I don't like that dead tree in the middle of my back yard? Well, I need some way to take it down -- a chainsaw, an axe, a helpful ogre who can push it over, something.
Similarly, if you want a world without poverty, a world in which patriarchy and white supremacy are dimly remembered relics of a depressing past, a world in which torture no longer happens in our name, a world in which war over power and resources can no longer be disguised as wars about religion or 'civilization' and in fact no longer happen at all -- in order to get there, or even to make non-trivial steps in that direction, we need a path.
Now, by "path" I don't mean something that has been sketched out in every detail in advance. Wanting that is a trap, I think, and claiming to have it is a lie and a threat. We just need a general sense of how we might get from A to B. Importantly, a path needs to be potentially effective and it also needs to feel plausible to a significant number of people. Efficacy is obvious: I can be super enthused about using a banana peel to cut down the dead maple tree, and maybe even everyone in my neighbourhood is into that idea too, but that still won't make it work. Plausibility is less obvious: Unlike cutting lumber, social change requires not just that the path have a chance of being effective but that lots of people believe that it might be effective, and believe it strongly enough that they get involved. It can be a great path, a beautiful path, a path to great and wondrous things, but if nobody else thinks it will work, it just isn't going to happen.
Our opponents know this. In writing about the history of the U.S. empire, Noam Chomsky has talked about "the threat of the good example," by which he explains the immense effort used by the U.S. at various points to attack and undermine any and every instance of peoples trying to do things differently, trying to carve out a way forward for themselves that involved anything that was not dependent on U.S.-dominated capitalism. U.S. elites often claimed it was in opposition to Communism, but that was only occasionally true, and more often it was some sort of independent, socialist-inflected nationalism that was the target. Grenada or Vietnam or Cuba did not pose even a tiny threat to global capital in and of themselves; the problem was that the example of successful resistance to capital might inspire others, and so the empire's resources had to be employed to undermine them, however many might die in the process. In other words, an example of successful resistance might make a particular path of resistance seem more plausible, and lead others to embark upon it as well.
The same logic has been used in crushing domestic dissent at various points. The field isn't quite as monolithic when it comes to domestic movements on Turtle Island, because for various reasons and at various points in the last seventy years, elites have been unable or unwilling to simply crush movements and so certain kinds of "good examples" managed to take root. Generally these have involved both real victories and co-optation -- the development of welfare states was a victory for (at least some) ordinary people, but was a strategic concession by elites in order to stave off the threat of revolution and to support profits; endorsing a certain kind of institutional strength among the white working class by inviting them to be nominal junior partners not only shaped how that strength would be used, but also bound the white working class into a system that ravenously consumes racialized people (and smaller proportions of poor white people) at home and abroad; and the more elite-palatable slices of some of the movements that became particularly visible in the late '60s and after were funded, institutionalized, and channeled into safe directions and away from more radical roots and allies. Still, there are plenty of examples, even when it comes to dissent by the more privileged layers among oppressed and exploited people, in which a reform that could have been conceded, within the logic and resources of social relations at the time, was instead refused in order not to provide a potentially infectious "good example." And certainly one simple explanation for how struggle circulates during high points, like the late 1960s and early 1970s, is through people seeing that a given path of struggle works for some other group, and then adapting it to their own purposes.
Plausible and Effective?
I think part of the evil genius of neoliberalism is that it has created a situation in which potentially effective paths are rendered implausible and the only plausible paths are ones that are never going to be effective.
For lots of people, I think there are no paths to a better world that they find even remotely plausible. This is tragic and inaccurate, I think, but it has a real material basis and isn't just some kind of intellectual error. "There is no alternative" was not just a Thatcherite slogan, not just a lie to fool people into giving up, but a commitment by elites to create material circumstances in which alternatives became less and less plausible and to push people's judgments about plausibility solely into paths that would provide only minimal threats to established power and privilege.
I can come up with three paths that still have some plausibility beyond tiny slivers of the population: liberal political parties; passive membership organizations, service organizations, and other NGOs; and individual-level activities like ethical consumption, individual anti-racist and anti-sexist practice, and so on.
I won't try to exhaustively demonstrate why I think those three paths are inadequate and/or ineffective, but I'll say a few things about each. And, incidentally, in saying that they are ineffective, I mean something quite specific: They are not capable of creating change that is proportionate to the magnitude of the problems in question, such as those enumerated in the third paragraph of this post. This doesn't necessarily mean they are useless or bad. It doesn't mean that each don't sometimes do positive things. I do at least some things encompassed by these three paths, from time to time.
For instance, take supporting liberal political parties (under which I would include the NDP, given that one outcome of neoliberalism is that social democratic parties no longer have the space to be anything other than moderately more compassionate and honest liberal parties -- that is, when they aren't leading the neoliberal charge themselves.) As I've argued before, voting matters, in a very proscribed and limited way, so we need to do it, though it is important that we do it without illusions. It can make a small but real difference in the lives of some people which party wins, but no liberal or nominally social democratic party is even claiming it will do anything more than take the edge off the hideous violence of our current social relations, though some party faithful manage to delude themselves into thinking otherwise. In the last thirty years, which party wins is more a matter of the rate at which things get worse. I generally do vote NDP, and think, given the particular circumstances in which I am voting and given that it costs me only about thirty minutes of my time once every few years, it is worth doing. So support for these parties has a fairly broad plausibility, but is not and will not be very effective at doing more than blunting some of the worst of the nastiness that surrounds us.
Non-governmental organizations of various stripes -- I'm thinking primarily of social service agencies and passive membership issue-based organizations -- are similarly limited. Agencies meet immediate needs, which is vital, and we should definitely support their ability to do that in the absence of more politically useful alternatives. But meeting needs is not the same thing as addressing root causes. My own time working in that sector taught me that the space that exists for agencies to exert pressure within the system can be important for making the most of sparse welfare state dollars, but that will always be vastly inadequate to the scale of the problems we face. Passive membership organizations that address a specific issue can also accomplish some useful things within particular bounds. For instance, though each has its own political strengths and weaknesses, GreenPeace and EGALE and The Council of Canadians, say, have all done some useful things in the last couple of decades. But the kinds of problems that they can productively take on, given their organizational form and their particular approaches to creating change, are within narrow bounds. Despite their plausibility to a certain segment of the broader public, NGOs can only address the issues we face in particular, limited ways.
And another popular approach is one that focuses on activities that are most often individual in scale, things like ethical consumption and changes to interpersonal practices in terms of race and gender and so on. Again, these are not bad things, and I do some of them myself. Indeed, they can be important elements of building more collective approaches to change, as described below. But when they stay at the level of individual practices, there are serious limits to what they can accomplish. A boycott might get McDonald's to change some of its packaging, say, but it won't ever make it stop being McDonald's. And a guy learning to be anti-sexist in his partnerships and other relationships is an important step, but on its own the challenge it represents to social relations of gender oppression is distinctly limited.
Social movements -- that is, efforts to create change that are overt and collective, and often confrontational -- can be effective. We just need to look at history to see what collective movements that are not afraid to act in oppositional ways can accomplish, whether that is the labour movement, women's movements, anti-racist movements, national liberation movements, or lots of others. They aren't perfect, they rarely accomplish all of what they set out to accomplish, but they can do a great deal.
Social movements, because of how they are socially organized, are less likely to be limited in the ways that the paths above are. At their best, the standpoints of movements are grounded in the everyday experiences of the ordinary people that create them. At their best, they refuse to accept the constraints that limit the political imaginations embodied in electoral parties, NGOs, and change work that occurs exclusively at the individual level. Because movements can grow and in a certain sense create their own space of possibility, even movements that start out being about limited and local reforms can -- not necessarily will, but can -- lead to much broader social transformation. And because (at their best) they are participatory, they can change not just policies or organizations 'out there' but can transform those of us who are involved and can be a crucible for generating new ways of living much more fundamentally than tinkering with this law or that policy. That doesn't mean they always do these things, but there are definitely historical precedents, and GreenPeace or the NDP simply do not offer that potential.
Despite that history and that possibility, movements aren't very plausible vehicles for change in North America right now. I think there are lots of reasons for this. For one thing, the plausibility of movement participation as a path to a better world depends to a certain extent on the strength of movements. A whole host of circumstances mean movements are, by and large, quite weak, so it makes sense that lots of people don't see movements as a useful path, which makes movements even weaker.
This implausibility of movements as a path is also connected to the kinds of changes that have come along with neoliberalism in the last few decades. Between the end of the Second World War and, say, the mid '90s, there was a kind of social democratic safety valve, such that if there was a certain amount of momentum building up in a particular movement, elites were somewhat open to certain kinds of concessions even if those concessions were counter to the general logic of (classical) liberalism and/or the market. This safety valve is, if not completely broken, at least fastened much more tightly, as a deliberate part of the neoliberal agenda of clawing back past gains. More generally, there is a climate that is less open to concessions and more interested in rolling back past gains made by ordinary people. This is true not only of the state and employers, but in more dispersed areas like gender justice and anti-racism as well. Accompanying all of this has been a shift towards increasingly repressive approaches to policing dissident movements and protests in the last fifteen years.
All of which is to say that there is a material basis for people finding movements less plausible than at earlier moments: movements are weaker and elites have demonstrated greater willingness to refuse and repress. This means that achieving a given goal through social movement activity today requires greater effort, greater risk, and probably exploring new ways of doing things such that inaccurate but longstanding ideas of what "social movement" and "protest" have to mean are no longer enough. All of this makes movements much less plausible as a path for a lot of people.
What do we do?
Rebuilding movements will require lots of things, but one is working to make movements a more plausible path towards change in the minds of more people in North America. I can see three things that will contribute to that.
- Focus on movement building that seeks to build from what people are already doing. All of us have moments of resistance in our everyday lives, moments in which we refuse to act according to the oppressive logics that organize our social relations, in which we refuse our own dehumanization or we refuse to be complicit in the dehumanization and violence experienced by others. It is connecting to those moments that is the most basic antidote to the implausibility of movements: "You're doing that and I'm doing this, so why don't we get together and talk about it and do something together?" I'm not sure that those of us with radical politics and considerable privilege are always very good at doing this, but it has to be the basis of moving forward, because that connection with everyday experience and everyday resistance is, I think, central to piercing the "there is no alternative" paralysis that keeps all effective paths towards change from seeming plausible.
- Those of us with energy that is not totally consumed with struggles for our own survival and liberation need to make decisions about expending that energy such that active local struggles actually win. Arguing that movements are the only way forward might be useful, but demonstrating that they can actually achieve gains for ordinary people is much more likely to be convincing. So put a high priority on actively supporting the strike going on in your city, the struggle against the city council decision to pave over a meadow, the anti-poverty and immigration-related direct action casework -- whatever it is, use your energy and your resources and your privilege to contribute to victories, because victories create plausibility for movements.
- Work to create a culture of social justice, a culture of resistance. By that I mean we should model ways of living which assume that working to create movements for social justice is important, useful, and entirely ordinary. Build community with this idea in mind. Talk and write blogs and 'zines and other media with this as a built-in assumption. And resist the urge to do it in insular, disconnected ways (a la, for example, certain big-A Anarchist communities) -- rather, seek to inject this sense wherever possible into ordinary life.
Now that I write them, these three suggestions seem woefully inadequate. I suppose it is important to read them in light of broader discussions of revitalizing movements and doing all of the things that come out of those discussions in order to make our movements more vibrant and effective, because efficacy and plausibility reinforce each other. In any case, though they seem like tiny steps compared to what we face, I still think that grounding our work in everyday experience, pushing for small victories, and living an ordinary, non-insular, but integrated-into-life culture of social justice and liberation are at least small parts of what it will take to breath new life into social movements in North America.