by Aric McBay
Resistance is not one-sided. For any strategy resisters can come up with, those in power will do whatever they can to disrupt and undermine it. Any strategic process—for either side—will change the context of the strategy. A strategic objective is a moving target, and there is an intrinsic delay in implementing any strategy. The way to hit a moving target is by “leading” it—by looking slightly ahead of the target. Don’t aim for where the target is; aim for where it’s going to be.
Too often we as activists of whatever stripe don’t do this. We often follow the target, and end up missing badly. This is especially clear when dealing with issues of global ecology, which often involve tremendous lag time. We’re worried about the global warming that’s happening now, but to avert current climate change, we should have acted thirty years ago. Mainstream environmentalism in particular is decades behind the target, and the movement’s priorities show it. The most serious mainstream environmental efforts are for tiny changes that don’t reflect the seriousness of our current situation, let alone the situation thirty years from now. They’ve got us worried about hybrid cars and changing lightbulbs, when we should be trying to head off runaway global warming, cascading ecological collapses, the creation of hundreds of millions of ecological refugees or billions of human casualties, and the social justice disasters that accompany such phenomena. If we can’t avert global ecological collapse, then centuries of social justice gains will go down the toilet.
It’s worth spelling this out. There have been substantial improvements in humans rights in recent decades, along with major social justice concessions in many parts of the world. Much of this progress can be rightly attributed to the tireless work of social justice advocates and extensive organized resistance. But look at, for example, the worsening ratio between the income of the average employee and the average CEO. The economy has become less equitable, even though the middle rungs of income now have a higher “standard of living.” And all of this is based on a system that systematically destroys natural biomes and rapidly draws down finite resources. It’s not that everyone is getting an equal slice of the pie, or even that the pie is bigger now. If we’re getting more pie, it’s largely because we’re eating tomorrow’s pie today. And next week’s pie, and next month’s pie.
For example, the only reason large-scale agriculture even functions is because of cheap oil; without that, large-scale agriculture goes back to depending on slavery and serfdom, as in most of the history of civilization. In the year 1800, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, close to 80 percent of the human population of this planet was in some form of serfdom or slavery.51 And that was with a fraction of the current human population of seven billion. That was with oceans still relatively full of fish, global forests still relatively intact, with prairie and agricultural lands in far better condition than they are now, with water tables practically brimming by modern standards. What do you think is going to happen to social justice concessions when cheap oil—and hence, almost everything else—runs out? Without a broad-based and militant resistance movement that can focus on these urgent threats, the year 1800 is going to look downright cheerful.
If we want to be effective strategists, we must be capable of planning for the long term. We must anticipate changes and trends that affect our struggle. We must plan and prepare for the changing nature of our fight six months down the road, two years down the road, ten years down the road, and beyond.
We need to look ahead of the target, but we also need to plan for setbacks and disruptions. That’s one of the reasons that the strategy of protracted popular warfare was so effective for revolutionaries in China and Vietnam. That strategy consisted of three stages: the first was based on survival and the expansion of revolutionary networks; the second was guerrilla warfare; and the third was a transition to conventional engagements to decisively destroy enemy forces. The intrinsic flexibility of this strategy meant that revolutionaries could seamlessly move along that continuum as necessary to deal with a changing balance of power. It was almost impossible to derail the strategy, since even if the revolutionaries faced massive setbacks, they could simply return to a strategy of survival.
How does anyone evaluate a particular strategy? There are several key characteristics to check, based on everything we’ve covered in this chapter.
Objective. Does the strategy have a well-defined and attainable objective? If there is no clear objective there is no strategy. The objective doesn’t have to be a static end point—it can be a progressive change or a process. However, it should not be a “blank or unrepresentable utopia.”
Feasibility. Can the organization get from A to B? Does the strategy have a clear path from the current context to the desired objective? Does the plan include contingencies to deal with setbacks or upsets? Does the strategy make use of appropriate strategic precepts like the nine principles of war? Is the strategy consonant with the nature of asymmetric conflict?
Resource Limitations. Does the movement or organization have the number of people with adequate skills and competencies required to carry out the strategy? Does it have the organizational capacity? If not, can it scale up in a reasonable time?
Tactics. Are the required tactics available? Are the tactics and operations called for by the plan adequate to the scale, scope, and seriousness of the objective? If the required tactics are not available or not being implemented currently, why not? Is the obstacle organizational or ideological in nature? What would need to happen to make the required tactics available, and how feasible are those requirements?
Risk. Is the level of risk required to carry out the plan acceptable given the importance of the objective? Remember, this goes both ways. It is important to ask, what is the risk of acting? as well as what is the risk of not acting? A strategy that overreaches based on available resources and tactics might be risky. And, although it may seem counterintuitive at first, a strategy that is too hesitant or conservative may be even more risky, because it may be unable to achieve the objective. If the objective of the strategy is to prevent catastrophic global warming, taking serious action may indeed seem risky—but the consequences of insufficient action are far more severe.
Timeliness. Can the plan accomplish its objective within a suitable time frame? Are events to happen in a reasonable sequence? A strategy that takes too long may be completely useless. Indeed, it may be worse than useless, and become actively harmful by drawing people or resources from more effective and timely strategic alternatives.
Simplicity and Consistency. Is the plan simple and consistent? The plan should not depend on a large number of prerequisites or complex chains of events. Only simple plans work in emergencies. The plan itself must be explained in a straightforward manner without the use of weasel words or vague or mystical concepts. The plan must also be internally consistent—it must make sense and be free of serious internal contradictions.
Consequences. What are the other consequences or effects of this strategy beyond the immediate objective and operations? Might there be unintended consequences, reprisals, or effects on bystanders? Can such undesirable effects be limited by adjusting the strategy? Does the value of the objective outweigh the cost of those consequences?
A solid grand strategy is essential, but it’s not enough. Any strategy is made out of smaller tactical building blocks. In the next chapter, “Tactics and Targets,” I outline the tactics that an effective resistance movement to stop this culture from killing the planet might use, and discuss how such a movement might select targets and plan effective actions.