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The everyday power of movement activism

Activism is normal; what’s strange is that we don’t see it that way.

Dublin Castle after the abortion referendum results were declared, 26 May 2018. Credit: Katenolan1979 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

On September 29th 2018 I took part in Ireland’s annual “March for Choice” to pressure the government for “free, safe, legal” abortion following the pro-choice vote in May’s referendum. You could feel the demo coming for miles on the train: people got on displaying rows of badges in fantastic costumes and holding placards. The march was cheerful, confident and determined.

A conservative cliché has it that ‘Irish people don’t protest,’ and that they are afraid of standing out or saying something controversial. Yet from the start of the referendum campaign people with no previous experience of activism wore “Repeal” jumpers in the streets, told their often horrendous stories in public, and knocked on strangers’ doors, usually meeting a positive response (66.4% of voters voted ‘yes’).

As this shows, it doesn’t take so much for social expectations and personal behaviour to change, for a country to become a “movement society” where activism is a normal everyday thing rather than strange or alien – and where its results can transform not just laws but lives.

Women’s movements have powerfully changed the vast majority of the world’s countries over the past half-century – and continue to do so, as the #MeToo movement testifies. As that movement also shows, public controversy and private transformation are not so separate. Between the high-profile challenge to a Harvey Weinstein and a non-celebrity woman quietly telling her story lies the slow and difficult process of challenging workplace cultures, community norms, family relationships and adolescent culture.

Moving further back in time, most of the world’s countries including Ireland became independent from European empires within living memory. Others overthrew fascism, state socialism, apartheid, other dictatorships and the odd monarchy. The idea that activism is something other than a normal, everyday part of human activity is just a story.

In working-class and ethnic minority communities where struggle is routine to get basic services, resist police oppression, self-organise to meet everyday needs or assert community pride, those who do much of this work often resist the term ‘activist’ because it drives a wedge between them and their friends, neighbours, families and other community members who are also involved, if perhaps not so frequently or determinedly.

But more generally, when activism is seen as separate from the rest of life or as an eccentric leisure activity we need to ask why this is. What happens to make movements seem so impossibly distant?

I once took part in a discussion about engaged Buddhism in my local meditation centre. Participants talked in hushed tones about earth-shattering decisions like choosing to buy this rather than that or voting for a different party as the outward limit of what they could imagine. It reminded me of other Buddhist discussions about ethics where similarly young, well-educated, ethnically-privileged people talked about helping others as a strange, radical step to support their meditation practice.

The questions that struck me were: what sort of world do you have to live in to think that helping other people is unusual? How do you imagine people actually survive when they don’t have money to meet their needs? What is it about working together to make things better that seems so hard to imagine?

One answer is that much of what is represented in our media as normal is anything but. As Oliver James notes in his book Affluenza, the US and UK  – whose cultural production dominates both global media and academia and which are often taken as the norm for psychological research – show particularly high levels of social and family disconnection and isolation, especially among the wealthy (and, I would add, men, whites and straight/cis populations). But these post-Reagan, post-Thatcher subcultures that revolve around individuals and their bank balances are not the human norm, and their disconnect from everyday solidarity, caring labour and collective action is not representative of our species as a whole.

In the rural west of Ireland, for example, things are very different. Here too people can be very nervous of activism, but for other reasons. In small communities, people are so involved with one another for everyday practicalities like lifts, childcare, lending or giving things, and helping out that the costs of falling out are very high. As a result, people watch carefully to find out which way the wind is blowing before putting their heads above the parapet. And when such communities do engage in action it is typically collective for this reason.

Neither situation – being so disconnected from other human beings that collective action seems emotionally impossible or being so dependent on others that individual decisions seem too threatening to take – is particularly good for us. And despite what the inhabitants of these different worlds often think, neither represents the human norm.

In fact, despite the stories they tell themselves, people in these worlds also engage in social movements. For example, early second-wave feminism had strong bases among college-educated women (among others), and pro-choice canvassers in rural Irish communities met with remarkable levels of support. As Galileo is supposed to have said, “and yet it does move.” Why?

A simple answer is that activism and movements express real human needs against the structures and cultures that deny them, and which block our development and force us into narrow and stunted lives; they are part of a fuller human life.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci put this particularly clearly: against the “common sense” that seeks to resign us to the way things are right now and to get our consent for the power structures in society, we need to develop a “good sense.” This good sense articulates stifled needs and tries to find ways of helping them to breathe: but for them to breathe fully, real change is needed in an oppressive and exploitative world.

This means that we have to overcome the “muck of ages” as Marx put it - the ways in which we routinely buy into this common sense; develop relationships that reproduce existing structures of wealth, power and status; battle one another for relative privilege within a social order that we fail to challenge; and internalise our own forms of oppression, exploitation and stigmatisation.

In this sense, changing the world and changing ourselves are not two separate things: if there is one consistent finding from the history of social movements, it is that the means of how we organise, theorise and strategise, and the forms of personhood we encourage and reward among activists, all too predictably become the ends. Or put another way, what we do to and with each other in organising has real and direct effects on participants, whether or not we are successful in the much chancier business of reorganising wider society.

We remake ourselves, not individually but collectively, in movements. Notably, we move away from a local and ethnocentric sense of ‘we’ to a much broader identity through the process of solidarity and alliance-building – and to a much longer one as we come to situate our activism in a movement history that is not restricted to our own immediate concerns.

In these ways, participating in movements can be emotionally healthy in very basic ways - a form of deeper maturing beyond the restricted possibilities presented by a world shaped by capitalism, patriarchy and racism. This means articulating our needs together against how things currently happen to be. It means coming to live in a wider world than the one that is immediately presented to us.

It also means coming to make our world in a way which is less and less available in modernity. For most of us, most of the time, our lifeworld is presented to us for relatively passive consumption, not something we actively create. This is why the greatest satisfaction in alienated workplaces is often found either in manual skill or in helping people effectively – against the profit, power and bullshit that actually structure most jobs; and why gardening, cooking, DIY, craft and other forms of shaping our own environment are so rewarding.

Social movements are transformative not only in the changes they bring about in the worlds we live in. They are transformative because we are attempting to bring about these changes, because we are experiencing ourselves as subjects rather than objects in the big structures that shape our lives, and so living a fuller adulthood. In this sense movement activism is a fundamental aspect of emotional health and maturity.

This essay draws on Laurence Cox’s new book Why Social Movements Matter (Rowman and Littlefield International), available from the publishers at a 30% discount using code WSMM18.

About the author

Laurence Cox has been involved in many different social movements over the past three decades and has been a Buddhist meditator for almost as long. He is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, where he researches popular struggles and anti-colonial Buddhism. His latest books are Why Social Movements Matter andVoices of 1968.


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