In a recent article, I argued that while the broader progressive left is stuck with old and ineffective models for activism, this extraordinary time of the pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink how we do activism for social change. This has created a chance to revisit how we educate and organize ourselves, how we mobilize and — most importantly — how we develop a creative strategy to achieve our visions.
To begin with, education today is circumscribed by the state through an institutionalized framework in the service of capitalist production. Therefore, many look up to universities and view formal schooling as an ideal, when we instead should develop the forms of critical, participatory and informal popular education that movements have historically developed by themselves — like the work of the Highlander Center, which was critical to workers and civil rights activists in the 1950s. Here we need to approach it as a process of lifelong learning, which examines the key components of what we are trying to change: society, social interactions, power, nonviolent action, strategy, social change, economy and more.
Alliances are key, since the only way that exploitative elites stay in power is by dividing us into competing and alienated groups and communities. Our ultimate strength is people power. It is hard and long-term work to build the personal relationships and trust that can bridge between communities, and we will be utterly powerless if we are not able to do that. Small groups of people are key: they show new paths forward, and innovate new ways of acting and organizing. But it is only the broad masses of people that can change society in any fundamental way. Learning how to build and maintain such alliances is crucial. Many challenges exist, especially on a global level, as experienced with the difficulties for the World Social Forum.
Our approaches to organizing are influenced too much by the military command structure and the state’s bureaucratic approach, and modeled on the old social movements’ democracy of top-down hierarchies. That is making us inflexible and utterly undemocratic. Some are experimenting with networks, but it is not very developed. We need to find more organic, dynamic and complex forms of organizing, like the jazz orchestra, or the meshworks of forest vegetation. There is a structure, but it is not linear or predictable. It is organic, cooperative and communicative.
Our strategies and tactics are shaped excessively by the military idea of weakening our opponents; corporations’ approach to attracting attention and influencing the perception of the masses through media campaigns; political parties’ idea of winning support from passive citizens, who shall stay passive except as voters or funders; and the old social movements’ preoccupation with influencing (or capturing) the state. Despite the fact that it is obviously not working very well, we seem stuck with an old framework of strategies. We urgently need to develop new and creative thinking, to be less predictable, and to learn from what others have done when they challenged existing systems of injustice. One inspiration here is the approach of “emergent strategy.”
We have to work on developing all of this, and to reflect on these issues while building and planning for change. Only then will we be effective at making a real difference.
Now that we have more time to sit and reflect, we might also access our radical imagination and playfulness, which is so vital for social change.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to develop our parallel infrastructure of communication and organizing through online information technology. That is key, although not key in the way many people think. It is not replacing anything, only giving us a parallel and supplementary way of increasing the speed of certain communication and bridging certain geographical distances between us.
Face-to-face interactions in real life have always been, and will continue to be, the backbone of mobilization for social change. This is important to understand, especially since information and communication technology is also key to increased state and corporate surveillance and discipline of populations, and therefore not something we can allow ourselves to depend upon. Instead, we need to develop creative new ways of resisting such ICT surveillance.
During this pandemic crisis, many of us have been bound to our homes. Hopefully, this has made it possible for people to deepen relations online with others living far away, preferably people from different cultures; to socialize virtually over tea or wine, a movie or a mutual topic; to develop visionary plans for the future and reflect on how we live our lives. I hope we continue to educate ourselves and build our networks, and focus on building broad alliances for the future.
Since the pandemic has forced us to stop our hitherto “normal” way of living and reflect more, I hope we will realize the need to go beyond our ritualized forms of activism, particularly protests, in the post-pandemic future. In those parts of the world where a so-called liberal, open, and law-based democracy is the ideology of the state, like the United States and Europe, such demonstrations do not challenge anything.
In Sweden, the prime minister from the Labor Party walks and shouts slogans together with workers on May 1 every year, ever since the Labor Party formed the first government in 1932. There is a mythology, inherited from movements 200 years ago, that we can change society by walking from point A to B in urban areas, especially in the capital. Still, people do it all the time: marching in Washington, London, Berlin — again and again.
Yet such action is empty, and is instead an opium for the (liberal progressive) opposition! As Arundhati Roy suggested after the biggest protests in world history against the Iraq war in 2003: Holiday protests don’t stop wars. Instead, we need to literally stop the companies that profit from war.
Embracing direct action and creative resistance
As we reeducate ourselves, I hope we will instead see the value of focusing on another equally old but forgotten tradition, derived from the anarchists: direct action. When you see a problem, you mobilize a movement that deals with it — be that by creating alternatives, or by resisting our opponents through blockades, or occupations of land and factories. Ideally, we resist by enacting our alternatives, like the landless workers in Brazil who occupy land in order to build new socialist, gender-equal, ecological and just societies on the land.
Protests, marches and appeals do not generate people power, as long as we only appeal to governments. As long as we citizens obey their laws, consume their products and services, and continue to produce what they demand as workers within factories, companies and universities, the key problems will remain.
Now that we have more time to sit and reflect, we might also access our radical imagination and playfulness, which is so vital for social change. Without a creative innovation of new ways of being, acting and relating to each other, we will never succeed.
Creativity has always been key to activism, but it has been especially important during the pandemic. Creativity has enabled us to think anew, to enact smaller spectacular interventions and combine with new technologies, like the Spanish activists who held a virtual demonstration by projecting their bodies onto the parliament; or Anonymous, who organized digital disobedience by hacking the websites and databases of violent states and corporations; or those nurses who placed 100 pairs of shoes outside of the White House and mourned the deaths resulting from a lack of personal protective equipment, and those activists who stood in mourning for those killed by injustice and placed coffins in front of state departments, as in Boston at the Massachusetts State House.
We also need to develop the radical imaginations of a new society, and the necessary popular alliances that make renewal possible.
Moreover, as we advance to a situation with fewer pandemic restrictions, I hope we see the value of continuing to create mutual aid networks, whereby communities creatively utilize for-profit networks to organize free service for each other, growing food everywhere (including at balconies, roof-tops and urban gardens), reconnecting with nature, building community where we live, supporting local shops and assisting marginalized groups.
We also need to develop the radical imaginations of a new society, and the necessary popular alliances that make renewal possible.
What does constructive resistance look like in practice?
But what are the strategies that will ultimately matter for the new broader alliances of movements we are building for the future? I will illustrate with three examples: one protest-oriented, one resistance-oriented, and one that represents the most hopeful sign of social change — built on Indigenous traditions of what can be called “constructive resistance,” or resistance through the enacting of alternatives.
One obvious example of a protest-oriented movement is the ongoing massive movement of farmers in India, which after 8 months and over 200 killed is still sustaining momentum, perhaps as the first mobilization on the subcontinent to threaten the Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Another example is the recent extraordinary mobilization of the Movement for Black Lives, or BLM, which quickly became one of the largest protest movements in U.S. history over the last year. It has had ripple effects across different states, in small towns and big cities. Political results are visible with discussions of defunding the police, new laws increasing the possibilities for prosecuting racist police violence and challenging police militarization.
Since 2013, this movement has built an infrastructure of local leadership, social media presence, alliances and coordination with professional groups, including civil rights lawyers, as well as nurturing its star-spangled NFL players. This laid the groundwork for the latest wave of mobilizations last year. In this way, BLM is an example of how protests — when combined with a lot of other social change work — can have an impact. Although, how much remains unclear, and it will depend on how activists handle this moment. (And to be clear: It is indeed a movement, not a moment). Unfortunately, the usual trend is that protests become smaller and less impactful over time. They are hard to uphold.
Another example of a vision for a future path was the attempt of a People’s Strike in the United States. It was more focused on resistance and direct action obstructions of the existing economic system, and thus tried to force elites towards social change. The beginning was marked with a new kind of May 1 action, followed by a series of monthly strikes during the summer of 2020, initiated by the Black liberation community of anti-imperialists in Jackson, Mississippi.
Although the initiative did not continue to grow, it gathered arguably the broadest left and progressive alliance in U.S. history, combining worker strikes at corporations like Walmart, Amazon and Whole Foods. Strikes were connected to work slow-downs at other places, as well as rent strikes by tenants, motorcade honk-ins and other actions. In this way the People’s Strike showed how “capitalism is the virus,” as one protest slogan read. Hopefully, this initiative can gain momentum again. If many people and organizations would join in, and if such strikes can impact economic elites, it could become powerful.
However hopeful these examples are, I consider the main example of a strategic way forward to be those movements which, through experimentation, are developing a form of “constructive resistance.” This includes the Black empowerment work of Cooperation Jackson, in Jackson, Mississippi, the Native Americans at the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, the Kurds in Rojava, Northern Syria, and one particularly inspirational example: the landless workers movement in Brazil.
Constructive resistance by the landless worker movement in Brazil
The movement of landless workers in Brazil, with its foremost organization Movimento dos trabalhadores rurais Sem Terra, or MST, is one of the largest social movements in South America. Formed during the 1980s and mobilizing about 1.5 million small-scale farmers and landless rural workers who have no land with which to sustain themselves, the movement has managed to distribute land to over 350,000 landless families.
The activists occupy land that is not used and live in temporary encampments, or acampamentos. On that occupied land they create simple housing and cooperatives. Their unarmed struggle leads to painful evictions and confrontations with the police and armed militias. But they are resilient and continue like this for many years. If the government eventually expropriates and redistributes the land, they are then able to finally build permanent settlements, or assentamentos. Thus, MST has created an ambitious program of alternative agrarian development as part of its vision of a “New Brazil,” consisting of organic farming cooperatives, gender-equal democratic governance of their own encampments on land occupations, self-organized villages, cooperative businesses, health clinics, primary and adult schooling, as well as an autonomous, open and tuition-free activist university.
Thus, “constructive resistance”—resistance by enacting alternatives—is a form of resistance that combines the “Yes” and the “No” in the struggle for social change.
In the process of resisting one of the most unjust land distributions in the world, they are also creating the alternative institutions they envision. Therefore, they embody the politico-ethical future through their resistance practice; they undertake constructive resistance. When such a mobilization reaches a certain level or size that it seeks to replace the existing unjust society, we might rightfully speak of a “revolutionary” process.
Thus, “constructive resistance” — resistance by enacting alternatives — is a form of resistance that combines the “yes” and the “no” in the struggle for social change. As such, it is a very different strategy that we can learn from. It avoids the co-option trap that haunts the construction of alternatives, which risks them becoming just another alternative in the capitalist market, while simultaneously avoiding the repression and marginalization trap that haunts radical resistance movements.
The construction work builds dignity, resources, empowerment, and hopeful alternatives to existing problems, while mass mobilizations of resistance tear down and obstruct the ability of power systems of dominant elites to exploit, repress and destroy people, nature and the planet we live on.
Constructive resistance might be a way forward. If so, we have a lot to do during the pandemic in terms of educating ourselves, reorienting and developing strategies and creative tactics, building relationships and forming alliances, and rethinking how we organize. If we do this, we might come out of the current COVID-19 crisis far more prepared to deal with the fundamental systemic crisis that is threatening us all, and the future of this planet.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.