Power in Movement: Tarrow’s Primer on Contentious Politics

11630925I found Power in Movement interesting, also provoking. It is filed along with other books in this shelf of movement literature that I cannot quite wrap my head around — writing about struggle so abstractly and in economic terms. It is hard to move between these books and the fierce and wonderful works generated more directly by the movements they study, committed as I am to the ideals and goals of many of these movements. I feel that the growing body of work on environmental justice and feminism, or work like that of John Gaventa, is a much better fit for my own personal drive to theorise social movements. Especially as the goal is to support social change and a more just world.

Some definitions:

‘contentious politics’ — what happens when collective actors join forces in confrontation with elites, authorities, and opponents around their claims or the claims of those they claim to represent. (4)

Tarrow is working here to:

develop a relational approach to contentious politics, which focuses more on the interactions among divergent actors than on the classical subject of social movements. (4-5)

On social movements — and this, of course, is responding to early social psychology literatures that are even more frustrating:

Rather than defining social movements as expressions of extremism, violence, and deprivation, they are better defined as collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities. This definition has four empirical properties: collective challenge, common purpose, social solidarity, and sustained interaction. (9)

These all sound promising, yet I find the reliance on economic theories of rational choice and their language — interest, movement entrepreneurs — so limiting:

The most common denominator of social movements is thus “interest,” but interest is no more than a seemingly objective category imposed by the observer. It is participants’ recognition of their common interests that translates the potential for a movement into action. By mobilizing consensus, movement entrepreneurs play an important role in stimulating such consensus.

Mobs, riots, and spontaneous assemblies are more an indication that a movement is in the process of formation than movements themselves. (11)

A focus here on leadership, on political moment — but in such different ways than we ever found useful while involved in struggle. I confess, had anyone ever called me a movement entrepreneur I would have… no, I wouldn’t have punched them. But I would have been angry.

As we will see in the following chapters, individuals are often slow to appreciate that opportunities exist or that constraints have collapsed. This in turn helps to explain the important role of movement entrepreneurs in launching efforts such as the “freedom flotilla” — individuals and groups who seize opportunities, demonstrate their availability to others, and thereby trigger the cycles of contention… It also explains why so many movements tragically fail — because their leaders perceive opportunities that are either weak or evanescent. (12)

This is partially about leadership, and partially about what drives people to involve themselves in movement. Like John Gaventa, I am much more curious about why people don’t fight all of the time against their many obvious oppressions, but I hoped for some insights from this very different foundational world view and set of questions.

In this book, I will argue that contentious politics emerges in response to changes in political opportunities and threats when participants perceive and respond to a variety of incentives: material and ideological, partisan and group-based, long-standing and episodic. Building on these opportunities, and using known repertoires of action, people with limited resources can act together contentiously — if only sporadically. When their actions are based on dense social networks and effective connective structures and draw on legitimate, action-oriented cultural frames, they can sustain these actions even in contacts with powerful opponents. In such cases — and only in such cases — we are in the presence of a social movement. When such contention spreads across an entire society — as it sometimes does — we see a cycle of contention. When such a cycle is organized around opposed or multiple sovereignties, the outcome is a revolution. (16)

Yay revolution.

Still, that is a complicated mouthful right there. But I’m more or less with him up to here.

He loses me with his summations of the origin of social movement theory in works of Marxist and post-Marxist scholars: Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and Tilly. Immensely simplified, a page on each in fact. I can’t even start on how problematic I find them, though admittedly summarising anyone’s body of work in one page is nearly impossible. But our differences are clearly visible as Tarrow attempts to relate these to more modern groups of explanations:

  • without sharing Marx’s fixation on class, collective behaviour theorists of the 1950s and early 1960s focused on the grievances responsible for mobilization and saw them stemming from underlying structural strains. (21)
  • Without sharing Lenin’s belief in an elite vanguard, resource mobilization theorists of the late 1960s and the 1970s concentrated on leadership and organization. (but used rational choice to do so, Mancur Olson, McCarthy & Zald and etc., which is mostly several worlds away from any kind of thought that might ever have entered Lenin’s head)
  • Like Gramsci, framing and collective identity theorists of the 1980s and 1990s focused on the sources of consensus in a movement.
  • From the 1970s on, political process theorists followed Tilly’s lead in focusing on the political opportunities and constraints that structure contentious politics. (22)

These parallels ignore entirely starting points, underlying anti-capitalist analysis of the world and how fucked up it is and that really, the human race can and should do better. It ignores things like Marx’s attempt to understand and stop things like children dying in factories, families dying of starvation and exposure after being evicted through enclosures. You have to strip this consciousness from Marxists, and the flexibility that a theory based on dialectical relationships and processes offers, to draw parallels. I am confused as to why you might do this. My temperature rises. There’s no need to bring Marx, Lenin and Gramsci into anything if you are starting from such a radically different place. If you do bring them in, at least grapple with their thought.

In its summaries of movement it is entirely western — it looks at the French revolution, the American revolution, forgets the  Haitian revolution (again turning to CLR James and Trouillot on this subject, their approach seems so much more useful). The ending of the slave trade and slavery are discussed as a purely white European/ American achievement — the long resistance struggles of slaves and their descendants ignored. Everything is always in very general and broad terms. My temperature rises again.

Then Tarrow turns to look at the more recent explosions of violence in the Middle East, India, and Asia, ‘Scholars of social movements have been stunned by these events, some applying models of mobilization from the West to violent challenges elsewhere’ (107). My temperature rises still further.  No notes of US role in this part of the world, the history of colonialism, modern day imperialism, the Middle East’s own traditions of movement and frameworks for understanding social change. As if this were the province of Euro-Americans of a specific type only. I remembered Hamid Dabashi and felt a little better. I am not alone.

Tarrow keeps quoting Piven and Cloward as the only representatives of more critical theory that lies outside of  these  economic frameworks. I found that so annoying, I have great respect for Piven and Cloward while also disagreeing with so much of their analysis — yet how did they come to be the only ones acknowledged coming from a critical standpoint? Temperature still rising.

I was also frustrated with the generic idea of success for social movments, discussed in general terms with no sense of particular movement goals or what kind of achievements were actually possible in the time and place of the struggle, and with no acknowledged normative position of his own (though surely that must have influenced his views, success is, if anything, subjective). For example, Tarrow describes the conflict over participation of men in women’s Greenham Common protests as a mark of ineffectiveness and lack of success, under the heading ‘Tyranny of Decentralization’ (131). This reminded me of multiple conversations I have had with friends who were personally involved about this very moment. The arrogance they perceived in a small group of men demanding to be part of this specific protest — while many men supported the women’s right to create women’s-only spaces of course. The importance of the discussion this opened up around male privilege and feminism and necessary transformations of social justice movements to break down things like sexism (and racism, and homophobia, and etc). The victory they felt was won when it continued to be a women’s-only space.

Not successful because it helped clarify the prominence of sexism and the need for safe spaces for women in the movement? A new temperature has been reached.

We move on to the ‘cultural turn’ and I feel I don’t recognise it for the most part, but it is fascinating to look at how it is categorised by others:

Scholars of social movements who have taken the cultural turn have wrestled over which of the three — framing, identity, construction, or emotion — are the most important parts of the culture of contention. (143)

Again, I find such an abstracted view of the kind of work groups like smartMeme are doing — fighting to help social movement groups fight dominant framings of their issues to have greater impact and reach wider audiences — not entirely useful, but I reserve judgment on bricolage and the newer theories around assemblage.

Social movement leaders often do the same: Familiar themes are arrayed to entice citizens to become supporters; and new themes are soldered onto them to activate them in new and creative directions. Bricolage pulls together accepted and new frames to legitimate contention and mobilize accepted frames for new purposes. (146)

The language of economics is fairly relentless, a strange mismatch when such language (and I think many of the perceived motivations and worldview underpinning it) are completely and utterly absent from people actually participating in social movements.

Contention increases when people gain access to external resources that convince them that they can end injustices and find opportunities in which to use these resources. It also increases when they are threatened by costs… (160)

I don’t think this is sufficient to explain people facing down dogs or loaded guns. This is just worlds away again.

But because they so often fail, because other actors are so often responsible for their supposed success, and because it is so difficult to assign a particular outcome to a particular movement, why should we care about movement outcomes? (220)

This bewilders me. What is the point of it all anyway. This has almost lowered my temperature because we might as well be talking about the reasons people buy androids rather than iphones. Not a life well-lived or a life destroyed.

‘This has led to an increasing emphasis on “collective goods” outcomes of movement activity (218)

This also bewilders me, as does the regular confusion between people, groups and the claims that they are making, as if these are interchangeable actors not conflicted components. How do they even begin to try and explain conflicts within coalitions or individual groups, much less conflicts within each of us as human beings?

My frustrations all become a little more clear in understanding where Tarrow himself is coming from. He critiques his own edited collections on the Social Movement Society, particularly in light of the ‘continual disorder’ that we are seeing now (233):

But it also raises troubling questions for social movement theory: about the increase in hatred, the recrudescence of ethnic conflict, the decline of civility, and the internationalization of conflict. To the extent to which we have allowed the examples of civil Western movements from the 1960s to shape our models, we will not be able to understand them. (268)

As someone who has studied grassroots white violence over time, who is aware of racism and its spawn in the form of things such as ongoing police brutality and the murder of hundreds of people, who see slow violence everywhere, nothing in this sentence makes much sense. And in my years of social movement activism from 1998 through the present, this has never been true:

Activism is no longer a matter of going down to the pub to a meeting or joining friends or neighbors for a march or demonstration; it increasingly requires Internet skills, the ability to form coalitions with like-minded groups, and the courage to get up in public…to speak one’s mind. (269)

Worlds away. So I suppose it does not surprise me to encounter the liberal fear of violence — generally a fear of violence emerging from social movements rather than any kind of understanding of the violence they face from the state and from those opposing justice. So many were killed in the civil rights movement, they faced lynchings and bombings and shootings and rape and the impunity of police and national guard. I can’t even begin to compare this to freedom struggles against colonialism and imperialism. I waver between incandescence and incomprehension. My considered response to this particular body of literature on social movements.












One thought on “Power in Movement: Tarrow’s Primer on Contentious Politics”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.