This week, we are continuing our discussion about “movement evolution and decline.” We are specifically framing our discussions in this way, rather than talking about movement “failure.” However sometimes (and maybe even often?), movements fail to achieve the goals that they set out to accomplish. Given what we know about the power of the State to resist change and repress movements and the existence of effective countermovements, it’s amazing that movements achieve anything!
But, in analyzing social movements, it’s important to take a longer historical approach or to consider what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the arc of the moral universe.” Recall our first week, when we talked about social change as incrementally rolling a boulder up a mountain — moving from one plateau to the next. Social movement activity then is the hopeful endeavor of rolling this boulder to the next plateau, knowing that one day a social movement after you will reach the “mountaintop.” Social movement goals are vital to recruiting participants, fostering solidarity, and mobilizing people to act, but often these lofty goals take a long time to achieve. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was partially referring to, I think, when he made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In evaluating what might look like movement failure, the concept of “initiator” and “spin off” movements are important. I eliminated this reading from our syllabus so want to talk through these concepts as they are central to movement evolution and decline. William Gamson discusses “initiator” movements as ones that really spark what our reading last week would refer to as a “protest cycle” or serve as the inspiration of movements that come later. These later movements that emerge from the ashes of the initiator movement are called “spin offs.” One prime example of an initiator movement would be the Civil Rights Movement that inspired concurrent movements at the time (Women’s movement, gay liberation, etc) and continues to inspire new spin off movements such as Black Lives Matter. Another more recent initiator movement could be the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. These two movements seem to have sparked another round of global uprisings and protest movements around the globe, that continue recently with uprisings in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong.
Even if these movements do not achieve all of their goals, as initiator movements, they could be categorized as successful because of the way that they sparked future movements and uprisings to pick up on their tactics and goals and carry them forward. In this way, we can see historical social movements retrospectively as initiators that generated spin-off movements.
With that context as background, we have two readings this week: one on labor organizing movements with farmworkers and the other about the ways that movements can become institutionalized or even co-opted. These are two very different readings on the topic of movement evolution and decline.
The first reading examines two movements that attempted to organize agricultural workers and looks at why one was unsuccessful and why the other achieved more of its goals. It provides a good case of thinking through why some movements that seemingly fail are important for future movements.
The second reading examines the topic of “co-optation” which refers to the way that radical, grassroots movements and movement goals can become de-radicalized. This process is often called co-optation, by which these movements become mainstreamed. This happens often when grassroots movements become nonprofit organizations and/or when they shift to focus more on electoral politics and political change rather than protest.
I want you to choose one of these readings for your original discussion post and then one of these readings for your response. I only want you to do one response this week, but I want it to be a much longer and more substantive response than usual (200-300 words) which addresses the questions below.
Questions to consider/address for the farmworker reading in either your discussion post or response: What might a political opportunity theorist argue about the different levels of success (and lack of success) between the two farmworker organizing initiatives? What are the reasons that the chapter gives for the success of one movement and seeming failure of the other one? How might we re-think the “failure” of the one organizing effort when we consider it in a longer historical trajectory? (Is this pattern applicable to your own movement at all? What previous movements is your movement building upon? How?)
Questions for the “Revolution will not be funded” reading in either your discussion post or response: What is the INCITE! Collective’s critique of the mainstreaming or co-optation of radical movements? How does the 501(c)3 nonprofit structure/process play a role in this co-optation? What role do foundations play in this process? How are they part of the problem according to this reading? What do you think of their argument? (Do you see this process of co-optation or non-profitization in your own social movement? If so, how?)
So, choose one set of these questions for one reading and address them in a lengthier way in your discussion post. Then engage in the second set of questions (as well as one of your classmate’s posts) for your response. I expect your response to be longer and engage more substantively with the readings and your classmate’s thoughts.
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