Shock doctrine of the left: a strategy for building socialist counterpower

2016 has been a chaotic year. Twice in the space of 6 months, we have been left reeling by a political event of global significance, with both the Brexit vote in June and the election of Trump in November. In both cases, we knew of the dates in advance, and the possibility of the outcome. And yet in neither case has the left been fully prepared for these moments. We are, as always, on the back foot.

In the weeks following Trump’s victory, many arguments have broken out over what is the best way for the left to move forward. Do we put all our energies into supporting radical electoral candidates like Jeremy Corbyn, or is the rise of fascism the final nail in the social democratic coffin? Do we focus on building egalitarian economic alternatives in the cracks, or smashing the state head-on? Or maybe we just ride it out, just try our best to build a culture of care for each other, to help us survive in this terrifying world before a better one comes along.

These various ways of approaching social change tend to correspond to broad divisions on the left. For some, like certain revolutionary socialists, direct action to disrupt or destroy systems is the way. Others stay away from the state, creating their own economic alternatives which aim to take over in the future – in workers cooperatives, Transition towns, or creating the ‘digital commons’. A more interpersonal approach is taken in the formation of communities of care, such as among LGBT people, disabled people and people of colour, to try to create spaces and practices which enable marginalised people to survive in the here and now. And of course there’s the electoral route, currently en vogue among the radical left in Britain, aiming to support a social democratic candidate to take power through mainstream electoral means and reform its way to socialism. Drawing on and altering Erik Olin Wright’s typology of strategic logics, we might refer to these as Smashing, Building, Healing and Taming. Whilst these rarely occur in complete isolation from each other, the categories are useful for focusing our minds on the pros and cons of different approaches.

Taken alone, all of these strategies have failed. But all of them have also had their successes. An alternative is to combine their strengths and weaknesses into a coherent meta-strategy, aiming to unify the left around a common strategic framework whilst maintaining the autonomy of groups within it. This is not simply a vague ‘diversity of tactics’, but an analysis of how those different tactics and broader strategies can feed into one another. What follows is a proposal for such a framework; not a blueprint to be dogmatically followed, but an initial idea to be tried, tested, and adapted.

The vehicle for this meta-strategy is an ‘ecology of organisations’.

Core elements of the ecology

Numerous commentators have called for a turn towards an ecology of organisations – Plan C’s theory of the Social Strike, and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s counter hegemonic project in Inventing the Future both rely on this concept. However, an outline of the features of such an ecology, or how it might be built, has yet to be specified. We can combine ideas from social movement studies literature, with those found in the study of ecological resilience and complex adaptive systems, for lessons in how to create a growing, dominant and resilient network of resistance and alternatives. We have to be careful of course, because for all the similarities of dynamics found between social systems and ecologies, they are not one and the same. Social systems are fundamentally maintained through communication of symbols and the capacity for conscious reflection, unlike material ecological systems. But with that proviso in mind, we can nonetheless bring together a series of conceptual tools for some guidance on building counterpower in a network society.

1. DNA

To begin with, each group should have an explicit ‘DNA’. Borrowing from the work of organiser Marshall Ganz, this means a clear and simple layout of their shared story, strategy and structure. The story of a group tells us what is wrong with the world and what could be right; the strategy spells out what the groups will do and what their theory of change is; while the structure reflects the groups principles and dictates how decisions are made.

An organisation’s DNA is used to replicate it virally but sustainably. Instead of a paid organiser slowly building up an organisation in a new area, you deliver a clear DNA through training to recruits, and allow them to work autonomously. This allows decentralised growth and collective action, without an internal hierarchy or command-and-control structure. Clear and replicable DNA also helps to combat the entropy often seen in rapidly growing organisations, such as the ideological drift and lack of strategic clarity of Occupy.

The ecology itself should also have a DNA, to ensure all groups are working in concert, without having to give up their autonomy, and without the ecology needing a leadership. The ‘unity’ is instead inscribed in the organisations themselves and their interactions, with a story, strategy and structure that can resonate together. It should for example make it clear that your alternatives refuse to be sucked into the existing capitalist system, and intend to replace it – as in the callout by Catalan Integral Cooperative for an international network of anti-capitalist cooperatives, which became the FairCoop principles.

2. Replication

The method of replication – and therefore growth – is face-to-face training. It must be comprehensive enough that people can leave with the confidence to start their own subgroup of an organisation immediately. It must contain clear processes for collective action without any top-down control. And it must be bodily and emotionally engaging enough to stir people to start organising.

Although there is no hierarchy to the ecology, there should however be one or more autonomous groups – possibly those who crafted the DNA – whose task is to help keep the ecology healthy and resilient, find where there are gaps, to offer subsequent training to continually develop groups and individuals, and to guide new people through the network. But they should have no decision making power over other groups whatsoever.

Another aspect of replication is training the trainers. Giving people the knowledge, tools and confidence to be able to host their own face-to-face trainings in their local area is key to viral replication, and helps gives a material, geographically contiguous basis to the ecology that can be missing with purely online virality.

3. Catalyst

Chaos is a final critical part of the mix, and is what makes this a ‘Shock Doctrine’. This term, coined by Naomi Klein, is usually applied to the neoliberal strategy of using moments of chaos to privatise public services, start wars, and spread their ideology. The left should be equally prepared for these moments, but instead use them to strengthen our ecology, and eventually (once at an appropriate size and breadth of function) to use that ecology to shut down failed capitalist systems.

Moments of both planned chaos (such as the buzz around a successful direct action and large media coverage) and unplanned chaos (from political events like Trump’s victory) blow apart social and psychological links, providing a short period of time in which systems are freed up to be reorganised. These are the moments for people to be brought into the ecology through training, for new organisations to be formed, and for new links between disparate groups to be established. We should constantly await these moments, and aim to create them ourselves.

The meta-strategy

The ecology’s DNA must take the four logics into account – Smashing, Building, Healing, Taming. It should, in other words:

  • allow for direct action, where done specifically to create public support for the ecology,
  • facilitate aid to that action through alternative organisations, such as delivering free food to strikes, or providing spaces to organise in,
  • foster a caring atmosphere, with support for mental health issues, and a constructive, solidarity-based anti-oppression culture,
  • allow people to engage with the state, but only on the basis of gaining reforms which support the ecology – roughly what Andre Gorz called ‘non-reformist reforms’.

The latter might be things like campaigning for the decriminalisation of squatting, removal of laws against solidarity strikes, or lowering the working week. The ecology should refuse to formally support any specific candidate or party – there should even be no mechanism which would allow anyone to make that decision for the whole ecology (though individual groups are free to support whoever they like). It should however be clear about its demands from any government, as encoded in its DNA. Autonomy from the state and political parties is crucial, as otherwise it risks being derailed for reformist means in the long run. But this cannot come at the expense of being able to affect decisions made by these actors. What must be avoided is tight coupling between systems – such as between a movement and a political party – which leaves one vulnerable to shockwaves passing through the other. Too tight an interlinkage would leave the ecology less resilient in the face of a changing environment. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be any engagement with electoral politics, but that a synchronisation of the entire ecology with any political party would be incredibly risky

With this DNA in place, along with the crucial mechanisms of replication (formal training/induction) and a catalyst (planned or unplanned chaos), the four strategies can then become four self-amplifying feedback loops which all strengthen the ecology:

Direct action creates moments of chaos, bringing new people in, and strengthening the ecology. This increased capacity is used to support and establish alternative organisations, which in turn provide material solidarity to those taking direct action (such as in Spain’s ‘solidarity economy‘). New entrants are inducted into an ethic of care from the get-go through the DNA, including an understanding of accountability processes, awareness of oppressive power relations, and of human social needs (such as having fun occasionally!). This makes for a more resilient movement, where those who normally drift away or become marginalised on the left can instead thrive. And as the ecology grows, it gains legitimacy as a political force. This means it is more likely to see the reforms it wants, specifically those which help to strengthen the ecology.

Each strategy is therefore contributing to the growth of the ecology. Energy is absorbed from the social environment in moments of chaos, and new people are empowered. People aren’t drifting away, entropy is reduced. Common goals, strategy and structure are set in the ecology’s DNA, without interfering with the autonomy of groups or individuals.

Grand strategy

So what then? How does our ecology become dominant? It might grow endlessly but still be outdone by capitalism, never mind the dangers of endless growth itself. This is where mass non-cooperation comes in – or if you prefer, the ‘general social strike’

First, the ecology must include local alternative democratic councils outside the state, allowing for coordination in the face of state collapse. This bears some resemblance into the classic strategy of dual power, but here, decentralisation through DNA is again crucial to help prevent these institutions being sucked back into a new authoritarian state.

Once the ecology is large enough, it demands that the state cedes control. If it refuses, we perform mass non-cooperation to shut down those systems. In the meantime, we support our alternatives to take over completely. Showing that our alternatives are capable of running without a centralised state or capitalist enterprises will provide them greater legitimacy, and embed them more deeply in the fabric of society. We can reiterate strikes if necessary to allow consecutive deepening of institutions and crushing of capitalism.

Just ‘organising a general strike’ might sound like wishful thinking, but a very similar model of DNA, replication and catalyst was successfully used by the Egyptian April 6 Movement, and also by the Serbian group Otpor to build a strike that toppled Milošević (though in the case of the latter, let’s not make their ridiculous error of accepting funding from the US government). Both of those movements failed partly because they had no strategy for what to do after the toppling of a regime, and so existing powerful actors took their place. In this alternative strategy, we have alternatives with a shared vision ready and waiting to take over at the moment of a revolutionary rupture.

For all of its horror and unpredictability, chaos is also highly productive – but only if we are properly prepared. In the run up to the US election, some were putting forward an ‘accelerationist’ argument for deliberately voting Trump, in order to cause chaos to the neoliberal order – much as those did who argued for a ‘Lexit’. The folly of this strategy is not so much that it can’t work, but that the left is in no way strong enough (nor for that matter, was a sophisticated enough strategy laid out) to deal with the catastrophic outcomes and prevent it from causing massive harm. Deliberate crisis should only be caused at first on a small scale, and then escalated over time, so that our infrastructure for dealing with the fallout matches the gravity of the chaos created. We are not there yet, not even close. But if we start today, we can create an ecology of organisations and practices that enable us to be ready for the next time society is turned on its head, and to use that to bring about a new world.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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