“Strategy” Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
|Is it useful for progressive activists to talk about strategy and enemies? Or can we imagine a more
appropriate language that reflects our issues and values? Ed Kinane challenges us to consider the
language of strategy. Cartoon: Stephanie McMillan
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). West Point cadets study both Sun Szu and Liddell Hart.
Activists sometimes chide each other for not “thinking strategically” – by which I suppose we mean we’re not looking beyond the horizon, we’re not planning for three or five years down the pike. 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].
Other definitions of “strategy” all derive from this core sense. “Strategy” is standard corporate jargon; it’s even become standard jargon in our movement. Often, losing sight of the origin and essence of the word, we use “strategy” as a synonym for such useful things as planning, goal-setting, coordinating and coalition building.
These activities are themselves perfectly valid, indeed essential. But why not call them what they are. These more prosaic, but more accurate, words don’t need to be prinked up as “strategy.”
Confucius, Sun Szu’s contemporary, taught that to reform society we must reform our thinking – and to do that, we must reform our language. Therefore, Confucius taught, we need to call things by their real names.
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 lingo 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: de-personalization and the lack of consensus, accountability, and 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 can direct everybody involved and that they have a grip on what’s coming next. In this fast moving, complex world, even Pentagon strategists 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 Viet Nam, Iraq…or Afghanistan.
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 to make sure the “playing field” is anything but even. It involves 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. Like it or not, activists don’t set conditions: we respond to 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.
|A coherent strategy may not be the strength of our movements. But that may not be a weakness either, if we engage
in action consistent with our values. Cartoon: Stephanie McMillan
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 core sense, strategy now demands immense resources. The Pentagon employs millions and spends trillions. 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 dreams.
And strategy should be beyond our dreams. We have no business being strategic. Strategy too often seeks wealth and power. Being in a position to strategize tends to be co-opting. 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.
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, 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, often favor faithfulness. If we are true to ourselves and to each other, effectiveness may well result.
*Gandhi’s seven social sins:
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—especially when those ends are clothed, as they tend to be, in strategic deception (recall Bush’s “bringing democracy to the Middle East”).
So, let us not pine 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. Let us be open to risk and sacrifice. And let us develop an ever-deepening empathy, an ever-broadening solidarity.
If we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, still let us “do what we can with what we have where we are.” Let us keep the flame of faithfulness burning bright