On theories of change, what are the differences between playing offence and defence?

December 13, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Unsurprisingly, in this year of Brexit and US elections, I’ve been thinking about how to stop bad stuff happening. While they are doubtless desperately looking for silver linings in a year of defeats, progressive movements are likely to spend a good part of the next few years defending good things from political assault. So what is the same/different about defence and offence when it comes to theories of change?

Similarities include the role of critical junctures (get ready to seize the windows of opportunity provided by scandals and screw ups – and rest assured, they will come); the importance of alliances, especially building links with unusual suspects currently in the opposition camp; understanding the system and power analysis. Some might also agree with Jack Dempsey’s advice (below) that the best form of defence is attack, so stick to what you know. But what might be different?

I’ve already argued that one implication is that activists need to move on from an exclusive focus on stats and numbers to become more skilled in using metaphors and narratives.

Stopping bad stuff happening lends itself to tactics of delay and doubt – you’re trying to stop bad change taking place until its current window of opportunity closes. That could involve:

Weapons of the weak (to use the wonderful title of James C. Scott’s book on ‘Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance’), including ‘‘foot-dragging, evasion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage’. Wonderful language, and sounds like a potential set of tactics for aid workers and civil servants resisting efforts to make them do dumb stuff.

Sowing Doubt: in a now infamous 1969 memo, an executive at the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company helpfully explained “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” More generally, the first stage in blocking change is to undermine its dominance of the hearts and minds of those in power – for example the ‘Adjustment with a Human Face’ authors who took on the Washington Consensus at its height in the 1980s, beginning the intellectual fightback against a damaging orthodoxy that seemed almost unassailable at the time.

Running from the Bear: two people are running from a bear. One hurriedly puts on trainers. ‘Are you crazy?’ asks the other, ‘there’s no way you can run faster than a bear!’ I don’t have to, comes the reply, I just have to run faster than you. Only a limited number of policy reversals can take place in the window of opportunity following a victory – how to make sure yours isn’t one of them? Amid the chaos and lack of planning that characterize both Brexit and the Trump victory, there may be an argument for lying low rather than raising your voice. You may just get through the reform window unharmed.

Find common ground: One of the alarming things for progressives in both the Brexit and US campaigns was hearing people say ‘I’m angry about inequality and the fat cats getting fatter, and that’s why I’m voting for Trump/Brexit’. There’s clearly some common ground to be found, but we need to look hard, and understand the issues and values underpinning the coalitions that voted. Then we can set about building  bridges (not walls), thereby both strengthening the coalition for progressive change, and weakening its opponents.

Going long term. Learn from Chicago University. At the height of Keynesianism, the ‘Chicago Boys’ dug in for the long haul, taking control of a few university departments and creating generations of monetarist and free market disciples who would go on to lead the counter revolution a generation later when they came to power. What would be the progressive equivalent?

That could involve shifting the point of engagement away from a temporarily unreachable national government – municipal and state governments have traditionally provided the incubators for the next wave of radical ideas (eg Bolsa Familia in Brazil). Time to dig in at local level?

Other suggestions?

December 13, 2016
Duncan Green