The ecology of social movements

Change is complicated

That is something of an understatement! Anyone who has ever tried to change anything through campaigning knows it is incredibly complex. Even trying to do something  relatively easy, small and local will require understanding some pretty convoluted dynamics. When this scales up to trying to tackle global climate change, it gets mind-bendingly complicated.

“Lets face it, the universe is messy. It is non-linear, turbulent and dynamic. It spends its time in transient behaviour on its way to somewhere else… It self organises and evolves. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.”

Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems

Most models of NGO campaign best practice, and most approaches of grassroots groups, simply aren’t up to working creatively with this complexity and dynamic messiness. Through this blog I want to start to explore the problems and some potential solutions, but my thoughts here are just the tip of the iceberg. Those interested in deeper exploration might want to consider applying to the upcoming Ecology of Social Movements course I’m co-leading at Ulex this June.

Where are we going wrong?

NGO campaign best practice tends to encourage people to begin by identifying a clear and measurable policy outcome that can be achieved in order to make incremental progress towards wider change. Then the decision makers that ‘hold the power’ are identified, and a power analysis is conducted to look at what leverage the campaign can apply to them. Strategies may then be deployed to produce policy briefings from credible research, mobilise large numbers of people through online petitions, lobby politicians directly, share content online and attract media coverage.

This kind of approach might work on its own if the problem being tackled isn’t one of power – e.g. there would be minimal effort required to implement an obvious techno fix, and there are no powerful interests / big chunks of society opposed to what you’re calling for. But honestly, how many of us are campaigning for those kinds of easy wins? If power and vested interests are against you, if those affected by the issue don’t have power or agency to change it, you need a strategy that builds power and shifts the status quo.

Those campaigns that do achieve some or all of their objectives in relation to an incremental policy change, one that is a genuine step forwards to achieving something bigger, are only successful as part of a wider movement of multiple actors pushing for change. Campaigns will often acknowledge to some extent that they can’t take all the credit, at least internally. But when writing reports for senior management and funders, and when feeding back to supporters, they’ll tend to talk about the change is if it resulted directly from their work.

This bolsters the false idea that change can be delivered easily, linearly, by one set of actors – rather than as part of a complex, messy web of players.

Change isn’t linear

To give an example, when I was managing ActionAid’s tax campaign, yes the work we did contributed to a changing UK Government attitude to tax treaties. But this didn’t happen in isolation – it was just one part of a broader movement for tax justice, and still broader to tackle rising economic inequality. Without many other groups, from UK Uncut to the Tax Justice Network, and without a many wider social currents, that laid the groundwork for this to be a zeitgeist justice issue, our progress wouldn’t have been possible. It’s just not simple enough to say we’ll do x and y, and z will be the outcome.

None of us can operate in isolation – we’re all interconnected, enmeshed in a dance of complex inter-relationships with each other, between institutions and companies, regions, interest groups, identities, nations, beliefs, generations. Then there’s our environment and all that isn’t human – we’re enmeshed and interdependent with that too.

Movement ecologies

If we can understand our struggles in the context of social movements, placing ourselves in the wider tides of historic change, we can start to understand the complex systems we’re part of and see ourselves as actors within a broader movement ecology.

Of course, we should still work towards achieving things. Its good to have broad aims and break these down into small achievable objectives. But we need to recognise the validity of other movement actors, identify niches and try to fill them, and collaborate as much as possible. Social change making is not a competitive marketplace – this approach is really the opposite of what is needed to shift power in the transformational way most campaigns need to move towards the world they claim they are working to realise.

Thinking in systems

Systems thinking can be one useful lens to start to understand the complexity of movements – for those not familiar with the concept I recommend Donella Meadows‘ book Thinking in Systems as an introduction. Her approach emphasises the importance of building in feedback loops, with good quality information and communication to inform these. So we need to try something, look at how the social system we’re working in responds and build in that information to find a way forwards. If those making decisions about the campaign are divorced through hierarchy from having all the information they need this doesn’t tend to work very well! She also talks about the importance of measuring what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Activism as identity

For those of us involved in making social change we can become very attached to the tactics and approach that we deploy – thinking our way is ‘right’. Our change making becomes intergral to our identity, whether we define as activists, campaigners or something else. This can make it hard to appreciate the value of other approaches across our movements, and even harder to see when our approach might not be the right one, or worse – when it might actually be detrimental to our cause. Jonathan Smucker talks eloquently about this, reflecting on his time in the anti-globalisation / global justice movement, in his book Hegemony How-To:

“How many times, I wondered, had I favored a particular action or tactic because I really thought it was likely to change a decision maker’s position or win over key allies, as opposed to gravitating toward an action because it expressed my activist identity and self conception? We often seemed more pre-occupied with the purity of our political expression than with how to move from point A to Point B”

Jonathan Smucker

Diversity is beautiful

If we’re able to explore historic and contemporary movements and reflect on how change happens, we can see that there is space for multiple approaches to change. At the right time and place, in the right balance, the tactics we have the least respect for might be just what is needed.

I’ve been doing some recent work with Friends of the Earth to look at their audience and campaigning approach using the framework of social change roles proposed by Bill Moyer and developed by George Lakey. This gives four categories of social change agent – helpers – meeting immediate needs; advocates – lobbying and researching; rebels – taking direct action; and organisers – getting people involved. I’ve developed some sub categories – clearly this is an over simplification. But the point is that it’s the balance of these roles, and their timings, that determines whether or not they are useful – movements tend to need all of these things but not necessarily all at once.

Advocates can frame demands to decision makers in a way that supports a movement to make significant progress, or they can get co-opted, undermining campaigns with compromises that dilute meaningful change. Rebels can win hearts and minds and build public support with well framed actions, or  they can marginalise themselves, polarising opinion in such a way that most people side with decision makers.

An inter-generational project

It can be somewhat overwhelming to recognise the complexity of the landscapes we’re working to change, the enormity of the task in front of us, and the vast timelines needed for transformative change. 100 years on from the first women in the UK to get the vote, the struggle for true gender equality has made great progress, but is far from complete.

Transformational change won’t be easy, or linear – utopia won’t be possible in our lifelimes. But the more beautiful world we know is possible is still worth struggling for, and we can start to make it in the way we work together. We owe the hard fought gains we now enjoy to those who came before us. Let us build on them together and hand on something better to those yet to come.

“Your life’s work is an inter-generational project… Our bodies are long bodies, wide bodies, spread out, queering space and time; your failure, your confusion, might well be the nourished soil that coaxes out new possibilities from the earth; our work is long, unusual and always yet to be fully disclosed.”

Bayo Akomolafe

The upcoming course at Ulex

I’m really excited to be in the final development stage for the Ecology of Social Movements course I’m co-leading at Ulex, in their beautiful new training centre in the Catalan Pyrenees, running 9th-23rd of June this year.

The course is a deep inquiry into social change and our role within it. We’ll reflect on lessons from social movement history, study theories of social change, and share the rich experiences of those participating. We won’t just explore theories. We will also ask what we do with them – personally and collectively. Do we use them or do they determine us? We can become entrenched in our political views – but history suggests that none of our theories of social change encompass the whole story.

We will ask: How can we learn to strategise in a way that acknowledges the partial and provisional nature of our views and analysis? How can we develop a strategic approach that is responsive and in which on-going learning remains integral? How can we construct political identities that are genuinely empowering? And how can we develop campaigns, organisations and movements with significant impact for systemic change?

Applications are still open and the centre operates a solidarity economy, asking for contributions on a sliding scale. Don’t be put off by cost, even if you can’t afford to contribute at all – the team do extensive fundraising work so that economic difficulties or marginalisation are not an obstacle to attendance. If you’re interested, find out more and apply here.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s