The Road to Wigan Pier Runs Through Nicaragua

Since I have been conducting research on local, grassroots disability organizations in the midst of a growing international disability movement, I often find myself thinking about George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1938). For those who haven’t read it, Orwell put his finger on a pretty fundamental issue: movement leaders often diagnose the needs of their members or intended beneficiaries very differently than those members/beneficiaries diagnose their needs themselves. This seems especially true in movements that emphasize a “change in consciousness” as a first step.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell recounts his experiences as a young socialist who was sent to an English town to study the exploitation of coal miners and to then raise their class consciousness in order to gain their support on behalf of the socialist cause. In the former, he is resoundingly successful: the working conditions are horrific. It is clear that they live under the heel of capitalism. Yet, despite his proffered evidence that socialism would end their exploitation and eventually lead to a new era of freedom, none of the miners are interested in Marxist analysis or joining the Party. Orwell summarizes their general attitude towards himself and the rest of the London-based vanguard: “With loving though slightly patronizing smiles we set out to greet our proletarian brothers, and behold! our proletarian brothers—in so far as we understand them—are not asking for our greetings, they are asking us to commit suicide.”

In my research site in Nicaragua, no one has asked for anyone’s suicide. But, they have asked for someone’s resignation. A new executive director was brought in from the capital, Managua, to whip a long-established association of parents of children with disabilities into shape. The new director was appointed by the association’s national office, which has recently recast itself as a disability rights organization rather than a social support network and rehabilitation provider. This sort of change is not only widespread within the disability field, but across development with the advent of the “rights-based development” discourse, which argues that the proper role of local organizations is as advocates rather than service providers.

This new director came from the women’s rights field and had no experience in disability. By the second week of her tenure, she was already exasperated with the parents and youth with disabilities themselves, explaining to me that the culture within the family and the children and teens with disabilities who had internalized that culture, now constituted their greatest barrier towards attaining their rights. They just didn’t get the big picture!

This new director’s diagnosis of the problems here, in this remote Nicaraguan city, reflect what has been being said throughout the disability field for years now, especially with the build up and passage of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which went into effect in 2008. James Charlton, a major international mover in the field, wrote that the primary need for disability movements in low-income countries is for the development of an “empowered consciousness” in his 1998 book Nothing About Us Without Us. Since then, dozens of articles, books and reports have lamented the fact that local groups focus on survival needs or rehabilitation rather than legislative change and awareness campaigns. Summarizing this general attitude during a major UN sponsor meeting on the Disability Convention last year, an advocate during a roundtable explained their top priority as “reeducating” people with disabilities in the Global South.

This reeducation in the parents’ association in northern Nicaragua meant that the new director closed the doors to workshops where kids had been learning skills such as carpentry or craft-making and sent home all the youth who had been attending a day-program that had been filled with social activities and physical rehabilitation, only so that they could come back once a week to be lectured about their need to improve their self-esteem, motivation, participation, and self-development. The parents were also given a dose of reeducation through intermittent human rights workshops. Several marches were carried out downtown where the kids were given placards stating “We are equals,” “Implement Law 763” (Nicaragua’s new disability law), or “Respect our rights.” All these activities are consciousness-raising in one form or another and clearly in line with the new priorities of the international disability rights field. They also left the parents and the children here dismayed. And, once a new local board was in place (the old one had been disbanded by the national office), their first act was to hand the new director a pink slip. The new board, all mothers, told me that their kids needs were not being met, and besides the weekly self-esteem workshops, their children were now stuck at home, lonely, with no place to go and nothing to do.

Now, I think the international disability rights movement is important and has the potential to bring needed and long-lasting change to the lives of millions, including those here in this little corner of Nicaragua. But I think it points to something that we social movements scholars have not gotten our heads around. While we have plenty of tools for looking and broad, overarching movement “frames” or the “social skill” of leaders and so on, we do not seem to have a lot of tools for understanding what people way down in the ranks of movements are actually thinking. And we certainly have not looked deeply into the long-standing dynamic between leaders who believe that the very people they are trying to lead are trapped under some sort of “false consciousness,” whether as a proletarian worker who just wants a slightly better wage (as opposed to a revolution) or a person with a disability who just wants a place to go during the day (as opposed to the implementation of an international treaty or new identity as a rights-bearer within society).

Orwell blamed the problem on that ever-present English social barrier of class. But I’m going to blame things on “consciousness.” To believe that there are those who have “consciousness” seems to automatically delegitimize or dismiss others as being under the spell of a “false consciousness.” And so it seems to pose a problem for participation, and, if anything, as social movements scholars, we should want to know how or if the “falsely conscious” ever get to participate in framing or leading or simply being heard in so many of the social movements sweeping the world that are premised on ideas of “paradigm shifts,” “new identities,” and “educating” or “reeducating” the very people they are meant to set free.


Filed under Daily Disruption

4 responses to “The Road to Wigan Pier Runs Through Nicaragua

  1. I think you have identified several problems, only one of which you have named and blamed for all the issues in your story.

    How about elitism, arrogance, and just plain bad leadership? I agree that the concept of false consciousness has led to many abuses, especially by Leninist cadre formations (Berlet: Abstaining from Bad Sects). But what if large numbers of people in a society live in information silos where the frames and narratives reflect a specific ideology?
    A few years ago I argued it this way:

    >>>Didactic and patronizing versions of the concept of false consciousness have tarnished it as an analytical tool, but the concept retains explanatory value (Schalit 1994; Anderson 2002). Rather than explore, defend, and critique the more profound theoretical discussions of identity, alienation, and consciousness by Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others in the Frankfurt tradition, this study explores the practical question of how false consciousness can be constructed by right-wing social movement leaders through the use of the related techniques of demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracist theories. Using these demagogic techniques, right-wing ideologues tap into the real sense of alienation in target sectors of the society, but then misdirect action intended to challenge social and economic relations away from the actual primary sources of oppression.

    >>>Social movement participants, left or right, are not simply clueless puppets to be twitched about by some demagogic puppeteer. People embedded in any social movement have learned complex and compelling ideological arguments, frames of reference, and narratives of who is helping the society and who is hurting it. In most countries, contemporary social movement participants originate in a mass culture that distracts them from critical analysis in the first place. Althusser argues that individuals as interpellated subjects generally participate in their own submission to the ideological hegemony of the state because they do not recognize it as ideological, but as the natural order of “reality” (Althusser 2001: 109-123). If individuals embrace a powerful counter-ideology as a way to rebel, and this leads them not to liberation from oppression, but to another form of subjugation, is this not a false understanding of the situation? If we see false consciousness as generated by an ideology involving a false premise or a false promise, it can help explain the attraction of right-wing populism without dismissing social movement participants as stupid, ignorant, or deranged.
    (2005. “When Alienation Turns Right: Populist Conspiracism, the Apocalyptic Style, and Neofascist Movements.” In Lauren Langman and Devorah Kalekin Fishman, eds., Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium: The Evolution of Alienation, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 115-144.)

    So are all of us Lefty Frankfurters just a bunch of hot dogs full of baloney? Can we talk?


  2. Jeff Goodwin

    Meyers writes that “we certainly have not looked deeply into the long-standing dynamic between leaders who believe that the very people they are trying to lead are trapped under some sort of ‘false consciousness.'” There’s actually quite a large literature on the roots of working-class “reformism” and the problem of “hegemony,” going back before the Frankfurt School. More recent studies of popular quiescence in the face of oppression include John Gaventa’s “Power and Powerlessness” (1980) and “Flammable” (2009) by Javier Auyero and Debora Alejandra Swistun.


  3. I’d suggest that whether or not there is something that can be described as “false consciousness” among those who have not responded to the call to join a movement (or the equivalent thereof), there is a great deal to learn about how past successful movements have employed the elements of a transcendent language to overcome the stasis, fear or hopelessness that can more commonly enervate mobilization. Movement leaders have not done this instrumentally, i.e. their motive has not been to manipulate potential followers, but to develop an ideational and emotional bond with them, i.e. to fully represent their voice and their aspirations. I’d argue that this is what it means to have a truly democratic movement.


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