Book Review: How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power, by Matthew Bolton

September 5, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Full disclosure: Matt Bolton works for Citizens UK, an organization of which I am a big fan, and who my son workshow to resist for, but if you’re OK with that level of bias, read on.

Citizens UK is a fascinating community organization, with a reputation far beyond its relatively small size (currently about 30 full time staff). For a fuller description see its Wikipedia entry.Here’s my rave review of one of their biggest ever events, grilling the UK’s prime ministerial candidates just before the 2010 election.

Born out of the teachings of Barrack Obama’s community organizing guru Saul Alinsky, until now the best guide to its approach has been his wonderful but distinctly Vietnam-era ‘Rules for Radicals’ (1971). Now Citizen UK’s Deputy Director, Matthew Bolton has updated it with How to Resist, a brilliant guide to the theory of action behind Citizens UK and some of its even better-known campaigns for the Living Wage, Refugees Welcome and Safe Passage.

So what’s the secret sauce? ‘The starting point is: if you want change, you need power. You build up power through relationships with other people around common interests. You break down the big problems you face together into specific issues and identify who the decision makers are, who has the power to make the changes you need. Then you take action to get a reaction and build a relationship with the decision-makers. If they don’t agree to implement the changes then you escalate the action or turn to more creative tactics, learning as you go and celebrating the small wins as you build incrementally up to the bigger issues.’

Living wage campaign - starting them young

Living wage campaign – starting them young

That para chimes very well with the kinds of approaches to power and systems in How Change Happens, and the incremental, adaptive thinking espoused by the Doing Development Differently coalition. But the difference with the latter is its emphasis on the bottom up – deep listening to the concerns of local people in order (‘it all starts with the question: what makes you angry?’) which forms the foundations of future campaigns.

The approach is a unique combination of vision and pragmatism – nowhere more so than the emphasis on the virtues of power. ‘We must rid ourselves of the negative associations with power so that we start to want power as much as we want change.’

Subsequent chapters set out the building blocks for an effort to ‘reclaim populism’:

  1. Appreciating self-interest, both of those they seek to organize and those they seek to influence. That includes material self interest but also having fun – Citizens events are a ball, full of singing and celebration. Bolton has little time for the saintly, self-sacrificing organizer – ‘these days I feel that selflessness is part of the problem, not the solution’.
  2. Practical tools: ‘The stick person’ is a way to help people identify their self interest; the one-to-one conversation (Citizens organizers have a quota of 121s that they aim for every week, sitting down and sounding out potential leaders for support and training); and power analysis (excellent, if a bit too focussed on formal/institutional power – Citizens not great on gender issues).
  3. Turning Problems into Issues (‘problems lead to conferences and issues lead to action’): eg a general complaint about low wages becomes the Living Wage Campaign, and suddenly it becomes campaignable. This in contrast to the Occupy Movement (which he’s very critical of) or a poignant image from Bolton’s early years: a three person demonstration on Brixton Hill, each person carrying a different placard – ‘Peace’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Equality’. They must have been Quakers…..
  4. The Action is in the Reaction (and if necessary, in the over-reaction). It is not about numbers on the streets, but about getting a response from the decision makers you are trying to influence, and that requires ‘respectful confrontation and constructive tension’ – all illustrated by a lovely example of Abdul Durrant, a Citizens-trained cleaner, standing up at an HSBC annual meeting to demand a living wage from Sir John Bond, the boss whose office he cleaned (Bond ended up giving him a reference when Durrant applied for a job as a trade union organizer!)
  5. Unusual Allies and Creative Tactics: lots of theatre, avoid the boring marches, make it fun
  6. ‘The Iron Rule: never do for others what they can do for themselves’

I have a few quibbles. The book is primarily aimed at individual activists, but that’s not how Citizens UK works. Instead its members are the institutions most relevant to poor communities – schools, hospitals, workplaces and above all faith organizations. Campaigners take note – there isn’t even an individual membership on offer. And the title’s all wrong – this is about taking power and changing the world, not just resisting. But overall the book is mercifully brief, lucidly written and a perfect primer (or Christmas present) for the thinking activist.