Stalinists. It turns out that the George Bushes, Shahs, and Milosevics of the world all need the same thing to continue their rule: at least the passive cooperation of their people. And when the compliant shift to active noncooperation, to people power, on a large enough scale using dynamic forms of nonviolent coercion, the government falls time and again.

Ah, someone might say, the noncooperation of the people doesn’t by itself bring in the Promised Land. Quite true — Strategy needs to be long-run as well as short-run, and it needs to serve Vision (visionaries, take a bow!) and take into account Analysis (analysts, take a bow as well).

The whole combination of radical analysis, vision, and strategy won’t move very far, however, if people don’t believe that their power can make a difference. That’s the usefulness of this tool. It’s a way of meeting people where they are right now (fighting this particular war) and at the same time pointing toward a root principle that will be essential "come the revolution."

More instructions on using this tool, which we call "the mattress game," can be found under "strategy tools" on our website: TrainingforChange.org Matt Guynn says he’ll be happy to answer questions: mguynn@myvine.com


George Lakey is director of Training for Change and has led over 1,000 workshops for activists on five continents. He debates Ward Churchill’s view of strategy in his essay "A Sword that Heals," on the Training for Change website.


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