August 2003
volume 1, issue 2



vi. framing the debate

One of the biggest pitfalls activists face to effectively articulating the values crisis is the fact that the category of protester has been constructed to be highly marginal by the establishment. Within the pathological logic of corporate capitalism dissent is de-legitimized to be unpatriotic, impractical, naïve or even insane. Unfortunately radicals are all too often complicit in our own marginalization by accepting this elite depiction of ourselves as the fringe.

The reality is that the neoliberal policy writers and corporate executives who think the world can continue on with unlimited economic growth in a finite biological system are the wackos, not us. We are not the fringe. We can frame the debate. In fact as Paul Rey’s research has shown us a sizable percentage of the population already shares our commitment to cultural transformation, all we need to do is reach them.

The significance of the recent mass actions against corporate globalization has not been our tactics. Movements aren’t about tactics – take this street corner, blockade that corporate office – movements are about ideas. Movements are about changing the world. When we say a better world is possible – we mean it. We want a world that reflects basic life centered values. We’ve got the vision and the big ideas and the other side doesn’t. We’ve got biocentrism, organic food production, direct democracy, renewable energy, tree free alternatives, people’s globalization, justice and what have they got? Styrofoam? Neo-liberalism? Eating disorders? Designer jeans and manic depression?

In a context where the elites hold so much power, almost all our actions are symbolic. Accepting this can be one of our greatest strengths and help us realize that the most important aspects of our actions are the messages they create. We must exploit the power of the narrative structure and weave our ideas and actions into compelling stories. Inevitably our broadest audience will start their interaction with new ideas as spectators. Thus our campaigns and actions must tell inclusive inciting stories that create more and more space for people to see themselves in the story. We must tell the story of values crisis. Stories which make people take sides – are you part of the sickness or are you part of the healing? Are you part of the life affirming future or are your part of the doomsday economy?

The first step is to separate dissent from the self-righteous tone which many people associate with protest. This tone can be particularly strong in activists from privileged background who are invested in visible "defection" as a way to validate their resistance. These politics of defection by their very nature create obstacles to communicating with the mainstream and frequently rely on symbols of dissent and rebellion that are already marginalized.

We need new symbols of inclusive resistance and transformation. We need new memes – the basic units of information – to convey the values crisis. Memes are viral by nature, they move easily through our modern world of information networks and media saturation. We need to be training ourselves to become “meme warriors” and to tell the story of values crisis in different ways for different audiences. We must get a better sense of who our audiences are, and target our messages to fit into their existing experiences.

We need to be media savy and use the corporate propaganda machine. Not naively as the exclusive means of validating our movements, but as a tool of information self defense to oppose the information warfare being waged against us. The corporate media is another tool to name the system and undermine the grip of the dominant mythology. While we spin we simultaneously need to promote media democracy and capitalize on the alternative and informal media and communication networks as a means to get our message out. Our movements must become the nervous systems of an emerging transformative culture.

It’s essential that we frame our ideas in such a way that as people wake up to the crisis they have the conceptual tools to understand the systemic roots of the problem. Over the next decade as the global crisis becomes more visible we won’t have to do much to convince people about the problem. Rather our job will be to discredit the elite’s band-aid solutions and build popular understanding of the need for systemic solutions.
Whether we are talking about genetic pollution, financial meltdowns or nuclear accidents if we haven’t framed the issue in advance even the most dramatic breakdowns in the system can be “crisis-managed” away without alerting the public to the system’s fundamental failings. If we do the work to challenge the control mythology and undermine the flawed assumptions then people will know whom to blame. As we build a public awareness of the values crisis it helps shift the debate away from reform and towards re-designing the global system.

This is the strategy of leap frogging, a way of dealing with the political road-blocks we find crippling almost any basic progress on confronting the glaring problems of our times. Leap-frogging is one way of confronting colonized imaginations and entrenched power holders by defining issues in such a way that public consciousness leap-frogs over limiting definitions and elite solutions. This means having the skill and courage to articulate design flaws and avoiding concessions that dead end in inadequate reforms.
It is essential that as the crisis becomes self- evident we are building mass awareness of the system’s design-flaws. This process of leap-frogging the elite framing of the problem prepares people to accept the dramatic changes necessary to make another world possible.

There are any number of macro-issues that when framed correctly can help us name the system. Global warming, commodification of basic human needs from health care to water, the rate of technological change, increasing racism, the spread of genetic pollution, ongoing violence against women - are just a few examples which can tell the story of values crisis. The challenge is not what issue we work on but how we avoid being pulled into the regulatory and concessionary arenas that dictate single issue politics.

Knowing that the rules of the political game are already stacked against us, the anti-corporate rule mobilizations of the past few years have chosen to expand our political framework by taking our actions into the streets. The politics of protest and confrontation have created new political space but how can we insure that this builds towards a truly transformative arena of struggle?




Global warming is an obvious example of an issue where leap-frogging is desperately needed. As global warming creates more visible eco-spasms it will eventually become be one of the macro-issues that re-defines politics as we know it.
Global warming when expanded from the single issue context of carbon dioxide pollution and re-defined as a systemic issue of fossil fuel addiction becomes a vehicle for showing that the global system suffers from deep design flaws. Thus global warming can be used not only to show the moral and intellectually bankruptcy of a fossil fuel based economy but also to indict the corporate rule system that has created the fossil fuel chain of destruction. When framed properly this story promotes not only environmentally friendly alternatives, but also democracy (“energy sovereignty” ) and the need to confront the racism and classism that has allowed the basic human rights of communities impacted by fossil fuel production to be ignored.
The global oil barons are among the most powerful interests on the planet and have used their drug lord influence to block any realistic effort to transition away from fossil fuels.
The Kyoto protocol – an international framework for reducing carbon emissions – which, despite the fact that it is scientifically inadequate to address the problem, has been stalled by the political influence of the fossil fuel industry. In response many concerned pressure groups have reduced their demands and lobbied for more minor concessions, like fuel efficiency standards, that they thought they could get without having to fundamentally challenge the corporate influence over politics.
But instead of reducing our expectations, when we face the limits of the existing political debate we need to expand our vision and have the courage to leap-frog the political log-jams with the values crisis analysis. Strategically the most significant aspect of the climate crisis is that we know its going to get worse and more visible.
So imagine, hypothetically, ten or fifteen years from now when super-hurricanes displace 40 million in Florida and NY is spending $2 trillion building floodwalls, the American public is going to want some answers. By then its important that people understand that we are not all equally culpable for the de-stabilization of the global climate. Sure a lot of people drove SUV’s and consumed way more than their share but let’s be clear who did more to de-stabilize the climate - the soccer moms or Exxon-Mobil? How we frame the issue will help decide what actually happens when public acceptance of the problem becomes undeniable. Will we approve Kyoto or will be lock up the oil executives, seize their corporate assets and use their billions to fund the transition to clean energy?
It’s up to activists to insure that people understand that a small cartel of energy corporations and their financial backers knowingly de-stablized our planet’s climate for their own personal gain. This may turn out to be the most devastating crime ever perpetrated against humanity, the planet and future generations. In the short term we may gain no concessions but the pay off for taking the time to frame the issue properly comes when people can channel their outrage into systemic change.


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 |next>