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
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?
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.