Target Choices in Intense Times

By Donatella della Porta

There are diverse explanations for how social movements made decisions about their targets and interact with them. Rather than considering the mas rival theories, it could be more useful to see them as illuminating dilemmas and tradeoffs that social movements have to address, and trying to specify under which conditions and through which mechanisms each applies. In these notes, I will present what I see as main explanations before focusing on targeting in the specific conditions of what I call intense times.

First of all, social movement organizations and activists, when deciding who to target and how, have constraints that come from the past, as they inherit a specific contentious repertoire. There is no doubt that, as Tilly authoritatively stressed, the range of choice of targets is limited by what activists know to do as they have inherited a contentious knowledge from their own history as well as the history of collate movements. Past traditions, memories, institutions: all play a role, as collective identities are rooted in them. In fact, shaped by long term cultural processes, choices of targets follow normative constraints. Indeed, if we look at progressive movements nowadays, we can say that the belief is spreading that the end does not justify the means.

However, also undeniably, there is a lot of strategic thinking at the basis of the choice of a specific targets, and of the moves to address it. Targets and forms of action are chosen on the basis of consideration about their efficacy as well their appropriateness. In these strategic choices, activists and their organizations are oriented by two main considerations: who has power to affect the collective claims, and who can be influenced through pressures from below. This is why, e.g., protest campaigns often follow policy processes, adapting their action to the specific characteristics of the institution that has policy making power in a given step of the processs. And this is also why, complex multilevel governance pushes social movements to complex actions, addressing public but also (more and more powerful) private actors, easier to access domestic targets and (more and more powerful) international ones.

If these strategic attempts work especially during normal present times, and the impacts of traditions testify for the constraints rooted in the past, I would suggest however that, especially in intense times, movements produce big transformations in the (path dependent) routine. They act, so to say, with an eye on the future rather than the past or the present. I tried to capture these special conditions under the label of eventful protest, and more specifically of eventful democratization.

Protest campaigns linked to episodes of (broadly understood) democratization often appear as sudden. Surprise, excitement, and innovation are terms often used to describe eventful democratization as times are perceived as exceptional. A power vacuum is filled by the energy of mobilized citizens, with large space for agency.

Going beyond the individual level and systemic perspective, at the meso-level the analysis of eventful democratization (and eventful protests more in general) points at the power of action itself in creating and recreating environmental opportunities and organizational resources that influence the strategic interactions of various actors (della Porta 2014). Within accelerated time, protest events tend indeed to fuel themselves, as actions produce actions, within “narratives of struggle that accompany them; in the altered expectations that they generate about subsequent possibilities to contest; in the changes that they evoke in the behavior of those forces that uphold a given order; and in the transformed landscape of meaning that events at times fashion” (Beissinger 2002, 17). If structural conditions are not (or do not seem) ripe, they might still mature during protest campaigns.

That is, protest campaigns are eventful, as they produce new relations that favor mobilization, rather than being a simple product of external and internal conditions. In my conception of eventful democratization, looking at waves of protest for democracy, my assumption is instead that eventful protests have relational impacts on the very actors that carry them out, by intensifying and transforming interactions. Through these events, participants experiment with new tactics, send signals about the possibility of collective action, create feelings of solidarity, and consolidate organizational networks and by the intensity of their interaction they create new cultural assumption.

One important characteristic of this sense of accelerated time – especially in eventful democratization – is its unexpected nature. The acceleration of time makes events difficult to predict: indeed, “surprise” is a frequently used word at the beginning of episodes of revolution or other exceptional events. Accelerated times are based on turning points, which are often narrated with reference to the rapidly increasing numbers of participants. In this situation, some moments produce big changes, as people become more courageous, as they are reassured and stimulated by the courage of the others.

Publicly expressed, private preferences against the regime becomes public criticism and, indeed, a testimony to the widespread dissatisfaction. Activists often remember their reading of the behavior of some individuals as signals of growing support for the opposition. Signals of change are offered by the joining of unexpected personalities, such as former regime supporters, as well as by the (re)mobilization of normal people. The mobilization process itself increases moral satisfaction by showing broadening support for the oppositional ideas. The number of participants is not the only important signal: the diversity of the groups involved is also considered as an important indicator of the spreading of dissatisfaction and, especially, the availability to express it through protest. Thus, thanks to the signals given by the increasing mobilization of different social groups, public support for civil resistance expanded. The signals of a growing in support are all the most relevant when they involve the state apparatus. Various hints are thus interpreted as encouraging, indicating a weakening in the repressive capacity of the regime. Indeed, personal stories are also mentioned as clues of a perceived changing situation in their interactions with the police, as a weakening of repressive willingness or even capacity. In addition, the belief was widespread that police would then take clues from the number of participants at a protest, and react accordingly.

Intense times are described by the activists as times in which crucial decisions have to be made quickly, in the heat of the moment. While strategic approaches assume at least constrained rationality, with relations based upon some information and expectation about others’ behavior, in intense times decisions are based more on clues than on knowledge, as the identities, preferences, and interests of the involved actors shift and change. Predictability is radically reduced by constantly moving targets and lack of routines. Time is in fact accelerated because of the breaking down of previous institutions, rules, and norms, and the capacity of movement actors to occupy these spaces, changing them in the process. In a sort of hydraulic system, empty spaces are filled in by mobilized citizens. As expectations of others’ behavior have weak foundations, intense times involve moments in which decisions are based on weak clues and bets are made about the reaction of the opponents. In these times, no clear assumptions can be made about the behavior of other relevant actors, while at the same time decisions are quickly needed.

Uncertainty is also remembered as pushing towards quick adjustments under stress, thinking about but not daring to predict potential moves by influential actors. Normal times are said to be structured: context plays a (smaller or larger, according to the different approaches) role in determining the course of the events. The longue durée determines to a large extent short-term behavior; established routines constrain choices; existing institutions structure events. These limitations on contingency, however, are drastically weakened in intense times – times in which some contingent encounters could make a difference in the development of the process. Through a series of micro-decisions, with (at the time) uncertain effects, particular individuals or small groups can acquire unexpected influence. Given this open-ended character of eventful democratization, in which contingent happenings can make a significant difference.

As calculations cannot be based on routine, and predictions are all the more shaky, in intensified time contingency is cited as prompting new visions and opening possibilities that then develop in action. While calculations require fixed identities on the basis of which to assess long term benefits and rooted expectations about the behaviors of others, the very speed of change challenges these conditions. In addition, the intensity of the events reduces the availability of the time that would be necessary to collect information, to reflect, to deliberate. Rather than being routine oriented, decisions tend to praise creativity and innovation.

Bibliographical references
Beissinger, Mark R. (2002). Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Della Porta, Donatella (2014) Mobilizing for democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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