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Lobbying elites: the fast track to extinction

By Robert Burrowes - posted Friday, 6 December 2013

As we evaluate the outcomes of the recent UN climate negotiations in Warsaw, one lesson that we are invited to learn, again, relates to our strategy for getting effective action taken on the ongoing climate catastrophe and other critical environmental problems. Is lobbying elites to change their behaviour an effective strategy for change?

My experience, reinforced by decades of casual observation, is that lobbying elites is a complete waste of time and that a strategy that focuses on inviting ordinary individuals and groups to take action in the desired direction is far more effective. Why do I say this?

Mainstream political processes are usually described as 'democratic' which means that they are supposed to be responsive to and representative of the popular will. When they were originally created, this was usually the explicitly stated or implicitly presumed aim. However, with the passage of time and the steady rise of corporate power, professional lobbyists and corporate money have corrupted the 'democratic ideal' so that the 'people's representatives' are no longer responsive to the people.


Corporations and their industry organisations, front groups and lobbyists have seized control of governments and key international organisations.

And other powerful non-state actors, including particular religious elites (including Zionism, the Vatican and Wahhabi Islam) exercise disproportionate power in particular contexts too.

In essence, this means that elites will continue to encourage us to 'exercise your democratic right' to vote and to lobby because once our political effort has been so channelled, our dissent is easily dissipated and thus ignored.

Conservative political 'action' groups of various kinds often play a part in drawing us into using ineffective strategies and we need to be aware of the part they are playing on behalf of elite interests even if this is simply the result of an inadequate political analysis rather than something more sinister.

Any organisation committed to genuine grassroots empowerment and mobilisation would not waste its time lobbying delegates at a UN conference given that the UN was captured by elite interests a long time ago. A casual perusal of UN decisions will reveal that its orientation is to serve elite interests, whatever flowery rhetoric fills the pages of various UN documents, and when the UN Security Council sometimes makes a move in the direction of justice (for example, on Palestine), the US government will usually exercise its veto.

So what can we do instead? Well there are plenty of genuine grassroots initiatives out there which are worthy of being considered for your support. And given that the phenomenal paramilitary response coordinated by national elites to thwart the Occupy movement illustrates how much they fear genuine grassroots mobilisation, we can draw some useful lessons on how to improve our strategy in future. For example, good nonviolent strategists have long been aware that tactics involving concentration (where many activists are gathered in the same place, perhaps attending a large rally) are more vulnerable to military/police repression than are tactics utilising dispersion (where activists participate without gathering in large numbers). This is because it is much easier to direct repressive violence at a crowd than it is by going door-to-door.


Hence, while gathering people in large numbers can be exciting and empowering when it happens occasionally (and ways to minimise the risk of repression can be utilised in these contexts: see 'Minimising the Risk of Police Violence' the strategic reality is that most of our struggle for peace, justice and environmental sustainability must take place ongoingly, at a mundane level, in our daily lives. Paradoxically, perhaps, virtually all of this struggle can be conducted without risk of any kind, especially if enough of us participate.

In short, the evidence teaches us that elites want us to lobby (or vote for) them so that they can ignore us, and that mobilizations that concentrate people in one place, while appropriate in some circumstances, provide easy targets for repression. So we need to develop strategies that primarily allow us to organise collectively in small local groups, to work with people whose values we share, which mobilize new participants in an empowering way, while minimizing the opportunities for military and police repression.

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If you want to be part of effective nonviolent strategies consider setting up a 'Flame Tree' group in your household, street or neighbourhood. See The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth

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About the Author

Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, 1996. His email address is and his personal website is at

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