BY Fei Yan
The Chinese Cultural Revolution presents students of Chinese politics and history with a remarkable intellectual puzzle. From 1966 to 1968, China experienced an incredibly chaotic period of mass conflict that ranks among the largest political upheavals of the twentieth century. A student rebellion that began in the summer of 1966 spread to industrial workers in the urban areas in late November of that year, and by early 1967 had reached deep into the rural interior. Within a very short period after early January 1967, civilian government in virtually every one of China’s thirty provincial-level units had been overthrown by mass opposition movements. Immediately afterwards, these insurgents broke into rival factions that clashed violently in schools, factories, and neighborhoods, leading to anarchy in large parts of China until the imposition of military rule in late 1968.
As a sociologist working full-time at a Dutch university, I find that my summer readings come in many flavors, which range from pure escapism to essential must reads. My recommendation to social movement scholars for this summer definitely falls in this latter category. “The Global Police State” by William I. Robinson (Pluto Press, 2020) is a relatively small book that addresses some very big questions about contemporary issues of power and repression that are of immediate relevance to social movement scholars and activists alike. Although firmly grounded in critical and neo-Marxian strands of global comparative sociology, this book is intended for a broad audience and packaged as a quick read. I especially recommend this book to scholars who tend to engage in micro-level and cultural analyses of social movements, such as myself, as Robinson’s work does very well to spark some serious macro-sociological thinking about the material and class-based relations of power that contribute to the widespread silencing and subjugation of progressive social movements around the world.
The U.S. Civil Rights Movement (CRM) from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s has served as the template for contemporary social movement scholarship. Not only has the movement itself been the most widely studied, but many of the core theoretical concepts, most notably political process theory, either were developed as part of explaining the emergence and development of the CRM, or had the CRM as a key empirical vantage point.
If you’re anything like me, you spent a not-insignificant chunk of 2020 marveling in dismayed awe at the cavalier ability of so many people – everyone from folks in your community to celebrities to government officials – to engage in various forms of denial about the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly, some of the most visible deniers were those who adamantly refused to believe that the pandemic was happening at all. Yet, an equally prominent strain of Covid denialism came in the form of people who acknowledged the crisis yet seemed not to care. You almost certainly heard comments from people you know like “I’m not going to live in fear” or “it’s no worse than a regular flu” or “what are we supposed to do, destroy our whole economy to save a few lives?” Even as doctors and scientists proposed actionable solutions for individuals and societies to take that could mitigate the harmful effects of the pandemic, the inertia of people’s lives and the underlying logic of our systems were, it seemed, too powerful to be moved by even the gravest of threats. Continue reading
As social movement scholars, we recognize the ways in which the information environment social movements face is much different than it was 20 years ago. Some of this has to do with the rise of digital and social media, some of it has to do with the rise of 24/7 cable news and other significant changes in journalism, and a non-negligible portion has to do with the very active role that people play in selecting what information they will be exposed to, attend to, believe, and act upon. Our classrooms are no different—students are active learners who are deciding what assignments they will complete and how deeply they will engage the material. If you teach in a more conservative state, as I do, you routinely teach students who question the value of social science research and/or are motivated to not believe social science research that conflicts with their pre-existing beliefs or political commitments. Progressive students can also approach material with preconceived ideas about what research is likely to find and misunderstand the surprises and nuance. Continue reading
Every summer, we have a tradition of offering readers a broad selection of great books to add to their summer reading lists. This year we asked contributors to recommend the one book social movement scholars and activists should be reading this summer. Contributors chose their favorite social movement or protest-related book, whether scholarly or activist, fiction or nonfiction, and wrote a short review. In past years, the selection of books has been diverse, and we hope to again offer something of interest to everyone.
Many thanks to our wonderful group of contributors.
Barry Eidlin, McGill University — The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s & 1940s (essay)
Fei Yan, Tsinghua University — Political Movements in an Authoritarian Regime: The Chinese Cultural Revolution Revisited (essay)
Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona — The Hate U Give (essay)
Kai Heidemann, Maastricht University — The Global Police State (essay),
Todd Nicholas Fuist, Illinois Wesleyan University — Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (essay)
Editors in Chief,
Rory McVeigh, David Ortiz, Grace Yukich and Daisy Verduzco Reyes
The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 highlighted the urgency of contending with the far-right forces emboldened by former President Trump. Beyond pressuring Democrats to follow through on progressive promises, the left must also fight simultaneous battles of containment aimed at suppressing both the threat of direct violence posed by far-right extremists and that of indirect violence levied by institutional conservatives via policies that disproportionately harm marginalized communities.
Like many of us, I watched the inauguration last month as both a citizen and a scholar trying to catch a glimpse of what was next. Having just wrapped my undergraduate course “Politics in the Digital Age” (taught over Zoom, poetically), I was eager to see whether my students’ smart observations about media, activism, and policy would come to pass in some of the first major public signals from the new administration.
I remember the first interview I gave at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The journalist was with the Canadian Press and looking for a sociologist to comment on the challenges posed by public health orders and isolation in the Canadian context. He wanted to know what the single greatest challenge to people might be; I think he was expecting to hear something about suicide rates, depression, or mental fatigue, so when I answered, “conspiracy theories,” he laughed.
“I hate to say it, but I almost think the movement would be better off in the long run if he wins.”
These are words I was shocked to hear come out of my own mouth in a conversation about Trump and the 2020 presidential election in June, 2020. At the time, we were in the midst of the largest wave of #BlackLivesMatter protest since the movement’s emergence in 2013. Both scholars and activists expressed that this wave was unique in its size and power. It propelled BLM to the status of the largest movement in U.S. history. Many argued that this moment marked the start of an unparalleled push for racial justice – one of such magnitude in comparison to past efforts that it could be the tipping point for antiracist activism that would finally lead to real change. But with the election looming and people framing Biden and Harris as the obvious choice (compared to Trump) for those invested in the fight racial justice, I still had concerns about what that outcome might mean for #BlackLivesMatter. Time and time again in interviews I have conducted with Black millennials about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, respondents have expressed a lack of hope for achieving racial equity and eradicating white supremacy in this country. As a sociologist acutely aware of the embedded and structural nature of racism, it’s often hard for me to feel hope for a future free from racism as well. And as the BLM protests of summer 2020 proliferated at the same time as discussions about racial politics and the 2020 election intensified, I found myself at a loss as to what electoral outcome I felt would actually propel the movement and the change it seeks forward to fruition.