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Picking Sides In Conflict, Crisis, & Political Combat (Part 3)

Estelle Ellison
4 min readDec 12, 2021


Co-optation is necessarily demoralizing, and there are many different ways that we express our frustration after realizing that co-optation is taking place. On a fundamental level, co-optation exists because of the inherent contradictions between reform and revolt. Reform is a negotiation with the carceral state and revolt is a rejection of the carceral state’s many violences.

Language and strategies that we develop from a place of faith in the carceral system are doomed to co-optation from the start because they represent an attempt to haggle with the state. In some contexts, language or strategies do not need to be co-opted to have a counter-insurgent impact. The intentions behind them may simply have no impact on the state’s implementation or use of that language or strategy.

As we discussed previously, movement spaces that see themselves as part of liberatory traditions are not exempt from participating in co-optation. In that context, co-optation functions as a kind of neutralization of insurrectionary tendencies, or a pursuit of unsustainable growth.

In our breakdown of how our strategies become co-opted or condemned, we’ve so far only covered what happens in wider more public political trends. But what happens within individual groups? Whether something about a group comes to the public or it begins as an internal issue, the group must respond to the crises amongst themselves first, before any public response is released.

Because there are fewer political players than there are at the national political stage, there are far fewer variables to consider in determining the outcome of a crisis. Put another way, a group’s crisis is limited to the individuals within the group. While this may seem to be an obvious observation, it is important to highlight because it makes dissent more containable and easier to surveil.

As the crisis becomes a group conversation, the limited number of perspectives can be easily categorized. And in this context, the biggest determining factor in a crisis is whether the base rejects or defends the leadership. This could be the bosses, the executive director, the board, or cadre.

Workplace cultures play a huge role here as they essentially function as regulatory systems that maintain hierarchical power dynamics. In this way, workplace cultures help mark behaviors that are desirable or undesirable depending on the power dynamics that the group is committed to preserving.

All groups have their own cultural norms, and this is true for groups that value horizontal structures as much as it is true for groups that internalize the myth of leadership. A reactionary workplace culture that effectively assimilates its employees is likely to see the leadership actively defended by the base in the face of crisis.

Judging from the looks of the “Great Resignation,” it seems the most likely result these days is for the base to reject the leadership and this tension will be addressed in one of three ways. In response, the leadership may purge the base (i.e. fire them and/or replace them). It may backfire, but the purging often serves as enough pressure relief that the leadership will probably keep its power, even with less credibility.

The leadership may concede to the base (successful unionization drives, members of the leadership leave the group, or the group becomes collectivized). This outcome is the least likely to happen of the three branches because it takes the most effort and involves the highest risk.

And lastly, the base may mass quit (either due to wages, workplace conditions, or moral ethics). Prior to this point, I think purges to the base were the most likely outcome. While this may seem to be a simple response with a simple end, there are many potential results of a mass quit that are both favorable and unfavorable for liberation struggles.

Our most optimal situation is also the simplest of all the trajectories on our map that we’ve explored so far. If our language and strategies are resistant to co-optation, they then become a vetting tool. And if we have a stable practice of vetting our groups and spaces, we can then begin to build a support network, which is absolutely necessary if we want to build a revolution.



Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)