Ronaldo Munck’s latest book, Social Movements in Latin America, is a welcome addition to the Anglophone literature. For several decades social movements have been one of the most characteristic features of Latin America’s political and cultural landscape. Despite some early works – such as Arturo Escobar and Sonia Alvarez’s The Making of Social Movements in Latin America – only recently have book-length texts provided English readers with up-to-date overviews of the region’s movements. Of them, Munck’s intervention is a leading example of the crucial challenge for regional specialists and movement scholars alike: making-sense of social movements from, and through, the lens of Latin America.
As a geographer, I appreciated Munck’s strategy for realising this task by “mapping the mosaic” of movements in the region, which consists of a dialectical process of putting together the parts and the whole while refusing reductionist binaries. Crucially, he avoids the historicist tendency to structure the argument along a linear narrative and instead moves across key Latin American categories: workers, peasants, community, women, indigenous and environment. Although one could add to the list – afro Latinx; democratisation; human rights; LGTB; housing; and so on – these all find their ways, to differing degrees, in the existing framework.
Moreover, and perhaps of most significance, is that Munck’s mosaic is also explicitly informed by a rich map of Latin American theoretical approaches, placed in dialogue with relevant North American and European epistemological debates. This open approach to theorising is refreshing and appropriate to the movements of the region that have also mobilised in the inter-section of the ideas and practices rooted in their colonial experiences and post-colonial struggles. Ongoing decolonial critiques, which are frequently represented in Anglophone debate, may charge Munck with under-playing questions of race in both empirics and epistemology yet, in his defence, the selection of cases and ideas seem a fair representation of the major faultlines in the region.
In what follows I elaborate on these two questions – how to map movements; and from where (or whom) to theorise – in order to follow through on some of the implications for those of us working on and with Latin American social movements from the perspective that I am most well acquainted: geography. As already indicated, Munck’s book goes against the grain of dominant Anglophone approaches to social movement studies that remain tied to a linear historicism and tend to downplay the significance of spatiality. Latin American movements and scholars have demonstrated a great spatial sensibility in recent decades and Mapping the Mosaic is in many ways a reflection of that. How, then, can we take Munck’s provocations seriously and implement them in our practice? Although I focus here on the scholarly side of this question the text is also of great value for informing activist discussion (indeed, the two are deeply related in the region as in the book).
First, then, how can we continue to map the mosaic of movements in the region? Rather than simply adding to the list of categories, I argue the key tasks is to develop an approach to mapping that is commitment to relationality. This is implicit in Munck’s dialectical approach to totality and can be further expanded from a geographical perspective. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Anglophone human geography, the discipline within which I formed, underwent a “relational turn” that explicitly sought to move away from an absolutist ontology of space – grounded in the fixed geometry of Euclid – through a relative spatial ontology – most famously outlined by Einstein – and towards a relational ontology – located among a range of “post structuralist” thinkers alongside borrowed theories such as that of topology from mathematical sciences. Relational thinking in Anglophone geography is often best associated with the late Doreen Massey, herself a Latin Americanists whose ideas would be directly implemented by the Venezuelan government, yet has been so widely influential that in 2020 is difficult to find a spatial analysis that does not have some implicit assumption of relationality. In brief, places are not only created by social and environmental relations, but these relations will inevitably stretch across space in a way that force us to acknowledge ongoing uneven geographical (and historical) inter-connectedness.
It is unfortunate (given that I am sure this was not the intention) that the mosaic metaphor is particularly lacking in relationality. Mosaics imply blocs of space that are both internally homogenous and have clearly demarcated boundaries. There is also a static and fixed nature to the mosaic that works against the more relational spatiality of social movement mobilisation. The preferred metaphor in social movement studies has been that of the network which, as Jeff Juris documented in the case of alter-globalisation movements, came to be both the organisational form and political norm for grassroots activists worldwide. The latter indicates that there has been a certain amount of romanticisation of networks as seemingly flat and non-hierarchical spaces for political organisation, on which my critique resonates strongly with Munck’s discussion of autonomy in Chapter 5: a tendency that too often looks inward rather than outward in generating political strategy. Nevertheless, it is crucial to appreciate the relations across the mosaic that not only imply inter-sectionality but also force us to confront questions of place and scale: i.e. where do movements mobilise and why?
Building on the experiences of many activists and academics in the region, my own work has focused on the category of territory in order to build a relational understanding of mobilisation that attempts to avoid romanticisation and shy away from thorny issues of political strategy. I understand territory as any attempt to occupy and control space in pursuit of political projects but also acknowledge the overlapping and entangled nature of such projects (workers, environmentalist, NGOs, political parties, etc). A real strength of Munck’s book is his generosity towards a seemingly disparate set of empirical and theoretical experience that he brings together. Territorialising the mosaic would, possibly, take forward this effort in some exciting ways.
Most centrally, it would foreground questions of scale and place in the analysis. What do workers movements in Greater Buenos Aires and Mexico City have in common? Should these be analysed at the urban scale (as parts of Chapter 5 do) or at the national or even regional scale? Answering these questions requires taking seriously the strategies of movements themselves and following their own territorial trajectories. In so doing, it is likely that one will confront multiple overlapping and entangled mosaics – indigenous/workers/community etc. – which are constantly (re)articulated in the course of appropriating space. Yet how these articulations across the mosaic unfold will depend heavily on the scales of analysis, a decision that itself contains a number of political assumptions.
As Munck discusses in the book, categories such as “workers” have become increasingly abstract in recent decades and territory (or community) has increasingly informed the lived experiences (and identities, grievances, etc) of social movements. Munck’s work is an excellent steppingstone towards a relational cartography of movements that not only starts from lived experience but also attempts to map out the scales at which struggles are unfolding. Doing so must involve a clear recognition of the relationship both within and between territories and in this regards Munck’s generous reading of agency and difference, grounded in a hopeful yet critical vision of movements, is an ideal starting point and takes us away from the overly romanticised readings that some authors have provided of territory as category of autonomy and resistance.
Second, the book raises key questions over the geography of theory that will require further work. As Munck states:
The purpose of this text is to carry out a preliminary political mapping of the wide range of social movements that have impacted on Latin American society. It seeks to develop a specifically Latin American theoretical lens and not just replicate or “apply” the dominant theories developed in the very different situations of the North Atlantic. As part of the decolonial turn, I will seek to develop a theoretical frame that is based not just on the best of international social theory but also on indigenous social actions and thinking in Latin America, as the best way to provide a suitable lens for further study of the region’s long-lasting and innovative social movements.
There is an implied political and ethical commitment to taking “indigenous” thinking seriously yet there is also an important empirical point. To what extent can ideas and analytical frameworks developed for/by movements at different times and places of the world be simply copied and pasted into a Latin America context? Moreover, and following on from the above, to what extent is Latin America the most appropriate scale for defining theoretical and analytical approaches? Answering these questions is clearly beyond the scope of Munck’s book, and well beyond the capacity of this review, but I believe that they will provide a necessary task at a time when Latin American studies are at an increasingly precarious institutional position, as the recent announcement over the planned closure of the Institute of Latin American Studies demonstrates.
A key argument of the book, and one that the Latin American Studies community must continue to make across their (inter)disciplines, is that Latin America is not only a region for rich empirical material; it is a crucial source of social theory that, in turn, is as likely to have relevance to other regions in the world as is European/North American theories to the region. Latin America matters to our scholarship and we need to take it seriously. Yet, the ways in which we should use Latin American knowledges remains unclear. A productive starting point, when undertaking mapping exercises such as that of Munck’s, will be not only to map practices but also ideas, taking into account the above discussion of relationality, territory and so on. Ideas emerge in particular places, travel, intersect, and are constantly in motion. The geographical tracing of ideas has been most rigorously pursued in urban studies (specifically, policy mobilities) in recent years, and much can be learned from it. Yet it is important that our starting points be with the specific places and movements through which knowledges are created, practiced and represented.
Munck does most, if not all, of the above in this majestic text and its main limitation is that it comes to an end and leaves us the task for ongoing mapping of movements across both empirics and theory. This is a task that is crucial not only for the precarious future of political struggles in the region but for providing the necessary tools for critical analysis at a time of heightened uncertainty and precarity worldwide.
Share this post
Author: Sam Halvorsen
Sam Halvorsen is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London. He is interested is in the relationship between territory and grassroots activism with a particular focus on Latin America. Having previously researched (and participated in) social movements in the UK, his recent empirical work has focused on political party activism in Latin American cities, particularly Buenos Aires. Theoretically, he seeks to build greater dialogue between Latin American and Anglophone debates on spatial politics, especially in relation to territory and territorial activism, something he has taken forward as founder and chair of the Latin American Geographies Working Group of the Royal Geographical Society