Critics frequently charge (no link found) that while we on the Left are prolific in identifying reasons things must change, our prowess in actually bringing about change is less impressive. I thought it might be of theoretical interest, or at least of idle curiosity, to reflect on the means of effecting change. Let’s sit ourselves down with a cup of coffee and conduct a thought experiment concerning what might be done. Dare we contemplate something more than change? Something as grandiose as social transformation? Yes, I say. Why not? This could prove to be an intriguing exercise indeed.
To begin, suppose a sizable chunk of us agree on a specific set of concrete social demands. How many of us is a sizable chunk? It’s hard to say. What could we possibly agree on? That’s even harder to say. But let’s say that we do agree, and there’s a sizable chunk of us. And let’s call our set of concrete demands “X”. It’s algebraic and alphabetical in equal measure, and serves as a symbol of whatever it is we are uniting behind.
Let’s get to work and consider the options.
Turning up to vote
In a recent and refreshing call for American revolution, Bernie Sanders has suggested that one thing we could do, for starters, is vote. We could at least consider it. I know it sounds simple, but apparently some of us have not been bothering to turn up to the polling stations. Although understandable given our preoccupation with weightier matters, this absenteeism is rather playing into the hands of whoever it is that keeps voting against X.
Speaking, for instance, to those of us on minimum wage, it appears that only twenty percent of us are actually turning up to vote. This must please those who are seeking to end the minimum wage. I believe the percentage of Koch Brothers voting at the most recent election was significantly greater than twenty percent. It’s a small matter, to be sure, but every little thing counts.
Maybe we are simply too preoccupied with loftier matters to turn up at the polling stations. It might make better sense to contemplate a tactic not requiring us to leave home. Bloggers, tweeters and social networkers in particular should be especially receptive to this option: the sit-at-home strike. The way it would work is simple. Rather than going to our places of employment, we simply sit, at home.
Why at home? It takes less effort. It’s safer. It is much less likely that we will be rounded up by an over zealous police force, beaten, tear gassed, imprisoned. If we all did this, if we all said, “give us X or we stay indoors”, all of us, that would be something. Really something.
Consider this. To put an end to the action, the ‘powers that be’ would really have to show their true colors. What could they do? Come to our homes and drag us out by the scruffs of our necks one house or apartment at a time? And where would they put us all? There would be no room in the prisons. They’d have to leave us where we were and re-designate our homes prisons.
On second thought, there do appear to be potential pitfalls in the plan. For one thing, how would the homeless pull their weight? For another, the rest of us wouldn’t get paid. Considering most of us can barely last a fortnight without a pay check, and the Koch brothers can go months, easily, the playing field is heavily tilted against this tactic.
It also seems inevitable that the state would respond with ruthless countermeasures, the mainstream media in tow. While authorities cut off our internet access and phone signals, the mainstream media could move into action, network news services talking down support for the sit-at-home strike. “98 percent of employees turn up to work?” they could report. “Sit-at-home protest, though good on paper, an abject failure for organizers,” shock jocks could crow. How many of us would relent under the deception and arrive at the office in time for afternoon cake? We might be strong enough to withstand the disinformation campaign, but only till our funds depleted to zero.
An unconditional basic income would certainly come in handy in the case of a sit-at-home strike. Imagine if X equaled unconditional basic income. The one thing standing in the way of holding out for X would be our past failure to obtain X. Hardly much solace in the moment, but future students of history might come to appreciate the irony.
Arbitrary consumer boycotts
All in all, a consumer boycott seems less expensive than a strike, financially speaking. However, we can’t afford simply to boycott every product. One constraint is that we need to consume things for our survival. Another is that our jobs depend upon aggregate demand. If not careful, we could boycott ourselves out of our livelihoods.
The key, then, is to be selective. Even better, random. No, not random. Arbitrary. One day we all decide, for no apparent reason, to take down corporation “Z” by boycotting its product. We don’t say why we chose Z. We just say, “give us X or we don’t buy Z’s stuff”. We all do it. Even those who really like Z’s stuff. Even if we’re not even that keen on X. Like, we’re the least committed of anybody in the fight for X and the biggest fans ever of Z’s stuff. We still do it. This takes discipline. But we reserve the right, at any time, to switch to the taking down of a different corporation instead. This keeps them all on their toes. They won’t know what might hit them, at any moment. Day or night.
We’d have to leave certain corporations alone. Most activism would grind to a halt if we took down Blogger, WordPress, Facebook or Twitter. We’d have to go back to snail mail. No! Let’s be arbitrary, by all means, but also sensible and considered.
I know what you’re thinking. There are flaws in this plan also. A corrupt government could always just bail out Z. For one giddy moment we might think we’d sent Z broke, and party in anticipation of X. But a currency-issuing government faces no revenue constraint, leaving our efforts easy to foil.
Maybe it could work in the Eurozone? No. The ECB could still come to the rescue. And Europeans couldn’t even vote the culprits out at the next election.
Sun Tzu’s art of war
The first three tactics, though interesting enough to ponder by the water cooler, appear to run into serious difficulties. Perhaps a fourth possibility can be contemplated. This will violate the comedic rule of three, so just as well we are being completely serious.
I don’t know if this last tactic really captures the full majesty of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Frankly, I’ve never read the book, but I do know (if Wikipedia can be trusted) that there are thirteen chapters and this tactic draws its inspiration from no less than twelve words selected from those chapters. That’s almost a word for each chapter. The passage in question, at least when translated into English, supposedly goes:
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Now that’s not bad, even if I do say so on Sun Tzu’s behalf. I think we may finally be on to something here. Let’s imagine, even if only for the sake of argument, that we’re strong. Sun Tzu’s strategic advice would then be for us to appear weak.
Okay. That really seems like something we can do.
It seems that the simplest – and least suspicious – way to apply this principle would be to keep doing exactly what we’ve been doing. Show up at the office or plant each day. Comply with orders. Take pay cuts, maybe get laid off, but keep consuming as best we can. All the stuff we normally do, except that now we do it to lull the powers that be into a false sense of security. They won’t suspect a thing.
They’ll think we’ve got no plan at all.