Vision can mean different things in different contexts but for the purposes of this essay the most appropriate definition of Vision is “the ability to imagine how a country, society, industry, etc. could develop in the future and to plan for this”. By this definition, Vision is that which points to a time in the future and what is imagined or hoped for that future.
In creating Vision, we begin at some starting point and we picture our Vision point somewhere in the future. The journey that must be travelled between those points from here to there is what we call Strategy, the plan of action that will take us to our Vision. It’s impossible to talk about Vision without also talking about Strategy for they are two sides of the same coin and they are both necessary. Without Strategy, we can never reach our Vision. Without Vision, our Strategy will meander aimlessly.
The first thing a person realises when they try to create Vision is that it’s damned hard. Vision must be detailed enough to give a reasonable sense of what we desire and to inspire others to get involved. But at the same time, it can’t be too prescriptive because it must maintain the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen and changing circumstances. And flexibility must be factored in too because we can’t assume to know precisely what will be required in the future or what life will be like then. Vision calls for a certain amount of intelligent guesswork and a hefty dose of imagination. The only thing we can be certain about when creating Vision is that our present is not acceptable and that we want something better. All in all, Vision necessitates a very a fine balance that is difficult to get right.
The work of Left activists is nearly always future-oriented. For the most part, we’re discontent with present conditions and know they’re harming us. We agitate for change that will take us from what we have now to some other more desirable state. We want better pay or more democratic workplaces. We want equal rights for people of colour, for women, for those with disabilities, for the LGBT+ community, for young people. We want protection for our environment. We want a fairer, more participatory political system. We want a more equitable distribution of wealth and a lower income gap. We want free healthcare for all, housing for all, education for all. We want reparations and justice for the Global South. We want an economy that puts caring for people and the planet above all else. Given the future-facing nature of the Left, it’s impossible to understand the absence of Vision and Strategy in Left activism.
Without a doubt, Left activists are hard-working, dedicated and determined people. The effort that goes into campaigning and organising is enormous and is more often than not done on a shoestring budget by volunteers. And while there’s no shortage of initiatives that have failed, there are plenty more that have won, and won against the odds. Famous successes include the ending of the Jim Crow Laws, suffrage for women, state pensions for older people, the growth of trade unions, the minimum wage, and the 8-hour workday. Or what about the National Health Service in Britain along with the safety net of a social security system; or banning seabed mining in New Zealand; or participatory budgeting in Kerala; or universal basic income in Alaska; or abortion rights in Ireland; or same-sex marriage in South Africa; or free university education in Sweden?
These victories are not insignificant and they should be recognised as cause for celebration. However, the Left can all too easily gloss over its successes. A win may suddenly seem little more than a miniscule speck when compared to the enormous task of changing the dominant system. We can reduce our wins to mere morsels that have been nibbled off the elephant. Months, even years, of relentless organising and campaigning will have gone into even the smallest victory and by the time it comes to pass, the end result may seem anticlimactic and less than worth the effort, with many of those involved feeling burned out.
By contrast, it’s routinely the case that the Right seems to be winning so much more or doing so much better. They are, of course, abundant with resources. They possess most of the wealth and power in society. They have access to whatever they need and can buy off political and other support. They can pay for advertising, or just buy up the media, to spread their message and propaganda. The Left cannot compete with any of this.
But the problem goes deeper. The Right doesn’t have to do the very hard work of looking to the future and imagining the world they want. Why? Because the world we have now is exactly what they want. Our current economic and political systems have been conquered by their ideologies. They don’t need to develop new systems or argue for them or try to prove their worth or persuade others they could work. They don’t need to do any of that because their Vision is already a reality and speaks for itself. The preoccupation of the Right is to simply maintain the status quo, which they’re very content with. Any threat to that way of life, such as Left Vision, will be resisted with everything they’ve got. And while maintaining and defending the existing system takes substantial amounts of money and some exertion, it’s still less exertion than imagining a whole new world and strategising how to get there. So, the Right has yet another advantage, yet another position of strength—as if they needed it.
The burden of proof lies with the Left because Vision is a promise of something better, not a guarantee. Greater effort is required to persuade people to trust that the unknown territory you’re taking them into will be an improvement on what they have now. The sticky, pervasive belief that there is no (better) alternative (to capitalism)—a belief that many on the Left also hold in spite of themselves—is an enormous obstacle. People fear they will lose what they have now, regardless of how meagre or harmful it is. And what if the Vision is all wrong? It could take everybody to hell in a hand basket. In the end, for many of us, it’s safer to stay in the misery we know than take a chance on something we don’t know, regardless of what it promises.
And if all that wasn’t challenge enough, there’s another snag, this time from within the Left itself. The Left widely agrees that the current system is badly wrong and an alternative is needed. The Left has much less agreement on what that alternative should be. Essentially, we have no unified Vision or Strategy. Compare this with the Right who are united behind the neoliberal Vision which they developed over decades. Their Strategy involved testing it out in Chile in the early 1970s, followed by a subtle trickle of policies in other locations throughout the 1970s, and culminating in a final push in the early 1980s when they were ready for a full-on launch after the elections of Thatcher and Reagan. By then, they were determined to impose their Vision on the world and they had the power and resources to do so. They let nothing get in their way. Did Thatcher falter in her policies for privatisation even when faced with the miners’ strikes? Did Reagan let mass protests of the labour movement deter him when he introduced budget cuts and regressive taxation? Not a chance. Unity of Vision, single-mindedness, was the key to their success. Okay, it’s an example of Vision working in completely in the wrong direction but it’s an example all the same and it demonstrates unequivocally the importance and necessity of Vision and its first cousin, Strategy.
The Left could learn a lot from this example. Our current approach is to work in silos on shorter-term goals, whether that’s an increase in wages or a legislative change or a protest against a gas pipeline. While these initiatives are important, working in this way carries greater risk of burn out and feelings of defeat among activists in spite of our successes. If instead we had a unified Vision and where all of our activism in its various forms was integrated and coordinated into a unified Strategy that took us towards that Vision, it would encourage and nourish us. We would be able to see where our own individual activism fitted within the context of the Vision and Strategy. When we achieved success in one of these initiatives, we would see that success not as an isolated, though happy, occurrence but as another triumph among many others that are contributing to the bigger picture that is our Vision. And we would take strength from the successes of other Left projects, knowing that those too contributed to the bigger picture.
The mere fact of being part of a wider ecosystem where others are winning, would further reinforce and embolden us because once we achieved one victory, we wouldn’t stop there. We would move to the next step, building on previous accomplishments to go even further. Why stop at a $15 per hour wage when the next step could be to have workers take over the workplace? Why stop at closing down a gas pipeline when the next step could be to end the use of gas completely? We could continue that march towards our Vision, sometimes fully involved, sometimes handing the baton over to others while we rest a while, but always moving forward, always standing on the shoulders of what went before. It’s for these reasons, among others, that Vision and Strategy are so important.
Endless material is written on the problems of the world but much less is written about Vision and Strategy. Although valuable and requiring skill and expertise, we can accept that it’s somewhat easier to critique and analyse the here and now than it is to expound on what the alternatives might be and how they might be achieved. ZNet has always recognised the importance of Vision and Strategy and has never ceased to elevate the work and writings of those who bravely look to the future and dare to dream of a better world. The new ZNetwork will endeavour to continue in that tradition, being the fanfare for the future and never doubting we will win!