When the old is dying but the new has not been born yet a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) (paraphrased)
Of course, transition is not going to happen without the system fighting back. The first challenge when trying to address this is a difficulty to pin down the system. The existing system is not one thing, nor even a number of discrete things. Some of its aspects are everywhere and yet it is nowhere completely. It is partly physical and partly psychological – the latter permeating not only individual psychology but also the social zeitgeist. We need to bear this in mind when dealing with the system. Here, we will address three major avenues through which its fightback is channelled: political agencies, the corporate and financial sector, and system-generated populism. This is not to say that all political or governmental institutions are bad, or that the entire corporate and financial sector is rotten, or that every populist movement is malignant. If we fall into such black-and-white reasoning, we think as the system does, and we may lose potential allies in the worlds of politics, commerce, finance and popular movements. However, there is little doubt that parts of the political and corporate worlds, as well as some populist movements, consciously or unconsciously serve the system and will fight to preserve it. These forces may appear at loggerheads on the surface, but they are in fact united in resisting progressive change and preserving the status quo. Let’s consider how we can withstand such pressures and protect the change – and ourselves – from them.
We need to begin by understanding that neither the government nor the state is the same as the system. Most governments must serve the system to some extent, as they don’t want to see it collapse during their stewardship, but many governmental agencies do some good things too. For example, they may encourage the forming of co-ops, make recycling easier, invest in renewables, protect common areas, and so on. Many good initiatives that can contribute to a new system are supported and even initiated by the state (particularly in social democracies). It is also true, however, that most of the political apparatus will try to prevent or stall any substantial change. This can be frustrating, but do not get provoked by it. Knee-jerk responses are to sulk or even turn to violence, but neither is helpful. Many disillusioned people don’t vote as they believe that all politicians serve the system, and therefore it doesn’t really matter who is at the helm. This may be true to some extent, but who is in charge still matters as some may be at least less obstructive to creating parallel structures and, if nothing else, may buy us a bit more time rather than speeding up the runaway train. It is not so important if they are on the left or right or in the centre. What really counts is who is less likely to press the red button in a time of crisis and who is more mindful about the environment – the choice is no longer about who will do the better job, but who will do less damage in the process of the decline. Another extreme, violence, should be also avoided as much as possible (unless necessary in self-defence). Violence breeds violence and it does more damage to the cause or movement than it helps because, as a rule, far from winning hearts and minds it turns people off. So, what else we can do to resist political pressure? The first step is to try to get those in charge on your side by using existing channels of communication. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of people, especially at a local level, still go into politics for idealistic reasons and they may be helpful in bringing some constructive changes. There will, however, be some elements of the establishment that will fight back and they are getting more sophisticated. They have learned that using force and overt aggression against dissidents and activists can backfire. A passive-aggressive approach is less conspicuous and can arguably be as effective. It uses these tactics:
- Containing and ignoring: The biggest demonstration in the UK to date was against the Iraq invasion in 2003. Two million people throughout the country. Massive but peaceful. In response, the government that was planning the invasion did precisely nothing – it just ignored us. A similar tactic was used with the Occupy movement in 2008. An initial negative reaction was followed by the closing of eyes to the ‘settlements’. After a few months living in tents and not getting much attention, most protesters just got tired and left. The remaining few were easily dispersed following claims of widespread use of drugs and the appearance of guns. These public displays are still useful though, as they unite the opposition. Years after the Iraq demonstration, the question “Were you there?” would frequently pop up in casual conversation and if the answer was yes, a sense of bonding and comradeship would form straightaway. So if this is your thing, carry on, but do not expect too much in the short term.
- Marginalising is a tactic used with troublesome individuals. It consists of removing them from the system (e.g. making people lose their job and unable to get another one, as in the infamous anti-communist witch-hunt in the US in the 1950s). The banality of invisibility and poverty can wear one down even more than torture. However, in the age of the internet and social media, nobody can be made totally invisible anymore, so make a noise if there is an attempt to quietly marginalise you.
- Surveillance: Your phone may be tapped, your internet activity monitored, or your conversations eavesdropped via your electronic devices. If this happens, do not let it feed your ego and sense of self-importance, and most importantly, do not get paranoid. These things are an inconvenience that might be used against you, but in themselves do not harm you.
- Discrediting (smear campaigns): The system may try to find or invent something with which to turn the public against you. To minimise this possibility, don’t make yourself indispensable: this would make you a target (the mistake Julian Assange made). Always share. When the system tries to discredit and frame a whole organisation (such as the Stop the War Coalition in the UK) it is usually less successful. Decentralised movement is next to impossible to discredit.
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The corporate and financial sector
As the business world has at its disposal enormous sums of money, fighting the regressive elements within it is hard – but not impossible. After the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland arrested implicated bankers, financiers and politicians and closed or nationalised some parts of its financial sector. The process was, overall, relatively painless. However, Iceland is a very small nation with the population of a small city. Making such radical changes in countries like the USA or the UK would be much harder and would have far-reaching consequences. Society and the corporate and financial sectors are at the moment co-dependent, so any radical changes would come at a price. For example, if you succeed in undermining the financial sector, your parents may lose their pensions, or your mortgage may sky-rocket. Weakening the corporate sector may lead to a substantial loss of jobs and turn the public against you if there isn’t something else on offer. This is why it is important to be selective and try to get at least some elements of these sectors on your side. Not all CEOs and bankers, or for that matter, wealthy people are necessarily resisting the change and protecting the old system, and it would be a shame not to give them a chance to join and contribute to this evolution. However, the vast majority of these sectors will fight back, particularly those who benefit from the collateral damage they inflict on people and the environment. The usual means of pushing them back will hardly work. For example, they know that they do not have to win the argument about safety or environmental damage to prevail – they only have to keep the argument going. This is because the apparent lack of certainty helps to reassure customers, fend off government regulations, and deter lawsuits that might squeeze profits. Central to maintaining the argument is making it appear that not all experts agree (as in the case of climate change). This involves funding studies friendly to the industry while attacking those that raise questions; placing industry-friendly experts on advisory bodies such as the World Health Organization; and seeking to discredit scientists whose views differ from the industry’s. Finding existing friendly research is a holy grail for them because it conveys the impression that the scientific community is truly divided. Of course, it is important to hear both sides of an argument, but we cannot afford this to be used as a delaying tactic. It is only fair that, even if something is not absolutely certain but is very likely, we keep trying to stop them or resist them. Waiting until the damage is beyond doubt is often too late. Here are some steps that can be taken:
- Direct action (strikes, demonstrations and other public forms of protest) may sometimes be necessary and can be effective, particularly when selectively targeting specific ‘rotten apples’ rather than whole sectors.
- Consumer power: vote with your feet by not buying products from unethical companies.
- Divestment from multinationals that did business with South Africa in the apartheid era made a huge difference. Today, many charities, city councils, universities, NGOs, schools, governmental organisations, major shareholders and other institutions (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) are divesting from oil, coal and gas companies. Why not expand this to companies that are trying to rig the political system?
- Social media is, of course, essential. To win people’s hearts and minds, spreading accurate information and countering disinformation is crucial. Petitions can also put the spotlight on culprits. In these, as in many other cases, targeting the weakest link first, rather than the whole chain, usually produces better results.
- In the case of orchestrated attacks by a media financed by those who are protecting their own interests, it may sometimes be better to dig deeper. For instance, if the idea of global governance is publicly lampooned, exposing the real motive behind the lampooning may be more effective than responding to such attacks directly. When doing so, it is important that the response is on the same level. Simple attacks – simple responses; complex attacks – complex responses. For example, a response to ‘Global governance will take your freedom away!’ – could be ‘Global governance will liberate you from local oppressors.’ Simplistic? Indeed, but if somebody throws a stone at you, a chess move would not do.
That populism can be generated by the system may not be immediately obvious. For example, the nationalism of some populist movements may seem at odds with corporate-led globalisation. Closer inspection, however, easily shows that these two in fact support each other. Political defragmentation and the weakening of global institutions that nationalists desire suits multinational corporations perfectly well, as individual states are already powerless to challenge them effectively. Right-wing populists may scream and shout against refugees, but are conspicuously quiet about global trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that weaken national sovereignty much more and in a more fundamental way. They may be against the ‘establishment’, the ‘political elite’, or ‘experts’ but this is not because they want to fight the system – it is because they feel that these groups betrayed the system. Of course, not all popular movements are like that. In an attempt to avoid the perception of ideological bias, many social commentators tend to generalise and put them all in the same basket, ignoring substantial differences. It is true that the traditional left and right categories often no longer apply, but there may be another way to distinguish between them. Let’s consider the popular movement behind Bernie Sanders and that of Donald Trump’s supporters. Sanders campaigns for ‘democratic socialism’ (his model of evolving the system in the US). Trump, on the other hand, campaigns on the platform of being against Mexicans, Muslims, China, the media, the Clintons, scientists, etc. What unites the system-generated populists is mainly what they are against, be it refugees, Jews, Muslims, globalisation, or anything else; they are very thin on their vision of the future. They resist social evolution, hanker for ‘the good old days’ and mythologise the past (as implied in the slogan ‘Make America great again‘). For this reason it is fair to call the Sanders approach progressive populism, and the Trump approach regressive populism. Regressive populism is hugely dangerous, because it idealises a past that never actually existed. Consequently, if it prevails, the world may find itself in an even worse place than it is in now. We may end up looking back at this neo-liberal era with nostalgia (that is, if we survive as a species at all). The thinking style of this kind of populist is opposite to the one described in the preface. Evidence and facts do not matter to them, they do not deal well with complexities and rely on emotions rather than reasoning to make a point. They also have a low tolerance of uncertainty, so tend to congregate around strong leaders and ‘buy’ whatever they say, no matter how outlandish and untrue it is. Typical manifestations of such a mind-frame are nationalism, religious appropriation, xenophobia, an ‘us against them’ mentality, closed-mindedness, bigotry, and black-and-white thinking. At the heart of this kind populism is a mix of ignorance, selfishness and arrogance. Of course, the system did not invent these traits (they existed long before capitalism) but it has nurtured and encouraged them. Let’s consider these three more closely:
- Ignorance: The trouble with ignorance is the Dunning–Kruger effect, which, in short, means that the more ignorant someone is, the less they are able to realise that they are ignorant. Donald Trump is a good example – he has demonstrated on many occasions complete unawareness of his often staggering level of ignorance. Trying to inform such people doesn’t work, as they typically don’t want to learn, and we cannot force education on adults. They have a right to hold their own views and opinions, irrespective of how well or ill-informed they choose to be.
- Selfishness: In neo-liberal societies, selfishness has not only been legitimised but often made into a virtue. Consider this recent example. The singer Lily Allen publicly apologised to a child refugee for the UK not letting her in. Katie Hopkins, a media commentator known for her controversial right-wing views, tweeted: “Do not apologise for this country Allen, you cretin. This great country prefers to look after its own. Get over it.” In fact, Hopkins’ view is shared by a small minority of British people, but individuals like her, almost as a rule, speak in plural. This use of language is quite typical – when expressing their selfish or bigoted views, such people invariably start with ‘we’, ‘this country’ or some similar wording. Paradoxically, they seek refuge for their selfishness in collectivism! Of course, the irony of this escapes them, but the fact that they attract media attention at all shows to what extent selfishness is normalised.
- Arrogance: The first two traits lead naturally to arrogance. When people talk about being against the ‘elite’, this is not because they want a more egalitarian society, but because they want to retain their own privileged status or aspire to becoming part of a new ‘elite’. They want to feel superior even if there is no basis for such feelings. They do not fight the system, but rather the progressives or the weak (refugees, immigrants and other minority groups) who they see as a threat to their retaining or gaining the upper hand. This sort of arrogance is usually a compensation for deep-seated low self-value combined with fear and other emotions.
In a way, we can see these three as defence mechanisms that are projected outward when the system starts crumbling. From this perspective, it is not surprising that populism rises when the system is declining, and we can expect populist pressure to increase. Nevertheless, here too we should resist the temptation of black-and-white thinking and an in-group / out-group mentality. Populism is described above in sweeping and somewhat stark terms, but in reality there are many shades of grey even in regressive populism. Moreover, some individuals may be regressive in certain aspects, but progressive in others. Bearing this in mind may be particularly important when choosing who to engage with: what they stand for may be less important than how they stand for it. Three broad categories can be discerned in terms of how: moderate, hard and extreme, which may – but not always –coincide with moderate, hard and extreme views. It is better to engage with somebody who has extreme views but is moderate in arguing for them, than with somebody who has moderate or even progressive views, but their point making is extreme. To keep this in mind, we will call them the how extremists.
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Moderate populists are driven by reason and rational argument. They may align ideologically with some populist ideas but are, at least to some extent, open to reasonable discussion. With them it is worth engaging irrespective of how far their views are from your own. One way of doing so is cultivating a nuanced response:
- Avoid condemning or judging, as these do not work. Besides, such responses would make you close to hard populists (see below) – in form if not in content.
- Rather than challenging people and their conclusions, agree with them on what you can and challenge their assumptions and the way they have reached their conclusions. Then, perhaps you can consider alternatives together. For example, if they believe that selfishness and competition are the main driving forces in human society, acknowledge their willingness to engage in a rational dialogue and then examine with them the foundations of such beliefs and possible alternatives.
- Appeal to the better side of their nature: “You don’t seem to belong to the same ilk as x [somebody or something more extreme]”. This may not get them on your side, but can still be beneficial. Why do populist movements have a disproportional impact? Because they gloss over differences and, by doing so, appear to have much greater appeal. Do not let them get away with it.
Hard populists are driven by fear. They tend to listen to themselves rather than others, use emotions, shout, and exhibit ‘righteous anger’. As they seek emotional certainty, they find it difficult to keep an open mind, yet some degree of open-mindedness is needed for dialogue to bear fruit. Even so, engaging with hard populists might sometimes be necessary (at least to limit the spread of misinformation). These tips may help:
- Try to help them alleviate their fears and feel safe in relation to the topic of your discussion and also by the way of conducting the discussion. This can be surprisingly effective.
- Evidence, facts and rational argument may not cut the ice with those who does not see their value. So, demonstrate that these do have value by sticking to them, rather than letting hard populists provoke you into descending to their level.
- When they go low, go ‘meta’ – talk about talking itself, rather than about the issue at hand (e.g. “I get the impression that you want me to care about your opinion, and you don’t seem to care about mine. Can you see why that cannot work?”).
- If these suggestions do not work, talk past them to the audience, those who are listening. Winning their hearts and minds may be more realistic and more important.
Extreme populists are driven by hate and aggression. They are set in their ways, no matter what, and do not engage with anybody outside their echo chamber except with hostility. They are not interested in a dialogue, but draw pleasure from attacking others and emotional abuse. Attempting to talk at all to the how extremists is usually a waste of time. It is better to isolate and ignore them. Only thing that should be made clear over and over again is that they do not represent the people or the nation. Even if they have thousands of followers, that is a drop in an ocean in country of, say, 50 million people. So we should be able to say loudly “do not speak in our name – you and your ilk are alone in this”. And then leave them alone. Like bullies, they thrive on reactions and attention, so depriving them of these is the best response. You can redirect your reactions generated by these kinds of populists to some good causes: for example, in a small German town, Wunsiedel, local residents and businesses, fed up with neo-Nazis marching through it, ‘sponsored’ the participants of a march in what was dubbed Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon”. For every metre they walked, €10 went to a programme called EXIT Deutschland, which helps people escape extremist groups. Similarly, Troll Aid, part of French charity Calais Action, encourages supporters to donate whenever they spot instances of trolls targeting refugees with online abuse, rather than simply getting upset by it. The funds raised are then used to support migrant relief projects. In both cases, the marchers and the trolls are made aware of their contributions by ‘thank you’ messages and pedometers indicating how much money they have inadvertently helped raise (a similar initiative has recently been launched for Trump’s tweets).
Intimidation and abuse
We have already touched upon intimidation and abuse related to specific categories, but some examples of such hostility go across the board and may need additional consideration. They can take several forms:
Virtual intimidation has become a big industry in the form of trolling and bots:
- Sponsored trolling: we are well beyond spontaneous trolls. Many are now well-organised networks, financed (and sometimes even set up) by political, corporate and other agencies. They are definitely not worth engaging with, but are difficult to recognise. There are some tell-tell signs though: as they need to survey and engage with many messages and discussions on a daily basis, their comments are usually brief and formulaic (you can find identical texts on different feeds by apparently different individuals); also, they usually work in pairs, trying to create a mini echo-chamber within a discussion. Do not be tempted to engage in communication with them. Their main purpose is actually to provoke you into saying or writing something that can be used against you. In fact, the best defence in this case is not to attract attention (e.g. limit arguing on Facebook and other social media – that’s a waste of time anyway). Only engage and risk attracting attention when there is a reasonable chance of making a substantial difference.
- Bots: at the very basic level, a bot is a social media account which is pre-programmed to do stuff without real people having to do much. A botnet is a group of fake accounts that can tweet, like and post together. Commercial botnets can have tens of thousands of fake accounts. The use of such accounts has become more advanced with the shift towards the robotisation of trolling. The hope is that sheer quantity will produce results even, if the quality is low. They are mainly used to manipulate the public and spread disinformation. Using bots to get hashtags trending on Twitter is one of their most effective ways. A group of perhaps a dozen people can create the impression of anything between 20,000 and 40,000 tweets in an hour, and push the relevant hashtag into the trending lists. It’s been reported that close to half of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are bots, used to spread and amplify those tweets. A bot can be identified by the three A’s: activity (a hyperactive account (e.g. a few hundred thousand tweets in a single year); anonymity (a cartoon or blurred image of one’s avatar and no meaningful bio); and amplification (drumming what is essentially the same message over and over again). Learning how to recognise these signs is your best defence against bots.
Verbal abuse and intimidation (in person or online) is used to win an argument when it is lost. This can be a challenge because of our natural urge to respond in kind, but the biggest mistake in such situations is to let yourself descend to that level. If you do so, you lose, even if you can shout louder. Instead, acknowledge what’s happening by saying something like: “having to resort to verbal abuse just shows that even you have realised you have lost this argument”. If the other party continues abusing you, they will just make your point stronger.
Physical violence is a form of intimidation and abuse that you will hopefully never experience. If you do find yourself in such a situation, you may face a choice to either fight back or run away. There is no shame or glory in either; you need to think, in a cool-headed way, which is the best option strategically to protect yourself and others. If neither option is possible, try to minimise the damage by protecting the most vulnerable parts of your body (your groin, head and neck). If you can, record the incident or signal somebody else to do so. What happens after is what matters. You are not defeated if you get a broken bone, you are only defeated if you have a broken spirit. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, stand up again, get public, get organised and get support.
It is hoped that when you have finished reading this materials, you will be motivated to start doing something. So, rather than making conclusions or summaries, let’s keep the momentum going. You may want to return to specific suggestions in a particular area of your interest, but in the main, it is most important to get together with like-minded and even semi-like-minded people (leave fighting each other for later, after you have first dealt with the greater challenge of setting the course of social change in a progressive direction and diverting it from destructive or regressive paths). For example, you can start a MeetUp group – this platform even has a specific #Resist MeetUp option for this purpose that is active in many countries (as in 2019). If you are in the USA, you may find the resistance manual useful for a number of specific areas and issues. Whatever you do, keep going – you cannot be defeated if you do not give up.
What about Fake News?
 A set of collectively shared ideas and beliefs.
 In 1995, philanthropist Chuck Collins co-founded the non-profit advocacy group United for a Fair Economy. Later, he formed Wealth for the Common Good, which recently morphed into Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy individuals who advocate a tax system that serves regular Americans. Resource Generation, is a non-profit formed more than 20 years ago that works with wealthy people between the ages of 18 and 35 to encourage them to devote a portion of their financial assets to social causes, including addressing the economic divides between the haves and the have-nots, as well as race and gender discrimination. The organisation encourages members to think beyond quick fixes, and instead concentrate on using their money to get at the structural issues causing harm.