by Geoffrey PleyersMay 25, 2020
Just months ago, mainstream news worldwide was chronicling the wave of protests that set 2019 apart as one of the most dynamic in years. Since February, one single issue has dominated media coverage, social media and our conversations in daily life: the pandemic and the urgent tasks to bring it under control. All of a sudden, there seems to be no place left for nonviolent movements for dignity, better democracy, more equal society, and less corruption and repression—all claims that are more relevant than ever in the new global context.
Such a long period of lockdown, dominated by social distancing, fear of the virus spreading, and the omnipresence of state leaders in mainstream media all certainly represent challenges for movements. Holding demonstrations would present health risks and/or are outlawed, and alternative forms of protest do not draw as much media and public attention. Have movements disappeared?
Absolutely not. Activists are dedicating much more time and energy to other activities, some of which may potentially be steering long-term change.
Many recent articles have documented how movements are engaging in mutual support and providing basic needs and solidarity in their community and beyond. In a world dominated by selfish interests and hyper-individualism, caring for others and establishing convivial social relations are part of prefigurative practices in contemporaneous movements.
Another crucial role of civil society actors that has received less attention is their role as watchdogs of public policies and governments. In a period of resurging authoritarianism, monitoring the state and its policies is a key element of a democratic system. Since the beginning of lockdown in many countries, movements have been diffusing information “from below” that challenge governments’ narratives about the pandemic. They have been playing an important role in making abuses of power such as police violence more visible. In France, 34 unions and civil society organizations have denounced “police force impunity and the multiplication of violence and humiliation in popular neighborhoods.” In the Philippines, these actors have been gathering information on extrajudicial killings, which have been even less visible since the beginning of the pandemic.
A third role movements have been playing is perhaps the most powerful in the long term: popular education and awareness raising. In addition to monitoring government action, movements develop spaces for activists and ordinary people to learn about the crisis and to share their experiences via online platforms and social media. Online spaces and forums have been set up for grassroots movements from different continents to share experiences and analyses. One example is the Viral Open Space, an “online social forum to connect positive responses to our current global crisis” including workshops, discussions and the arts.
The legacy of recent movements in terms of popular education and politicization should also be taken into account. Ordinary people who joined the 2019 waves of protests, square occupations and other nonviolent actions developed a critical perspective toward information. They joined grassroots information channels, notably on social media, and developed different relationship with the state than many among the demobilized population. In France, the 18-month-long “yellow vests” (gilets jaunes) movement that began late 2018 and the wave of general strikes that started in November 2019 are part of the reason that French president Macron’s management of the COVID-19 crisis is increasingly scrutinized.
Why do these three emerging movement activities—solidarity actions, being a counterweight to governments, and developing popular education—matter? By engaging in them, movements are producing knowledge and meaning. They are interpreting the crisis and inserting it into a broader narrative about society. Even though major demonstrations worldwide have screeched to a halt since February, movements are still contributing to social change, to the ability of a society to transform itself, “to produce itself” more conscientiously, as sociologist Alain Touraine put it. This is even more important in times of crisis.
Crises break up the routine of “business as usual;” provide opportunities to reflect individually and collectively on our values and aims (“reflexivity”); and may open paths for deeper social change. Opening new perspectives and horizons for alternative futures has been a crucial role of movements. While traditional powerholders impose the idea that there is no alternative to their world order, movements challenge them claiming that another world is possible. By doing so, the latter introduce debates, (nonviolent) conflict and reflexivity, and challenge the hegemony of a world order that is taken for granted.
For their part, status quo defenders frame the “return to normal” as a reason to unite behind their leadership and vision and call for “national unity” (Emmanuel Macron’s first public address about the virus was entitled, “A united France is our best asset in the troubled period we're going through with COVID19. We will make it. All together”). Activists insist on the opposite—that what is presented as normal is not the only way and that it is actually part of the problem. “Your normal is our problem,” says graffiti in Santiago, Chile. “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality,” claimed Indian global activist Arundati Roy recently.
The struggle to assign meaning to the crisis will determine who will be able to seize new opportunities and reshape the economy and society. The crisis has shaken an economic dogma that has ruled the world for decades. Many progressive intellectuals and activists have expressed a similar conviction: the pandemic has revealed the limits of the corporate capitalist system and the damage it has caused over the past decade—through austerity policies in particular. They stress the need for a model that places more importance on people’s livelihoods, on addressing social inequalities, and on stronger public health systems.
Read Pleyers' related article, "The Pandemic is a battlefield. Social movements in the COVID-19 lockdown," on Taylor & Francis Online (2020).
Geoffrey Pleyers is a Fonds National de la Recherche scientifique (FNRS) researcher and professor at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain, Belgium). He is currently the International Sociological Association’s vice president for research. He holds a PhD in sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris, 2006).Read More