Social Movement Research in the Age of the Slow Motion Apocalypse
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What happens when we move beyond social movement research as a way to document and catalog the world and instead understand it as a collective dialogic process, capable of participating in cultivating new sociopolitical realities? This is the question taken up by Alex Khasnabish in last Monday’s workshop, organized by the Center for the Study of Europe, on the Radical Imagination project, an ethnographic solidarity research initiative dedicated to understanding and enlivening radicalism and activism in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that he co-directs with Max Haiven. Alex and Max recently published The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity, and the workshop, geared to graduate students, was intended as an introduction to the methodology behind the book, or, how to do research that contributes to struggles for social justice and social change.
Alex began his presentation – which he titled “Social Movement Research in the Age of the Slow Motion Apocalypse” – by defining the radical imagination, not as something we individually possess, but as something we collectively do. He described the process of “convoking the radical imagination,” that is, bringing into being something not yet present, in contrast with more conventional approaches to social movement research. He then took up the crisis of reproduction in social movement spaces – the ways in which social movements reproduce the structures and practices of oppression in the broader society – and the question, borrowed from the Turbulence Collective, that they posed to dozens of self-identified activists in the course of their research: what would it mean to win? He stressed the importance for movements and researchers alike to reject conventional notions of “success” and “failure.” What if, he asked, quoting Judith Halberson, failure is a kind of success? He underscored the need to “dwell in the hiatus,” that is, in the space between success and failure, not, he said, “in order to wallow there, but to renew and reinvigorate a commitment to the long arc of social transformation.” Next he explored some of the ways social movements are compromised, in part owing to the crisis of social reproduction in society at large, in part owing to crises within the movements themselves. Social movements, he argued, are are caught in a double-bind between seeking to challenge the reproduction of capitalism and acting as zones of alternative reproduction for their participants.
How and Why the Radical Imagination Matters
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On Monday evening, Alex joined Kostis Kornetis, author of Children of the Dictatorship: Student Resistance, Cultural Politics and the Long 1960s in Greece, for a panel discussion on “Social Resistance in Times of Austerity.” Cornel Ban, Assistant Professor in Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, introduced the speakers, highlighting their different backgrounds and approaches. Kostis, he said, is an historian who has been looking at the ways regimes in Greece and Spain collapsed and how the imagination that the collapse generated has influenced the ways people protest today, while Alex is anthropologist whose work traces the transnational resonance of zapatismo and how radical movements shape political practice.
Both speakers underscored the importance of the radical imagination to the kind of politics emerging from the confrontation between the politics of austerity and citizens’ understanding of what their choices really are. Kostis’s presentation focused on the appropriation and re-appropriation of the historical legacy in the present. He showed how popular movements from below in Spain and Greece have molded into left-wing political parties, which are challenging the establishment for the first time in recent history. He explained the popular appeal of the left parties – Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece – in terms of perceived loss of national sovereignty under neo-liberal austerity policies imposed on Greece in 2011. The policies, which have resulted in slashing of wages and pensions, rising taxes, rapid disintegration of the social fabric and skyrocketing unemployment, have fueled anger and rage on both sides of the political spectrum, leading to widespread protests in both countries.
Kostis showed how the protestors have employed symbols from history and charged them with new meaning, challenging hegemonic representations of history, from the student uprising at Athens Polytechnic in Greece in 1973 to the death of Franco in 1975. He explained how the movements’ slogans – such as “Franco ha vuelta” in Spain or “We haven’t seen so much democracy since the Junta” in Greece – juxtapose past and present moments of political coercion, reinforcing the idea that history repeats itself. In one of the cartoons he showed a tear gas canister thrown in 1973 lands on protestors in 2012. By invoking the past, he argued, the movements are appealing to a more real or authentic form of democracy, raising questions of what constitutes real democracy. Referencing the work of Ofela Feran, he went on to discuss the performative aspects of the past and role of social movements in working through memory in order to envision a new future.
Alex began once again by evoking Patrick Rainsborough’s description of the current conjuncture as a “slow motion apocalypse,” the challenges of which require a radical reimagining of what is possible and necessary socially, politically, and economically. He explained the origins of his current work on the radical imagination as a desire to move beyond cataloging of past movements, including the Zapatista uprising, in order to participate in bringing something new into being. He described the project’s emergence from a set of observations he and colleagues had made in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, including, the absence of radicalized mass movements, a re-entrenchment of the politics and policies that had led to the crisis, an intensification of systems of exploitation and oppression and collapse of middle class, and lastly, the reproduction of those dynamics within the movements themselves. He touched briefly on other issued related to social movement building, including the need to expand the struggle for social justice and change beyond the material conditions of crisis.
In order to be effective, Alex argued, social movements have to bring into being new ways of imagining and enacting social justice alongside those struggling for social change. He explained how crises are manipulated by the powerful to defend the dominant order and elite interests. The radical imagination, he said, is an alternative approach to solidarity research, demonstrating that it is possible to conduct research that participates in efforts to build a better world. The systemic violence and exploitation shaping our world today, he argued, will not be solved through technocratic fixes or expert knowledge, but only by individuals able to imagine and forge a pass beyond them.
Update: Listen to the discussion on WBUR’s World of Ideas.
Event Highlights: Financial Stability and Energy Security in the Americas and Europe – The Role of Transnational Policy Networks
This two-day international workshop was organised within the research project GR:EEN (Global Reordering: Evolution through European Networks) on February 14-15, 2013 with the aim of studying relations between the EU and regional Transnational Policy Networks (TPNs) in the Americas. TPNs are emerging as important elements of trans-state policymaking in the 21st century. In recent years, the ability of NGOs, transnational governance bodies and firms to shape world politics has steadily grown and an inquiry into their workings adds an informal, nongovernmental dimension to the debates on the interactions between the EU and other regions in the world.
The conference brought together policy makers and academics mainly working in the fields of energy security and financial stability. These two areas were chosen not only because they are key themes of the GR:EEN research project but also because they provide two salient and relevant lenses through which to understand the nature, dynamics and influence of TPNs.
Some of the focal issues under consideration:
- a) What are Transnational Policy Networks and what is their role? What are the methods TPNs use in the areas of energy security and financial stability?
- b) What are the relations between the European Union and TPNs in the Americas?
- c) What are the relationships between initiatives undertaken by TPNs and other cross-border cooperative instruments employed by state and private actors?
- d) How do TPNs in the Americas operate in ways that affect the functioning of the European Union in the areas of energy security and financial stability?
TPNs were not limited to non-state actors. The workshop also explored the workings of government networks including the dynamics within the folds of regulators, law makers and judges that operate and engage across borders.
Supported by Boston University’s Center for Finance, Law, and Policy and the European Commission’s Framework 7 Global Re-ordering: Evolution through European Networks (GR:EEN).