Friday, August 13, 2004


You know you're a blogger when ...

... you've only been blogging for three weeks, but you feel guilty for skipping a day without posting. And when you have a queue of "post ideas" that you can't seem to find the time to write out.

I have not done much reading or writing for the past couple of days because we've been enjoying hosting out-of-town guests. In the meantime, though, I've been thankful to those who have noticed this blog and recommended it, including Ralph Luker at Cliopatra and Paul Musgrave.

Yesterday I did start reading Charles Tilly's new book, Social Movements, 1768-2004 (see link in the sidebar). Tilly has spent a distinguished career studying "contentious politics" and the history of social movements, and this book looks to be a crowning capstone for his life's work. A couple of thoughts caught my eye in the first few chapters, and I thought I would pass them along.

One of Tilly's major questions concerns timing: when did modern "social movements," as we know them, appear? As the years in the title suggest, Tilly believes that social movements date back only to the late eighteenth century. It was then, he suggests, that political contenders (people on the margins of political institutions who wish to contest what they perceive to be unjust arrangements of power) developed a now familiar "repertoire" of collective actions. By asking when and how social movement "repertoires" of action developed, Tilly is trying to understand (for instance) when activists learned to organize public demonstrations like street marches. Sometime in the eighteenth century, he says, public protests like marches started to evolve into their present day incarnations.

This is an interesting question: how did activists come to believe that mass marches could be efficacious modes of collective action? Recently I read this story at Salon (free day pass required) about how Cheri Honkala, a well-known advocate for the homeless, has organized a march across New Jersey scheduled to culminate in New York City at the Republican Convention. The story documents the modern activist's sense that the longer and larger the march, the better. But what historical circumstances combined to make people think that walking across New Jersey en masse could effect fundamental social change? That's the kind of question Tilly is asking, and I'm interested to read more about his answers.

Tilly has also piqued my interest by arguing (rightly, I think) that the term "social movement" acquired an almost universally positive connotation in the late twentieth century. "By the turn of the twenty-first century," he writes, "people all over the world recognized the term 'social movement' as a trumpet call, as a counterweight to oppressive power, as a summons to popular action against a wide range of scourges." In America, "movements" have been valorized primarily by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, and today all kinds of political causes don the mantle of the newest "movement."

The Salon article, for instance, briefly spotlights Honkala's son, an aspiring actor who is marching across New Jersey with his mother's group: "This, he says, is the center of his life. 'It's not like I'm taking time out when I'm in [New York] city,' he says. 'When I'm auditioning and trying to get the next role, it's all for the movement.'" Calling something "the movement" (definite article required) gives off good vibes in our political culture. Tilly says this book will explore how this came about.

Another titillating argument in the book's early pages is that the social movement as we know it may have already reached its zenith and may be heading towards its nadir.
The social movement, as an invented institution, could disappear or mutate into some quite different form of politics. Just as many forms of popular justice and rebellion that once prevailed have quite vanished, we have no guarantee that the social movement as it has prevailed for two centuries will continue forever. Since the social movement spread with the growth of centralized, relatively democratic states, for example, either governmental decentralization, extensive privatization of governmental activities, eclipse of the state by transnational powers, or widespread democratization could all put the social movement as we know it out of business. Indeed, with the set of changes that people loosely call 'globalization' occurring, citizens who count on social movements to make their voices heard must look very hard at the future. (p. 14)
I won't be sure what I think of this argument until I read more of the book. But anecdotal evidence in my own experience seems to confirm Tilly's suggestion that popular opinions about "social movements" may be shifting.

Granted, massive public demonstrations still command media attention and serve as powerful collective actions. I'm thinking, for instance, of the millions who crowded the streets of Europe in protest during the build-up to the Iraq War. But we do have to "look very hard at the future" when we consider that these massive protests did not stop the war from taking place. Consider President Bush's reaction to the protests outside the White House prior to the invasion of Iraq--that he did not read the newspapers and did not make decisions based on polls. More to the point may be his reaction to the massive street demonstrations staged in London during his November 2003 visit to the United Kingdom.
"I can understand people not liking war, if that's what they're there to protest," Bush said. "I fully understand not everybody is going to agree with the decisions I've made. I don't expect everybody to agree."

He added: "I admire a country which welcomes people to express their opinion. I'm proud of Great Britain's tradition of free speech."
The repertoire of contemporary movements may now be so familiar that its cutting edge has been dulled. Politicians can tip their hats to public protests while simultaneously thumbing their noses.

The American Left blames Bush's avowed indifference to movement actions on this adminstration, as though it is merely characteristic of this particular president. Hopefully so. But Bush's fawn-and-sneer reaction to free speech may be characteristic of a broader cultural impatience with the social movement forms that reached their apogee in the 1960s.

Today's dissenters continue to organize massive marches as the primary expression of collective contention. But I wonder whether Tilly is right that the returns of these marches are now diminishing, not only in the halls of power but also among the populace. The "target population" that activists are trying to persuade may have residual good feelings about "social movements," but perhaps they increasingly view mass actions as annoying or anarchic. (Consider mainstream media representations of anti-globalization protests. Doesn't the public mood tend to greet these events now with weariness bordering on rage?)

I'm not suggesting that mass marches are a bad thing--only that I'm interested to watch Tilly develop the argument that "social movements" may be undergoing a broad transformation in the present. The last year of his title (2004) is ominous, for it suggests a kind of impending closure to "social movements" as we now understand them. Tilly's judgment may be premature, but I think he's right that activists need to think hard about the possibility that old forms may no longer work the way they once did; real creativity is called for if social movements are to evolve into equally effective kinds of collective political action.

In the Spring of 2003 I was teaching an undergraduate class on twentieth-century American history. The week that the war in Iraq began, I gave students an entire class period to discuss their feelings on what was happening. I opened by referring to a recent demonstration that had been held downtown by anti-war groups, an event in which I had participated in a meager way. At the protest, one contingent of activists moved into the street to block traffic, inviting a cacophany of honking horns from rush-hour motorists. As I described this scene to my students (without mentioning my presence), I asked what they thought.

One particularly vocal student (whose political views I previously had no inkling about) said--and I paraphrase--"Those people should be glad that I wasn't driving downtown, because I probably wouldn't have stopped." Caught off guard by her utter seriousness, I stumblingly raised the question of whether causing minor disorder was required for social movements to be successful. I referred to Civil Rights demonstrations, which we had recently discussed in class, and pointed out that civil disobedience was a crucial part of those demonstrations' success. The student replied--and I paraphrase again--that "they have the right to say what they want, but they don't have to inconvenience the rest of us to do it."

This is admittedly unscientific evidence of Tilly's point. But I wonder ... Will the next generation of Americans, raised in a time of economic prosperity and rising technological comforts, have little patience for the "inconvenience" that has made modern social movements so effective in the past? And does this mean that radical activists need to expand and modify their repertoire of dissent? I'm not sure, but I will definitely keep turning the pages of this book.

Collective Improvisation:

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter