History of social movements

Element Descriptor

If you know your history, you will know where you are coming from. Said someone. Same is true of social movements Without an understanding – based in reading, watching, thinking – of what went before, how ya gonna have any useful thoughts on what might – and needs to – come next?

Level descriptors

You can do a basic post-war Eurocentric history of social movements, charting a path through the Black |Civil Rights Movement to Feminism, Gay Rights, Environmentalism “et cetera” without excessive hagiography, elisions or unreflective stupidity. You know how much you don’t know, and you’ve done some thinking about which bits of this history are particularly relevant for you and yours.You can give a cross-country comparative history, based around one or more “issues” of how social movements came into being, did what they did and either maintained the rage, went institutional or went into abeyance. You can fling the terminology around with gay abandon, and have it mean something to you and others. You have multiple anecdotes, factual ones, that can be used to get people thinking in the here and now about what their choices are about what to do next. You are a bit of a bore, to be honest.You have a detailed understanding across various political systems, of how social movements have come to challenge hegemony and how that challenge has been coped with, dealt with and then written out of the history books. You can compare and contrast examples of tactics and counter-tactics around the world, across the decades. The academic literature is of some interest, but the biographies are more to your taste…You have an encyclopedic, cross -cultural, cross-issue longitudinal understanding of social movements, and can explain to anyone foolish enough to ask the comparative political economy of their rise, the various state and corporate responses (co-optation, repression, kill them all let god sort them out) that were attempted, the social movement responses, trajectories etc. And you’re fundamentally depressed because you know we are all doomed and that we are not the ones we have been waiting for, because most of the time “we” suck.

Element Overview Essay

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The reasons that the history of social movements not well understood is that this is a relatively new relatively arcane field of academic sociology. And you’re not taught it in school or probably in university. And the other problem is that it is often reduced to a few heroic people, whether it’s Gandhi did X on his own, or Martin Luther King, or Rosa Parks, the so called star system. And here we could include the quote from Chomsky that I use all the time.

The consequences of not understanding the history of social movements is you can sit around waiting for a star, a saviuor  to turn up.  And we have Bulworth dialogue, Warren Beatty and Halle Berry here,

Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth : Why do you think there are no more black leaders?

Nina : Some people think it’s because they all got killed. But I happen to think it’s because of the decimation of the manufacturing base in the urban centers. An energized optimistíc population throws up energized, optimistic leaders. And when you shift manufacturing to the Sun Belt in the Third World, you destroy the blue collar core of the black activist population. Higher domestic employment means jobs for African Americans. World War meant lots of jobs tor black folks: That is what energized the community for the Civil Rights movement of the 50s the 60s. An energized, hopeful community will not only produce leaders but more importantly it’ll produce leaders they’ll respond to. Now what do you think, Senator?

and that you can be surprised when movements split or fall apart, or when state repression works, because let’s face it, state repression very often does work or at least gives time for the forces of reaction to regroup and react.

So, we could also probably put on the play The Designated Mourner here.  And that Chomsky line about social movements and leadership.
So the fixes are to make a good, proper study of social movements to read widely, and not to be hung up on Western ones, even though the US civil rights movement is crucial for your understanding, to think also about strategies, repertoires and movement cycles, initiating movements and spin off movements. All of this is doable. I think a beginner’s guide to social movements is something that CEM could usefully do.

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