What are the complementary assets of a successful* social movement organisation?

A page on this site, about “complementary assets” has had a lot of hits in the last 24 hours. Don’t know why, but it’s enough of a pretext to write something.

I’ll say what CA are, what a social movement organisation “is”, why we should care about it, what the CAs of one would be and therefore what needs to be done, and why it won’t be and why we are going to continue to slide into autocracy, eco-fascism and that 2004 vasectomy was one of the smartest moves I coulda made.

What are Complementary Assets?

As per wikipedia “Complementary assets are assets, infrastructure or capabilities needed to support the successful commercialization and marketing of a technological innovation, other than those assets fundamentally associated with that innovation.[1] The term was first coined by David Teece.”

What is a social movement?

A social movement organisation is an organisation made up of individuals and bodies that sees itself (and is seen) as a part of a broader movement. SMOs can be big or small, reformist or ‘radical’, focusses on problems or solutions. Note well, a “social movement organisation” is not necessarily progressive/’lefty. The Ku Klux Klan was an SMO…

Also, beware any SMO that calls itself a “movement” – (looking at you, JSO). It’s ignorant, arrogant and unhelpful in the extreme, and betrays a poverty of thought that frankly terrifies…

Why should we care?

Without social movement organisations that can avoid capture, repression, exhaustion, you don’t have democracy in any meaningful sense. Sure, you might have elections, and these might even be “free and fair”, but it amounts to the circulation of (technocratic and captured-by-powerful-interests) elites. Without enduring SMOs, regulatory bodies are captured, mistakes are hidden rather than learnt from, the permanent state architecture. Without SMOs to feed off, political parties quickly become even more the playground of narcissists and power-grubbers than they will inevitably be.

The problems of climate chaos, biodiversity collapse, democracy collapse etc are super-wicked and need much more thought and action than have been or will be delivered by “business as usual”.

What are the CAs of a successful SMO?

Two things. First, this will differ in different countries, on different issues, at different times. My ‘knowledge’ (ha ha) is of the UK, on climate, and that’s what I will write about below. Secondly, sometimes people say things that, once you translate from waffle, boil down to “ooh, but ‘complementary assets’ comes from business thinking, and business thinking is Evil and, you know Capitalist and we should not use it because we are pure and good.” I will say this once; “Fuck off, you idiot.”

Right, the CAs would include

  • A broad reputation for competence – meeting deadlines, keeping promises, saying no to things that are outside skillset, for nurturing talent, not just using people as march/arrest fodder and blaming them for being too weak to cope with the demands of being an activist.
  • Relations (not always public, or happy) with sometimes-sympathetic members of the ‘establishment’ (including academia, fwiw) – sometimes back-channeled, sometimes public. Access to equipment (video, meeting spaces etc).
  • Self-awareness about the importance of (distributed) leadership that goes beyond one or two ‘charismatic’ types who are basically seduced into youth-washing or blackwashing or whatever. Self-awareness about the dangers of biographical availability, the bell the cat grift, the bottom-up grift, the dutiful outrage grift, the smugosphere, the emotacycle, ego-foddering and the Standard Public Meeting Syndrome.
  • Absorptive capacity – ability to identify new talent and ideas, be attractive, welcoming without overdoing it, identifying right-sized and non-mission critical tasks, being able to do “legitimate peripheral participation. and to RETAIN people for more than 30 seconds.
  • Understanding the mass media and its limits as a movement-building tool, or an SMO-sustaining tool.

What needs to be done?

Build the CAs of your own SMO(s)! (well duh)

Why it won’t be

It’s too hard to do all this. Too many skills required, for no reward. People (including well-meaning ‘activists’ and would-be SMO-builders can get their activist credibility tokens in the trad ways of marches, petitions, gluing themselves to things.

Why we are going to continue to slide into autocracy, eco-fascism and that 2004 vasectomy was one of the smartest moves I coulda made.

Because without dense networks of SMOs, in movements and movements of movements, the trajectories of late capitalism are going to make us the late human species, sooner or later. Probably sooner.

The second half of the twenty-first century is going to make the first half of the twentieth century look like a golden age of peace, love and understanding. I will be dead before it properly kicks off (probably), but if I had had ankle-biters, they’d be looking at this hitting them with both barrels. I personally do not know how the breeders cope with this knowledge, but there you are, I am limited.


“success” is tricky to measure. Some measures – “has stuck around for a long time” and “has been mentioned approvingly by politician X or Y” are so wrong-headed that they don’t even deserve a response. Personally, if an SMO can’t help new members gain skills, knowledge and relationships, and retain a good proportion of those members (to make up for wastage) and ALSO innovate as required, then, um, it is not successful. But maybe that’s just me….

2 thoughts on “What are the complementary assets of a successful* social movement organisation?

Add yours

  1. Sadly (in my view) SMO’s concentrate on the now, giving little, if any thought to the past or future. A good example of this is how we are addressing Climate Change.

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