This is chapter one of the book Occupy Strategy – which is the third and concluding volume of the series titled Fanfare for the Future. In coming weeks we will follow up with more excerpts from this volume, but we hope many readers will order it from our Online Store for yourselves, and then to pass on to others. The introduction can be found here.
“Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.”
– Amilcar Cabral
No Strategy Means No Victory
“Incapacity of the masses.’ What a tool for all exploiters and dominators,
past present and future, and especially for the modern aspiring enslavers, whatever their insignia.”
One of the first things we learn, from any serious teacher, about any conflictual game – for example, about chess on the one hand, or high school, college, or pro football on the other hand – is that to have a prospect of winning we must have a plan. Each choice we make should not be disjoint from all other choices. It should not be a spontaneous and even unthought reaction (which is almost universal for most players’ choices in typical cases) but, instead, it should be a carefully chosen part of a clear and flexible scenario we have in mind for attaining our desired goal – which is presumably to win, hopefully, with our integrity intact.
On the one hand, any contest involves many conflictual moments or brief spans of active engagement. On the chess board you make move after move, or you battle out a possible exchange in a tactical encounter. On the football field, you run one play after another, or you defend one after another, or maybe you run one set of plays conceived as a whole. Each separate set of a few actions taken individually are barely ever conclusive. Rather, the separate acts or small sets of acts combine into a larger whole. On the chess board you try to accumulate little gains in position (gaining space, etc.) or in material (winning pieces) in each set of moves, with all the gains taken together building into a lasting advantage that eventually sustains “checkmating” your opponent. In football, you try to gain advantages in field position, then in scoring, and finally in tallying scores into a final victory. Or, for that matter, in either chess or football you may be in a tournament or playing a whole season, so the issue isn’t just winning one contest, but rather a whole series of contests, where even a particular win or loss is only part of a much larger pattern that resolves into either winning or losing the overall championship.
The point is, there are temporary tactics which might recur in similar positions fairly often or that might be replaced by others. Such tactics, a knight fork or pinning a piece for those familiar with chess, or a set of plays designed to free a wide receiver, an on sides kick, or a blitz pattern designed to fool the opposing quarterback, for those familiar with football, are not themselves strategy. Strategy is, instead, a hoped for pattern of actions or plan of actions, including sought after gains and broad methods to pursue those gains, which finally culminates into winning a game, or perhaps a tournament or season championship.
Our first observation about strategy is that it is very rare in chess, in football, or in trying to change the world – which is our point in this book and via analogy the point of talking about chess and football – that a strategy remains unchanged from the beginning to the end of an endeavor. After all, you have an opponent. And particularly in trying to change the world, you also have a very complex context in which you operate. Your opponent makes changes. Your context changes. Aspects of your strategy often have to change as well.
The chess board and the pieces and rules of chess don’t change. The football field does change somewhat (with the wind, rain or snow) as do football’s “pieces” in the form of players and coach’s health or moods, though football’s rules stay in place without alteration. In trying to change the world, however, anything and everything might change – the field, the players, and even your goals as you attain new insights. In fact, even the rules can change including being intentionally changed as part of strategy in the form of altering society’s institutions.
So, for chess our saying “no strategy means no victory” means if you move pretty much without aims and pattern, without a plan, by just reflexively reacting each time your opponent moves, without conceiving what you and your opponent are doing in terms of a plan to steadily improve your position and material, you are going to lose.
This isn’t something one can prove. It isn’t even always true. If both sides are playing without strategy, for example, of course one side will nonetheless win. For that matter, if one side is tactically brilliant and the other side barely knows how to play – the latter can have a fantastic set of aims, and the former can play two seconds a move, purely reactively, without any plan, and will nonetheless easily win. But, if there is anything like a hard struggle underway, if there is a remotely close battle, and if one side plans, and, when need be, updates their plans in light of changes that have occurred, and the other side just reacts, reacts, reacts – then typically the planner will win with ease.
The situation is similar with football. If one team carefully assesses its own strengths and weaknesses and those of the other team as well as the condition of the field, and in light of all those factors figures out a defensive and an offensive game plan, and then alters and modifies its plans based on unfolding circumstances, while the second team just conducts each new play as if in isolation, without reference to any patterns or plans – then the first team will win unless there is a really huge disparity in skill. No strategy means no victory.
Let’s make this point about disparity a bit more clear. If an elephant is fighting a flea in a closed space, the elephant will pretty much always win, even acting totally randomly, no matter how cleverly the flea plans out its moves. The Bobby Fisher of fleas will lose to a dolt of an elephant. The disparity is just too great for the flea to overcome or for the elephant to squander. Eventually the elephant, stumbling, and perhaps not even knowing it is in a contest, will trample the flea. But pit two elephants, or an elephant and a lion, or an elephant and a person…and have them battle in a complex environment where either side could conceivably win, and then let one side make plans and assess new information and update its plans accordingly – while the other side just reflexively plods along, and the planner will win almost every time.
Similarly, if we have one set of people who detest injustice and are committed to battling for liberty but who react pretty much reflexively without plans that extend into the future, and we have another set of people who also detest injustice and are committed to battling for liberty but who develop coherent long term goals and formulate ideas about how to marshall their abilities and energies into patterns that can accrue gains that sum into sufficient advantages to win those goals – and who moreover periodically refine their strategy in light of continually changing circumstances – then the first set is likely doomed and the second set has very good prospects.
And thus we arrive at the insight we seek. We need strategy to enhance our likelihood of accomplishing what we desire. And honestly, this is, or it ought to be, entirely self evident. But while it is doubtful that anyone would disagree with the observation, nonetheless almost everyone plays chess, plays football, and fights injustice with very little if anything in the way of a flexible guiding strategy. Despite knowing that this is most likely doomed, people do it. And while for those playing chess or football with friends, it isn’t wise, for those seeking a better world, it is suicide.
If you want to travel, it helps to know where you want to go. If you actually hope to get where you want to go, it also helps to have a plan for what vehicle and fuel to use to get there. It is that simple.
Inflexible Strategy Means No Victory
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
- Charles Dickens
In the prior discussion, numerous times we mention the need to update strategy as one learns new information. This is also an elementary observation.
In the battle between the elephant and the flea, if the elephant’s strategy was to stomp around the little enclosed battle ground until the flea was squashed, it would not likely need any updates. Nothing the flea could do would disrupt its plans.
When Bobby Fisher was in his prime as a chess player, some analysts claimed that he was the only chess player who ever developed a game plan and then rarely if ever changed it during a match. The opponent was nearly never able to do anything that would surprise Fisher, causing him to have to alter his aims and efforts or his basic suppositions about the unfolding game. This was a considerable exaggeration, I am sure, even for Fisher, but the point is made. If one side is a virtual behemoth compared to the other side, the former is unlikely to ever have to make a new plan. In more realistic contests, however, and especially in trying to win a better world, things are far more complex. The most basic elements of strategy such as who to reach out to and organize, what broad focuses to have, and many other aspects we will explore soon – might go pretty much unaltered. But there will certainly be many other aspects that will have to change as conditions alter, not least when the forces seeking to block winning a new world engage in surprising choices.
If you have an inflexible strategy then you lose if you made a mistake at the outset in conceiving it since inflexible means you are stuck with your error. If you have an inflexible strategy, it also means you lose if the forces arrayed against you behave dramatically differently than anticipated, since you will in that case be stuck with a conception that no longer works. If you have a setback or a success that was unexpected, again, you will be stuck with a plan that no longer fits your new reality. This observation is really nothing more than making precise the earlier mentioned need to have strategy that is initially sound but also updated as needed.
Of course, having flexible sensible strategy doesn’t guarantee victory. Rather it opens the possibility of victory. Not having flexible sensible strategy, however, pretty much closes that possibility. Inflexible strategy means no victory.
The Composition of Strategy
“First of all two people get together
an’ they want their doors enlarged.”
- Bob Dylan
It is perhaps easiest to think of strategy as a flexible conception of how to go from one condition or situation to another. Thus, in trying to change the world, it is about going from the society we encounter to the society we desire.
Strategy takes off from a flexible conception of current conditions, later updated as times change. Generating the concepts for our analysis of current conditions, and of future conditions too, was what part one of Fanfare, Occupy Theory, was about.
Strategy ends with reaching the conditions we are seeking to win. Generating the concepts for conceiving and steadily refining our vision of a desired future is what part two of Fanfare, Occupy Vision, was about.
Strategy also and in some sense mainly involves amassing tools for seeking change and utilizing them to win change. A key component, for example, is increasing the numbers of people on the side of winning change and strengthening their abilities to fight for it. You can’t alter society without involving people in sufficient numbers. Call this consciousness raising and commitment building. The issues central to consciousness raising and commitment building are which people movement efforts at change should attract and how such movement efforts should retain and enlarge those peoples’ informed and sustained commitment.
At the outset of a campaign to win a new society, consciousness raising and commitment building is foremost. It is not the sole initial priority but it is certainly the dominant one since it creates a foundation of support necessary for all other future efforts.
Additionally, consciousness raising and commitment building remains an important focus right up to and even through the time of winning a new society, because the foundation of popular support for the new society must be continually strengthened. Allegiance must be maintained and enhanced. So while initially, consciousness raising and commitment building is the core of strategy, as time passes consciousness raising persists, but it becomes less central. So what grows in relative importance?
Once there is a sufficient level of support for change to marshall energies and resources to begin winning some victories, winning those victories becomes another element of strategy. Contestation over demands steadily climbs in importance to in time become the central aspect of the process, in turn contributing to and always also needing further growth in support and commitment, even as the victories regarding demands alter existing relations, presumably to the advantage of change.
Alongside contestation, however, there is also construction. Movements not only fight for victories, contesting opponents who want to ward off change, they also construct new relationships and when possible new institutions of their own, in that way enhancing both consciousness raising and contestation, and also laying the groundwork for the structures of a new society. Thus movements build organization locally and globally, build new projects, etc. We can call this construction.
Taking this view, strategy has three primary mutually supporting and mutually dependent aspects, each always operative but also altering in their centrality as time passes.
First consciousness raising and commitment building is paramount, while even in the early stages there is also some contestation and construction.
In a second stage, consciousness raising continues, and construction keeps growing, but contestation becomes the most central and dominant aspect.
Finally, while both consciousness raising and contestation continue, as one gets steadily closer to winning a new society, construction becomes steadily more central, and finally it becomes most important in the literal creation of the core institutions of the new society, no longer only within the interstices of the old, and no longer only as beachheads and inspiring models, but, rather, literally as the infrastructure of the new world.
It follows, then, that while strategy can certainly be seen, as it most often is, and as we described earlier, as a path composed of combinations of tactical steps plus larger scale programs – strategy can also be seen as a set of preferred conceptions bearing on consciousness raising and commitment building, contestation, and construction. Indeed, in the rest of this third volume of Fanfare, Occupy Strategy, we will circle in on a worthy viable strategic conception by utilizing both these angles of approach.