Strategy and activism: hairdresser or architect?

As promised here are some edited highlights from the interview with Milan Rai and Gabriel Carlyle. The interview was recorded on a small digital voice recorder in a tent at the Peace News Summer Camp. Unsurprisingly the sound quality was low and I won’t inflict it on you. Instead I’ve trawled through it and transcribed the following nuggets.

But first why Mil and Gabriel? Mainly because they seem to constantly be looking to the next step in the campaigns in which they’re involved (Voices in the Wilderness and Justice not Vengeance to name but two) whilst simultaneously trying to create accessible campaigns and build the wider movement.

“I think having a more strategic approach is about letting go of that tight grip on that particular tactic or family of tactics and being willing to look at the range of things that will help you achieve the intermediate goals, the best intermediate goals, towards what you want to do…” Milan Rai

Why the focus on building the Movement?

MR: On Afghanistan there’s been so little activity going on and so whatever was done, in a sense, was good. Movement building that has been near the top of my agenda: how can we increase the amount of energy people have for doing things around Afghanistan?… I think there is what I decide for myself is the best use of my time and energy and then there’s what ends up being the best thing for me to do with a group of people… I wouldn’t say that I’d go 180° to what I’ve decided is a good idea to do but I would end a long way in order to end up with a situation where at the end of the whole process the people who have been organising it feel good about the experience and that they have gone in the direction that they’re happy with so that they have more energy to carry on.

GC: I think “is this the best use of my time?” and all the rest of it but in practice a lot of what one does, at least after that initial step has been taken of trying to get people together to do something, even if one’s got a clear conception of it oneself, in practice a lot of the moves you subsequently make are forced on you by factors you can’t really control… I’m aware of the strategic issues but I rarely get to put any of them into practice…

MR: I disagree with you because when you say you don’t practice strategy what you’re talking about is sitting down and making a strategic plan and putting all the elements in place to follow through on getting to that goal. But I think that you have certain skills and certain abilities and knowledge and resources that you can lay your hands on, and networks. And what you do is you figure out how we get to the next intermediate goal towards ending the war and building a movement big enough to stop all these wars happening. I think you’re doing that all of the time but not in a “I’m writing the blueprint for the next 5 years” kind of way. It’s making that assessment of what you have available and building from that, and I think you do that all of the time.

I think that my personal judgement is that the overriding strategic priority that I have is to encourage every single person I meet around activism to feel better about being an activist and about being involved, and to try to create an environment in which they feel heard and strengthened and supported and I think that’s the most important thing. Creating an environment in which people are encouraged to take another step, to get a bit more involved and to feel a little bit stronger in their opinions… that’s the way you do campaigning. It’s from people feeling more confidence and strength that more activity happens and maybe some of it won’t be the best use of resources but it’s something.

Intermediate goals?

MR: For example, trying to think about how to encourage people in the military who are feeling dissident about the war in Afghanistan, to make them feel they have some support out there and make them feel stronger in taking a stand, in making a difference, and for their families to feel there is support out there for that kind of thing… that’s an intermediate goal towards ending the war in Afghanistan and building a political and social force that is capable of stopping wars of aggression like this happening in the future.

What if cold dispassionate strategy says “do one thing”, but our passion and excitement tell us to do another?

MR: I think what happens in practice is that people cluster their activities around a family of tactics and so they apply those tactics to situations: they are direct activists so they do direct action around stuff. I think having a more strategic approach is about letting go of that tight grip on that particular tactic or family of tactics and being willing to look at the range of things that will help you achieve the intermediate goals, the best intermediate goals, towards what you want to do…

I think it’s perfectly sensible for people to say “I have expertise, or we have expertise, in doing a certain thing. If there’s a campaign going on there’s a contribution we can make in this particular way”. At the same time I think that the most important thing to do is figure out what your preferred intermediate goal is and to work out the best way to make that happen. And it might be that doing a direct action at this particular point is not the best way.

It’s about what fits the intermediate goal and a willingness to let go of the tactics and to try to figure out the set of actions that will help move you towards that.

GC: I’m not saying the only consideration, but a key consideration is efficacy rather than making your self feel militant or comfortable. I think all these things have at least 2 ways to face. When you do something there’s the effect it has on the external world and there’s the effect on the movement you’re trying to grow. So if we’re a direct action group but were going to stop being a direct action group to write letters because that’s what we’ve concluded from our strategic analysis is effective, and everybody goes home and nobody writes a letter then you haven’t factored in a key part.

MR: The passion versus rationality question – I can completely see that that’s how it feels as a dilemma. I look at it in a slightly different way, which is to say that there’s a difference between different kinds of activity which in terms of what kind of reward you perceive you’re getting from it…

If you’re a hairdresser within an hour or two, virtually immediately, you work on something; you see it change; you get feedback from the people involved – generally positive; you get paid straight away; and it’s all done. You’ve got immediate effect on the world, immediate feedback of appreciation and support, immediate financial pay-off, and it’s all taken place in a couple of hours.

Whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, if you’re an architect you may spend a long time designing some duct which no-one is ever going to see, and there’s a huge chain of people between you and the building going up. No-one’s ever going to thank you for that duct. And there’s a large gap in time and space between you doing your work and the end result.

I think what I’d say is that whatever kind of activism you’re doing of whatever family of tactics there has to be a mixture of stuff, where there’s some stuff that is long-term – no immediate visible effect kind of thing because that’s essential for social change – and stuff which you get some visible pay-off that something has changed because of what I’ve done, not within a couple of hours, but within an appreciable amount of time.

Can’t get no satisfaction?

MR: It’s about being clear what you personally find satisfying and then finding out whether you can give people satisfactory experiences which are just about them – it’s not about the world changing, but it might involve some change in the world that they find satisfying with different families of tactics. And I think that’s slightly different from passion and rationality

What advice would you offer to an activist group?

GC: It’s very simple stuff, obvious when it’s pointed out to you. And even if you know about it, having your attention drawn back to that stuff: What are you trying to achieve? If there’s some completely impossible goal what is the nearest thing you can think of, which is the intermediate goal as Mil was saying. What’s the most effective action? Do you live on the doorstep of some major player in the war? Do you have a local base? What is the thing that’s the largest increment or step that’s actually feasible? Then looking at the resources you have to deploy and seeing if they match up, and do what you can do that’s constructive.