How should we theorize the relationship between states and social movements? In this post, I try to shed light on that question by offering two short vignettes that challenge how we think about activists’ relationship to the state. These vignettes are based on 18 months of field research with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), which is considered the largest social movement in Latin America and one of the largest agrarian reform movements in the world. The MST arose in the early 1980s, not as a united movement, but rather, as a series of dispersed attempts among landless rural laborers to escape poverty by occupying large unproductive land estates. Today, the movement includes over one million people who have gained access to land through these land occupations.
My research is related to the movement’s educational initiatives. The MST leadership realized the need to transform the school system early-on, when local governments began to send teachers to their new communities who taught students that their parents were outlaws, the movement was worthless, and that students should strive to move to the city. The MST leadership began to realize that in order to ensure the future existence of their movement, it was necessary not only to occupy land but also occupy the public school system. The MST developed a series of Freirean-based pedagogical, curricular, and organizational practices for schools that encourage youth to stay in the countryside and to engage in collective agricultural production. For the past 30 years, activists have strived to implement these practices in public schools.
The first vignette I want to share is of an illegal encampment in the southern state of Rio Grande Sul, where the MST organized 50 families to occupy a large area of private land in 2009. The families were evicted and re-occupied the area several times, and conflict with the local police was a daily threat. Nevertheless, on most mornings, these families engaged in one very normal daily routine: they dropped their kids off at a makeshift school located in the middle of the encampment. Several adults from the camp taught first through fourth grade at the school, as official state employees, using the pedagogy that the MST leadership had developed over the previous two decades. The school was known officially as an “Itinerant School,” and had received the state’s permission to “move” with the families through their various evictions and transitions. For the MST, the running of this public school is an important form of activism, as it helps convince parents to bring their entire families to the encampment and teach these children about the purpose and meaning of the MST’s struggle.
This case poses an empirical puzzle, which directly speaks to the opening question about how we conceptualize the relationship between states and social movements. In this case, the MST is a movement that, 1) illegally occupies land; 2) pressures the capitalist state to grant occupying families the rights to this land and to public services; and, most striking, 3) negotiates the right to govern education with the aim of teaching children how to critique and subvert that capitalist state. Thus, the “state” actually becomes part of the mobilization of the social movement; the public school in this story continued to be a state institution, but was also part of the movement’s contestation against that very state.
This, of course, seems like a contradiction. And it is a contradiction, based on conventional understandings of the state as a unitary actor, and social movements as distinct from and in contrast to the state. This perspective dates back to Tilly’s classic book on social movement mobilization, where Tilly introduced the notion of the “polity” as the “collective action of the members of the government,” defining “members” as actors with “routine, low-cost access to resources controlled by the government” (p. 53). This definition became the starting point for defining social movements, which are collective groups outside of the polity engaging in non-routine actions to achieve their goals. For example, McAdam defines social movements as “rational attempts by excluded groups to mobilize sufficient political leverage to advance collective interests through non-institutionalized means [emphasis added]” (p. 37). While this distinction between institutionalized and non-institutionalized tactics is useful for analyzing how movements often make demands on the state, it is less useful for understanding the ways activists work both inside and outside of the state to promote social movement goals.
Let’s move to the second vignette. This vignette is of a poor, rural municipality in the northeastern state of Pernambuco in 2009, when the local government agreed to host a teacher training on the MST’s educational approach for hundreds of municipal teachers. While the municipality was funding the program, it was local MST activists who organized the event and chose the speakers. These speakers, many of whom were national MST leaders, lectured to the teachers about the history of land concentration, uneven and exploitative capitalist development, and the traditional role of schools as reproducing social and economic inequalities. Despite the fact that the mayor was part of one of the most conservative parties in Brazil, the Democratas (DEM), like many conservative mayors he allowed the movement to organize this seminar because he grew to accept their educational proposal (more details here). The year before he had even hired two MST activists as municipal employees in his government, whose job was to oversee the running of rural public schools in the region. For the MST, becoming part of the state and governing the educational system is a form of activism, as it allows the movement to ensure that these public institutions adhere to the MST’s own political and social goals.
Again, this is a contradiction, if we base our analysis on conventional understandings of activism. One of the most dominant tropes about social movements is that once activists engage the state and attempt to take state power, movements become co-opted and move into a period of demobilization and decline. This idea can be traced to Michels’s (1915) iron rule of oligarchy, but was solidified when Piven and Cloward took up the idea five decades later, arguing that once movements become formalized, adopt hierarchies, and begin working within the state, contentious action is difficult to organize. All of these bodies of literature point to the following relationship between social movements and the state:
But this perspective is not particularly useful in analyzing the MST’s attempts to govern rural public schools. In the second vignette, several MST activists become part of the municipal government, holding teacher trainings and overseeing rural schools. However, these activists continue to receive their directions from the MST regional leadership, and the teacher trainings they organize directly critique the political elites that are funding these trainings. Indeed, it is unclear if the state is co-opting the MST or if the MST is co-opting the state.
Notably, several scholars have critiqued the claim that the “iron rule of oligarchy” is every social movement’s destiny, or that working with state actors will necessarily lead to social movement decline (examples here, here, and here). Nonetheless, the notion that institutionalization signals the death of social movements is still a commonly held assumption. Consequently, while social movement scholars have highlighted the role of non-state educational projects in facilitating social mobilization—such as popular education in Latin America, the Highlander Center in Tennessee, labor colleges, and the Black Panther schools—public schools are not theorized in this literature as institutions leading to mobilization and social transformation.
I argue that we must move beyond notions of co-optation, and instead, analyze how activists work both outside and within the state to achieve their goals. In order to move in this direction, in my own research I draw on Antonio Gramsci to theorize public institutions as terrains of dispute, both protecting the state from attack and representing a sphere in which alternative social and economic relations are organized. From this perspective, although activists becoming teachers, principals, and municipal educational officials might lead to movement demobilization, these relationships can also lead to innovative practices that transform the state and increase the capacity of the movement. As Borras aptly puts it, “societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa [emphasis added]” (p. 548).
In sum, activists engaging in the state realm will have distinct institutional trajectories; the state is not a totalizing institution; and there are many ways activists can have agency by working with, in and through the state apparatus. Often, these attempts to enter the state and transform public institutions can lead to the formation of new class alliances that ultimately reinforce the same dominant modes of production and unequal social practices—but this is not the same process as co-optation.
*Photo Credit – Author