” … cover(s) a broad terrain, yet manages to go into a lot of detail, venturing well beyond sloganeering.”

Carl Rowlands, New Left Project

Make your actions both concrete and communicative

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In Sum

Concrete tactics have measurable goals and are designed to have a direct physical impact. Communicative ones can be more symbolic. Knowing the difference and planning accordingly is important.

To varying degrees, all tactics might be concrete and communicative. When activists confuse the two, the results can be counter-productive.

A tactic is concrete to the degree that it seeks to achieve a specific, quantifiable objective. For example, anti-war organizers may seek to blockade a port to keep a shipment of weapons from passing through. There is a specific goal, a tangible cost for the port and the companies that use it, and a way to evaluate success: either we stop the weapons or we don’t.

A tactic is communicative insomuch as it communicates a political position, set of values or worldview. A mass march in response to an injustice can fall into this category. Communicative tactics can be useful for exciting our base, building networks, seeking to sway public opinion, or scaring a target, but often do not have a specific, measurable, activating, realistic, time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.) goal. Success is more qualitative.

To succeed, concrete tactics must force a response from the target see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma. Communicative tactics might have a target, but can also work without one.

While some actions can be both communicative and concrete, it is important to understand the difference. People often get discouraged by direct action because they take part in a communicative action and expect a concrete outcome. It’s better to be clear from the beginning about the difference, so that everyone knows how to measure, and contribute to, the action’s impact[1]

Consider an Occupy Wall Street effort to blockade the entrance to Goldman Sachs. At the action planning meeting, because there was no clarity about whether the action was communicative or concrete, at first the discussion was circular and unproductive. Some wanted people to lock arms in a simple human blockade see TACTIC: Blockade, others wanted to up the ante by using chains and other “hard gear.” Using gear has the benefit of staying power (it’s more difficult for the police to remove you), but it carries much greater risk and is more difficult to deploy. It became clear the group had neither time nor numbers to blockade every single exit. Therefore, if the action was conceived as concrete (trying to shut down Goldman Sachs), it would fail because it could not achieve a realistic instrumental outcome. If it was communicative, however — a symbolic act to amplify a message — it could be successful. Furthermore, a communicative action might have a powerful expressive outcome by building the resolve, connection and commitment of participants by offering them a cathartic, transformative experience. When participants agreed to carry out a communicative action, the staying power of the blockade gear was no longer needed: there was no tactical advantage to holding the space longer. Instead, the group decided to go with a human blockade, which played better in the media (a main indicator of success for them in this action). If activists hadn’t assessed the purpose of their action and understood their goals, they likely would have made less strategic choices.

  1. [1] The categories “concrete” and “communicative” are ways to measure the instrumental outcome of an action, as opposed to its expressive dimension. The expressive part of your action is focused on the self-expression of participants, while the instrumental outcome of an action is concerned with your action’s more direct impacts (see THEORY: Expressive and instrumental actions).

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.

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