Lessons from the “dark side”
for social/climate-justice activism
TL/DR — I was once a dedicated activist in my youth. Later in life, for a few years, I became a full-time corporate consultant and worked alongside a lot of people and companies that were defending nasty unsustainable projects. Along the way, I learnt a lot about how power is wielded and defended by the powerful. I came back to working for social change a while ago but having seen how things are done on the “dark side”, I believe more than ever that uncompromising people-powered activism is the only thing that will save us.
These days, to my great pleasure, I find myself around fellow social justice / climate justice organizers a lot. Organizing culture, which is highly relational and trust-based, places a lot of value on stories of self. These stories generally involve explaining where you came from, what life experiences shaped your understanding, what your path to getting activated looked like and what key organizing experiences you have learned from along the way.
When it comes to my story, which I have to tell often, I got used to delivering a condensed version, which compressed 23-odd years of experience into a narrative that only took up a couple of minutes, so as not to hog up all the space. It roughly went like this: Early activism phase…academia.. **cough** corporate phase… back to social change… consulting for NGOs… to the present. Sometimes, to shorten, I’d drop the weird corporate thing altogether, since it messed up the tighter narrative and complicated the whole story.
It’s not that this was intentionally dishonest but this story of self glosses over a good four and a half year period of my life and what led up to it. Also, I was far from being a junior pawn in a marketing company. In my time as a corporate consultant establishing online dialogues between big extractive players and public “stakeholders”, I brushed up against arguably some of the world’s most unsustainable companies and was exposed to the inner circles of corporate and political decision making, those metaphorical ‘war rooms’ (though not the Alberta one!), when the current hegemonic system is being defended.
If you want to skip to my full telling of this time in my life, I’ve dropped it further below. For busy activists, I want to lead with the takeaways from that time and let’s just say that this side trip into corporate work “re-radicalized” me (if that’s a word) and has come to shape my current approach to supporting organizing and activism.
Learning about power from the powerful (on the defensive)
I maintain to this day that there is no better place to learn about power than those few instances when the powerful feel threatened and move to defend their grip on it (*see footnote for additional geeky source on this).
In my time on the “inside”, working alongside corporate clients with vast and highly controversial projects that directly affected thousands if not millions of stakeholders, I learnt some hard skills that I have kept with me but most of all, I learnt a lot about the dynamics of power and leverage at a very big scale and at very high stakes. Here is a distillation of the main insights I retained that can be applied to activism and social change projects in one way or another.
1. First, a personal one. The system that pays for your work can completely skew your worldview. I think all people that work for a long time in service of clients experience a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where you begin to empathize so completely with your employer or client’s challenges that you start to internalize their logic in your own life and see the world through their lens. This realization has left me with a reflex to always question where the money comes from, even in nonprofit advocacy projects, and to question the motives and internal logic of the system funding anything. Keeping this in mind, I find that I can more easily separate the best course of action (from a social change perspective) from the one that would most please funders.
2. Political regimes and corporations don’t really care about science and good policy ideas. They are simply not structured to do so because stronger incentives (creating profit for shareholders or winning majority votes) override these things. So appealing to them with reason and research will get us nowhere. They will pretend to be drawn in by the carrot but the only way to bring real change is with the stick. It’s ultimately about power and who can bring it to bear against the other. On the activist side, as I’ll explain below, our most effective source of power is people power, which scores well above arguments and clever communications when the powerful do threat assessments.
3. Our current late-capitalist system eats incrementalism for lunch and rebrands it as a consumer niche. All this talk of clean tech is fine and dandy for the powers that be as long as it can be sold without upending the current hegemony. This attitude changes radically when we talk about deep systemic changes of the kind we’ll need to avoid social collapse such as de-growth, racial / colonial reparations and wealth redistribution. Chances are, if the solutions we propose are fiercely opposed by establishment consensus, we’ll know we’re on our way to true systems change.
4. When corporate and political interests meet, powerful networks of multi-level support are established to maintain the status quo. This is not really news to most but this makes it very hard for one social or environmental constituency to face up to such consolidated power. Often, activists working for change on one issue underestimate how much power they’ll actually need to face up to hegemony. All deep systemic changes will be fought very hard by a vast network of interests. My takeaways here are that, since none of this will be easy, we might as well be fighting for big change and building an intersectional ‘movement of movements’ because that is what it will ultimately take to confront established power.
5. To end with some good news, corporations and all entrenched top-down institutions are shit scared of people power. As long as we have the luxury of living in societies where public consensus matters, public reputation is a big leverage point, both economically and politically. Here, activists have the advantage because we are the many and the powerful are the few. As I witnessed many times, it doesn’t take 50+1% of the population to turn against a target to make the powerful sweat. Often, a small crowd of very motivated people swarming in opposition can send decision makers into a panic. There is a longer story here, one in which institutions are vulnerable when faced with networked power, but that’s also covered well in the document referenced in the footnote below*.
To conclude this section, I’d like to observe that in organizing culture, the importance of lineage and experience in building trust among activists is totally justified and understandable but it can also generate the burden of virtuous perfectionism as a result. This can be a barrier as we try to bring more people to move with us because it leads us to highlight stories of self that line up with group norms and to leave out others that are still an important part of our whole selves. Ultimately, I believe that our movements grow richer when we can integrate perspectives that are informed by being on different sides of the fence and using that knowledge strategically to build power.
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*Footnote: For more on decentralized people-power versus powerful institutions, see Networks and Netwars, the RAND Corporation’s uncannily prescient 1999 think piece on the advent of networks and the threats they posed to established hierarchical powers (written for the U.S. Department of Defense, among others). Here, they accurately forecast the distributed and self-organizing shape of modern social movements.
My days as a corporate consultant
Eager to read this tell-all part? Here you go!
It was the early 2000s as I was entering my 30s, having spent a good 5 yrs involved in many different levels of anti-corporate activism from small direct action groups, large street protests to a day job as Campaigns Manager at Adbusters. But with that recently behind me and for a whole bunch of reasons at the time, you could say the time was ripe for taking a break and joining the market economy.
The climate crisis was still a more distant rumble then and the momentum behind progressive organizing and activism on many other fronts was muffled under the heavy weight of post 9/11 paranoia and repression. And then there was this growing buzz around ‘green capitalism’ in the air… This was a time when socially and environmentally-conscious consumer power was a theory of change that had not yet grown hopeless and tired (Al Gore’s ‘fluorescent light bulbs will save us’ was a big deal back then).
With all this as background, I was also growing older and had become a new dad, which kicked in all kinds of latent social programming from my upbringing in a conservative immigrant household. I thought I had shaken all this stuff off when I left home in my teens but then, suddenly a family man myself, this overpowering drive to become a solid provider with a “serious job” came over me all and the lack of sleep and challenges of family life didn’t help with perspective either.
Still working in what I believed to be a values-driven way, I helped start a small social enterprise that was involved in rating and promoting eco-friendly and fair trade consumer choices to conscious consumers in Quebec. This felt like a pretty good reconciliation of work and values at the time but as I look back on it, it was the “gateway drug” to harder corporate commitments down the road.
By 2010, I had moved on and joined a tech startup that was building corporate social networks around sustainability content. This often involved documenting good corporate deeds though video clips and pushing them out to online communities. Still pretty soft stuff. But as time went on, we got approached more and more by resource companies, which were under fire from activists for obvious reasons. They weren’t looking to tout their sustainability so much as explain why their projects weren’t as bad as critics made them out to be. They also had lots of money to spend on this, which was hard to ignore for a startup trying to build up its revenues.
Under the spell of the era and my new career, I proposed setting up online dialogues between these companies, their public audiences and even the activists contesting them, to air different takes on projects and to receive and respond to public concerns. Because I had been on the activist side, I understood the credibility gap these clients were facing and came into a niche where I would counsel companies on how to show up as transparently as possible in these open forums.
In this online dialogue business, which ran successfully for a time, I worked with big extractive companies and the interest groups that represented them from pretty much all the sectors you could imagine including oil and gas, forestry and mining. I was sought after to advise corporate leaders on how to present their arguments to the public and was invited to present on this at conferences in London and Paris. On occasion, I even met with some actual CEOs of arguably some of the world’s most unsustainable companies.
As is typical with me, I didn’t just tag along. I was digging down and actually developing this line of business and selling it. I even wrote an in-your-face white paper “The Social Survival Manifesto” that challenged businesses on their ineffective and untrustworthy ways of engaging with the public and offered to make them better at it.
The trick of selling this stuff wasn’t appealing to concerns about sustainability. Sustainability departments in these companies were under-resourced and not taken seriously by top decision makers. What the powerful in corporations cared a lot about was reputation and that became the nerve I struck on to promote my advice. I used the term ‘Reputation Strategist’ for myself at the time.
You might wonder where the young activist in me was at the time. That’s a good question. I did realize the weird disconnect that took me from being a prominent anti-corporate activist to full-time corporate consultant and I thought of it often. To be fair, I drew a bunch of lines for myself that I took care not to cross — No creation of straight-up corporate propaganda promoting unsustainable projects and no work to directly undermine what activists were doing to critique the companies, even though these were common requests from clients. Ironically, I would stand up for activists and their right to freely and openly critique projects, all while taking my corporate money.
Somehow, I believed and told myself that opening a dialogue space where different stakeholders could have their say (even if paid for and run by companies) was at worst an inoffensive thing to do and at best, something that could actually influence companies to develop their industries more sustainably into the future. And yes, I know how sketchy and foolish this sounds now!
Waking up and walking out
In those few short years in the corporate world, I could also feel the world shifting… That the crises sparked by rampant extractivism were accelerating and that even my clients, these vastly wealthy and powerful conglomerates, were feeling the heat. In 2014, with some time on my hands, I got myself a big stack of books on the global state of affairs and read deeply on all the horrible things our unjust and unsustainable system was cooking up for us and what activists were doing to try and turn things around.
This was enough to kick me into gear and see my complicity in the harms being done. I realized that in good conscience I could no longer finish my days working as part of the problem and not fighting to be part of the solution (if there even was one at this point). I turned my research and analytic energies back towards the challenges of building up people power and helping plan and leverage social change campaigns and thus began a shift to first become a consultant with social and environmentally-oriented advocacy groups and then a builder of activist capacity and knowledge-transfer projects.
My corporate consulting phase did earn me some hard skills, which I brought along with me to my work today. These include solid approaches to project management and realism when it comes to staging and executing big plans. I also learnt how to present persuasively to some pretty tough decision makers, how to raise good amounts of money and then how to manage these resources for big projects. Most of all, I learnt a lot about the dynamics of power and leverage at a very big scale and at very high stakes.
At the same time, I recognize that this luxury of flipping between worlds is reserved to people of a certain level of privilege at the top of an exploitative pyramid, which allows people like me to ‘present well’ in the world of mainstream power. Knowing that colonialism, white supremacy and patriarchy were the supports I was leveraging in my career has been the source of a lot of guilt but has also driven me now to try and redistribute my undeserved advantages with grassroots and frontline struggles, wherever possible.
It feels good right now to get this stuff out. For some time, I guess I have been embarrassed about this episode in my life, this stain on my activist purity and organizing story. In my approach to self-care and playing the long game of working for social change today, I’m trying to be nicer to myself and to accept that I was back then as I am now, a work in progress. That we can take things from weird times in our lives and still build something good out of them in the end. When I look back with more self-compassion, I understand myself better and why my life took the turns it did. But more than ever, I appreciate my decision to exit when I did and to reinvest my energies towards making the world a better place.