A ‘cats and dogs’ guide to activist strategy
There are as many, if not more, approaches to creating change as there are people doing it. There aren’t really any right ways and there aren’t nearly as many wrong ways as people sometimes make out. To demonstrate one such difference in approaches, we shall, metaphorically, require a cat, a dog and a large ball of string or wool.
Hearing some activists discuss other movements is quite frustrating when it comes to groups wanting to disregard entire organisations just because of a legitimate tactical difference. One that I heard recently regarding workplace struggle worked out something like this: people should join a big union that doesn’t care about their specific workplace rather than a small union that does, because then they’ll have the ‘support’ of a million workers, even if none of them actually do anything positive to help in the struggle. This despite the small union in question having a proven track record on just about every category of workplace issue, including many the major unions simply don’t give a damn about, like temporary and short-term employment in the service sectors.
So how about this for an explanation of two different strategies? An analogy for two types of campaigning goes like this: if you place a ball of wool in front of a dog, it will either try and chew the whole ball or kick it away, but if you give it to a cat, the cat will try and find a loose thread, a single leverage point from which to unravel the ball.
Cats start with the small victory of getting a thread loose, and work up till the job is done, even though this might take a very long time. Dogs deal with the ball as a whole, and whilst they may have a devastating effect, unless the dog does something pretty dramatic, the ball just about stays a ball. There are pros and cons, so which do you want to choose?
Now, don’t get me wrong: the dog can have a pretty devastating effect, taking the ball into new territory. Its also often the case that one simply doesn’t have enough time to pick a thread from which to unravel a situation. Also, some situations are pretty flimsy anyhow. The problem is when big complex situations don’t get specific attention they need. Sometimes its better to find a small campaign and run with it, than to find a big one and hope for the best. It might be less glamorous, and it might make getting media coverage more difficult. On the other hand, where it gets media attention, there will probably be some real close-up coverage of human situations that will appeal on a far deeper level.
On the other hand, sometimes the simplicity of the overview position is much easier to work with. Its definitely much more energising to be part of a big campaign most of the time, simply because there are more people to work alongside. But often these campaigns will only get so far, utterly failing in their ultimate aim. So its back to find the small victories, which are also really important to building a happy, confident movement.
If people have time, I’d always recommend keeping a foot in both camps – its certainly a healthier approach. If people don’t have time, its probably a case of finding the more comfortable. Often it feels like there’s a pendulum moving back and forth between the two approaches, which is hardly surprising as humans are human and often go with the flow even when they’re trying to create change. The most important thing is simply to understand both ends of the spectrum and be prepared to work with people to effect long term change.