INTRODUCTION As the Allies were closing in on victory toward the final months of World War II, the Office of Strategic Services â€” precursor to the CIA â€” created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. This was distributed to civilians of enemy states. It advised managers to offer promotions to undeserving workers, and employees to work inefficiently and destroy equipment. The following part of the manual was specifically dedicated to interference with organisations and conferences. Allied sympathizers working within the confines of the Axis powers were advised to:
Consider the last conference you attended. If you work for a large civil society organisation, maybe you have encountered saboteurs informed by this manual! Or perhaps not, but this now-declassified handbook reveals a larger, timeless truth about the nature of humans organising themselves: we tend to spoil our own potential. Without deliberate self-organisation, we struggle to harness our collective power and build the kinds of communities, nations, and societies we would like to enjoy. Reading between the lines of the Simple Sabotage Field Manual illuminates the reality that government agencies are afraid of less-bureaucratic groups that cooperate and carry out tasks efficaciously. Large decision-making bodies and institutions as hierarchical as their own pose them little threat. In the conversations with 20 accomplished organisers and movement analysts across six continents, each pointed to both the importance and challenges of creating a culture or structure of horizontalism to increase the power of ordinary people against the forces of fascism. Building up movements is both necessary and difficult. Movements can coalesce the power of ordinary people to achieve seemingly miraculous social and political change, but they donâ€™t bloom as magically and spontaneously as onlookers often believe. At this historical moment, most have accepted that the people power of social movements is a key ingredient for solving the most oppressive and complex of our problems. And organisers are the engines that keep our movements running. It is imperative that we understand as much as possible about the limitations of our engines, and further hone them to go greater distances at greater speeds. 2
THE PROCESS AND METHODS Aiming to identify existing gaps in the internal organising of social movements and nonviolent campaigns, the researcher interviewed 20 community organisers, unionists, and analysts of movements from six continents, with wide generational representation. A literature review accompanied these qualitative interviews (see bibliography). An insubstantial diversity and quantity of publications and resources on community organising was encountered. Those that exist largely take the form of handbooks or anecdotal first-hand accounts written by older men from the Global North operating in democratic or semi-democratic contexts. Organisers from other demographics, places, and experiences should continue to develop materials and tools to expand the organiser’s repertoire. More material that reflects the social, political, and economic realities of the past decade would also benefit organisers of today. Detailed notes from the qualitative interviews were reviewed together with ActionAid Denmark staff from the Youth and Organising Team, and this led to identification of common themes that emerged from the data. Challenges and recommendations pertaining to these emerging themes were captured for this report. Below are these main challenges and tools to mitigate or avoid making the same mistakes as those organisers that came before us.
CHALLENGE 1: MOVEMENTS GROW WITHOUT A FOUNDATION
“If you don’t do things right from the beginning, you end up with challenges. We don’t have movements adequately representing the diversity of our cities. The climate movement doesn’t make the link with racism.” — Ike Teuling, Extinction Rebellion
It may be counterintuitive to think that we don’t want our movements to grow hastily. Yet movements that swell quickly often fall into two traps. First, they struggle to recruit participation from demographics outside those of founding members. Extinction Rebellion, for example, is the brainchild movement of a predominantly white group of veteran activists. These founding members undertook painstaking strategizing to rapidly scale the recruitment of first-time activists prior to launching their struggle. This opened Extinction Rebellion to participation of people outside activist subcultures. However, their white leadership and tactics selected by that leadership have ostracised would-be members beyond the privileged white middle class, thus limiting the movement’s growth and impact. Second, organisers of rapidly escalating movements often get swept up in the winds of escalation without a frontloaded strategy. This dearth of strategy creates disjointed 3
coordination, confusion, and stagnation. It limits a movement’s impact further down the road. If a movement’s identity — including its goal(s), principles, and methods of struggle — is clear from the beginning, this eliminates the need for dense operational bureaucracy. The movement can easily become “open source” as new constituencies sign on to the strategy early in the movement’s life, even without “permission” or “confirmation” from a central organ. As more and more constituencies embrace and act upon the identity a frontloaded strategy creates, movements are able to grow “organically.” Leadership shifts toward a decentralised structure as the movement evolves. Local chapters are able to operate autonomously, with the trust of core organisers or founders who invested their time and energy into an early strategy. RECOMMENDATION: “Founders” or “core organisers” of movements should not excitedly launch their movements before the ground has been tilled, before conditions are ripe. Undertaking deliberate strategy formation and placing those most affected by injustice at the center of decision-making catalyses nascent movements. USEFUL RESOURCES: Movement DNA by Rhize, Key Resources for Movement Organizers, Recruiting Outside your Social Circle, What it means when victims lead
CHALLENGE 2: ORGANISERS FAIL TO IDENTIFY AND WORK WITH THEIR OWN VERTICALITY
“It always “It always seems to be the case that there are small groups of people pulling the strings, themselves in denial that this is going on. There is a fetishization of a completely flat or horizontal ideal.” — Gee McKeown, Ulex Project Whether we are campaigning with wealthy hierarchical international coalitions or planning a direct action with a few anarcho-feminist friends, we must acknowledge the partially vertical nature of all cooperation and decision-making. Disparities in privilege and power always exist within groups striving to cooperate on shared goals. A secret to just and strategic organising is to identify these disparities and create systems and cultures that account for them, and to aid individuals in understanding their own privilege and power, especially in relation to other members of a common struggle. Most organisers surveyed during this research, recognising the futility in trying to convert vertically organised institutions into less centralised structures, expressed a need to better understand how their more horizontal groups can benefit from these traditional institutions. Most civil society organisations, even including many memberbased organisations, are accountable through a chain of command. When wellintentioned civil society organisations seek to aid more horizontal formations, such as labor unions, activist groups, or social movements, they often impose cultures and protocols of pyramidal leadership accountability upon these groups, thus stifling the ability of more horizontal formations to make collective decisions, exercise political autonomy, and build power with new constituencies. 4
RECOMMENDATION: Traditional civil society groups striving to lend support to movements should do so without forcing the norms and structures of those movements to conform to hierarchical templates. They should support, document, and learn from the leadership and decision-making norms of more horizontal networks and groups. Organisers must push for self-reflection and dialogue on power and privilege among their own memberships. USEFUL RESOURCES: RACI tool, ACORN Community Organizing Model, The Tyranny of Structurelessness
CHALLENGE 3: ORGANISERS ARE EXPECTED TO WORK WITHIN ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL FRAMEWORKS
“Decisions may be made by the Strategic Focus Group, the Local Focus Group, or one of the cell teams.” — Jedidia Mabela, La Lucha Countless handbooks and resources exist to aid community organisers in their work, but few resources differentiate between the niche skills required for different kinds of volunteers (e.g. seasonal signature collectors), activists (e.g. practitioners of direct action), or organisers (e.g. members of coordinating groups). Only a small percentage of organisers can commit more than 10 hours a week to their movements. Still fewer are those who can rely on a livable salary as an organiser and commit full-time. Most materials designed for organisers cater to these “die-hards.” Few are designed primarily with the average, stressed, overworked, underpaid human giving only an hour or two each week in mind — yet these are the majority population of most movements. “Consider three concentric circles when training organisers,” says Hardy Merriman, President of International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. “The core circle is comprised of those few organisers who are totally devoted to their mission. A larger circle consists of folks with day jobs who can offer partial commitment, often with significant skills for taking local action. The largest outer ring consists of a broad base of people that can be mobilized. Their training might take only five minutes and consist of a mass produced handout.” RECOMMENDATION: Core organisers of movements must learn to coach organisers with varying levels of time, energy, and commitment without forcing them to conform to a particular modality of engagement. They must also learn how those working at different levels of engagement can create synergy toward the overall goal(s) of the movement, and determine how much time, energy, and resources to invest in each “tier” of participation. USEFUL RESOURCES: Hegemony How-To, How To Resist, The Engagement Pyramid, The Four Roles of Social Activism 5
CHALLENGE 4: MOVEMENTS ARE NOT STRUCTURED FOR HORIZONTAL ACCOUNTABILITY
“What is the biggest number of people that can sit at the dinner table and have the same conversation? About 10 or 12. Groups of this size allow people to work together, regulated by peer pressure, without needing a formal operational structure.” — Ivan Marovic, Otpor! Many movements without structural clarity fall prey to internal intrigue, fail to grow, or spend many frustratingly unsuccessful hours on fundraising beyond member contributions or dues. Absence of clear bureaucracy may actually create ambiguous red tape and confusing methods of coordination, including the possibility that an authoritarian or exclusive culture may emerge. Being answerable to one another comes in many forms. In the words of Andrew Dey of War Resisters International, “In anti-militarism work, a culture of horizontalism emerges, as does a sense that process is important. How we make decisions is as important as the decision itself.” Horizontalism often demands more structure, not less. Formal institutions have external audits, houses of worship have planning and finance meetings, unions hold elections and annual general assemblies. Varying forms of accountability emerge across the many shapes movements may take or inhabit. But many movements need to grow faster than the bureaucratic powers of their opponents. More than protecting against internal fraud, they have larger political goals to achieve. So how can a movement scale without falling prey to the opportunists or saboteurs within its membership? Social groups and networks are regulated through acceptable norms and expectations. Small villages need less policing, as the social fabric does most of this work. A microcosm of this is a cell group of a few comrades who are able to make autonomous decisions as a team due to their small size (and build up parallel cell groups that join their struggle). In some activist circles, an “affinity group,” or “family group” comprised of members with specific roles, allows for broad cooperation across a movement’s strategy, with social accountability fostered naturally within small groups. Such small groups are regulated by peer pressure and the desire for community, which in many cases is more reliable than institutional bureaucracies. RECOMMENDATION: Organisers should deliberately determine how members will be accountable to one another. They should develop a structure and culture that nurtures trust and cooperation. USEFUL RESOURCES: Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, What is An Affinity Group?, Dunbar’s Number
CHALLENGE 5: MOVEMENTS DO NOT KNOW WHETHER - AND HOW TO WORK WITH OTHER MOVEMENTS AND ALLIES
“We have an alliance, but we have to go beyond the alliance and speak to people we would never speak to.” — Bekele Woyecha, Citizens UK How do we identify allies outside our own memberships? How do we filter those supposed external allies who might co-opt our struggles, even unintentionally? What principles do we observe when building partnerships that involve money? These questions must be answered by members of movements, but if there is anything that the Simple Sabotage Field Manual teaches us, it’s that giving the final say to higher authorities is a swift way to crush the power of a group. How can decentralised movements determine whether to join hands beyond their own networks, and when they do, what principles should guide such a collaboration? How should they take precautions and preserve their autonomy? Our planet is experiencing an erosion of the instruments of representative democracy. Authoritarianism continues to accelerate in all hemispheres. Foundations, coalitions, and organisations established to financially support progressive objectives are increasingly interested in shifting financial support away from conventional nongovernmental organisations and toward social movements, yet these movements remain a great enigma to many well-intentioned people wielding grant portfolios and checks. It is imperative that those wielding substantial resources for progress work recognize the urgency of the internal institutional shifts they need to make, and allow themselves to take greater financial and political risks in support of unfamiliar methodologies. RECOMMENDATION: Organisers must recognise that potential financial allies may not budge on their own, and as such, they can arrange to educate these allies on the intricacies of social movements, community organising, and civil resistance. Organisers can nudge these stakeholders with specific recommendations for strategic planning and budgeting, and volunteer to support long-term planning processes instead of waiting to be tokenistically asked to help implement more narrow activities. Donors from the progressive community can invite organisers to educate them on the intricacies of their work, and commit to greater risk-taking, flexible financial support, and greater experimentation in their partnerships. USEFUL RESOURCES: Solidarity Not Aid, NGOization of Resistance, Understanding Activism: How International NGOs, Foundations and Others Can Provide Better Support to Social Movements
RECOMMENDATIONS From the interviews conducted and the literature reviewed we can also make several cross-cutting recommendations. We see these as steps both organisers and organisations can take to support the process of building people power. GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ORGANISERS Develop movement infrastructure that simultaneously achieves more efficacious fundraising and retention of movement autonomy. For example, Youth 4 Parliament (Zambia) uses the budgets of formally registered and established organisations. By not managing money directly, opportunism within their movement is limited. Shift focus on changing traditional and vertical institutions towards development of strategies to get what your movement needs from these institutions. Identify what power you need from allies (e.g. money, technical expertise, safe space, etc.), and then determine which allies may be able to assist you with that form of power. Ask allies working for vertical institutions what they need from you to help them extend the knowledge and commitments of their colleagues in ways that would be beneficial to your group. Document and share reflections on your engagements and collaborations with vertical institutions. For example, Konfront — an online organising platform for activists in Denmark — wrote down all their experiences while they established themselves to enable them to share their challenges and solutions with others. GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THOSE WITH RESOURCES TO SUPPORT ORGANISING Support medium-term collaboration between authors of tools and resources and communities in need of them; the center of gravity (especially in budgeting) should be practical application, not product development. Support the infrastructure and operational expenses of self-organised groups that use their own methods of horizontal accountability; invest in testing unconventional horizontal forms of accountability. Support the development of groups of organisers learning from one another, with a focus on long-term capacity building and not the immediate results or outcomes of organising or campaigning. Support the development and application of tools and skills for weathering repression, focusing on emotional literacy and psychological support. Invest in continued, long-term support and meet needs that are specific to organisers. Support the proliferation of knowledge on movements within mainstream society (e.g. pop culture, film, tech, sports, art, physical infrastructure, etc). Demystify assumptions about people power and explore viral ways to spark curiosity of the nuances of movements among the general public. As mass uprising is an increasingly common political trend receiving more media coverage than before, promote new and more complex narratives and counternarratives about self-organised people. 8
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS The 21st century has experienced massive numbers of people-powered movements, yet in comparison with 20th century movements, they have not often clearly articulated a political ideology motivating their action. What are the benefits and shortcomings of using or creating a political ideology, in regards to organising for people power? What recommendations in this report most resonate with your experience, group, or context? What actions will you take after reading this report? What can you do this week?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Phil Wilmot is a community organizer and founder of activist coaching network Solidarity Uganda. He writes extensively on social movements and is a leadership member with Beautiful Trouble. Phil has trained thousands of organizers across more than 70 countries, supports various campaigns and movements in East Africa, and lives in Kisubi, Uganda with his family.
Research study about social movement organising - main challenges and tools.