Three Fallacies of Anti-systemic Strategic Thinking

The worst thing we could do, as leftists, is refuse to think strategically. We owe it to ourselves, our co-workers and neighbours, and indeed future generations and other species, to think collectively about how best to marshal our capacities most effectively to defeat the systems of exploitation, oppression, and ecological destruction that have wreaked such havoc and harm on the world. Capitalism, which is at the centre of these systems, will not fix itself; it continues to threaten all of us — especially the most exploited and oppressed among us — with its relentless onslaught of destructiveness, indifference to our well-being, and contempt for human dignity. Moreover, we know that everything is stacked against us: we have no guarantee that we will prevail. Success depends on our willingness and ability to fight tirelessly and courageously, but also intelligently, to defeat the formidable adversaries that stand arrayed against justice, democracy and dignity. Only in this way can we hope to overpower our enemies: the big corporations and the governments, police and courts that protect them.

That means that strategic thinking is not just a ‘niche’ interest, that can be taken seriously by some but not all anti-systemic fighters. No, strategic thinking is an obligation for all of us. But, if we’re to do it well, we have to be wary of some false friends of strategic thinking: forms of thought that seem to make good sense, but actually get in the way of clearly developing plans for effective struggle. In this short article, I want to highlight three fallacies of anti-capitalist strategic thinking. I call them, respectively, the organizer’s fallacy, the historical re-enactment fallacy, and the uniformity fallacy. 

What is a fallacy? 

A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning, which is not obviously mistaken but hides its mistake in argumentation that seems to make good sense. A fallacy is a kind of disguise in which mistakes conceal themselves as apparently sound reasoning. A simple and well-known example of a fallacy is the “ad hominem” fallacy. In this mistaken form of reasoning, one argues from the fact that so-and-so (some bad or unlikeable person) made a claim, to the conclusion that the claim itself must be false. The problem, we can see on reflection, is that a bad or unlikeable person is perfectly capable of saying something true (2+2=4, for example), or even expressing an important insight from time to time.

OK, what about strategic fallacies? Are there flaws in reasoning about anticapitalist strategy that are, like the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy, tempting but misleading? I believe so, and I think it is worth highlighting them, and trying to avoid them when we pursue our indispensable task of figuring out how to prevail against our most formidable adversaries. 

The Organizer’s Fallacy

Let’s start with the organizer’s fallacy. The reasoning goes like this. We just organized an event or activity, like a strike or a demonstration. It turned out to be a great success. We won our main demands, we humiliated our adversaries, we built a powerful coalition and emboldened people to fight and win against powerful enemies. This is just how we thought it would go, and how we planned for it to go. And we were right. Surely it must follow that the success, which we anticipated and planned for, is attributable to our excellent plan, our far-sighted and perceptive strategy! Further, since we have confirmed that it works, really we should tell others about the method we have discovered, so they can follow up on our success, and win further fights. The reasoning is very tempting, especially to those who believe that they have lived the effectiveness of their organizing activities; they saw with their own eyes how potent and effective their tactics and plans proved to be. In fact, however, this line of reasoning rests on a dangerous fallacy. The organizer’s fallacy claims that, “Since we organized X in a certain way, and X was successful, it must follow that X was successful because we organized it in that way.” This, however, is not at all true. There could be any number of factors that affected the outcome. At most, we can say that the method of organizing did not prevent success; we are perhaps entitled to suppose that it probably helped, to some extent, on this occasion. But in no way can we safely assume that the organizing methods and the outcome bear a simple relation to one another of cause and effect. 

Consider an example. In 2012, in Quebec, there was a student strike, which was in many crucial respects a resounding success (although, certainly, some of its highly ambitious aims, notably free tuition, were not realized). It was organized in a fairly specific way, using campus-based assemblies, particular types of popular education, and so on. These methods seemed to work, in the sense that the strike itself was extremely powerful. However, many strike organizers, in the grip of the organizer’s fallacy, assumed that they could then (1) get other people, in other places, to repeat their success by replicating their methods; and (2) repeat the process again, as needed, for future student strikes in Quebec. Both of these assumptions proved to be incorrect. What they ignored is the fact that, although the strike was organized in a certain way, and it succeeded, it does not follow that the strike succeeded simply because it was organized in that way. There are innumerable other factors, too numerous and complex even to fully grasp, much less to fully state, that bear upon how a struggle will play out in practice, on a mass scale. 

I do not conclude from this that we should not look at tactics or methods or strategies used in successful struggles, in the hope to learn about things that might work again in other settings. I simply insist that we avoid the organizer’s fallacy of imagining that every successful struggle that was organized was successful simply because of the way it was organized, because that is not the case. (Conversely, not every failed struggle that was organized was a failure because of the way it was organized; another struggle, organized the same way, might very well succeed, if other circumstances or factors are different and more favourable.)

The Historical Re-enactment Fallacy

Let’s turn to a second, somewhat related type of mistake in reasoning about anticapitalist strategy, which is probably even more common: the historical re-enactment fallacy. The reasoning behind this mistake is just as seductive, and just as dangerous, as the reasoning behind the organizer’s fallacy. Suppose we read about, or remember, an example in the past where a strategy was effective and led to victory. Since everybody has a different view about which struggles were successful and which struggles were failures, let’s take an imaginary example. In the (imaginary) land of Topia, a revolutionary movement emerged which, under terribly unfavourable circumstances, managed to build up the capacities of the exploited and oppressed population to create various forms and institutions of struggle that proved to be remarkably potent. In a fairly short period of time, they were able to defeat the systems that oppressed and exploited them, and to replace them with democratic, just and sustainable alternatives, which dramatically improved the lives of the people of Topia. OK, we have a case where a certain strategy was effective and produced great results. Surely it must follow — according to the historical re-enactment fallacy — that, since this is the best example we have of a successful revolutionary strategy, we have here some knowledge or insight about what works, and we can and should try to replicate it by studying and applying the same strategy, albeit obviously adapted in some ways to our own situation. Doesn’t that make sense? No, it does not.

What makes the reasoning fallacious is that, precisely because it was so successful in the past, it is very hard to imagine that it could possibly succeed again. A strategy is not more likely but less likely to succeed in the future if it has been remarkably successful in the past, because our adversaries are bound to make adjustments in their own strategies to anticipate a possible repetition, and to undermine the effectiveness of the once-successful methods. Once a successful tactic or strategy becomes familiar to our adversaries, it quickly loses its capacity to put them on the defensive, and on the contrary we are probably only playing into their hands if we try to cycle through the same methods a second time.

It is probably too simple to say that a strategy or tactic is “ruined” once it has been seen by out adversaries to succeed in practice. But we have to admit, at least, that it is far, far less likely to succeed, once it has been found to be successful in the past. People who think they are giving us reason to adopt a strategy by pointing out that it was used successfully in the past are actually giving us a reason to reject that strategy. (On the other hand, broad strategic principles, like ‘try to put your enemy on the horns of a dilemma,’ are much more useful over time.)

The Uniformity Fallacy

A third type of fallacy that can lead anti-systemic strategic thinking astray is what I call the uniformity fallacy. This is the reasoning which suggests that, because one strategy or tactic is the best strategy or tactic, then the most effective movement will be one in which everyone pursues that strategy or tactic. After all, this line of reasoning goes, anything other than the best tactic or strategy will be inferior to the best option, so why do anything other than what’s best? It’s easy to see how tempting this line of thought might be to someone who wants a movement to maximize its effectiveness. But it is entirely fallacious. To see why, consider a military analogy. 

Imagine a war in which the best weapon available is a tank. Someone might conclude, on this basis, that the entire army should be equipped with tanks, in order not to settle for an inferior weapon, but to rely instead wholly on the very best option. This line of thinking can seem tempting, but a moment’s reflection will reveal the problem. An army that relies only on one kind of weapon, even if it is the best available one, is easy to defeat, because it pursues a one-dimensional, predictable, uniform course. Its enemy only has to prepare one kind of defence. Moreover, the enemy is relieved of exactly the burden that strategic analysis is supposed to force upon it: it will not be put on “the horns of a dilemma,” that is, it won’t have to expose itself to one type of vulnerability because it is focussed on protecting itself from another kind of vulnerability.

Because a single-tactic, or single-strategy enemy is by far the easiest to predict and the easiest to defeat, we have to draw exactly the conclusion that the uniformity fallacy steers us away from drawing: that a complex, differentiated, multi-layered, ideologically (and in other ways) diverse and relatively unpredictable social movement, pervaded by multiple currents and constant debates, is likely to be the most effective kind. More specifically, it is likely to be more effective than one in which everyone follows the unitary, single best (‘best’) strategy. Uniformity of strategy and tactics, or indeed of leadership or decision-making structures, spells disaster for a social movement. Uniformity is a gift to our enemies.

Conclusion

Thinking strategically about how to defeat the most powerful institutions and systems in the world is the obligation of anyone who claims to be committed to human liberation. The willingness to take on this challenge is part of what distinguishes the sincere fighter for liberation from the social media consumer committed only to curating a ‘progressive’ online persona. Doing the work of strategic analysis is difficult, not only because our enemies are so powerful and our own forces are so fragmented and disorganised, but also because we are continually tempted to think in lazy or superficial ways about what it would mean to win, and what it will take to win. Avoiding the strategic fallacies is one way to help steer our struggles in the right direction.

(Steve D’Arcy is author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)

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