when ritual replaces strategy

In utopianism and the would-be political group I explored a layer of utopianism within intense social change movements like Occupy Wall Street, and I suggested that the utopian drive in these situations may be at least as much about immediate participant experience as it is about an envisioned ideal future. That is to say the incarnated utopian space (e.g. Liberty Square) provides an integrated group identity that fills a lack for many core participants. The lack is caused at least partly by the fragmentation of modern existence — the dispersal of our identities across many spheres (e.g. workplace, family, religion, interest, hobby, neighborhood, etc.) and the accompanying anxiety caused by the necessary constant juggling of our selves. Who are we? Each of us contains many selves, many performances, each of which emerges in relation to different groups and circumstances. But those who can step fully into one single radically integrating identity are able to fill this lack and longing—even if temporarily—with an integrated sense of self and of belonging. Out of many identity fragments emerges a singularity: the revolutionary. And those who are unable to step in so fully can still experience this utopian space as representing the potential completion of their lack.

The potential problem with this arrangement is political. Because this utopian space is what fills our lack, the achievement of the space will likely be exalted over what the space achieves; the life of the group over the group’s capacity to act as a vehicle for change. The sense of utopia, as defined above, can be accomplished without ever having to actually win anything.

This is how a group’s internal processes can come to stand in for a strategy. Our tactics, ostensibly about moving forward a strategy or plan, become valued more for their self-expressive and group-benefiting capacities than for their instrumentality. What does this look like? In the real-life planning, processes, and actions of such a group? I will describe my observations from a planning meeting for an action. I believe that candid and descriptive discussion of this phenomenon is important, but it is also tricky. The point is not to single out particular individuals or groups, so I am omitting and changing some details and not naming individuals or the group itself.

The meeting started by jumping immediately into logistical matters. This was the group’s first large-group meeting to plan for the action, so it was not the case that a strategic stage had preceded and we were now in the logistical/implementation phase. Several minutes into logistical matters, it was mentioned that a smaller core had done some pre-planning and scouting of the action site. But they shared neither what they discussed nor any context they might have read. The word strategy was not mentioned, nor anything even vaguely resembling strategy. The goals of what the action might accomplish were never discussed. Instead we immediately launched into logistics. We discussed roles: medics, legal support, bail and jail support, sign-making, media, etc. There was a lot of emphasis on risk—on the levels of risk—and on logistical matters that kept that risk at the forefront of participants’ minds. Group members could choose between different levels of risk (of arrest and/or confrontation with police). The levels were represented by color codes, safest to riskiest: green, orange, red. The large group later split into smaller planning groups corresponding with these color codes. (This emphasis on risk is important as it relates to a ritualistic hierarchy of sacrificial behavior — and the difficulty of honestly critiquing this group pattern from within the group. Further explication of this point will be saved for a future post.)

I wrote in my journal during the meeting:

The specific issue and the goals of the action have been skipped so far — and we’re 30 minutes into the conversation. The whole conversation is on the level of logistics. The level of strategy is not part of this conversation. Perhaps that level has been adequately explored by a different set of people. But it does not seem like we will be briefed about any such conversation, and what’s really fascinating is that no one is asking for such a briefing.

It was as if the level of strategy was assumed. Strategy is inferred by the very fact of the action. It’s a circular logic: we are planning an action; therefore there must be a strategy for the action. Actions themselves are the strategy. Actions may be thought of as battles in a larger war — but this loose metaphor carries more than one meaning. One might assume in a political/oppositional context that battle would metaphorically represent stepping stone—to move measurably toward winning something—and war would represent the larger/longer-term plan. Here, however, battle means expression/incarnation, and war stands in for the identity/subculture that is being expressed/incarnated; the “war” is the struggle for the life and narrative of the group, more than it is for what the group might achieve (beyond its own constitution).

We need an orientation to navigate these group dynamics, and we need conceptual tools. One conceptual framework that I find helpful in thinking through this example is that of levels. I wrote in my journal that the meeting conversation had stayed entirely on the level of logistics, and lamented the absence of the level of strategy. Below is a schema for thinking about these and other important levels that should inform our thinking about our groups (as vehicles), our strategies, and our tactics.





(plan to victory)


(“army you have”)


(“army you want”: recruits & force multipliers)



Strategic action—except in cases of just “getting lucky”—requires an assessment and evaluation of each layer. Now, these layers are not arbitrarily ordered; think of them as being stacked one on top of the other. Each layer is prior to the level above it; the above layer can hardly be accurately gauged without a prior understanding of the layer below it — just as you can’t construct the second floor of a building before the first, nor the first floor before you have found the ground itself.

So, we start at the bottom. We must first adequately grasp the objective conditions and particular contexts where we will be doing battle (CONDITIONS / CONTEXT). Then we have to look at the capacity it will ultimately require to win the war, and assess from where we will have to build, recruit, and co-opt this capacity (POTENTIAL CAPACITY). That informs how we use our current capacity, i.e. us, our group (ACTIVE CAPACITY). And that assessment of conditions + our growth trajectory (i.e. the “army you have” activating the “army you want”) informs your STRATEGY for eventual victory. And that prior assessment is what informs our specific actions and tactics (the ACTION / TACTICAL level).

This is what our thinking can look like if our political groups are primarily vehicles designed to strategically intervene and change the world. On the other hand, the meeting I described is what our thinking looks like if our would-be political groups are primarily about self-expression, the life of the group itself, and utopianism.

3 responses to “when ritual replaces strategy”

  1. Where you at our meeting last night? I didn’t notice you, but your notes seem very accurate.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more. A single, isolated action occurring outside of any broader narrative or community involvement seems so shortsighted and ineffectual. Would love to discus this more in person. 🙂

  3. […] my post when ritual replaces strategy, I discussed an action-planning meeting, where risk and levels of risk were repeatedly emphasized: […]

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