Questions for activists

I recently checked out the website again. Since David first wrote about their work, they have continued to develop their ideas. They have some good ones too. Sometimes I find the approach a bit too simplistically rationalist, but there’s no doubt they are thinking about social change, asking “why have we not achieved the changes we’ve been struggling for?”, and trying to come up with better methods.

Activists are usually busy people. The word itself is based on the root “action”. Gandhi, one of the world’s greatest non-violent activists, stressed the vital importance of action – even going so far as to argue that violent action is better than passivity. Yet Ghandi’s activism was never unthinking. It was based on serious efforts at self-understanding and self-control, and rooted in a deeply thought out theory of power, which lead logically to non-violent strategies for social change.

So what is your theory of social change, and is it supported by good arguments and good evidence?

What is guiding your choice of actions?

Obviously, the world you live in (your socio-political environment) your particular individual passions (moral sensibilities), and the opportunities for activism that present themselves are all important. There weren’t many animal rights activists concerned with deep-sea oil drilling in the 19th Century, and I’d wager there aren’t many in present day Haiti (for example).

But apart from that, how do you understand the world you live in, how do you think it works, and how do you think it changes?

Given the range of possible actions in front of you, how do you choose which one you think will be most effective, and which goal is the most important?

(How) Do you evaluate, after acting, whether the course chosen was, in fact, the best path?

These are vital questions…living questions.

I suspect, for example, that many greens & environmentalists have

  1. a pluralist theory of power,
  2. a tipping point theory of social change that perhaps doesn’t often distinguish clearly between fundamental change and phenomenal change (e.g. the difference between underlying structures and values, and the policies and regimes expressing structures and values), and
  3. a certain level of denial about the C-word (capitalism).

With this view, it makes sense for a Green Party to attempt to become “mainstream”, and for it to believe such a course of action can potentially “succeed” in the short to medium-term.

But what if social power is more accurately understood as being “tribal” and mediated through capitalist power-structures? What if fundamental rather than phenomenal social change is seen as the primary change target, and what if fundamental social change is understood to occur gradually, primarily by an accumulation of reinterpretations of old values? What if tipping points, when they occur, are more about the shifting allegiances of social “tribes”?

The strategy for a political party may remain the same: in important ways, political parties are about the battle for phenomenal victories. Changes in policies achieved by such victories can reinforce deeper social change, and thus be a success in more than one way. A tribal tipping point, if near, may look very similar to an undifferentiated tipping point.

The point is that these are all debatable and potentially testable assumptions. But only if we first acknowledge and ask the questions. And the stakes are pretty high, so it might pay for us to do that more often.


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