Between about 1968 and 1970 women, people of colour and a bunch of other “minorities” (sic) woke up. Suddenly the “bosses” (white educated men) of the social movement organisations that claimed to speak for “everyone” didn’t look so heroic no more. And so, women, homosexuals and so on challenged – with the same tools (of disruption, delegitimisation, denunciation) that had been used against The System/The State/The Corporations – the make-up of the movement elites and the assumptions of their “betters”. No, women’s rights were not a distraction from the War. No, homosexuality was not a deformation that would vanish in a communist society. No, no and no again. It has made for a much healthier and more civilised society in the long run.
My analogy* is this: We have social movements that claim to represent everyone but – via the format of their meetings and rallies and marches and so on – encourage the participation only of those with the right social capital, the right economic capital and free time. What looks “normal” and “natural” is actually a constraining and funnelling process that only allows a few to be seen as ‘leaders’. Everyone else is passive, and their muteness taken as assent, consent.
What is needed (but won’t happen) is a similar upsurge of people storming the stages, grabbing the microphones and saying “enough. Stop claiming to represent us, when you are just using us to make up the numbers. Stop claiming to know how to make a revolution when all you have done is reinforce the very systems you claim to oppose.”
* These are the obvious problems with the analogy
a) The comparison is slightly skew-whiff. I’m comparing real full-on discrimination and power-over with the fact that it’s a small minority of people who ‘run’ meetings and rallies and so on. That’s apples and oranges.
b) I – a straight white middle class male – am claiming via analogy the same moral authority for my point of view as folks who were – and sadly still are – facing real disadvantage today both in the real world and in various social movements.
c) The likelihood of success is vastly different. The meek, and those who have only a certain amount of time/energy to give, are not going to (be able to) rise up and seize the moment in the way the feminists etc did. There’s less at stake (well, if you ignore the fact that only a mass outbreak of civil society sanity is going to give us any chance of preparing for the crash landing that’s coming).
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OK Dwight – so we need better movements and those who are the main activists could do with a metaphorical kick up the backside. It’s reasonable too to say that such a change might well come from within the same activist circles – after all most of the initiators of women’s liberation groups in the late 60s had been active in the New Left previously. And in relation to this your own argument against your analogy is important – since it was personal experience of being patronized and marginalized by other activists that gave impetus to that challenge for many, but also then the importance of analysing your own personal experience (consciousness raising groups) as a way of understanding power and creating new kinds of practices.*
It is of course that very post-68 model of movement organising that they created that you are now attacking as cliquey and specific to western activist social groups. You are right about both those points – but I’d say that you need to distinguish between attacking specific weak incarnations of that post-68 movement model and rubbishing it wholesale. Western new middle class left-movement organizing is a live tradition that has shown itself able to sustain and renew itself (albeit that it might often be in a frustrating, roundabout and reinvent-the-wheel way) and done so better than say political party organising. There may be a better way of doing things for movement activists – but that is a separate question from the bigger one that you want to answer I think. You want to know what kinds of groups are going to challenge the system that is heading towards the precipice? As usual as an academic I don’t have a useful answer, but I am sure that it won’t be a single kind of organization or even a single kind of understanding of community or activism. It’ll be messy and produced by multiple causes – not just the sense that we are running out of oil and species. There are a myriad of struggles about resources and identity especially, but not only, in the global South and the key challenge is to find ways of linking these to the idea of (environmental) justice. Joint campaigns, listening and learning from each other are the ideal way of developing this but this is slow, depends on resources and sustained commitment.
I read you as seeing the Western radical activists as blocking the emergence of something different – but I don’t think that is right. Yes, some activists talk rubbish sometimes about who they represent, or they miss opportunities to work with groups that are not like them – but they may just be the wrong kinds of groups for the kinds of activism that you want to build up. They are good at generating debate and controversy – as in the case of UKuncut – and sometimes good too at capacity-building through local small-scale community work – and if there is a Tahrir Sq for climate – they would be able to kick-start it – but you need different kinds of organisation for sustained political pressure and engagement. The NGOs and pressure groups, plus in some countries the Green Party are best placed for that. That is what some ex-radicals decide and it is not necessarily about maturing politically – when they do, more a recognition that you need to work in those groups to engage with the state and corporations in certain ways. And before you start – yes I know that NGOs are rubbish in some respects too – but the critique of them needs to be specific to their aims and context and even the NGO. My point? There is not going to be a movement organization model that will work universally but there are a lot of positive ways of organizing – just don’t expect them to be found in the same room at the same time.
* You mention race – and presumably have in mind the black power challenge within the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee? Now – that is a gift to the pedantic academic as what happened there was arguably the creation of a myth that the more participatory practices favored by the earlier mixed black and white SNCC was based on a white-mode of organising. The history suggests it was more complex (see Polletta – Freedom is an Endless Meeting. An alternative reaction to the perceived failure of the New Left was to go for more rigid and hierarchical revolutionary organizations where personal feelings were seen as a weakness. Of course, that didn’t work out too well for any of those groups, not least the Red Army Faction.
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