Rowman and Littlefield International

Why Social Movements Matter


Published on Thursday 23 Aug 2018 by Laurence Cox

On 25 May 2018, Irish people voted overwhelmingly to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion. The campaign saw an extraordinary organisation of door-to-door canvassers, women telling their stories of abortion for the first time, emigrants coming home to vote and far more. The referendum itself had been fought for by radical grassroots feminists, pushing more cautious and established activists to see repeal as possible, and forcing reluctant politicians to act. Behind this again lay 35 years of struggle against the ban and even longer battles for contraception and divorce, for LGBTQI rights or against the stigma of “illegitimacy”. Beyond even these lay the deeper struggle of generations of Irish women and men to liberate themselves from a legacy of abuse, trauma, and incarceration of those who stepped out of line; from how home, church, schools and hospitals taught them to feel about their bodies, and from attachment to respectability and fear of other people’s opinions.

One striking thing about the referendum was the contortions that many journalists, academics and political commentators tied themselves into while trying to minimise this movement. Some fixated on the form of the referendum, apparently assuming in the wake of Brexit that all referenda are manipulative and exceptional ploys by political elites (in Ireland, as in many countries, the referendum is the routine and familiar form by which constitutional amendments are passed and repealed). Others saw the referendum as the beneficial result of the experimental Citizens’ Assembly held on this and other topics, without being able to join the dots to the weakness of the minority government which introduced it (in the run-up to the 2016 election which produced this government, I had written “At its simplest, a “weak government” is one which will have to pay far more attention to social movements and popular pressure”). The fact that politicians saw the result of the Assembly as too liberal but were nevertheless forced into offering a referendum should perhaps have given pause for thought.

Others again imagined the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, as cunningly trying to do good by stealth behind the backs of a conservative Irish population. Lost in this particular variant was the minor fact of his successful career to the leadership of the right-wing Fine Gael party, with origins going back to Ireland’s proto-fascist Blueshirts: in 2015 as Minister for Health he had described himself as pro-life and opposed to “abortion on request or on demand”. Although personally gay, he had burnished his conservative credentials in 2010 by opposing adoption by gay couples, just as his Indian father was no bar to his 2008 proposal that unemployed migrants should be repatriated. Varadkar only came out in support of repeal after the leader of the main opposition party did so.

On its own, the Varadkar theory perhaps represents a form of “West Wing syndrome”: the psychological need to believe that those in power are (secretly) on the side of the powerless – and hence ascribing social change to political leaders rather than the movements that pushed them to act. As activist Sinéad Redmond recently wrote of her feelings about this public rewriting of the movement’s history: “I felt an indescribable level of bitterness for the lauding of male political and medical figures as leaders of the campaign, particularly those men who’d opposed us every step of the way back in 2012 and 2013.”

“I felt an indescribable level of bitterness for the lauding of male political and medical figures as leaders of the campaign, particularly those men who’d opposed us every step of the way back in 2012 and 2013.”

Sinéad Redmond

All too many official voices, it seems, want to explain such massive and conflictual social change by anything other than large-scale and sustained popular mobilisation from the ground up. This rewriting is not unique to women’s struggles: it can be found in accounts of climate change which write ecological movements out of history, theories of the welfare state written as though poor people had never organised politically, conflict-free accounts of cultural change as the automatic progress of sweet reason mediated through mysteriously enlightened education and media, discussions of foreign policy in which peace movements are ignored, and so on. Social movements, it seems, are hard to think about seriously while explanations couched in terms of top-down institutions, hidden economic or genetic hands, great-men and just-so histories are easy to grasp and repeat.

“All too many official voices, it seems, want to explain such massive and conflictual social change by anything other than large-scale and sustained popular mobilisation from the ground up … Social movements, it seems, are hard to think about seriously while explanations couched in terms of top-down institutions, hidden economic or genetic hands, great-men and just-so histories are easy to grasp and repeat.”

It is, it seems, hard to grasp that a major driver for social change is been the collective organisation of the people who have needed it most – poor people struggling for economic survival, powerless people struggling against oppression, culturally stigmatised people struggling for recognition? Of course, being too close to such movements is rarely a good recipe for a successful career in the industries which represent the social world to us: journalism, academia, literature and party politics all involve investments in networking and ladder-climbing which are not easily compatible with grassroots activism.

“Of course, being too close to such movements is rarely a good recipe for a successful career in the industries which represent the social world to us …”

The images of social movements which get through these filters are often shaped by these industries: the caricaturing of stereotyped activist lifestyles, the celebrating of famous individuals taken out of context, the mythologizing of heroic pasts, the politics of opinion or of consumption, stylised moments of drama. But the messy and complex realities inherent in any large and sustained movement need more thought than this.

Activists themselves quickly become aware of this and build up their own bodies of knowledge and understanding – critical analyses of social structure, organising strategies and alternative institutional models together with their own political theories, movement histories and the training institutions (formal or informal) needed to share and develop these forms of knowledge. The more developed, far-reaching and powerful a movement, the more effort it is likely to put into such activities. Academic knowledge, in fact, has been fundamentally and repeatedly reshaped by this kind of movement knowledge, from Marxism to feminism and from black studies to queer studies. 

“Academic knowledge, in fact, has been fundamentally and repeatedly reshaped by this kind of movement knowledge, from Marxism to feminism and from black studies to queer studies.”

In fact any scholar whose work involves a critical engagement with social problems could benefit from thinking about social movements. After all, if we are serious about the suffering and crises of the world, we also have to ask ourselves how these can be overcome – and more specifically, what kinds of social agency are capable of doing so.

If – as most critical scholars do – we recognise that deep-seated forms of oppression, exploitation and ecological destruction are rarely accidental but usually reflect social interests, buttressed by political power and cultural privilege, we can hardly expect those same forces to be the main sources of change. A serious theory of social change needs to consider how those who do not benefit can (and regularly do) become agents of transformation in the direction of greater real democracy, social equality and cultural liberation.

When we look at such change throughout history, it is absolutely no surprise that we consistently find massive, organised collective agency (because it usually requires a large effort to overcome deep-seated forms of power and privilege) driven from below. Social movements, in other words, have been central to the end of empires and dictatorships, the extension of legal equality across barriers of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, disability and so on, the development of collective welfare provision and economic rights – and remain central to the many unfinished battles in this area.

“Social movements, in other words, have been central to the end of empires and dictatorships, the extension of legal equality across barriers of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, disability and so on, the development of collective welfare provision and economic rights – and remain central to the many unfinished battles in this area.”

It is not that social movements are the only actors in such stories: rather that to tell the tale of the right to vote or the end of fascism, of conflicts over ecological survival or indigenous rights, of culture wars over race or gender without placing social movements in the centre is to rewrite Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.