Please help me answer some scary smart student questions on Power and Systems

January 29, 2019 13 By Duncan Green

Tomorrow night I am doing an ‘ask me anything’ session on skype with some students from Guelph University in Canada, who have been reading How Change Happens. They have sent an advance list of questions, which are really sharp. I’d appreciate your views on 3 in particular:

  1. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?
  2. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?
  3. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?

All 3 are basically about the difficulty of ‘navigating through the fog’ of complex systems that are characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability. Everything looks beautifully clear in hindsight – we can now say that Gandhi picking up salt from the sea shore was an act of genius. But could we have said so when he was planning it, or at the time? Was it only effective because of the over-reaction of the British?

I could do some hand waving about how a good power analysis can help you place your bets better, understand how a short term victory can be translated into legislative or institutional change. Which in turn raises the importance of insider-outsider alliances – social movement victories, if they are on policies or legislation, need to be translated into practice by insiders.

But part of me also thinks this is a fool’s errand. All you can do is use your best judgement, and learn as much about the system as you can, but in the end the fog only clears in hindsight and that’s just how life is. Anyone got a more satisfactory answer?

As for the last question, success is in the eyes of the narrator – when a big social or political change happens, there are usually multiple possible explanations, all overlapping, and which becomes the accepted version is down to who writes the history. Activists often credit other activists with victories, and downplay the role of other players and luck. For example, many diplomatic breakthroughs in recent years have come in the wake of terrorist attacks – The Doha Development round as a response to 9/11; the Gleneagles agreement on aid, debt and climate change in response to the London bombings that happened in the middle of the summit; the Paris Climate Change agreement, which happened just weeks after the horrendous shootings in Paris. Yet the narratives around those events often give the credit to leaders and/or campaigners.

And here’s the full list of questions, in case you want to add further advice – like I said, really sharp:

Systems thinking and social change in complex systems:

  1. Can you give examples about practical ways activists (and non-activists for that matter) can apply complex systems thinking in every day strategies and activities?
  2. Why is it important for activists to adopt systems thinking when looking at states and elaborating their strategies?
  3. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?
  4. Is fundamental change (e.g. a real shift in our approach to environmental protection) possible in today’s political system?
  5. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?
  6. One of the videos we watched suggested that the three core requisites for social change are: engaged individuals, organizational infrastructure, and critical junctures (political opportunity). Would you agree with this view?
  7. Why is it important for activists to learn how to “dance with systems”?

Social movements, citizen activism, and leadership

  1. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?
  2. Do you think that all successful social movements must be non-violent?
  3. Are, on average, movements led by a charismatic figure more likely to succeed than those with a horizontal structure?
  4. Do you think mass social movements need to attract high-profile allies or can the mases be enough by themselves?
  5. If you were to come up with your own definition of power – what would you say the primary source of power is?
  6. What is the biggest mistake activists make in their power-mapping exercises? What is the most useful approach to power-mapping exercises?
  7. Do you find that social media is overall helping youth movements or is it a distraction?
  8. What is the most pressing issue social movements should be addressing today in your opinion?

Over to you.