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Social Movements and Social Policies

Political Challenges under Austerity in the UK

Gregory White

The economic crisis of 2007/2008 presented a challenge to the welfare state in the UK, and, more widely, across Europe. It also presented a challenge to many citizens, who were on the receiving end of the austerity agenda, and subsequent tightening of welfare spending. If nothing else, the financial crisis demonstrated the hegemony of economic theories prominent in neoliberal capitalism. As many academics and commentators have identified, however, the current period of instability is indicative of a systemic crisis. In addition to this analysis, the crisis also exposed the intricate and opaque links between western governments and the financial sector. During and after the crisis an eruption of activity in civil society galvanized many that had been directly affected by either the crisis itself—through loss of employment—or by the subsequent austerity measures imposed. This article aims to examine the current crisis affecting the welfare state in the UK, and social policy more broadly, and, begins to suggest how social movements are seeking to challenge the dominant discourses surrounding austerity politics. The article suggests some reasons as to why traditional forms of resistance and organization—such as the mobilizations of the trade union movement—have largely been unsuccessful in challenging such narratives. The article concludes by considering the shift from trade unionism in the UK to post-crisis social movements, and where an anti-austerity movement more broadly might develop further in pursuit of defending the principles of social welfare, and, ultimately, the welfare state.

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Nadia Ferrer

In current and future situations of trans-global crises, social dissent and related practices of resistance cut across conventional country boundaries. Expressions of dissent and resistance pursue change through unconventional practices not only to challenge current governance, but to re-invent participation. They seek to impact society by transforming acquired values, subjectivities and knowledge. Despite these transformations of people’s subjectivities, majoritarian theories examining social movements still focus on finding rational patterns that can be instrumentalized in data sets and produce generalizable theoretical outcomes. This paper problematizes how social theory makes sense of collective action practices on the ground. Everyday non-discursive practices prove productivity-led theories' increasing disengagement with their object while challenging the excessive bureaucratization of scientific knowledge (Lyotard, 1997). That is, people experiment collectively with their capacities, and create their own initiatives and identities which do not follow determined patterns but do-while-thinking. The dichotomist approach of majoritarian debates in collective action theory is critically analysed by introducing the work of ‘minor authors’ and ‘radical theorists’. The fundamental purpose of this paper is to open a discussion space between the field of social action theories and activism knowledge, hence encouraging the creation of plateaus that blur academic boundaries and construct new subjectivities beyond “the indignity of speaking for others” (Deleuze in Foucault et al., 1977. p. 209). Drawing on the experience of the 15th of May 2011 in Spain, I analyse how radical theory reflects on current movements and collectives."

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Sam Beck

The nature of capitalism in its neoliberal form is decreasing higher education’s exclusive domain of knowledge production by exposing students to and exploiting local knowledge production. This has created a paradox. Experiential learning is being supported as ‘academic’ because students learn skills, values and perspectives by engaging in communities of practice. Through community service learning and social justice oriented internships, students learn about emancipatory social movements while simultaneously providing their intellectual capital. Urban Semester Program students participate in the movement for affordable housing, with its origins in post-war Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where many Puerto Ricans settled. Engaged in a struggle against displacement, for self-determination and developing community sustainability by advocating and winning low and moderate income housing, residents are determined to remain in their neighbourhood. Students are engaged in this struggle and connect this exposure to their internships, and the globalising world economy, the role of the state, and corporate power.

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Srdja Popović and Slobodan Djinovic

This piece of “movement writing” is written by the coheads of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and the cofounders of the Otpor! movement that ousted Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević in 2000. The article discusses the most promising tactics in contemporary prodemocracy activism, drawing on the authors’ considerable experience working with activists across the globe. Popović and Djinovic argue that the efficacy of traditional nonviolent strategies has waned with respect to contemporary prodemocracy struggles—which often seek to defend institutions rather than dismantle them—and advocate for more creative, humorous approach to contention.

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Understanding Urban Social Movements in Cognitive Capitalism

Methodological Reflections on Participatory and Ethnographic Research

Marion Hamm

The concept of participation is currently evoked by constituencies as varied as urban planners, local governments, universities and social movements. This coincides with a revival of participatory research methods in the social and cultural sciences. This article argues that the critical potential of participatory research methods should not be taken for granted in cognitive capitalism, where participation is as much an instrument for governmental regulation from above as it is a practice for democratic self-determination from below. First, the politics of participation from the emancipatory departures of the 1970s to today's revival are being discussed. Second, based on a long-term ethnographic study on the transnational Euromayday movement of the precarious, it is demonstrated how positioning the researcher using reflexive ethnography can support a critical research attitude through a process of reflexive hybridisation. In concluding, reflexive activist scholarship is outlined as a critical research attitude which encourages participatory knowledge production in a way that responds both to the field of activism and the field of academia.

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Deanna Dadusc

This article will analyse the power relations involved in social movement research, exploring alternative epistemological practices that resist and subvert academic conventions in order to create new modes of knowing. I will critique the production of a knowledge that aims at liberation and emancipation by conducting research 'about' or 'on behalf of' social movements, and I will show how this approach might lead to their very subjection. It will be argued that, in order to avoid the reproduction of power relations they seek to resist, research practices need to go beyond dialectical modes of knowing, departing from assumptions of the subject/object of knowledge, of objective/subjective research and from the hierarchy between theory and praxis. A precedent is found in the research approaches of post-colonial, activist, and queer studies that seek to experiment different modes of knowing, based not on observation and participation, but on learning from the experience of resistance in social movements: in this way resistant practices become an epistemological perspective rather than an object of study, and research can become a tool of resistance.

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Introduction

For or against commoning?

Ida Susser

It seems crucial to research the transformative aspects of progressive grassroots movements in the face of the troubling turn to the right in elections in the United States and parts of Europe. This theme section considers “commoning” as one way to understand the emergence of social movements in Europe and the United States. The articles analyze different protests from housing movements, to anti-antiblack insurgency, redefinitions of the tax code, and the squares movement. The articles consider how movements around the urban commons change over time, differ from more traditional social movements, and address or emerge from the specifics of contemporary regimes. The aim is to develop a theoretical perspective on commoning, which will provide a framework for comparison across societies at this juncture.

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Assemblies and the struggle to diffuse power

Ethnographic examples and contemporary practices

Stefano Boni

The article is focused on the practical mechanisms of assembly management in egalitarian settings in a comparative perspective: on the one hand, I examine assemblies in what may be termed classic ethnographic settings (principally East African pastoralists); on the other hand, I turn to meetings in recent social movements (the Occupy movement in the United States and Slovenia; the 15M in Spain; Greece and Bosnia). I have two principal aims. First, I wish to identify and evaluate similarities and differences in the running of meetings with regard to processes of consensus building; the coordination of assemblies through the creation of roles and the menace of leadership; and the management of place, time, and speech. Second, I aim to evaluate current social movements' use of alterpolitics, intended as the practical and imaginary reference to group meetings of the historical, sectarian, or ethnic other.

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Aziz Choudry

This article seeks to explore the work of activist researchers located in social movements, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and people’s organisations with close relations to contemporary progressive grassroots struggles in a number of countries, mainly in the global South. Drawing from extensive interviews with these researchers on their processes and practice of research and knowledge production, located outside of academic institutions and partnerships, it documents their understandings about the theoretical frameworks and methodologies they employ. This article thus foregrounds articulations of actual research practices from the perspectives of activist researchers themselves. In doing so, it suggests that social movement scholars can learn more about the intellectual work within movements, including the relations between theoretical and methodological approaches and action, from a deeper engagement with the work of activist researchers outside of academia.

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A political ontology of seeds

The transformative frictions of a farmers' movement in Europe

Elise Demeulenaere

This article follows the trajectory of a French farmers' movement that contests the seed production and regulation system set in place during agricultural modernization. It focuses on the creativity of the movement, which ranges from semantic innovations (such as “peasant seeds”) to the reinvention of onfarm breeding practices based on new scientific paradigms, and includes new alliances with the social movements defending the commons. The trajectory of the movement is shaped by its encounters—with scientists, other international seed contestations, and other social movements—and by the productive frictions they create. This in-depth reframing of the activities connected to seeds contributes to building a counternarrative about farmers and seeds that reopens spaces for contestation. In this counternarrative, “peasant seeds” play a central and subversive role in the sense that they question the ontological assumptions of present seed laws.