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Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action'
An exchange on How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action

John Wood


Paul Raskin asks about what is needed to create a global citizens movement (GCM). In my dissertation, “Unity Alongside Diversity: The Qualitative Assessment of the Movement of Movements’ Capacity to Unite,” which is now turning ten years old, I called for a new empowerment strategy that engages activists who hold different worldviews to work together and align. I analyzed 55 social movement organizations (SMOs) in the Anti-Globalization Movement. From my more recent observance of the Occupy Movement, not a whole lot has changed structurally.

I found that what I call the “Movement of movements” was in a state of thin unity, largely focused on single issues, fighting tactical turf battles, and with a deficiency of trust, all of which are fueled by a competition for scarce resources. However, the common ground I empirically found among SMOs in regard to grievances, values, enemies, and relationship building can provide bridges to uniting with a deeper and robust unity.

Every relationship is in tension between and among those who differ on what problems they perceive plague them and what to do to alleviate their specific situation(s). For example, the Zapatistas reject a politics based on the control of the state or a desire to hold power over others; they instead seek to participate in the creation of a new type of “world capable of holding many worlds.”1 While the Zapatistas are not above tensions among themselves on whether they should follow the path of isolation or not, their contribution to social movement theory is a pragmatic implementation of Foucault’s multiplicity of resistances that challenge the notion of one right way to perceive an alternative world. This means multiplicity goes beyond the Movement of movements and opens up the inclusion of every group that resists oppression of any kind with the desire to align with other groups to enhance its mobilization potential.

In every collectivity, activists are embedded within the twin strands of autonomy and solidarity. Finding the right balance between competing interests is paramount. Tensions arise between social movement organizations (SMOs), not because they have followed the wrong course, but because we live in a difficult and contradictory world. We, therefore, need a shift of metaphors within social movement scholarship, where, what I call, the “Relational Empowerment Strategy” is a democratic ideal. This strategy is not charged to build a house; instead, it is a conversation to be had. It is not a blueprint for action, the way a draftsman plots a building’s construction, but alternatively, it creates a framework, forcing people into a conversation, a way to deliberate across difference and systematize a method to visualize a shared future. This strategy provides space for a deliberative democracy where SMOs must engage and test their ideas against an external reality, persuading others to their point of view, shifting alliances of consent. The process forces SMOs to persuade, but not coerce. It forces SMOs to examine their own point of view and entertain the possibility that they are not always right. It challenges SMOs to examine their motives and interests constantly and suggests that their own activists’ individual and collective points of view are simultaneously legitimate and fallible.

This new empowerment theory has four parts. First, I theorize that movement actors associated with SMOs must view the world as complex and oppressions as interrelated. Second is restoring a sense of autonomy or capability to the individual SMO in balance with a collective social justice of the Movement of movements as a whole. The third part is a balance between an organic and mechanical decision-making structure and tactical opposition to power. The fourth part utilizes deliberation as a way to transform conflict, balancing the aforementioned two parts. This deliberation is facilitated through reframing of grievances, tactics, and visions through values in the context of organizing.

The Relational Empowerment Strategy goes beyond a simple allies-versus-enemies approach based on fear, fueling a self-fulfilling prophecy. The strategy is built instead on activists’ deeper, once unarticulated hopes and imagination through free spaces with consistent deliberation that allows for ambiguity, empathy through recognition, and communication of values and visions. From the articulation of shared hopes and dreams to that of collective fears emerges shared ground—our humanity. This strategy is a beginning, shifting empowerment from a stance focused on taking power over to an emphasis on sharing power with. This new emphasis on the latter is important in creating a concatenation, or a linking of chains of equivalence, among SMOs in working relationships of a division of labor. The former power-over relationship leaves movements fragmented in competition with the goal to take power from others. So, far this strategy has failed to gain traction; therefore, a new empowerment strategy is paramount in challenging power with a balanced focus on reflexive identity within a political space. A power-with relationship is a positive power, one that considers agenda and coalition-building associations vital but without leaving uniqueness behind. Therefore, this empowerment strategy takes the long view in which activists can strive to obtain an emboldened unity that flourishes alongside a multifaceted diversity.



1. Alex Khasnabish, “The International Order of Hope: Zapatismo and the Fourth World War,” in Indigenous Peoples and Autonomy: Insights for a Global Age, eds. Mario Blaser, Ravi de Costa, Deborah McGregor, and William Coleman (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 221-240.


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John Wood
John Wood is an associate professor of public administration in the MPA program at the University of Central Oklahoma. He teaches about leadership, policy, management, and sustainability on the local level, and is the author of the edited volume Taking Sides: Clashing Views in State & Local Government.



Cite as John Wood, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action,'" Great Transition Initiative (December 2017), http://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/problem-action-john-wood.




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