Metrics of activist success

The fossil fuel divestment campaign at the University of Toronto is still dealing with the disappointment of President Gertler announcing such an uninspiring response to the social injury and financial risk associated with fossil fuel investments.

One early response from the campaign was to hold a creative direct action outside Simcoe Hall, home to the Office of the President and the Governing Council.

The action made me think about different ways in which acts undertaken to provoke social or political change can be evaluated. At least two possibilities come to mind: evaluation in terms of the subjective experience of participants, and evaluation in terms of the effect on the thinking or behaviour of the mass public or elite decision-makers.

Subjective experiences (AKA “feelings”) are not trivial. I think the biggest challenge activist groups face is maintaining the health and motivation of their members and key organizers. Indeed, when it comes to big marches like the People’s Climate March and March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate I have reached the conclusion that they are more important in terms of energizing participants than in terms of changing public opinion. Not least, this is because the media tends to wildly under-report them.

That being said, I think activism by definition is an effort to change how the world works and that doing that requires changing the thinking and behaviour of the mass public and decision-makers. To be effective in that, we need to think hard about why people believe what they believe and make the choices they make, and what kinds of interventions can change those things. As activists resolutely focused on achieving positive change, we need to focus on producing good outcomes which would not have happened without us.

From the second perspective, I am less confident about how productive the action outside Simcoe Hall was. For the random student wandering by – or the random administrator listening through their window – did it improve the odds of them supporting fossil fuel divestment? The more militant members of the campaign often talk about “building power”, but we ultimately cannot force the administration to do anything. We need to convince them, which takes us back to serious strategic thinking about how to change the beliefs and behaviours of non-activists.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Metrics of activist success”

  1. It seems that one of the attributes of the action at Simcoe Hall was the simplicity of the message. Such actions would seem to serve both purposes you identify. It seems to me that from such a variety of efforts there has been widespread recognition and acceptance that the reliance on oil must end.

  2. I personally read the report released by the Presidents office, and if I didn’t have personal contacts with people in the divestment movement, I may have interpreted it to mean that U of T had basically accepted the proposal, with some technical changes to increase the effectiveness of changes in decision making regarding investments to improve the social impact of U of T’s investment portfolio.

    In other words, social economy language – because it integrates so easily into the logic of capital – can be co-opted by agents to confuse and misdirect attention of well meaning individuals.

    I wonder, along Heideggerian lines, whether the problem with Capitalism is not that it endeavours to maximize profit, but that it endeavours to maximize something measurable, and to measure and calculate endlessly to what extent it is maximizing. Allowing moral matters to come under the purview of instrumental rationality turns politics into an exchange of ideas (or, at worst, mocking insults) between experts , as the public sphere becomes a gladiatorial arena and facts and analysis become tools to batter your opponent rather than tools to understand.

    You continue to believe that “We need to convince them” – but doesn’t Gertler’s report prove that no amount of convincing them, if that means encouraging them to speak and evaluate in the discourse you provide for them, actually has an effect on their plans? Rather, their plans are translated into your discourse, and they continue unabated.

    Or, does the fact they are forced to speak in this language of social and environmental accountability have a substantial limiting effect on what they can practically get away with?

    In any case, the question I can’t answer, but must answer, is – does the proposal just put forward by U of T make a difference? Or, is it just more of the same, translated into the language by which they are being criticized, to appear to have taken all the views into account.

  3. “The habitual tactics of marching, holding signs, and establishing contemporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutes for effective success.”

    -Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” 2013

  4. But at some point, progressives may have to face the consequences of their new power within the broader Democratic caucus. If it turns out that their demands are impossible for the Senate, Biden and Pelosi to deliver, what then? Are the members willing to effectively torch Biden’s entire domestic agenda? Will they accept a smaller spending bill if Manchin and Sinema sign on in the knowledge that it could still bring enormous benefits to their constituents?
    The biggest question is if progressives are willing to mortally wound the Biden presidency at a time when Republicans are readying their midterm attack lines and ex-President Donald Trump is planning what appears to be an attempt to restore his anti-democratic rule in the White House.
    Their dilemma is one that every political movement faces sooner or later — whether to dilute its ideals in favor of pragmatic success or to stand firm on principle even if that destroys the hope of incremental success.

  5. Towards the end of the Impossible Rebellion I was around when an XRUK Media & Messaging working group was talking about how to message to closing of the rebellion period. There was a suggestion that the messaging could be one of declaring that we had failed — that we’d done our best, and yet we’d been largely ignored by society, and that those making genocidal decisions intended to keep making them. It was a radical suggestion. Powerful. Daring. It even gained some traction. Yet sadly (from my perspective) the press release and wrap-up video gave the opposite impression, along the lines of “look how splendid we are” and “keep rebelling”. They may as well has said “keep calm and carry on”, as “keep rebelling” is just an exhortation to “keep playing out the (existing) patterns of Extinction Rebellion”. A potential moment for radical honesty was skipped over (“Tell the Truth” is one of XR’s 3 Demands, one we don’t always live up to).
    If XRUK is not daring enough to declare XR over (or even to boldly state “We’ve tried our best and we’ve failed — don’t put your hope in XR any more”!), then perhaps those entering into the upcoming strategy process will consider a radical re-think. Perhaps a new branding. Perhaps a slowing down — mainstream industrial society is all about urgency, so why adopt quality in that ourselves? Could mass-participative & disruptive ceremonies be radically slower than bodies sitting in roads? Or is it about community organising and mutual aid networks? Or is there something else that wants to emerge? How could XR create the space for such emergence? If we’re not able to relinquish, what can be salvaged?

  6. Of course, I’m sure liberals will hold marches, because that’s what we like to do. March and rally and chant. We like to do things that give ourselves the illusion of power. That’s why liberals reduce their “carbon footprints,” even though that concept is a neo-liberal scam, invented by British Petroleum to dodge collective responsibility for climate change and place it on individuals instead. It’s why liberals think that occupying a public square is a “victory,” even if it accomplishes nothing.

  7. FOR PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT organizations, 2021 promised to be the year they turned power into policy, with a Democratic trifecta and the Biden administration broadcasting a bold vision of “transformational change.” Out of the gate, Democrats pushed ahead with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, funding everything from expanded health care to a new monthly child tax credit. Republican efforts to slow-walk the process with disingenuous counteroffers were simply dismissed.

    And then, sometime in the summer, the forward momentum stalled, and many of the progressive gains lapsed or were reversed. Instead of fueling a groundswell of public support to reinvigorate the party’s ambitious agenda, most of the foundation-backed organizations that make up the backbone of the party’s ideological infrastructure were still spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars, and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.

    “So much energy has been devoted to the internal strife and internal bullshit that it’s had a real impact on the ability for groups to deliver,” said one organization leader who departed his position. “It’s been huge, particularly over the last year and a half or so, the ability for groups to focus on their mission, whether it’s reproductive justice, or jobs, or fighting climate change.”

  8. “I’ve noticed a real erosion of the number of groups who are effective at leveraging progressive power in Congress. Some of that is these groups have these organizational culture things that are affecting them,” the staffer said. “Because of the organizational culture of some of the real movement groups that have lots of chapters, what they’re lobbying on isn’t relevant to the actual fights in Congress. Some of these groups are in Overton mode when we have a trifecta.”

    The idea, in theory, is that pushing their public policy demands further and further left widens the so-called Overton window of what’s considered possible, thereby facilitating the future passage of ambitious legislation. Those maximalist political demands can also be a byproduct of internal strife, as organization leaders fend off charges of not internally embodying progressive values by pushing external rhetoric further left.

    But, the aide pointed out, there is legislative potential now. “There are wins to be had between now and the next couple months that could change the country forever, and folks are focused on stuff that has no theory of change for even getting to the House floor for a vote.”

    “Sunrise is doing their Green New Deal pledge,” the aide continued, describing the Sunrise Movement-led effort to get elected officials and candidates to sign on to an ambitious climate commitment. “The climate bill is still on the table. … There’s a universe where people are on the outside, focused on power and leveraging power for progressives in Congress. Instead, they’re spending resources on stuff that is totally unrelated to governing. Nobody says, ‘Hey guys, could you maybe come and maybe focus on this?’”

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