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Pathways to a new society

George Lakey has campaigned and written about non-violent social change since the 1960s. He co-founded Movement for a New Society in the 1970s, which for nearly 20 years specialized in organizational innovation for social movements, and has led over 1500 workshops on five continents, training coal miners, homeless people, prisoners, Burmese guerillas, steel workers and others. He spoke to NLP’s Ed Lewis about his latest book, Toward a Living Revolution, connecting its ideas with the Occupy movement.

You’ve a long history of working with and studying different tools and strategies for social change, some of which – notably consensus decision making and the general assembly model – have become highly influential in radical politics, above all through Occupy. However, I’m interested in the broader philosophical perspective that these approaches are located in.

Well in my most recent book I’ve developed a five stage model that tries to imagine – it’s very hard to imagine societal change that’s fundamental and so sweeping – this tries to imagine a stage by stage process through which one could end up with new institutions that people would be participating in and making decisions through and creating a new society.

What are the fundamental elements of the model?

The first stage is a little controversial because there’s some aversion to creating vision, I think. Maybe a kind of anti-utopian residue or sense of despair because the Soviet model didn’t work out, but I really believe, based on my studies of history, that people get farther if they do have a vision of the new society and that be a widely shared vision that comes about through a discussion. That process seems to be very important, that people both develop a vision of where they want to go and also a strategy from getting from here to there.

So that means somehow disengaging from the obsession with analysis. The favourite discussion is ‘what’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong’. And one of the things I’m grateful to Occupy about is that it’s given us a simplistic but anyway an everyday way of summing- up analysis. There’s the 1% and the 99%. That’s very useful. We need something like that which enables us to say ‘yes: the 1% dominate the 99%. Ok now – how about vision?’. Instead of ‘let’s spend the next few hours talking about analysis’.

All the different ways in which we don’t like the 1%...

Exactly, exactly. Boring, boring. I’ve walked out of parties because that’s all people want to do. And I think complaining is the act of a powerless person actually and so we indulge each other’s powerlessness by making these complaining societies. And there’s a psychological dimension of stage one, which is to engage in a process that actually supports us to believe in ourselves and have confidence in ourselves and each other and develop the solidarity that’s needed.

And when we actually have enough of that we move on to stage two, which is organisation building. This is when we create new organisational forms that will carry the weight of the new vision that we’ve created  for ourselves. So a lot of the standard ways of organising re-create hierarchy, re-create authoritarian top-down stuff, re-create patriarchal patterns and so on. So, stage two is a very creative time when people need to experiment with new forms and that was one of the things I appreciated about Occupy, was it was a laboratory for trying out horizontal forms. It didn’t work out that great in the US anyway, I don’t know about here…

…you don’t think so.


Of course the energy has diminished significantly but many have seen it as striking a powerful ideological blow.

That’s the ideological blow but stage two is not about the ideological blow, stage two is about the organisational outcome. It’s about nuts and bolts – it’s about, for example, can an Occupy movement deal with disruptive people, whether they’ve  been paid to be disruptive (provocateurs and so on) or whether they’re just volunteers that are immersed in some kind of pathology or whatever and wander onto the scene and make it impossible for people to get their work done. Can we find organisational forms that will enable us to do that or not?

So stage two is about that, it’s about creating organisational forms that will enable us to support us to do the long-term stuff, and that comes from a historical conclusion that I’ve drawn – that unorganised revolutionary movements don’t bring about a new society. They can bring about turbulence, excitement; they can even open up a power vacuum, throwing off centre, off kilter, the 1%, but they can’t deliver the goods if they don’t know how to organise themselves, so stage two is very important in that way.

Just briefly, you say you’ve drawn historical conclusions you’ve drawn, are there particular historical episodes which you lead you to that conclusion?

I’ve looked a lot at the non-violent insurrections that have happened throughout history. My students and I have been working the last four years on developing the Global Nonviolent Action Database. It includes a large number of non-violent insurrections that have overthrown dictators, and we’ve found that it’s one thing to overthrow a dictator, it’s another thing to manage the space that is thereby opened up in such a way that you actually keep the 1% at bay and get to create the new society. Usually you overthrow a dictator and the 1% gets its way back in with maybe cosmetic change, a dressed up dictator, an apparently democratic regime that isn’t at all because it’s completely manipulated.

What’s now not in question, although I know some people question it, ‘is it possible non-violently to overthrow dictators?’. Yes, it’s certainly possible. A number of the cases are in our database and you can just check it out. But the question is, once you’ve done that, then where are you, what can you do next to maintain the opportunity that you’ve created by the overthrow? I’ve only found two cases (I’m hunting for a third in relation to Denmark), [which are] Norway and Sweden, in which the 1% were actually demobilised in terms of their political power through non-violent struggle and a new society was created that is far and away the best human achievement so far. They’re losing some ground with regard to that now but up until the ‘70s and ‘80s they achieved something beyond what any country has achieved so far, in terms of egalitarianism and a whole lot of progressive values.

And you think this was anchored in stages one and two, vision and organisation...

Exactly – they had a very clear vision and they had a tremendous amount of organisation. In both countries the labour movements were awesome. There’s criticism that some of the forms of organisation they used were not horizontal. That’s fine, and I’m happy with criticism of trade union organisation, but the question is ‘what would work better? Oh good you have something better, let’s do that?’ If the answer is ‘oh well I don’t have anything better’ then shut up, or invent something better. Don’t criticise unless you have something better.

Stage three is confrontation, which for some of us is our favourite part – I love confrontation. In that great anarchist phrase, [this is about] propaganda of the deed. That’s when the movement is still small, it’s not societal wide, but it’s setting up a series of dramatic confrontations in which the people not yet committed to the movement take a look at the goodies and the baddies – the goodies being us, the baddies being the 1% – and they make choices. They say, hopefully, ‘we’re on the side of the goodies. The baddies – we had no idea how bad they were.’ There were Egyptians who were in denial about how bad Mubarak was, until he got to display that in Egypt, then you think ‘oh, ok, well if that’s the case… And these goodies are even better than we thought. Let’s go with them.’

And so stage three goes to stage four, if it’s successful, stage four being mass non-cooperation, and that’s the part of the Egyptian story that we know best, because that’s the part that was on the telly. Stage four is the time when the Mubaraks are sent packing and the power vacuum that emerges is what opens the opportunities.

Then there’s stage five – although a lot of people might say ‘well that’s it, yay we won’ – but my view is you have to go further, you have to plant the new institutions that reflect your values. In stage two you’re already inventing, often in a laboratory, small scale way, but developing skills and confidence (which also develop within stages three, and 4). Then by stage five they’re grown up enough to move into the power vacuum and organise society. So that’s the scheme.

I wonder if this is being proposed as a chronological sequence, because it seems to me that questions of organisation and also then what you actually do through your organisations typically condition aspects of what you want. People discover through their organisations what is working, what’s not, they may discover new horizons and come to believe certain things were possible when they didn’t previously, and conversely they might start to think that things which seemed nice in the abstract don’t seem to be working so well. So I just want to check if you’re saying that this is an entirely linear model in which we only move onto subsequent stages having completed a previous stage. 

That’s exactly the correct way to use the model. Models encourage simplifications, always over-simplifications. So we start with a model, like this five stage model, and then we go exactly in our minds where you went, which is complicating the model. And then someone else, if there were a third person at the table, would say ‘not only that Ed, but there’s also this’ and they would complicate the model further. And each time we complicate the model, we make it more accurate, more like reality. Because models are very over-simplified, they don’t match reality.

On the other hand, if we don’t start with a model, then we can’t complicate it, and we’re just kind of lost in a welter of complications. Then we just go back to complaining because it’s easier.  So that’s the purpose of a model. 

Now obviously what anyone will want to know about your model and your broader conception of social change is are there any proposals for the details, for what could happen. Have you seen any of visions or organisations developing that you think ‘these could be ones that could really work?’

In terms of application, I think we’re talking historical specificity and cultural dynamics. So the organisational innovation that might be paying off in culture one, might not look quite the same in culture two, because the more specific we get to historical moment and to culture the more different things are going to be. So what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Philadelphia. However, it’s tremendous fun to compare notes. So Occupy Wall St, people got in touch with me about ‘ok so, we know you and Movement for a New Society were working on this general assembly deal, and we’re doing that and we’re having these problems etc., but we also know you’re experimenting with spokes councils and affinity groups – what about [those approaches]?’. (Actually we got the spokes councils ideas from Sweden – thank goodness ideas can cross borders. ) So then they tried to bring the spokes council model in Occupy Wall St, with varying success because there was a lot of resistance on the part of the GA.

But the spokes council model has shown up in a number of different cultures as working very well and very often working better than the GA model.

Another example would be the tool of consensus decision making,. Movement for a New Society in the ‘70s, which I was involved with, did a lot of pushing the consensus model into the broader activist sphere so that now it’s become highly fashionable. But in the process of that it’s also become ideologically rigid.

Expand on what you mean by that.

People forget this about technology – that the use of technology has to do with circumstances. An electric stove is not going to work that great if there’s not a source of electricity. And we’re talking in stage two about technology, it happens to be social technology, social inventions rather than the other kind. So the problem about consensus is – it’s an invention, it works given certain circumstances, it doesn’t work if those circumstances don’t exist.

When doesn’t it work?

Well it didn’t work in Occupy Wall St in New York and Philadelphia.

You think they would have been better off using a different model?

Exactly. In many, many Occupy sites they gave up the GA, the GA no longer exists, because it looks more and more like consensus works if there’s a boundary system, you know who’s in, who’s out. And the people who are in develop a trust level with each other, they develop the ability to hear each other. Consensus is very hard if people can’t hear each other! - if it’s all ranting and no hearing. So various circumstances like enable consensus to work, it seems like if you don’t have conditions like that, they don’t work.

Have you got any idea what organisational forms they may have been better suited by?

I’m involved in a new anti-capitalist environmental organisation called Earth Quaker Action Team. We’re Quakers and people who like to work with Quakers so we come from three centuries of consensus decision making. On the other hand, we’re activists, which means confrontation with cops etc, lots of stuff happening immediately, not always time to make a consensus. So what we’ve been finding is working really well the last few years is to have a thorough discussion ahead of time about ‘what if this happens, what if that happens?’, so people get out on the table one another’s considerations. I get to know what are some values for you that are so dear that it would be really, really tough for you to violate them, and which are things are which might uncomfortable but I can live with that. Then in the moment when we are confronting  the police we have a manager of that demonstration who makes judgement calls and the rest of us go along with them. The manager, though, is not going to make judgement calls which are not going to violate your conscience or mine, they’re going to make judgement calls that they know the group can roughly live with. And after the action we have an evaluation in which we all learn more about making judgement calls in a moment where decisions have to be made quickly.

Safety is a value for everybody in our group – I personally am willing to give my life for the cause, but I would like not to do it foolishly. I have risked my life in various actions but each time I’ve risked my life it wasn’t foolishly, it made sense to risk my life in that way. So safety is one of those values And that kind of thing is discussed and our manager pool gets smarter. We rotate because we’re very much into leadership development so most people are able to get into those spots where they’re taking care of other people, which is another big value for us.

So it’s very much a matter of invention and trying to improve on what, up until we started, I think for a number of us was a fairly rigid adherence to ‘no matter what’s happening we all have to sit down and talk about it’.

At the outset you raised the thought that we need our organisations now to reflect the institutions we seek for the future –prefigurative politics, basically. Is that consistent with what you’re describing here in terms of the creation of this temporary manager?

In the example I gave with the manager and the situation in the moment making judgement calls – any future I can imagine will include disasters, and especially with extreme and all the rest that we’re setting up, multiple disasters are in our future right? We’re going to need to people making judgement calls for the sake of safety zillions of times in the future. We need people who have the self-confidence to do that, who know how to tune into people’s values, we’re going to need a lot of people making very smart judgement calls in the future.

Given the range of different movements that you’ve been involved with you must have seen situations where you get a high level of mobilisation and then, for whatever reason, there’s a slump and then people start to ask ‘can we get back out of this?’ What do successful movements do in these kinds of circumstances? I’m thinking, again, about Occupy here.

Creativity. Watch out for September 17th, the one year anniversary, a new launch in Occupy Wall St of a campaign this time that’s going to focus on an issue rather than the last year’s model which was everything and anything.

We can count on downs, just like we can hope for the ups, we can count on downs. So what the Occupy Wall St people are doing is developing what sounds to me like a dazzling campaign on debt, and the latest issue of Waging Non-Violence is on the proposal for what’s to be launched. They’ve done a lot of pilot projet stuff, they’ve done marketing research, if we can be so crass, trying it out with people – are they willing to take this risk, that risk – so when this launches, September 17th, it won’t be like a year ago when people were making stuff up, in the moment.

And this is what people did – they went to their creative sources. These were Occupy Wall St people so they’ve been through a lot, there’s a lot of trust among the people who are working on this because they’ve been through such hard times together. But they really went for creativity. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant campaign. We’ll see, I may be wrong, but I’m excited about it.

Except where otherwise noted, content on [The New Left Project] site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License

Editorial Notes: I've been reading George Lakey's work for about two years, though I'd heard of him for much longer. He's my #1 go-to person when I want background on protest and social change. He is a Visiting Professor at Swarthmore College and a Quaker. Lakey currently posts at Waging Nonviolence. -BA

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