Movement power: benefits and challenges

Movement power: benefits and challenges


The momentum tradition is often confronted with problems that fall into three broad categories: the prefigurative theory of change, the metanarrative, and principles (especially nonviolence). 


The prefigurative theory of change and approach can often have benefits, such as ensuring a stronger counterculture and set of values. This can manifest as activists identifying as either anarchist and punk, or socialist and rock. This allows them to retain shared beliefs in the face of dominant culture; they can develop a deep level of commitment; they can create cultures where everyone takes care of each other’s individual needs. 

But the prefigurative approach also has weaknesses. It can be alienating to the public. The use of a special language, the clothes people wear and even the choice of venues for events can reinforce a counterculture that excludes many sectors of the public. The approach risks reinforcing ideological sectarianism. 

The prefigurative culture can include being incredibly critical of the structure tradition. Indeed, some within the movement are also overly “paranoid about cooptation, where a political movement actually wants to be adopted and supported by the wider community, including dominant institutions”. Prefigurative theories of change result in problems that cascade into each of the stages of the cycle of momentum.

There are some activists who “think the action itself is the means and the ends together”. The whole point of the revolution is to do it right now. That does not have to be in conflict, but often prefigurative assumptions do not fit within the theory of change and grand narrative. Does the drumming circle upset other members of the public? For example, communists might set up communes, and anarchists are often keen to establish “temporary autonomous zones”. However, this approach does not activate support from the general population. The communes that were established in the 1960s were “not relevant to the public” and failed to increase support for the anti-war movement.


A further problem that arises for the momentum model of organising is experienced when the core leadership develop and understand the complex DNA and grand strategy of the movement – they identify with the metanarrative of the campaign – but fail to transfer this to the membership. Further, the leadership will attempt to solve problems directly and fail to “train to solve problems”.  

People who don’t believe in creating metanarratives that allow the campaigners to be in dialogue with the public will instead create narratives that isolate the public. Engler is critical of the anti-police ‘ACAB’ meta-narrative. He claims this radical position is “not in dialogue with the public”. He points to the Occupy Oakland protesters and claims the public were generally supportive of the police, and therefore slogans such as ACAB would alienate campaign neutrals. This analysis preceded the ‘abolish the police’ movement in the United States and has not aged well.

The Proposition 187 campaign in California 30 years ago resulted in huge rallies and “moments of the whirlwind”. The campaign was for the naturalisation of migrants to the US. Saavedra argues that over time, the marches were dominated by the Mexican flag. This caused a problem because some migrant communities were not actually from Mexico. Saavedra: “We had a lot of debate about this…it’s hard to engage the American public when we have flags from other countries.” The leadership decided to adopt the stars and stripes on marches in 2016 and this “was highly successful in speaking to the majority of the public”. 


The momentum tradition, with its strong emphasis on autonomy for activists, can fail to cohere around a clear aim and set of principles. For Engler in particular, a primary concern is the failure of the founders to develop a discipline and culture which opposes violence: in his definition this includes acts of violence aimed at either people or property. Indeed, he warns against  “the disease of violence” and argues against a “diversity of tactics” which he interprets as code for “anything goes”. The hybrid model depends on active popular support which, for Engler, means violence is simply impractical, even beyond the ethical concerns. 

Engler describes attending the global justice demonstrations in Quebec City against the FTAA “when the organisers lost control”. He states: “I saw people throw molotov cocktails at the cops within a zone that was supposed to be nonviolent – and we lost a lot of public support in the US, in Canada and all over the world. People have a hard time sympathising with violence.” There was a huge coalition of unions and churches but once there were molotov cocktails “a lot of them pulled out – they were afraid of the movement.” He added: “We can do militant nonviolence because there is a choice about being involved in it, but we can’t have violence and property destruction.” 

Engler refers to Gandhi. He claims the Indian civil rights leader insisted that keeping nonviolent discipline was the greatest challenge in his experience. Gandhi, in his An Autobiography, refers to the “Himalayan miscalculation.” Englar summarises this story by saying that Gandhi started a movement in India but “lost control of it”. Once the culture becomes violent, it becomes very hard to create nonviolence again. “He had to stop the whole movement and he fasted until death against his own people. This was an incredibly hard, challenging thing to do and very hard on the movement. But he had to do that to start anew.”


The structure tradition has its own problems, which in turn will be carried into the hybrid model of organising. The primary challenges for the structure tradition are: the perceived need for leadership control over disorderly activist base; fears of rapid escalation – and growth of this disorderly base and a failure to meet the need for absorption – the training and empowerment of the disorderly base. 

Instrumental demands

The structure tradition is often limited because of its focus on instrumental demands: whether that is a union striking for a pay rise, environmentalists lobbying for greater water protection regulation and even a climate campaign demanding the media be more honest and frank about the threat from fossil fuel burning. These instrumental demands may bring real benefits for activists, and the sectional communities they represent. But often they fail to appeal to the public generally. Because the momentum tradition depends on active popular support, it has developed a method based on symbolic demands that win hearts and minds – even if they are out of reach or deliver a less significant material benefit. 

Coalition building often involves a conflict of philosophies of theories of change, because structural institutions have their instrumental demands. If you have a structure theory of change you will adopt a language the target legislator will understand and respect, but if you have a momentum theory of change you adopt a language that will galvanise the public. 

The local DREAM Act movement is given as an example where the structure activists wanted in-state tuition rates for migrant students. Saavedra argues: “This is what the activists want, but not something the public cares about.” The influence of the momentum tradition, with the focus on symbolic demands, named the ask as  ‘The Massachusetts DREAM Act’: this is because the proposed DREAM Act polled well, it is well known and this speaks to the American dream, and it speaks to people’s perception of what it means to be American and the common story of migration.

The tension between the structure tradition and its call for instrumental demands and the momentum tradition with its symbolic demands can be seen specifically in the climate movements. Bill McKibbon, the veterate climate campaigner, launched the climate divestment campaign on US university campuses, and it has since spread to the UK and around the world.

Engler argues: “The grand strategic objective for the divestment campaign is great. But the problem is there is a lot of disagreement, there is a conflict in the theory of change. If you are going to win public opinion, it does not matter so much if you win small material victories. You need mass public opinion. A lot of activists do not believe they can change the political climate.”

He then moves on to the example of LGBTQIA+ rights, where there has been a seismic shift in opinion – and legislation – in a few decades. “Many people would not have anticipated the huge changes for gay people. Therefore they would have campaigned for small material gains for people.” However, the LGBTQIA+ rights movement in the US, Engler claims, sided with symbolic actions “because we are going to change the whole of public opinion on an issue, and not focus on material gains.” He concludes: “If you have a theory of change, and you share that with people, then they can understand symbolic demands.”


The key concern for structure leaders is the need for control. Structured organisations can become preoccupied with internal battles to retain leadership, sapping energy from the real work of battling the opponent. Equally importantly, escalating a campaign and absorbing new members can, it is feared, create unmanageable challenges for the incumbent leadership. 

The fear of escalation is not unreasonable. “Institutions such as trade unions are representing a lot of people, and they are holding a lot of resources. If they lose contracts, they lose money, they lose their jobs, their health benefits for their kids. When they escalate it’s really scary because they are putting a lot on the line.” 

Further to this, a lot of structured organisations have little power, but do have just enough to defend some of their own interests. This can come from relationships, for example with politicians. These relationships are put at risk by escalating direct action. “You are hitting the opposition like a hornets nest”, says Paul. “We know we are going to polarise the opposition against us”. 

The civil rights movement after the 1960s student sit-ins there was “a tremendous backlash”, including white supremacists taking over state government in a lot of southern states. The white supremecist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) actually experienced a revival. “It was hard to imagine that if they escalated the opposition was going to become more powerful. They had a faith that they were going to become more powerful – and the southern racists and the KKK would become isolated from the rest of the public.” 

The same issue can be seen today with the XR deployment of direct action being met with the UK Government introducing ever more draconian laws against any kind of protest, and in the process limiting other activist groups from having an impact. Carlos: “If you escalate, are you going to get more opposition? It’s a really serious concern.”

The structure tradition, with its hierarchical organisations, is therefore not prepared for and even actively opposed to escalation. They will defend narrow organisational gains against popularising issues; they want to retain complete control of actions, to prevent arrests or costs; are vulnerable to leaderships being compromised or selling out.

However, the hybrid model based on the circle of momentum requires exactly the opposite. Strong organisations need to risk escalation; a well planned escalation creates trigger events and, sometimes, moments of the whirlwind; there is a common theory of change, people can be absorb people who adopt the grand strategy and work on polarisation, this creates active popular support and a stronger movement; this proceeds to even higher levels of escalation. 

Saavedra observes: “If this would be easy then a lot of people would do it. But it is not easy. We have to do the three things very well for the cycle to move around in circles to create the moment of the whirlwind that we talk about.”


Structure organisations, especially when small, can have a lack of understanding and also lack the capacity for absorption. Let’s imagine there are 20 people outside the organisation who have heard about the great work and they want to help – do you know what work to give them? The manager will say, well I can schedule 20 one-to-one sessions. But what if you have 2,000 people outside right now? Saavedra asks: “What do we do with all these people?” You need the right grand theory, the right training and support, and the right organisational structure that can invite people in and put them to work. 

There is also a fear of losing organisational control. If you have a hundred members and you bring 200 new people then the power and the democracy of the organisation is going to change. Saavedra admits: “The new members may even overthrow the leadership of the organisation.”

The immigration rights movement in 2006 culminated when 1.2 million people marched in Los Angeles. Meetings were held by activists who wanted to keep the movement together, to escalate and accelerate momentum. However, Saavedra claims there were prominent human rights and labour leaders who were saying, “Why do we want to keep this going? It was a flash in the pan. We don’t have any new leaders, more resources, the union did not gain any members. Who cares about a flash in the pan?” 

However, the fact that the movement was able to absorb thousands of activists and provide political education and training resulted in historic change in public opinion. This was true even though the activists were unable to achieve the instrumental demand of having the DREAM Act adopted into law. 

The old leadership failed to see the longer term shifts. “What they did not measure was the 15 to 20 per cent increase in voter turnout at the next election, and the fact that around 25 per cent of Republican Latinos actually left the party. The symbolic demands, the rapid escalation and the absorption meant that huge resources poured into the campaign, with real world impacts. “If you were to count the TV media, the canvasing…to achieve such a historical voting shift – it would be impossible to create that from structure-resources.”

Engler and Saavedra advocate for a hybrid model of organising that retains the best of the structure and momentum traditions. However, they do not argue that such a merger will automatically solve the more difficult challenges of activism. Instead, it is important that the founders and the recruited activists to the movement learn from each other and develop new and better solutions to the problems every campaign will inevitably face. In this article I summarised the main maladies that Engler and Saavedra identify. In the following article I will briefly describe their prescriptions. 

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Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist online.


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