How do we become able to win? Learning from each other’s struggles

17 July 2020 – Laurence Cox

Some thoughts:

1.      One of the few things the small “we” – of people engaging in these kinds of discussions – have direct control over is our words. So it’s worth thinking seriously about how we talk, who we are talking to, what we would like them to do and how we think our talk contributes to that.

2.      Stating how bad things are, and how change is objectively needed, does not mean that the change we need will actually happen. At most this can help mobilise people who have an interest in bringing that change about but have not yet realised the fact.

3.      Discussing how the world should be can help to inspire depressed activists, or people who do not believe that change is possible. It does not, in itself, bring that change about.

4.      To actually bridge the gap between the problems (which are well known to activists) and the solutions (of which we have more than we need!) we need to think and talk more about movements: finding ways to work together that have the power to overcome the scale of opposition we face, and with strategies that hold good chances of actually “winning”.

5.      We really aren’t short of outrage, or visions, or deep theoretical analyses. There may not be so much of them in the mainstream media, but that is a different problem and one that can’t be resolved by simply producing more of them. Why do we have so much of these, and so little serious thought about our own movements’ action?

6.      By comparison with twenty years ago (before the 2007-8 crash) our movements have almost certainly become more provincial: more focussed on our local nation states and operating within our local cultural framings – and less involved in international and intercontinental alliances.

7.      By comparison with fifty or 100 years ago, our movements certainly control less of our own “means of mental production”. Globally, we have fewer educational and training institutions, periodicals, writers etc. forming part of our movements.

8.      By contrast, we are more dependent on “radical” but profit-making media, “radical” but institutionalised academia, and “radical” celebrity to produce our ideas and as the starting point for our conversations. These “means of mental production” have their own logics, which are not ours.

9.      One effect of those logics is that outrage, critical theory and visions do rather well – but strategy, and learning from each other’s struggles, are not at a premium. Activists today are much less likely than activists fifty or even twenty years ago to be genuinely familiar with the gains, struggles, defeats and ambiguous victories hard-won elsewhere – and much more likely to repeat those same mistakes because they sell, win clicks or do well on academic CVs.

10.  Less of our movement thinking starts from problems identified in movements and speaks to the needs of movements; less of it is produced by people who are systematically answerable to movements. This is a structural and organisational problem, not an individual or moral failing.

11.  Other implications of this situation include a greater taking-for-granted of the cultures within which clicks, sales and job appointments are made (and so a greater national and continental provincialism) and perhaps a declining capacity to build alliances across movements. In fact our capacity to constitute ourselves as movements – networks of organisations, informal groups and individuals acting together – has probably declined since the turn of the century.

12.  This is not a good situation to be in when we are up against serious opposition.

13.  Despite the “twilight of neoliberalism” that Alf Nilsen and I identified in 2014, the movement alliances developed in earlier decades are not now managing to build effective alternatives outside a handful of countries. We have seen some attempts at doing so at a party-political level, most (not all) of which have proven to be weaker than promised.

14.  In the crisis of neoliberalism, the trend away from open authoritarianism which marked many regions over the past few decades has now been clearly reversed: in Turkey, India, Egypt, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Brazil or the Philippines and in different ways in the US, UK or France, for example. We are not winning.

15.  While indigenous and other movements have often been effective at directly resisting fossil fuel extraction and transport, in many other ways the battle for climate justice (notably, building broad alliances between ecological and popular struggles) is not one we are winning. The same can be said globally of struggles for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, for opposition to racism and communalism, for labour struggles and in other movements.

16.  Those of us who are involved in these kinds of conversations cannot conjure up movements out of thin air: we can do our bit, but they cannot be “made” from above. We work with what is happening and try to develop it.

17.  One important contribution to developing movements beyond individual organisations is surely putting more energy into constructing our own “means of mental production” – communication, discussion, education, training, theory – that answer to movements and not to (publishing) markets, (social media) audiences or (academic and other) status logics.

18.  If we want those movements to have a chance of winning, we need to help create alliances – across issues, across countries and continents, across political and intellectual traditions – that are about “learning from each other’s struggles”.

19.  These kinds of alliance-conversations and means of mental production need to come from and speak to movements, not respond to other logics. If they are not “organic”, they will reproduce the problems of commercialised outrage, radical celebrity, critical academic theory – and of talking as though things will simply change because we are hurting and because we want a better world. Other people are happy with how things are and want to keep it that way, or push it further down those tracks – and they are wealthier, more powerful and have higher status than we do.

20.  We have won before and we can win again. Empires have fallen; dictatorships have vanished; ancient traditions have been broken; people have moved from poverty to share the product of their labour; old forms of patriarchy and heteronormativity have been successfully challenged; powerful colonial and racial hierarchies have been undermined; drives to war have been prevented. Of course these victories were often ambiguous – and the more isolated the movements that brought them about, or the more hierarchical the relationships within those movements, the more ambiguous the victories.

21.  But standing in Ireland in 2020 – where we have just broken the back of Church power, won referenda on abortion and gay marriage, defeated neoliberal attempts to commodify water, banned fracking – and earlier on defeated nuclear power, broke free from Empire and won the land for the peasants – we do not have to romanticise the outcomes to recognise that we did in fact win victories. If we do not see them as flawed and partial victories, and see ourselves as living in a world partly made by movements, we will at best repeat the mistakes of the past and at worst imagine emancipation as something so far off it can never be achieved in this world.

22.  We need to be both realistic about what it takes to bring about systemic change against entrenched opposition – and clear-sighted about the conflicts and complications within that process.

23.  In this spirit I welcome the invitation to revive, deepen and transform the conversations between our movements, across our many differences and distances, and between our ways of thinking and talking. It is badly needed!

Related stuff

Interface activist / academic social movements journal, always free

“Learning to be loyal to each other: conversations, alliances and arguments in the movements of movements” Afterword to “The Movements of Movements” vol I, online

Ulex social movements training project