Daily Digest 27/7/2015: social movements in the global South

Well, yesterday was a very thesis-focused day (I’m completing a dissertation on how a land invasion in Cape Town was organised), so I forgot to publish a daily reading digest, but here it is:

  • Marshall, T.H. 1964. “Citizenship and Social Class.” In Class, Citizenship, and Social Development, 65–122. New York: Doubleday.
  • Thompson, Lisa, and Chris Tapscott. 2010. “Introduction: Mobilization and Social Movements in the South – the Challenges of Inclusive Governance.” In Citizenship and Social Movements: Perspectives from the Global South, edited by Lisa Thompson and Chris Tapscott, 1–32. New York: Zed
  • Motta, Sara C., and Alf Gundvald Nilsen. 2011. “Social Movements and/in the Postcolonial: Dispossession, Development and Resistance in the Global South.” In Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance, edited by Sara C. Motta and Alf Gundvald Nilsen, 1-31. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
    • D’Souza, Radha. 2011. “Three Actors, Two Geographies, One Philosophy: The Straightjacket of Social Movements.” 227-249 (same volume)
  • Creswell, John W. 2007. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

How should we interpret (historically, politically) the emergence and demands of social movements in the global South? There are two standing questions in the literature: are social movements in the global South (generally, the colonised countries) different in character from those in the North (today’s “developed countries”)? and what does “neoliberal” political economy have to do with these social movements?

Here’re two views. The first says that given the way inclusion in citizenship has historically been advanced, Southern social movements have tended to be about socioeconomic rights, while those in the North were about extending civil and political rights. How neoliberalism comes into it is that it has intensified the socioeconomic exclusion of marginalised groups, creating a greater impetus for social movement activity. The second says that the effect of neoliberalism cannot be so easily conceptualised, because there are two strains of social movement activity in the global South. One strain comes from those people who benefited from the early post-independence developmental state (i.e., the working class). However, many did not join the ranks of the working class; they (women, agrarian workers, isolated rural communities) were marginalised in various ways under developmentalism. They began to coalesce into social movements as they developed or adopted new ideas on alternative development, or participatory socialism or democracy (Motta and Nilsen 2011, 14). Under this view, there is no clearly dominant interpretation of Southern social movements.

TH Marshall (1949/1964), the British sociologist, gave us one way to think of the way the rights and entitlements of citizenship evolved over time in England. (Charles Tilly was the other seminal citizenship scholar, and his work in that area was on France—although of course he contributed much to social movement theory as well.) Historically, the first rights to be given an equal footing for all citizens were civil rights: freedom from slavery, property rights, equality before the law. These were followed by political rights: the right to be represented in government, i.e., voting. Socioeconomic rights came last—the right to have economic security and to enjoy other state services that make it possible to live a fulfilling life (education and healthcare chief among them). Based on this framework on thinking about the rights of citizenship, many scholars have tried to uncover the politics behind how these rights were extended.

One view is that in the global North, socioeconomic rights came concomitantly with the others—and for disadvantaged groups, may have at times been ahead of civil and political rights, for instance the living standards of women before they were given the vote—and that new social movements (things such as the civil rights movement in the US or second-wave feminism, associated with “identity politics”) actually sought to extend civil and political rights to minorities who had in practice been denied those rights. By contrast, socioeconomic inclusion in the global South has generally lagged behind political and civil rights, however imperfectly the latter two are realised (Thompson and Tapscott 2010, 26). It’s worth remembering that many global South countries are consolidated democracies: India, Brazil, South Africa. So that’s one way to think about social movement activity in the global South: demanding socioeconomic inclusion given civil and political rights.

Perhaps a more sophisticated reading of these movements is put forward by Motta and Nilsen (although certainly not absent from Thompson and Tapscott). They interpret the emergence of social movements in the global South as a result of the historic changes in the political economy of these societies following decolonisation. First, the developmental state strategy took shape in which a highly interventionist governmental apparatus modernised farming and put in place the prerequisites for industrialisation. It was relatively successful and led to unprecedented growth, but it also led to demands from the working class (especially in Latin American countries) or other marginalised groups (Asian and African countries) for a greater political say.

While this brewed from below (culminating in the political instability of the late 1960s and 70s experienced across the world), financial crises in the early 1970s caused the Bretton Woods institutional arrangement to fall apart in the global North. Financial turmoil spread to the global South, and the IMF and World Bank imposed structural adjustment on a number of these countries.

Neoliberalism replaced developmentalism; these countries implemented austerity—devalued their currencies, reduced wages and trade barriers, and privatised public assets—all for competitiveness. Motta and Nilsen claim that from the 1970s to 90s, over 150 austerity-related protests took place in countries that underwent structural adjustment. According to them, two distinct strains of popular mobilisation happened: one fuelled by those who had been excluded from developmentalism and were now demanding inclusion, and another from the working class who had benefited from developmentalism and were now trying to protect their eroding gains. This means that the social movements of the global South are more heterogeneous and their relation to the state and society more dynamic than can be encapsulated in a single interpretation.

Moreover, social movements themselves are beginning to take on the challenge of conceptualising their own position relative to state-centric development. It has even been argued that intellectuals themselves (epitomised by the “global justice movement” which still takes the neoliberal Washington Consensus as its point of departure) are handicapped by their adherence to liberal intellectual constructs which have little relevance for the lived experiences of the poor (D’Souza 2011, 244); in this view, intellectuals are the ones holding back the progress of these social movements, perhaps by not going far enough in questioning the ideas and structures (e.g., “working class”) that inadequately fit marginalised groups or the channels by which these groups have sought to overcome their marginalisation. This view would maintain that if one is to utilise knowledge for social change, one has to be more critical about neoliberalism itself.

I think the difference in these two views arises from a difference between their internal paradigms. Social movement scholars who criticise their colleagues for working with positivist or “postpositivist” (Creswell 2007) theories often see it as their goal not just to produce knowledge, but knowledge useful to those who are being studied. I am not entirely certain, however, that working in an activist or participatory mode is conducive to producing either knowledge or social impact. (I do know from experience that working in marginal communities is very difficult due to asymmetries of power and resources; there can be a very dangerous, unrealistic expectation that your work will lead to improvements in their lives, yet academic work rarely if ever has that kind of impact. Even 35 years after Perlman’s seminal The Myth of Marginality, there still exist favelas in Rio.) Addressing ourselves to structural injustices that marginalise whole swathes of society may have a greater impact than attempting to fight, through one’s research, one particular case of injustice. That said, there is value to having both approaches critically evaluating each other.

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