The Vanguard for Social Change
George Clark, 01 November 2007
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Ping! an email inviting me to attend a 'Global Economic Justice Collective
Campaigning Forum' in London in December. It bills itself as an "essential
event for professionals involved in and influencing the global justice
agenda". It notes that "This event is free and lunch will be provided. The
Campaigning Forum will be followed by festive drinks celebrating a year of
campaigning for global justice". A networking event for civil society's
shakers and movers. This made me wonder about the nature of the vanguard
for a bright new tomorrow.
When I think of people being in the vanguard of a new development, I
assume they are involved in its most advanced part. They are trail-blazers
and trend-setters; the advance guard at the forefront and on the front
line. They are the abnormal few with uncommon sense and counterintuitive
understandings. They act as a countervailing force to the status quo.
These heroes and heroines think, feel and act for social change. They have
vision. They analyse the BEFORE in terms of its inequities and injustices
and they vision an AFTER of equity and justice. They offer reasoned and
passionate resistance to the unacceptable face of the status quo and
'business as usual'. Being in the vanguard they have already had a
personal change of heart, feelings and values. Their task is to change the
values and thus actions of that 'good and great' minority that guides the
established status quo.
This can be a dangerous game. Opposition has both acceptable and
unacceptable faces. The polite and reasonable face of dissent is a welcome
part of the hegemonic system. It helps to give the impression of robust
debate and analysis of evidence while keeping it within 'acceptable'
parameters. The loyal opposition has its perks and its place at table so
long as it does not seriously rock the boat.
The unacceptable face of opposition is pernicious. It includes people
whose modes of thinking, being and acting crack the established norms and
shift the prevailing paradigms. Such people think too much and thus are
dangerous. For the greater good of society and the safety of the nation
state they have to be silenced - by some means or other!
But social change is a complex business. It can be reduced to sound bites;
but informed discussion and debate requires more than that. There is a
role for expertise in gathering and analysing evidence if we are to speak
truth to power. But who gets to define 'truth' and in what terms? If the
voices of the poor are to be influential is it best that they speak for
themselves or that 'experts' speak on their behalf? There is no simple
answer - context is everything. But there has been much progress in
organising Multi Stakeholder Processes (MSP).
It seems to me that vanguard groups can function in a series of ways that
range between two extremes. One extreme involves a top-down approach where
an expert elite does all the real thinking in the best interests of the
masses who are fed ideological sound bites and action instructions through
advertising (see box). The other extreme involves a bottom-up approach
where trained facilitators assist with local level discussion and debate
and act as scribe for such outcomes as may usefully be fed upwards through
the authority hierarchy.