Winning Ugly and Learning from the Bad Guys: Discussing How Change Happens with the Greens

November 28, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Had an HCH session with some extremely smart wonks at the Green Alliance last week. I gave my standard talk, focussing on a ‘Power and Systems Approach’. This argues that for activism to be more in line with messy, emergent realities, activists need to change their way of working to give greater weight to:

  • Curiosity – Study history and context; ‘learn to dance with the system’
  • Humility – embrace uncertainty/ambiguity
  • Reflexivity – be conscious of your own role, prejudices and power
  • Include multiple perspectives; unusual suspects; be open to different ways of seeing the world

The discussion got very deep very quickly, and had more questions than answers:

Firstly, how to respond to ‘windows of opportunity’. The bad guys (my words, not theirs) are pretty good at working around critical junctures (as set out in Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine), but they don’t mess about with all this humility, reflexivity and ambiguity nonsense. In fact they are very linear, banging on about the same thing until a window of opportunity arrives, then driving their message home – TaxPayers Alliance, Milton Friedman, Chile’s Chicago Boys, Population Controllers, Haters of various stripes (Migrants, Moslems, Gays etc), certain populist politicians I could mention….

One of the Green Alliance wonks speculated that maybe that kind of linearity makes more sense if you are only working on one issue, or are ‘guided by a single ideology, from which everything else flows’. Environmentalism, by contrast, has to consider unintended consequences so that if you get one policy victory, it might make other things worse.

The perils of half-victories: winning can be tough for activists, because you hardly ever win clean. Instead a victory comes about through negotiation and compromise. Activists often divide over whether the compromises are necessary or a sell-out (as happened with the Jubilee Debt Campaign at the turn of the millennium). So is there any way to design a campaign to prevent the compromises being so great that the result is actually a step backwards? How to you create an ‘irreducible core’ to a campaign, eg a set of interlocking environmental principles that are proof against cherry-picking?

Evidence v Narrative: on the environment, is the good guys’ obsession with evidence, data and proving themselves right actually preventing them winning against an opponent more interested in narrative than evidence? Does it stop them seizing critical junctures (for example, by being over-worried about accusations of ambulance-chasing/manipulation if they start attributing climate disasters to man-made climate change)?

One GA wonk said the task was to educate the wider population, even if that meant eschewing a few quick wins – they go low and we go high. If they beat us with a lie, we take the long route back with evidence and education, we don’t just try and get better than them at lying.

That presumes both that there is some kind of underlying truth that we can arrive at through science and scrutiny, and that we need to take the population with us, or else eventually we will get caught out. I’m not sure all my campaigner friends would agree with tying your hands in that way.

I guess the underlying asymmetry between progressives and their opponents is that the progressives want to win pretty, and the others don’t care – they just want to win. We want wins that are inclusive, consistent with our values, and based on evidence and some notion of truth because we see those as part of the world we want to create. Certainly doesn’t make winning any easier, but it does make it more worthwhile.


November 28, 2017
Duncan Green