Monday, 4 May 2015

The Sociology of Social Movement Traditions

Last Tuesday took me back to my old stomping ground at Keele University. The occasion was the inaugural professorial lecture for Brian Doherty, who was my supervisor during the trials and tribulations of the jolly old PhD. Our shared interests were the sociology of social movements, and in particular the process of activist commitment. To most normal people, activism seems so much like work but without the compensation of cash. It can be tiring, tedious, stressful, and very occasionally, dangerous. So why do people stick with it, and what is the effect of activists who've been around the block a few times on the social movements and protest groups they're involved with? This is the question Brian's lecture set out to shed some light on.

The lecture, Occupy, Blockade, Debate: Traditions of Protest in Movement, was also a polemic of sorts. Too often, social movements are understood as upwellings from below that, at some point in their development, are co-opted and institutionalised. The labour movement, and the clutch of 1960s 'new' social movements - women's liberation, anti-racism, gay liberation, environmentalism - share this fate. However, there is a wider 'direct action' tradition that crosses movement boundaries and is typically invisible from the perspective of mainstream politics, that is until it emerges into the open and is feted/condemned as something new and shiny. In fact, there are always subterranean connections and activity at work. For instance, when in 2011 Occupy rolled up outside St Paul's the core organisation and coordination was accomplished by networks of activists who'd been on the direct action 'scene' for many years, but were often engaged in projects outside the public eye. Also, Occupy was 'novel' from the perspective of the mainstream because it didn't have any point, as such. The sorts of left wing politics that do get an airing in the media are vertically organised and often instrumental. Voting the Tories out this Thursday is about achieving x, y, z objectives. Organising a campaign group about the closure of a children's centre has a line of authority and a set number of goals. Occupy, as an example of direct action, was more an exercise in visibility. As a temporary protest community organised along horizontal lines, it tried to demonstrate the possibility of alternatives by being that alternative. It therefore drew on a tradition of activism that rose to prominence after the so-called Battle of Seattle in 1999, and occasionally made itself felt via anti-capitalist protests ever since.

How then is this tradition maintained, especially from one generation of activists to the next? In vertical organisations, such as Trotskyist parties, tradition is maintained by a regular repertoire of actions (paper sales, regular meetings, demonstrations, intervening in campaign groups, standing in elections, etc.). Even in the Labour Party and union branches, we are a touch looser as organisations, the formalities around and respect for the received way of doing things can bridge the gap and transmit the lessons of the past to the present, albeit not always successfully. How does it work across decentralised networks of activists, given that formality is lacking?

Brian talked about his own experience as a direct actionist coming of age in the 1980s. His formation as an activist took place in CND, which was getting a second wind with heightened Cold War rhetoric and the siting of missiles on American military bases. Brian was involved with Peace Action Durham, which combined anti-nuclear activism with wider social justice concerns, such as miners' solidarity, and other anti-militarist activity. PAD wasn't a formalised organisation as such; it was fractious and turbulent but part of a 'structure of feeling' that traversed different movements and recognised its concerns were part of a wider movement. When Brian and his partner moved to Kent, he joined Horne Bay CND. The difference was stark. When putting together a newsletter, they included a notice for an upcoming anti-apartheid demo. Two of the long-standing local activists made their unhappiness about it pretty clear. For them, their CND was solely about nuclear weapons - wider concerns, the sense their activism took place in a wider context of struggle was both alien and unknown to them.

Direct action traditions, however, do not comprise an ideology as such. Sociological understandings of its depth and breadth have typically tried to associate direct action with anarchism, though this is too narrow. Not simply because direct action is a repertoire crossing movements; there are a large number of organisations that have been integrated into the state and local government and/or receive funding that originated from the activist milieu and retain links to them. Housing associations and women's refuges spring to mind, for instance. Direct action is not consistently anti-statist and therefore cannot be anarchist. Furthermore, many groups sitting in the tradition reject formalised sets of ideas a la Trotskyist outfits and anarchist collectives. Again, returning to the example of Occupy, it stumped commentariat and media alike because all it did was articulate a space for the sharing of ideas and experience. It did not present a frontal assault on British capitalism, as some intentionally misread it.

While direct action is not an ideology, the tradition does hold a number of features in common. First of these is what Brian termed the 'politics of the first person'. It's punk as politics, or DIY citizenry. It is non-representative in that the emphasis is on the individual activist to take responsibility for whatever cause(s) exercise them and do something about it. Direct action also has a certain ambivalence towards violence. While most, including the infamous 'black bloc' of anarchists who come together at certain demonstrations, rule out violence against people (unless provoked) violence against (corporate) property is a legitimate tool of protest. Direct action also tries to reach outside the activist ghetto and effect change in more immediate ways, as per the sorts of organisations and services mentioned earlier. Then there are intentional prefigurative institutions, not unlike Occupy and before it the Social Forum movements, and lastly direct action is the antithesis of identarian politics. i.e. Among many things, British Trotskyism can be regarded as identity politics - being part of an organisation here means assuming a particular brand. Direct action is far looser and fights shy of forming groups that project themselves in this way.

Of course, common features mean common problems. Problems arise over the setting of strategic priorities, leading to variegated movements pointing in different directions simultaneously. Similarly over diversity f tactics - is it wise to tolerate a black bloc on a march when the interest of the police and the actions they take are likely to see the media focus on the excitement of violence over and above the plodding safety of the message? Similarly, how can the direct action grass roots, pulling in different directions, disagreeing and debating, doing their own thing, ever manage to pull off something requiring collective effort? Well, it does manage, and this is where the weight of radical tradition comes in.

All activists are stamped by their experiences, and usually activists have - very broadly - similar experiences via working in certain political conjunctures, being involved with certain actions, mobilising against certain common causes, and so on. One can speak of generational cohorts that share a great deal - for example, people who got into the direct action movement via the huge huge mobilisations against the Iraq War might be more sensitive to issues around war and peace and favour more traditional methods of mass protest, alongside die-ins and protests against visiting dignitaries. Activists politicised off the back of the student protests might continue to prefer occupations. The weight of experience is something that is shared. But there are general features that characterise activist cohorts. Brian talked about his previous work on activist networks in Manchester, and noted they tended to live political lives, that their employment was consistent with their commitments. There were also strong ties, obviously forged in the experiences of campaigning past, between people within the cohort. However, those ties are much weaker across generations and this brings with it the problem of transmitting knowledge and experience from the established to the incoming. These are typically available through texts, such as this example of a protest survival kit where police violence is likely, and the internet has sped up the spread, availability and circulation of this kind of knowledge. But tradition in decentralised networks is untidy and haphazard - for example, many of the debates in feminism now repeat what went before in the 1980s. This is partly because some of those issues remain to be resolved, but also many of those experiences and lessons are not, for whatever reason, easily available to younger women getting involved now.

It still remains the case that the sociology of social movements has a bias toward how movements mobilised and what's going on when large numbers of people are politicised. It's unsurprising, as the broader policy context whittles about the radicalisation of would-be terrorists and the maintenance of social order. Small wonder academia unconsciously reflects this. Commitment, how people stay involved in the long haul, tends to attract less attention, again, probably because the eruption of new movements and the collective action of masses of people tend to be of short duration before normality resumes. This is still largely virgin territory so far as political sociology is concerned, and with his inaugural lecture, Brian gave us a way in to think about one of the tricky and slippery concepts that might help us make sense of commitment.


treborc said...

Thing are changing people do not attend meetings any more, and people are slowly changing as labour heads for the middle ground, people like in Scotland are looking for something different.

Vinyl Miner said...

People in Scotland are not actually looking for anything in particular, some, a few, participated in "occupy" only to see the same violence and rape that most occupy,the middle classes marched against a war while the plebs wear SNP badges on their Help For Heroes t-shirts, they protest at Faslane because they can't be arsed walking the extra ten miles to Coulport where the bombs are kept, and they rely on mainstream media for their information, and I have yet to meet a new SNP supporter who actually believes anything will change, a new identity is being formed by the almagamation of Braveheart and Trainspotting into the the ideal Scot, aimless and Nihilistic to be sure, not real politics.