what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, August 31, 2020

Some advice for social activists

Street protests have been taking place in Sofia for the past two months - directed  against the country's systemic corruption and, specifically, against Prime Minister Borisov (who used to be the bodyguard of first the ex-dictator Zhivkov and then PM King Simeon II) and the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev whose recent raid on the offices of popular President Radev has raised big questions. 
Unlike previous street protests in Sofia, this one has attracted wider support – and also unlike earlier protests, inspired by the apparent success of Romania’s Anti-Corruption Agency, this one is targeting the Chief Prosecutor.
I hope to be writing an article shortly about such protests in both Bulgaria and Romania and want therefore simply to update my thoughts on such street movements.

Both Extinction Rebellion and Covid 19 suggest that there can be no return to normality – and the Sofia protestors might be well advised to widen the scope of their agenda. After all, smaller countries generally seem better able to “do” change viz Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Singapore, Estomia, Slovenia – particularly when they  have women at their helm!
I have a theory of change which emphasises the individual, moral responsibility as well as the dynamic of the crowd

“Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity”.

And the preparation is about analysis, mobilisation and integrity.
·         It is about us caring enough about our organisation and society to speak out about the need for change.
·         It is about taking the trouble to think and read about ways to improve things – and
·         To help create and run networks of such change
·         which mobilise social forces
·         And it is about establishing a personal reputation for probity and good judgement 
·         that people will follow your lead when that window of opportunity arises”.

I appreciate that this may come across as rather elitist, if not patronising, but the process it describes comes from both experience and a careful review of the key books of the past 70 years…..
I am therefore taking this opportunity to update a previous list I did all of two years ago. The selection is a very personal one and ranges from the passionate to the technical – with a smattering of books that are more descriptive…..

Temperamentally I go (at least these days) for the more analytical (and generic) works and the development literature is therefore probably a bit overrepresented (and the feminist underrepresented).
Readers should also be aware that I was a strong community activist in my early days….
A lot of the titles can be read in full. Strange that none of the books is written by a political scientist (with the possible exception of Gene Sharp). Machiavelli would be turning in his grave

Key Books for “social change” activists


Focus – and readership


"HYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"EuropeHYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"'HYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"s Burden - promoting good governance across. bordersHYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"" Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (2020)


change agents


Looks to be a very thoughtful analysis of the lessons to be drawn from 2 decades of anti-corruption efforts in Europe

How to Resist; turn protest into power; Matt Bolton (2017)

Trade unionists, activists

An overdue update, for British market, of Saul Alinsky’s “Reveille for Radicals” (see last entry)


Can we know better? Reflections for Development; Robert Chambers (2017)

Experienced development activists

A rare book of wisdom from the 88-year-old guru of development studies

How Change Happens Duncan Green (2016)

Community groups and officials

Great overview – if from only a development experience perspective

A Guide to Change and Change Management for Rule of Law Practitioners (2015)

For change agents in “Transition countries”

Very rare attempt to bring the insights of change management to those trying to build “rule of law” in transition and developing countries

The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement; David Graeber (2014)

Activists, historians

One of the founders of Occupy Wall St who happens to be an anarchist and anthropologist recounts the fascinating story of the movement

Occupy Theory; Michael Albert (2012)


the first volume of a 3 vol series written to mark the Occupy movement, the others being Occupy Vision and Occupy Strategy

People, Politics and Change - building communications strategy for governance reform (World Bank 2011)

Change agents in government

One of the best – straddling the various worlds of action, academia and officialdom – with the focus on fashioning an appropriate message and constituency for change

Finding Frames – new ways to engage the UK public in global poverty (2011)


A great example of frame analysis – showing the importance of trying to identify the link between social values and politics

Indignez-vous; Stephane Hessel (2010)

Social justice campaigners

Inspiring pamphlet from the Frenchman whose whole life has been an inspiration to us all

Common Case – the case for working with our cultural values (2010)

Activists for global concerns

One of the most important 100 pages any social activist could read….it’s simply tragic that 8 years later, it would now be seen as revolutionary

Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions – citizens, stakeholders and Voice (World Bank 2008)

Change agents in government

A decade on, it’s still offers one of the clearest frameworks for making government systems work for people

Wicked Problems and clumsy solutions – the role of leadership; Keith Grint (2008)


A must-read analysis which introduced many people to frame analysis - helps us adopt a more holistic approach

Live Working, Die Fighting – how the working class went global; Paul Mason (2007)

trade unionists

A story that needed telling in a media and political world which is now so hostile to working people organising to improve their lot

Blessed Unrest – how the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming; Paul Hawken (2007)

Extinction activists

reviewed here.


This is the field which has probably seen the most action – but the least results!

Challenging Authority – how ordinary people change America; Frances Piven (2006)


Click the title and you get the full book

Change the World; Robert Quinn (2000)


A tragically neglected book

From Dictatorship to Democracy – a conceptual framework for liberation; Gene Sharp (1993)

Regime change

The handbook for a lot of soi-disant revolutionaries….its provenance is a bit suspect….

Putting the Last First; Robert Chambers (1983)


A morally powerful book which challenged (to little avail) the “imperialist” assumptions of most technical assistance programmes

Rules for Radicals; Saul Alinsky (1971)

Community activists

THE handbook for generations of activists…

the follow-up apparently to Reveille for Radicals which he published in 1946!

A website simply called Corporations did give a useful post on How to Overthrow Corporate Rule – in 5 Steps which reminded me of a very useful four pages of tactical advice given in a 1990s book on the New Zealand experience with neo-liberal programmes 
For more individual efforts we have the inspiring example of 93 year-old Stephane Hessel who gave us Indignez-Vous and died (in 2013) still articulating his vision of a better world. Or the Dutch activist Joost van Steenis. Both give clear analysis and clarion calls (I particularly liked van Steenis' 21 statements) – but are light on bookish references or recognition of other relevant movements.

But I hadn’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs who died while still campaigning in America just 3 months short of her 100th birthday. A journal devoted to art and politics called Guernica has a fascinating interview with this Chinese-American philosopher who refused to stand still for nearly a century, mobilizing alongside various freedom struggles from civil rights to climate change campaigns. The opening chapter of her book – The next American Revolution; sustainable activism for the 21st Century (2011) - has echoes, for me, of Robert Quinn’s hugely underrated Change the World

Most of us operate with an “instrumental” or “agency” view of social change. We assume that “a” causes “z” and that socio-economic ills can therefore be dealt with by specific measures. But a couple of decades ago, an approach – variously called “chaos” or “complexity” theory – started to undermine such assumptions. Writers such as Margaret Wheatley and Quinn have shown the implications for management practice - but few activists seem to have understood the implications.

Lee Boggs puts it as follows

I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking.

But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work. We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.

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