Making sense of activism

Beyond Civil Society: Activism, Participation, and Protest in Latin America
Edited by Sonia E Alvarez, Jeffrey W Rubin, Millie Thayer, Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Agustín Laó-Montes
2017, Duke University Press, 386 pages, paperback

SOMETIMES it can feel like Simón Bolívar’s celebrated observation that “all who have served the revolution have ploughed the sea” may have been referring to the study of social movements.

Anyone who has tried to get to grips with this fluid, untameable and voluminous theoretical seascape will recognise in the Liberator’s words much truth when it comes to civil society.

It is an almost impossibly complex area to study, made up as it is not only of a super-abundance of groups and movements pursuing a profusion of agendas, tactics, ideas and identities, but also studied in as many different ways.

Nonetheless, the study of social movements is a crucially important focus for scholars and they have no choice but to try, bravely, to get to grips with it. Civil society is a highly important topic when it comes to Latin America because of its association with democratisation after the 1970s, when the concept became prominent in oppositional discourse as a tool of political action and often interchangeable with “the people” as a counterhegemonic force targeting “the state”.

This was more or less formalised in the 1990s as notions of a “new Left” advocating popular participation grew, but by the 2000s neoliberal elites were promoting their own version of civil society couched in the terms of development, democracy and associational activity, and appropriated by multilateral organisations; no longer was civil society born of social conflict, now it was the solution to social conflict.

As the editors note, civil society became a central component of a new developmental lexicon, a “magic bullet to neutralize corruption and hierarchy, institutionalize human rights, and solve the problems of poverty and inequality”.

Critical scholarship since then has called into question the emancipatory potential of civil society and its participatory and democratic aspirations, and drawn attention in the process to the enduring ambiguity of this concept.

In order to make progress within this field, invariably – and rationally – scholars have almost always ended up taking approaches that, when all’s said and done, are in principle similar. In the tangled fleece of a million possibilities, they have sought common threads.

Today, the search for those common threads has mostly shifted from the differing forms of activity undertaken by groups themselves – from the civic to the uncivic – to the underlying, shared motivation of a plurality of groups with often contradictory aims and outlooks.

One reason for this is that the right wing and social conservatives have quickly learned social movement skills from their pioneering popular brethren, blurring the enthusiastic initial associations academics made with the progressive nature of civil society but nonetheless reinforcing the messy, democratic and participatory character of this form of politics outside parties and institutions. Middle- and upper-class opposition to leftwing governments has increasingly appropriated the term “civil society”. In short, social activism is now recognised as inherently contradictory.

The scholastic odyssey has begun to settle for its common thread on a juxtaposition between “Uncivic Activism”, the increasingly visible confrontational collective action in Latin America, and the “Civil Society Agenda”, the proliferation of civic participation through the so-called Third Sector, which as Arturo Escobar notes in his Foreword is perhaps the only possible approach “given the complexities and ambiguities of the processes and actions at play”.

Both contribute to extending democratic participation, but in uneven and often unpredictable ways. In an effort to develop a new, accepted conceptual language and framework for thinking about social activism, the contributors to this volume explore this tension in terms of what are considered to be permissible, tolerated forms of activity and what are not, permitido and no permitido, calling to mind actions and demands rather than actors and venues.

In their introduction, the editors write: “Rather than venues and political forms, the more important distinctions lie in the political effects of activism and its relationship to dominant discursive formations and constellations of power. Any given set of political practices may move in the direction of obscuring or unveiling inequality, reinscribing or transgressing relations of power and exclusion, reifying hierarchies or dismantling them. Clearly these are poles along a continuum with many shades of gray; movement effects may be contradictory, shifting, and difficult to discern. But, we argue, they are not harnessed to particular strategies or locations.” [p 4]

The chapter on Brazil by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ana Claudia Teixeira offers a good example of that gray zone in a country where the Left has both enjoyed formal institutional power, but where it has also tapped into and nurtured unprecedented levels of social movement activity and participation.

By trying to make sense of the wave of protests in Brazil in June 2013 in which millions of people in 140 cities expressed a huge variety of positions that coincided in a basic underlying dissatisfaction with the status quo – after a decade of progressive rule under the Workers’ Party (PT) – the authors identify how these may have renewed an underlying interest in political reform.

This raises difficult questions in Brazil with no easy answers; it might, as Baiocchi and Teixeira hint, merely confirm the absence of an entirely new set of political projects and forms of politics that go beyond pragmatic compromise and forms of struggle that evoke different utopias.

As with many books on social movements, Beyond Civil Society is neither an easy book to read nor one that is at once satisfying for the reader desiring clear and simple conclusions, but its approach is the only way to negotiate the civic–uncivic “gray zone”.

As Escobar writes, this is an “anthology” of a field that has grown increasingly complex which serves as a form of “shorthand” for the emergence of some coherence in an otherwise incredibly diverse set of inquiries.

As such, this book is an excellent point of departure for students coming to this topic for the first time – and would sit well among introductory course texts – not least because there are good overviews of the field and current debates dotted throughout the volume that will help them, upon careful reading, begin to find their way.