by Laurence CoxJanuary 27, 2020
The 2020s are starting on a very grim note: we badly need social movements, and movements that can win. Whether climate change, global wars, social inequality, racism, patriarchy, or the far right: concentrated power, wealth, and cultural hierarchies will continue to make the world worse unless social majorities come together to rewrite the agenda around human need and ecological survival. Put another way, movements are what make democracy a substance and not just a form.
The last decade saw some very powerful movements—yet almost by definition their existence means that if many of us see a need for change, we have not yet succeeded in making that change central to our societies. What can we do, beyond more of the same?
Part of the answer lies in what makes a movement a movement. Behind their visible, external aspect—protest, resistance, and other challenges to institutions and powerful actors, together with trying to change people’s minds—lies the work of organizing and self-education, building networks and coalitions, discussing who “we” are, and thinking about what we are doing and how we can do it better.
Thinking together is not all we need—but it is the cheapest and most reliable thing we can do. This means that activists need to make time to step outside of doing our everyday activities and talk to people, not just from their own organization but across the movement as a whole, about how to achieve the wider goals of the movement. And we have to create the kinds of spaces in which this sort of reflection can happen, so we can all learn from each other’s struggles.
My recent book Why Social Movements Matter brings together some of the many different traditions of activist and scholarly thinking about movement impact and how they can work better. Movements have been central to winning e.g. democracy, women’s rights, welfare states, decolonization, civil rights, and environmental legislation. Yet many of these gains are fragile and movements face huge future challenges, while academic research on them is very fragmented—between social movement research, civil resistance studies, parts of Black studies or women’s studies, oral and social history, etc.
Social movements, too, vary hugely in their capacity for internal discussion, education and training, learning and research—each shaped by their specific social worlds, kinds of struggle, and the scale of repression. This means that dialogue, “learning from each other’s struggles,” can benefit almost any movement. While we typically know a lot about our actions (organizing demonstrations, blockading pipelines, media work, etc.) and our internal mechanisms, we usually know less about how wider social change actually happens and our role in it.
It is important for activists to make time to reflect on whether their actions actually help the overall goal of the movement (e.g. an end to patriarchy, ecological sustainability) or if doing certain things a certain way has become a goal in itself.
But how can a movement think? Social movement scholars distinguish between individual social movement organizations and the wider movement, which involves a network of social movement organizations, informal groups, and individuals—and often argues about its boundaries (climate justice? ecology? tar sands resistance? indigenous politics? sustainability?).
Sometimes organizations come together in formal coalitions, usually around fairly narrow goals. In these cases, movement thinking is not so different to training and strategy within organizations: a democratic or managerial process; a strategy and perhaps training; and fairly specific directions for action.
But for bigger challenges, how can movements think and act as movements? How can we hold our individual organizations and their specific goals and strategies lightly, as one tool among many for a wider purpose?
To become able to win around the big goals that the movement exists for, we need to move beyond a managerial focus on SMART targets and ask questions like “where does power lie in society, and how can we disrupt the relationship between the state and the fossil fuel industry?” It is all too easy to win a specific battle and lose the war, or to win what we thought were our key goals and find out that they didn’t mean what we thought they would.
Movement-level discussion, research, and learning spaces are important counterweights, helping us learn from each other’s struggles. These spaces can be as loose as the routine debates between organizations and traditions about who “we” are, what our goal should be, and what strategies will work. Sometimes a particular journal or website can be a forum for this; or an educational foundation like ICNC may play this role (see e.g. this blog post). There may also be cross-movement gatherings, even for very grassroots movements.
Because movements are internally diverse in terms of the actors involved (big NGOs, small direct action networks, political parties, trade unions, social centres, social media followings!), the form this discussion takes is inevitably diverse in format. Often a better understanding of each other is the major outcome—e.g. the building of long-term relationships between paid trade union organizers, grassroots community activists, and left politicians, which were central to defeating water charges in Ireland.
Cross-movement activist learning spaces are particularly important here. Each year I join activists from a wide range of radical movements in Europe and beyond in the Catalan Pyrenees at the Ulex Centre’s “Ecology of Social Movements” course. Participants reflect on their own location within the broader movement, how it relates to other actors in the field, and how their different movements can connect.
At Ulex and elsewhere, helping activists think through these relationships and their own practice is an extraordinary experience. Social movements, after all, represent better ways to be human: not just passive, unconscious, or careless participants in our species’ history, but taking conscious responsibility for where we want it to go and acting on that to our own limits and beyond.
And a central part of this is the restless question of whether what we are doing is really going in the direction we want.
Laurence Cox is co-author of The Irish Buddhist: the Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2020) and co-editor of the activist/academic journal Interface. He is Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and has been involved in many different movements since the 1980s.Read More