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“Strategy” Not Appropriate for Social Justice Movements

All warfare is based on deception. Hence when able to attack

All warfare is based on deception. Hence when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

-Sun Szu, “The Art of War”

With deft brushstrokes Sun Szu, writing 500 years before Christ, distills the essence of strategy. His words appear on the first page of military historian B.H. Liddell Hart’s own summing up, “Strategy” (2nd edition, 1967). Both Sun Szu and Liddell Hart are required reading at West Point.

Confucius, Sun Szu’s contemporary, taught that to reform society we must reform our thinking – and to do so, we must reform our language. Therefore, Confucius taught, we need to call things by their real name.

Activists sometimes chide each other for not “thinking strategically” – by which I suppose we mean we’re not planning for three or five years down the pike. Or, often, “strategy” is an inflated way of referring to tactics – a more modest concept having to do with the near future and with limited goals.

Within the movement, “strategy” enjoys a kind of cachet, a kind of borrowed glory. But I’m skeptical of its value or relevance. Let me explain.

The word comes from the Greek, strategos, the leader of an army. My American Heritage dictionary defines “strategy” as “the science or art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations” [italics added].

While one can consult other dictionaries and find other, vaguer, definitions of “strategy,” they all derive from the military. “Strategy” is standard corporate jargon; it’s even become standard jargon in our movement. Often, losing sight of what the word essentially means and where it comes from, we use “strategy” as a synonym for such useful things as planning, goal-setting, coordinating and coalition building.

These activities are themselves perfectly valid. But why not call them what they are? They don’t need to be prinked up as “strategy.” In these notes, I argue against such unmindful usage.

Let’s be wary when we find ourselves parroting military or business jargon. Let’s be wary when such terminology infiltrates our language. After all, language is not without its influence on thought … and action. The language of war and greed can hardly foster cooperation and social justice.

Let’s review that dictionary definition. No need here, I hope, to say anything more about military or combat. So let’s consider command. Command calls for hierarchy, for centralized and top-down directives, for concentrating power. Is that really how we want our movement to operate?

Further, strategy is large-scale. Most grassroots activism is anything but large-scale. Given the sheer size of the Pentagon and the imperium, we might wish we were operating on a larger scale, but we aren’t.

Let’s not forget the drawbacks of large-scale: depersonalization, lack of accountability and lack of respect for sentient life. Small is beautiful, big is problematic.

Am I arguing against mass movements? Hell no. But I question whether such motors of history emerge through “strategy.”

Yet another element in the definition is overall planning. Overall planning (in contrast to mere planning) assumes that the planners have a grip on what’s coming next. In this fast moving, complex world, even Pentagon strategists – with the most spies, the world’s biggest computers, and the best-funded think tanks – tend to be clueless about the future. The Pentagon certainly wasn’t able to predict what the US military was in for when it invaded such “weak” nations as Iraq … or Afghanistan … or Viet Nam.

For all its glamour, strategy – at least the US version – has a dismal track record. It’s a failed tool. For better or worse, much of the Pentagon’s strategic thinking involves deploying overwhelming force and throwing vast amounts of taxpayer money at preparing for every contingency. But that is a luxury few others, especially oppositional movements, can afford.

Strategy requires having some control over one’s field of operation. Activists don’t set the conditions, we respond to the conditions. And those conditions keep changing. Our work happens, not where we “call the shots,” but – so to speak – where we are being shot at.

Such work is mostly reactive, a response to the onslaughts and injustices of those far more powerful than ourselves. Sometimes we’re not reactive – for example, when we build alternative institutions or communities. But this proactive work calls for marrying values with planning. It’s not “strategy.”

Strategy requires resources. In its archetypal sense, it now demands immense resources. The Pentagon employs millions and spends billions, hundreds of billions. Our groups, by contrast, are understaffed; our few staff work overtime to generate their own salaries and rent. Although some of us bandy the word about, being “strategic” may well be a mode of operation beyond our wildest dreams.

And strategy should be beyond our wildest dreams. We have no business being strategic. There may even be something intrinsically co-opting about being in a position to strategize. Consider the Democratic Party. Once believed by some to be the party of the people, it’s big enough and rich enough and corrupt enough to be … strategic.

Strategy, it seems, seeks wealth and power.

Dorothy Day contrasted faithfulness and effectiveness. We can argue over which should get priority, or about what the ratio between them should be. About this, seasoned activists can properly differ.

Those of us committed to nonviolence, however, while valuing effectiveness, are likely to favor faithfulness. If we are true to ourselves and to each other, effectiveness will emerge organically.

As Gandhi taught, nonviolence requires that means be consistent with ends. Strategy, insofar as it relies on hierarchy and force, is a stranger to consistent means and ends – at least when those ends are clothed, as they tend to be, in strategic deception (Bush’s “bringing democracy to the Middle East,” etcetera).

So, let us not hanker for the tinsel fruit of strategy. Let us focus on democratic process and developing our consciousness and our humane values. Let us avoid Gandhi’s seven social sins. Let us reduce our own addictions, distractions and co-optations. And in doing so, let us develop an ever-deepening empathy, an ever-broadening solidarity.

And if we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel, still let us keep the flame of faithfulness burning bright.

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