How do we confront power successfully?
Progressives are a heterodox lot – a thousand schools of thought contend. This is a strength – it creates the diversity and the possibilities that are life-enhancing. But it is also a weakness in confronting power, for two main reasons. The first is that progressives easily fall into the trap of thinking that doctrinal disputes have to settled before action can be taken, so they can end up splitting hairs to the nth degree. As Lakoff says, they need to follow the lead of the conservatives, and get clear on where they DO agree, then take action from that point, leaving the points of disagreement to be worked on and resolved over time. And progressives do agree at the values level, by and large.
The second weakness is that there are no easy ways to successfully confront power. All power systems have fragilities, and those fragilities can be used to undermine power without having to confront it directly. But when power is well entrenched, as now with the capitalist system of the affluent world, action cannot confine itself to finding and undermining fragilities.
Apart from identifying and attacking fragilities, there are three further avenues which can be taken to confront power.
The first is confrontation at as many points of pressure as possible – pushing back at specific places where power is being misused. And progressives are by and large doing an excellent, and increasingly effective job of this. There are thousands of actions being taken, at all sorts of levels, to push back against the rapacious pursuit of profit, power and possessions. Many of them are not visible in the mainstream – you need to seek them, but they’re actually pretty easy to find once you start looking. And some of them will be happening just down the road from each of us.
The actions vary from extremely local attempts to stop land-grabs and resource grabs, through challenges to existing practices (such as fossil fuel use), through attempts to either challenge the legality of actions or change the law to prevent them (for example challenging “zero-hour contracting” in New Zealand), through using the current system against itself (for example in the “divestment” campaigns), to setting up alternative models (such as cooperatives, “transition towns” and permaculture communities), and many more.
So, anyone who wants to get more active is likely to find a group or movement which already exists and which fits with their own wishes and views on what needs to be done. Chapter 38 contains a short list of possible groups. And if you’re concerned about adding your voice where it will be most effective, chapter 39 introduces Donella Meadows’ excellent hierarchy of leverage points in a system.
The second avenue to take in confronting power is to increase the mainstream visibility of all these actions, and the reasons behind them.
In “Merchants of Doubt”, Oreskes and Conway describe how mainstream media in the affluent countries reinforce the current power structures. First, by acting uncritically as mouthpieces for those in power and for the dominant narrative. Second, by giving voice in the name of “balance” to the corporate merchants of doubt, who attack sound science with lies and misinformation. Third, by NOT giving voice to the other views – typically, for example, by giving news headlines to the unfounded assertions of the merchants of doubt, and by ignoring rebuttals or consigning them to back pages (such as the science pages).
Progressives have to fight to have their voices heard more clearly, and more in the mainstream. They are having some success with this on the specific issue of climate change, but even that is tarnished by the residual doubt that many citizens have about the reality of the issue.
The use of the new distributed media which have become available via the Internet and other communication technologies have given voice to many more people and groups. But unfortunately, this has also created a “tower of Babel” problem – there are so many voices available, and they are shouting so constantly, that it is hard to find out or know who to listen to.
This is fine for those who are already committed to specific views or actions. But for those who want to learn – who want to look before they leap – our modern tower of Babel is both a blessing (you can obtain a huge range of views on any issue) and a curse (how do you know which views to trust?). For better or worse, mainstream media remain the most “authoritative” voice. So progressives need to find more voice in the mainstream media.
The third way power has to be fought is with a more unified progressive voice. This is the mass version of the local actions already being taken. Naomi Klein believes that the “thousand flowers” of current progressive action that are currently blooming need to be better linked up.
I agree, and add that the thousand flowers also need to show that they are linked up, publicly and visibly. Some progressive organisations made a lot of noise about the 29 November 2015 “day of action” before the Paris COP21 conference, and it was certainly characterised by actions across a large number of countries[i]. But only about 800,000 people took part in total. For a world-wide action on such an important subject, this was a derisory number. It was not a triumph of mass action, but an illustration of inability to mobilise larger public demonstrations of support. Yet there are millions who do support, and many millions more who at least sympathise.
We need large mass actions, centred on the beliefs and values which are common to the progressives, to show the powerful that they have taken a wrong turn, and are trampling on both our wishes and our rights.
The political and economic elites got us to where we are now (albeit with our tacit and not-so-tacit consent), and are leading us to a place we do not want to be. They are not to be relied on to lead us back in a better direction. We have to rely on our own resources.
Community and mass action
By and large, collective action is more powerful than individual action. So the best way we as individuals can add to the strength of the resistance to the current order is to group together with others in what we do.
We can do this at small or large group levels and, preferably, both. To work with small groups on small actions is often very satisfying, as all see the impact of what they do, and can see the significance of their part in it.
And, often, the impact of the small group is not small. Margaret Mead is said to have said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
I disagree with the second part of its statement, as it stands and without knowing its context. I would argue that both individuals and large groups have often been catalysts for change, and indeed have made the changes happen.
But I strongly agree with the first part of the statement – that a small group can have a disproportionate influence on community, national or world events, whether for good or for ill.
So, small actions at the small group and community level are not a waste of time. While they may not change the world in large ways, they will change it somehow, and may have larger, unforeseen effects. Just cleaning up a beach may not only avoid polluting the ocean and help the beach to regenerate but may also catalyse other actions by those who subsequently visit or see it.
And we need to go further than this, to combine into larger groups to show our solidarity with each other and with a more progressive vision of society. We need to take part in mass actions.
This is not about subjecting ourselves to the mass will – that is called mob rule, and is the most dangerous thing about collective power. The saying “power corrupts” doesn’t just apply to individuals, it applies to groups as well. Just as corporations seem to lose their ethical base by virtue of their size and the remoteness of many of their operations from the reality they are affecting, so too can large non-corporate groups take on behaviours that none individually in the group would take on alone.
And, of course, a group can be steered by powerful individuals down paths they did not really wish to take but are persuaded into by peer pressure or group-think or seduction.
Enough of the warnings. If the main resources of the powerful are wealth and weapons, the main resources of the masses are presence and solidarity. And, in the affluent world, the use of lethal weapons by the State against citizens en masse is infrequent so the risks are usually non-lethal, at least (although the United States can again offer us counter-examples, for example the Kent State killings).
The mass meets the power of wealth and weapons with the power of voice. In democracies, little frightens politicians more than the idea of losing substantial electoral support, and mass action makes that threat, always to the government of the day, and often to other major political parties as well.
And in corporations, little frightens the owners and senior managers more than the combined voice of the resource workers. This is why, from the 1980s on, such huge and largely successful efforts were made in the affluent world to destroy union power. The threat of dismissal and replacement usually rings hollow against an entire workforce which demands its rights or its fair share.
Even in their current debilitated state, unions are still effective from time to time in holding back the power of the corporation over the worker. Recently in New Zealand, gains were made in the fast food industry with the withdrawal of “zero-hour contracts” by some major players. These are iniquitous arrangements whereby the employee is expected to be available at all times, but has no guarantee of work.
After 25 years of loss of workers’ rights in New Zealand, that was one step forward after many many steps back. But it was a step forward!
The general point remains. Group action is usually more effective than individual action, and mass action definitely gets the attention of those in power. And, even if you are, like me, largely individualistic, and often struggle with or are discomforted by group process, the rewards of becoming and acting as part of the group are often much greater than they appear from outside.
A final, cautionary, note on confronting power. There are those in the progressive movement who are pinning their hopes on the next crisis of capitalism, whether this is caused by the next financial meltdown or a massive natural disaster. Then, they say, those in power might really start listening, and we will have a better chance to change things. They are trying to take a leaf out of the book the neoliberals have used over the last three decades (see Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”[ii]). Meanwhile, they have either given up on direct activism, or are working on post-crisis solutions.
While I sympathise with the despair underlying this (“We’ve been telling them for decades, and they’re still not listening – maybe the next crisis will wake them up!”), I doubt very much that it will be effective. The existing system is too entrenched. There may be some positive changes in the immediate aftermath of a major crisis, but eventually most of the system will revert to what was there before. The Global Financial Crisis is a good example of this.
We cannot wait for a natural or financial crisis to create enough leverage on the system to force real change. If it is big enough to do this, it will also have devastating immediate social and economic effects.
We need to create a social crisis, by showing those in power that they have lost our confidence in them. Through attacking the fragilities in the current power structure, working at available points of pressure, finding more voice in the mainstream media, and stronger community and mass action.
[ii] “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, Naomi Klein, Penguin, 2007