Strategies & Tactics

Protest movements employ tactics rather than strategies, whereas the target of the protest must rely on strategies.

Michel de Certeau (1984) draws this distinction between strategy and tactics:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, “clienteles,” “targets,” or “objects” of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on the strategic model.

I call a “tactic,” on the other hand, a calculus which cannot count on a “proper” (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of the tactic belongs to the “other.” A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances. The “proper” is a victory of space over time. On the contrary, because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time–it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.” Whatever it wins it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them to their own ends forces alien to them.

Certeau, M. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press, xxi.

Protest movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter) employ tactics; they use whatever is available for their own ends; they use or consume things in ways never intended or perhaps dreamed of by the produces of those things–e.g., Al-Qaeda used commercial aircraft to attack the United States. Tactics might be “hit-and-run” operations in that the attackers don’t stick around the take control of the target’s territory. This way of operating relies mostly on time rather than space or place. It seizes the moment (See the Greek concept kairos). The student protesters who occupied university offices or buildings during the Vietnam War didn’t actually take ownership of the offices or buildings. Guerrilla warfare operates tactically rather than strategically.

Certeau cited the failure of the Spanish invaders of Latin America to Christianize the indigenous peoples. The indigenous populations seemed to accept the Christian ideas but turned them to their own uses. Thus syncretic religions were created. This is a case of operational closure. The social systems of the indigenous Americans were not taken over by the Spanish social systems; they were able to resist and keep communicating in their own distinct way–that is, to reproduce themselves socially.

Strategy is different in that it works from a settled place. Its security is grounded in its own “proper place”; it doesn’t have to rely on time in the way of those without a proper place. Colonizers and conquerors must quickly establish a base or operations or headquarters; they need to solidify their gains Tactical operations, in contrast, work within a context of insecurity.

Both strategy and tactics are used autopoietically. The Spanish invaders used tactics to reproduce their social systems in a new territory, while the indigenous peoples used tactics to hold on to their social systems. The indigenous peoples could not escape the power of the Spanish–there was nowhere to go–but they could try to survive as a distinct people.

Social movements are tactical operations.

The advantage of not having a settled base of operations is that you don’t have to defend that place. You don’t need to maintain and secure a location. You can operate as a mobile, hit-and-run force. You don’t need a standing army or full time police force. And, of course, you’re not a sitting target.

But if a protest movement evolves into an organization, it will have to start using strategies to defend and maintain itself. This is the case with Black Lives Matter, which is now an organization. It has a dot com website, and this must be defended from cyberattacks. In general, BLM must devote resources to self-defense rather than sticking to tactical operations.


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