How has campaigning changed since slavery was abolished?

Recently I discussed ‘public action and influencing change’ with a small group of NGO types at an aid conference in Edinburgh. We started off by reviewing the factors behind the victory of the abolitionists back in the early 19th Century, and what had changed (or stayed the same) since then.

Same: many of the tactics (petitions, boycotts, killer facts and images – see pic, testimonies, speaker tours), which the abolitionists in

modern campaigning is born
modern campaigning is born

many cases invented, are still staples of today’s campaigners.

Different: Although then as now, campaigns linked up movements in the South and North, the anti-slavery campaign was more clearly about changes to rich country laws and practices in a more unipolar world. Today’s campaigners grapple with power that is increasingly dispersed between governments (both North and South), companies and global institutions.

The media has become a much more important intermediary between campaigners and decision-makers/the public. Branding, celebrities and stunts have become more important to try and win media space, but at what cost? Could social networking tools  narrow the gap that has opened up? On the other hand, don’t mass campaign-at-the-click-of-a-mouse innovations like Avaaz risk diluting campaigning into little more than a running opinion poll? When/how does such ‘thin’ campaigning deepen into something more significant?

Campaigners themselves have become professionalized, with salaries, career structures and bureaucracies – I think that increases their influence, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? What is lost?

be very afraid.....
be very afraid.....

Then what about time poverty? Middle class women who might have signed up to campaign against slavery now have jobs and no servants. Students work harder these days, both in and out of college. Cue my usual rant about the ‘grey panthers‘ model – the-time rich sector of 60-somethings that campaigners usually overlook. These are older people, probably retired, who bring time, money, knowledge, experience, staying power and contacts to a campaign and are a huge untapped resource. But they have to be given a freer hand to use those assets and experience – they aren’t easy to boss around! Why aren’t we targeting them, e.g. getting together people who have worked in the extractive industry, or banking, or government and asking them to come up with influencing strategies around a particular campaign aim, then cutting them loose?

Then the conversation got increasingly cosmic, or at least global. What does ‘active global citizenship’, which is apparently taught in Scottish schools, actually mean? I went back to some of the stuff I’ve been reading recently on the rise of citizenship in Europe, which argued that it was a direct response to the spread of the state into every corner of national territories and increasing areas of life. This ‘caging’ of people by the state, in the words of Sidney Tarrow, prompted a violent response, as communities that had previously fought with their neighbours came together to resist and tame the state. For Tarrow, citizenship was born out of these conflicts.

Compare that to today’s global scene, where there may be elements of an emergent global state, but it remains far weaker than the national version, and far less present in people’s lives. The weakness of global institutions might explain why the global version of citizenship is so ‘nice’: the ‘caging’ is less evident and there is nothing obvious to burn down.

But others in the group saw a different kind of citizen action emerging through fair trade, or transition towns – acts of local citizenship with a global impact (I’m desperately avoiding the awful word ‘glocal’ here). They thought it was easier to come up with positive campaigns at that level, whereas global campaigns tend to be about stopping bad things, or protesting against stuff.

Meanwhile, an intriguing new book by John Gaventa and Rajesh Tandon, Globalizing Citizens, argues that the distinction between national and global citizenship is in any case a false dichotomy. An increasing number of national struggles are learning to build in an element of international mobilisation to support their work on the ground – good case studies from anti-Asbestos campaigns in South Africa and the Global Campaign for Education. Success depends in part on a new tier of heroic ‘hybrid mediators’, who manage to simultaneously stay rooted in community struggles, and navigate the international system, moving between them and speaking both their languages with equal facility. As for the point about the weakness of the global quasi-state, the book argues that this means that success requires winning the battle for ‘soft power’ and political legitimacy, for example by winning acceptance for your version of ‘knowledge frames’ (if this is a bit vague, I am accurately reflecting the frustratingly elusive quality of the book!).

No conclusions, just an interesting discussion. Feel free to add to it.

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Comments

7 Responses to “How has campaigning changed since slavery was abolished?”
  1. Tim Budge

    It seems that most of this is still (mainly) focused on social movements in the 1st world. Even a quick look at some of the leading thinkers/writers suggests that this is the focus of their writing and work (eg Social Movements arising in post-industrial societies). I would like to know if anyone has been doing any work analysing social movements in pre-industrial societies, or in more developing world contexts. Shouldn’t this be the cutting edge of campaigning for social change?

    Duncan: Thanks Tim. This was a conversation with activists in Scotland, hence the focus on northern campaigning. I absolutely agree that we need to understand citizenship in developing society contexts, and as you say, the classic academic literature is dominated by the European and North American experience. The John Gaventa and Rajesh Tandon book I mention (and Zed’s book series on citizenship, coming out of John’s programme at IDS) are definitely helping fill that gap.

  2. Ken Smith

    I’d say a big change from the days of the abolitionists is that in their case , everyone – MP’s , slave owners , slave traders abolitionists , general public – shared the same moral framework and belief system. (Everyone but the slaves in fact)

  3. JPK

    Is it justifiable to discuss about human smuggling as of now?

    If so, can the so-called abolutionists’ campaign proceed with caution in case of human trafficking?

    Finally, will the people know that they can tackle slavery and human trafficking through any means neccessary? It has to.

    Thank you very much.

  4. In response to Tim’s question on social movements in the developing world, I can recommend a recent book on Citizenship and Social Movements, edited by two South African colleagues, Lisa Thompson and Chris Tapscott. It is a collection on southern social movements and challenges the northern literature. It is part of the series on Claiming Citizenship by Zed Books (http://www.zedbooks.co.uk/books.asp?catid=287). The most recent volume, also by southern colleagues is on Mobilising for Democracy, which illustrates how democracy is built from below, not just through donor-led institutional design.

  5. Ben Niblett

    Interesting.

    Don’t agree that UK campaigners neglect people in their 60s – they’re the biggest segment of every development rally, speaker meeting or mass lobby of Parliament I’ve been on. Lots of recently retired people, quite a few students, some parents of teenagers, and a missing middle of 25-45s is more the pattern I’m used to. Is it different in Scotland?

    Also interesting that the slavery campaigners invented fairtrade, in the form of sugar from non-slave growers.

    And that one of the campaigners’ best tactics was their spokesman Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave turned arctic explorer whose autobiography and speaker tours made black people’s equal humanity tangible to British audiences of the time (and made him rich and famous). People speaking on their own behalf have more impact than people speaking on others’ behalf, if they understand the audience. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/equiano_olaudah.shtml

    The British campaign to abolish the slave trade took over 30 years, and even longer to make slavery itself illegal – citizenship is for life! Maybe their biggest lesson for us is their stamina.

  6. We’ve done some interesting research which suggests that learning about the wider world at school leads to people being more supportive of development, understanding the links of their own actions to climate change and more comfortable in a multi-racial society (see http://www.dea.org.uk/resources/item.asp?d=2076)

    We are holding a conference (at which Duncan in incidentally giving a keynote speech) on 2nd November considering how we build a ‘Big Global Society’ and unlock social action around global issues. Details are at: http://www.dea.org.uk/conference

  7. msksquared

    I know that we need professional campaigners, ‘organized’ campaigns, and campaigning organizations. but I also think that we need to think about the passion and empowerment that lies at the base of the most effective campaigns – passionate people changing things for themselves. We want to create a climate where anyone can feel that (a) it’s OK to care about things and not be cynical/apathetic and (b) that anyone can put a campaign in motion – that we don’t have to wait for top down initiatives from campaigning organizations.

    Actually I think that’s probably the real power of the internet. I share your concern about 1-click campaigning (although Avaaz claims to be effective, and I have certainly used it), but the internet obviously allows all kinds of people to connect around a shared concern, and anyone (with a connection) to start a campaign which can be both local and global because it is virtual. I do think the thin-ness issue is a real one – I am constantly curious about what the impact of starting a facebook page etc in the real world is… But then we see from the recent Nestle case that you can ignore Facebook at your peril…

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