Three questions about social movements

A friend of mine just shared this blog post by Duncan Green which begins

Tomorrow night I am doing an ‘ask me anything’ session on skype with some students from Guelph University in Canada, who have been reading How Change Happens. They have sent an advance list of questions, which are really sharp. I’d appreciate your views on 3 in particular:

  1. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?

  2. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?

  3. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?


These are good questions, and Green lists more of them further down in the blog, which I will try to answer (as much for my own sake as anyone else’s) in a post soon. But given the tight deadline, this-

Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?

There are huge differences between long-term change and temporary victories.  Temporary victories tend to be laws (new ones, that attempt to “institute” new behaviours/make existing behaviours legitimate) or to stop some particular form of idiocy (a dam, a road, a pipeline).  Long-change is both organisational (new arms of the state/new corporate behaviours, maybe some new big NGOs with middle-class people and their salaries and glossy-fucking-document-itis) and institutional in the broader sense of cognitive and normative and affective pillars (Scott, 1995).  Much harder to measure, point to (see Diani etc on measuring social movement organisation outcomes.)

For me, the key difference is between mobilisation (“easy”, exciting, visible) and movement-building (boring, unrewarded, invisible, not much adrenaline). The two are conflated regularly, wrongly.  You can mobilise for temporary victory. You want to win long, you need to movement-build.

We mostly witness mobilisation. For me, I can look at a public meeting, or a group’s “business meetings” and can see in the ego-foddering and the emotacycles they indulge in, as part of the smugosphere, that it’s going nowhere fast.  I have taken to calling these outfits social mobilisation organisations rather than social movement organisations.


How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?

Scandals only become junctures if someone (social movements) make them so. There is nothing intrinsic, usually.  There are scandals unfolding all the time – 40k humans dying of starvation daily, species being exterminated, our own future-selves slaughtered on the altar of neoliberalism, capitalism and authoritarianism.  It’s an old and banal observation, but true nonetheless – (social) problems need to be turned into issues by moral entrepreneurs.  (Yes, it’s possible to take that too far and go full social-constuctionist. Don’t do that.)


How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?

You have to define success.  Mine is that more people have been provided with the skills, knowledge and connections to develop their potential as individuals-in-groups.  Other definitions include how many people went to a march.  Yeah. Great.  To quote myself from a recent secret document –

We need to think of those who attend meetings and actions NOT as empty vessels to be filled with information or hope from the Big People at the front of the room/organisers, as blank slates to be written on, but [brace yourself]

as PEOPLE, with hopes, fears, confusion, abilities, but also people who are busy, de-motivatable and decruitable.

Radical, eh?

Here is what we remember every time we think about staging a public meeting, or hosting a business meeting/action. If you don’t find out what they can do, what they want to (be able) to do, and connect them with OTHER PEOPLE IN THE GROUP BESIDES JUST YOU, then they are almost certainly not going to stick around. And when they go, they take with them not only their skills, but some hope (because everyone can see the group is shrinking) and the future connections of people they might have brought into the group).


But “success” is so often followed by the creation of some new NGO or the expansion of an existing one and then DEMOBILISATION of people.  Then the powerful can undermine and water-down whatever concession they were forced to make.  And it doesn’t, in my experience, matter if that government is left, centre or right, or a corporate.


Up to now I have been the slightly-lefty “responsible” wanna-be academic.  Now this.



What do people think of the answers? Useful, useless, worse than useless? What did I miss? What would you add (subtract)?


Infiltration and environmental movements – what is to be done? #ExtinctionRebellion #climatebreakdown #spycops

The future is not written, but there are several excruciatingly safe bets about the years ahead.

  • atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane will continue to rise
  • poor people will suffer the resultant impacts of #climatebreakdown hard and first
  • the state will try to suppress social movements which seek to do anything about rendering these first two bets less safe.

By “suppress” I mean at best ‘guide’ and ‘channel’ towards market- and elite- friendly ‘solutions’ that leave the broader architecture of global society (inequality, consumerism, authoritarianism,  rapacious disregard for other species and future generations etc.) unchanged.  At worst, the gloves will properly come off and the fine words of liberal democracy (freedoms of speech, assembly, information) will be replaced with (in the words of Steve Buscemi)   force majeure and enough AI and predator drones to make Black Mirror look like Love Island.

The infiltration of social movements and political parties by state and corporate actors (the line is fuzzy) straddles ‘suppress’ and ‘gloves-off’ .  In the following short (1) essay I first point to some sterling recent work on infiltration of social movements, political parties and so on in the United Kingdom. I then raise-only-to-dismiss various responses we could, in theory, undertake to make safe the bet that our lords and masters will respond as they always have. I make a couple of personal commitments before finally, laying out – with practical short and medium term steps-  what “we” can do about the certainty of infiltration and disruption efforts.

This is a first draft. I welcome all comments which are not troll-y or off-trolley. I am particularly interested in suggestions of fictional representations of the impacts on social movements of infiltration/disruption by state and/or corporate actors…

What does history tell us?

For yonks the two “core” references on how the British State dealt with dissent were Tony Bunyan’s The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain and Bernard Porter’s Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1790-1988.  (I’ve not read the first – the second is brilliant, if inevitably incomplete). There was also fiction like “A Very British Coup” and the like to talk about how the state would respond to radicalism.

Since the exposing of Mark Kennedy in 2010, the revelations have come thicker and faster, thanks to the tireless work of activists, journalists and a whistleblower.  Two Guardian hacks wrote a very readable and thoughtful account, Undercover [review here]. Most recently, there is the crucial work of Connor Woodman.  The three must-reads are his recent blog on the whys, and hows of state infiltration, which is based on two reports he has produced

(There are many other excellent works, also on corporate spying – see Eveline Lubbers on this, but for now, let’s move on.)

Stupid things that we “could” do.

There are three stupid things we could do.

  • We could give up and stay home. This would doing the state’s work for it.
  • We could fail to react or under-react, shrugging our shoulders and failing to innovate, thinking that surveillance and its consequences are inevitable and inescapable.  This would doing the state’s work for it.
  • We could over-react, and treat all new people at meetings as guilty-till-proven innocent, demanding to visit their homes, see their birth certificates, meet their kids,  with a little waterboarding and acid-testing thrown in for the lulz. This would doing the state’s work for it.

Responding in the “right” ways…

Obviously we don’t want to under or over-react, but instead hit the ‘goldilocks’ point, of not too hot and not too cold, where we don’t do the state’s work for it and make the state have to work a little bit harder.

This involves understanding that surveillance and infiltration is not primarily about gathering evidence to put people on trial.

  • It’s about finding out who the leaders are (and there are always leaders, whether they are willing to acknowledge that and be accountable, or whether they hide behind the feeble rhetoric of horizontalism, hoping nobody has read Jo Freeman).
  • It’s about finding those leaders’ breaking points, tipping points, how they might be bought off or burnt out.
  • It’s about finding out which are the fragile relationships and connections within and between social movement groups, and about disrupting those relationships by fostering distrust and antipathy.
  • It’s about making it harder for new people to get involved, and harder for those involved to stay involved.

In short, the purpose of the forms of intelligence gathering (“elint” “sigint” “humint”) is to create and deepen distrust, and  to exploit informational and organisational bottlenecks, to demoralise people and decrease the momentum towards policy and cultural change which would piss off those who benefit from the status quo.

What I will do in the next three months

Here’s a public commitment to do some specific things (nothing like sticking your head in a noose to stop yourself, er, hanging around). I’ve collected a bunch of articles and books about infiltration/surveillance of social movements, because I am presenting a paper about the usefulness (or otherwise) of fictional representations of infiltration/disruption at an academic conference in April.  I commit to blogging about the papers as I read them, and blogging about the novels/movies I will be write about in  the paper. I commit to making a youtube video about infiltration, its consequences and what to do. And, obvs, I will put the paper up somewhere not behind a paywall.

What is to be done? How? Short and medium term actions

Finally, in this short essay, I want to lay out some things that individuals and groups can do in the short to medium term (1 to 6 months).  And, yes, I am also going to bang on about the urgent need to challenge the pathologies of social “mobilisation” organisations, one of my favourite hobby horses.

A few banalities first.  We must realise that

  • while there is such a thing as healthy paranoia, paranoia can be fostered as a weapon used against you.
  • people of colour and women have been on the sharp end of this stuff, and their experiences (and resistances) have much to teach us all.  These people must not be wiped out of the history they so often are (COINTELPRO vs Nixon’s “Enemies List” for example).  See, for example, the experience of the Mangrove Nine.  By all means enjoy fictional representations, but you know, usually the work of black folks, and black women especially, mysteriously gets forgotten.
  • it’s necessary to identify and cultivate academics and researchers who are working or have worked on this stuff.  Their work can be turned into comics, youtubes, short speeches (but for Gaia’s sake, give them credit!). For example, Connor Woodman’s blog could be printed off, illustrated and copies given to new activists.
  • it’s necessary to support activists doing further research (Undercover Research Group) with time, praise and cash.
  • it’s necessary to educate yourself on what to do if you suspect someone is either an agent, an informer, an agent provocateur.


Depathologising the “movement”

There is much more to be said on this subject (I am a bit of a bore).  But I think the discussion about infiltration could be used as a springboard to talking about the need to reshape our social movement organisations and  “activist”cultures so they are both resistant to infiltration (2) and less easily affected/damaged by it, and are able to grow, learn, organise and win in ways that previous waves of activity (as opposed to action) have not.

So, finally, around this question of refusing to recommitting the pathologies, some don’ts.

  • Don’t accept the smugosphere
  • Don’t accept organisations where it is always the same person (of whatever gender/age/ethnicity etc) chairing, and no effort is made to cultivate new facilitators by giving them portions of a meeting to facilitate.
  • Don’t accept meetings which don’t include agenda points along the lines of “how do we learn from past mistakes in activism?” and “how do we better connect with and support other groups working on related issues in this town/city?” and “how do we ensure that people who get involved in our group have the opportunity to learn new skills, knowledge and relationships, while sharing their own as they wish?”
  • Don’t go riding on the emotacycle; even if you have leathers and a helmet, you’ll get hurt.


  • Don’t accept leaders, whether announced or unannounced, without transparency. Accept leadership, if it is transformational collaborative and working hard to render itself unable to be co-opted or repressed…)

The job therefore is to be “realistic” while demanding the impossible

The job is to create resilience within individuals and BETWEEN individuals and groups (resilience rightly understood), so that connections are made, sustained and spread, more than can be broken by the behaviour of disruptors, infiltrators and agents provocateur.

Easy-peasy. Should be done well before the waters close over our heads…



(1) I intend to expand on it, as part of a broader project aimed at explaining how western social movement (as distinct from mobilisation)  organisations don’t have to repeat previous mistakes, unless we want to, but that not repeating requires active and difficult continual choices). The future is not written and all that…

(2) I suppose I could go off on some immune system analogies here, but that is possibly not helpful

Hope, false hope, stupid hope and #climatechange: From Paris to Extinction (Rebellion)

Here’s the tl:dr – The Paris Agreement and Extinction Rebellion are two sides (or symptoms) of the same coin, i.e. the suspension of critical faculties by people who know better but are in desperate search of reasons to be hopeful about our grim meathook future….

Back in 2015 I wrote a piece about the Paris Agreement called Why the hype over Paris and #COP21? Politics, Psychology and Money.  I predicted that within two or three years the whole thing would begin to run into the sand. It was not the most risky oracling that I ever did.

I said that there were three reasons people who ought to have known better were hyping the wretched thing. While these intersected and overlapped, I subdivided them into psychology, money and politics.

On psychology –

Firstly, climate change is bloody depressing, and if you’ve chosen – or are paid – to think about it, it exacts a toll. You get grumpy, demoralised, angry, whatever. And mostly you get the hope kicked out of you year after year after year. The UNFCCC process has been one of repeated let-downs, since the first COP in Berlin in early 1995. You have to go all the way back to the Rio Conference to get any stirring words about large-scale ambition and equity. (e.g. article 2)

On the money –

Secondly, financial – lots of the non-governmental organisations that are usually more critical of this have pretty delicate finances of late, and if you’re reliant on guilty middle-class people sending in direct debits, you have to frame your critiques ‘just so’. NGOs are in the business of monetising hope. They need to keep middle-class people signing the direct debits. Thus “world leaders just need to be held to account, and combined with some New Technology, everything will be okay” is an acceptable message to send out in the aftermath of COP21, whereas “this agreement is too little, too late – middle class lifestyles like yours have caused the problem and have to go for us to have any chance whatsoever of avoiding total apocalypse” is … not. People on the receiving end of the second message are less likely to renew their direct debit donations.

On the politics – well, it was about not wanting to lose momentum –

They on some level know that there will be a counter-attack from the denialists and the fossil-lobby, so they want to talk the Paris agreement up, building its credibility.

More recently, applying the same knowledge of history, the same personal experiences of how things turn out in social mobilisation organisations, I’ve written a fair bit about Extinction Rebellion.  There was this one, and this one and this one. (By the way, I think outfits like Extinction Rebellion should be called social mobilisation organisations rather than social movement organisations, unless they happen to stick around for a few years and do actual movement-building, as opposed to repeated mobilisations).

The response has been, basically, underwhelming. The major strand that doesn’t try to engage with the (friendly) critique but instead say “critiques not welcome, you should get on board and cheerlead” or “hmmph, you just want to be the leader” or “prediction is ridiculous.”  None of this is surprising, but it is kind of like the Lewis Law  (“Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” .)

So, if your response to the rest of this article is along the lines of “have you even tried to get involved/been to a meeting?” [fwiw, yes, yes] or “cheerlead, don’t lead and shut up“, then please save your time and my bandwidth and keep your useless response to yourself, ‘kay?  If you think I am wrong and you can say WHY I am wrong without changing the subject/resorting to ad hominems, then by all means, engage.

The Ominous Parallels between Paris and Extinction Rebellion

  • Come after a long history of failure which is then ignored (leading to a high likelihood of history repeating – or at least rhyming) (The UNFCCC process has been staggering on since 1991.  Climate activism has a similar provenance.)
  • Hyped by people who ought to know (and I suspect DO) know better, but can’t afford to voice their concerns for psychological and social reasons – and the chilling effect of what happens to other people when they voice concerns is part of that).
  • Has the function of allowing people to take a hearty suck on the Hopium pipe
  • If criticised, the response of proponents reverts pretty quickly to brittle defensiveness and straw-manning/subject changing, with a bizarre reading of past failures as success.. Rather than engaging in an understanding of the critique, the “this is the only game in town” line is trotted out.
  • Focus on voluntary action/voluntarism. Paris is just the old Japanese “pledge and review” warmed over. Extinction Rebellion is just the RTS/Climate Camp critique of formal NGOs dialled up to 11, with higher numbers compensating for less of a core experienced group [meanwhile, Reclaim the Power, a Climate Camp successor organisation presumably has its nose well out of joint re Extinction Rebellion’s media profile). Voluntarism relies on social pressures. Social pressures are not uniform over time, space or class.  There is a real problem with free-riding and accountability.  In the honeymoon phase, this is glossed over, but the chickens do eventually come home to headlessly roost…


What is to be done?

I have written endlessly about how things could be done differently as well as making videos about it  (see also videos new person’s experience of meetings and newbie in a parallel universe) . And these ideas are applauded and then ignored. I am not alone in this of course.  But if you are going to comment on this with a “well, where are your concrete ideas” then don’t bother, because you haven’t bothered to do any research.

  • Er, actually engage with the substance of critiques of Extinction Rebellion
  • Understand that throwing around words like “decentralisation” and “holocracy” doesn’t actually add up to anything new at all. It’s new whining in old bottles, basically.
  • Understand that the information deficit model, and the hope deficit model, have been tried before, and that they quickly become opportunities for (self-appointed and unaccountable) leaders to indulge in a little light/heavy ego-foddering.
  • Understand that busyness is its own reward but also its own punishment, and that activity and action are not the same thing.
  • Understand that its very unlikely indeed that Extinction Rebellion and other social mobilisation organisations will be immune to the problems of incompetent/malicious leaders, overcommitment by followers (and lunchoutism), burnout, co-optation and repression, and that “hoping” it will be different is not, in fact, a strategy. Hope is not a strategy.  Building up false and unrealistic hopes is actually irresponsible, and dangerous.


In essence, this: we can accept that past social movements were shit on some things. For example, suffragettes and race (as well as class, but let’s stick to race for now).

“The racial split became glaringly obvious in 1913, when the white organizers of a major suffragist parade in Washington ordered black participants to march in the rear.”

That’s okay if it’s safely a century  ago –  we can wag our fingers and shake our heads. If it’s more recent, and we are more culpable, well...


What might have been, but wasn’t

How it could have been

  • (Starting on time instead of fifteen minutes late)
  • Having someone clearly identified as welcome/way of making sure people who don’t know anyone know where to come to etc.
  • Having a note taker


Introductions Pairwise.

“Sit with someone you don’t know. You are going to find out their name and what, for them “success” (either individually or for the group) would mean in 6 months’ time?”

Then do that, with everyone introducing someone else.  Get the definitions of success written up on flipcharts, divided into personal, group, movement, broader public, other actors.

“Thanks everyone for coming.  This meeting has four aims. Firstly, everyone who is here gets to meet and talk to everyone else.

Secondly, we start to think about what success would look like in six/12 months across five categories – individual, the group, the wider “movement”, the general public and in relation to other actors (local government, regional government, national government).

Thirdly, we will come up with lists of resources – and resource gaps – that we need to achieve those

Finally, it will try to look at specific next steps if there are ‘urgent’, short term things that need to be discussed/decided.

“We’re going to do a lot of small group work, in twos or threes for two reasons. First, because that helps you meet other people. Second because if we stay as one big group, about a quarter or a third of the people will dominate.

“First, briefly, to get ourselves in the “mood”,  we will work in small groups – ideally threes, to  look at what has gone well so far, and what hasn’t gone well/what has been problematic.  We will feed back on that.”

[Feedback on positives and negatives, but keep this relatively short]

“Now on your own for a couple of minutes, reflect on what it would take to for you to be MORE enthused, MORE engaged than you are now, in activity x and this group six months from now.  Would it be new skills, new knowledge, new relationships? Something more? Something else?  We’ll report back on those, if you want, but you are also allowed to keep your own success criteria to yourself – just say ‘pass’.”

[report back, brief discussion, but move on before getting bogged down]

“Next, in different small groups (introduce yourselves to anyone you don’t know), we’re getting into the key questions. There’s flipcharts, please write down short and clear sentences

  • Six months from now, what does “success” look like for this group? 
  • Six months from now, how has it helped a wider movement of groups and individuals to communicate and co-ordinate with each other? Bring in your experiences so far – how can we amplify the good, minimise the bad?
  • Six months from now, how has it engaged with broader publics, both face-to-face but also via the internet and other activities?  Bring in your experiences so far – how can we amplify the good, minimise the bad?

We don’t have time today to talk in any detail about relations to the local government, regional government, national and international government, but there’s a flipchart over here for you to put your thoughts on.  We are going to need another meeting for that, though, since not everyone here knows enough to have a meaningful discussion.”


[Give groups fifteen to twenty minutes to do this]

“Now we’re going to hear back from each group.  When your group reports back, please only say things that the other groups haven’t.   We will then have an unprioritized list of success metrics for the next six months, and some sense of what we all agree on.”


“Okay, now we’ll have a ten minute break.  If there are things that you think we HAVE to discuss today, please put them up – in a succinct sentence – on this flipchart.  We’ll discuss them straight after the break in case anyone has to go.”


After break

Firstly, discussion of “urgent” decisions (upcoming events, need for different promo materials)

NB Urgent meaning major opportunities will be missed/demoralisation if something cocks up.  Urgent does not mean “the thing I am currently most interested in talking about.”

[this will probably take longer than it should, and you need to either get decisions quickly or defer them/delegate them]

Secondly, “Right, so, now we’ve identified what success would look like at the “within the group”, broader movement and “facing the public” levels, let’s split into three groups, based on that – whichever you’re most interested in – , to look at what resources are needed to achieve each of those.”

“You have ten minutes to come up with the list of resources required.  We will then spend five minutes on each level collectively, throwing out names of individuals and groups with those skills/knowledge/relationships/resources.”

[ten minutes followed by report backs.


“So, to recap, we’ve covered a lot of ground.  You’ve met everyone else in the room, thought about what ‘success’ would look like six months from now at the individual, group, movement, broader public levels.  We have NOT talked about the position that the group might take towards other actors such as the local government.

“We will type up all these minutes and put an account – without any individuals name attached to any points [e.g. Chatham House rule], and posted on the website.  When we hold these sorts of meetings in future, we will make sure to make it easier for those who can’t physically come to have some input too.”



#Lessonsforme. Don’t agree to facilitate after a meeting has started.  You don’t have the status or cool to cope, so  keep your fucking ego in a box and don’t imagine you are able to salvage a fucked situation. You DESERVE to be punished if you try.