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Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals has been very influential in Western political circles in recent years. The book is all about putting together grassroots communities and suggests a range of approaches for activists to adopt, which can then be applied to a wide variety of situations.
At its core the book suggests a cumulative process:
This involves applying a series of rules along these lines:
1. If your numbers are small keep quiet about them and make a lot of noise to create the impression you’ve plenty of numbers.
2. Stick to dealing with the experience/ comfort zone of your community.
3. Go outside or beyond the experience/ comfort zone of your opponents.
4. Call opponents to account according to their own standards/ rules.
5. Ridicule opponents.
6. The best tactics are those you enjoy.
7. The same tactics become dull to all concerned and need refreshed.
8. Pile the pressure on as fully as possible to maximum effect.
9. The threat of action is often more effective than the action itself.
10. Making an attack puts you in the position of having to offer a positive alternative.
11. Identify a target, lock in on it, make it personal and polarise opinion. Avoid structures and go for and stick to attacking a given individual.
Overall, pressuring, perhaps even taunting your opponent, to get a reaction that suits your narrative is a focus within these rules.
There are some ‘effective’ points such as some of the tactics in terms of manoeuvring opponents into difficult positions; and some essentials in terms of keeping it fresh, taking action that is enjoyable and offering positive alternatives.
However, much of what is going on is quite antagonistic, less than open and, perhaps, driven by the tactics in terms of the actions and narratives likely to result. The overall construct is essentially about win or lose; get the job done whatever; and polarise at every opportunity.
All of which sounds quite familiar; a bit like the behaviours, often reflexes, of those making misuse of power/ authoritarianism. And it’s a bit hard to see how any activism aimed at mutually constructive outcomes can go down that route.
If we wish to get results; build consensus to getting things done; and avoid extremism in its many forms...surely a default to antagonism is going to get in the way of doing what we can for the most part all agree on - and then taking things from there.
In other words, the creation of a common enemy to confront may turn the resulting conflict into as much of a goal or target as the issue/ s you set out to protest against in the first place. That is not to say many forms of protest activism, (from marches through to even the sanctions or boycotts of governments), have not brought positive outcomes. But more to suggest that what were novel and, in some circumstances, effective ‘gather and protest’ approaches to activism have become predictable, and easy to counter, through contradictory external and internal antagonisms.
If it can be accepted that activism based on escalating polarisation is in some respects prone to be counter-productive and often quite predictable, any alternative approaches presumably need to be able to apply a fresh dynamic to existing forms of activism. Three familiar, but at times overlapping, types of activism come to mind:
1. Demand driven activism seeks changes in policies through opposition often involving strikes, sit-ins or demonstrations.
2. Needs-focused activism concerns developing or creating alternatives to current, typically failing, social structures to meet needs such as housing and healthcare. Co-operatives, squats and social centres are typical to this type of activism, which is often based around persistent collective participation.
3. Revolutionary activism aimed at dismantling or overthrowing existing social structures to arrive at rapid social change without stepping through reforms.
Consistency and Contribution
In each case options for less polarised, less predictable and more issues-based activism do seem to be in some use and readily available:
1. Women in Iceland famously went on strike in Iceland in 1975 over equal pay and won quickly. The size and connectedness of the community helped, but they succeeded with a non-confrontational strike. In other circumstances, perhaps a withdrawal of labour could exchange picketing for transferring work to another cause, e.g. spending a strike day together doing something for a local charity. Along similar lines stand and chant demonstrations become opportunities to promote your cause when turned into family events and/ or flash performances on some level. Costume protests that challenge or satirise offer a straightforward example, as illustrated by a recent demonstration in the US where activists turned out in costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale to put across a compelling message about totalitarianism.
2. Co-operatives involving workers’ groups or community groups are often focused on building consensus and to some extent this is an area where the types of on-the-ground community action they often carry out encourages consensus. Longstanding contributors often pull things together and organisational structures can be light enough to avoid forming top down layers. (However, it seems necessary from the outset to assess whether or not the issues and messages are sufficiently compelling to keep ahead of the tug of individuals and organisation. There is a risk that you could end up building an organisation not to solve an issue or deliver a service, but for solely the sake of sustaining the organisation itself).
3. Seeking a sea change by tearing things up or through dramatic confrontation often isn’t very revolutionary at all. A revolution brings genuine change in social order to the broad benefit of society. Vaccinations for polio or the invention of anaesthesia have both been revolutionary in ways few demonstrations or power grabs can claim to match. Realistically, revolutionary activism might be able to claim to be seen as genuinely revolutionary when re-inventing and re-purposing; not when lurching from political left to right or creating excuses for governments to become increasingly authoritarian. Suffragette marches provide an example of where revolutionary attitudes and demonstration combined very effectively - and largely peacefully.
Clearly, there is no shortage of alternatives to confrontational methods and options for concentrating on getting issues-based results. If these approaches are carried forward into organising and organisations the emphasis on issues and outcomes also guides how and who to work with.
Under such circumstances those primarily concerned about the issues and delivering outcomes become more significant than political factions or the loudest voice. Often these are people who can be identified with through consistency and contribution, (towards planned outcomes), instead of through insubstantial patterns of affiliation or patronage.
Where issues, messages and skill sets are put first it becomes practical to adopt organisational structures based on the practicalities of delivering the messages and related outcomes instead of wandering off into clusters of political or personal agendas. For example, if roles are assigned and developed according to consistency and contribution we find those carrying out the activism/ work directly shaping the delivery of shared messages.