“The politicians won’t care.“
How often have we heard that with reference to some action we are taking? How often has it proved to be true?
Why does anyone think that it matters?
The problem isn’t the tools that we have available for political action don’t work. The problem is that generally we have no idea what it is we are actually trying to do. I do not mean that in terms of our ultimate goals as they relate to a particular issue, but in terms of what we are trying to achieve with a specific action. As a result we do not know how to effectively use the tools we do have.
In Die Mauer (Berlin Wall), the CJF and climate action I talked about how it is important to distinguish between making “a” difference and making “the” difference. Most actions either manage or fail to make “a” difference. Very few actions make “the” difference, and typically only after very many actions successfully make “a” difference. However, how is it that we have a positive impact, regardless of what kind of difference it is?
Just what are we trying to achieve when we undertake political action? The standard model of politcal struggle looks something like this:
“Actioning” group = the activists
“Target” = those whose behaviour we are trying to influence, typically politicians, bureaucrats, and/or corporate entities.
In the more popular model the Activists do things like protests, organize petitions, education campaigns, hunger strikes and civil disobedience to try and influence/pressure the target to change their behaviour.
In turn, the target takes actions such as media campaigns, creating counter-groups, and even fines or prison to try and influence/pressure the activists to change their behaviour.
Only one problem … it’s nonsense. Well, not entirely, but too simplistic to be very useful. Since most actions are unlikely to have much direct impact on the target it is small wonder that many people conclude that most forms of political action are pointless. A reasonably logical conclusion if you are operating with this grossly over-simplified model of political action.
In that model the comparatively small number of activists who attend a rally or sign a petition are no threat to the target as they are too small a group to mount an effective boycott, vote a party out of office, etc. Pretenses to the contrary, the actioning group simply has too little power to make “the” difference.
A more useful, albeit still simple model includes:
Allies: people who actively support the actioning group, at least in spirit, but often also in forms of concrete resources and aid.
Support: The functional opposite of “Allies”, people who actively support the target.
The Public: Often “neutral” in the sense that even if they have an opinion about the issue and the activists, by and large they do not actually do anything about it one way or another. However, in almost all cases the public passively supports the target by:
- holding opinions sympathetic to the target
- supporting the target through consumer purchases, paying taxes, etc
The goal of political action is to (indirectly) get the target to change it’s behaviour by (directly) shifting the relative size of the groups and hence changing the power dynamics.
Points to underscore:
- Political action affects all five groups, and the consequences on each has to be assessed separately;
- Success is determined by the relative increase in the actioning groups “power”, not in their relative change in size;
Now the ideal political action will have an effect as pictured in Fig 3, with
members of every group moving towards the Actioning groups end of the gradient. A simple example might be an education campaign. By alerting everyone to the real consequences of a particular issue there is movement from every group towards the actioning group.
The goal is to change the relative power of the Activists vs the Target, and with five groups to work with there are more options and opportunities than we typically consider.
Consider Figure 3. An action that left both the target and the Target’s support unchanged (remove the two arrows on the right hand side)(cf “The politicians won’t care.”), but shifted the public in the manner illustrated. There would have been a significant shift in the relative power of the two groups in favour of the activists even though the targets absolute size remained unchanged. Mange that and the politicians will care, you can bet on that.
In fact in most cases the real focus of any action should be the Public. The target of the action will be some instituion such as government or a corporation, but the intent is to get more members of the Public to join the actioning group’s side.
Consider the example on Fig 4. The absolute size of the Actioning group has shrunk, whereas the absolute size of both the Target and the Target’s Support has grown. By our typical assessment of political action this has been a failure.
However, in this example the large shift in Public support means that the power of the Actioning group has grown substantially, and as such the action was successful. This is not a mere hypothetical example. There are in fact forms of action that have exactly this effect on social power dynamics.
Equally an action that increases the absolute size of the actioning group while it’s relative power gets smaller (ie some people joined the activists, but many more moved the other way) has been a failure.
Let’s face it, a society needs some level of predictability to function, whether that is the timing of the buffalo migration or the routes of public transit. If these things become erratic it impairs the ability of the society to function, hence there is a reflexive fear of unpredictable change.
This truth is in no way refuted by the fact that we love changes in the trivial. New fashions, new music, new restaurants etc; all very exciting as they allow us to feel sophisticated and cosmopolitan. But the threat of unpredictable changes in important things such as income, social supports, relationships, etc causes anxiety and fear.
It is only in societies where the status quo is already so deeply dysfunctional or oppressive that the Actioning group can expect the Public to be sympathetic or supportive right from the start. Otherwise the suggestion of any meaningful change will automatically be met with some degree of suspicion, resistance and hostility by the Public.
This is why political action that has not carefully considered the response of the Public will often be polarizing, in which case the activists are in for a long and difficult struggle.
Worse is when activists take action that seem to threaten social stability in a society that is not particularly hostile to it’s government. In those instances the result is a colossal failure even though the effect can be masked to the activists by a minor increase in the Actioning groups size as a result of attracting extreme elements and political marginals (Fig 6).
To really appreciate how to plan successful action it is necessary to understand the ‘Nature of Power’ and the ‘Elements of Action’, two post which will follow this one. Regardless, the importance of appreciating the points made here cannot be underestimated, and neither of those posts are meant to stand alone independant of this one.
In the meantime, Berkley offers the online
(Tip of thew Hat to Krishna)
- The goal of political action is to shift power within society such that the relative power of the Actioning group grows while that of the Target shrinks;
- In contemplating political action it is vital to consider the possible consequences on all five of the significant groups, Actioning, Allies, the Public, the Targets Support, and the Target;
- There are many possible variations of social dynamic that succeed in achieving the goal;
- Some successes appear paradoxical because the size of the Actioning group itself actually decreases even though the relative power increased;
- Some failures appear paradoxical because the absolute size of the Actioning group grows, but are in fact failures because their relative power decreased.
“Since 1982, spring in East Asia (defined here as the eastern third of China and the Korean Peninsula) has been warming at a rate of one degree Fahrenheit per decade.” Earth Gauge
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
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