Once a book is written it no longer ‘belongs’ to the author so I will not respond defensively to the thoughtful readers in this forum. Rather, I will join them in seeking to take the debate on social movements forward, conscious that often the students of social movement are also activists. There is more at stake here than academic fine points. But I will, like the readers, avoid the rhetorical and adversarial style that some on the left still seem to think is the hallmark of ’Leninism’.
What is a social movement?
That is of course the main underlying question. For Pablo Pozzi ‘my first concern was that Diani’s definition of social movements [used in the book] covers just about anything, left, right, apolitical. In fact, though Munck refers to Fox Piven and Cloward’s seminal work, he elides the fact that not once do they use the term “social movements”, but rather refer to “protest movements” of the proletariat (understood in a more flexible definition than that of Lenin) as a working-class resistance. As such, my feeling is that Fox Piven and Cloward would probably reject Diani’s bland, all encompassing, definition especially as they retain a form of analysis grounded in class and not in identities.
For Sian Lazar a not unrelated point: ‘I disagree with Munck in his attempt to distinguish social protest from social movements. Perhaps the protests against Evo’s electoral victory in November 2019 were just that, protests. But I wonder how in the end they really differed in form from the unrest in Ecuador or the anti-neoliberal protests in Chile around the same time, other than that their politics didn’t quite fit with our own or with what we expect from people on the streets. I suspect that it would be wrong to imagine that any of these protests are entirely spontaneous, coming from nowhere and without organisation.’
I would probably agree that the standard definition of social movements by Mario Diani (1992:5) – “social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/ or organisations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities” – is, indeed, a bit bland and would certainly find the Piven and Cloward (1977) reading of social movements inspirational as a bottom-up perspective.
Where I am not so comfortable is in the seeming elision of the terms social protest and social movement. In Latin America in the 1990s there was a move towards a social protest lens, influenced by the US political opportunity structure model of Tarrow, Tilly et al. to the detriment of the social movement approach. After 2000 and the change of epoch signalled by the rise of the left-of-centre governments, the social movement approach made a comeback in Latin America (see Svampa 2017). These are not just contentious movements but ones where the very logic of capitalist domination is questioned and an alternative social order is promoted. While social protest and social movements are inter-linked, I do think we should retain the distinction.
We will examine in the case studies below, that zone between social protest and social movements and the issue of whether the latter are, in some way ‘beyond left and right’.
How do social movements make alliances?
For Pozzi ‘last, but not least, Munck refers to “horse trading” as the ability to make deals and keep compromises and promises to reach political agreements. This is an essential aspect of building a viable political alternative. And yet, I tend to feel that political alliances are not built only by horse trading, unless you have a postmodernist view of politics and the only thing that counts is a mixture of narrative plus personal benefits’.
I am not sure if I have a postmodernist view of politics because I focus on the discursive construction of social movements. For myself, the main way of making alliances revolves around the way in which democratic equivalents are constructed. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe help us centre the notion of articulation, which builds on the contingent, undetermined links between social movements. The concept of “empty signifiers”, through which Laclau considered the nature of populism in political discourse, the creation of a popular hegemonic bloc such as “the people” and the importance of affect in politics. He argues that the basis of populism lies in the creation of “empty signifiers”: words and ideas that express a universal idea of justice, and symbolically structure the political environment (Laclau 2005: 154). The other key concept is that of “democratic equivalents”, defined by Mouffe as “a chain of equivalence between the different democratic struggles to recognise the specificity of the demand … not unite all demands into one single and homogeneous movement … [but] establish ways in which, for instance, the feminist or the anti- racist movement could work together … Our struggles are not exactly the same, but are going to be linked in such a way that, for instance, the demands of women will not be met at the expense of blacks or immigrants (Mouffe 2018: 56).
Today’s social movements in Latin America do in practice articulate their alliances in terms of democratic equivalents, and we are very aware of how concepts such as “freedom” or “democracy” are empty signifiers until they are articulated by particular political forces. It is this articulation that creates hegemony and also counter- hegemonic movements. In Latin America the struggle to constitute ruling class hegemony has always been incomplete and inconsistent, with nothing like a bourgeoisie conquerante. The counter- hegemonic movements that were successful were invariably constructed around democratic demands. The “articulating instance”, in Laclau’s terms, cannot be preordained (as in “the working class”) but can “result only from the hegemonic overdetermination of a particular democratic demand” (Laclau 2005: 74). Thus, we can see how demands for human rights, land or employment can trigger equivalential logics across society and thus begin to articulate a counter hegemonic movement. The notion of overdetermination allows us to capture the multiple (often opposed) forces active in any political situation, which is always a complex whole. Social movements such as, for example, the trade union movement can evolve from a sectional role to a popular one.
Maybe I used ‘horse trading’ in a way that might spell a divvying up of the spoils but that was not my intention. I think I was arguing against a ‘purist’ notion of autonomy that just sees the position of a given social movement and not the field in which it exists. Thus, the question of alliances, from my perspective is absolutely crucial. Having said this, ‘horse trading’ does exist even on the left as in when the Partido dos Trabalhadores in Brazil carried out very traditional political bargaining with regional and conservative parties to obtain a parliamentary majority. That this involved a degree of corruption was probably inevitable in the Brazilian political system, not that this excuses it.
Social movements in action
Clearly I do not have space to provide detailed account of recent episodes of social protest/social movement action but a few case studies may help us illuminate the conceptual issues raised above.
Brazil 2013 (see Purdy 2017)
In June 2013 more than two million people took to the streets initially in protest about transport fares rising, but then broadened out to encompass health and education issues and generally ‘living in the city’. Organised by autonomist currents these demonstrations captured a popular mood of discontent with the PT governments. Big events such as the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics seemed to be prioritised over the life of ordinary. Citizens. The political left in the shape of the PT was disoriented insofar as these protests were in some way against ‘their’ government and yet they supported the demands. The protests became larger and led eventually to the 2015 and 2016 massive protests against the PT government around the issue of corruption that led to the impeachment of Dilma and he end of the PT hegemony.
Some random lessons:
When the organised labour movement eventually joined the 2013 protests they could not muster a significant force, showing the power of the ‘new’ social movements;
The nature of these protests led to some confusion amongst observers (e.g. Castells 2017) Their slogan Saímos de Facebook,” was translated as “We came from Facebook” but in fact it should translate as “We left Facebook”, that is, demonstrators left the realm of online activism.
The seemingly apolitical issue of corruption can very easily be co-opted by the right and thus take over legitimate grievances with ‘progressive’ governments.
Ecuador 2019 (see Ponce et al 2020)
On October 1, 2019, Ecuador was shaken by news that the government would remove long-standing fuel subsidies and introduce other dramatic measures with an impact on workers in the workplace. The cost of a gallon of gasoline would rise from US$1.85 to $2.39 (29 percent) and the gallon of diesel was set to rise from US$1.03 to $2.30 (123 percent). Previous uprisings in Ecuador had been sparked by fuel price rises, which have an immediate multiplier effect across society, but in 2019 there was little sense that an uprising was imminent. Correa had effectively co-opted popular mobilization, and the social movements were weakened. They were further demoralized by the measures taken by President Moreno against Correa’s legacy. Nevertheless, with surprising rapidity the whole transport sector was paralyzed on October 4 with one simple demand: repeal Decree 883.
A whole history of uprisings was condensed in the following 10 days in October 2019 when a full scale indigenous uprising unfolded, forced to act sooner than it wanted to by the transport strike. On October 2, at a press conference, the National Unitary Collective of Workers, the CONAIE, the Frente Unitario de los Trabajadores (United Workers’ Front—FUT), and other social organizations announced mobilizations throughout the country. Jaime Vargas, president of the CONAIE, called “18 peoples, 14 indigenous nationalities, and social organizations from all over the country to the great national mobilization in favour of a dignified life for Ecuadorians.” The strike was on. By the next day, October 3, the country was paralyzed by labor withdrawals, road blockages, and large local demonstrations and takeovers of municipal buildings.
President Moreno was forced to concede and rescind the fuel increase in negotiations staged on national TV with the social movement leadership.
Social movements lay at the roots of these mobilisation even though events on the streets took on a dynamic of their own;
Popular movements have a history that is not always evident to the observer and internal dynamics can be positive but also negative;
As before in Ecuador the indigenous movement has the capacity to determine events but not necessarily to offer a counter- hegemonic alternative.
Bolivia 2020 (see Stefanoni 2020):
The coup against Evo Morales in 2019 that began with social protests about the election, was widely debated within the left. There was body of opinion that Morales had distanced himself from the social movements and that his attempt to stay in office against the vote in a referendum was a mistake. The illegitimate interim government, supported by the imperial powers, was not, however, able to consolidate its rule and it failed in its attempt to marginalise the Movimiento Al Socialismo, the party that brought Morales to power. When elections were held in October 2020 the MAS (without Morales) won an unexpected landslide vote and returned to power.
There had been differences on what strategy to follow after the coup, with some (Morales and his supporters abroad) arguing for all out resistance while others (mainly in Bolivia) pushed for a systematic rebuilding of the social movements and alliances between them and for example with the estranged organised labour movement, the Central Obrera Boliviana.
Social movements have a unique ability to recompose themselves and articulate a nuanced mobilising/electoral strategy;
Political leaderships sometimes lag behind the social movements that are closer to the base;
The social and political outcomes of mobilisations depends on leadership and not tides, pink or otherwise.
There seems to be a general consensus across the commentaries that the study of social movements requires a historical lens. Sometimes the social movement ‘discipline’, if it can be called that, seems to portray dramatic actions as though they are self- contained and not set in a historical frame.
We also all seem to agree on the complexity of social movements that cannot be reduced to simple formulas. Thus Lazar says ‘I think the lessons for researchers here are: first, we shouldn’t confine ourselves to a purely institutional perspective, but be creative in how we think about what a social movement is; Social movement research in Latin America has become more complicated as the boundaries between left- and right-wing appear more blurred’.
Halvorsen foregrounds the crucial aspect of relationality and argues that ‘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 [that]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.
It is also 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?
There is a further dimension brought out by Mo Hume that will be crucial in moving the debate forward. Social Movements in Latin America, according to Hume ‘throws up three interconnected issues to think about: the spaces(s) of action, relational accounts of agency and the relationship between power and resistance’. To develop this frame we would need to explore the more marginal emancipatory grammars that may not challenge the state but do lead to a recalibration of power relations.ne potentially fruitful avenue in which to this forward is to explore some of the more marginal emancipatory political grammars. Hume asks pointedly ‘to what extent might the concept of ‘quiet politics’ be useful to draw attention to those actions of movements in complex and violent contexts that go unnoticed or are deemed ‘inaudible’? This takes us back the classic question of ‘can the subaltern speak’? Certainly the new studies of Latin America’s social movements will need to engage with the ‘small acts’ of politics and not just the ‘big questions’ of hegemonic power that have exercised us in the past. Recovery of subaltern knowledges will be essential if Latin America is to find a more sustainable and equitable future.
Castells, Manuel 2013 Redes de indignação e esperança: Movimentos sociais na era da Internet. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar
Diani, Mario (1992) “The concept of social movement”, Sociological Review 40 : 1, 1-25.
Fox Piven, Frances and Richard Cloward (1977) Poor People’s Movements: Whey They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vintage.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.
Mouffe, Chantal (2018) For a Left Populism. London: Verso.
Ponce, Karina, A. Vaquez, P. Vivanco, R. Munck (2019) “ The October 2019 Indigenous and Citizens’ Uprising in Ecuador”, Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 47. No. 5, 9-19
Purdy, Sean (2013) “Brazil’s June Days of 2013 Mass Protest, Class, and the Left”, Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 46. No 4, 15-36.
Stefanoni, Pablo (2020) “A New MAS Era in Bolivia”, NACLA Bulletin (October 21).
Svampa, Maristella (2017) Del cambio de época al fin de ciclo: gobiernos progresistas, extractivismo, y movimientos sociales en América Latina. Buenos Aires : Edhasa.
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Author: Ronaldo Munck
Ronaldo Munck is Head of Civic Engagement at Dublin City University and a Visiting Professor of International Development at the University of Liverpool and the University of Buenos Aires. He has written widely on Latin American social movements and the impact of globalisation on labour.