Three questions about social movements

A friend of mine just shared this blog post by Duncan Green which begins

Tomorrow night I am doing an ‘ask me anything’ session on skype with some students from Guelph University in Canada, who have been reading How Change Happens. They have sent an advance list of questions, which are really sharp. I’d appreciate your views on 3 in particular:

  1. Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?

  2. How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?

  3. How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?

 

These are good questions, and Green lists more of them further down in the blog, which I will try to answer (as much for my own sake as anyone else’s) in a post soon. But given the tight deadline, this-

Are there important differences to note between processes of long-term change and temporary victories of social movements? How can we tell which one we are witnessing?

There are huge differences between long-term change and temporary victories.  Temporary victories tend to be laws (new ones, that attempt to “institute” new behaviours/make existing behaviours legitimate) or to stop some particular form of idiocy (a dam, a road, a pipeline).  Long-change is both organisational (new arms of the state/new corporate behaviours, maybe some new big NGOs with middle-class people and their salaries and glossy-fucking-document-itis) and institutional in the broader sense of cognitive and normative and affective pillars (Scott, 1995).  Much harder to measure, point to (see Diani etc on measuring social movement organisation outcomes.)

For me, the key difference is between mobilisation (“easy”, exciting, visible) and movement-building (boring, unrewarded, invisible, not much adrenaline). The two are conflated regularly, wrongly.  You can mobilise for temporary victory. You want to win long, you need to movement-build.

We mostly witness mobilisation. For me, I can look at a public meeting, or a group’s “business meetings” and can see in the ego-foddering and the emotacycles they indulge in, as part of the smugosphere, that it’s going nowhere fast.  I have taken to calling these outfits social mobilisation organisations rather than social movement organisations.

 

How can we tell if something is a short scandal or a true critical juncture?

Scandals only become junctures if someone (social movements) make them so. There is nothing intrinsic, usually.  There are scandals unfolding all the time – 40k humans dying of starvation daily, species being exterminated, our own future-selves slaughtered on the altar of neoliberalism, capitalism and authoritarianism.  It’s an old and banal observation, but true nonetheless – (social) problems need to be turned into issues by moral entrepreneurs.  (Yes, it’s possible to take that too far and go full social-constuctionist. Don’t do that.)

 

How would you say we could determine if a movement is successful?

You have to define success.  Mine is that more people have been provided with the skills, knowledge and connections to develop their potential as individuals-in-groups.  Other definitions include how many people went to a march.  Yeah. Great.  To quote myself from a recent secret document –

We need to think of those who attend meetings and actions NOT as empty vessels to be filled with information or hope from the Big People at the front of the room/organisers, as blank slates to be written on, but [brace yourself]

as PEOPLE, with hopes, fears, confusion, abilities, but also people who are busy, de-motivatable and decruitable.

Radical, eh?

Here is what we remember every time we think about staging a public meeting, or hosting a business meeting/action. If you don’t find out what they can do, what they want to (be able) to do, and connect them with OTHER PEOPLE IN THE GROUP BESIDES JUST YOU, then they are almost certainly not going to stick around. And when they go, they take with them not only their skills, but some hope (because everyone can see the group is shrinking) and the future connections of people they might have brought into the group).

 

But “success” is so often followed by the creation of some new NGO or the expansion of an existing one and then DEMOBILISATION of people.  Then the powerful can undermine and water-down whatever concession they were forced to make.  And it doesn’t, in my experience, matter if that government is left, centre or right, or a corporate.

 

Up to now I have been the slightly-lefty “responsible” wanna-be academic.  Now this.

FOR FUCK’S SAKE EVERYONE IT IS ALL THERE IN ANIMAL FARM BY GEORGE ORWELL, OVER SEVENTY GODDAM YEARS AGO.  GROW SOME EYES, GROW SOME SPINE.  INNOVATE, DAMMIT.

 

What do people think of the answers? Useful, useless, worse than useless? What did I miss? What would you add (subtract)?

 

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