Tag Archives: social movements

Occupy and the dilemmas of social movements

By Sam Halvorsen, University of Cambridge

occupy.jpg

Occupy London, 16 October 2011, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Crispin Semmens (Flickr: assembly time) CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

You don’t have to look far in 2017 to see people taking to the streets. The election of Donald Trump led to global protests, with January’s “Women’s March” reported as the biggest day of protest in the history of the USA. In March, International Women’s Day saw marches and strikes around the world. While it is too early to say how these protests will unfold and what spatial forms they will take it is likely that they will come up against many of the challenges faced by activists in the past. Learning from the lessons of previous social movements is a useful task.

My recently published paper seeks to draw attention to and understand some of the more challenging and problematic aspects of social movements. It does so not with the intention of undermining them, but in the belief that it is important not to romanticise social movements as inherently good things and to directly confront the internal dilemmas they face.

From my research with Occupy London, part of a global wave of protests that spread across hundreds of cities worldwide in 2011 (see here for a report 5 years on), I argue that decisions that activists make about where to mobilise (e.g. in what places or at which scales) present particular dilemmas that can, at worst, lead to demobilisation. The research was based on my own active involvement and commitment to Occupy London, something I have written about elsewhere (Halvorsen, 2015) and has been explored in a previous blog post on this page.

As geographers have demonstrated for some years now (see Routledge, 1993), social movements don’t just appear ‘on the head of a pin’ (Miller and Martin, 2000) but mobilise in and across space. In this paper I aim to add to recent conversations about how and why geography matters to social movements (e.g. Nicholls et al, 2013) by focusing on the dilemmas and contradictions that arise when mobilising particular spatial strategies: decisions to prioritise spatialities such as the place of the protest camp or a global network of solidarity.

I argue that in the pursuit of particular spatial strategies activists tend to create tensions that, at times, undermine the original aims and goals of a movement. For example, decisions by Occupy London activists to prioritise the building and maintenance of a protest camp meant that less energy was available for building international alliances or solidarity campaigns, creating tensions with Occupy London’s stated aims of building a global movement. This led both to the demobilisation of some activists, concerned with the “fetishisation” of camp, and later to new spatial strategies following eviction.

In making this argument I develop a dialectical analytical framework, an approach that understands change as the result of constantly resolving contradictions, which I integrate with a spatial analysis of social movements. Specifically, I outline spatial dialectics as a means of grappling with the unfolding of contradictions both historically, over time, and geographically, across different moments of space (what Henri Lefebvre referred to as the moments of perceived, conceived and lived space).

Social movements have great potential for social change as history has taught us. Yet social movements, like any other part of society, are not free from contradictions and internal tensions and it is important to both acknowledge and make sense of why this is the case.

This is important because the work of doing activism is unevenly experienced by differently placed people. In Occupy London, for example, I demonstrate divisions of labour based around class and gender, features that are all too common in seemingly “radical” movements.

Grappling with contractions is also important, crucial in fact, for supporting and pushing social movements forward. Exposing and explaining why geography is central to the unfolding of contradictions is thus an important task.

About the author: Dr Sam Halvorsen is a Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. 

References

60-world2 Broomfield M 2017 Women’s March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists The Independent Online 23 January 2017

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2015 Creating space for militant research within- against-and-beyond the university: reflections from Occupy London Area 47 466–72

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2017 Spatial dialectics and the geography of social movements: the case of Occupy London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12179

60-world2 Jamieson A 2016 Occupy Wall Street reunites five years later: ‘I never ended for most of us’ The Guardian Online 18 September 2016

books_icon  Miller BA and Martin BG 2000 ‘Missing Geography’ In Miller BA 2000 Geography and Social Movements: Comparing Antinuclear Activism in the Boston Area University of Minnesota Press, London

books_icon  Nicholls W, Miller B and Beaumont J eds 2013. Spaces of Contention: Spatialities and Social Movements Farnham, Ashgate

60-world2 Rose M 2016 Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest protest Geography Directions

books_icon  Routledge P 1993. Terrains of Resistance: Nonviolent social movements and the contestation of place in India Praeger, Westport CT

60-world2 Topping A and Redden M 2017 ‘We are international, we are everywhere’: women unite in global strike The Guardian Online  7 March 2017

 

Global social movements contest the militarisation of East Asia

By Sasha Davis, Keene State College, USA

The news out of East Asia is currently filled with stories of political rivalry, nationalist antagonisms and military stand-offs. Regional tensions run high as China extends claims in the seas around Asia, Japan considers a more assertive military stance, the USA shifts more of their military forces to the Pacific, and North Korea threatens stability with nuclear tests, missile launches and blustery rhetoric. Geographers have long studied these kinds issues – in Asia and elsewhere – and have produced many insights on the ways governments regulate spaces, deploy military power, and manoeuvre for geopolitical advantage. These understandings of political geography are useful for analysing the current situation in Asia, but it is also important to recognise that governments are not the only actors trying to shape the region.

A recent article published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers examines a frequently overlooked group of political actors: social movements. Focusing on activists contesting the construction of new military bases on the island of Okinawa, the article examines how local protesters articulate with global social movements to affect local projects as well as the political landscape of the whole region. Activists in Okinawa are concerned about the potential damage a new base could bring to their community through the destruction of wildlife habitat, environmental contamination, danger from unexploded ordinance and live-fire training, increases in incidents of sexual violence by stationed troops, occupation of large tracts of lands, and continued colonial political relationships with Tokyo and Washington DC. In addition to these local concerns, however, these social movements are also attempting to affect the larger political scene in the Pacific by promoting an agenda of demilitarisation and forging links of solidarity with groups on other islands throughout the region.

Through an analysis of the direct action ‘occupation’ style protests in Okinawa – and the way these kinds of tactics are circulated among activists from places as far away as Puerto Rico, Guam, Korea and Hawaii – this research suggests that protests like the ones seen in Okinawa are not ‘isolated’ or ‘local’ at all. Instead, they are supported and coordinated in quite complex ways across space. Drawing on perspectives from philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, as well as insights from the burgeoning research on social movements in geography, sociology, women’s studies and anthropology – this article contends that these social movements behave across space, and try to manifest power in place, in much the same ways as governments. Even though their aims, ethical positions, and organising structures may be quite different, transnational social movements – like governments – use tactics of operating in networks across space and setting up ‘archipelagos’ of places were their ethics can hold sway. The significance of this is that social movement occupations should not be viewed as ineffective ‘small’ protests. Instead, the article encourages us to look for the hidden connections and the links of mutual aid that binds these groups together as they aim to change international politics.

About the author: Sasha Davis is Assistant Professor of Geography at Keene State College. 

books_icon Davis, S. 2016 Apparatuses of occupation: translocal social movements, states and the archipelagic spatialities of power. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi:10.1111/tran.12152

60-world2 McCurry J 2016 Thousands protest at US bases on Okinawa after Japanese woman’s murder The Guardian Online19 June 2016

60-world2 McCurry J 2016 Japan defence ministry seeks record budget to counter Chinese threat The Guardian Online 31 August 2016

60-world2 Reuters 2016 in Tokyo Japan warns China of deteriorating relations over Senkaku Islands The Guardian online 9 August 2016