Movement power: unity and autonomy

Activists expose the weakness of a world without regulation at the Extinction Rebellion protest, The Big One, at Westminster. 

A successful campaign needs unity in its aims and actions, but plurality and autonomy for its activists.

The core leadership will develop the theory of change, the grand strategy and the principles. As noted, these are the immutable boundaries the activists are asked to respect.

The promise of the hybrid model of organising is that it can deliver the unity of purpose necessary for change most closely associated with the structure graduation and also the autonomy for activists that allows for innovation and creativity, which are often more highly valued in the momentum tradition.

The contradiction between unity and autonomy can be seen as the root cause of the emergence of two traditions in mass popular protest over the decades, and the sublation or resolution of this seeming paradox is presented as something of a panacea for a wide range of problems that have always dogged social movements – from the Levellers in the 1600s to Extinction Rebellion today. Here we discuss the antinomy between unity and autonomy in detail.

This is the sixth article in the Movement Power series from The Ecologist. 

Paul Engler and Carlos Saavedra from Momentum Community presented a new ‘hybrid’ model of organising a decade ago in their YouTube training series. The same model is presented clearly and economically in Movement Power: A Toolkit for Building Power in a Time of Crisis, published by Tipping Point UK. It has been adopted as the ‘bible’ for Extinction Rebellion and has been used by a wide range of social movements in recent years. 


We can see from the experience of activist movements that too much autonomy can result in significant problems. These often relate to a lack of effectiveness: the protests come and go but there is almost no measurable change. The problem manifests as a failure to keep to the grand strategy, a lack of message discipline, the breaching of core principles such as the commitment to nonviolence, and the elevation of charismatic individuals – even cults – within the movement. 

Conversely, too much unity brings its own problems. Unity achieved through a hierarchy structure where a few leaders make decisions can ensure greater coherence but comes at the risk of creating bottlenecks in decision making, giving too much work and power to too few people to manage, creates a professional cast within the movement that can become alienated from a more radical membership, and also the suite of control problems we are now familiar with.  

The seeming contradiction between unity and autonomy can be resolved by the hybrid model. This requires an understanding of another apparent paradox: the more structured an organisation is at its inception, the more autonomy this allows for during the course of the campaign. The right constitution, which, for example, inscribes autonomy for local groups, enforced by the right leadership with the right motivations and skills, is the only way to achieve freedom on the ground.

The core leadership will develop the theory of change, the grand strategy and the principles. As noted, these are the immutable boundaries the activists are asked to respect.

The core concept is that the constitution can create boundaries. The theory of change, the grand narrative and the principles are all different forms of boundary set for the movement. These are negotiated, discussed, and then agreed. 

The activists are then given full autonomy to act within these agreed boundaries, which the leadership must understand need to be as generous as possible. If rules are going to be adopted that limit the freedom of others to act, they really must be necessary. The activists must then accept the rules on the basis that fellow activists acting in the interests of the movement have implemented only those rules that are necessary. 


Engler and Saavedra borrow the concept of the sandbox from the Otpor! (‘Resistance!’) movement in Serbia. “Everyone gets a sandbox and can do whatever within the sandbox. But there are clear boundaries … so it does not hurt other people, or their movement. There are really strict boundaries. But within those boundaries people can build their own sandcastles.”

The resolution of the conflict between unity and autonomy through the establishment of sound boundaries informs every aspect of the frontloading and the design of the DNA of the social movement. 

Extinction Rebellion sharing its principles with action participants at Westminster. (c) Brendan Montague, Creative Commons 4.0.

This can be seen in the four methods of ‘inoculating’ the movement against ubiquitous problems, as presented by Engler and Saavedra. The same core concept undergirds how the relationship between the leadership, which often focuses on unity, and the membership or teams, which often fight for autonomy, can be successfully managed. 

Engler and Saavedra identify four lines of defence against these common problems: core leadership and monitors; traditions and principles; action agreements and proactive outreach; and then – perhaps most important – mass training.

We have discussed already how a hybrid model of organising will come into being when a group of activists come together to form a core leadership team, often referred to as the founders. The core leadership will develop the theory of change, the grand strategy and the principles. As noted, these are the immutable boundaries the activists are asked to respect. The core leadership team then has the job of recruiting activists to the campaign. 


The founders then have to relinquish power and control, while remaining active as influencers within the movement advocating for the original boundaries. Engler and Saavedra argue: “The core leadership also has to do a lot of maintenance. 

If activists are doing actions locally against the theory of change or the core principles of the movement then it becomes the responsibility of the core leadership to instigate conversations and then move them back towards the agreed strategy.”

A practical example is that the core leadership can recruit a team of stewards or monitors for mass demonstrations. Engler and Saavedra insist that the demonstration needs monitors, and in turn the monitors need to have the support from the crowd. “It really is just reminding the crowd. It is like white blood cells. They label what is outside the DNA. They allow the cells to courageously engage with the movement.”

The boundaries set by the core leadership are best communicated with the membership, and especially newer activists, as “traditions and principles”. These are designed to ensure unity and coherence, and activists are invited to agree to them as they join the campaign.

Engler and Saavedra state: “You need to frontload the traditions and principles that are going to specifically address the most common problems.” They claim that the Occupy movement, at its best, explained at every general assembly its grand strategy, its grand narrative and its principles. 

“We need to give every leader all the DNA they need to survive. Some of the culture and norms we have are implicit and not explicit. It can be difficult to establish and negotiate these norms. In a decentralised organisation this process needs to be systematised, and made explicit.”


A further mechanism for setting boundaries for activists joining the movement is action agreements. These relate to specific actions – most often protests. “When an action is organised and when people are recruited to take part, they need to sign up to an action agreement. There are principles that every activist would need to agree to before becoming engaged.”

The primary action agreements proposed by Engler and Saavedra come under three headings: active popular support, escalation, and absorption.

Active popular support

Metanarrative: the unity in purpose of the movement is inculcated when activists joining a protest are asked to agree to the metanarrative, part of the organisational DNA. An example is the raison d'être set out by the Occupy movement: “We are the 99 per cent and we have come together to reclaim our democracy from the domination of big money for the good of all in our nation.”

Theory of change: the movement also develops unity around a common theory of change. Most popular momentum-driven movements, like the civil rights movement, women's suffrage movement, and movements against dictators in other countries, function by getting a critical mass of active public support for the cause.

Inclusion and pluralism: unity almost by definition requires that the movement should ensure that the majority of people can participate and that they are able – within the boundaries – to participate on their own terms. Therefore the action agreement might include a statement such as: “We welcome the participation of all who embrace our principles and work to create an empathetic community in which everyone is affirmed and may develop as a leader, especially the most marginalised among us. We affirm that there are many different roles, organisations and institutions that are important to our struggle, and welcome partnership with any group that shares our goal and with whom we may work while upholding our aims.”


As the movement grows, more people will need to contribute. Naturally, they will want to be part of the decision-making process. The founders of the movement need to ensure that there is a democratic process within the movement. The structure tradition may rely on traditional 50 per cent plus one voting, while the momentum tradition has attempted to use consensus more. In any case, the process needs to be fair and accessible. 

An example of a principle of democracy would be: “We collaborate using a modified consensus process and ‘voting with your feet’ to maximise participation and take personal and collective responsibility to uphold our principles throughout our actions.”

Engler and Saavedra also centre a commitment to nonviolence. A principle might read: “We maintain nonviolent discipline in all our actions. This often has a nonviolence statement for all actions within the movement, and a clear policy to not have adversarial relationships to the military or police, because we want them and the public to defect.”


The recruitment and training – or absorption – of thousands of people is necessary for the creation and maintenance of a mass movement. The issue of leadership and followship will universally arise as the campaign gains more members. This is perhaps where the issue of unity and autonomy is most acute. 

A principle that will secure unity of action, while setting boundaries for new leaders, might read as follows: “We are all leaders. We affirm leadership as an act and process not of governance or profit-seeking, but of service, responsibility and empowerment. We respect and encourage leadership development.”

Another important and ubiquitous issue that arises from the introduction of new members to a hybrid organisation is the fact that most if not all people will not be paid. Therefore there needs to be a commitment to the right culture of volunteering. 

A distinguishing feature of momentum organisations that is retained by the hybrid model is the commitment to ‘open source’. This means activists can use the brand, styling, colour palette and digital resources of the movement without asking permission of individual owners of intellectual property, or leaders. 

This commitment could take the following form: “We are an open source movement. Any individual or organisation may affiliate with the name and symbols of the movement so long as their actions and statements as the movement are consistent with our principles.”


The DNA of the campaign - including the theory of change, the grand strategy and the principles – needs to be transmitted from the founders to the membership through mass training.Mass training is so fundamental to the success of the campaign that we will now discuss this practice at some length. “The training allows everyone to enforce those rules.”

The initiation training for the DNA alone should take about five days. Certificates and badges can be provided to people who have completed training and are able to then give training themselves. Mass training only makes sense when there is escalation and successful trigger events and moments of the whirlwind. Role play is an important element of mass training, from action scenarios to violent implementation. 

A movement can begin with a single individual. They would start by recruiting, say, ten people who are committed to achieving a certain goal or end, such as reducing the carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere and driving climate breakdown. It is at this, the earliest stage, that the first boundaries are set.

The initial team of ten then set to work attempting to reach a hundred activists. Saavedra explains: “Then each person reaches into their network to recruit a total of 50 people to come to the same mass training event. It is very powerful when everyone comes to the first meeting: it is very cathartic. 

That formalises or gels the sense of emotional solidarity. You then use that to get them to form a team, and you instantly put them into a two day training. In the structure movement you would never have a new person attend training and form a new team. But we are creating a new system so that they can rise, and become leadership.”


In some cases, the core leadership will already have momentum. “When you have momentum this replaces the one on one sessions – you already have hundreds of people around the country who are implicitly asking for training. You skip over the part of identifying leaders, as there are already enough people to populate a mass training.” 

This is one of the fundamental benefits of integrating the momentum tradition. “In structure, all the energy of the organisers is spent organising actions and meetings, but when you have momentum you don’t have to worry about that – you just have to worry about the training.”

The initial stages of the campaign must therefore be grander in ambition, to meet the demand in the community. Saavedra: “Schedule training and put it in the calendar. Some training is better than none when you have momentum. This creates the space and the culture for training regardless of how good the people are. Schedule it, prepare trainers and logistics.” The training should set out very clearly “what is the story, what is the action”.

The most important element is immediate escalation. As soon as the first phase of training is complete, it is time to start “training the trainers”. The first generation of activists can be sent out into different geographical regions, or adjacent movements, to start recruiting and training. “Schedule five training sessions in five different regions. Get the trainers into the regions, and start booking rooms. Most people start doing actions without any capacity. If you do it, it happens.”


The training sessions need to be about more than setting boundaries or limits. Activists also need support. In the momentum tradition, the concept of mutual aid is fundamental. “You pay people in mutual aid. If emotional needs are met within the group, [they] no longer want money or status.” In the structure tradition, such as trade unions, staff can be paid and have other benefits for their work. 

In an activist movement almost everyone is a volunteer. “They are motivated by the cause. But what keeps people involved is whether people’s needs are met by participation in the group: can they heal, can they be better parents, can they connect with the community? We want to create the deep bonds we [have] with partners, or family.” 

The perpetuation of the DNA, the maintenance of healthy boundaries, is vital. The hybrid model requires that the leadership cannot simply order the teams around – this would violate the principle of autonomy. Therefore unity and coherence are maintained through continuous training. This includes “upgrade training” so that activists move through the ladder of engagement, and even the founding activists are reminded of the grand strategy and principles as the campaign matures. 

The movement must “create space to train leaders in new problems, make space for new learning. The training can focus on each aspect of the DNA. There should be advanced training. Training in training. The highest level of organiser also needs training.” The trainers should identify highly skilled activists and facilitate them in training other teams. 


The debate about unity and autonomy often takes the form of a disagreement about hierarchy and decentralisation.The structure tradition is typified by prioritising unity, and achieving this by relying on a classical hierarchy where a single leader or leadership team theoretically delivers a unified and coherent strategy. 

Engler summarises: “The strategy is given from the leadership, who have developed a complex understanding of action through experience. They then have to manifest their knowledge through the grassroots activists through management and instructions. The natural metaphor for this is “Everything has a head.’ A human being is understood as having a brain at the top, which acts as a command and control centre for the body, that carries out its commands. 

The momentum tradition, in contradistinction, prioritises autonomy, which is achieved by developing decentralised organisational structures. The grassroots members make the decisions, as they carry out the frontline activity. There is little or no deference to leadership. The members therefore must be trained in the strategy, so that they can manifest it directly and autonomously. The natural metaphor is the starfish: “If you break off a piece it can continue to function without the centre.”

The antinomy of unity and autonomy is often most keenly felt in an organisation at the intersection between the national leadership and the membership teams,often configured around geographical locality. The HQ of many British organisations – including corporations – is often located in London, with regional offices sometimes representing whole independent countries, such as Scotland and Wales. This almost always leads to tensions.

The team structure is therefore the cornerstone of all hybrid, decentralised movements. It is natural that the founders of an organisation, and indeed any member, might have serious concerns about their colleagues having a high degree of autonomy. “People have concerns about ‘giving up control’, to see their baby strategy changed, or having fellow activists just doing what they want,” Engler agrees. Therefore there have to be identifiable benefits. 


There are three primary reasons for having decentralised teams: 1. Absorbing momentum, expanding exponentially; 2. Immune from attacks on leaders, through resilient and collective leadership; 3. Encouraging organic creativity and coordination through empowering all members to be leaders. 

The structure of teams within the hybrid model therefore requires specific attention. The approach Engler and Saavedra suggest represents a radical departure from most structure organisations in the extent of autonomy afforded to grassroots activists. Any three people can form a team within the hybrid model. Four to twelve people can form a whole new organisation. The DNA of the organisation – including the action agreements described above – needs to be disseminated to and within the new teams. 

Activists are encouraged to join or leave any team or organisation of their choosing. The unity of action therefore is not achieved by votes for how the whole campaign should run, but instead by individuals setting up teams and staffing them with volunteers. The volunteers, by directing their labour, decide the success or otherwise of the teams. “The campaign that is most popular will gain support from the activists voting with their feet, and then [from] the public.”

It should be borne in mind that perfect unity and perfect autonomy cannot exist. People are already on the spectrum of hierarchy to decentralisation. The fact that a team exists does not mean that power is decentralised. A team is a group of individuals who have decided to work together. Most organisations have realised the benefits of having teams. They are more creative and productive.

The most striking example of an organisation with a high level of autonomy, but with leadership and structure, is the Pirate Party in Sweden. The founder “created a vision and a container, and then allowed everyone to join”,Engler explains. “The Pirate Party gave a lot of autonomy to people. In the Pirate Party the coordinator supports the team that makes the decision about the campaign.” You can read a comprehensive summary of the Swedish Pirate Party organisational method at The Ecologist.


The founders, or core leadership team, need to lay out the groundwork for teams to be successfully deployed. This can be understood as creating the right ecosystem for new individuals to proliferate and survive, and it begins with the founders having the right culture and strategy from the beginning. 

“The core leadership do not govern, do not have decision-making power over other people. They are creators and stewards of the movement DNA; they are not a vanguard or centralised leadership body; they do not govern; they are the embodiment of the first organism of the DNA; they launch the first training sessions; they are the protectors of the DNA.” 

The natural metaphor might be botanical: “The leadership is seeding new teams, it must water and fertilise. But the seed does its own growing.” The leadership can also understand its role as ‘shepherding’. This includes creating and supporting the ‘swarm’ of new members, and helping the local teams to function. Perhaps most importantly of all, the leadership should assume that innovation comes from the grassroots. “Help the best ideas and the best practices float to the top by advertising them.”

Engler describes the process of ensuring that the best ideas percolate across the movement: “Sometimes you have dispersed actions and campaigns that bubble up. The top level leadership is figuring out, ‘There’s a great action that got movement.’ The top creates training and allows for those technologies to spread and really the technology is invented at the bottom. 

“My experience is that a lot of prophetic actions, and complex actions, require skills that local activists do not yet have, but the core leadership does,” Engler concludes. “The core leadership gives big action plans – and they measure the success of these by people voting with their feet. They get feedback from the activists joining the planning meetings, and when they get critical mass they know they have enough people and that creates a cycle itself.”

This Author

Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist.

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