Who are the “Realists”?

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 July 1995


Many activists have an image of power as something which the state and industry “have” and others “lack” They often believe that only by entering the “real world” and getting some of this “power” can social movements have any real hope of achieving change. Yet there are diverse kinds of influence which operate in today’s world, and those who are impressed by the “have/lack” model of power could learn much about power from working more closely with those who historically have proved most effective in protecting the environment and who are most capable of becoming lasting allies.



We live in an age of "misplaced concreteness" in which social relations are visualized as physical objects. We equate "value" with "money"; "democracy" with "ballot boxes"; "nations" with coloured shapes on maps; "education" with "schools"; "security" with "hi-tech weaponry"; and "bureaucracy" with the buildings bureaucrats occupy.

In doing so, we render invisible many of the relationships of power that underwrite wealth and generate poverty; that ascribe value to one set of goods whilst denying it to others; that permit one class in society to appropriate the land of others or accumulate the surplus generated by the labour of others; that privilege public "debate" framed by central authorities over daily face-to-face discussions; that deny nationhood to nations and peoples within "nations"; and that enable bureaucracies and corporations to have an influence far beyond the buildings they occupy.

Many activists recognize that when the tendency towards "misplaced concreteness" remains unchallenged, it does violence to people and the environment, excludes other ways of being and doing, and limits possibilities for change. They insist that looking at relationships of power in all their complexity is necessary to tackling issues as diverse as environmental degradation, hunger, nuclear proliferation, corporate globalization and population control.

But to what extent are activists' own conceptions of "power" -- and of "politics" -- also instances of "misplaced concreteness"? How far is the political efficacy of popular dissent to the status quo being neutralized by the strategies and tactics that flow from such over-simple conceptions?

Follow the Yellow Brick Road ...

Perhaps the dominant Western view of power is that it is a singular "thing" that a small minority ("the powerful") "have" and that others -- the vast "powerless" majority -- "lack". According to this view, politics consists of the comings and goings of "the powerful" -- presidents, prime ministers and cabinet members, captains of industry, military chiefs, civil servants and civic leaders -- and has little or nothing to do with the everyday actions and interactions of "ordinary" people. It is in the tea-rooms of the House of Commons, the boardrooms of transnational corporations and the country homes of leading dignitaries that the "real world" is to be found. It is only by entering that "real world" and getting some of this "power" which they "lack" that social movements have any real hope of achieving change.

On this view, "ordinary" people seeking to address what they feel is an injustice have a limited number of options. For those who believe that the institutional landscape of contemporary politics is essentially benign but misguided, the most urgent task is to open the eyes of "the powerful" to the problems that their policies and programmes are causing. Once aware of those problems, "the powerful" will, it is assumed, take corrective action. Campaigning thus becomes a process whereby groups lobby for the opportunity to "speak truth to power", to present the facts and to outline the remedies. The aim is not to replace the powerful nor to dismantle the current machinery of government or commerce, but to "reprogram" the machine -- be it through introducing ethical codes of conduct for multilateral development banks, or market-led initiatives to encourage changes in shopping patterns, or new legislation to strengthen state powers against discrimination or pollution.

For those more doubtful about the willingness of "the powerful" to respond to "the truth" when they learn of it -- or, rather, to respond positively -- a different strategy is called for. It becomes necessary not simply to replace "their" policies by "ours", but to replace "them" by "us". One option is to work "in but against" the system, aiming to attain gradually a position of influence as, along with like-minded colleagues, one climbs up the establishment hierarchy, as some environmentalists have done in the Clinton administration and some women have done in various "population" institutions. Another is to "capture power", either through the ballot box or through force. A third is to work in active collaboration with the state and industry, thus becoming an "insider" whilst nominally preserving one's "independence". Whichever way is chosen, once "in power", the newly-"powerful" consider themselves to be in a better position to ensure that their programme for the machine is not ignored or disrupted by disgruntled elements of an old guard.

Virtual Reality

Such strategies sometimes help to achieve change -- but it is rarely more than small incremental change and generally in the direction that the "powerful" were already being forced by public opinion in any case. Speaking "truth to power" may, combined with popular pressure, "convert" the occasional individual to a more radical viewpoint, but it is in the nature of bureaucracies -- whether within corporations or government departments -- that individual sentiments have little influence on the operations of the institution itself. For a bureaucracy to function, it is not necessary that its staff consent to what it does, simply that they follow the rules, irrespective of the content, in the work they are asked to perform. Any individuals who threaten the direction of the institution, or its raison d'être, quickly find themselves excluded, co-opted or "ghettoized". Ironically, the very presence of such radicals, albeit relatively "powerless" to effect change within the institution, may legitimize the progressive image an institution is seeking -- for instance, that of a women-friendly "population" establishment.

The ability of dissenters to effect change through "the powerful" is hampered still further by fact that the "real world" of "the powerful" bears little resemblance to the real world the dissenters know. Inside the offices of the World Bank, the real world "out there" is transformed into a "virtual reality", constructed and framed to fit the needs of "the powerful" and the institutions they staff. Planners sit around discussing countries peopled by social-science constructs, where government structures are assumed to act as politically-impartial conduits for implementing development projects, and where local landscapes are mapped not in terms of forests or fields, rivers or mountains, but in terms of cubic feet of lumber, yields per hectare, and megawatts of hydroelectricity. Activists should not be surprised that the planners' programmes, however carefully prepared, generally founder the moment they leave the drawing board. By the time they are implemented, after a fashion, they are frequently unrecognizable even to their authors. Projects aimed at increasing public participation or "decentralizing power" end up excluding "target populations" and strengthening elites and local power relationships that planners may not even have known existed; food projects aimed at increasing the availability of food to poor people end up feeding the rich; roads intended to relieve congestion increase it; and so on. Far from being part of the solution, "insider activists", at first delighted to have gained some say over World Bank planning, wind up part of the problem.

The Threat of the "Powerless"

Despite such failures, however, the "have/lack" conception of power and the strategies that flow from it still continue to exert a powerful influence over many activists. It is not difficult to see why. The power enjoyed by corporations, the military, the state, international institutions, and health and educational organizations -- their ability to exert control over others in some dimensions -- is an undeniable reality. Moreover, with the development of the global economy, that control is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few global actors. If these actors are "powerful", it would seem to follow that the rest of us are what these bodies are not -- that is, "powerless".

Herein lies a great irony. For the "have/lack" picture of power, regarded as so "realistic" by its acolytes, is one to which corporations and governments themselves -- at least those which have lasted -- have never subscribed. Industry and governments show a persistent and pragmatic preoccupation with the opinions of ordinary people and how such people are reacting to their policies. While they are concerned to win over the newspaper editor, the college professor and the non-governmental organization, fear of the irate, unruly and unpredictable crowd is never far from their collective mind.

Industry and government are well aware, too, of the many different types of power they do not possess, although they might well wish to -- the knowledge and skills that enable small farmers to look after millions of scattered agricultural plots or local woodlands without causing environmental degradation; the power of competing ideas; the power inherent in different cultural tastes and values that stand in the way of corporate plans to secure new markets or sell uniform product lines all over the world; the social networks that enable local communities to organize against a factory or a road; and the power of mobilization based on face-to-face conversations in dialects central actors find utterly impenetrable.

Industry and government never take their own power for granted; and the last thing they assume is that the rest of us are "powerless". On the contrary, they know that ordinary people are constantly acting -- and have the potential to act -- in many ways which they cannot control. The so-called "powers that be" are thus acutely aware of having to operate against a constant background of opposition -- and of needing to manage that opposition.

Who are the Realists?

In the US, for example, corporations now spend billions of dollars each year on sophisticated public relations campaigns aimed at denying the environmental movement any more political ground. Consider, for example, the "divide-and-conquer" strategy devised by the US public relations firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin.1

The strategy divides environmental and other activists into four categories: "radicals", "opportunists", "idealists" and "realists". Opportunists, attracted to campaigning because it "offers visibility, power, followers and, perhaps, even employment", are seen as being interested primarily in "personal gain". Their preoccupation with adding career triumphs to their track records, however, means that they can be dealt with by providing them "with at least the perception of a partial victory".

"Idealists" who "want a perfect world" are harder to neutralize. "Because of their intrinsic altruism and because they have nothing perceptible to be gained by holding their position, they are easily believed by both the media and the public and sometimes even politicians." The tactic employed to weaken or undermine such idealists' opposition is to convince them that their position is causing harm to others and cannot therefore be ethically justified. They can then be "educated" into a more "realistic" position.

So-called "realists", meanwhile, are the easiest category to deal with and "should always receive the highest priority in any strategy dealing with a public policy issue." Often relatively inexperienced in the workings of power outside the corridors of government, corporations or mainstream non-governmental organizations, they are particularly receptive to industry's claim to be "the only show in town". For them, the "real world" is the corporate world -- hence, for example, the view expressed by the Audubon Society's Don Naish, explaining his decision to approve oil drilling by Mobil under an Audubon bird sanctuary in Michigan, that "conservations have just got to learn to work with industry". "Realists" are also easily susceptible to industry's claim that the only way of ensuring effective "damage control" is to accept its language, learn to live with "trade-offs" and abjure radical change. Not surprisingly, "realist leaders and groups are the best candidates for constructive dialogue leading to mutually satisfactory solutions". Indeed, "in most issues, it is the solution agreed upon by the realists which becomes the accepted solution."

By contrast, the category likely to present the most effective challenge to advancement of corporate interests consists of "radicals" interested "in social justice and political empowerment", who cannot be restricted to single technical issues. Worse still, the radicals' belief that "individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry" not only "makes these groups difficult to deal with" but makes it "impossible to predict with any certainty what standards will be deemed acceptable."

Given this taxonomy, corporate divide-and-conquer strategy is obvious: isolate the "radicals", cultivate and educate the "idealists" into becoming "realists", then co-opt the "realists" into agreeing with industry. Without the support of "idealists" and "realists", the "radical" and "opportunistic" positions begin to "look shallow and self-serving" to the public. The credibility of the "radicals" will be lost while "the opportunists" can be counted on to share in the final "policy resolution".

The Corporate Family Plan

Other strategies complement this approach. The public credibility of "radicals" who blame industry for environmental pollution, for example, is undermined by PR campaigns to disseminate educational materials to schoolchildren, television documentaries, newspaper articles and advertisements that paint corporations as key actors in "solving" pollution problems.2 Meanwhile, corporate funding for "responsible" environmental groups is used to bestow increased credibility on those "realists" who argue for "co-operation" with industry. Where such funding encourages environmental groups to give industry or government representatives a place on their boards, the latter gain additional benefits through garnering information about what "the intelligent public" thinks on environmental issues, and "insider influence" to ward off potentially damaging campaigns.3

With the larger environmental organizations preoccupied with "speaking truth to power" while more or less ignoring supposedly "powerless" ordinary people, it becomes easier for the "powerful" to move in at the grassroots. Setting up or backing pro-industry groups among ordinary people to support the corporate agenda through letter writing campaigns, demonstrations and the like has thus become a major campaign strategy for industry. Companies are also mobilizing their own employees, former employees, customers and vendors -- their "extended family" in PR-speak -- into effective corporate support groups. As noted by PR Watch, an activist journal which monitors such strategies, "employee mobilization" is a particularly effective strategy in times of economic hardship and corporate downsizing:

"A smart employee who wants to keep his or her job and rise to a higher level will quickly get the message that it will pay off in the long run if they become a political operative for the company, befriending [electoral] candidates and becoming the grassroots eyes and ears for the corporation in local politics. "4

No Backwater

Here again industry reveals a sophistication that is lacking amongst many so-called "realists" in the environmental movement. Whilst the "realists" are preoccupied with ensuring their access to would-be "centres of power", regarding local politics as a backwater and grassroots activism as something to keep their membership happy whilst the big boys in central office get on with the real job of changing policy, industry has no illusions about the critical importance of the local. It knows full well that to operate effectively at the national and international level, it must influence the local. Indeed, the power exercised by corporations and the state is only possible because of constant efforts to reconfigure patterns of control at the local level in ways friendly to central actors.

Thus, industry and the state are constantly trying to extend their networks into local areas -- be it through establishing schools and hospitals, cultivating local dignitaries, buying off opponents, establishing a military presence, making alliances with potential competitors and suborning the inevitable resistance. To lose control over the local is to become an outsider, bereft of allies and insiders who can help master and manipulate local power systems to serve the corporate agenda. Indeed, if corporations are to globalize successfully, then, in the words if The Economist, they "need to make a virtue of being insiders not just in one area but in many. They need to act as dealers in locally-rooted insider knowledge".

Trusted Friends

In this murky world, how can environmental activists know whom to make alliances with?

As ever, it is not enough simply to seek out those actors who claim to be powerful or to represent "the people". Large corporations and bureaucracies, while they have great capacity for large-scale destruction, simply lack the fine-grained abilities which local people use to preserve the life of millions of unique patches of earth. Nor are such corporations and bureaucracies, as a rule, half as susceptible to pressure from those who play by their rules as they are to pressure from those "outside the game" -- although both sorts of pressures are needed.

In an attempt to make lasting alliances, it is also not enough simply to look for expressed "common concerns" or an "enlightened" party platform or company charter. Today, everyone from Shell Oil to neofascist intellectuals talk the language of "neighbourhood", "family", "community power" and "local economy". Everyone from the World Bank to Georgia-Pacific affirms a commitment to "the environment" and attempts to set up community organizations to work at the local level. Why are these actors voicing concern for the environment or for local welfare? Within what framework? And with what intent? Are corporations and bureaucracies really seeking to support local communities' efforts to maintain (or establish) control over local land, water and air, or merely infiltrating local areas with an eye to usurping these "resources" for themselves? Are political candidates espousing "communitarianism" really committed to communities having democratic control over their own affairs, or simply looking to use the community as a state-friendly surrogate for welfare programmes? In assessing the potential for effective alliances, it is necessary to look beyond slogans to the politics of those who espouse them.

Environmentalists who lack experience of the diverse kinds of influence which operate in today's world, and who are impressed by the "have/lack" model of power, could learn a great deal about power from working more closely with those actors who, historically, have proved most effective in protecting the environment and who are most capable of becoming lasting allies -- the locally-oriented activists who have successfully combined to oppose dams, toxic waste dumps, roads, and forest master plans; who are forging new community-controlled networks of support through LETS schemes and other initiatives; or who are defending and reclaiming local ways of knowing and acting.

It is a pity that such actors still often appear to many environmental bigwigs as little more than "interesting case studies" or "local helpers"; and that the image of power as something which the state and industry "have" and others "lack" has often prevented their victories from even being seen. For the efforts of such groups embody some of the most successful examples of social change and the form of organizing that the corporate world is most influenced by.

Notes and References

1 "MDB's Divide-and-Conquer Strategy to Defeat Activists", PR Watch, Vol. 1, No.1, 1993, p.5. PR Watch is published by the Centre for Media and democracy, 3318 Gregory Street, Madison, WI 53711, USA.

2 Joel Bleifuss, "Covering the Earth with Green PR", PR Watch, Vol. 2, No.1, 1995, p.3.

3 Ibid.

4 Joel Bleifuss, "The God of Mammon: Christian Coalition Makes Corporate Allies", PR Watch, Vol.1, No.5, 1994, p.8. See also: Joel Bleifuss, "America's Corporate Leninists", In These Times, 5 September 1994, p.12.