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The tactics of everyday life

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In Sum

Tactics are not a subset of strategy, but a democratic response to it.


Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).

Strategy and tactics, as the concepts are commonly understood, have their roots in military theory. The French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, however, drew a distinction between the two terms that leaps over some of the martial history of these ideas.

In military parlance, strategy is the identification of key campaigns that are necessary to accomplish the main objective — in most cases, winning the war. Operations are the level of planning that determines key battles necessary to win campaigns. Tactics are those techniques that are required to win battles. So the tactic is subordinate to the campaign, which is subordinate to the strategy. Those who adapt the model inherit the hierarchy in which it is based.

De Certeau took a different approach, positing tactics not as subordinate to strategy but as opposed to it. He wrote about people in their everyday lives, not in conditions of extremity and conflict, in a book fittingly entitled The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).

The setting of strategy, notes de Certeau, is always the purview of power. Strategy presumes control. Strategy is self-segregating, in the same way administration and management are self-segregating, setting itself up as a barricaded insider. The strategic leaders become the Subject; the led and the enemy become the Objects. Strategy presumes an in-group that carries out campaigns.

In contrast to strategy, de Certeau characterizes tactics as the purview of the non-powerful. He understands tactics not as a subset of strategy, but as an adaptation to the environment, which has been created by the strategies of the powerful. The city planning commission may determine what streets there will be, but the local cabbie will figure out how best to navigate the lived reality of those streets. This art of making-do is what de Certeau calls bricolage, a process that often implies cooperation as much as competition.

Strategy, de Certeau recognizes, makes two presumptions: control and an in-group. The inherent contradiction of strategy is that the control is never perfect and the situation upon which the strategy was constructed is always changing, which constantly makes aspects of the strategy obsolescent. The self-segregation of in-groups magnifies these myopic aspects of strategy, because the walls that keep others out also obscure their vision. Strategy becomes dangerously self-referential.

Tactics, on the other hand, are action in a constant state of reassessment and correction, based directly on observations of the actual environment. Tactical theorist John Boyd rather schematically diagrammed this process as an “OODA-loop,” in which people observe their surroundings (O), orient on the most important developments in the environment (O), decide on an immediate course of action (D), take that action (A), then revert immediately to observation of the environment to see how their last action might have changed it (orienting again, deciding again, acting again, in a perpetual adaptive loop). There is no presumption of how things will turn out, as there is in strategy. Instead, there is readiness to take advantage of unpredictable changes; this is called tactical agility, and it is often what sets popular uprisings apart from the institutions they seek to overthrow: they have strategy, we have tactics.

Strategies are undermined by unpredictability. Tactics make an ally of unpredictability.

Stan Goff spent over two decades in the U.S. Army, mostly special operations, from 1970-1996. He has worked as Organizing Director for Democracy South, a 12-state coalition working on money and politics (1996-2001), and as an Organizational Development Consultant with Iraq Veterans Against the War (2004-2006). Married, with four grown children and four grandchildren, he is the author of four books including Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press, 2001) and Sex & War (Lulu Press, 2006).

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