Saturday, 29 May 2010

Crop Trashing and Social Movement Theory

In a working paper given at Keele on Tuesday, Brian Doherty and Graeme Hayes presented an analysis of the apparently similar crop trashing movements in Britain and France. While the actions undertaken are the same - the destruction of genetically modified crops - their justifications are very different and pose a number of questions for the sociology of social movements.

In the theoretical literature, the dominant perspective on social movement mobilisation remains the political process school. Closely associated with the output of the late
Charles Tilly, Sid Tarrow and several other leading scholars in the field political process theory places emphasis on the social structures that determine, condition and facilitate social action. For example, analyses that stress the importance of resource mobilisation and political opportunity structures are examples of the political process school.

For Tarrow and Tilly the structure and character of the state plays a major role in determining the sorts of protest activities social movements engage in. As Britain and France are 'high capacity democracies' it is reasonable to assume that not only are the kinds of opposition they engender are similar, but should they manifest contemporaneously there must be a connection between them, even if it's merely the case of one observing the protest actions of another via news bulletins. The problem for Doherty and Hayes is Tilly and Tarrow overemphasise structure. It's as if the presence of certain structures call forth certain actions, allowing one to assume the roots and character of apparently similar social movements are identical. This is a faulty assumption. In the case of crop trashing it cannot explain why the French movement justifies itself in terms of a civic republicanism, while the British as a distinctly anarchist flavour. This isn't to say Tilly's and Tarrow's privileging of the state and social structure is fundamentally faulty and has nothing to contribute to understanding social movements, but it does suggest it requires significant modification by an account that allows for difference at the macro, meso and micro levels to come into play.

There is a lot of work in social movement theory on protest tactics, but very little explaining why some groups of activists choose some tactics over others. Tilly's chief contribution here is the repertoire of contention, the idea that certain social movements have a toolbox of tactics open to them. For example, the
criticism of the SWP's gatecrashing of ACAS last weekend was partly coloured by this form of direct action sitting outside the traditional Trotskyist/far left activist repertoire. Related to this but not reducible to it is that types of protest actions are modular. i.e. Successful tactics are diffused and transferable between different movements. For instance, practically every form of oppositional politics favours demonstrations, leafleting, etc. Hence for Tilly concurrent crop trashing in Britain and France would be an example of choosing a modular action from an environmentalist repertoire of contention that fits similar structural-political circumstances in the two countries.

In France crop trashing is the hallmark of
Les Faucheurs Volontaires (The Voluntary Reapers), a formalised organisation of some 7,000 members dedicated to destroying GM crops. Founded in 2003, LVF defines itself as a citizens' insurrection defending French public space, countryside and culture against the encroachment of (American-led) biological neoliberalism. LVF's activists welcome (and sometimes demand) arrest as a means of using the courts to attract media coverage. To maximise its impact crop trashing usually takes place over the summer to take advantage of the French media's silly season.

The British movement is very different. At the head of crop trashing here are the overlapping anarchistic frameworks of
GenetiX Snowball and Earth First!. Both are located in the non-violent direct action tradition and are quite prepared to destroy property to achieve its aims. If there are differences between the two networks, GenetiX would prefer arrest and exposure a la LVF, but as a whole both go in for covert actions. The majority considers their numbers are too small to make the publicity tactic effective and as anarchists they see submitting to arrest by a state whose authority they don't recognise as a negation of their principles. So rather than undertaking mass crop trashing, their actions tend to be sporadic and often in the dead of night.

Both movements' actions are facilitated by GM site locations being subject to freedom of information laws, and the 'topographical opportunity' of the difficulty of securing fields.

There are three key differences of interest from the standpoint of social movement theory that problematise the political process approach. First is a paradox between the positions the two movements find themselves in. In UK courts there has been a tendency by juries not to find activists who've destroyed property guilty. In France the price publicity frequently pays is conviction. Hence, at least from the standpoint of
rational choice (an ontology that quietly underpins political process theory), both movements are organising in an irrational manner.

Second, opportunities are important for explaining action but unlike Tilly and Tarrow (for whom political opportunities are treated as macro-level phenomena) these exist at the next level down a set of 'sectoral opportunities'. Doherty and Hayes point out that Britain and France have reached an agricultural settlement between farmers and the state. In France this was pluralised after 1986 when a number of groups were allowed to represent farmers as opposed to one big union. For example, the radical anti-GM organisation Confédération Paysanne founded by
José Bové contests elections to agricultural bodies, which in turn confers the wider anti-GM movement a legitimacy of coming from within the farmers themselves. Such a sectoral opportunity just isn't open to British activists and there is no practical alliance between farmers' interests and the activists.

Third the difference in how the two movements frame their activities owes a certain something to national peculiarities, in particular the different ways Britain and France has traditionally narrated its relationship to the countryside and food. In France the countryside is conceived as the location of rural (food) culture and is therefore 'peopled' and humanised. In Britain the country is often elided with nature, as a wild place devoid of industry. Could this help explain why the LVF's civic republicanism and the deep(ish) green of GS/EF! is 'appropriate' for crop trashing?

By way of a conclusion these findings cannot be assimilated by the kind of structural analysis Tilly and Tarrow favour. While Britain and France are mature liberal democracies this designation cannot explain the deep differences between the movements hidden by the superficial similarities of both engaging in crop trashing. Nor are they, strictly speaking, acting in an instrumentalist fashion. Without falling into the assumptions associated with identity politics, their actions are as much conditioned by their respective identities as movements.


Pete Shield said...

Phil, Confédération Paysanne, of which I am a member is much more than an anti-GM organisation. It is an small farmers union, which seeks to promote the cultural, political and financial interests of predominantly organic, local food producers.

The day to day work is more akin to that of a union.

We see GM crops as the complete antithesis of what we stand for- large scale industrial agriculture dominated by a handful of seed and pharma companies, rather than the mixed, biodiverse, local production which we believe is both more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and more healthy option, as well as crucial to defending the 'patrimoine' of the regions. (Patrimoine is a very French concept, it is the unique culture,food, language, lifestyle, and history of a region and country.)

With regard to the law, imprisonment of high profile activists such as Jose Bove is ironically a very useful propaganda tool. Whether it be for destroying a McDonalds or cutting down GM maize the opinion polls show that the majority of French people are sympathetic to our causes- if not always with our tactics.

Phil said...

Thanks for that, Pete. The point is CP is able to afford crop trashing a certain legitimacy by being a farmers' organisation and rooted in particular French traditions - this is not available to British activists.

Pete Shield said...

Traditions have to start somewhere Phil.

Anyway, the CPGB use to run a rural organisation,I think it was called The Land, and worked in the T&G to unionise farm workers..there is a tradition there you just have dig deep.