free Spaces: Social Movement, space and The Practice of Democracy

Free Spaces was first published in 1986, second edition way back in 1992, yet the ways it thinks about space, conviviality, democracy, communities and societies that work…pretty timeless. Not everything, of course. But I love how it brings the ways in which people live in and occupy the physical spaces around them with the processes that contribute to political and social engagement, the ability to work across difference, the capacity to listen to others to build a better world. As they write:

Free Spaces asks an elemental but important question. What are the environments, the public spaces, in which ordinary people become participants in the complex, ambiguous, engaging conversation about democracy: participators in governance rather than spectators or complainers, victims or accomplices? What are the roots not simply of movements against oppression but also, more positively, of those democratic social movements which both enlarge the opportunities for participation and enhance people’s ability to participate in the public world? (viii)

It’s interesting also that they differentiate the positive kinds of neighbourhood activism and organising from the reactive through differences and a narrowed understanding of ‘public’, I think it would be really useful to bring this a little more into conversation with the renewed wave of thinking about populism (see for example Muller or Revelli).

The participatory, egalitarian, and open character of public life at the heart of democratic movements is qualitatively unlike protests with a defensive and parochial cast like the Ku Klux Klan, where “public” has a much thinner and more static meaning … And the very nature of public life in free spaces conveys older, richer meanings of the term “public,” pertaining to the community as a whole in its diversity, and notions of human dignity that modern thought neglects to its considerable impoverishment. Thus we hope the arguments that Free Spaces helps to generate will focus in part on the relevance of these underlying themes—the nature of public life, the importance of community, the substance and meaning of democratic values–and on the features of coventional wisdom that have rendered such themes largely invisible. (xxvi-xxvii)

Can I just say up front that my favourite part of this book was in many ways the footnotes…like this brilliant footnote from page 5 on citizenship. It’s something I’ve thought a little about, enough to be aware of some of these wider debates, but not dug into a lot. I have been thinking about the importance of face-to-face encounter for some time though, miss it terribly in this time of Covid which adds a strange nostalgia over the very possibility of such a thing:

Citizenship, in an active sense, emerges out of face-to-face encounter over time As Robert Bellah and his colleagues observe in Habits of the Heart*, this understanding of citizenship, in American folklore and practice, is grounded in community, associated with the widespread belief in “getting involved” and “making a contribution.” Thus, it can be contrasted with definitions of citizenship as a politics of interest-group bargaining, normally conducted by professionals; or a politics of the nation, expressing generalized visions of common purpose uniting disparate groups. In democratic movements, all three meanings of citizenship are held in tension and balance, but it is a central argument of this book that without rich opportunities for a “politics of community,” democracy becomes a hollow and ritualized formality. Others have made the point in more general terms. As G. D. H. Cole put it many decades ago, “Over the vast mechanism of modern politics the individual has no control, not because the state is too big, but because he is given no chance of learning the rudiments of self-government within a smaller unit.”

Quoting G.D.H. Cole! I certainly know a couple of people who would be terribly impressed. Another footnote with their definition of community, worthy of thinking about:

Throughout Free Spaces “community” is intended as a concept suggesting density and texture of a relationship. Thus, though community in this sense most often has a spatial dimension—a “neighborhood” implication—such a dimension is not part of the definition; rather, communal ties depend on a complex set of social relationships that overlap and reinforce each other. Craig Calhoun has characterized community in these terms as meaning a “greater ‘closeness’ of relations” than is true for society as a whole. “This closeness seems to imply, though not rigidly, face-to-face contact, commonality of purpose, familiarity and dependability.” Craig Calhoun, “Community: Toward a Variable Conceptualization for Comparative Research,” Social History 5 ( January 1980): 111.

This book maybe just possibly romanticises a little the predilection of the poor, in community, for democracy, but I lean that way myself. I like this flying of their colours.

The drama and passion in the histories which follow revolve, in no small measure, around the ways in which the dispossessed and powerless have again and again sought simultaneously to revive and remember older notions of democratic participation, on the one hand, and on the other given them new and deeper meanings and applications. Democracy, in these terms, then, means more than changing structures so as to make democracy possible. It means, also, schooling citizens in “citizenship”—that is, in the varied skills and values which are essential to sustaining effective participation. Democratic social movements, efforts whose goal is an enlarged democracy, are themselves vehicles for such schooling.

And thus…the need for free spaces.

To understand the inner life of democratic movements, one must rethink such traditional categories as “politics,” “private life,” “public activity,” “reaction,” and “progress.” Only then can we hope to fathom how people draw upon their past for strength, create out of traditions—which may seem on their face simply to reinforce the status quo—new visions of the future, gain out of the experiences of their daily lives new public skills and a broader sense of hope and possibility. The central argument of this book is that particular sorts of public places in the community, what we call free spaces, are the environments in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue. Put simply, free spaces are settings between private lives and large-scale institutions where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence, and vision. These are, in the main, voluntary forms of association with a relatively open and participatory character… (17)

So how more precisely do we characterise such free spaces?

For all their variations, free spaces have certain common features, observable in movements varying widely in time, aims, composition, and social environment. They are defined by their roots in community, the dense, rich networks of daily life; by their autonomy; and by their public or quasi-public character as participatory environments which nurture values associated with citizenship and a vision of the common good. In a full way, the spirit, dynamics, and character of free spaces can only be understood i the concreteness of particular stories, where people gain new skills, a new sense of possibility, and a broadened understanding of whom “the people” include. (20)

There are a number of movements that created such spaces and experiments with living democracy: the civil rights movement, the national Women’s Christian Temperence Union — providing space for white middle-class white women, but unable to overcome their prejudice and biases. Settlement houses. Suffragette movement, SDS, wome’s liberation movement and the ways they tried to move beyond the old hierarchical structures. An additional failure has been in the theorising of how this should happen.

The problem has not been with the attempt to analyze and understand the processes that dehumanize workers, but with the attempt to develop conceptions of action and theories of social change based upon the capitalist definition of working people. The notion of an abstract, universal cosmopolitanism as the end point of true class consciousness draws its theory of group formation and its language from the vast settings where people are organized by modern life. It assumes that a sundering of people from their historical and organic connections—from their “roots”—is the indispensable preliminary to free-dom. It proposes, in place of community weakened or lost, an organization based on abstract solidarity. Moreover, the idea that uprootedness is an indication of progress has maintained a compelling hold over much of modern scholarship—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—which sees traditional relations as reactionary obstacles. From such a stance, in turn, workers must abandon memories and ties to their communal past as an essential part of building modern movements like the trade unions.

Wrong! Ha! And back to a wonderful footnote on Marx and Engels.

There is a strong feeling for the concrete in the historical writings of Marx and Engels that confounds the the abstract universalism of their political theory. Yet the point is that the basic theory that saw revolutionary consciousness as a rootless cosmopolitanism has continued to hold sway over the dominant left approach. It appears in Lenin’s theory of revolutionary consciousness as the worldview of middle-class, radicalized intellectuals that must be introjected into the working class, and in Trotsky’s contention that the Bolshevik Party must be a “moral medium” of its own, guarding against ideological contamination and, implicitly, forming a socializing agent for its members in order to detach them from all prior loyalties. In our time, the leftist view of liberated consciousness as a process of radical separation lies behind Michael Harrington’s vision of a “rational, humanist moral code” to replace traditional moral values. It informs conventional criteria used to distinguish social movements. Thus, E. J. Hobsbawm contrasts “primitive” protests grounded in communal ties and “modern, secular” movements like the trade unions and socialist parties that supposedly have severed such connections. Similarly, the Tillys separate “reactive” communal movements from “proactive,” modern movements. Ralph Miliband means much the same thing when he argues that “the Marxist notion of a most radical rupture’ with traditional ideas signifies a break with all forms of tradition and must expect to encounter the latter not as friend but as foe.” And this view of social change and its agents is succinctly summarized by Stanley Aronowitz in his essay entitled, appropriately enough, “The Working Class: A Break with the Past.” According to Aronowitz, all particular identities—of “race and nationality and sex and skill and industry”—are obstacles to the development of homogenized class consciousness. As he puts it, “they constitute antagonisms which still act as a brake on the development of revolutionary consciousness.” (112-13)

Ah, take them all down! Because studies of actual movements show ‘that the life of communuties and not abstract notions of class have provided the main resources for oppostional movements among working people‘. (114)

So what does provide such resources?

Certainly the most innovative and successful examples of contemporary organizing show the same characteristics as their predecessors. None are marked by an abstracted “class consciousness,” but all manage to merge into the activity of the union the communal traditions central to people’s identities. This occurs in particular sorts of voluntary associations, free spaces that link communal life and workplace activity, where people can learn essential public skills and a powerful sense of their own rights and capacities. In the process of organizing, traditional identities and institutions furnish ideological re-sources even while themselves undergoing democratic trans-formation. Class as a lived and powerful reality, then, always has a populist cast. It is about peoplehood, multiple identities, and the places in the community that nurture democratic aspiration and capacity, as well as about relations to the means of production. (149)

And the question for Evans and Boyte, is how all of this can be brought to bear to nurture uprising and movement beyond that triggering point and the first mass wave of protest. I love this acknowledgement of how people grow and change through struggle, building their own networks and processes.

Our concern in Free Spaces has been to understand the ways in which the defensive and limited impulses which spark most social protests, especially in their early stages, can be trans-formed into democratic initiatives. What are the features of the environments in which people discover their capacities to over-come deferential patterns of behavior, outgrow parochialisms of class, race, or sex, and form a broader conception of the common good? How do people develop new visions in which elements of tradition become resources for democratic activity?

In the course of democratic movements, as a people move into action, they change. They discover in themselves and in their ways of life new democratic potentials. They find out new political facts about the world. They build networks and seek contacts with other groups of the powerless to forge a broader group identity. In turn, for such processes to occur requires more than local, communal roots. Such spaces must also be relatively autonomous, free from elite control.

Thus, the voluntary aspect of such community environments is an important element. Unstructured by the imperatives of large and bureaucratic organizations… (188)

And a story to illustrate, how lovely is this.

Casey Hayden, a young white southerner who spent years working in the civil rights movement, argued in 1965:

I think we’ve learned a few things about building and sustaining a radical movement: People need institutions that belong to them, that they can experiment with and shape. In that process it’s possible to develop new forms for activity which can provide new models for how people can work together so participants can think radically about how society could operate. People stay involved and working when they can see the actual results of their thought and work in the organization. . . .9 (190)

So how to ensure that social movements move us towards more justice, deeper democracy, wider participation, lasting change? And what is the role of place/space in this? The centre of the argument.

Thus, democratic action today, as in the past, also depends upon an open and Participatory public life that can bring together diverse communities and nourish the values of citizenship. The richness and vitality of public life in free spaces stands in marked contrast to the static and thin quality of “public” in reactionary protests. …

Democratic movements have always expressed this sensibility—in contrast to the conventional assumptions that “public” and “government” are virtually identical. They have seen government as properly the agency and instrument of the self-organized community, neither itself the problem (as conservative ideology tends to view it) nor the solution (the typical perspective of modern liberalism). Thus, for instance, as the nineteenth-century Knights of Labor engaged in electoral activity, they understood such involvement to be an expression of values and community life, not as an end in itself.’

For a well-developed consciousness of broader community and generalized, active citizenship to emerge requires ways for people to build direct, face-to-face and egalitarian relationships, beyond their immediate circles of friends and smaller com-munities. Thus, a prelude to democratic movement, visible in different times and settings, has been the emergence of avenues for wider sociability. (191-92)

The appropriation of democratic possibility depends on the collective experience we have identified with free social spaces. Simply, democratic ideas only make sense in the context of democratic experience. When people begin to see in themselves the capacity to end their own hurts, to take control of their lives, they gain the capacity to tap the democratic resources in their heritage. Thus, workers drew on biblical, artisanal, and republican traditions throughout the nineteenth century and on ethnic cultures shaped to the new r environments of urban, industrial America. The separation of home and work spaces made the existence of community institutions such as taverns, churches, reading rooms, clubs, and other groups all the more essential in order to create a vocabulary in opposition to the emerging industrial order… (193)

What happens when these spaces don’t exist? They speak of a new ‘rancorous, sour mood’ that shapes the country, a new polarization. Thirty years ago.

Politics of sound bites and special interests, politicians who define their positions by the latest poll, rhetoric that inflames symbolic divisions, all have convinced citizens that the political process has lost its capacity for the elemental function once noted by Arthur Schlesinger—the “question of remedy,” provisional solutions to basic public problems. Moreover, the dilemmas of politics have not simply been inflicted upon the citizenry. A rancorous, sour mood shapes most political discussions of the citizens themselves, from abortion to animal rights, affirmative action to America’s role in the world. Debates polarize around questions of who is righteous or who is morally bankrupt. Any sense of “the people” as responsible, creative participants in making decisions, shaping our nation’s affairs, or solving critical social problems is distant indeed. A version of this politics of blame, accusation, and self-righteousness has also roiled the nation’s intellectual life. Here, the main concerns of progressive intellectuals have continued to reflect a focus born in the Sixties, on patterns and structures of oppression and injustice along lies of race, gender, culture, sexuality, and class. In response conservatives have charged that a culture of “political correctness” stifles free inquiry and debate in academia. In this climate, every side tends toward a stance of political innocence that destroys the possibility for engagement with others of different persuasion. (Vii)

Thus it’s interesting to think about space in relation to a growing populism, as noted before:

Ties of place, gender, memory, kin-ship, work, ethnicity, value and religious belief, and many other bonds may in different contexts be sources of communal solidar-ity or of fragmentation. Communities can be open, evolving, and changing—or static, parochial, defensive, and rigid. They can encourage new roles for those traditionally marginalized or powerless within their midst, or they can reinforce patterns of exclusivity and parochialism. Without attention to the specific features and processes that democratize community life, any invocation of communal values is prey to telling criticisms of sentimentality and naiveté. (184)

And its connections to the right

From a democratic perspective, more is lost through the eclipse of community than a sense of belonging and secure identity. Citizenship itself disappears from view. And the very arenas where it is nourished and given meaning—communally grounded voluntary associations of the sort we have called, throughout this work, free spaces—are defined simply as bulwarks of order and the status quo. Such a perspective, for instance, characterizes much of contemporary conservatism. (185)

All that can go wrong, but mostly this book is about all that can go right. I quite loved it. I end with one last footnote — as I say, they are marvelous. Like this cornucopia of interesting references on precisely this polarisation. All of this buried away? Terrible.

In more theoretical terms, a focus on the free spaces at the heart of democratic movements aids in the resolution of polarities that have long and bitterly divided modern observers and critics—expressive individualism versus ties of community; modernity versus tradition; public and private values, and so forth—by highlighting the living environments where people draw upon both “oppositions” to create new experiments. See especially Chapters 3, 4, and 6 for a discussion of these issues. For earlier discussions of the concept of free space, see Harry C. Boyte, “The Textile Industry: Keel of Southern Industrialization,” Radical America (March-April 1972); Sara M. Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Knopf, 1979); Harry C. Boyte, “Populism and the Left,” democracy 1 (April 1981): 53-66. and Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, “Schools for Action: Radical Uses of Social Space,” democracy 2 (fall 1982): 55-65. Though we have developed the concept in our explorations of American social movements, it clearly has application to other cultural and social settings. For interesting applications of the idea to other societies, see, for instance, Craig Calhoun, “Class, Place and Industrial Revolution,” in N. Thrift and P. Williams, eds., The Making of Urban Society: Historical Essays on Class Formation and Place (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985); Allen Isaacman et al., ” ‘Cotton Is the Mother of Poverty’: Peasant Resistance to Forced Cotton Production in Mozambique, 1938-1961,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 13 (1980); Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900-1982 (Hampshire, England: Gower, 1983); Ronald Aminzade, Class, Politics and Early Industrial Capitalism: A Study of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Toulouse, France (Albany: StateUniversity of New York Press, 1981).

We have used the terms “space” and “social space” to suggest the lived, daily character of those networks and relationships that form the primary base of social movements. The concept of social space grows from traditions of social geography, ethnology, and phenomenology. It suggests strongly an “objective”, physical dimension—the ways in which places are organized and connected, fragmented, and so forth; and a subjective dimension, space as understood, perceived, and lived—what seems customary, familiar, part of daily experience. For discussions of the “socially constructed” nature of physical reality, see for instance Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1968) and Anne Buttimer, “Social Space in Interdisciplinary Perspective,” in John Gabree, ed., Surviving the City (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973). We stress, in addition to the communal nature of free space, the importance of voluntary organizational forms through which people can learn public skills and values and take sustained action over time. But it should be noted that informal, local relations themselves normally have an important element of independence from centers of power that can sustain brief forms of resistance. As Anthony Leeds put it, “The amorphousness, multiplicity and kaleidoscopic quality of the organization of localities…are virtually impossible to legislate for (or against) or to control by uniform sets of sanctions…In this independence and its social and ecological bases s found a locus of power for cooperation with–the supralocal institutions.” “Locality Power in Relation to Supralocal Institutions,” in Aidan Southall, ed. Urban Anthropology:Crosscultural Studies of Urbanization (1973) (18-19)

Evans, Sara M. and Harry C. Boyte ([1986] 1992 ) Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

*Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

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