Can Europe Make It?

Protest and social movements: a sine qua non for democracy

Laurence Cox interviews Cristina Flesher Fominaya about her new book, Social Movements and Globalization: How Protests, Occupations and Uprisings are Changing the World - on the mutual impact of social movements and globalisation, the ongoing influence of nation states, the rise of the autonomous movements and the importance of communication.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya Laurence Cox
23 July 2014

Madrid protesters against the monarchy demand a referendum for right to decide the political future of the country, June 2014, Puerta del Sol. Eric G. Madroñal/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Q: What made you want to write this book in particular? Is there a core argument that you want to make?

Asked to write it by my series editor, I thought it would be a challenge and force me to think through systematically much of the social movement research I have been doing over the past twenty years now. I wanted to write a book that made an original argument, was intellectually rigorous, but that would be accessible at the same time to anyone interested in knowing more about contemporary progressive social movements without them needing to have a specialist background. So it was intended as a “public sociology” intervention that would also be something specialists could find useful and provocative.

I am hugely influenced by Arlie Hochschild, a professor of mine at UC Berkeley, who managed to do amazing ethnographies, analyzing them with absolute mastery and then writing them in prose so clear that anyone could grasp them. That combination of effects is the ultimate pinnacle I strive toward, and will probably forever strive toward !

There are multiple key arguments or themes running through the book. One is that social movements and globalization processes are deeply intertwined, with social movements not just reacting to globalization processes but actively driving and reshaping them in some instances, and creatively using them in their attempts to transform the world. One example would be the way that radical geek techie activists have pioneered and developed the software and technologies that underpin major technological and economic processes driving globalization today. Their collective action not only drives a technological processs but an entire collaborative ethos that makes key claims about things like access to information, democracy and the degree to which citizens have a right to privacy, and a right to protect themselves from government surveillance and the economic exploitation of their data. 

At the same time transformations in digital media and the encroachment of consumerized rather than radical or alternative media platforms and tools has meant that activists are also deeply embedded in these processes and not outside them. The contradictions of using a corporate platform like Facebook with all that this implies is not lost on activists: but they continue to use them nevertheless.

I also wanted to avoid equating social movements and globalization with so called “global movements” and I am careful to define global movements in a precise way early on in the book. A lot of work on “social movements and globalization” are in fact about global movements or transnational movements. I wanted to break away from that and widen the scope of vision. Globalization processes traverse social movements at the local, regional, national, transnational, international and global levels, and social movements also affect globalization processes, so these are deeply intertwined.

Another key theme that runs through the book is that globalization processes operate all over the world, but can have radically different impacts in different political, economic, historical, cultural and social contexts.  Activists in San Francisco, USA and Kampala, Uganda may be mobilizing around LGBTQ rights, and share a universal “global” human rights discourse to do so, but what it means to do that in two of these places is radically different in so many ways!  The challenges, opportunities, possible alliances, consequences and so on make those mobilizing processes fundamentally different.

Theoretically, this approach implicitly and sometimes explicitly challenges some aspects of cosmopolitanism theory and global civil society theory, which tend to overstate the degree to which people are actually “global”.

Of course, there are certain influences that penetrate the far corners of the earth, but I am always struck in my own work as an ethnographer by the extent to which people are locally rooted. Reading certain theorists one can easily get the impression that the world is full of people hopping jets, travelling far and wide, and migrating all over the place. The language of flows and scapes conjures up images of free flowing movement that traverses borders. Of course, those processes are powerful and pervasive, but the reality is that many, if not most,  people don’t leave their city or village, much less their country.

Speaking of coutries, the nation state also continues to shape social movements in profound ways. To take just one simple example, we can think about the national legal frameworks that regulate protest and opposition.  Even in the European Union, arguably the most supranational entity in the world, member states still have competence to legislate to criminalize protest. In Spain, the government just passed a gag law that sends us a good way back to the time of Franco, and activists there are mobilizing against this further erosion of democratic freedom in a new context of a more limited right to protest.  Now that the law has been passed at the national level, it can be challenged in the national and European courts, and activists strategically navigate these different levels of governance. National borders too affect protest—for example, by refusing to let protesters into the country, a recurrent feature of global justice movement policing!

I am deliberately eclectic in my use of theory in the book, because part of what I wanted to do was open the study of social movements up to insights beyond those commonly found in social movement theory. I am also deliberately multidisciplinary in my approach, drawing on feminism, cultural and media studies, ICT and digital media research, international relations, political science, anthropology, geography and sociology, as well as social theory. Of course there is a lot of social movement theory too, especially in the first conceptual chapters. It is important to start from a solid base and then explore from there, and there is a lot of excellent social movement theory out there.

I start the book by asking the reader to reflect on the ways that social movements matter. Ultimately my argument is that you cannot understand globalization, politics, social and cultural transformation or even democracy itself without examining the role and dynamics of social movements.

Q: The distinction between autonomous and institutional lefts – or horizontals and verticals – is obviously one found in movements across Europe but shaped differently in different places. Why have you chosen to break it down the way you do? 


Larger version of this table.

The ideal typical distinction I present in the book between autonomous and insitutional left logics of collective political action is something I began to work out when I was doing research in the mid 1990s on the British anti-roads movement.

At that time I initially understood the difference as between what I called “socials” and “politicals”. Over time I began to develop and refine that difference in the context of my work on the Global Justice Movement. The tensions and diferences between these logics of collective action has been a long-standing theme of my work on autonomous movements. What struck me was how often people would say things like, “but we are all against global capitalism, why can’t we all work together?” and wring their hands earnestly. My table and the explanation that accompanies it is an answer to that question.

Essentially, this is not just about differences in “preferences” but about fundamentally different ways of conceiving the legitimate political subject, legtimate forms of collective action, legitimate decison making processes (which people focus on often without recognizing the ideological underpinnings of those choices ), about the relation between means and ends, and so on. These are fundamentally different logics of collective action. Why this matters is because often this is what will determine whether and how people will share political spaces, a critical issue for those hoping to develop mass movements! People shorthand these differences as horizontals versus verticals, which is fair enough, but this really misses the bigger picture.

You mention that this distinction is found across Europe - in fact we can find it in Latin America, in the US, in the Middle East, really all over. There are autonomous and institutional left groups in social movement landscapes around the world, and I think this table is one step toward thinking through what connects them and what divides them. Crucial though is to recognize that this is an ideal typical table, in reality any given social movement community will have groups that lie somewhere in between, activists who participate in both kinds of spaces and relations of reciprocity across that divide and joint campaigns in times of crisis or confluence.

So having a different logic of collective action does not mean you cannot or will not work together or act together. The differences in logics of action persist though, and even after 15-M and Occupy they continue to do so, even if the balance of legitimacy has been growing steadily in favor of the autonomous side of that chart, a fascinating development that I have been observing over the past 20 years (even though these differences predate that period by a wide margin). 

As the legitimacy of autonomy increases so, paradoxically, does an attendant willingness to foray back into institutional politics. I feel like we are witnessing something similar to when the Greens emerged in the 1980s. Only now, the digital revolution has made new forms of political participation and communication possible while throwing up new challenges, so it is a very interesting moment to explore the social movement /party nexus. 

Q: Let’s talk about ICTs and digital media. Your book is unusual in how much attention it gives the subject: you have one chapter on culture and social movements, but then you go on to develop a separate chapter on ICTs and media. Why?

Well the short answer is that you simply cannot understand contemporary social movements without looking at their use of digital media and ICTs. So much social movement theory is focused on the organizational aspects of social movements, but communication is such a fundamental part of what social movements actually do and the impact they have.

Social movements communicate via symbolic and discursive processes both internally and with their interlocutors and audiences, sometimes very strategically and reflexively and other times much less so. This is why the cultural and media dimensions of social movements are so crucial to take into consideration. Media use, of course, is firmly embedded in processes of cultural resistance but they are so important that they deserve a separate treatment.

The digital revolution has transformed everyone's lives and has had a profound impact on the way that social movements communicate and on the media environment in which they do so. Digital media and ICTs interact with other forms of media in the communication processes and ecologies of movements.  But activist use of those media still varies across contexts significantly, there are different activist logics and cultures of media use across groups and networks and even different national cultures of media use that affect social movements and their publics.

Interestingly, up to now the people who have paid the closest attention to the relationship between media and ICTs in social movements have been media and communication scholars, with a few important exceptions. Their work has greatly increased our knowledge of that relationship but has been - logically enough - very media centric and paid less attention to the cultural and social aspects that shape media use in social movements. There has also been a tendency to focus more on the technological affordances of (digital) media or issues of audience and public communication spheres rather than understanding the ways in which activists themselves creatively and strategically use media and how it affects their own social relations and the networks they work in.

For their part, social movement scholars have paid insufficient attention to the uses of media and ICTs in social movements, again with important exceptions and despite a burgeoning literature in this area. For those scholars who do analyze media and social movements, there has been a strong tendency to focus on movement relations with mass media and the issues of media bias, media representation, and so on.

Much less attention has been paid to the production of alternative media by social movements and crucially the importance of media use to internal communication practices and their impact on things like collective identity. Another problem has been a tendency to analyze online political participation separately from off-line participation and to ignore the complex interrelationships between digital media and other forms of media in between on and off-line participation. Activists know full well that managing to get a trending topic on Twitter does not necessarily translate into people on the streets, even when the trending topic itself in a particular city is a call to protest in that city. So there is a danger of using things like Twitter participation as a proxy for movement participation.

What I do in the book is to move beyond the cyber optimist and cyber skeptic debate that characterized early work on the relationship between ICTs in social movements and instead try to provide insight into the myriad ways that digital media and ICTs are actually used and how they impact social movements today in a global context. That includes forms of culture jamming like video mash ups and memes but also radical and alternative media projects such as Indymedia. It includes thinking about the implications of the rise of cyberactivists like Anonymous for existing theories of collective action and analyzing the complex interaction between different media forms in times of mass mobilization like the Arab Spring. Digital media and ICTs are constantly evolving so it is important to have a historically grounded understanding of their use as well. This is why I included the section on the rise and decline of Indymedia and touched on the implications of that decline for movements. I was just talking to a cyberactivist the other night about the implications of that decline and the rise of social media in terms of how that actually affects relations within social movement networks. It is actually really fascinating, and understudied.

In the final chapter of the book, I analyze different ways media and digital media were mobilized by activist networks during the Arab Spring, critiquing technological determinist narratives of their use so prevalent among journalists and observers who characterised the uprisings as "Twitter revolutions". Instead, I show how cyberactivists and political bloggers generated oppositional political cultures,  and how tech savvy youth in Tunisia and Egypt generated grassroots cultures of resistance to the regimes, popularizing or creating chants, videos, jokes and caricatures that satirized and demystified authority, producing counter-narratives to challenge an official story that delegitimized dissent.

I show how ICTs enabled citizens and journalists to produce and disseminate political and practical content such as how to avoid teargas and blockades, where to get free food, and how to bypass the blackout using proxies and dial-up connections, using phones for speak to tweet software, or calling people outside Egypt to tweet or post information about what was happening in Egypt online. A hacker group created an automated Google search engine to locate all the possible fax machine numbers in Egypt so that people could be aware of all the communication possibilities that were still available to them despite the blackout.

Digital media interacted with more mainstream or mass media in crucial ways as an outlet such as Al Jazeera, the BBC or France 24 broadcast content that had been produced by journalists, political broadcasters and demonstrators and made it available both on television and on Internet-based platforms. Activists and journalists used Twitter to provide minute by minute coverage of the protests and to tweet links to video coverage of the demonstrations, which were also picked up by mass media outlets.

As you can see we have only begun to skim the surface of the role of digital media and ICTs in social movements, and there is so much more to learn. So I wanted to get that across in the book.

Q: One argument that has been widely made is that recent anti-austerity movements represent a de-globalisation of movements with respect to the global justice movement. The institutional targets and the ways of organising are much more national. How do you address this in your book?

First of all, on the whole I would agree with that assessment. But I think it needs to be nuanced and developed. This global wave has thrown up a lot of hotly debated questions and I wanted to dive right in to trying to answer them. Is this indeed a cycle or wave of protest? Are the protests related to each other or just superficially similar? If they are related, in which precise ways?


In the book I devote an entire chapter to the Global Justice Movement, considered the quintessential ‘global movement’. I then devote the final chapter to the global wave of anti-austerity and pro-democracy movements. What I do in part in that chapter is to provide an analysis of the master frames that connect all of those protests and discuss the actual points of transnational diffusion between them. At the same time I treat them separately in chronological order to show how nationally and locally rooted they were, again highlighting the continuing importance of the nation state in shaping mobilization dynamics and outcomes. I then contrast systematically the characteristics of the recent global wave with the Global Justice Movement, because there is also an argument that sees this wave as an evolution of the GJM.

So, I look very closely at what is shared and what is different between them, a theme that runs through my work.  I wrote that final chapter as events in Gezi were unfolding so the dust had not settled on a lot of this yet (and it still hasn’t of course). If I can produce a coherent analytical narrative, it is because these are all issues I have been thinking about in different contexts for a very long time. I do think that chapter is particularly useful though! I have not really seen any other attempt at synthesis of the wave, nor comparison with the GJM. So I feel that is an important contribution of the book. 

Q: Where to now for social movements research?

I am not a purist by any means, so I think that there needs to be a greater confluence between disciplines, and more conversations across theoretical and methodological approaches. I think the new methods to study online networks and so on can obviously give us information we simply did not have access to before. On the other hand, there are some questions that cannot be answered any other way than by actually spending time with activists and that includes crucially things like understanding their online use of media.

Right now I am doing a comparative study on anti-austerity protests in Spain and Ireland based primarily on qualitative and ethnographic data. The differences between the two are fascinating but also the points of overlap. I am finding that while macrosocial and macropolitical  aspects might be argued  to play an important role in explaining the differences in levels of collective resistance to austerity, differences in pre-existing activist networks also explain a lot.

The Spanish case is so rich that it deserves its own book, and I will be working on that once I have more fieldwork completed. My work in both sites pays close attention to movement cultures and uses of digital media. I will continue to explore the intersection between cultural, political and (digital) media dimensions of collective action and try to continue to move the field forward by showing how qualitative and sociological approaches can inform our understanding of social movements, which continue to be such important actors in the contemporary world.

On a more personal political level I will continue to make the case for protest and social movements as fundamental to any democracy, and to fight against their increasing criminalization and repression around the world. I hope that message is a key “take away” for anyone reading the book.

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