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Society's Pliers

The Stickiness Problem

By Michael Albert

Toward the end of last Summer I spoke at a National Green gathering about "movement building." My initial idea was to discuss the progressive and left community’s outreach problem. We try to reach potential allies in society and to "reel them in" to full participation. Not enough  people hear us. Our outreach problem involves our organizing methods, campaigns, and demands and how they appeal to people, but also our need for "a megaphone" loud enough to reach beyond audiences already seeking us out—our own progressive mass media.

But as I thought about movement building, I realized there was another problem that was even worse than outreach because it was more debilitating and we had less excuse for it. Think of the progressive/left community as a team, if you will, fighting against both apathy and outright support for the status quo. Call it Team Change. Size isn’t the only variable affecting Team Change’s strength, for sure, but without numbers we aren’t going far so we must reach out more widely. But as we do reach out and get people’s attention or involvement, do we then keep them committed? Call this the "Stickiness Problem."

To win fundamental change, and that is our purpose, not solely to play well, Team Change needs a force field that draws potential team members steadily leftward ever more strongly the closer it attracts them. First a person hears about some facet of Team Change. There is an attraction, however slight. As the person is drawn closer the attraction must increase to offset counter pressures from society to avoid Team Change lest the person get away. Once a person joins Team Change, the attraction should sustain permanent membership.

Do we have this kind of community seeking change? To decide, we can look at (1) the historical experience that Team Change has had with potential recruits in the past, and (2) the characteristics of Team Change to see whether its attractive force escalates as people get closer to steady involvement.

Consider the past 30 years. How many people have heard about, come into contact with, worked with, or become part of Team Change who no longer have anything much to do with it? The number, I think, is in the millions, perhaps ten million. Remember this includes folks from the Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the women’s movement. It includes those who have been No Nukers, in green movements, and in student movements. It includes everyone who has worked in truly progressive local projects and struggles of all kinds and in various left electoral campaigns. Anyone who has taken a course from a radical faculty person, read a left book, or been part of the anti Gulf War movement, the anti-apartheid movement, or the various Latin American solidarity movements counts. So do those who have been in gay and lesbian movements, in pro choice campaigns, in community and consumer movements, and in union organizing campaigns, labor struggles, anti-racist campaigns, strikes and boycotts, and also people who have gone to talks or demonstrations, listened to progressive radio or read progressive periodicals. Ten million is conservative. And of all these millions of people how many are still an active part of Team Change?

When I faced up to this gap between those reached and those actively involved, while preparing my talk for a very small Green National Convention, I was shocked. If you think in terms of a year or two, the left’s outreach problem seems paramount. How do we get beyond the choir? But if you think about a decade orr two, the left’s stickiness problem demands attention. I’m being a little cute with the analogy and labels, yes, but this gap between possibility and actuality is at the heart of our prospects for social change.

Let’s come at it from another angle. Why should someone, once attracted to the logic, dynamics, behaviors, and programs of the progressive/left community, stick to it? Conversely, why do people feel steadily less attachment as time passes, only to finally return to the mainstream?

Well, think of a person getting more and more involved with progressive ideas and activity. Does this person merge into a growing community of people who make him feel more secure and appreciated? Does she get a growing sense of personal worth and of contribution to something valuable? Does he enjoy a sense of accomplishment? Does she have her needs better met than before? Does his life get better? Does it seem that she is making a contribution to improving others lives, as well?

Or, conversely, does this person meet a lot of other people who continually question his motives and behaviors, making him feel insecure and constantly criticized? Does she feel diminishing personal worth and doubt that what she is doing is making a difference for anyone? Does he suspect there is little accomplished, and no daily, weekly, or monthly evidence of progress? Does she have needs that were previously met, now unmet, and few new ones addressed? Is his life getting more frustrating, less enjoyable? Does it seem she is only bothering other people, rarely doing anything meaningful on their behalf? Does he find himself ever less aware of what "the left" is or stands for, repulsed by its vague, or bitter attributes rather than attracted to its clariety, insights, and success?

You might ask different questions than I have, but I think the point is clear enough. The stickiness problem is graphically defined.

Let’s stretch the Team Change analogy. Imagine a football, baseball, basketball, or soccer team. Whether it is high school, college, or professional doesn’t matter. Suppose it doesn’t improve its results as time passes. At some point the coach looks at the choices made, the strategies used, the norms employed and says, hold on, we have to make some corrections.

Okay, our Team Change has no coach and it needs to be participatory and democratic, so being self-critical is everyone’s responsibility. But Team Change must also play to win if it is concerned with more than mere posturing. And that means we need to reassess how we organize ourselves, the culture of our movements, what we learn as we become more committed, how we interrelate, and what benefits and responsibilities we have due to our political involvement. The alternative to doing much better regarding "movement stickiness" is another long losing season…two or three decades worth, I think, which, unlike for inflexible high school, college, and professional ball clubs, means hundreds of millions of lives unnecessarily ended for want of our greater success and final victory.

Let me put it this way. Being right about what’s wrong with society and why it is wrong, and even being able to convey all this to wide audiences, just isn’t enough. Movements must be clear about goals and strategy to retain a sense of purpose, confidence, identity, and integrity in the face of critique. They have to be structured and function in ways that not only enlarge but retain membership, and that not only contribute to change but do so clearly in all members’ eyes. They have to not only attack problems, but to meet needs for members and populations more broadly, and they have to win victories that meet needs but also create the conditions for still more victories to follow. The absence of all this is our stickiness problem.

I have my own notions about the causes of the problem having to do with our lack of compelling guiding vision and strategy, our unclear class allegiances, and our continuing inability to combine respect for desirable autonomies and for essential solidarities both in a single encompassing movement. Others will have different notions. Can we at least agree that a priority is to enumerate the possibilities, assess them, and then develop clear plans for how to do better in the coming years? If we don’t manage this much, I fear we will be running in ever narrowing circles with a movement of diehards rather than astute social critics.   

Michael Albert, co-editor of Z, is the author of numerous books on economics, vision, and strategy.