Theorizing About Social Movements and Activism
Social movement activism has spread like wildfire across the entire globe over the last decade. One group of scholars studied “protest incidents” in over 80 countries from 2006-2013. They found 840 protests in these countries with at least half motivated by demands for economic changes and democratization. A centerpiece of movements from Greece, to Chile, to Spain, to Canada to the United States has been outrage against neoliberal policies (sometimes referred to as “austerity” policies). Fundamentally these policies involve shifting wealth from the vast majority to the tiny minority. In the United States, the Occupy Movement introduced an accurate metaphor for this transformation: the one percent versus the 99 percent. Moral Mondays movements in over a dozen states in the South and Midwest emerged as one large-scale protest against the imposition of austerity and the weakening of democratic institutions.
David Harvey, a political theorist, has posited a “co-revolutionary theory” about social movements. He argues that because there are so many problems in so many different locations in society political activism can and must start anywhere. If one is at a university or elsewhere in the education system struggles over “mental constructs’ matter. If persons are engaged in or near the electoral arena targeting politicians must be done. Work in the corporate sector, the media, government institutions are all sites for the application of political pressure and organizing. What needs to be remembered however is that all the separate struggles are interconnected and that activists need to understand how each struggle relates to every other struggle. Also, victory in one place and time does not mean that the goals of struggle have been achieved. In the end, Harvey argues that the interconnected crises relating to class, race, gender, homophobia, and the environment are intimately connected to the capitalist system.
Further, activists debate the utility of political engagement around elections and legislation compared to mass movement activity. Some progressives have proposed as a solution to this dilemma, developing an “inside/outside” strategy. The inside/outside strategy argues for pursuing electoral work, electing candidates who might act on the people’s behalf, and lobbying to secure legislative victories, even if such efforts cannot solve the panoply of economic, environmental, racial and other problems that are faced. Electoral and legislative work, however, needs to be supplemented by “street heat;” building a mass movement that can be mobilized to publicly demonstrate its outrage and its demands for change. The outside strategy might include creating a large, disciplined organization with resources that can respond to and lead the mass movement of people for change. It is through the outside strategy that politicians can be forced to carry out the will of the people.
Finally, Rev. Barber, through his “fusion politics” approach incorporates all of the above thinking. Fusion politics emphasizes the need for progressive groups to work together in coalitions, in partnerships, in common organizational fronts to bring the energy of all groups together. Ruling classes or power elites do not respond to change unless masses of organizations and people come together to make demands. The 99 percent do not have the material resources- the money, ownership of media outlets, influence over education and police power-to bring about change. All they have potentially are their numbers. And the fusion politics model is about mobilizing masses of people, developing effective and democratic organizations, and applying people power all across the political and economic map.
Indiana Moral Mondays
Indiana Moral Mondays began as a conversation among activists in 2014. Some participants in the discussions had direct experience with Rev. William Barber and North Carolina’s growing Moral Mondays movement. During early meetings, IMM formed issue committees to begin work on the problems Hoosier citizens faced over access to the polls, the criminal justice system, health care, worker rights, education, and the environment. In addition, IMM decided to organize a large rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, with Rev. Barber as the keynote speaker. Also a diverse group of speakers representing the issue areas, the various progressive organizations in the state, youth, people of color, workers, and environmentalists, would be asked to speak as well to signify that our new movement would be based upon fusion politics, diversity, and coalition-building.
Since the September, 2014 mass mobilization issue groups and partner organizations have worked on legislative lobbying, organizing marches and rallies around emerging issues, and discussing how to bring the issues to relevant constituencies around the state. 2015 became a year of debating, organizing, engaging in outreach, and developing plans of work for the coming period, one to three years. IMM is passionate, impatient about the need for change, and yet wise to the fact that organizing for change is a long and arduous process.
As IMM moves into 2016 the following conversations need to be held:
1.How do we organize statewide, particularly given the fact that Indiana is really three states.
2.How do we develop in our literature and public agenda the view that what we are struggling against is a thirty year program of austerity, redistributing the wealth and power from the many to the few. And how can we effectively show that our struggles in Indiana parallel struggles in other states and countries.
3.How can we effectively link our theoretical understanding of history, much like Rev. Barber’s provocative discussion of the three reconstructions, to the concrete campaigns we are engaged in in Indiana.
4.How can we take the general worldview and discuss around the state
-the threat to voting rights
-racist police practices
-the transformation of a 150 year tradition of public education into for-profit charter schools
-the deregulation of environmental controls at the very same time that plants emit more pollution
-the rationing of health care and the rising cost of medication
-the use of state enticements to bring investors who create low wage jobs that worsen income inequality
-the use of government to destroy the right of workers to form unions of their choosing and to honor the work of those unions to defend worker rights
These are the substantive issues that brought IMM together. Organizationally these substantive issues and the historical/theoretical narrative raised in Parts 1 and 2 of this series of essays must be linked to IMM organization and structure. IMM needs to discuss:
-the proportion of work devoted to inside and outside strategies
-statewide efforts at outreach, particularly to communities in “the three states”
-the relative weight and autonomy to be given to the state organization and the various hubs or regional centers
-the connections between IMM and the many organizations who partner with IMM. It may be that IMM could best serve as network coordinator among partner organizations rather than an initiator of programs.
-and finally, the relationship between the varying decision-making bodies, local organizations and issue committees within IMM.
The world is in turmoil. Protests all across the globe have some common origins, causes, and solutions. While Hoosier problems have their own characteristics they are not too different from those elsewhere. IMM, in this regard, should see itself as part of the great twenty-first century movement for economic and social justice. The ongoing work of IMM will involve addressing the particular while being cognizant of the general, building coalitions in Indiana of shared responsibility and respect, organizing people power from the state house to the streets, and reconstructing institutions that serve, not oppress the people. The fact that IMM has survived and grown since its formation nearly two years ago is an extraordinary achievement. The next steps have been suggested above.
This is the third part of an essay on Indiana in the United States political economy and the politics of resistance. The other two essays can also be found at www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com