Long Live the State?

By Marc Dixon

How wedded are social movement activities to politics and the state? What targets offer the most bang for the buck when seeking change? Research shows groups often have strong reasons to seek out a wide range of collective action targets beyond the state. Yet, whether groups like it or not, and whether they seek cultural, economic or any other non-explicitly political form of change, movement demands more often than not get ensnarled in the political process. This poses a series of interesting dilemmas for activists.

A glimpse at recent newsworthy protest events reveals a host of collective action targets, all with clear upsides from an activist point of view. In recent months high profile and coordinated protest campaigns have forced the nation and several municipalities to grapple with police violence against black citizens, students at Harvard staged a sit-in to push the university to divest from fossil fuels, and the “Paddle in Seattle” saw hundreds of climate change activists on Kayaks greet Shell’s 400-foot oil rig temporarily docked there before exploration in the Artic this summer. All of these issues are far from settled, of course. But people took notice. Authorities, executives, college administrators and, importantly, the media were all forced to weigh in on issues they might rather ignore.

In recent decades scholars have responded to this eclectic range of targets by moving away from the study of social movements as primarily state-oriented challengers. Some of the now classic explanations of social movements in the political process have found traction when considering those groups seeking change directly from corporations. And scholars have developed sophisticated explanations of the relationship between diverse protest targets and the tactical repertoires and effectiveness of activist groups.

There are many reasons to look beyond the state for change. The risk of repression is lower when targeting non-state actors. Brand-name corporations are particularly vulnerable to reputational challenges, including loud and messy protests, and tend to respond more quickly to activist demands than legislative bodies. Just how corporations respond, or how lasting the change they enact, are interesting questions. But the potential for a speedier corporate response is compelling. Kevin Young and Michael Schwartz’ recent article in Mobilization demonstrates how, historically, many movements seeking progressive governmental reforms have targeted corporate interests in advance to reduce their likely opposition. All of this corresponds to popular notions of power and politics today, where corporations are argued to hold all the cards. It also echoes the debates and soul searching in many activist circles on whether politics and the legislative process are worth the effort.

Movements have an ambivalent relationship with the state and seek out other targets when it suits them and sometimes push the state among other targets simultaneously. And then sometimes they don’t have a choice.

Just When You Think You’re Out

Recognizing the limits of conventional labor relations as regulated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), labor activists and scholars alike have noted the potential of non-traditional alliances and organizational forms that might similarly advance worker causes even if they are not formally recognized as labor unions or lead to collective bargaining contracts backed by national labor law. The AFL-CIO’s Working America affiliate geared to non-union workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and other Worker Centers, more or less durable labor rights organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and United Students Against Sweatshops all fall under the rubric of “alt-labor.” This dovetails the activism of more established labor unions who often seek to organize outside of the routinized and predictable state-sanctioned NLRB election process. The recent spate of fast food strikes capture this model well.
While Alt-Labor remains a small portion of all union activity, the returns on these extra-institutional experiments are promising. So much so that labor’s opponents have sought to outlaw them. The Chamber of Commerce has produced a series of reports which seek to undermine the “outsider” status of Worker Centers so that they are forced to operate under the constraints of labor law. Union organizing drives which seek to circumvent the NLRB are continuously challenged in court. As much as unions may seek to escape the reach of the state, their opponents will most surely pull them back in. Indeed, whatever the merits of the “old” union model heavy on electoral politics versus the “new” extra-institutional one heavy on organizing and outsider tactics, both continue to be in play.

While not all social movements are as thoroughly intertwined with the state as labor, the basic logic still applies. If your opponent decides the state is an important arena, you probably should too.

Making the Best of Limited Choices

Even in the neoliberal era marked by the decreasing regulatory capacity of nation states, many (most?) activist roads still lead back to, or at least intersect with politics and the state. Within this arena movements are faced with a number of dilemmas on appropriate venues and tactics, some of which have become more acute since the Republican sweep in the 2010 midterm elections. Here are few things I have been thinking about and that I hope researchers and activists can make sense of in the near term. Should progressive activists in particular follow the lead of conservative and corporate interests in recent years and jump more forcefully into state politics? Are large and/or electorally relevant states as important or even more important targets than a slow-moving and dysfunctional Congress? For groups on the other side of the recent wave of policy-making in the states—labor, civil rights, and immigrant rights groups among others—there is little choice but to dive in. But cultivating political expertise outside of, and channeling resources away from Washington, can be a significant challenge. Making sense of these choices suggests a host of more enduring movement dilemmas. How can movements simultaneously maintain their political presence and grassroots edge? When organizing and political responsibilities fall on different types of organizations within larger movements or different branches within social movement organizations, how can they be effectively integrated? And how can member engagement be sustained outside of crisis situations and electoral cycles?

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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