The art of working together

by | 14 Apr 2023

Social movements have always required people to collaborate beyond their normal boundaries, but the tone of contemporary politics is making that harder and harder. We need to overcome this barrier and work together if we want change.

First published by Common Weal

There is one opinion that probably does unite everyone – we need to work together. Obviously we do, because the vast majority of human achievement is the result of people working together. But while we all agree on that, the problems set in rather quickly afterwards. Basically from the moment we start to discuss what the ‘we’ bit means. And the ‘work’ bit. And the ‘together’ bit.

This is a big issue in Scotland just now. Government, communities, the economy, poverty, climate change, independence – the number of issues where we stand little chance of seeing the change many of us want unless we can work together is large.

Because we think we’re good at collaborating in Scotland but we’re really not that good at all. Right across our society a small country like ours ought to be less centralised and less top-down. Which is to say it is more collaborative.

But of all these issues there are three in particular where failure to collaborate almost certainly means failure to achieve the goals. Those are fighting poverty, fighting climate change and campaigning for Scottish independence. It is vanishingly unlikely that any of these issues will successfully be resolved by any one actor. It is going to take a social movement.

That is where it gets tricky. While it might be surprising, social movements are one of the areas where collaboration can be hardest. There are so many reasons for this ranging from strong ideologies to lack of experience. But we need to get over this. We need to find working methods that help us get over the barriers.

I’ve been involved in lots of social movements over the years and also been close to the work of government and its stakeholders (particularly in the civic field, but also on the economy). There are a few lessons that I have learned over the years which it may be useful to share.

So let me start with the most fraught, the most difficult issue. That is how we define ‘we’. This has become by far the hardest aspect of working in social movements. I’ve explained elsewhere how over the course of the 1990s and 2000s there was a shift in ideology from structural approaches to ones based on identity. This has had a profound impact on collaboration.

Put more simply, when you define problems as structural (i.e. the result of big social structures like the economy or government and its agencies) then it is natural to look for partners who are also interested in the same structural reform. You may not agree on other issues, but that is largely beside the point because you’re building a coalition around a single issue.

If you want to create change you really do need to accept that you will have to work with people who have differing views to your own

On the other hand if you define problems based on identity and actors, you need to take a different approach to identifying your partners. Again, simply put, if you claim that the problems stem from people who hold social attitudes with which you disagree, working with people who hold those attitudes becomes problematic or impossible, even if the views you disagree with are about another subject.

Because I grew up in the peace movement I have been very influenced by its approach (which in turn is quite influenced by Quakerism and its attitudes towards patience and tolerance). From the 1950s until today the coalition which believes nuclear weapons are a shame on society is wide and disparate. It worked together on this issue but its partners didn’t necessarily work together on anything else.

In particular over much of that period the Catholic church had views on issues like abortion, gay rights or sex education in schools which were diametrically opposed to the views of the big majority of others in the movement. But the Catholic church was always good on peace and poverty issues.

This meant that people who were themselves active in the gay rights movement would find a way to appear on a platform with representatives from the Catholic church. It involved all concerned confining their arguments and comments to the issue concerned when they were on a platform together – though they might disagree vehemently and in public on other subjects.

That is now a highly contentious position. The shift to the politics of identity suggests that people’s positions are based on inherent characteristics which they either have or choose to have and that those underlying characteristics or opinions are indicative of the whole. It implies that if you work with someone on one issue that means that you effectively endorse their position on other issues.

This has led to the idea of ‘no platforming’, effectively operating ‘blacklists’ of who you will not work with based on the alignment of their overall ideology rather than the position they take on any single issue. There is of course a big problem with this; if you are only able to collaborate with people who believe all the same things as you, how are you ever going to build wide social movements?

I sometimes refer to this problem as a ‘vanish purity cult’ – if you define an in-group based on how completely it adheres to one line of thinking it is infinitely divisible. If there are only three of you left in a field, two of you can easily decide that the third isn’t quite committed enough to the ideal. It is inherently reductive.

I am very sceptical that this can ever be a solid principle for a broad social movement. There are just too diverse a set of opinions and views in our society. There aren’t coalitions big enough which only believe one thing, at least not big enough to tackle the big issues. And we need to be able to tackle the big issues.

This is comfortably the most difficult part of my professional life. I have always believed in the principle of ‘work with people where you agree’ and I established Common Weal partly based on that principle. We have had constructive work with all the independence-supporting parties over the years, but also with Labour.

In fa

What is easy is to stay in your little comfort group and shout at people who are outside it or who work with those who are outside it – it can look good, it can feel good, but it doesn’t achieve anything

We think we should work with them, but that is not a universally supported position. We have faced constant attacks for our willingness to work across boundaries and it is very difficult to deal with. If we’ve faced those problems then the independence movement in particular has had terrible difficulties.

It also leads to the other two parts of the question – what does ‘working’ with someone mean and what does ‘together’ mean. It is really easy to stand on a platform with people you agree with and talk to other people you agree with, but is that working? As in is it having the effect you say you want to? Is it enough?

And it also points to the ‘together’ part. This is a much wider problem but often when you trace back the failure of social movements it is often the case that ‘together’ was taken to mean ‘I’m in the lead and I expect you to follow’. This is another problem in the independence movement where too many people seem to want to be the ‘chosen one’. But this is also a particular factor in the climate change movement where people often have very strongly held but conflicting views on what change should look like.

This is all clearly a much bigger issue than can be covered here, but I do have some personal conclusions. First, if you want to create change you really do need to accept that you will have to work with people who have differing views to your own. You don’t need to compromise your on views but you do need to find a way to work together.

And if you want to achieve big change the coalition needs to be wider. That means you may end up working with people who hold views you find offensive. As best as is possible you need to find a way to ‘quarantine’ issues which will cause conflict if you can do it. That isn’t always easy, and there are always lines it is impossible to cross. But you should pick them carefully.

Second, you must always remember that ‘working’ isn’t what you like doing but what changes when you do it. You can do a lot of ‘work’ that doesn’t work. If you’re only talking to people like you you’re probably not changing anything. It has to be about opening up, not closing down, or nothing gets better.

And thirdly, you need to understand what ‘together’ means. This is hard. It almost always means accepting you won’t get absolutely everything you want (the Rolling Stones are quite good on this point…). But even more importantly it means you need to try and give up control, at least to some degree. If people don’t think you’re offering them a share of power it isn’t a coalition but a request for a fan club.

None of this is easy. It wasn’t easy before the ideological changes of the last few decades and it certainly isn’t getting easier now. What is easy is to stay in your little comfort group and shout at people who are outside it or who work with those who are outside it. It can look good, it can feel good. But it doesn’t achieve anything.

If we don’t find a way to work together we fall apart. That is the biggest truth of history. For the sake of change, let us think hard about how we really want our society to be – fragmented or a grand compromise which lets us all live together. So long as you remember that fragmented societies fail.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This