Monday, June 5, 2017

This is an Uprising

Are you part of the Resistance? Did you become "political" only after an election result you couldn't imagine ahead of time and still can't accept? Or, like me, have you been pressing for social change in the U.S. for decades, whether it was popular or not?

Either way, you must read this book. Mark and Paul Engler help all of us understand what we're doing, how we fit a pattern that has happened before in history, and how to learn from traditions of revolt to create a winning strategy.

Particularly important right now: read this book to make sense of the rush of activity in the first half of 2017 and what will come next, to be prepared for highs and lows and periods when it feels like nothing's happening and we might have wasted our time--but if we use the quiet times wisely, we come back stronger.

The authors tell us that there are at least two important models for creating social change. The one that has received most study is the long-term systematic community organizing, power building approach associated with Saul Alinsky. That model has proven itself, but all by itself, it doesn't give us enough insight to understand what's happened since the November 2016 election in the U.S. (or during the Civil Rights Movement, or the Arab Spring, or the movement that overthrew Milosevic in Serbia, or Earth First!, Occupy Wall Street, or the movement that won marriage equality in the U.S.).

The other, more decentralized approach is what they call "momentum-based organizing" or "protest movements" or simply, "uprising." Frances Fox Piven is the writer most associated with this approach. It calls for creating "moments of the whirlwind" when the whole debate changes and what seemed impossible suddenly becomes a widely-supported demand.

Yes: creating. These moments don't arise by themselves. Movement strategists get them started, or at very least, keep them growing. This book is about how we can be movement strategists.

It's impossible to create a formula for uprising, and the authors wisely don't try. What they do give us is a set of lessons about what worked.
  1. Shared strategy, spread through mass training. 
  2. A firm commitment to nonviolence.
  3. People working in parallel to get the pillars of society ("the military, the media, the business community, the churches, labor groups, the civil service, the educational establishment, and the courts, among others") to withdraw their cooperation from the regime.
  4. Symbolic demands that dramatize the injustice of the current regime.
  5. "Escalating, militant, and unarmed confrontation."
  6. Being willing to make a visible personal sacrifice to gain the sympathies of the public.
  7. Being willing to polarize opinion and face opposition.
  8. Making strategic judgments about what kind of bad press not to encourage.
  9. Understanding that movements will go through cycles, from peaks of activity to fallow times when long-term institution-building may be the most powerful thing we can do.
  10. Finding ways that movements, institutions, and countercultures can all support and build off one another.
Not all efforts to create change prevail over the long term. But those that do tend to see themselves as part of an ecology that is made healthier when different traditions each contribute: mass mobilizations alter the terms of political debate and create new possibilities for progress; structure-based organizing helps take advantage of this potential and protects against efforts to roll back advances;  and countercultural communities preserve progressive values, nurturing dissidents who go on to initiate the next waves of revolt.