Matthew Slater on current activism strategies

We republish a twopart editorial from the complementary currency activist Matthew Slater:

“Traditional historical narratives imply that change comes from the top down, as a result of the actions of about Kings and presidents. But focusing on the characters and personal circumstances of such leaders simplifies the larger forces always at work. We all know that Henry VIII needed a divorce when he founded the Church of England, but at the time time all northern Europe was stepping out from under the wing of the Pope, achieving a measure of independence and of course taking ownership of all the church’s assets. And when that decision was taken at that high level, were all the protestant agitators and martyrs vindicated? Or if the decision was taken in the King’s bed, perhaps their efforts were irrelevant?

As would be changemakers, we must decide for ourselves where the decisions we want to effect are really made. Do the people follow the law? Does the law follow Goldman Sachs? Are we more effective working under the radar? Or can breaking an unjust law be a powerful strategy for change? If a bank can be too big to jail, when is a people’s movement too big to jail?

A return to first principles in a republic is sometimes caused by the simple virtues of one man. His good example has such an influence that the good men strive to imitate him, and the wicked are ashamed to lead a life so contrary to his example. – Niccolo Machiavelli

Outside of politics, there is a diverse pantheon of progressive individuals credited with changing the world, thinkers, scientists, artists, priests, engineers. I think many activists are tempted to measure their success in terms of that kind of recognition. But this is a poor motivation and poor reward for a lifetime’s work. There isn’t room in the hall of fame for every soul who achieved something Important. Recognition is limited and often falls to the wrong people.

Of all the challenges faced by humanity in general, how can we assess which challenges are ‘key’ and which challenges are just symptoms? And are we clear why our particular goal is strategically important? For example, if the USA cracked down on its dubious corporate lobbying practices, could we all go back to tending our gardens? (I haven’t tended a garden for some years) Or would the battle for political influence continue relentlessly on several other fronts?

I try to focus on causes rather than symptoms, on prevention of tomorrow’s symptoms rather than cures for the pain that touches me here and now. I think that the many problems we might battle have relatively few causes. In my analysis, the money system is the root cause of almost everything, but that doesn’t mean we should work on that alone. In my opinion the (other) most important areas are:

* decentralising food and energy production

* supporting the alternative media

* building private communication networks

* developing methods of participative governance

* overcoming legislative barriers to alternative lifestyles

Whereas the following are just addressing symptoms

Cancer research
Political lobbying
Donkey sanctuaries
3rd world development

So, freed from delusions that politics is where change really happens, and that public recognition is not an indicator of impact, how can we work solidly towards a better society, maximising expected impact and reducing the chances that our life’s work will be swept aside by a stroke of the presidential pen?

I would now like to put forward a few principles for effective activism, and in the follow up article attempt to get to the heart of the matter!

Impact is not measured in thousands of people at your protest. Both protesting and voting create the dangerous illusion that your opinion counts. Impact is when the establishment changes its behaviour. But know that it will push back, so don’t let up!

You don’t have to be politically acceptable, and you don’t have to work towards something achievable, and you don’t have to have measurable outcomes if you are working with your own energy and resources. Working on the extremes is valuable because it shifts people’s perceptions and moves the centre ground. The acceptable middle ground is carefully staked out by think tanks, explored by politicians within that political spectrum, and patrolled by the media to prevent us thinking outside them. ‘Extreme’ policies such as upholding the constitution or returning to ‘sound’ money are increasingly falling under the fuzzy ‘terrorism’ label.

Activities like advocacy, helping the poorest, network building, and research cannot and should not ‘sustain’ themselves. Sure, commerce and the market have a very important role to play in changing the world but be aware that getting money and professionalising changes everything. Most paid people are usually replaceable parts in a machine; their work is governed by money as surely as the movements of heavenly bodies are governed by Newton’s laws. Paying activists is a great way to encourage them to start families and de-radicalise them. Stopping paying activists (usually after three years) and telling them they have to run a ‘viable’ operation really knocks them sideways.

Work done for love directly frees up money for other purposes. The nonprofit industrial complex expends a huge amount of resources redesiging perfectly good operations, and competing for funds to pay staff. But the real difference is made by the people who channel the money wisely, and more importantly, by volunteers who create value where there was none. When we do it without permission from bursars, we own our work.

Don’t expect the enemy to play by the rules. If the makers of the rules were playing by those rules we wouldn’t have a problem. To me it is very obvious and well documented that entrenched powers are actively working to divide, confuse, subvert, buy off, blackmail, isolate, slander, and not infrequently murder those who threaten their interests. They know the rules and our pointing them out isn’t likely to help, unless it is done for the benefit of the public.

So saying, do not focus too much on evil people. There is no shortage of psychopaths in key positions, they are hard to spot, are excellent actors, and are easily replaced by other psychopaths, apparatchiks, or harmless do-gooders. Judge not lest ye be judged. Focus instead on systemic problems. If Cheney was convicted in the Hague for orchestrating an attack on his own country, would that wake the people up or deter the next war?

Stick to the facts. There are so many facts available these days, but some people need to go just a little beyond. Instead of building solar solution they are talking about zero point energy and alleging that government stole Tesla’s secrets and that nobody has discovered them since.

The easiest way to identify the doers is to see what they already did; better still if they did it with or for someone else. Therefore it is important to signal to others what you have actually done! Usually it is best not to wait for people who haven’t haven’t got around to it yet.”

Part Two:

“Have you realised that the world, if not the universe, is a single organism and all the people, all the organisms are inter-connected and depend on each other for their welbeing? Do you feel a greater responsibility to the universe than just to replicate the molecular patterns and social memes which make you you? Have you perhaps devoted large chunks of your life to some Work? This mystical experience is sometimes called a ‘dissolution of ego’ but unfortunately most egos don’t stay dissolved for long!

To me, it is clear that the debt-money system as orchestrated by banks is the unseen sinister driver of the almost all the world’s problems. We just need people to understand that they themselves already hold the power of issuing and accepting credit, then they would be free from debt, free from slavery, and probably free from war. I suspect that the universe has a holographic property of appearing slightly differently to every observer, and so even amongst strategic people with similar values, agreement about the methods, leverage points or next steps can be hard to find.

Yet so many armchair ponerologists, surveying the world’s diverse and interconnected problems, become attached to a single approach and unable to engage with others. We just need direct democracy; we just need a green new deal, or more bed-nets in Africa, or triple bottom line accounting. We just need the Rothschild mafia to let go of the media/government/banks! Instructive though such analyses are, objective, implementable, single issue solutions never happen in real life. When they do, such as Cambodia’s ruralisation policy, or China’s Great Leap Forward, history does not smile on them.

Without money, it is really hard to bribe people into working on your project, more so on the tedious tasks. Without money, people only do what they want to do. In a society that celebrates leaders and ignores followers, I see activists promoting their ideas, building their social profiles, competing for funding, recognition, followers and support, but rarely achieving anything impactful.

Rather than admit that progressives can neither agree nor collbaorate, I sometimes hear talk about the ‘swarm’ approach, in which strength and resilience emerges from diversity. This model is highly realistic and inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that every idea is equally valid, or that we don’t need to work much more effectively together.

Perhaps, for every supporter that we think we deserve, we should devote that share of our own time to supporting someone else? Here’s a sustainable formula: I deserve 3 followers so I should follow someone else for 3/4 of my time.

Endeavour with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces – Niccolo Machiavelli

Since one of my strategic aims has been to unify the community accounting software ecosystem, I used to get uneasy / annoyed / jealous with complete strangers who would show up with half baked software trying to sign up users or communities. I just knew, in my ego, that if they had researched properly 2 years previously, they would have found my work, maybe talked to me, and would now be building on my work instead of duplicating effort and fragmenting the field further. I would write them through gritted teeth, “Ahem, why did you find it necessary to build your own trading platform when so many exist already? Was interoperability a consideration? Is anybody waiting for this software or do you have a sales team on standby?” But gradually I realised that such popup projects threatened neither my work nor my ego. Many are vapourware, many ill conceived and many are simply never finished.

When I started I was really wedded to one software framework, and my feeling of success was bound up in how many people were using my code on that platform. This put me at odds with some nice people who had more resources and more credibility than me, and with everybody building equivalent software. I realised my job was not to eat up the market share of my competitors by subtly denigrating them – that is the old paradigm, but to serve other activists who were actually asking for help / advice / software. While the vast majority of my time is spent code-weaving, I feel my most impactful hours have been advising and educating people in the right place and the right time, which is to say NOT in pursuing the main strategic aim or improving hard-to-interpret success indicators so important to the ego.

I found that trust needed for collaboration rarely emerged on the basis of online contact only or even from brief encounters at conferences. That’s why I visit my allies for days at a time, and listen deeply to their world-views and the reasoning processes. I find that the logic behind most activists strategies, and which provides all their motivation, is usually internally coherent and shooting at it is just demotivating. Instead we should identify activities where our intrinsic motivations can be channelled into collaborations. We don’t need to agree on whether whether a gold standard would bring economic justice, or whether there are enough resources in the world to implement the Venus Project for 12Bn people, or whether the Labour party is still interested in the poor. The small, actionable things are much more important. I’ll host your web site; you host me when I’m in town, we both pull out all the stops for Bangla-Pesa.

There are methodologies to help people co-operate together, such as sociocracy, Dragon dreaming, and participative budgeting. Such trust-building work brings people together but it takes ages and doesn’t translate well to global issues or to distributed teams and ad-hoc alliances.

Now I will share with you some sage advice, the source of which is lost, but which I thought all the more wise at the time because I was already doing it! “Find someone whose work you admire and help them”. As a newbie activist, my ego took a bashing but I advanced immensely in 4 years of service. We were a tiny NGO muscling its way around the mammoth humanitarian agencies in Geneva to improve the disastrous systems for managing emergency shelter for thousands and hundreds of thousands of victims. I learned a lot about politics and influence, working within the system and patience and persistence. My impact was massive insofar as I was meeting an otherwise unmet demand for IT support. But I started to realise that whole scene was just a sticking plaster covering up a system of global exploitation of the poor; besides which, the soporific office, menial work, and champagne humanitarianism were suffocating, so I left and started on my own, attempting to rekindle my passion and address the root of the problem.

The last five years I have spent occupying other people’s sofas making free software for community currencies. I was not commissioned or paid, so the harder part of the work has been persuading communities to adopt new free software; I have been blessed that more and more communities are now using and sharing open source tools. But recent developments have meant that some of the largest networks, whose patronage would really have given my previous work wings and freed me to move on, for different reasons will not be building with my tools. It has been a professional and emotional setback and given me cause to reflect (and write this article).

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. – Niccolo Machiavelli

So should I work harder in my solitary niche? Should I lower my expectations? Should I stop trying serve everybody and focus on the big players who can raise money? If I put a price on my work, would it be more valuable or used less or both? Perhaps I should give up on community currencies, give up writing unsolicited software, walk away from the dozing middle class?

I see some advanced human beings who have turned away from ideology, acrimonious debate, and the whole solution-based approach. They see that we have a lot of work to do on ourselves before we can work effectively with others, this may involve subtle work, such as prayer and meditation, or more targeted work such as challenging personal demons. Some ‘train’ their intuition, and practice being ‘open’ to whatever happens. They are not attached to their plan, they can take advantage of synchronicities and go with the flow. ‘Strategy’ is partially replaced by ‘opportunity’ and ‘instinct’. I’m not ready for that – too much software still needs writing!

Maybe even striking out on my own five years ago was a mistake. That advice about helping someone I admire could apply beyond just serving an apprenticeship. Effective people and organisations deserve to become centres of gravity and to play a role in coordinating the energy around them. I have approached the Global Ecovillage Network and been pleased to enter very quickly into a reciprocal giving relationship. I don’t want to be a lone engineer any more.

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him. – Niccolo Machiavelli

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