Must the tail always wag the dog? Of activism and strategy.

Thinking strategically is very very hard.   The normal activist mode is to move (or, uncharitably, lurch) from one ‘crucial’/urgent; upcoming event to the next. It might be a camp, or a march, or a submission to some government ‘consultation’. It might be a public meeting, the launch of a document, whatevs.

You can spend literally years (decades) sitting in planning meetings where various people have sent their apologies, where the agenda is filled with seemingly crucial decisions, in meetings that are either well facilitated or poorly facilitated.

But the quality of the facilitation (turn-taking, time-keeping) is often irrelevant, because the decisions being made are purely tactical, and based on unspoken assumptions (about what the group is trying to achieve, how it is trying to achieve, what the model of social change is) that never get brought out into the light for consideration.

And so the wheel – what I’ve called the emotathon, or emotacycle – keeps turning, with new people churning in and dropping out after two or three such ‘big events’  (over a year or two).


The hard core activists, who have a model of social change based on vanguard parties, or who get their emotional/social needs met through Activism (capital A) either don’t notice or don’t care, or do notice and care, but feel that there is no alternative.

So the same stuff keeps happening, based on unspoken assumptions that we have to ‘tell the policymakers The Truth (information deficit). That we  just need to get in the media, that we need to make ourselves welcoming to the mythical ‘newbies’.

And even if you COULD get everyone to see this pattern, then you’d still struggle to escape the routine ways of doing things.

Because these are deeply entrenched (and unspoken) assumptions and habits.

And beyond that (because of that?) the skills of strategic thinking (even on a time scale of a year) either distrusted (‘you’re a control freak’) or derided (‘there you go, building castles in the air’ or ‘more masturbation, not practical ACTIONS, comrade’). Or both at the same time.  And alongside this there is the elision – conscious or otherwise – of mobilising and movement-building….

So, the skills are not perceived as necessary, not respected, not rewarded. No wonder they are not developed.

And while  some of us know we should do it, but it’s hard to do it on your own, and when the imperative of a 90 minute meeting is to make decisiosn about the coming weeks.  There’s simply no time for discussion of where we’re trying to be in a year’s time.


So, what is to be done?

Well, if you try to do a separate ‘visioning’ session, you will have some people not be able to come, some people deliberately NOT come (because they don’t have those skills, or because they don’t want to be ego-fodder). Alongside that, you’ll attract people with limited past and less future in the group who just want to grandstand and spout but who won’t be available to do any of the work involved in turning the strategy into deeds.

So, what I think needs to happen is that elements and habits of strategic thinking have to be folded into ‘ordinary meetings’ – just a few minutes (i.e. about 20) at a time.

And based on recent experience, I’d say that the best way forward would be to have people work in pairs or threes, and do back casting from a year, “on the other side”

(More than that in a group is intimidating for some, and means a confident people can easily dominate, and is more keen to do so.)

A facilitator has to have sorted out good simple prompting questions.  I’d go for one of the following

  •  “what knowledge, skills and relationships do YOU want to have a year from now, in the context of this campaigning groups aims and goals?”
  • “what knowledge, skills and relationships do you think the group should have a year from now, in the context of this campaigning groups aims and goals?”
  • “what are the points of failure (where knowledge, skills and relationships are absent or held only in one or two individuals) in the group that we need to lessen in the coming year?”

Work in pairs or threes for say 10 minutes on one of them, and then have a plenary, that is typed up and circulated, so that people who were not present feel up to speed.

Would this work? Probably not in the sense of getting a group to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that looks forward a year and guides its decisions, but it would at least foreground the knowledge, skills and relationships questions, and sensitise individuals to some thinking beyond the next few weeks/couple of months.

But it won’t happen, and that’s one of the many reasons I ain’t doing any more activism.  Gonna follow the Cocker protocol in the declining years of the species.

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