Against all the odds

Meet the new networked movements that are taking on big business, and winning big victories.

Tom Liacas
28 April 2015
Fight for $15, New York, 2015. Demotix/Edward Leavy Jr. All rights reserved.

Fight for $15, New York, 2015. Demotix/Edward Leavy Jr. All rights reserved.From Egypt to Iceland, the citizen movements behind the Arab Spring through to the indignados caught the world's imagination as they rocked or overthrew the political and economic establishment. A considerable volume of headlines and academic analyses have been devoted to the ‘networked revolutions’ that have swept in with such spectacular speed and power, even as their lasting political impact is actively debated. 

While some wonder where the next Arab Spring will arise, there are hundreds of similar movements simultaneously coalescing at a smaller scale and taking on corporate interests over social justice and environmental concerns. Here we turn to the efforts to block the building of the Keystone XL oil pipeline as well as the organized ‘Fight for $15’ movement, which is currently pushing for higher minimum wages across the United States. Both follow the broad pattern of new networked movements and both have been highly successful at forcing concessions from governments and corporations against heavy odds.

To measure these anti-corporate campaigns against the Occupys and Arab Springs of this world, we can line them up against the framework established by Manuel Castells in his 2012 study, Networks of Outrage and Hope. In this work, written shortly after the climax of the 2011 uprisings, Castells lays out the basic structural and ideological commonalities behind these ‘networked social movements’. 

Among the key features of Castells' model are five critical observations: networked movements use social media to organise and gain critical mass; they network in many ways, both online and offline; they become viral and spread well beyond their original instances; they are essentially leaderless and horizontal in terms of their organisational structure; they do not present a concrete set of demands due to the horizontal and polymorphous nature of such groups.

Anti-corporate movements such as those behind the Keystone XL opposition campaigns and the Fight for $15 most definitely align with Castells' first characteristic of networked movements insofar as they use social media and social networks as key strategic assets. Organising through a constellation of local and national Twitter accounts using the #Fightfor15 hashtag and a robust Facebook community, the movement for a higher minimum wage in the US makes extensive use of online networks to mobilise its members to join offline protests and also to put pressure on the corporate reputation of its targets, which include Walmart and McDonald’s. The anti-Keystone XL movement’s use of online organising has been so effective that analysts now cite the movement's dominance of online discourse as a critical component in its successful turnaround of public opinion

As for network-building, both these anti-corporate movements are exemplary. The Fight for $15 links up local city-based chapters in a loose US-wide federation. Going beyond its direct membership, the movement has associated networks with the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice, which gained national prominence after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The anti-Keystone movement has also encouraged the creation of local protest nodes and uses its central website to help followers to find local chapters. Like the Fight for $15, the movement has gone well beyond its original networks of urban green supporters to forge alliances with Native American and rancher communities, who oppose the pipeline for a variety of reasons including health, safety and access to vital resources such as water. 

In December 2012, the original kick-off for the Fight for $15 amounted to a handful of local strikes against fast food outlets. In 2015, the Fight for $15 has snowballed to spark protests in over 230 cities in the US and 35 other countries across the world. Similarly, the struggle to block the Keystone XL pipeline began in 2011 with a series of civil disobedience actions and protests in front of the White House. Since then, the movement has seen actions replicated in over 750 locations across the US and the world. And the success of the movement against Keystone has inspired activists to mobilise against ten other pipeline projects in North America

When looking at the organisational structures behind the anti-corporate movements, as opposed to Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring uprisings, we begin to drift away from Castells' model. Castells identified grassroots origins and horizontal leadership as key features of networked movements. Fight for $15 and the anti-Keystone campaign, for their part, were both launched by sizeable organizations. In its early stages, the Fight for $15 was not a spontaneous mobilisation but a protest movement put together and carefully managed by the Service Employees International Union. As time went on, the cause was picked up and led more autonomously by local grassroots groups, such as Occupy Portland.

Similarly, the campaign to oppose Keystone XL has been largely organised by environmental NGOs, such as 350.org and the Rainforest Action Network. Nevertheless, self-organising sub-groups are actively encouraged by the movement, as evidenced by the 'do it yourself' tools offered through 350.org's main campaign hub. In the end, the architecture behind the Fight for $15 and anti-Keystone movements appears to be a hybrid of top-down organisational support with the door left wide open for autonomous and horizontal parallel campaigning.

Another major difference with Castells' model concerns the end goals of anti-corporate movements as opposed to the larger networked revolutions of 2011. While the goals of the latter were intentionally broad and heterogeneous so as to include the voices of all those mobilising under the movement's broad banner, anti-corporate movements have set their sights on very concrete short-term objectives. The Fight for $15's ultimate goal is to address wealth inequality in the US and around the world. However, its immediate demands for the country's low-wage workers are quite clear: "$15 an hour and a union".

Similarly, those organising against the Keystone pipeline are pushing back against the fossil fuel industry and fighting to limit climate change, as the pipeline would enable greater development of Canada's high-carbon oil sands. By focusing on blocking the pipeline as a short term objective, they have cut the issue down to size and given themselves an achievable mission.

Ultimately, the outcomes of both types of movements differ and should provoke further reflection on their relative efficacy. Many of the networked social movements cited in Castells' work are now being re-examined in terms of their lasting results. Much has been written, whether fairly or not, about the failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement. More pointedly, networked movement skeptics such as Evgeny Morozov point to the failures of the Arab Spring uprisings to establish a lasting political legacy as evidence that such movements promise more than they can deliver. 

On the other hand, the recent anti-corporate movements have generated some impressive and incontestable victories. The Fight for $15 has so far brought two major US cities and 21 states to raise their minimum wages. It has also pressured giants such as Walmart into raising its minimum from $7.25 to $10 per hour in the US – a historic move affecting over 500,000 workers across the country. The anti-Keystone movement has defeated all odds, including a claimed public support base for the pipeline of up to 70 percent, to first delay approval for the project and then sway President Obama towards a veto, which came down in February of this year. At the time of writing, all of the other pipeline projects in North America opposed by movements styled after the anti-Keystone campaign are similarly stalled.

The defined focus of anti-corporate movements benefits from many of the tactical advantages that social network mobilisation offers, including the ability to rapidly build scale, swarm their targets and amplify their messages. Their hybrid structures draw from the advantages of a top-down organisational hierarchy, including a clear focus on goals and efficient decision making, while allowing enough freedom for autonomous leadership at the smaller scale. Finally, their carefully chosen targets and short-term goals allow them to focus their energy more efficiently, maintaining momentum and morale. And despite their modest beginnings, these anti-corporate movements are still going strong several years later, while the Occupy and Arab Spring movements rose fast and dissipated in swift social explosions.

These anti-corporate campaigns have adopted social network frameworks, re-engineering and retooling them for success. By radically reshaping the architecture of organising and mobilisation, they are squaring up to big business, and winning big victories.

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