Focus: Why social movements matter

Focus: Why social movements matter

Laurence Cox

These are terrifying times to live in. Scientists and extreme weather alike underline how little time we have left to avert absolutely devastating climate change, while states put all their power behind fracking, tar sands and coal – and expanding airports. A new far-right authoritarianism has taken power in the US and India, Hungary and Italy, Turkey and soon perhaps Brazil, allied to vicious assaults on women, on migrants and ethnic minorities, on LGBTQ+ people and on political dissent. Social inequalities continue to grow, as new kinds of corporate robber baron stalk the earth and accumulate vast wealth at the expense of the working poor, while the poorest and most vulnerable are targetted for yet more cuts and sanctions. A permanent state of emergency has spread across the planet, justifying innumerable petty wars abroad and a siege mentality “at home”. And the list goes on.

All too clearly, the centre cannot hold. Nostalgic accounts of a recent golden age, with rulers who seemed to listen to the voice of reason, fail to see just how much these crises are the direct outcomes of what Nancy Fraser has called progressive neoliberalism: the politics of a Tony Blair or a Hilary Clinton rested squarely on the export of warfare and the nurturing of a new capitalism, the continuation of a fossil fuel economy and a dog-whistle politics of race – despite tokenistic politics of boardroom diversity and policy attempts to do good by stealth for the marginalised. There is no way out to be found by going back to the 1990s, even if it were possible: it is the very states and corporations, “mainstream” cultures and economies based on permanent growth, which are at the roots of these problems.

Effective resistance is not coming from anguished op-eds in “serious” newspapers, experts and policy advisors angry at being cast aside, the worried staff of an old establishment trying to convince themselves that this is all a temporary aberration. It is coming from below: from people like the Lancashire Nanas, Standing Rock Sioux and Hambach Forest occupiers who put their bodies on the line to save the planet against often brutal violence; from women’s massive protests against sexual violence; from anti-fascist and anti-racist organising on the streets; from trans and other LGBTQ+ resistance to the new intolerance; from the lonely courage of radical journalists and academics in Turkey or India; from union organising in Amazon, McDonalds or the gig economy and the mobilisation of the inner-city poor against being gentrified out of existence; from those who are challenging the security state and attempting to disrupt the machinery of permanent war.

We know this; and yet we don’t seem to know it. Newspapers which until recently refused as a matter of principle to cover protest now have to recognise that protest very often – as in Trump’s America – is the news; they lead with dramatic photos, but struggle to write about the politics of protest intelligently. Scholars tack on ritual invocations of social movements or resistance to what remains the “serious business” of analysing the structures and institutions that are being challenged. Party-political activists invoke participation, consultation or communities while still assuming that at the end of the day they themselves are the only real game in town. On social media, anguished voices often remain stuck at the moment of denouncing injustice, unsure how to move to action. After decades involved in activism and studying social movements, I sat down to write Why Social Movements Matter for these wider audiences: not the experienced organisers or expert movement researchers but the general readers, the people who follow “high politics” and the students and experts of the status quo who are wondering how they can make a bridge to this new, strange world that they are starting to become aware of.

Unruly subjects
As the previous paragraph suggests, traditional intellectual forms of writing often struggle to handle the disruptive, challenging nature of movement activism: refusing to remain deferential to academic or journalistic expertise, the voices that refuse to be dismissed or pigeon-holed in practice are also hard to contain with the printed page. But this very liveliness also makes them interesting and attractive, potentially desirable. So political parties, NGOs and even corporations engage in “astroturfing”, creating fake grassroots groups for publicity stunts or online purposes. Academic books emphasising structural analysis of political economy, state violence or cultural hegemony use cover shots of protests or anecdotes from social movements as a way of livening up their subject and engaging the reader.

Yet in professional social science research, like mainstream journalism or organised politics, those who take popular agency seriously as other than advertising are a tiny minority. The contested transformation of the British Labour Party is a good analogy for this [1]. Not only did grassroots activists run rings around the supposed professionals of head office and the career politicians of the Blair years despite the latter’s control of the party machinery and massive media support, but mainstream journalists still struggle to understand what happened except in terms of a supposedly charismatic and all-powerful leader – or a terrifying mob. This despite the fact that – at average age 51, with 87% ABC1s and six out of ten with degrees – the new party members are far from any credible image either of hero-worshippers or a mob.

For what Gramsci called traditional intellectuals – professional holders of expert knowledge who work for official institutions and private businesses – it is hardly surprising that agency, the capacity to change things, is normally understood as coming from above. The hierarchies within which they work – those which construct British universities’ REF or set editorial priorities – are central to their own professional activity. When they seek change, it is hardly surprising that the first port of call is what the eighteenth century called “enlightened despots”: the wise managerial ruler who can be advised by policy experts. The bird’s-eye view of the world sees corporate and state institutions very clearly, after all: they are what the hawk perches on. Ordinary people, if they are not simply a crazed and evil mob, are best understood as individual consumers, exercising rational choice and moving in patterns that the lofty predator alone can see. This approach is institutionalised in British academics’ statutory duty to engage in the “anti-radicalisation” Prevent programme and its stifling effect on student politics.

Intellectual bad faith
And yet there is a practical problem here, at least for those who are serious about their thinking. If – as critical researchers and journalists often conclude – the core problems of the world are those of inequality and exploitation, of concentrated power and violence, of cultural hierarchies and the intolerance of privileged groups, who is to bring about change? It is, after all, unlikely in the extreme that those who benefit from and control these processes and relationships will be the main actors in transforming them in a more democratic, egalitarian and diverse direction. It does not take very much reflection to conclude that it is the exploited, the (formally) powerless and the marginalised who have most to gain from a change of course. Nor does it take very much experience to realise that institutions which are set up against them are not the most propitious ground for them to organise on.

There is a kind of intellectual bad faith, then, in a fundamental critique of the existing order which does not think seriously about who is likely to have an interest in changing it and how. And yet all too many expert critiques boil down to precisely this: a searing challenge to manifest injustice, ecological destruction or human degradation, followed by an in-depth analysis of the structures, institutions, institutions and cultural processes which give rise to them – and a tacked-on, almost embarrassed, mention that perhaps someone, somewhere, should do something about them. Or, in the least reflective cases, an assumption that if only those in power knew just how bad things were they would stir themselves to take action – an assumption that is not fundamentally different from ancien régime peasants who trusted that if only the King knew how bad things were, he would intervene…

When we are shocked out of the sleep of reason to discover these monsters, in other words, there are two kinds of response we can give. One is “Someone (else) should do something about this”: the other is “We should do something about this”. The “someone (else)” positions the expert as the wise adviser to power, wealth or celebrity; the “we” begs the question “me, and who else? And how?” This, of course, is where social movement organising comes in. If we are not perching at the top of the institutions that are at the root of the problem, what we have is not individual power but the power of numbers. We do not have economic strength, but together our caring labour, our sharing and mutual support in everyday life makes possible what our finances will never permit. We are not culturally privileged, but how we live represents a far richer way of being than the dull and conservative images held up for our worship.

In my own line of work, I want to suggest that sociologists of inequality, power and cultural hierarchy should think like sociologists about the implications of their critique – and ask, sociologically, where the change they implicitly seek is to come from and how. Of course, at an individual level it is often the concern for change and the awareness of what is wrong with the world that has propelled them into serious intellectual work; but somewhere along the way, in the difficult and often dog-eat-dog processes of arriving at a place from which one can survey the landscape in a magisterial way, something has all too often got lost.

What the academy owes to movements
This is not simply an individual journey. The social sciences and humanities in general draw much of their intellectual sustenance from social movements, but in the process the nutrition of collective agency has almost been entirely processed out of them. There are multiple histories to this. Among the sociological classics we find Marx, thinking through the revolutions of his day, engaging with exiled German revolutionaries, Irish Fenians and British Chartists; Durkheim, the socialist sympathiser and life-long friend of Jaurès; and even Weber, hostile to the rise of the Social Democratic Party but recognising its significance.

In a later generation after the uprisings of 1968 across the global North, people who had learnt to think in movements brought their concerns to the academy, fundamentally reshaping it in many ways. Feminism and queer studies, black studies and anti-racist research, disability studies and critical research on health, peace studies and even (in a different key) ecological and environmental studies all helped to set new scholarly agendas. From Frantz Fanon to Michel Foucault, from Angela Davis to Antonio Gramsci, from EP Thompson to Judith Butler, the intellectual challenges of contemporary thought often come from thinkers deeply engaged in social movements.

Yet here too, the crunchy nutrition of popular agency all too frequently gets processed out in order to produce the refined, too-easily swallowed theory of structure. There are reasons for this. Activists, it has sometimes been said, think about three kinds of things. They think about why the world is the way it is. They think about how we can organise to make a difference. And they think about how we can create something new.

The scope for the last of these – research on the creation of alternative institutions – is particularly small within the academy. It has never been hospitable to research on housing cooperatives or community-supported agriculture, radical education projects or alternative lifestyles. The study of popular struggles has survived in a number of pockets, often intellectually isolated from one another, but (as we have seen) largely ignored by self-described critical or radical scholars. By contrast, there is a clear elective affinity between the critical study of structure and the university’s routine study of the world as a thing out there, to be analysed, explained and (at best) moralised about. It is, after all, a form of moralising to denounce injustice and call for transformation without thinking seriously about how this transformation can actually be brought about. Structural analysis of this kind is also, and not coincidentally, academically prestigious.

I should be clear that the point here is not special pleading for the academic subdiscipline that is social movement studies, but rather to call for a conscious relationship between the necessary critique and analysis of an exploitative, oppressive and ecologically destructive global society and systematic reflection on popular agency. This means responding, seriously, to the questions raised by the front-line defenders of the planet as they face off against the hired thugs of corporations and the state; to the fears of those struggling to disrupt and challenge the new fascists; to the problems faced by those trying to organise a better way out of the twilight of neoliberalism than the one offered by Trump, Brexit and EU austerity.

The means of intellectual production
It may even mean asking why and how some of the people who have found out most about how to challenge power effectively have not been “leading critical thinkers” but the dispossessed indigenous of south-eastern Mexico and the stateless civil war survivors of northern Syria. The remarkable efforts made by the Zapatistas or the Rojava revolution to learn from the rest of the world have hardly been met by equal respect and attention from scholars and journalists; after all, they do not always get their references right. More generally, official expertise is by definition threatened by the proposition that movements might actually know something. The movement reflection and dialogue processes originating in the World Social Forum and elsewhere do not, it seems, have anything to tell scholars or journalists.

I have found this contempt – sometimes expressed overtly and crudely, sometimes in a quiet and subtle dismissal – remarkably widespread among professional intellectuals, journalists and academics alike. It finds remarkably little justification in the extraordinary efforts that social movements make to educate themselves, to reflect on their own practice, to research past experiences and explore how they might be able to achieve the hitherto-unachieved. It should be a deeply humbling experience to see people make these efforts without the resources that universities and the mainstream media make available to their professionals, in the corners of lives where the daily practicalities of survival dominate and crises often push everything else aside, and where opponents often directly target their fragile institutions. But it seems the reverse is the case.

Behind this contempt, of course, lies the issue of the ownership of the “means of intellectual production”. Who – in the reality of our everyday practice – decides what we should study, and who are we writing for? Are our choices of research topic driven by their academic prestige, by where official funding is directed – or by the questions that people struggle with as they try to change the world? Do we see our ideas as proceeding from the Platonic heaven of The Discipline, or, perhaps, as coming from our non-expert peers? Do our journals answer only to commercial pressures and the need to generate “provocative” (read: right-wing) clickbait, as with the recent crisis at Third World Quarterly? Or do we create the space, perhaps, to make journals “from and for” popular struggles, like Interface and others? More concretely: who do we speak to when we speak? Where do we publish our work? Who do we invite to work with us?

William Blake wrote “[W]e have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.” For our part – as students or academics, as journalists or independent researchers, as political activists or engaged citizens – do we want to understand our work as determined by the local structures of the British or US university system, the logics of commercial publishing and social media celebrity, the attempt to make friends and influence people in high-up places? Or do we see what we do as coming from and speaking to the wider human struggle to avert ecological destruction, transform an unjust society, defeat the far right, end the war on women and even depress Blake’s Corporeal War?

[1] To avoid misunderstandings, the LP is not a social movement. However, Momentum activists drew very effectively on a range of activist skills to win institutional battles.


Laurence Cox (@ceesa_ma) is an experienced activist and social movements researcher, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and associate researcher at the Collège d’Etudes Mondiales, Paris. He has just published Why Social Movements Matter (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018; 30% off with discount code WSMM18).

Image credit: Seattle protest by indigenous and other activists in solidarity with Standing Rock, September 2016. By John Duffy