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Updated Dec 2005
The Carriers of Democracy
The global peoples' movement system
by Jan Wiklund
The motive for this book goes back to the early eighties. At that time, some people in Alternativ Stad (Alternative City), the Stockholm group of the then Swedish Environmental Federation - among the more permanent participants were Tord Björk, Liselott Falk, Kajsa Falkner, Birgitta Henriksson and I; there were also a few non-Stockholmers, for example Björn Eriksson, Lars Holmgren and Bolof Stridbeck - were discussing which were the weakness in our own practices, and why it seemed impossible for the public debate to imagine other societal actors than state and business. The alternatives for society were posed as government regulation or free competition. Other possibilities and other ways of posing the question didn't exist. Our own practice was invisible. The majority of the people was relegated to be at most the cheering section of a society where others were players.
During the 25 years since then, the participants of the discussion have changed and the discussion itself has left some marks. Perhaps mainly in practice. We have participated in, and sometimes initiated, international climate actions, global youth networks for solidarity, equality, environment and democracy, European forest actions, subscriptions for environment, peace and solidarity, European unemployment marches, and international protest meetings against the World Bank and G7. And perhaps we have contributed to a better form for the discussion about our own role as a popular movement in those international contexts, where popular movements are mostly seen as younger brothers to big and mighty NGOs.
Even if the identity as a popular movement can only be constructed through popular mobilizations against for example environmental degradation or unemployment, we have felt a growing need to describe theoretically what we talk about. For two reasons. There are, as suggested, strong tendencies, also in movements and movement organizations with a popular base, to imitate the methods of professional institutes, believing themselves to be primarily a lobby, and disregard their own sources of strength. And we believe that the public arrogance of the upper middle class at least partly is nourished by that the forces of popular movements remain obscure. The direct producers who might challenge its position are unable to do so, partly because they can't imagine how they should do it.
In describing what popular movements are, what they have been, and what they have done, we want to contribute to a strategy discussion for new and old popular movements. We also want to contribute to the discussion that goes on in society about social movements, which seems to find it difficult to tell the difference between a social movement and a war or a drunken brawl, lumping it together under the heading "contention".
There is yet another theme. We were annoyed by political debates where matters were overideologized so that most ways of posing the questions were excluded. The possibilities were constructed as "isms". After having inquired into the original forming of positions we were convinced that the forming in most cases had been done quite pragmatically to satisfy casual needs, but had been petrified afterwards as the original needs were forgotten. So we saw a point in describing the pragmatic origins of ideological concepts to, if possible, dissolve them and teach popular movement society to continuously formulate and throw away ideologies according to needs.
All this, accordingly, is the purpose of this book.
Now, the task is not at all easy. To pose theories you need some empiry. And the story of popular movements is very fragmentary. Historians seem more interested in describing people as objects for circumstances, structures, developments and powers, than portraying how they act against those things. They seem to have been particularly uninterested in describing conscious and organized action. When historians describe some actor as significant, it is mainly governments or "great men" who have got this role.
But a growing undercurrent has showed itself within history during the last 30-40 years, an undercurrent depicting people's collective action. A pioneer was the historian and peace activist E. P. Thompson who in 1963 published The Making of the English Working Class, a book that showed how the English working class formed itself in order to defend itself against the growing industrial society. Since that, many historians have applied his methods to popular movements over the whole world and the whole history.
So there is after all some material to build on for people who like me are not primarily interested in academic discussions but in reflection about popular movement's practice and even inspiration for action. To be sure, I start from academic research, because this is what exists - for example, I have found some American university publishers quite interesting - but the interpretation is highly conditioned by my own movement experience.
As far as I can see, nobody has done a similar outline since Max Beer wrote Allgemeine Geschichte des Sozialismus in 1919. He was exclusively addressing the labour movement, as indicated by the title, and he was also restricted by only having access to the old, elitist historical tradition.
My method has been to start from different popular movement histories as related in the historical literature, and reflect them against the development of the world in general and my own experience, "refined" by group discussions. If this is "scientific" or not doesn't matter much, I don't aspire to a hundred percent verified knowledge. I am more interested in plausible perspectives for action and strategic discussion.
My relation consists of narratives (excepting the two first chapters),
and any theorizing is scattered within the stories. This is because
I doubt the value of too much theorizing; there are so many theorists
in the history of popular movements who have argued for this or
that theory or ideology, and in most cases the result is mainly
bewilderment and schisms. I like to emphasize experience. Of course
it is not evident what events should be the focus of the stories,
and my selection can be criticized. There are innumerable stories
to tell from the whole world. One should not forget that all peoples'
movements are local, even if they may have global consequences,
and the history of peoples' movements consists of a lot of local
social movement histories; what ties them together is the world
where they are played out.
At this stage it may be suitable to make a summary of the content.
Chapter 1 is about what a peoples' movement is. As suggested there is a certain confusion of ideas; in Sweden between peoples' movement and hobby clubs, in the international context between peoples' movements and contention in general.
However, the most fruitful point of departure seems to be this:
- Firstly, the aim of a peoples' movement is to defend the participants against the structures, hierarchies and consequences of the predominant social system, and question the established positions and roles in society. A peoples' movement is a manifestation of a conflict.
- Secondly, the participants in a peoples' movement are people who are not given any power positions within the structures that dominate the society they live in. They are subordinated, have no particular privileges, and are rather direct producers than administrators.
- Finally, a peoples' movement is of course a collective and is perceived as such by the members. But the collective doesn't need to be big.
Chapter 1 describes also how the peoples' movements do when they act, in principle. This chapter is later illustrated with the narratives in the book.
Chapter 2 describes the scene for the peoples' movements' actions. It is the where? and when? of the movements.
In principle I describe movements in the whole world during the period after 1500. The delimitations is conventional, it is about the "modern time", or with a somewhat less conventional term the time of the world market system. The world market system is the system that arose in Western Europe 500 years ago, spread out in the world and reached inner China about the year 2000. This system is described in chapter 2 to give a background to the actions of the peoples' movements; the movements to a high degree being defence against the consequences of the world market system.
Chapters 1 and 2 are more theoretical, less "narrative" than the following chapters.
Chapters 3-9 then depict different social movements, grouped after themes or focuses. In this book there are seven focuses: local communities' defence against the world market system until they were transformed by the latter, wage-earners' defence against the owners of capital, system peripheries' defence against the system centers, farmers' defence against the food markets, marginalized people's aspiration for equality, civil society's defence against violence, against destruction of the resource base, and defence of commons threatened by theft or abuse. There is also an introduction - chapter 3 - with some old social movements that still play a part in the world.
The chapter headings refer to different focuses for the activities of peoples' movements, rather than to identities as labour movements, agrarian movements, environmental movements etc. I am convinced that this is a more accurate way of describing peoples' movements. To be sure, such identities are real. But yet it has struck me how one has been able to see historical movement mobilizations from different perspective depending on if one sees it as a national movement, a labour movement and so on. An evident example is the women's movement in India during the 1980s that Europeans regard as an environmental movement but they see themselves as a peace movement. It appears absurd to talk about different social movements that live on separately through the time; rather than different movements you have to think of it as a social movement system that manifests itself depending on how people in a particular time and place confront the consequences of the world market system and are forced to defend themselves against them. What they call their movement will rather depend on historical coincidence and local traditions.
The same events may therefore be related different times in different chapters, seen from different angles. The system as a whole will be related in chapter 10.
Depending on the recentness of the research tradition and the consequential scarcity of literature, the narratives will not be perfectly comparable. The authors I have followed have not been interested in the same things. Some relators of movement mobilizations have been interested in culture, others have been interested in organisational patterns, still others have been interested in political aims, and some have been more complete than others. I couldn't help being influenced by that. So if the narrative sometimes has a bias in one direction, sometimes in another, it is not certain that this is motivated by what really happened. I have aimed at being as comprehensive as possible though in the parts I think are most essential.
Some readers will probably accuse me of concentrating too much on the North and neglecting movements in the South. They are probably right; I have been restricted to reporting about the movements I have found literature about. You may help me to correct the balance if you send tips to the Folkrörelser website.
Furthermore, the post-1980 history is covered badly. The literature about this time is hardly written yet; what exists is journalism and perhaps a few field studies. To evaluate the relevance of these and put them into some sort of perspective takes time, perhaps we can expect some literature to emerge about now, 2005.
Readers will notice that I use some words or concepts in a new, sometimes original way. I have been forced into this, because my perspective - that popular movements have been decisively important for the world's development - yet is lamentably original. I hope you will understand little by little what I mean.
I will also vacillate between the three terms social movements, peoples' movements, and even popular movements. Peoples' movements/popular movement are the old popular concepts, still going strong in Sweden, but in the international scene they were badly damaged by the Cold War notion that anything "popular" must be infected with Communism. Social movements is a somewhat academic concept with an uncertain scope, possibly not covering everything I will write about, and with an uncertain popular coinage. In indiscriminately alternating between all I hope to make the three terms coincide and perhaps widen the scope of all.
Finally a few words about my own background. I have been active in the urban movement in Stockholm since 1970 and in the environmental movement since 1981. I have always been more interested in democracy and the question "how could we, ordinary people, defend ourselves against the demands of Development" than of environmental matters in the narrow technical meaning that environmental bureaucracies and intellectuals prefer to discuss. This was the reason for me to engage in the Environmental Federation, later Friends of the Earth Sweden, where a strong lay democratic tradition made this discourse possible. Finally, I am a graphic and editor by trade with no particular academic tracks. That I take up this business should be seen as a layman's protest against the ever-growing hegemony over thoughts of academics and media.
I am indebted for this book primarily to the Peoples' Movements
Study Group in the Friends of the Earth Sweden, that took the initiative
and continuously have given me new ideas; I would like to give it
the credit for all new thoughts and reserve the blame for bad expression
of them to myself. Except the group I would like to thank Thomas
Åström and Elisabet Viklund for reviewing the text
and giving me an opportunity to straight up a few of my woolliest