Melucci’s adversary

Every campaigning effort needs three things: solidarity, an adversary and a purpose. Roughly speaking these are the three ingredients that Alberto Melucci lists for the successful baking of a campaigning cake. What really interests me here is the role of the adversary as an ingredient. Exploring this, it strikes me that many a campaigning movement may not be a movement in the Melucci sense after all.

According to Melucci an adversary must be identified for each campaigning effort (see his book Challenging codes, 1996:293 amongst other pages). This adversary is an outlet, a recipient, for conflict (same book, for example page 24). Without conflict there can be no movement, says Melucci. And I can follow his logic very well. How was a movement or campaign to achieve anything if there wasn’t a problem to address, expressed as a conflict? The conflict situation could be over resources, social practice, symbolic representation, etc. Without a conflict though, the movement would be un-/apolitical – and by definition not a movement – a social-change requester – at all. (Refer to page 33 in his book if you are interested in discovering these other forms of association.)

The role of the adversary also finds mention in Chris Rose’s book How to win campaigns. Rose calls the adversary an antagonist or opponent, and he suggests examining the chain of responsibilities. Who can alleviate your problem? Who is in charge? This sounds rather similar to the process that Melucci’s conflict and adversary identification kicks off.

Using Melucci’s framework, it is now apparent that the adversary presents the direction we must look at if we want a resolution to our conflict. Identifying the conflict and the resulting adversary is vital for a movement. We now know that we – in order to have a political campaign (a movement addressing a conflict) – must identify an opponent . All good. But here too I often see matters get out of hand with cycle campaigners.

That campaigning has recently turned a corner in the UK is clear to see. Traditionally, cycle campaigners had a different purpose and goal, compared to the new generation of cycle campaigning. Whilst both camps ultimately want “more people to cycle, more safely, more often”, the conception of how to get there is different.

The traditional approach addressed this in a more liberal way (education of drivers, training up of non-cyclists, legal system / law changes and motivational and promotional initiatives) – essentially ignoring the influence of the urban environment in their assessment.

Whereas the new campaigns demand more radical changes: spatial justice, urban re/designs, re/appropriation of public space (planning and building cycleways and a budget for the transformation).

These two different approaches bring with them different adversaries. Suffice it to say the new campaigns are more focussed on transport politics (local transport authorities, Department for Transport) when traditional campaign effort had wider (and perhaps more diffuse) adversaries including police and legal systems, and sometimes even including the general population (as the recipient of the cycle training – and yes, they resisted).

So far so good.

Let’s look at the new campaigns. The adversary is transport politics, its planning professions and practices, and their political representations. For local cycle campaigning that typically translates into the adversary being the council (the local transport authority). And here something weird happens. Campaign efforts can be reluctant to accept the opponent. They find it hard to construct a way of engaging with the adversary. They become very cozy, too early.

I will give an example, which may help to describe in more detail what I am trying to say. Locally, newcycling.org has been called radical (here in the sense of extremist) many times. This has puzzled me for quite some time. The cycle campaigning group is not known for its “radical actions” (could be direct action, civil disobedience and the like) – the only thing newcycling.org has done is to be crystal clear in its solidarities and purpose and rather unwavering in engaging and addressing the adversary, the council, with the campaign’s vision and reality.

But a few people have taken issue with that approach in the past. Sometimes the issue comes from within the ranks of power, from politicians. Which is most baffling – as the politicians are in charge, in power. So, what I want to address here is when the issue is expressed by fellow activists, campaigners or community organisers (although they may not call themselves that, of course). The issue that is levelled against newcycling.org is that the approach is either too direct or too critical.

I can only refer back to Melucci and Rose. An adversary is needed. So the problem appears to be either in choosing of the adversary (i.e. choosing the wrong one) or in the relations to the adversary (type of communication, the behaviour of activists etc). As it is pretty clear that the council must be the opponent, it only leaves the latter as the seeming accusation.

To me it rather looks like this: the issue–takers get confused with the adversary. Is the adversary the organisation (the council) or is the adversary made up of individuals (officers)? In the case of newcycling.org, we have always been addressing the council, never individuals, in our published communications. There is a good reason. It is understandable that individuals, especially officers, are compromised. The officers receive steer from the politicians, in theory. That steer is often lacklustre and wanting in Newcastle. Policies are often dilemmatic and contradictory. In the typical situation of organisational flux, the officers will find it hard to act consistently as they are pulled into many directions.

In the presence of conflicting political directions, as is the case in Newcastle, officers are left wide open, too often. Hence newcycling.org would address the political apparatus rather than the officers. However we do draw the line at the level of the chief executives and directors, for they are the council’s lynchpins. It is for them to request clear political direction and translate it to the officers for execution.

In Newcastle a lot of campaigning done by newcycling.org is about installing a clear vision. Wiping clean the foggy windscreen of transport politics, to see the new reality, the sustainable transport future, ahead.

Therefore, anyone calling newcycling.org extreme or radical may like to take a close look at Melucci’s and Rose’s concept of political campaigning and change processes. Do not confuse people and being nice to them (the individual member of the public, as well as the individual council officers) with addressing institutions, their power and responsibility to create change.

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