What is Disruption?
The term ‘disruption’ has recently risen to prominence in the popular discourse, and as is typical of discursive jargon, has come to mean different things to different people. It is used, for example, to describe everything from the protest actions of dissenting political parties and movements, to riotous and obstructive behaviour where simmering discontent explodes and is vented upon the public realm, to significant technological and market transformations in societies and economies. Its actual meaning has hence become diluted and vague.
In its simplest – and most general – conception disruption targets the everyday rhythms and flows that are key to maintaining the status quo[i]. In the political realm, disruption has the intention of; (1) voicing discontent, and (2) forcing the target of disruption to take notice of – and engage in with – dissenting and protesting voices. Political disruption is hence a form of contestation and brinkmanship; one that has legitimacy and special relevance where politics is concerned.
Yet is important to remember that disruption is fundamentally a strategic concept i.e. the utility of disruption is its strategic importance and influence. A disruption that is devoid of any clear strategy merely constitutes a momentary interruption of the day-to-day rhythms and flows that maintain the status quo. It does not disrupt the status quo in a manner that ensures that the impact of disruption is felt across space, time and/or sector and has longevity in its impact. It does not sustain itself as an influence beyond the immediate. It can hence easily be forgotten; it has no special relevance and cannot sustain its quest to bring about fundamental change in the status quo. The status quo is not marked in any significant way moving forward.
The design of political disruption is critically important; if disruption is to achieve political ends, then its strategic value must be carefully considered. It is not a simple matter of blocking the system that disrupters are in opposition to at every turn; it is a matter of finding the key points of leverage within the system that constitutes the target of disruption. It is also a matter of employing creativity and deep insight into the mechanisms and systemic factors through which an oppressive system maintains itself, which in turn can take on multiple dimensions (e.g. social, economic, cultural, religious, historical, etc.).
Simple Examples of Disruption
Take, for example, the civil disobedience campaign for equal rights for black people in the US. Civil disobedience sought to disrupt not only the day to day activities of white America, it profoundly challenged the values, beliefs and norms of white America. One of the most creative, and indeed difficult, aspects of the civil disobedience campaign was its emphasis on non-violence. It took immense effort and focus to train and prepare civil rights activists for the practicalities of non-violent protest. It is not easy to convince and train people to endure the hate and violence that an unjust system wields against them without retaliation. Yet it was worth the effort. Non-violence brought white America, into confrontation with its own inhumanity, with its own moral inferiority, and sparked both white America and the world into action in support of the civil rights movement.
I am not advocating for exclusively non-violent disruption here; to assume that that is the point of the aforementioned example of civil disobedience would be to miss the point entirely. I am emphasising that disruption, if it is to prove effective in the political domain, is required to be strategically coherent and creative in its implementation. Creativity would necessitate that there be some amount of variation at the tactical level, that different tactics can be employed within the over-arching strategic framework that underpins disruption. Needless to say, tactics that are chosen would need to be carefully scrutinised in terms of their strategic value i.e. how well oriented the tactics are towards achieving the strategic goals of disruption.
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, for example, ran on the simple message of change, rather than a message of reinforcing the status quo. Yet that was not its only disruption. At the tactical level it; (1) used newly emerging social media platforms to reach discontented and disillusioned voters, many of them who were young and felt politically excluded, (2) it used crowdfunding to raise funds for the campaign instead of relying exclusively on large private and private sector donors, (3) it employed the rhetoric and oratory power of the civil rights movement and imbued Obama with the legitimacy of a John F Kennedy (i.e. a young leader running on a platform for change), and (4) it drew on deep popular dissatisfaction with the status quo but met it with a message of hope and vision for a new kind of world, and a new kind of America.
Similarly, the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign for the US presidency, and the Jeremy Corbyn campaign for the leadership of the UK Labour Party, were also fundamentally disruptive campaigns that were positioned around popular discontent with the status quo. They were unabashedly left wing (Bernie Sanders even declared himself a socialist), and used a variety of disruptive tactics to organise, gain support and fund their campaigns. Both were rank outsiders whom the establishment regarded as having a slim chance of success, but proved to be viable, sustainable candidates with adequate support to ensure their longevity in the political realm.
Donald Trump’s campaign was also fundamentally disruptive. He was also a rank outsider to the political establishment who was regarded with a mixture of revulsion and nervous laughter. He managed to tap into popular discontent and harness that discontent by becoming a voice for it. He broke every rule – and continues to – in respect of political diplomacy, decorum and etiquette; yet it worked to his advantage. While we may question the tone of the campaign – it harnessed and amplified anger, legitimised hate-based sentiments, and promoted a vision of exceptionalism, isolationism, protectionism and sectarianism – it stayed on message and played to its strengths. In the end, this proved to be enough to get Trump into the oval office. Trump’s campaign has proved to be a huge disruption, not just to the US political establishment, but to political establishments across the globe. Whether it can be successfully sustained remains to be seen.
Failed Disruption: The EFF at #SONA2017
A case where disruption appears to have worked against itself, however, occurred only a few days ago in the South African parliament, during the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA), which was delivered by the sitting president Jacob Zuma. President Zuma – the leader of the African National Congress – is an outgoing president, who will relinquish power in 2019, and is hence effectively a lame-duck president. Nonetheless, due to massive controversy around the President’s relationships with private sector moguls, and the finding by the constitutional court that he effectively violated his oath of office[ii], there is considerable pressure from the public and opposition parties, as well as from within the ANC, for the president to step down.
Last year, the youthful, militant radical left-wing opposition party – the Economic Freedom Fighter’s – staged a powerful disruption of the State of the Nation Address. They filibustered the President, questioned his legitimacy, called for him to step down, and obstructed the president’s state of the nation speech at every turn. Eventually they were physically ejected by a mixture of policemen and parliamentary security. The event sent shock waves throughout South African society, and reached across the world. The EFF had courageously disrupted parliament – during one of its most public events – and spoken truth to power. It is a well-known fact that most South Africans view the president as corrupt, and are unhappy with his leadership (or rather, the lack of it).
Although the disruption shocked all and sundry who witnessed it, it nonetheless exposed the cracks in the country’s political leadership, sending out a strong message of discontent that served to embolden South African society to raise their voices and take more direct action in the political realm throughout 2016. It left a dark cloud hanging over the president’s address, which by that stage was attended by an audience mainly consisting of his own party; the EFF had been ejected, and the Democratic Alliance walked out of parliament in protest.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that the EFF would embark upon a campaign of disruption at this year’s SONA address. What was surprising, however, is that they did not vary their tactics an iota. They merely played from the same script as they had done the previous year. The effect was that the EFF came across as though it was merely ‘going through the motions’, putting up the same tired old arguments as they had before. While it definitely stayed on message, the dearth of creativity, and ability to read the moment effectively, rendered the whole disruption farcical and disingenuous.
Indeed, the leader of the EFF – Julius Malema – was the only leader to rank below the president in post-SONA polling. The EFF’s star, it appears, has waned somewhat in the wake of their SONA 2017 antics. The key failing in the disruption undertaken by the EFF was that they did not vary their tactics of disruption. They merely repeated what they had done before. While there is value to being a ‘broken record’ – in that it ensures that a consistent message is communicated – they failed to diversify their tactics. Indeed, the same message can be communicated through a variety of different tactics that underpin a strategy of disruption.
In my opinion, had the EFF showed some measure of creativity, their disruption would likely have proven more effective and strategically valuable than it ultimately did. Rather than following the same script as the previous year – which was a historical first and hence had serious impact – the EFF would have done well to conceptualise a different set of tactics to get their message across to the South African parliament. Instead of predictably filibustering the speaker and the president, and engaging in a game of brinkmanship that ended predictably in fisticuffs with parliamentary security, the EFF could have chosen to embark upon a protest that was meaningful; one that would resonate with South Africans for more than its shock value.
Even simply reading a statement, or embarking on a sombre sit in while singing struggle songs that speak to the oppressive nature of the current presidency would – in my opinion – have had a much more profound impact on South African society. They did not need to resist the parliamentary police and engage them in fisticuffs; rather by simply remaining seated on the floor they would have ensured that it would take a lot longer to remove each EFF member from the chambers. Indeed, the impact of revealing their powerlessness in the face of an increasingly overbearing and securitised government, and it’s compromised leader, would have resonated strongly with the frustration that South Africans feel at the political status quo in government right now; especially the profound feeling of powerlessness that resides within South African society.
This would have left a dark cloud hanging over the president’s speech; one that would have occupied the public imagination for a lot longer than the EFF’s 2017 SONA disruption ultimately did. Unsurprisingly, the disruption of this year’s SONA had precisely the reverse effect than it had the previous year. Rather than an effective disruption, all the EFF managed to achieve was a momentary obstruction of activities, an obstruction that proved as boring and ineffective as the president’s speech.
The EFF made a cardinal error; it did not stay true to its radical populism, one that relies on spectacle and entertainment value to capture the attention of the public. Indeed, populism cannot survive by being boring; it has to be creative to ensure that it holds the attention of society. Like or loathe Donald Trump, his unconventional manner of speaking off the cuff, tweeting out his thoughts, and acting erratically, ensures that the cameras stay focused on him. He is, after all, a reality television star; and he knows how to capitalise on the entertainment value of his odd persona. What seems clear, in the case of the EFF as a political force in South Africa, is that more of the same is unlikely to make much of a difference. The EFF requires a serious strategic rethink if it is to win over more voters, and secure its place as kingmaker in the 2019 national elections.
Disruption in the 21st Century
Of course it is entirely possible to be revolutionary without being disruptive or populist. But in the times we live, there are disruptions on multiple levels reverberating throughout society i.e. whether in politics, economics, culture, religion, identity, urbanisation, environment, climate, technology and so forth. We live in complex times, where rates of change are faster and more discontinuous than ever before and uncertainty over the future is rife. In this era, strategic and creative disruption is what sets actors apart. There is competition amongst disruptors, and in order to elevate one’s political agenda to prominence in the societal and political realms it is worth remembering that disruption devoid of strategy and creative tactics quickly dips beneath society’s radar and is flushed away.
Disruptions fail when disruption is seen to be committed for its own sake, with scant regard for its effectiveness in tapping into public sentiment and sensibilities. Disruptions devoid of strategy are political acts that possess inadequate political awareness; they can potentially generate political blowback and create setbacks for both disruptors and disrupted alike without revealing a clear way forward. In the end, everybody loses, and all acts of political disruption become stigmatised as mere anarchy loosed upon the political realm. The whole political realm suffers the consequences of ill-conceived disruption. If political actors are to employ disruptive tactics as part of their politics, they need to be acutely aware of where failure leads, because losing political legitimacy with the electorate is precisely the opposite intention of political disruption.
[i] In my ownwork, I have gone to great lengths to conceptualise disruption as a general strategic concept that goes beyond its use in advertising strategy and innovation theory. The technical definition of disruption that I employ can be summarised as follows;
‘A disruption is a non-linear intervention that forces a rapid shift or transition of a set of flows from one state to another.’
The flows referred to in this definition are those that maintain the hierarchies (i.e. of values, beliefs, norms and behaviours; power and influence; information; materials; decisions; etc.) that underpin the fabric of society.
[ii] The president was found to have effectively violated his oath of office in how he handled the Public Protector’s investigation and findings over expenditure on his private dwellings. The Public Protector’s report “Secure in Comfort” found that he benefited personally from state expenditure on upgrades to his private dwellings.