Be realistic, demand the impossible

In 2001, Howard Clark authored this piece for War Resisters’ International on the dangers inherent in extending the degree of social mobilisation. A common tendency for many of us is to mistake militancy for empowerment. Such militancy, however, has its price.

Howard Clark
21 November 2014
Tuition fees protest, London, 2010. Demotix/Guy Corbishley. All rights reserved.

Tuition fees protest, London, 2010. Demotix/Guy Corbishley. All rights reserved.Look back at an experience of empowerment, and I wonder if it now seems to you that it was just a feeling you had at the time. Back then you or your group somehow gathered the strength to make a difference, or at least feel that you made a difference. You may have changed something permanently, but the feeling was ephemeral. It wore off. A sense of empowerment is something that needs to be recreated continually.

Forms of empowerment – types of activity, attitudes, styles – spread by contagion. But after a while we begin to look for improvement, some benchmark to surpass – an additional element, an innovation, better results. So a street action that is empowering the first time we take part, soon begins to need something new – more people, a wider range of groups, more impact. But when it gets difficult to extend the degree of social mobilisation, a common tendency for many of us is to mistake militancy for empowerment. So people escalate the action hoping for similar results in terms of, say, disruption and press coverage. Such militancy, however, has its price. It often increases the social marginalisation activists experience, and in turn is likely to narrow the social base for the actions. So it can lead into a disempowering downward spiral, reducing the prospect for change either on the question under debate or on how social power is constructed.

In this article, I want to look at the need for strategy and in particular, in the context of power against certain social forces and the power to achieve our goals.

Let me begin with a brief recap on Peace News' previous discussion of nonviolence and social empowerment. Nonviolent social empowerment does not aim to establish power-over (domination) but rather to enhance people's power-to-be and power-to-do. It envisages a process –or perhaps a better word would be praxis – of restructuring social power from the base. It operates at three levels: power-within (personal power, what each of us has when we are feeling centred), power-with (the power when we connect and cooperate with others), and power-in-relation-to (the power to achieve our goals, to defend our values, to stop the forces of death and destruction). Typically, this third level is the least developed in our discourse.


A movement needs some assessment – perhaps intuitive, perhaps analytical, but best made explicit – about what it can achieve in a certain time frame. Of course, this needs re-evaluating. Sometimes success takes a movement by surprise and helps it transcend its initial demands – the most recent example in Europe is perhaps the growth of campaigns against genetically-modified food. With direct action especially, there is often a confusion between symbolic power and the espoused goal. A good example of this is what we once called ‘liberating space’ (now more likely to be termed ‘reclaiming spaces’) – is the space/land itself important or is it the statement (of taking control) the action is making? Is it the practical or the principle? This also occurs at the level of ‘environmental defence’ and ‘direct disarmament’.

In the great anti-technocratic revolts around 1968, the slogan "Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible" was a rallying cry against the managerialism of the times. As I write, it warms my heart to hear the staid tones of the BBC reporting on "anti-capitalist" demonstrations in Washington DC. A rallying cry, however, is not a strategy for change.

With the Seattle and Washington demonstrations, we have seen encouraging mobilisations representing the force of one coalition of opinion within society. Who now will make use of that force? Who offers channels for the energy now mobilised to take concrete forms? At a local level, there are probably solidarity projects and fair trade shops doing their work, but beyond that? Is there anything more than a number of lobby groups with entirely reformist perspectives? (I ask; I don't know.) The more important results are, it seems, the less visionary the demands. The point, however, is not to abandon the pursuit of the vision but to find limited steps, possible forms of activity that enhance our capacities, our power-within and our power-with. But we also need to look for practical and attainable objectives matched to our strength, which will ultimately be the steps towards realising the vision: "the impossible takes a bit longer". Redefining what is possible takes a strategy in which each phase creates a base for expansion.


It is not enough merely to build up the strength of a movement. One also has to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the power structures we wish to challenge, looking for points of leverage and particular sensitivities on the question at issue. In general, a nonviolent attitude seeks to include the opponent in the outcome of a struggle, to recognise the opponent's legitimate concerns. Nevertheless, entrenched interests do have to be engaged with in struggle, and at some level defeated.

Empowerment for social struggle therefore includes preparation for some kind of contest, in which we need to make tactical calculations about where to focus our energies; to be aware of the full repertoire of methods available and the different constituencies which can be mobilised. Unfortunately many movements tend to repeat themselves, to stay with familiar methods and to draw on familiar constituencies, instead of testing different methods

Are there ways to maximise our unity while promoting divisiveness amongst our opponents? The Nestlé baby milk consumer boycott found a way. Nestlé was not the only manufacturer conning Third World mothers that powdered milk was better than breastmilk. If they had all been put under the spotlight, they would have ensured that they presented a common front, no doubt paying for reports to prove that of course powdered milk is better. With just the biggest company under attack, the others began to change their practices in an attempt to prove that they were better than Nestlé. In the end Nestlé itself introduced a new code of practice.

Are there weak points where a limited action can inhibit or restrain the opponent? Peace Brigades International found that at times the presence of a few international volunteers would give dictators and death squads pause in threatening human rights activists. They also found that they could not assume that this would be the case, that at other times the international presence could attract unwanted attention and have adverse effects. (See the excellent account Unarmed Bodyguard by Liam Mahoney and Enrique Eguren, Kumarian Press, 1997.)

Many movements concentrate on symbolic sites for struggle – particularly the very site where a regime or company has plans to do something (build a road, site military hardware, etc). At this symbolic level we should ask: are there other mobilising symbols closer to home that can inspire and engender connections with a wider range of people?

More than a contest

There are also actions taken where the ruling power simply cannot win. If they repress them, this brings out a reactive sympathy; if they allow them to go ahead, then they concede ground to the movement. What dilemmas can we pose our opponents?

Is there anything we want that our opponents would not mind conceding? Is there anything we can offer our opponent that would help them make concessions? The decision of some of London's pioneer squatters to offer to manage houses they had saved from demolition was controversial in the movement at the time (nearly 30 years ago), but offered a win-win solution to both local councils and squatters.

The leading scholar on nonviolent action, Gene Sharp, has suggested four "mechanisms" by which a power structure changes in the face of a nonviolent movement: conversion--so that it accepts the movement's demands; coercion – so that it concedes; accommodation – so that it grants part of its demands; or disintegration. Most of us have probably experienced ‘accommodation’ and the subsequent problem of then trying to press for what we really wanted all along. Many of us too have probably experienced success in either converting or coercing a power structure and then facing the backlash from those who were not converted – those who somehow felt left out of any solution. And in some cases, groups who have seen their regimes disintegrate had real reason to fear what came into the vacuum.

What this suggests is that nonviolent struggle is more than a contest, that power-against is just part of this third level, power-in-relation-to.

Within every nonviolent movement which works on a particular issue, there is a deeper agenda. An agenda which includes creating societies where people have the power to shape their own lives, and about strengthening a sense of social connectedness. Nonviolent social empowerment is then not just a process/praxis, but also a goal – replacing remote and impenetrable hierarchies with human-scale and transparent structures.

Originally published in The Broken Rifle (War Resisters’ International), February 2001, No.47

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