This chapter does some more theoretical work. This is important, academically speaking, because my work takes a position mid-way between distinct approaches from US and European scholarship on social movements. Within the European strand of work, one of the most important things going on from the mid-1960s was the development of a politics of protest that seemed more concerned with new identities than with the more obviously materialist politics of labour movements. But, recent protests against the economic effects of globalisation pose a problem for that way of thinking – aren’t the recent struggles really about the distribution of goods and money?
With this question in mind this chapter explores the recent history of protest. I describe some of the links between the anti-/alter-globalisation struggles, the attempts to create positive alternatives in the social forums, and the incredible eruption of protest around the war on terror. In this way I introduce the specific subject of study for the remainder of the thesis. That is, as well as trying to understand the way ideas are used and structured within social movements I’m trying to understand the specific story of recent protest against globalisation and war. By looking at the different versions of the history of recent protest found within the movements themselves, I also give an introduction to some of the differences between the three sets of ideas (the three ‘orientational frames’) described later.
The power of socialism as an ideology, and its more specific trotskyist flavour, has ensured the continuing existence of active Trotskyist groups throughout post-war British history. But the leading British Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), typically polarises opinion. As a result, movement analyses of contemporary protest tend to focus soley on the SWP, or else entirely ignore or argue against the SWP and its kindred spirits. Yet a more objective view must include the various revoluntionary socialist organisations alongside the diversity of other key players within recent protest.
The revolutionary socialist frame identifies a set of ideas whose interconnection flows partly from the history of communist and Trotskyist activism in the UK. This chapter offers a brief discussion of that history, singling out those periods that seem to have had a lasting effect on the beliefs and behaviour of Trotskyists today. For instance, Trotskyists have had to broaden their understanding of the social base of revolution. This results from both the need for Trotskyist organisations to come to terms the strength of the students’ movements, womens’ movements, movements of sexual identity and so on, and the simultaneous economic restructuring that shrunk the industrial working class base. While Trotskyist discussion often continues a focus on the power of the working class, Trotskyists can now be found agitating and recruiting in universities as much as in the industrial workplaces.
Nevertheless, at the core of the revolutionary socialist frame lie a range of ideas that will likely be espoused wherever a society can be described as capitalist. These include:
a class-based analysis of exploitation;
the value on equality of political power, justified through human nature;
the need for a sudden (and perhaps violent) moment of change;
the need for a vanguard organisation at the centre of a mass revolutionary movement; and
a belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.
Beyond that core of beliefs spin-off a range of less central and/or more practical ideas about society and how to change it. This chapter explains these, and importantly their interconnections, in some detail. Despite the focus on Trotskyism in this introduction, I also argue that these ideas are more broadly influential. Many people who are not members of such organisations utilise many of the core arguments in their political discussions. Indeed, some ideas, such as the value on power equality, seem ubiqitous throughout contemporary movements. Certainly, this idea is widely espoused. But, equality is coloured with different hues depending on the context of surrounding beliefs.
The direct action frame draws much of its character from it connection with a particular approach to creating social change, rather than any more theoretical ideology. Nonetheless beliefs concerning the tactics for action demonstrate a particular value set that shares much in common with anarchism.
The chapter examines the development of direct action in the UK by briefly examining periods of protest for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s, for environmental protection in the 1970s and against road building during the 1990s. It becomes possible to see a growing militancy over those years, as well as the development of increasingly sophisticated action practices and a deepening of the political and philosophical messages of direct action.
By offering greater detail about contemporary direct action it becomes possible to specify that political content. Briefly, these ideas include:
a high value on individual freedom with, as a flip side, a high stress on responsibility for one’s actions;
a distrust of authority, seen as self-serving;
a stress on taking forms of action that do not depend on mediation by a third party to be effective;
a value on the creation of open political spaces for learning, empowerment, and governed by the respect for others’ liberty;
a developing critique of capitalism that sees the current structures of political economy as responsible for a great variety of social, political and environmental ills; and
an understanding of democracy as requiring in-depth, free and unmediated participation by all effected by the relevant decisions.
A significant section of the constituency of contemporary contention is connected with neither the traditional organisations of the far left, nor with small groups intent on carrying out direct action for immediate change. The radical liberal frame is one apparently utilised by many in the movements who are more likely to be supportive of a range of well-known non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, Oxfam or War on Want. While these organisations’ primary operations are not directed at mobilizing a membership to take part in street demonstrations, they nevertheless often provide an urgent desire for social change.
Increasingly, over the past few decades, such NGOs have developed a set of intellectual tools that provides an understanding of western governments as culpable for social and environmental injustice, and the potential efficacy of massed populations in changing their governments’ behaviour. On this basis, the radical liberal frame emerges from a wide range of particular issue-focused critiques rather than either a body of theory or a particular approach to social change.
The radical liberal frame expresses the way that certain core beliefs appear to come together to justify an increasingly radical approach to holding governments to account, while seeking to achieve concrete gains in the immediate future. Some core ingredients of the frame include:
A strong moral position centred on a (broadly egalitarian) understanding of justice.
Critique of those in power focused on the abuse of that power.
A positive evaluation of empirically grounded understanding and subsequent critique of any belief system that appears to be dogmatic.
A belief in the potential of social change activities that work with, rather than against, current institutions of power.
A strong belief democracy, justified on the basis of sharing relevant knowledge.
Despite their different political flavours, the three frames set out above deal with a number of very similar issues. This is hardly surprising given that each worldview developed over the same period, within the same political and social context and in relation to the same emerging problems and opportunities. So, we find that each frame addresses themes such as democracy, power, economic and political institutions and the appropriate methods for social change.
This chapter outlines some of the points at which each frame, or a particular combination of them, find agreement on certain points. However, I stress more explicitly those places where sharp divergence in understanding is evident, since these points help to draw the boundaries around each frame, aiding understanding of their contents and extents. The chapter also stresses the tactical and strategic differences, more often than the philosophical. The strategic and the philosophic aspects are completely intertwined, since to provide a plausible strategy for social change one must base it on a plausible understanding of the social structure that is the target of that change. However, since proponents of the different frames mostly come into contact in the planning and carrying out of political action – it is in the realm of strategy that their divisions are most easily perceived.
In exploring the points of agreement and disagreement we find out, among other things, what exactly is meant by radicalism or reformism (depending on who is using the word), why the united front tactic of trotskyist organisations is so divisive, and how the notion of direct action has come to be applied in apprently inappropriate situations.
From the moment that George W Bush announced the beginning of a ‘War on Terror’, activists from across the world decided to oppose it. They did so on many different grounds, but came together in coalitions struggling against, first, the invasion of Afghanistan, and second, the invasion of Iraq. By 15th February 2003 these movements had created the largest popular opposition to war ever seen.
Within the UK anti-war movement of the time, all three of the frames described above can be seen to be influential as providing activists with particular critical understandings, motivations for action, and methods for acting. Of overriding importance, I argue, was the way that the different frames brought people with different political worldviews, into a broad agreement on an analysis of the war on terror. Commentry on the anti-war movement tends to brush away the any internal conflict, and while this chapter does emphasise a significant degree of unity, it is also sensitive to more difficult internal dynamics. Respondents characterise some anti-war movement activities as lacking space for debate and this proved problematic for two reasons. First, we see that conflict over appropriate methods to oppose the war was rife, creating significant tensions between adherents to different frames that has clearly also been transposed into the social forum movement. Second, since the movement as a whole lacked a broadly shared, detailed analysis of the reasons for war, it had difficulty coping with the moment of the invasion of Iraq. The fact that the three frames had only come into agreement on quite superficial critiques without dealing with more fundamental disagreements contributed to the strategic difficulty of questions such as whether to support the armed resistance inside Iraq once invasion became occupation.
Seeking positive solutions to problems identified by alter-globalisation activists, a wide range of organisations participated in organising the first World Social Forum in Brazil in January 2001. A self-proclaimed ‘open space’ for dialogue to prove that ‘another world is possible’, this massive gathering provided world-wide inspiration for hundreds of local groups. While not as numerous in the UK as other European countries, local social forums sprang up in part as a channel for the energy and new-found resources of the anti-war movement. As such, the social forums retained the multi-faceted character of the anti-war movements, with strong representation from a wide array of political positions.
This chapter is, in part, the story of Sheffield Social Forum (SSF) in particular. Here we see, represented in microcosm, many of the debates also being held at national, regional and even the global level. These debates are hardly played out on a simply local level, however, as SSF engaged in UK-wide and European networks of local social forums seeking to influence the direction of the third edition of the European Social Forum. Again we see the utility of the three frames identified throughout this thesis in aiding understanding of the thoughts and actions of significant groups of actors contesting neo-liberal globalisation and the idea of the social forum itself. This chapter raises the possibility that the self-consciously ‘open space’ of the social forums have enabled a new combination of ideas to come to the fore, one which draws on both revolutionary socialism and radical liberalism.
This section is unlikely to be of interest to the general reader, and are here simply for completeness. More interesting considerations of the methods of identifying orientational frames are contained towards the end of chapter one.
Paper presented to the international research seminar ‘Politics on the Internet’ at the University of Tampere, Finland, 23-24 November 2006.
This article uses interviews with core anti-war and peace activists to offer an overview of both the benefits and challenges that social movement actors derive from new communication technologies. It shows contemporary political activism as intensely informational; dependent on rapid communication by a wide variety of means. A hyperlink analysis is then employed to map the UK anti-war movement as it appears online. Through comparing these two sets of data it becomes possible to contrast the online representation of the UK anti-war movement with its offline ‘reality’. We find that, to the extent that one’s experience of the anti-war movement is mediated online, it appears as a continuous network across national and political boundaries. This is in sharp contrast to activists’ experience ‘on the ground’ which is both politically divided and demonstrably tied to a national-level focus for action.
A Paper Presented to the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest Conference, at Manchester Metropolitan University, April 2006
This study utilises a theoretical framework developed from the interpretive frames approach. I will offer a hermeneutic conception of ‘orientational frames’ that has a number of advantages over the more usual, largely positivist, application of the approach. This research is based on ethnographic fieldwork within the Sheffield Social Forum (SSF) from the inception of the group, through its involvement in a UK network of local social forums, to the attendance of members of the SSF at the 2004 edition of the European Social Forum. As such, it relates to processes at a number of levels: the creation of a local organisation; the networking of local organisations nationally; and their involvement in an international event. Data will be drawn from each of these levels in order to argue that despite important ideational continuities the SF movement contains substantially shifted emphases, and the development of novel connections between familiar ideas that signal a new politics of the social forums.
From late 2005 to early 2006 I worked with a group of Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Sheffield. The group had emerged around concerns about Somali children’s achievement in school and hoped to find out what sorts of particular problems their children might face. Together we designed a survey based on a bilingual questionnaire; the survey was carried out by Somali volunteers and the group worked together to interpret the results.
The final report was presented at a large meeting of policy makers, service providers and service users at Sheffield Town Hall in March 2006. The report includes data about the Somali community’s concerns about education; about the culture gap between youth and parents; and about the kinds of solutions that Somalis hope to see. A number of best practice solutions are described, most strikingly the highly successful efforts of Somali link workers in Tower Hamlets.
The Somali group Link Action is currently working with the Northern Refugee Centre to bring about some of the potential solutions described in the report.