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The Myth of "Win-Win"



by Jim Britell


Summary:  While negotiation and consensus will always be a necessary part of the human experience, the mere presence of conflict does not mean that seeking "win-win" solutions is either the preferred or the appropriate approach

Background
This is a critical look at the third of three myths that have become fashionable in thinking about how to resolve environmental conflicts: the myth that people of good will can always sit down and fashion agreements by consensus because "win-win" processes are far more effective than other "old fashioned" and unworkable ones. "Win-Win" is the basis for the proliferation of consensus decision making, partnerships and roundtable processes that are springing up around the country. Environmental activists are reporting dissatisfaction with the results of these processes, but no general theory of what may be going on has emerged. This paper takes the view of Saul Alinsky, the father of modern grassroots community organizing and the leading social activist of our time, who said, "This liberal cliche about reconciliation of opposing forces is a load of crap...the general fear of conflict and emphasis on consensus and accommodation is typical academic drivel. How do you ever arrive at consensus before you have conflict?"

Notice that 25 years ago Alinsky used the words "typical", and "cliche" to describe the approach we now generally refer to as "win-win". Consensus groups, partnerships and roundtables are old news; whenever grassroots organizers become effective they have always come under intense pressure to stop their activism, cease organizing, stop fighting and join in cozy schmoozy consensus groups where powerful people can stroke them, and convert these formerly effective activists into house pets. It is a classic strategy because, as Alinsky observed, there are always some activists around who are "...too delicate to exert the necessary pressures on the power structure...", (who rely) "...on altruism as an instrument of social change...a fatal mistake of white liberals...". His advice, for the "too delicate" as he tactfully put it was to just "...get out of the ball park."

Of course avoiding consensus processes does not mean there can never be reconciliation, but Alinsky warned, "Reconciliation means just one thing: When one side gets enough power then the other side gets reconciled to it." He does not mean that activists must never cooperate or compromise; quite the contrary, no one involved with politics can get their own way all the time, there is always a need to compromise. Alinsky said "My opposition to consensus politics however, doesn't mean I'm opposed to compromise: just the opposite. In the world as it is, no victory is ever absolute".

There is a time and place for every negotiating strategy; but we are still in the middle of the conflict stage of environmental activism and the other side is not yet reconciled to us, so we are not ready for the next stage of compromise.

Some History of the Theory Of "Win-Win"
The new approaches to decision making based on "win-win", partnerships, roundtables and consensus groups are part of a larger "leadership movement", which has become popular at the major schools of business administration where it has percolated down into every aspect of public sector leadership training, from the Harvard and Wharton Schools of business to the US military. This emerging movement was discussed in detail in the Harpers Dec. 1993 article "Inside the Leadership Studies Racket" by Benjamin Demott, who said:

"Leadership-cult top dogs have managed, in short, to convince bottom dogs as well as themselves that the country's problems stem not from evaded issues of injustice or inequality but from technically faulty administration.

"The ...cant is that of America as the land of happy consensus...seemingly profound and fiercely articulated social conflicts in this country actually are figments, that all good Americans share a feeling for the Universal Unwritten Understanding in the Sky, and that if people of intelligence will but consent to work together, no so-called serious political or cultural issue need ever be joined.

"One reason for this vision's current vitality is the arrival of neoliberalism - the Clintonian gospel slyly proclaiming' that Harvard/Rhodes slickness can negotiate any domestic - or foreign-policy issue into nothingness...The two operative political fantasies here which are shared by 'enlightened' corporate types, hold that : (1) there are no major differences of interest in American society demanding fair settlement; (2) ways of evading the responsibilities and entailments of a democratic political system can always be found. The new key to successful evasion lies in teaching upcoming generations, from fifth grade onward, how to pretend - that the key explanation for urban disasters such as Camden, New Jersey, is that the residents were never properly trained in conflict management and team building."

While beyond the scope of this paper, it should be noted for people who wish to explore this further that neoliberalism is far more than a useful device for reducing grassroots activists to moral idiots through consensus processes; it is a rapidly growing world-wide political movement that has produced economic manifestations like NAFTA and GATT. In fact Neo-Liberalism is alleged by a cross section of leaders of indigenous people's movements, like the Zapatistas, to be the very force they are fighting against. Visit the Mexican Zapatista's web sites and you see attacks on the economic and political aspects of the world wide spread of neoliberalism on every page. Cecilia Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Chiapas rebels, in a Speech to the Native Forest Network in November 1994, said "It is neoliberalism which the Zapatistas are fighting against..." Neoliberalism is a growing political force whose varied faces create problems for a spectrum of grassroots activists as diverse as US forest activists and third world indigenous leaders.

The theoretical assumptions of Neo-Liberalism about politics, human nature, democracy, and conflict resolution are in complete conflict at every point with the theoretical and working assumptions of indigenous people's movements, and environmental activists. These conflicts are deeper and more profound than any superficial differences between say, Republicans and Democrats, or Liberals and Conservatives. Many activists have learned after it is too late that once these "partnerships", roundtables and Quincy-type processes have gained a foothold, traditional activism cannot continue to co-exist within the same activist organizations, and perhaps may not even be able to coexist within the same local communities.

This is because the implicit assumptions of Neo-Liberalism and activists' are so inconsistent they cannot logically be simultaneously sustained in the same person or organization,. viz. negotiating can solve all problems, no matter how intractable, because profound social conflicts are imaginary constructs; the root source of any problem is never to be found in waste or corruption, so it is not profitable to ever examine systemic malfeasance; and social problems are due to an absence of professional conflict resolution techniques. Of course the biggest assumption is that reasonable people working together can solve all problems and discover "win-win" solutions, and that partnerships and working groups can change people's attitudes since people are all deep down basically of good will and open to new ideas if presented in a cooperative problem-solving setting.

Alinsky utterly rejected this last assumption and told a story that explains why: "I attended a luncheon with a number of presidents of major corporations who wanted to 'know their enemy'. One of them said to me, 'Saul, you seem like a nice guy personally, but why do you see everything only in terms of power and conflict rather than from the point of good will and cooperation?' I told him, 'look, when you and your corporation approach competing corporations in terms of good will, reason and cooperation instead of going for the jugular, then I'll follow your lead.' There was a long silence at the table, and the subject was dropped."

If we are to have political accountability and educate the public to insure that we do not allow the same mistakes to occur over and over again, we must expose the causes of our problems and air them thoroughly in the media. The mantras of mistakes were made, or we should not point fingers, or we need to move forward with solutions, are the surest way to conceal the root causes of our problems. If the Air Traffic Safety Board took this approach when investigating airline crashes, we might well see press conferences where the spokesperson for the FAA refused to discuss the causes of a crash, and insisted that we need to avoid unproductive finger pointing, work for positive solutions and not simply dwell on past mistakes.

If our S&L regulators had used a tad more "win-lose" and a little less "win-win" in their approach to the banking industry in the 1980's we might have avoided the several hundred billion dollar looting that subsequently occurred. In dealing with problems where the cause is corruption, influence buying or malfeasance, certainly the case for our environmental problems if past court decisions are any guide, we need the fullest disclosure and exploration of root causes and the naming of names. Alinsky said, "We want to use (organizing) as a means of social and political pressure against the megacorporations, and as a vehicle for exposing their hypocrisy and deceit."

Another wheel on the "win-win" bandwagon is the idea that whenever serious conflict arises there is a strong moral imperative for reasonable people to sit down and work out a "win-win" or common-ground solution with their opponent that everyone can live with. Sometimes of course this is the perfectly appropriate path, but not always, and particularly not when deliberate or systematic law breaking is a major factor in the conflict. (One hopes that if you call a 911 dispatcher to catch a burglar in your basement the police will not dispatch a conflict mediator to your house).

Our history from the revolution forward provides abundant examples that justice and liberty are sometimes best served by absolutely refusing to sit down and find "common ground" and "win-win" solutions. In fact, it is arguable that of most turning points of history where great issues of human freedom were at stake, in-your-face confrontation saved the day. On the other hand, when key turning points were resolved with "win-win " solutions like Chamberlain used at Munich on the eve of World War II, the greatest human calamities have ensued. The circumstances leading up to the desegregation of Little Rock schools in the 1950's provide a good an example of this fact of life - there are many more.

On the eve of Eisenhower's decision to send 1,000 armed paratroopers into Little Rock to enforce court ordered desegregation in the public schools, the US House and Senate were overwhelmingly against Ike's taking a strong stand, as were virtually all the voters, politicians and newspapers in the South. Ike was being warned of uprisings and the imminent abolishment of the public school system in Arkansas, which would leave black children with no education at all.

In the midst of this conflict, Governor Faubus asked Eisenhower if they couldn't try to find a cooperative approach, perhaps to integrate the lower grades at first and work up to the higher ones over time. Faubus offered to concede all the important constitutional principles which were at stake, i.e. Federal law is preeminent over State law, States must follow Federal court orders, etc. The Governor said he simply wanted a little flexibility in implementation so the public could accept this massive social change for which they simply were not ready.

What was Eisenhower's response to this seemingly reasonable request to sit down and try to negotiate in the hopes that some "common-ground" could be found?

He refused.

Ike said, "... the Federal Constitution will be upheld by me by every legal means at my command." A few days later he sent armed paratroopers into Arkansas. He also Federalized 20,000 Arkansas National Guardsmen so the Governor would not get any ideas about using state troops to oppose Eisenhower's Federal ones. And what happened? The Governor backed down, the schools were integrated, and nobody else in the South gave Eisenhower much trouble with school desegregation after that.

The Two World Views - On The Ground
Using the two world views of Alinsky and Neo-Liberalism to view the facts on the ground in our present Pacific Northwest forest situation, produces radically different irreconcilable views of what is really going on. Under Neo-Liberalism, gridlock, deadlock, conflict and "war in the woods" are the basic problems that must be resolved and proof that environmental laws are complete failures; but under the Alinsky model, "gridlock" that results from stopping clear cutting is evidence that activists have been effective in thwarting the plans of large corporations and that our system of laws really works.

Neo-Liberalism, being created mostly by and for rich people, naturally would have local financially interested people play a vital role in arriving at decisions about the business use of public asserts; the Alinsky approach tries to insure that people with vested financial interests and rampant conflicts of interest in the outcome of federal land management decisions are completely excluded from these decision making processes.

As we saw at the Clinton Forest Summit, Neo-Liberalism would have us believe that mistakes were made, but it is not useful to dwell on the past; guilt is everywhere and nowhere; that even if people were responsible for past errors those mistakes were not willful; and moreover, guilty parties never have a name or face. The Alinsky approach would assume that bad actors always have names and faces and the more you publicize those who have been screwing the public the better you can reduce corrupting influences in the future.

Neo-Liberals clamor that trans-national corporations provide our jobs, are the engine of economic growth, and need to be freed from red tape as much as possible; but the research of our corporate-watching friends tells us corporations need far more red tape, supervision and oversight, and we should even de-charter them where we can as they are far too powerful.

Do we accept the notion that the timber industry mostly operates as a kindly local jobs program to support local communities, or do we credit what our eyes tell us: the timber industry has always been a greedy, union busting, community destroying entity that only operates to help itself by making money, and that any job creation is an incidental, and mostly undesirable, byproduct.

Conclusion
While negotiation and consensus will always be a necessary part of the human experience, the mere presence of conflict does not mean that seeking "win-win" solutions is either the preferred or the appropriate approach. Environmental conflict over public land issues arises from extractive industry trying to convert into their gain, public assets and resources that belong to all the people and future generations. The best approach is to confront and expose their schemes, not to sit down and play patty cake over the small amount of pie that is left.

Bad actors and ivory tower academics have always tried to lure activists into consensus and partnerships, but from Alinsky words there is no escape:, "All change means movement, movement means friction and friction means heat. You'll find consensus only in a totalitarian state, communist or fascist... conflict is the vital core of an open society..."

We can take the pander-path of "win-win" with its phony Quincy Library groups and their inevitable outcomes of treacly, synthetic consensus, or we can demand that the "force" be put back into the enforcement of our environmental laws; but we cannot have it both ways. To paraphrase the Bible,...surely no man can serve two bastards.

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©1997 Jim Britell
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