I Will If You Will

Conditional Commitment for Civil Disobedience

Richard D. Bartlett
Aug 29 · 5 min read

I was recently contacted by some activists from a current large-scale social movement, who were seeking advice before building their own piece of technology. They’re exploring an idea for a civil disobedience campaign, using a “conditional commitment” mechanism to create a debt strike. For example, this could look like: “I pledge to stop paying my student loan if X other people also pledge by Y date.”

The most well known digital implementations of conditional commitment are Kickstarter (I’ll fund this project if a critical mass of other people think it is worth funding) and GroupOn (get half-price pizzas if 20 people agree to the deal). These platforms are both massively successful, so it is tantalising to imagine we could use the same tactic for civil disobedience actions. If you ask me to blockade a coal mine, I’m much more likely to say “yes” if I know 1000 other people have already committed to being there.

In this short blog I will share what I learned from a few hours of research into conditional commitment for civil disobedience.

I have no idea whether this specific campaign will proceed, but I wanted to share my research here in case it is of any use to others in future.

Software for Conditional Commitment in Community Organising

After talking to people on Twitter, on the eCampaigners Forum, and at Newspeak House, I found only one currently active platform:

  • Threshold was launched mid 2018, made by volunteers from the Progressive Coders Network. At the moment they’re a single-issue platform (boycotting Amazon Prime), with a plan to expand in future. From a tech perspective, they’ve built a very simple app to capture commitments, and are focussing their efforts on organising, campaigning and recruiting.

Most of the tools I’ve found are either archived or orphaned:

  • Pledgebank — was a platform for recruiting volunteers for social impact projects, created by civic tech veterans mySociety. It seems like it was reasonably successful but has been archived as the founders have decided to focus their efforts on other projects.
  • Who’s In is a beautiful modern app, for general purpose conditional commitment campaigns. I contacted the founders and learned they’re on hiatus while they seek further funding.
  • Beckton is a simple little app for collecting recurring payments from members if X number of people sign up. It’s not a mature, maintained product, but it looks like a nice piece of work. Code is on Github.
  • BECTU is a big union in the UK media & entertainment industry. In late 2017 they built some custom software and ran a recruitment campaign with a conditional commitment mechanism. Their efforts are beautifully documented, well worth reading.

Academic Research

Academic and activist Roger Hallam has contributed extensively to the literature on conditional commitment in social change. This piece he published in 2015 is a great introduction to the tactic. From a technical perspective, probably the most insightful piece for me was his way of defining different approaches to seeking commitment. He introduces T1 (“Will you take this action?”), T2 (“Will you act if you know X number of other people will?”) and the more complicated but more impactful T3 (“what is the minimum number of committed people who would convince you to act?”). T2 is a simple binary threshold, T3 involves gathering more data and theoretically gathering a much larger group.

Here is Roger’s explanation of his involvement in the UCL rent strikes in London, which started with a conditional commitment and ended with a £1.5M win for tenants after 5 months on strike. In the interests of fairness, I also share this notice from the strike organisers disavowing their connection with Roger.

Conclusion

After a few hours of poking around on the internet and chatting to activists and techies, I got very excited about the potential of the conditional commitment mechanism. It seems like a brilliant way to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to social change: “I want to change but nobody else is doing it, so why should I?”

It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of techno-determinism, “If we just had the right technology, this extremely complex problem would be solved easily!”

As an antidote, I’ll repeat what Ann Larson, cofounder of the Debt Collective, said to me on Twitter:

“This is not a software problem. It is an organizing and resource problem. Organizing debt strikes requires a bottom-up grassroots program that is conducted on the ground with people in a particular, shared situation. Then it can be expanded. Who are the debtors? Where are they? What is their situation? What kind of debt are they in and to whom? What/who is the target of the strike? Then questions about software flow from there.”

With that in mind, if the organising and resource problem is solved, then the software question becomes interesting. How do we collect commitments? How do we make it easy for actors to recruit others while protecting their anonymity? How to increase the likelihood that commitment turns to action? (Ex-Twitter engineer Rabble says the key is to focus on genuine relationships between pledgers, to grow mutual accountability.)

If I were starting a conditional commitment campaign, I would follow the Threshold model: start with simple tech, and focus on the organising work. But before writing any code, I’d reach out to everyone I’ve mentioned in this blog and interview them about what they learned from their explorations in this domain.

My grateful thanks to the many contributors to this little blog. If I’ve missed any tools or research, please let me know in the comments here or on Twitter.


A Postscript About Debt Resistance

Debt resistance is an extremely risky proposition, not to be taken lightly. Organising such a campaign could put you very far on the wrong side of the law. Rather than giving you my unqualified opinions about this strategy, I’ll point you to some much more experienced campaigners. If I were considering a debt resistance campaign, I would start by contacting these folks:

Strike Debt organisers and academics wrote the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, an invaluable resource for anyone considering a debt resistance campaign.

Richard D. Bartlett

Written by

I write about working together (http://richdecibels.com). Loomio cofounder (http://loomio.org). Enspiral member (http://enspiral.com).

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