Taxonomy of Progress

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"Whenever you fight for your rights, always bring a crowd" -- Beatrice Lumpkin

Introduction: Contrary to what community organization guru Saul Alinksy wrote half a century ago, there are no cookbook "rules for radicals," nor will there ever be. Material, social and personal conditions are ever-changing, and our ideas, approaches and actions as activists must be constantly changing as well. But while there are no pat answers about how to achieve social and economic progress, there is any number of questions that we can and must constantly answer if we wish to successfully achieve our short and long-term goals of building a better future.

The following taxonomy, presented in an extended "twenty questions" format, is intended to allow progressive activists to consider, both personally and collectively, the road to the future. Answering all of these questions on our own and together may provide us with a better snapshot of how we can move forward. Of course, the answers will change as reality itself changes and as we, ourselves, change reality.

1. Focus: What specific law, policy, contract, custom, attitude, situation or belief are you and your side trying to change at this moment, and why? Why does this goal matter? Is the change you want quantitative (more of this, less of that), or is it qualitative (changing from this to that; a basic change in the way things are)? Keep in mind that enough tiny changes can eventually tip the balance and lead to decisive changes. What are your minimum short term demands? What are your maximum long-term goals and dreams? What partial goals seem winnable now? How would achieving partial success help or hinder achievement of your ultimate goals? Are there any non-negotiable demands that you absolutely must achieve to succeed, or is everything on the table? What objective conditions would have to change to allow you to succeed, and what are you materially doing to change these conditions?

2. Care: Ask yourself how much you, personally, care about achieving this goal. How much have you been hurt by the way things are now? Are you really willing to take personal responsibility for the way things are, or for changing society? Or do you expect someone else (elected authorities, candidates, parties, or "the people") to change things for the better while you sit back and cheer? Are you a participant, or an audience? Do you really want to win, to change society, or do you just want to complain or talk back, curse or "throw the finger" at your opposition? Or, are you just doing this for fun, as disruption, or as an opportunity to advance your own career? If you do care and your goal is truly one of social change, how much is this goal really worth sacrificing for? What would you, personally be willing to give up to achieve this goal? A consequence-free mouse-click on a pointless online "cause?" Dedicating a bit of free time to work for your cause? Sharing some of your income or financial resources? (How much?) Donating hard work? Risking your job or career? Your good name? Your health? Your personal freedom? Going to jail? Even giving your life if required? Do you realistically expect your side to win within your lifetime? If so, how long do you think it will take? If not, be honest with yourself: What are your limits? What and how much are you truly willing to sacrifice to achieve a better future that you, personally, may not even be around to enjoy, and why?

3. Research: How has successful change (good or bad, big or small) of this type been achieved in the past, here or elsewhere? When, where and how long ago? By what specific method were these changes successfully accomplished?  Were persuasive methods used? If so, how and by whom? By whom? A single great leader or hero, a group, a social movement, or mass action? Was change accomplished by vote? By changes in law, regulation, executive order or judicial ruling? By slow cultural change? By waiting for demographic change (passage of time or generations, or change of population characteristics)? By force of arms? Could your side imitate, duplicate, repeat or modify these same winning methods again? Why or why not? How exactly is the situation different now from what it was back then and there? Would more research and writing about this historical background be fruitful in any way, or would it be little more than a nostalgic distraction?

4. Pinpoint those who currently have the power to make and enforce (or to block, reverse or defeat) the actual decision or action that would allow your side to win: Who are they? Certain powerful public individuals, groups, political parties, agencies or corporations? A majority of voters? The President, the Congress, the courts, or the Legislature? The media? Business owners? Cultural and community opinion leaders? The working class, the ruling class, or the entire population? Or who else? Could they be convinced to support your point of view and act in your favor? What specifically, is stopping them from making or allowing this change at this point? Is it simply ignorance, apathy, stubbornness and inertia, blind faith in certain doctrines or dogmas, lack of care or empathy for others, fear of change or of the unknown, cruelty, bigotry and hatred, or is it material self-interest?

5. Face it: not every problem has a win-win solution. Is there any win-win solution to this particularly issue? (If so, this is obviously the best course for you to pursue, particularly when the only real obstacle to overcome is public apathy, inertia, ignorance or lack of awareness.) Ask first, however: Is there anyone, anywhere, who benefits from the way things are now, and whose financial, moral, cultural, professional, religious or personal interests would likely suffer if your side wins? Is there anyone who would lose money, power, a job, profits, dominance, influence, luxuries, reputation, business, health, safety, environmental quality or quality of life if your side succeeds? If the answer is "yes," expect opposition! 

6. Seek the least costly solution: If apathy or public ignorance is the only obstacle, can the problem really be resolved by a simple information, advertising, consciousness-raising or public awareness campaign, by changing public attitudes? Could a solution be easily and simply achieved with better enforcement of existing laws, programs and regulations? Would personal or public charity or caring be enough to resolve the root cause of the problem? If you had enough resources, contacts, mass support and influence behind you could the issue be successfully negotiated with your opponents?  If not, can it be settled democratically within in a reasonable length of time by changing pubic opinion, by referendum, or by voting a certain party or certain candidates in or out? If so, how long would it take and how much resources would be necessary to succeed? If such a democratic solution is impractical or blocked, would it be more fruitful to organize boycotts, demonstrations, protests, strikes or other creative nonviolent direct action to succeed? At what scale? And, if not even nonviolent action would succeed, could your opposition somehow be "softened" to allow reasoned compromise? If not, would you and those on your side be willing or able to go any further?  

7. Recognize your own personal objective and subjective strengths at this moment (skills, know-how, reputation, experience, influence, age, health, physical and emotional strength, personality, contacts, position, experience, reputation, money and material resources, time, degree of commitment, perhaps even anger) related to the issue, without exaggerating: In your current personal position, how can you best use your present skills, and assets as a worker or activist to achieve practical short-term success on this issue while also furthering your longer-term goals? How can you develop new personal skills, strengths and resources in the short and long term? How can you best utilize and leverage your existing personal skills, strengths and resources by working together with others on your side now and in the future?

8. Acknowledge your own objective and subjective personal weaknesses, fears and shortcomings at this moment related to the issue: Be honest! These could be objective (poor physical, mental or emotional health, illness, youth or age, poverty and heavy debt load, family, job and community commitments, language problems, even location or isolation from other activists and organizations), or subjective (lack of knowledge, education, experience, time management or organizing skills, lack of motivation or personal energy, shyness and fears, burnout, demoralization, apathy or a defeatist attitude, excessive preoccupation with personal relationships, sports, weight, fitness, entertainment or religion, personal sexuality and intimacy issues, problems of ideological confusion, or even substance abuse issues). How can you now best work around your own current personal weaknesses, limitations and liabilities? What concrete plans do you have to strengthen yourself and your skills, knowledge and abilities, experience, reputation, resources and personal position in areas where you, yourself are weakest? What are you currently doing in terms of real action to overcome any personal weaknesses and liabilities that limit your effectiveness in working for this goal? How can working with others overcome your individual material, social, persuasive and subjective weaknesses now and in the future?

9. Highlight your allies, current and potential: Who are your primary or strongest ready-made allies at this moment, those groups, agencies and people who are currently active in favor of your viewpoint or who agree with you on the issue? How organized are they? Should you become a member of any existing union or organization? Or, should you form a new group? (Sometimes, starting a new group only confuses the issue and divides the forces on your side.) How powerful and active are any existing groups on your side in terms of numbers, skills, reputation, experience, influence, morale, money and material resources? How strongly are they committed to the issue? How reliable are they? What are their biggest negatives and weaknesses? What material, personal and moral resources, including membership and money, contacts and access, power, reputation or influence do they have that you (or a new group) do not?  How comfortable would you be in their group, and what could you contribute as a member? How could your actions best coordinate with and further their efforts, and how would their efforts further your goals?

10. Develop new allies. What people and organizations are being significantly hurt by the way things are now? What groups, leaders and people would materially benefit the most by your side's proposals? (These might be logical target-audiences for your strongest persuasive efforts.)  How could you best make them aware of the issue, and of how much they, themselves and the ones they care about are being hurt by the present situation? How could you best convince them that a solution is possible, that there IS an alternative to the present situation? How can you defeat their sense of powerlessness and despair? Could you help organize these people and forces? Paradoxically, those who have been hurt the most by poverty, injustice, discrimination, hunger and fear ("the wretched of the earth,") are not always the ones who are the most capable of or interested in changing the way things are. Suffering, unemployment, war, poverty and discrimination can easily make a person a rebel, but it can just as easily break someone. Which groups and individuals who have been harmed by the current state of things are also the most skilled, the most capable, and the best located for changing things? Who are the most free to act, and who would be most able to see the task through to the end without being bought off, scared off,  burned out, terrorized into silence, co-opted or bribed into giving in?

11. Identify your current and potential human opposition, by name if possible. First, inventory the most powerful local and larger-scale groups, individual leaders and political forces who are currently holding back progress toward your goals, who generally oppose your program or approach, who would be materially harmed by your success, or who currently hold the power to block your progress and ultimate victory. Who are they? An individual leader? A small group, clique, gang, cartel or social class in power? A mass movement? The public in general? (At this moment, is public opinion for you, against you, or indifferent?) How organized are those who currently oppose your ideas? Is their position really materially antagonistic to your side's position (i.e., if your side wins, does theirs necessarily lose?), or do you and they simply have differences over priorities and tactics, or even seemingly petty squabbles over personalities, titles, position, "turf" and leadership? Why and how fiercely are they opposed to you? What are your opposition's favorite tactics and what can you do to persuasively or materially counter these before they neutralize, marginalize, demoralize and defeat you and your side? How much more are they willing to do, and what dirty tricks or even crimes might they stoop to in order to stop your final victory? Are you and your side in any material danger? 

12. Assess your true opposition's current material, human and ideological strengths and weaknesses. How powerful are your current opponents right now in terms of numbers, skills, reputation and position, experience, morale, leadership, unity, influence, contacts, time, money and material resources? At present, what are their greatest strengths? What are their biggest current weaknesses, internal divisions and liabilities? How could you take advantage of these? Can you de-legitimize and discredit your opponents? If so, how would you do it? What is the chance that you and your allies could persuade some or all of them to change their minds, compromise, or at least give up or get out of your way? Do you even have access to the means and channels to reach and persuade them? Or, on the other hand, in order to succeed would your side need to be prepared to decisively defeat them and go "over their dead bodies," figurative or even literally?

13. Inventory all of your side's existing and potential material and human resources, including (a) your own group's and your allies' income and finances, physical resources like meeting rooms and buildings, real estate, duplicators, media and online resources, levels of activists' skills and experience, friendly union and community activists, officials and leaders, businesses and agencies, professionals like lawyers, doctors, programmers, website developers and educators, friendly elected and appointed public officials, mass membership, and non-member support. Then project: (b) what level of material and human resources might be needed to succeed in your short or long term goal? How will your side make up the difference between (a) and (b) within a reasonable time frame? Simply assuming that material support will increase as popular support increases begs the question and leads to the dead end dilemma of how to increase mass support without material resources, and how to increase material resources without mass support. Here it is useful to recall that the material always determines ideas, and not vice versa. 

14. Analyze, as objectively as possible, the present human, material, cultural and persuasive balance of forces on your issue:  which side is currently on the offensive (yours or theirs?), which side is on the defensive, and why? Given this situation, how close is the particular change you want to accomplish in realistic terms? Around the corner? Years, decades, or generations away? A distant pipe-dream? 

15. Deliver: How would your side materially deliver your ideas to your intended audience under present conditions? (On paper? Online? Face to face? Where, when, and how?) How would you get your intended audience to pay attention to your ideas, actually bother to look at them, read them or listen to and consider them? How would you get them to consider you, your side, and your communication as legitimate and trustworthy? How would successfully delivering your ideas to your intended audience help to change the balance of forces and materially further the effort to achieve your side's goal? Identify at least three organized groups, agencies, communities or formations that already share either your opinion or your goals, and who, if you contacted, persuaded or organized them, might be interested in helping deliver your persuasion to your intended audience.

16 Act: What other specific, material human actions, beyond verbal or written agitation or persuasion, would be essential in the short, medium or long term to tip the balance of forces enough for your goal to be favored and ultimately won? What real actions can you and your allies take now (in the short term) to help tip the balance of forces to favor your goals?

17. Expect counterattacks from your opposition; the more significant your issue the fiercer your opposition. How strong do you expect these attacks will be, and from what quarter? What are you and your allies' biggest existing vulnerabilities that opponents could attack? Family and loved ones? Home? Job? Health? Debt and finances? Legal questions? Your personal safety or even your life? Do you or your allies have any confidential factors that opponents could easily use to "out" you and discredit or even incriminate you and your cause? Can you afford to ignore such attacks?  Are you and your allies prepared to be attacked, and do you have the unity, strength of commitment, and resources to defend yourselves legally, financially and physically? How would you and your allies defend yourselves from "softer" attacks that would seek to convince you to give up, despair, and resign yourself to the way things are, or get caught up in distractions like entertainment, substances or personal issues? What does history say about potential distractions that opponents could throw up against you to derail your efforts? 

18. Overcome: How specifically do you plan to either win existing or potential opposition over to your side, or else discredit, de-legitimize, confuse, discourage, divide, demoralize, disorganize, deactivate, marginalize, peel-away, neutralize or defeat those who might be (or feel) hurt by your side's victory? How do you plan to make sure that those you defeated remain defeated until your side wins?

19. Win: Is your side close enough to victory to discuss an end-game? If so, what is it? Does your side have several different possible successful end-game scenarios ready, just in case of unexpected last-minute obstacles? How much are you and your side willing to compromise in order to win? What could go wrong at the last moment to derail, devalue or neutralize your victory? How will you be able to tell when you win? 

20. Defend your victory: Once your side wins, how would you persuasively and materially consolidate your victory and make it last? How do you plan to keep the people who opposed you or whose material or moral interests were harmed by your winning from rebounding and snatching that victory away from you?

Photo courtesy AFL-CIO

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  • Interesting personal approach to joining the struggle.

    Posted by jim lane, 01/26/2011 11:31am (7 years ago)

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