Spaces of Solidarity: Infoshops, the Suburbs,
Review by Lesley Wood
I don’t think I’m alone in finding it difficult to bring my organizing and my reading together. As a result, I really appreciate it when books come out that allow me to step back and think more generally about when and how political mobilization happens. Sometimes thousands of newly energized people show up and campaigns explode into feverish activity, at other times activism deteriorates into a morass of accusations and paralysis. Why? As organizers and activists we have to be engaged with the day-to-day work—our strategies are often limited to thinking about budgets, allies, and targets. Unsurprisingly we are less sensitive to the large scale ebbs and flows of political protest, and how these limit or help us. Studies of past movements can be useful in helping us to see that big picture.
Insurgent Identities and Schism and Solidarity are two books that cast a keen eye towards the rise and fall of popular movements in nineteenth century France. But these are not simply histories of long ago and far away, they systematically collect and analyze information on the patterns of protest and social life and build models of mobilization that are useful for thinking about organizing today. They attempt to offer answers to the key questions—what allows people to assume a revolutionary identity, and why do organizations split and schism at some moments, and engage in firm solidarity at others? Examining organizational voting, housing, marriage and arrest records, both emphasize the relevance of day-to-day relationships for understanding movement activity. Both also share the conclusion that the interactions of diverse groups of people in shared spaces allow for more durable alliances, and underpin rapid direct action. Such a finding clearly argues that activists need to work to create these shared spaces, whether in coalitions, at actions that involve diverse collaboration, or even in alternative institutions such as infoshops, as long as they engage multiple communities. It is these spaces that help organizations and movements, especially during periods of declining mobilization, avoid the schisms that are so common when organizers burn out after intense periods of engagement.
Roger Gould’s Insurgent Identities: Class, Community and Protest in Paris from 1848 to the Commune compares the “workers” uprising of 1848 to the Paris Commune of 1871. He asks what structural and material changes took place between the two events that led to changes in the ways that people understood their political participation. How did these changes in identity influence the ways Parisians participated in political action? In contrast to previous studies, Gould argues that while the population mobilized as “workers against capitalism” in 1848, by 1871 class consciousness was not a major source of political action. Many people had built relationships outside of their class and occupational niches. Instead, the people of Paris had come to see themselves primarily as “urban dwellers against a centralized state.” The source of the difference between the two uprisings was the physical transformation of Paris associated with Baron Haussmann. Like development companies of today working New York’s Lower East Side, the Baron had cleared out many of the central working class districts, and doubled the average width of the city’s streets in order to facilitate the movement of troops and cannons. These changes pushed thousands of less affluent residents into the periphery where they formed new spaces of identity that were more neighborhood than class oriented.
The impact of such redevelopment can be understood by looking at the link between day-to-day relationships and political identities. Gould notes that while all people have multiple identities, only some are activated through social relationships at any moment. In order to understand the ways identities are related to political action, Gould introduces the concept of “participation identity,” that he defines as “the social identification with respect to which an individual responds in a given instance of social protest to specific normative and instrumental appeals”(13). In other words, whether someone responds to statements like, “the capitalists are exploiting the workers like us!” Or, “People like us have a right to defend ourselves from the federal government.” How do people respond to particular ways of representing their interests, and norms? In contrast to frameworks that assume, “you work therefore you’re not the elite therefore you’re working class therefore you’ll respond to political speeches, flyers, and newspapers that call you working class,” Gould asks, “who are your friends,” “who do you live near?” and “who do you identify with.” The particular relationships potential protesters engage in provide a means of assessing the validity of a collective identity such as worker, student, or city dweller, and these same relationships then offer a means for acting to defend that “participation identity” and pushing others to do so. Gould looks at how marriage records (who did the couple ask to be their witness?) and housing patterns to learn how Parisians in both time periods interacted. He found that by 1871, working Parisians friends and neighbors were mixed in terms of class. He noted that formal neighborhood organizations helped emphasize this mixed class “urban dweller” identity by forging relations among people who weren’t already linked and building the possibility of collective action. Leading up to the Paris Commune, these organizations developed out of public meetings that brought people in suburban neighborhoods together, and built a sense of “the people,” facilitated by police harassment. When the French state tried to abolish the popular National Guard, composed of locals from many of these suburban neighborhoods, these communities reacted quickly and the Paris Commune was born.
This notion of “participation identity” is interesting to consider. What are the relevant identities that people identify with? Who are the “We” in “We the People?” Some of the most hotly defended identities in the United States and Canada today appear to be athletic, consumer-driven, or religiously based. What does this mean for our campaigns? One of the most striking things to me about the massive anti-war mobilizations last spring was the way people in the New York began to see protest as somehow “American.” After the permit allowing protesters to march in New York was denied, many began to describe protesting as patriotic. As one student argued; “everyone should have had an American flag!” While I find such an idea problematic in many ways, the launch of United for Peace and Justice’s advertising campaign “Peace is Patriotic” recognized its power.
Are the identities (and groups?) that many of us work with broad enough (anarchist, activist, anti-globalization, radical, even liberal) to allow many to identify with us? Even if they are, are there enough social ties to allow people who are willing to commit to make the transition from identification to action? These efforts to build a united front need not be hierarchical. Social Forums like New York’s are trying to build ties across communities to make city-wide collaboration more possible. But do we need a single, broad identity to organize around? Or is there some way to build a “federated identity” of people who share a critique of the system while maintaining different visions? Is there a way to respect the different ways people participate and fulfill Zapatista idea of “One No, Many Yeses.”
Regardless, Gould’s book underscores the importance listening to how potential protesters define themselves, their interests, and their lives. If we want to organize here and now, we need to be tied into how people live in that same time and place. Organizing campaigns cannot be transferred across the city, country, or globe. There are no master plans that work everywhere and at any time.
The other book, Schism and Solidarity in Social Movements: The Politics of Labor in the French Third Republic, is a rich, complex re-telling of a period I had little knowledge of. Like many of us, my reading of French history ends with the Paris Commune, and then skips forward to World War I. This book looks at the period in between 1871 and 1921. How did workers that had lived through total social transformation become the “double” track of French labor movement—massive industrial unions alongside radical grassroots militancy? How did much of the energy that overthrew successive governments become transferred into party organizing?
While this book presents a slightly overwhelming history of the various factions, parties, and radical leaders, Ansell’s main question is a timeless one; why do labor movements sometimes exhibit broad based solidarity and at other times dissolve into antagonistic factions? He argues that bourses de travail that operated as job placement centers for a range of unions provided the opportunity for workers from multiple trades and crafts to interact, providing a local, militant counterweight to the national organizations of sectoral unions and political parties. The opportunity the bourses offered for solidarity to be built between workers inadvertently limited the schisms and in-fighting at the national level. Similar to Gould, he looks for recurrent patterns in networks, and links changes in local level organizations and political attitudes to shifts in national-level organizations and their ideological evolution.
In his exploration of unity and autonomy—a debate as relevant to our own movements as it was for nineteenth century France—Ansell raises three points I found particularly useful. First, he emphasizes waves and cycles of protest, second he discusses the three ways schism emerged, and finally he notes the significance of the “shared spaces” for broad based solidarity. I’ll go through each in turn.
In the midst of organizational retreats and e-mail flame wars we often forget that decline in mobilization is tied to schism and discord. Again and again it happens—protests decline in number and everyone blames everyone else. Max Elbaum’s book Revolution in the Air masterfully captures this process in the 1970s, as the activists of the 1960s attempted to root out the ideological, organizational, and personal “flaws” that had kept the revolution from happening. Ansell notes that groups have an increased tendency to schism when there is tension with the dominant culture and members or leaders can be accused of being impure, co-opted or insufficiently oppositional.
We can look at the anti-globalization movement in North America as a recent example. Building up to and immediately after Seattle, diverse coalitions formed, in part through Direct Action Network coalitions in over a dozen cities across the USA. In New York, over one hundred people began to meet weekly. As time passed, the numbers declined in all cities and the remaining members engaged in a range of strategies in order to maintain the survival of the organization.
Ansell’s discussion of the three ways schisms developed in 19th century labor movements suggests that different responses to waning participation will lead to the different strategies of routinization, communal closure, and inverted hierarchy.(231) These different strategies will lead to corresponding schisms. These processes are familiar to many of us, although they may not be the only ways organizations fall apart. Routinization is the first response Ansell discusses to declining participation, exhaustion, and burnout. Often this turns on a desire to find a way to sustain the organization without such active participation. This can lead to introducing membership dues, hiring staff, and it typically leads to a moderation of goals (229).
Communal closure is a different response. Also resulting from burnout and declining mobilization, activists will work to maintain the deep sense of emotional commitment experienced during the upswing of the movement. Rather than choosing pragmatic organizational maintenance, this approach favors strategies that highlight the “us-them” distinction. Activists previously affiliated with a range of community, workplace, and issue-based organizations and identities became the “anti-globalization activists” after Seattle. Groups following this path tend to draw up statements of unity, close themselves or limit access to new members and engage in sustained critique of movements and organizations previously seen as allies.
We saw dramatic evidence of this in New York, especially after September 11th, 2001—with a rapid increase of closed affinity groups and reading circles.(1) Often “an internal hierarchy is erected to exert discipline and control within the group and over affiliated groups.”(230) This hierarchy can be formal or informal. Many of us have been in groups that endure this shift away from action and towards intensive internal and external critique and a subsequent narrowing of appropriate activity.
The third response to declining mobilization is a reaction against “communal closure.” It generally involves “celebrating the very aspects of social engagement that communal closure seeks to sublimate; spontaneity, intuition and authenticity.”(230) Activists engaging in this response revel in refusing to conform to “appropriate behavior.” This behavior often leads to its own type of dogmatic and exclusive behavior and a schism. If communal closure seeks to maintain commitment by organizing it hierarchically, countermobilization vehemently rejects formal organization that is not absolutely egalitarian. Ansell describes this third process as “inverted hierarchy” and says this places the weight of action entirely on individual will. He notes that in the French labor movement, this countermobilization is exemplified by anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalists (230). However there appears to be some conflation here between issues of equality and individualism, and correspondingly—hierarchy and tightly bounded organization. This is a product of the case examined—in which “communal closure” most often takes the form of political parties, and “countermobilization” the form of the local, egalitarian bourses reacting against those parties. Those of us who have spent any time on the anti-authoritarian left could easily imagine a case of “communal closure” for an egalitarian organization. One doesn’t need to be a political party to become exclusionary.
Not only a history of fragmentation, Schism and Solidarity tells us how schism was avoided and solidarity was built through “balanced dualism.” Balanced dualism requires overcoming the structural and ideological dualisms—and re-aligning the “us-versus–them” boundary. This realignment is facilitated by cross-cutting economic, friendship, or cultural networks that bridge divisions that would otherwise be vulnerable to schism. In nineteenth century France, Ansell sees the labor exchanges or bourses de travail as sites that allow for the development of such networks. These job placement centers were developed as a response to unemployment, but inadvertently encouraged the unification of trade unions across their political divisions and around a local, territorial model of union organization(14). Their rise realigned the labor movement in France away from more hierarchical unions and political parties.
In addition to providing housing for traveling workers, technical training and libraries, strike funds and consumer cooperatives, the bourses became a headquarters for local federations of unions (111). They also became specialists in strikes (112). The general strike was a symbol, in part in seeking to invert the hierarchy of political party over union, but it was also an ecumenical activity in reaching out across party boundaries. The potentially unifying character of the general strike was visible right from the start, and it was claimed that “all the groups without distinction of school should rally to it.” On July 20 1891, just after a meeting of the bourse, police noted that “there is a pow-wow between several anarchists and independent revolutionaries… They spoke of strikes and took a firm resolution to support all of them… in order to arrive at the general strike” (120).
Those who have engaged in direct action are aware of the unifying nature of mass protest for participants. Gould might suggest that it can be the moment that a “participation identity” becomes strongest. Strikes as “revolutionary gymnastics” spread wildly through France, facilitated by the networks of bourses, but later declined amidst debates over the relationship between party and union.
The same debate ended the wave of general strikes that took place in Ontario during 1996 and 1997. After city after city was brought to a halt by the labor movement and its community allies in opposition to cuts to social services, and massive proposed layoffs of the provincial government, the groundbreaking Metro Days of Action took place. On the first day, transit was halted, all unionized workers refused to work, and the city was silenced, except for the step of picket lines. The Teamsters were rumored to have shut down the highways using tractor trailers. The next day 250,000 marched through the streets for hours. The speakers from the podium vowed that the next step would be a province wide shut down. But nothing happened. The labor movement was stymied by the same debate that had divided the movement in France at the end of the 19th century. Were the parties a tool of the union, or the unions the tool of the parties? The labor movement couldn’t decide whether its goal was to get the quasi-socialist New Democratic Party elected. Schism took place, and with it, demobilization, massive layoffs, and a gutting of the welfare state.
Ansell’s research suggests we need to think seriously about the role of local institutions in avoiding such scenarios. Again I think of the movement around social forums, but also infoshops, community centers, and grassroots coalitions. These efforts allow a counter-weight to nationally directed, professionalized organizations and hierarchical unions and political parties. One recent attempt to develop a federated structure of local coalitions was the Direct Action Network. Imagined as local spokescouncils of diverse groups, they quickly transformed into organizations rooted most often in the environmental, direct action, and student movements. “DAN people” quickly came to represent a particular modus operandi—and however attractive to people like myself, they failed as enduring cross-movement coalitions. Interestingly, the DAN branches that lasted longest—New York and Chicago appeared to most likely to fulfill the condition of “balanced dualism”—both were known for working with groups that reached outside the usual direct action constituencies to labor and the movement against police brutality.
In his tale of solidarity and schism, Ansell celebrates diverse, local solidarity and its ability to build powerful strike waves. As an anti-authoritarian, I sympathize with his bias. But I wonder, is schism always bad? He notes that like divorce, sometimes schism is liberating—but what are the implications of this? Are there moments that schism and sectarianism can create the opportunities for more long term solidarity? More work is needed on this question.
Christopher Ansell and the late Roger Gould have provided us some of the best historical sociology being written in recent years. The books, despite their density, are rich and sophisticated in their blending of data, method, and theory, and applicable to current struggles. These books are not for those looking for a quick, easy read. But if you’re interested in history and the integration of theory and data, do not give these a miss. They challenge more simplistic explanations of class struggle and revolution with their emphasis on micro-level relationships and processes of identity construction and action. This might dismay some but we should celebrate that, according to Ansell and Gould, our coalitions, infoshops, and community meetings might just be creating the conditions for more than “revolutionary gymnastics.”