How Social Movements Die – the Blog Entry (Book on the way)

By Christian Davenport

davenport_photo1Many researchers, activists and ordinary citizens are trying to figure out what is meant by social movement “success” and in so doing social movement “failure.” We are somewhat confused about these concepts because most of our collective attention has been spent on trying to understand social movement emergence (i.e., when we are most likely to see them) and the use of diverse tactics (e.g., when we are more likely to see violent vs. non-violent behavior). Scholarship has only recently moved to define, conceptualize, and measure success and research has barely started on the idea of failure, which is the focus of my essay today. This renders the discussion put together in this forum both timely and useful.

I maintain that there are at least three different ways that we can think of movement success and thus failure:

  1. the development from an idea to actual mobilization (not in the sense of protesting but in coming together collectively);
  2. the development from mobilization to action (i.e., engaging in dissent, terrorism or insurgency); and,
  3. the development from action to some outcome that was explicitly sought by the social movement participants.

With this idea of success, several things become apparent. First, it is possible to succeed/to fail in three distinct enterprises: mobilization, action, and outcome. Clearly there is some sequential nature to the enterprise. In all likelihood one cannot engage in generating outcomes without taking some action and one cannot engage in taking action without some coordination/organization. Second, governments are intricately connected with all three processes and thus one cannot discuss or examine the topic of dissident success/failure without considering the role played by governments interacting with challengers. In a sense, social movement failure is the study of government “success” and social movement success is the study of government “failure.”

How does this dissident-state process work? Well, it is pretty simply actually. Challengers attempt to motivate people to understand what is taking place around them as well as who is available to assist them (i.e., provide ideology/frame), get people to join a challenging organization (i.e., recruit), develop resources (i.e., income, offices and t-shirts), prepare people for engaging in struggle (i.e., creating/enhancing trust and helping movement participants to think about what to do under different scenarios [what I refer to as “appraisal”]), and replacing members that leave over time. Governments attempt to stop people from joining (through fear, bribes, generating better ideas about how to fix the relevant problems, or killing those who engage in relevant movements) and they attempt to weaken those who have already joined (by creating distrust, fear, bribes, generating better ideas, and deviating from expected behavior). With these factors in mind, social movement survival/success, and failure hangs in the balance.

For example, if movements can generate interesting/resonant ideas, get members to join, sustain the interest of these people, prepare them for what governments will do against them, enhance the trust of members with regard to one another as well as the institutional itself, and diminish in-fighting (whew), then they have a chance. If governments can kill or distract from good ideas, keep people away from the organization, make individuals wary of interacting with challengers, engage in activities that are unanticipated which frustrate, and disappointment members as well as facilitate infighting (double whew), then challengers are doomed. The key: the sequence of events is extremely important as is the degree of internal information about the movement in question held by authorities. If a group starts off with a particular understanding of their objectives, a way to get there, and the way that authorities will attempt to impede them—generating pamphlets, understandings, and cohorts along the way—it is hard to change these once up and running. Governments take advantage of this rigidity through surveillance (electronic and physical), informants, and agents provocateur.

Within my forthcoming book, How Social Movements Die, I explore this dynamic process within the context of a black nationalist social movement organization called the Republic of New Africa (RNA) and the various efforts of U.S. political authorities to destroy them. As found, the RNA was very clear on what it wanted to do: they wanted to secede from the US, have the US government pay slavery and discrimination with reparations as well as hold a plebiscite of African Americans so that they could all decide what they wanted to do with regards to their citizenship. Those who wanted to be New Africans could go to the Republic. Those who did not could stay in the US (to be damned). The RNA had their tactical repertoire down: conferences and workshops on the problems of racism in the US as well as their variant of black nationalism, some protest, some lawsuits, some publications, and some lectures. They also had an idea of how the US government would come after them. Based upon prior US repressive action against African American dissidents, they anticipated a frontal assault on a demonstration. In response, they tried to diminish their overt vulnerability as well as engaged in military training so if anything did happen, they would be ready for it.

The US government was ready as well. They had infiltrated not only the RNA but the three organizations that preceded it (i.e., the Group on Advanced Leadership [GOAL], the Freedom Now Party, and the Malcolm X Society). They thus knew who was involved, what they thought, what they prepared for, and what they were not prepared for. They were ready to use overt as well as covert repressive action.

After about a years worth of observation, the US government came at the RNA not with a frontal assault on a protest event, but a raid of a meeting. This was followed by mass arrests, interrogation, legal battles, minor harassment, and a barrage of media-generated rumors of infiltration that set the Republic of New Africa into a tailspin from which they could not emerge. The last point is crucial because it was not simply the US government that caused the deterioration of trust within the RNA, but the RNA itself as member turned on member and organization turned on member through public as well as private tribunals, name-calling and the like. Indeed, it is the interaction between the external efforts to hinder social movements and the social movements actions taken to survive in this hostile environment that determines whether it lives or dies.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

5 responses to “How Social Movements Die – the Blog Entry (Book on the way)

  1. When I was doing anti-repression research and paralegal work in the 1970s I met with some folks from the RNA, and stayed for a night at a farm run by their allies down south. They knew the federal government was trying to destroy their movement, but being prepared for that did not change the pressure cooker into which they found their movement tossed. I look forward to the book. The RNA story is often overlooked.


  2. Pingback: Weekend Reading, Dec 6 – 8

  3. Pingback: Monday’s Mtg: What Makes Grass Roots Movements Succeed or Fail? | Civilized Conversation

  4. Kangaroo

    can you please cite this blog entry for me in ASA or APA format?????????????????????????????????


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