Another world is under construction?
Social movement responses to
inequality and crisis
Laurence Cox
Participatory action research programme in
social movement practice
/ Grassroots Gatherings
Green Party experience
1998 editorial (DL and Labour in power): we
are fools to see the state, EU, media and
legal systems as our natural allies
Betting on elites abandons popular
mobilisation (and hands it to the right)
GP in government did sell out allied
movements on Shannon, Tara, Rossport
2009 attack on unions on behalf of media
Making our organisations dependent on elites
comes at a heavy political cost
Inequality is no accident
Structured constellations of power, interest
and culture underpin systemic inequality
Serious struggles for equality involve
confronting these directly
Central role of independent social movements
of those without power and wealth
Power from below: numbers, delegitimising
elites and capacity to disrupt
“Bait and switch” where we forget this and
seek to convince the powerful instead
The antidote to inequality is
popular movements
For most of the world democracy,
independence from empire and (where they
exist) welfare states arrived in living memory
They were forced on elites by massive
popular movements which overthrew
empires, remade states and forced
preventative concessions
Defusing this basic historical fact – and
normalising existing arrangements as eternal
– is crucial to “business as usual”
Popular movements in Ireland
Land War transformed class structure
Civil Rights Movement in North
Women’s movement defeated church,
broke “private patriarchy”
LGBTQ movements reshaped Irish sexuality
Defeat of nuclear power at Carnsore
Scale of community action,
from housing campaigns via CPAD to Tenants First
Rossport still holding off Shell and state
 Irish movement experience different, but not less
than e.g. W Europe or Latin America
Squaring the circle –
for a little while
Brief period in Ireland of advancing equality while
avoiding direct confrontation with state power
Some movements helped elites modernise Irish
society (“pushing on an open door”)
EU and Celtic Tiger enabled
funding without redistribution
Structural transformation went on long finger
Historical context and strategic thinking forgotten
Institutional / policy framework assumed as given
This period is now ending as quickly as it came
Movements into “sectors”
This process has affected trade unions,
community action, women’s organisations,
LBGTQ activism, environmentalists, youth
workers, development / solidarity groups,
health / disability groups, anti-racism etc…
As we have become “sectoralised” we have
lost track of what’s happened to each other
and focussed on the state
Business as usual is over
Elites see decreasing “rate of return” from
institutionalised movements (union experience)
The Irish state no longer wants independent
advocates for equality (which tells us something)
Inconvenient groups shut down, shut up or
assimilated into the state
Parallels earlier US experience of “War on Poverty”
This predates the crisis, but crisis provides an excuse
“Partnership” rules are being unilaterally rewritten
State “responds to P – K4 with a lob over the net”
Many groups have no alternative strategy but to
plead for the re-establishment of partnership
Global neo-liberal context
Welfare states in W and national
developmentalism in S represented elite
compromises with popular movements
(anti-fascist resistance, anti-colonial
nationalism, organised working class)
Neo-liberalism can’t make such deals 
constant problem of legitimacy and consent
Hence right-wing populism, fundamentalism,
“opinion” as leisure activity, etc.
Search for “progressive” consent
Global “civil society” as
simulation of consent
New meaning of “civil society” as approved
interlocutors of power (contrast with 1980s)
Often violently opposed to “incivil society”,
movements of the poor (RSA, India, Thailand…)
Movement language and processes borrowed for
neo-liberal “governance” (consultation etc.)
Cut-price service delivery in majority world
Economic gains for small constituencies or cultural
ones for larger ones sometimes possible
NGOs etc. used as cheap sources of legitimacy in
return for official status and / or funding
Neo-liberalism in
systemic crisis
“Globalisation from below” of popular
movements against neo-liberalism (esp. Latin
America, India, South Africa, W. Europe)
Crisis of legitimacy (summit protests, failure
of war to restore “authority”)
Foreign policy crisis (in Middle East, “pink
tide” in Latin America)
Economic failures (financial crash, food crisis,
global warming)
Why systemic crisis?
Regimes of accumulation are medium-term
institutional arrangements, subject to change
albeit at a cost; they’re provisional only
When they no longer work for elite groups,
they abandon them (as in 1970s) for
alternative strategies, wise or unwise
Similarly, many NGOs seeking to turn back
into SMOs: “respectable face of the
movement”, not “caring face of capitalism”
… and Ireland?
Crisis of developmentalism came early
Belief that inequality etc. came from “lagging
behind”, lack of state commitment etc.
State and European elites seen as “on the
side” of movements or capable of being so
Generational “coming in from the cold”
1990s conversion of social movement
organisations (SMOs) into NGOs
Boiling the frog, slowly
Intense sectoral fragmentation on state terms
– unions, community, environmental,
development / solidarity, peace / left…
Professional core has become key to what
were once movement organisations
Specialising in policy, funding, media etc.
Non-career participants unable to keep up,
progressively demobilised  “clients”
Groups which have not fitted the new forms
and structures have gone to the wall
“You and whose army?”
Structural weakness faced with aggressive
attacks from state and media elites
Loss of broader activist base, ability to
mobilise large numbers, capacity to disrupt
Need for participation, legitimacy, funding
etc. to continue organisations
Hence “the means justify the ends”
State can happily roll up separate “sectors”
on its own terms, in its own time
People’s Global Action
Zapatista-sponsored Encuentro, 1996
Asian peasant organisations: “we came here
to shut down the financial institutions”
Seattle: direct action on the streets and new
confidence of majority world countries
collapse World Trade Organisation meeting
No new “round” possible since then
This achieved by popular movements refusing
to let elites set the terms of debate
Strategic crisis of
Irish movement organisations
Financial dependency on state, EU, donors
Two decades of professionalisation,
demobilisation and respectability
Such organisations now find it hard to defend
themselves, never mind their broader
agenda, against their sponsors
State, EU and (most) donors will ultimately
side with powerful, wealthy and culturally
dominant against the poor and powerless
Where can movements for equality stand that
is not dependent on their opponents?
Is there life after partnership?
Think seriously about how we can win
Routine politics, when the rules are rewritten
from above, are a strategy for being sidelined
Relativise our routines / known world of “the
sector” – make new allies on unofficial terms
Stand up to the state, together and publicly
Build sustainable movement-based groups
Stop making ourselves dependent
Remember we used to do this stuff!
What does this mean
in practice?
Take our stand not in official legitimacy but in
popular struggles  mass challenge to power
Raise large themes, not just technical objections
Move from funding-led to membership-led, in
finances, activities and strategies
Rethink role of core workers: from career-based to
mass-based organising strategies
From “working the system” to campaigning,
mobilising, popular education for structural change
Strategy for successful confrontation with power
starts with how we organise ourselves
Reasserting equality within
movement organisations
Move from being transmission belt for
priorities and structures set from above, back
to grassroots-controlled organisations
Change in training and education: from
convincing elites / securing funding to
mobilising, radicalising, winning
Rely on natural strengths of popular
movements: delegitimising power, disrupting
business as usual, setting alternative agendas
See ourselves as part of movement,
not part of state
What role for NGOs etc.
after partnership?
Service delivery, lobbying etc. useful and
necessary, but no substitute for mobilising
Complementarity to popular movements as
“respectable interlocutors” for state
This only works if there is a popular
movement to force the state to negotiate
… and if NGOs etc. act out of solidarity with
popular movements rather than in
competition with them, as would-be
monopoly representatives of civil society
Solidarity across movements
State’s new priorities cannot be effectively
challenged using “the master’s tools”
“Ecology of knowledges” and languages has
to be developed in struggle, from below
Movements need each other to move outside
state, media, academic definitions of reality
“Your struggles are also my struggles” –
if our goal is equality
Learning from each other’s
practice: what we can do
Survivor struggles highlighting the structural
violence of the past and elite collusion
Rossport alliance across movements and
issues in face of overwhelming force
Tenants First etc. moving outside “sector”
Migrant-led organisations and Bloom!
Return of disruptive tactics and popular voice
Loss of popular legitimacy for state policy
Delegitimising the elites
Government, Finance, EU, media etc. claim to
speak for the general interest
This enables them to attack our organisations,
create new inequalities and deepen existing gulfs
Movements have to set popular terms of debate,
not remain on hostile terrain defined by statute,
administrative practice and academic specialisations
Stand outside purely national / EU setting
“Another world is under
construction”: some proposals
A counter-summit linking movements
and sectors to visibly challenge and
delegitimise state practice
Movement-based: large-scale
participation, democratic processes and
popular (not technical) priorities
Tied to strategic mass action for
equality outside “channels”
Learning to be loyal to each
other, not organisations
Summer schools etc. to bring activists from
different movements together in selfcontrolled, self-funded spaces
Build collective strength, self-confidence,
shared perspective for the long haul
Change sense of “we” from professionals in
sector to popular movements in action
Learn from international experiences
Highlander Folk School model may help
A national conversation
outside the state
Model of Zapatista “Other campaign”
Slow, non-party tour of the country
Listening to communities, workplaces,
movements and others
Conversation with each other about
needs, equality and power
“Beyond alliances of activists … to
building general cultures of politics and life”
Remaking the country
“from below and on the left”
Hanging together –
or hanging separately
Our practice has conceded elites the right to
set the agenda and take equality off the table
To fight for equality we have to step outside
their terrain and become independently
powerful actors again, on our own terms
There is no textbook for doing this – but
plenty of historical experience and
“globalisation from below” to learn from
We can do it, ourselves
“Our liberties were won in wars and
revolutions so terrible that we do not
fear our governors: they fear us. Our
children giggle and eat ice-cream in the
palaces of past rulers. We snap our
fingers at kings. We laugh at popes.
When we have built up tyrants, we
have brought them down.”
(Ken MacLeod)

Another world is under construction? Social movement