Thinking Strategically: Bigger Cages For Stronger Movements

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications] 


Teaching a course on strategy to a group of 12-year-olds was very helpful. Perhaps teaching any topic to 12-year-olds is helpful to a ‘teacher’ trying to get to grips with what it is being taught. Among other things, I gradually realized that there are two very different meanings to the word ‘strategy’ as it is commonly used.


One meaning is the high-level somewhat abstract strategic concept: use flanking movements in a pincer strategy; undermine the opponent not by head-on confrontation on her chosen ground, but by appealing to her wavering (brittle) moderate supporters; and so on.


The other is the ground-level nuts-and-bolts detailed strategic plan: in order to be able to strike for the summit before the weather changes, we will need to ensure that the following supplies are delivered to base camp two weeks earlier; to win the election, we will need at least five volunteers working the phones every day, twenty out on the streets going door to door, and so on.


The hardest part of making a strategy, it seems to me, is choosing the right intermediate goals. It’s relatively easy to decide what your ultimate goals ought to be. What’s difficult is working out what are the most important or most urgent stepping stones on the way to where you want to go. Often, in social change movements, there’s a tendency to think that strategy doesn’t matter; activity matters. ‘Doing something is better than doing nothing, and it’s foolish to think that worrying about "what’s most effective" is going to deliver magical results.’


Certainly, there are no magical methods, and reflection should never become an excuse for inaction. The problem is that this non-strategy strategy can lead to the famous problem of the mountaineer who decides always to climb up. She’s bound to end up at the summit that way, if every step is higher than the last. Invariably, this approach lands you at the top of a foothill, unable to go higher, because you are always looking up – your rule stops you descending in order to ascend.


How can trying to think strategically help social movements? I’m restricting my attention to the West, partly because I know it better, partly because social movements in the Global South generally face a very different situation.


My feeling is that a certain amount of historical understanding, social inquiry and strategic thinking are needed for Western activists to avoid a number of dangerous pitfalls, including despair, vanguardism and guerrilla-ism, three inter-linked phenomena, in my view. (Guerrilla-ism I’ll have to leave to another day.)


Let us assume at the outset that the grand objective is to remove sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, discrimination against disability and all other forms of oppression, to place productive resources such as land and capital equipment under public control, to create an environmentally-sustainable society that grants working people self-government in their economic as well as their civil lives.


The words are easy to say.


The reality is hard to live, even very approximately, in personal life, and difficult to truly re-imagine on a social scale.


The gap between such intensely-felt needs and the apparent limits of the real – the boundaries set by Western society – can very easily lead to despair. Anyone of conscience must want immediate revolutionary change in a world in which 30,000 young children die every day of poverty and hunger (UNICEF’s 2000 Progress of Nations). Yet revolutionary change is clearly not immediately available, and is also clearly far beyond the capacity of any individual or visible group of individuals. Frustration at this situation is compounded by the bizarre web of unreality woven by mainstream culture, with its emphasis on hedonism and conspicuous consumption. Faced with these facts, it is entirely rational to despair to some degree. What is socially significant is the intensity and focus of that despair, whether it grows to become an obstacle to constructive action.


Noam Chomsky suggested some years ago that the turn to Marxism-Leninism in the US during the late 1960s was due to the dawning realization that the enormous sacrifices of the New Left were capable only of developing better trade unions, increasing the access of previously marginalized groups to the mainstream economy, and so on. The techniques and organizations that existed then were simply incapable of creating larger effects, of institutional replacement – or even deep institutional change. There were certain ‘almost built-in limits to what could be achieved by the earlier movement’; ‘these were given by very power institutional facts about this society that just couldn’t be transcended by that kind of movement’. (Language and Politics, p. 176) Hence the search for messianic solutions, Chomsky suggested.


I’m not going to rehearse the libertarian critique of Leninism (in all its varieties). Authoritarianism, elitism, totalitarian thinking, commissar-like behaviour and domination by middle-class intellectuals are not phenomena confined to Leninist parties.


If Chomsky’s analysis is correct, and it seems entirely plausible, then it has relevance far beyond the borders of the US. This emphasizes the importance of the authentic Left developing an understanding and a commitment that can resist the temptations of despair and messianism. An approach that can be content with a more modest set of gains on the horizon, that can remain grounded even when convulsive and exhausting struggles produce only incremental change. This is not a call for a detailed overarching strategic plan for radical social change, but a useable strategic concept that can protect us to some extent from the dangers of despair and elitism.


One useful phrase that is often used is ‘non-reformist reform’.


In his rich and enlightening essay in the Real Utopias collection, Robin Hahnel scoffs at the concept of ‘non-reformist reform’: ‘What was misleading was the notion that there are particular reforms that are like silver bullets and accomplish this because of something special about the nature of those reforms themselves.’ (p. 235) While I found Hahnel’s discussion of reformism, social democracy and libertarian socialism over the last century or so extremely valuable, I can’t help thinking that there probably are some reforms which are particularly unsettling for the present order.


For example, the demand for managers to be elected by workers rather than appointed by owners. This demand was put forward clearly by the South Wales NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) in 1912 in the famous document The Miners’ Next Step:


‘Today the shareholders own and rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these, as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your fireman, manager, inspector, etc., is to have a vote in determining the conditions which shall rule your working life. On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, of your freedom from oppression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in, and control over your conditions of work.’ (available online)


This reform (throughout the economy, not merely in mines) would leave in place private ownership and management, foundation stones of the capitalist system, but would be likely to swing a large measure of power and confidence decisively to working people – if won through their struggle. (Someone will disobligingly point to the limitations of workers’ control in Yugoslavia, no doubt.)


Another system-undermining-but-not-overthrowing reform is the Basic Income – a minimum income paid to each individual (rather than to a household), paid irrespective of income from other sources, and paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered. This idea was endorsed by Bertrand Russell in Paths to Freedom (available online) in 1918, thinking in particular of the artist and the scientist:


‘The other possibility would be that the necessaries of life should be free, as Anarchists desire, to all equally, regardless of whether they work or not. Under this plan, every man could live without work: there would be what might be called a "vagabond’s wage," sufficient for existence but not for luxury. The artist who preferred to have his whole time for art and enjoyment might live on the "vagabond’s wage" – travelling on foot when the humour seized him to see foreign countries, enjoying the air and the sun, as free as the birds, and perhaps scarcely less happy. Such men would bring colour and diversity into the life of the community; their outlook would be different from that of steady, stay-at-home workers, and would keep alive a much-needed element of lightheartedness which our sober, serious civilization tends to kill. If they became very numerous, they might be too great an economic burden on the workers; but I doubt if there are many with enough capacity for simple enjoyments to choose poverty and freedom in preference to the comparatively light and pleasant work which will be usual in those days."

‘… if there is real freedom, allowing every man [and woman] who so desires to take up an artist’s career at the cost of some sacrifice of comfort, it is likely that the atmosphere of hope, and the absence of economic compulsion, will lead to a much smaller waste of talent than is involved in our present system, and to a much less degree of crushing of impulse in the mills of the struggle for life.

‘… under a freer system, which would enable all kinds of groups to employ as many men of science as they chose, and would allow the "vagabond’s wage" to those who desired to pursue some study so new as to be wholly unrecognized, there is every reason to think that science would flourish as it has never done hitherto.’


Both these reforms point towards a society and an economy based on very different principles.


If I have understood him correctly, Chomsky has argued that a radical social change movement can only develop its full strength if it can inter-relate with a larger and more powerful mass reform movement. That larger mass movement – a necessary condition for radical developments – is missing, he suggested in the 1970s, sadly still true in Western countries today. Chomsky sketched an outline of what might be possible, saying that what was needed was: ‘a movement for social change with a positive programme that has a broad-based appeal, that encourages free and open discussion and offers a wide range of possibilities for work and action’. This movement would be devoted to ‘badly needed reforms, anti-imperialist and anti-militarist, concerned with guaranteeing minimal standards of health, income, education, industrial safety and conditions of work, and overcoming urban decay and rural misery.’ Chomsky observes: ‘What we don’t have and should have is mass popular organization. Then critical discussion and analysis, and serious thought about social issues, can become significant.’ (Radical Priorities, pp. 221f, 239; Chomsky Reader, p. 51)


This is the movement analogue for the strategy of ‘expanding the floor of the cage’, a phrase from the Brazilian rural workers’ unions brought to wider attention by Chomsky. The population is caged and limited and oppressed by the state, but cannot afford to join the attack on the state, to ‘minimise’ it and weaken it, because outside the ‘cage’ are even more destructive predators – corporations (often transnational) – that have the capacity to eliminate the possibility of civilized life, among other undesirable possible outcomes. The cage must be strengthened to contain the predators, while freedom is increased for the general population, for working people. At this point, stuck on a dangerous foothill, we must go downhill (increasing the power of the state) in order to be able to go uphill later (reducing and finally eliminating both public and private concentrations of power).


Generally speaking, activism is concerned with policies. It is an effort by sections of the public to stop powerful institutions from carrying out harmful actions, or to induce them to begin constructive actions. There is another kind of effort, which is to change the institution itself, to increase the power of rank-and-file members of the institution, or the power of the general public, and to therefore change the way that policies are formed. Alternatively, we can build parallel institutions, counter-institutions, that prefigure the kind of world we want to bring about – and which act as laboratories within which we can carry out social experiments to explore possible future societies.


Abstractly, the long-term objective is, on the one hand, to reduce concentrations of power and transform dominant institutions until they are weak enough to be replaced, and, on the other, to grow counter-institutions until they are strong enough to take over the management of society and the economy.


To take some concrete examples, in the domain of anti-militarist politics, where I mostly work, the main policy objectives here in Britain are to stop wars of aggression and to force unilateral nuclear disarmament. The institutional reform on the horizon is the amendment of Britain‘s (unwritten) constitution to require a parliamentary vote before large-scale military action can be launched (the Prime Minister can, at the moment, make war at whim through the use of the Royal Prerogative). A longer-term institutional reform would be to require a referendum for such action, and further on, to dissolve the standing army, a radical demand in Britain going back several centuries. One could say that the parallel institutions that are currently operating are citizen’s interventions such as the Free Gaza Movement (which sends siege-breaking boats to Gaza), the International Solidarity Movement (which sends Western human rights activists to the Occupied Territories), Peace Brigades International (which sends Western activists to accompany people all over the world struggling for their rights against heavy odds and receiving threats or violence for carrying out their work). Perhaps the Cuban policy of sending around 20,000 doctors (and 10,000 other health professionals) to work in Latin America and Africa (their services free at the point of delivery) might be seen as another kind of parallel foreign policy instrument.


I’m interested however, in a sceptical note on the Cuban presence in Bolivia (1), which suggests that there are costs to the Bolivian health system of having a foreign implant, a truly parallel health care system in each hospital in which there were ‘two laboratories, two pharmacies, two sets of patients’ notes and two teams on call at night’. The fact that the Cuban doctors’ services were free meant that important patient revenue was being lost to the Bolivian hospital system, and not replaced by any other source, leading to the loss of other services. The Cubans were, apparently, not training their Bolivian counterparts, and there was no guarantee of sustainability, in Bolivia, at least.


Somehow this reminds me of some of the problems of activism. In his brilliant book on the new radical unionism (The Next Upsurge), Dan Clawson distinguished between activism and organizing – using activism in the broadest sense to include large mainstream environmental bodies, for example.


The movements of the 1960s, Clawson writes, ‘did not create ongoing membership organizations with viable local chapters’, and the groups that were created differed from unions in their ‘membership, funding, methods of governance, internal organization, relationship to the state, and characteristic method of achieving their goals’. (p. 21)


Activist groups, for a variety of reasons, tend to have a strongly middle-class character ‘although the groups typically vehemently deny this’. Most activist organizations rely on grants of some kind, from public institutions, foundations or wealthy individuals. Clawson writes: ‘Typically, these "citizen" or "public interest" groups rely on low-paid, generally young, college-educated staff, a patron of some sort, and a mailing list’. The usual relationship of the member to the group is through direct mail or telephone fund-raising – they have almost never attended a face-to-face meeting of the group. Unlike unions, members tend not to hold office in the organization, or vote for leaders. ‘The group’s continued existence depends on the ability to tap into high-visibility, hot-button, symbolic issues that either get ordinary people to respond to direct mail appeals or get wealthy sponsors to continue to provide funding’.


Unions have day-to-day, face-to-face, ongoing relationships with their opponents, generally engaging in compromises and small victories. Activist groups have arms-length relationships with their opponents, generally using the law or the media to put pressure on them. ‘When the group engages in direct action, it rarely involves the mass participation of a strike – which, to be effective, typically requires 90 percent participation from the affected constituency, all of whom forfeit pay and risk their jobs – and is much more likely to be symbolic.’ The day-to-day lives of activists, on the other hand, are rarely affected by victories or defeats, and therefore they are much less likely to compromise, ‘because the symbolic statement is more important than the incremental advance’.


The whole point of The Next Upsurge was to argue that unions were beginning to take on some of the strategies, tactics and culture of the newer social movements, to their benefit. Clawson was not saying that one form of politics was better than the other, he was merely describing the differences that exist, and pointing to the enormous potential that could be realized by merging the best of both models, and was indeed being realized by unions that were merging the best of both models.


The Cuban-Bolivian problems noted above raise some other issues, to do with the commitment to ‘free’ goods and services within much of the Western activist world, the lack of training (especially between movements and between generations), the lack of sustainability and the problems of Western activists intervening in other countries even with the best will in the world. Much of this is to do with a lack of the resources needed to build sustainable counter-institutions.


One kind of bridging between what is and what could be will come from developing ways to harness the savings of progressive-minded people to support such counter-institutions. I’ve been involved in such an initiative in Britain called Rootstock, a co-operative of radically-minded investors, who take shares in Rootstock, which then takes shares in a network of radical housing and workers’ co-operatives (and social centres) called Radical Routes. There are other similar forms, including the group Shared Interest, which operates internationally. Rootstock enables Radical Routes to make top-up loans to co-operatives purchasing property, to meet the gap between bank mortgages and purchase prices. There are over thirty co-ops in Radical Routes, collectively owning properties worth millions of pounds. I live in a house that was bought in this way, meaning that the people in my household were able to stop moving every 18 months on average due to private landlords’ changing plans, and devote that energy (over the last eight years) to more constructive purposes.


Rootstock is an anti-capitalist investment fund, another analogue to ‘expanding the floor of the cage’.


Another similar actually-existing contradiction that I’m interested in here in Britain is Room 13, a project that creates a child-controlled environment within normal state schools, generally for art. Started in Scotland, the model has spread as far as Nepal and South Africa. I’ve been enormously impressed by the children I’ve met in Room 13 – 10-year-old company directors responsible for inventorying, ordering stocks, fundraising, banking and cheque-writing, and so on. The art that is produced in these libertarian enclaves is astoundingly mature.


The problem of libertarian education is that giving children access to self-management is quite expensive, generally. You have to go to a private school, or withdraw your child from school entirely (this is legal in Britain, though increasingly under threat from government registration and monitoring). Fighting to take a state school in a libertarian direction is exhausting and generally short-term (Britain has seen some tragic examples). Room 13, which evolved organically out of the desire of some children to maintain their relationship with a particularly inspiring artist-in-residence, is a low-cost half-way house, something that every state school could provide (the room costs virtually nothing, the children fundraise for their Room 13 artist – who is completely separate from the ‘normal’ art room).


Room 13 is a perfect example of the kind of power transfer within dominant institutions I referred to above as a strategic objective, and it has produced, by giving children trust and responsibility, some very fine people. One young man I met in Scotland confessed that he was saddened, on moving to secondary school, no longer to have meaningful work to do.


Which brings me to my final random thought in relation to reimagining society. Another child-oriented project I’m involved in (apart from a home education group – don’t tell the local education authority!) is called Flysheet. Started in the 1970s, the basic idea is that low-income children from urban backgrounds deserved to have an experience of country life, of camping. The basic philosophy was, and remains, quite austere. There are no music players, radios, handheld games machines. We gather wood for cooking and carry water for drinking and kitchen use. We use slit trench latrines shielded by hessian. It is a basic life. There’s a mixture of children, some of whom have troubles at school or home because of their behaviour. What amazes me is the way that we all cooperate to do the cooking (everyone does one day’s cooking), the wood-fetching, the water-carrying (sometimes done by forming a long chain with pots and jugs and plastic containers passed up and down the line). Even the most rebellious rarely hold out completely in their non-co-operation.


The reason we all work is that the work makes sense.


No one is forced to carry water because ‘it is good for them’. The rule on not wandering down to the lake without an adult is not imposed because ‘we all have to learn discipline’. Taking a turn cooking is not required because ‘this is a skill you’re going to need later’.


When life is very basic, everything you do makes sense. You have to deal with the basics of food, water, sewage, and community. In a group of equals, you have to do your share and the work that needs doing is staring you in the face. Not only is it obviously necessary, I think this kind of work actually gives satisfaction to everyone who does it.


When I try to re-imagine society, I think it must have that quality. Any twelve-year-old can teach you about it.




(1) Jienchi Dorward, ‘Cuban doctors in Bolivia: Help or Hindrance?’, The Lancet Student, 13 December 2007


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