Peoples' movements and protests




Doing things right and doing the right things



Any suggestion for improvals can be mailed to the author


By Jan Wiklund



While the people’s movement activist easily acquires knowledge in tactics -- knowledge in how to do things right -- there are significantly fewer who learn to think strategically, i.e. learn how to do the right things. It is easy to learn how to make a demonstration, how to make a mass meeting, how to spread a press release. But less easy to learn why you do all this.

During the 90s, many people organized courses on how to do the perfect nonviolent action. But discussions about when and why one does such things were more sparse.

Still, there are quite a few who have thought in the “doing the right thing” category. Mainly, of course, among the opponents of the popular movements in business and government. In their language it is called “management” and is taught in business schools and the like. One person who has thought unusually much is Peter Drucker (other management literature tends to seem like Drucker and water).

One of his most important pieces of advice is to think backwards. In other words, you should ask yourself “how is the situation that prevails when you get what you want”? And then make sure it happens. Who needs to be convinced of what? What resources do you need to have? What obstacles must be cleared?

Another is that you should be careful not to run around and do many things, i.e. avoid emergencies. Instead, one should think through the situation and see why so many emergencies appear and find a new approach that makes them unnecessary. This is rarely easy - but if you manage to take the initiative on that front, it is likely that you have taken a big step forward in the issue that engages you.

One of Drucker's most useful books is called The effective executive -- and Drucker is careful to point out that executive here does not mean a director but anyone who takes an initiative in a business.

Of course, people’s movement activists have also thought strategically -- and often become famous and successful because they have succeeded in doing so. One of the earliest was Vladimir Lenin. His points in the book What should be done? was that “if you want a lot of local action groups to be formed, you shouldn’t form a lot of local action groups, because they just die. Instead, you should invest in a unifying national project”. His proposal was a political party, which has caused a lot of yesmen to form political parties at a moment’s notice, regardless of whether there was a need for such or not.

But the Swedish Environmental Federation was a better Leninist when, in the mid-80s, it saved four mountain forests in Gällivare by forming the European Youth Forest Action (EYFA). In a short time, they launched such an interest in forests that the four mountain forests were saved in fourteen days, while a lot of environmental activism was triggered in both Western and Eastern Europe. Of course, a commitment to four mountain forests in Gällivare would have led nowhere.

Another misunderstood strategist was Mohandas Gandhi. His main point was to keep the level of conflict low and rather take your time. The motives for keeping the level of conflict low can be said to be three. Firstly, it was about making use of the resources you actually had, and the English now once had a monopoly in weapons. Secondly, it is important that as many as possible dare to participate so that you get a mass effect in the conflict. And thirdly, it is much more difficult for the opponent to put you down by force if you do not use force yourself -- then there are great chances that the opponent will disagree internally, and that is always good for popular movements.

One should also mention the third of the 20th century’s great popular movement leaders, Mao Zedong. His idea, presented in the book On Contradictions, was even simpler: Manage one conflict at a time, so you don't fritter away your resources.

On a smaller scale, slum organizer Saul Alinsky worked in Chicago and other places during the 30s, 40s and 50s. He drew up a set of rules for popular movement organizers which were summarized in the book Rules for radicals. Alinsky was a hard-nosed realist -- he only had scorn left over for people who were mainly out to vent their frustrations or show how radical they were. Politics was for winning, he believed, and then you had to get your hands dirty.

Some of his advice was
- Never go outside the experience of your own, then they will only be confused. However, go outside of your opponents experience as much as you can to confuse them.
- A good strategy is fun, then many people want to join. And among the most effective things out there is making people laugh at your opponents and think they’re ridiculous. They can survive being hated, but they can't survive being scorned
- Don’t worry about your opponents blaming each other; designate a person or institution as a villain and stick with it. Then your opponents will sacrifice that person and offer something to appease you.
- Do many things at the same time, and above all new things. Be constantly changing.

In modern times, slum organizer Randy Shaw in San Francisco has linked to Alinsky’s rules and developed them further in the book The activist’s handbook. Some of Shaw’s rules are
- Don't let the other side control your schedule; set your own goal and pursue it no matter what the other party comes up with.
- Don’t try to be friends with politicians; they only do what you say if they are afraid of you. If they think you support them in whatever they do, they will instead try to cater to others whose support is less secure.
- Rather ally yourself with unexpected partners than with those who always think like you. Best of all is to ally with someone who has some resource you lack.
- Don’t do one thing just to end up in the media. Then it is likely that the media will turn the news against you. Instead, decide what you want to get out in the media and make sure it gets the right angle.

A Nordic activist who has contributed to strategic thinking is Thomas Mathiesen, who gained his experience from client organization. He was quite popular in the 80’s for his thesis “beware of being defined out, and beware of being defined in”, or in more colloquial language “don't be too sweet and the world will eat you up, don’t be too sour and the world will spit you out”. Mathiesen’s solution was to remain unfinished, open, to be possible to interpret or develop in different directions.

Otherwise, it is mainly academics who have thought about popular movement strategies, and then in the sense of “what does usually work?”. Unlike strategically interested popular movement activists who have started from their own experience, the academics have had the opportunity to study many mobilizations, many movements, in many places, and search for unifying features.

One of the most famous and quoted is Charles Tilly. He is best known for his conclusion that it is usually a small set of actions that work at a given time and place -- partly because one (as Alinsky pointed out) cannot go beyond one’s own experiences, partly because society itself sets up limits for the possible. He calls such a set a repertoire, and believes that what applies in the industrial world in the North (he has thought less about the South) is
- since the 1850s, strike
- since the 1760s, WUNC which are the English initials for public display of representativeness (or "worthiness"), unity, numbers and commitment, in the form of demonstrations, mass meetings, petitions etc etc.

Each of these can of course be designed however imaginatively, and the greatest success comes to the one who succeeds in doing something a little new, but either strike or WUNC must always be at the bottom.

However, Tilly first became known for a completely different idea -- that the most important thing a people’s movement does is to build alliances and networks. This is necessary to counter the fact that its counterpart always has much greater resources than the movement itself. The best network forms the movement that is also a category, i.e. that they have something more than a floating interest in the thing that binds it together.

Another academic close to Tilly is Sidney Tarrow, who has wondered what makes popular movements sometimes succeed and sometimes not, and why some mobilizations succeed while others fall flat. Tarrow’s conclusion is that one succeeds when one’s opponents are divided and disagree, while one fails when they have managed to agree on some definite line. The smart people’s movement therefore ensures that the opponents are kept suitably divided.

However, James Jasper and Veit Michael Bader stand for a perhaps just as interesting research direction (completely unaware of each other, apparently). They assume that movements are constantly making choices about courses of action, and that each option may be in itself completely legitimate but may lead to very different results and may be appropriate on completely different occasions. In the book Getting your way, Jasper ponders the options
- Do you focus on the fact that a question has been decided unfairly or on the question itself?
- Should you bet everything on one action and risk it failing, or should you have several courses of action open?
- Should you employ staff in an office and risk being tied to expensive overhead costs, or should you continue to work with non-profit forces and risk not being able to cope in a tight situation?
- Should one pursue a super-radical line in order to get the competing moderate action group’s proposal to go through as a lesser evil, or do you then risk bringing down repression on yourself that makes any action impossible for years to come?

In the book Kollektives Handeln, Veit Michael Bader starts from the fact that a movement is born and develops and at each stage of maturity must choose what it wants to become. Such choices can be
- What kind of identity do you have? Is it wide or narrow?
- What is your interest? Who is standing in your way?
- What kind of language or ideology should be developed within the movement? Should it be rigid, which means that you don’t have to be particularly creative and responsive? Or should it be fluid and open, which means that you can talk to many possible allies?
- Should one have radical and far-reaching goals which create devotion within the movement? Or should one have more moderate goals which challenge fewer enemies and create broad if not enthusiastic support?

One thing strongly insisted by Bader is that a movement consists of a lot of organizations and non-organized people. It follows that all don't need to do the same thing. The English early 1900s consumer co-operativism went to pieces, says Peter Gurney, because of its war against trade unions as well as producer co-ops because all three claimed to be the one and only protector of working-class interest (which of course alienated its constituency that was more broadminded). Such secterism is rare nowadays, except among political parties; more common is the opposite mistake – that anything goes. One should think through what is the best thing to do, given that other groups/organization do other things; the best is to strengthen the weakest link, or doing what is needed most in the movement as a whole.

All these conclusions are of course open to question. Perhaps they even should be questioned. Because the important thing is not that you cling to one or the other strategic truth (which is probably very situational). The important thing is that you acquire a mindset.

Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: