Ironies of New Social Movements

October 8th, 2013
in Op Ed

An Interview with Dr. Judy Hellman

by Allan J. Spessot, Institute for Advanced Development Studies

jhellman-120x120Social movements generate a lot of excitement. Many people see them as the most legitimate way of enacting change in society, as they are “from below”, from the people themselves, more ‘inclusive’ and ‘democratic’. Movements that have come around since the 1960s differ from older styles of public pressure where the voice of the poor and the oppressed was expressed through leaders in trade unions or political parties.

Follow up:

Examples of the “New Social Movements” in contemporary Latin America include the indigenous movement EZLN (Exército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in Mexico and the landless workers movement in Brazil, the MST (Movimento Sem Terra). But how truly democratic and inclusive these new movements are is rarely a serious research question, but a mere assumption by scholars and supporters who fall in love with the idea of movements from below.

For almost 20 years, Dr. Judy Hellman, professor of Political Science and Social Sciences at York University, Canada, has written critically about the largely uncritical worship of new social movements that seems to have swept the world. She spoke to Development Roast about her once controversial views (which are increasingly becoming common wisdom) and the past and future of research on social movements in Latin America:

What were some of the things people were saying about these movements that sparked you to develop a critical view?

There were mainly three things. Firstly, people were saying that these movements were much more democratic than old movements of the left structured around trade unions or political parties. They were saying that not only were they democratic internally, but also had a strong potential of democratizing the society around them. Secondly, it was claimed that these movements were responsible for empowering people who were a part of them by getting them involved with politics and social justice. Thirdly, people were saying that they were more gender inclusive in that women participated in large numbers and played significant roles within the movements.

And what were the problems with those claims?

Well, the main problem was that a lot of these things were being assumed without really investigating the dynamics of the movements, which is not to say that they weren’t democratic, or empowering, or inclusive. But many observers simply took on faith that they were all three. The notion of empowerment, for example, was never really defined. Did those people actually gain more power over the conditions of their lives, i.e. socio-economic and political power? And empowerment was always referred to as a one-way process, but people in a social movement can also get disempowered, not only because the movement loses strength or is repressed by the government, but because people get fed up with working with the movement. Lastly, about the role of women: just because movements may have large numbers of women who are participants does not mean that these women had influence or voice within the movement or were actually being listened to.

How did you reach those conclusions?

Firstly, in the 1980s, I had researched women’s movements in Italian cities. There, I saw women getting fed up with the discourse of the movements, which was super democratic and the fact that there was a hierarchical structure to the movement that was often not acknowledged by the leaders themselves. When certain women spoke, everyone would listen attentively, but when others spoke, their ‘compagne’ would take off to smoke a cigarette outside or simply start chatting with somebody else in the room.

I also spent time researching movements in urban and rural Mexico. While the discourse was of equality and participation, decisions were often exclusively made by leaders. Yet, the leaders were in denial, because everyone was in denial that there were any leaders. Where women were said to have power, closer observation often revealed that there was actually a small body of leading men, while many women were just stirring the mole pot and patting tortillas. In other words, women were present, but they were hardly taking leadership roles. I also had an interesting conversation with students who had gone to see the EZLN in Chiapas, and came back excited, saying that they saw women speaking in the meetings. But these students didn’t understand the indigenous language that these women were speaking and thus the students were in no position to assess whether the women were being listened to, or if what they said when they had the floor was later being taken up by people who spoke after them.

In fact, many students knew that it was possible that women could speak without really being heard because the students themselves had observed this kind of silencing in the course of their own experience with social movements in North America. Many had left movements because of this difference between the discourse of democracy and what actually happened in practice, hoping the next movement they joined would be truly democratic.

In 2000, I wrote an article in Socialist Register called “Real and Virtual Chiapas: Magic Realism and the Left”, discussing the kind of love affair and hero worship that people far away from Mexico were having with the EZLN. There were people in Italy, for example, going about the streets in Zapatista ski masks and saying that they were in fact Zapatistas, and this process was facilitated by electronic communications. Once again, I wasn’t criticizing the EZLN itself, but, rather, the uncritical embrace that foreigners sometime extend to movements formed by people who are “exotic,” who lead lives totally unlike their own. In the article I am very careful to distinguish between a critique of the EZLN and a critique of an essentialized version of Zapatismo. Still, the article was strongly rejected by some web masters, although it was translated into Spanish and widely read in Mexico.

How can we solve these contradictions and improve these movements?

I think democracy is one of the hardest things on earth to actually make happen and to keep running in practice, above all participatory democracy. You need to have nodes of authority and nodes of communication, and a certain degree of responsibility taking. And when you don’t have that, there’s a longing for it, and people do assert themselves. And they say things like ‘we’re all equals here, but I’ll take responsibility for doing this and that, and I’ll report back.’ Somebody has to make the consensus happen, it doesn’t just bubble up. Activists have to persuade the others in their movement; in practice there’s no way every view is going to get heard. What happens in a movement is that those who don’t agree with what emerges as the “dominant line,” often shut up or leave. And if they shut up, it doesn’t mean they’re oppressed, or suppressed. It can just mean that these movement members are accepting the leadership of some of their comrades, because they actually respect them, because they work hard, give tirelessly to the movement and so on. But in these cases the notion of perfect participatory democracy is a shared myth, not a real mode of operation.

But to understand this, you need to investigate, to actually be in the council meetings, to understand the language in which people are speaking—be it Spanish or Tzotil or Portuguese or street versions of any of these. And you have to check out and interview the people who left the group and learn why they abandoned the movement. If you put in the time you will understand how movements really work and just how democratic or hierarchical they are.

What have you done on this topic since your controversial article in 2000?

I actually have a new graduate course, where we discuss social movements and other related topics, which I think are the themes of the future.

New Social Movements in Latin America were a reaction to the failure of neoliberalism and the shrinking presence of the state. However, there were also other kinds of reactions—coping mechanisms—be they effective or ineffective, good or bad. Examples of this are the emergence of gangs or vigilantism in Central America, of producer co-operatives, and, in particular, increased migration. In the case of Mexico, for example, someone who could have been a movement leader twenty years ago may now be rolling Thai chicken curry basil wraps in the back of a gourmet deli in New York City or doing garden work in Los Angeles, and the like. This points us to interesting directions in Latin America, all of which can be taken up by new research and new researchers.

Dr. Judy Hellman is currently a professor at York University, Toronto, in the departments of Political Science and Social Sciences, and the coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. Her latest book is The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock And The Hard Place”.

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