Beautiful Trouble: Creative tools for social change

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution
'It is easy to imagine, reading this book, thousands of great actions taking place'

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution is an endlessly fascinating and unique guide to actually fighting to win. While you might ask why else would you fight if not to win then you haven't observed much of the political and social action over the past few decades.

It often seems that we fight the right and corporations and reactionary governments almost as if to say we did. Perhaps we don't expect to win (not entirely unreasonable given what we are up against) but there is no excuse not fighting smart, strategically and for not using the best possible tactics, theories and examples of victories that we can bring to bear. The problem, of course, is that unless we have these tools at hand there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel each time, learning as we go. Given that progressive battles have so few resources to start with, this is tragic.

Andrew Boyd and Dave Mitchell (along with dozens of contributors) have put an extraordinary amount of work into this book and have compiled a truly remarkable set of suggestions on how to take on the panoply of powerful adversaries that are busy destroying the planet, democracy and everything else that is decent. Organized into two-page entries under "tactics" (31 entries), "principles" (53), "theories" (30) and "case studies" (34) the 450 pages make for entertaining reading even if you aren't about to take to the barricades tomorrow.

Each contribution (by individual contributors) is accompanied by references related items scattered throughout the book so that, for example, the theory "hashtag politics" ("By strategically defining the hashtag and curating the ensuing conversation, you can expand and deepen your support base.") is accompanied by a list of related tactics, principle, theories and case studies that deepen the understanding and usefulness of hashtagging. Each example also has a list of common uses, further insights and practitioners.

Some of the more interesting contributions include "thinking narratively" -- the principle that storytelling is one of the most effective ways of getting people on side with your perspective -- in contrast to what we hyper-rationalists often think will work: piling on the facts and figures to prove our points. Another example: using the power of ritual to give what might be just another demonstration greater moral force (a candlelight vigil) or just a stronger story line. Media-jacking is the tactic of undermining your opponent's story line by hijacking their event to highlight your message (I once escorted Brian Mulroney's election bus entourage into Moose Jaw with my Toyota Tercel sporting two giant U.S. flags).

Among the great case studies that should serve to inspire even the most demoralized activists are descriptions of the battle for Seattle, the Billionaires for Bush parody, the teddy-bear catapult and the tar sands action that halted (for now at least) the XL pipeline that would have allowed for the massive expansion of the tar sands. The case studies are a wonderful antidote to defeatism because as you read the examples -- and recall your own successes -- you know that you could do those actions, too.

One of the clearest analyses I have seen of the controversial tactics of the Black Bloc is provided under the title Hamoc & Hamas -- contrasting intelligent, enthusiastic anger (hamas in Arabic) with hamoq (uncontrolled, stupid anger). Contributed by George Monbiot it describes how the police frequently strategically allow the destruction of private property (often with no distinction between local vendors and multinationals) and then beat peaceful protesters on the pretense of looking for the violent perpetraters. The beauty of hamas is that "People can see immediately what you are doing and why you are doing it" while hamoq "leaves spectators dumbfounded."

Just to whet your appetite, here are some other gems from "principles": "Brand or be branded," "Consensus is a means, not an end," "Escalate strategically," "Make new folks welcome," "Reframe." "Don't dress like a protester," "No one wants to watch a drum circle," "Use the law, don't be afraid of it." And under "theories": "Commodity fetishism," "The commons," and "The tactics of everyday life." Some of the more inspiring tactics -- the "Banner Hang," "Eviction blockade," "Flash mob" and "culture jamming."

Of course, one of the problems of a book this good at what it sets out to do is that you tend to expect it to do everything, which, of course, it can't. I am not sure why the authors decided not to have a section on strategy; for lack of strategic thinking is one of the greatest weaknesses of movement politics. Strategy involves bringing together all the other elements which are covered in the book -- theory, principles and tactics -- into a coherent plan of action. Having a rich section on strategic thinking -- with examples like conjunctural analysis, would have given a context for the other elements and made them less of a list of isolated pieces of the organizing puzzle. The book implicitly assumes that you already have a strategy or know how to develop one. To be fair, it would be hard to give a comparable list of two-page lessons on strategy but the authors should have tried.

The global political context that all activists face is extremely important but the structure of the book allows for just two pages on Capitalism. The biggest threat to the world it could be argued is rampant consumerism -- which is referred to (as commodity fetishism) but again two pages doesn't do the topic justice. I can see why the authors didn't divert from their structure -- once you start writing about the context, including the ravages of neo-liberalism you are into another whole book. But an effort at a summary would have been helpful.

As I look back at 40 years plus of my own activism it strikes me that this book would have been even more useful 30 years ago. That's when governments at least paid lip service to democracy and there were real debates about public policy. We now have governments that barely tolerate democratic debate and in the U.S. it could be argued that we are seeing the building block of fascism being put into place. The forces aligned against us are formidable and ruthless and will ultimately only respond to power.

It is easy to imagine, reading this book, thousands of great actions taking place all over Canada and the U.S., using the Toolbox. But the other thing the book does not really address (and doesn't claim to) is how to motivate people in such scary times. We need to address the fact that tens of thousands of people aren't in the streets over what is happening here and south of the border. They should be. The left has failed in the way we do politics to, in radical Rabbi Michael Lerner's words, give people's lives meaning. People cared about Michael Jackson's death more than they did about the state of their communities. Why?

To turn things around we need a genuine mass movement of socially and environmentally conscious people who actually recognize that devoting their lives to the accumulation of more stuff is both unrewarding and is destroying the planet. But figuring out how to do that is another book. And maybe such a movement will emerge from thousands of smaller actions.—Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee.

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