Movement power: strategic and prefigurative

Movement power: strategic and prefigurative

From Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (C) The Commons Social Change Library


The inside game is often described as Machiavellian and not very ethical. Claudius O. Johnson wrote: “I think it was Bismarck who said that the man who wishes to keep his respect for sausages and laws should not see how either is made.”

Engler summarises the inside game: “Firstly, the lobbyist will take funding from an organisation, such as a trade union, and try to use that to influence decisions within the political framework. There are very effective lobbyists. The second is politicians. This concept is shown in the programme House of Cards. This is how politicians develop their career, and leverage their power from raising money from the community to voting for particular policies in exchange.

“The service approach refers to people within the confines of their issues trying to take money and resources around the cause and trying to provide the best and largest services to the beneficiaries. This is an inside game, working within the confines of the funding available.”

The outside game involves structure, momentum and hybrid. However, the structure and momentum traditions are differentiated by the fact that the structure tradition often tries to directly leverage those playing the inside game through transactions whereas the momentum tradition attempts to challenge the way the game is played or the fact that politics has become a game at all through transformations in public opinion.


The structure approach is therefore trying to create leverage on the decision maker. This is how the Sierra Club and indeed most charities work. They try to get their membership to move the decision maker. “For environmental charities this would include publishing reports, calling their elected representatives, publishing polling results. For trade unions it can even involve negotiations, the threat of strikes, causing disruption and exacting a political price for not meeting their demands.”

But there is also the prefigurative approach. This is about creating a counterculture, or alternative institutions outside the system that can be used to bring about change. “Prefigurative is about being the change and living the revolution, and lifestyle, as opposed to the strategic approach of making the change, changing predominant institutions.”

Let us take a deep dive into the prefigurative theory of change and its symbolic demands, and the strategic theory with its transactional demands, before finally discussing how the hybrid model of organising can utilise both effectively. 


The structure tradition is typified by having a strategic theory of change based on instrumental, or transactional, demands usually made of those playing the inside game of politics. The primary claim is that by winning practical demands you can build your organisation, and by building the organisation you can leverage your membership to win practical demands. 

You can increase the leverage of your membership, can create a more powerful organisation, through leadership development, by investing in good relationships and contacts, by increasing the size of the membership and also by raising money from foundations or “high net wealth individuals”.

The first question for a structure organisation is, “What is winnable with the leverage we have?” Saul D. Alinsky, the author of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, is offered as the perfect example of the structure organiser. He would always focus on whether the demand was winnable based on the organisational power and the context. 


Engler states: “A lot of time the structure organisation will not take on a highly popular demand because they do not perceive that it is winnable. They do not have enough leverage. The politicians concerned have signalled intransigence.”

A corollary to this is that the structured organisation will run campaigns about highly specific demands that have no public awareness. This is called the lightpost strategy: “Structure starts really small. What is the demand that your team has the power to achieve? When you start with activism and there are six people, you start with small issues like fixing street lights, or rubbish collection.”

However, he adds: “Few activists are already interested in steel tariffs. Cardship neutrality: the rules around whether workers can join are very important for trade unions but not something the public is engaged with. Even with the immigrant movement there was a fight between popular demands and legislative demands. People wanted to support specific bills, but the public found this alienating.”


The conflict between the structure and the momentum tradition in terms of the perception of victory and the theory of change was acutely felt after the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and the ensuing global justice movement that would eventually peter out some seven years later. The structure tradition specifically interpreted the failure to win instrumental demands as a total failure.

Engler argues: “Seattle was seen as a great success, and there was tons of momentum. We were going to shut down the yearly meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But in this case they knew exactly what we were going to do. We were not able to shut down the meetings. 

“By our metrics, we were winning by polarising the public. The protests were front page news. They shut down the federal government for two days. A lot of groups like the Jubilee Debt Campaign, calling for international debt relief for formerly colonised countries, flourished and got tons of publicity. A lot of organisations grew – some doubled in size. In terms of awareness and polarising we won tremendously. 

“But the movement felt like a failure to many because we failed to shut down the meetings. People were so depressed. Then there was infighting about what to do next. There were people who were calling for a diversity of tactics because of the perception of failure, and a lot of people dropped out of the movement.”


The Amish community in the United States is presented as an example in extremis of the prefigurative approach to social change. The movement has about 200,000 people, which is bigger than some of the most powerful unions in the US, and they have a radical lifestyle. This way of living, Engler states, “is not necessarily good for women”. He adds: “But it is socialist, decentralised, organic, pre-industrial.” 

He claims that the Amish live a radical lifestyle that is in conflict with capitalism and consumerism. However, they do not care about having political effects, such as launching boycotts. “This means they do not have much power socially, but they have influence internally among their members.” 

Some anarchist subcultures provide other examples of communities that are specifically and explicitly interested in prefigurative actions. Laura Portman is cited as having published an anthropological study of anarchists in the United States and found, among other things, that 90 per cent of the culture was supportive of prefigurative rather than strategic actions.

This is most clearly demonstrated by the deployment of “temporary autonomous zones” (TAZs). This includes actions that create alternative cultures – this might be an occupation, or a squat. It is about “creating a revolution in those spaces”. The creation of TAZs is one way of educating and persuading the public. “How do their tactics allow activists to feed their values, to have freedom, and express their anger, individual ideas and concern about social issues?” 


These people want to create a safe space where they can develop and experience their culture. They are scared about it becoming co-opted and normalised. People want a subculture in music: punk, electronic; and in the intellectual and academic domain: existentialism. 

The prefigurative philosophy includes specific metrics about victory. People who wanted to create TAZs, to occupy the city, would judge success and failure by whether or not the event expressed its radical ideal and used consensus and showed that “another world is possible”.

This was evident in all the social justice movements in the last decades, but perhaps never more than at Occupy Wall Street. “A lot of the time people were fighting and having big strategic debates about whether the movement was winning. The goal of the occupation was the occupation itself. If we lost the occupation then the movement was dead. People were very concerned about the process of democracy and how we treat each other in the occupation.” 

Engler added: “We are not saying these are bad ways of thinking – there are strengths and weaknesses.” He lists the strengths as being the commitment of the activists, the development of a group identity. The main weakness is that these very strengths isolate the public. Here he cites Jonathan Matthew Smucker and his book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. This refers to the “political identity paradox”. How do you embrace the prefigurative counterculture without killing your movement?


The structure and momentum traditions, with differing theories of change, centre very different kinds of demands in their campaigns. The structure tradition calls for instrumental demands – immediate, material changes that will have real-world benefits for the activists and society more generally. The momentum tradition calls instead for symbolic demands – for perhaps small changes that the public will passionately support, where the powerful could easily acquiesce, and that can point to larger injustices of society. 

Engler argues that one of the positive aspects of strategic objectives is that you should know that you are always going to win. You can set very specific targets, which even when ambitious are obviously achievable. “If the aim is to get a million people on a pledge, then you can just keep getting signatures until you win.” The problem, however, is what wider struggle does winning such a local issue actually aid? “The public might ask, so what if you get a million signatures?” 

A symbolic demand is designed to generate the greatest amount of public support, not around existing leverage. “We care less about what is winnable. We care about building our movement that can change the perception of what is winnable,” said Engler.

The demand is derived from asking different questions of the movement than what we can achieve right now. These questions would include 1. What are the most accessible and popular demands around our issue? 2. What is deeply felt by our base – our membership and those closest to us? 3. What will build active popular support?

Engler said: “You have to educate the public, including the base, about the significance of achieving the symbolic demand. There needs to be suspense, which does not work if the movement really does control whether victory is declared.”


Every group or community that will come together for a campaign can be galvanised by a single demand. For labour, including trade unions, this might be a national minimum wage. For parents and children, this might be access to good schools and colleges, including free education. “Politicians know these are the most important issues.” It is possible to find a small symbolic demand that speaks to a much wider problem. “Smaller issues such as bank fees might seem small, but they affect many people and everyone hates them.” 

There is a long tradition of picking symbolic demands. Engler argues that Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader, was successful because he picked issues that were symbolic, even where they did not make sense for the political parties or the union organisations of his time. He gives as an example the salt tax campaign. “A huge proportion of the population participated against the British monopoly on salt production. Hundreds of thousands of people sacrificed their lives. Gandhi was accused of selling out because he negotiated with the British, but for him the demand was a symbolic demand. The frame was about the salt tax, not about the end of colonialism.”

Engler also refers to Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), and specifically the Birmingham campaign. “They chose one city to break segregation. It was called ‘bombingham’ because white supremacists were bombing the offices of civil rights workers. MLK was accused of selling out because he wanted to win symbolic victories like the right to eat at a lunch counter.” 

Engler argues that the “real metrics” relate to “whether we win the hearts and minds of the US public”. MLK and the movement won the Civil Rights Act a year later because of Birmingham and the March on Washington. “It was hard for people to imagine claiming victory over a small symbolic demand about desegregating a few downtown stores, but this brought the attention to the public and the media.”

To summarise: the pure, unadulterated structure approach does not fit with the hybrid model because it does not see victory even when there is a historical and seismic shift in popular opinion, unless there are immediate material gains; the pure, unadulterated prefigurative approach does not fit with the hybrid model because it does not create active popular support.



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