The social justice movement aims to achieve equality and fairness for everyone, but is it actually causing social change?
Nick West and Clémentine Boucher discuss both sides of the debate.
As someone who considers themselves part of the social justice movement, this is an exciting time, although there is still much anxiety. This is what some on the Left would call ‘an interstice’, a window of opportunity, to push for real political, economic and social change in our societies.
We are in an age where neoliberal ideas have a lot of support and power to shape the world we live in. This is why we have seen, since the 1980s in England and the US, with the deregulation of financial markets, outsourcing of labour, ‘fake’ growth (growth that comes from speculation and not from the ‘real’ economy), the defunding and selling off of the NHS, social services, further education etc.and austerity.
The NHS is still being sold off, public Higher Education is still in serious jeopardy, and the ideas of social movements; equality, justice and freedom, seem to be less applied than ever before. The ‘Left’ of the Western political spectrum, albeit a few exceptions, is very clearly as right-wing and neoliberal as the ‘Right’ itself.
So why in the world would I claim that social movements can still be winning? Precisely because of that interstice referred to previously. Alain Badiou, a French political theorist argued that we have to consider the wider, longer movements of our times in order to understand where we are now, ideologically speaking. The communist ideal to which he refers has existed since the beginning of hierarchical relations which is quite a long time. It took the form of socialism and Marxism during the 20th century, but it had other forms before, and has a different form today.
This is how he imagines the ‘waves’ of communism, standing opposed to reactionism, and their interactions since the French Revolution: radical, communist politics shining through, that led to a revolutionary backlash embodied in the return to Empires and Monarchies in France for around a century.
Then Marx came along, after more popular revolutions around 1848, and the radical communist/socialist agenda rebuilt itself actively, until the 1917 Russian revolution. That led to another backlash from the reactionary side that lasted until the end of World War Two.
Later it was the anarchist, communist, feminist, gay, civil rights movements that fiercely pushed for changes such as welfare, student, women and minority rights. This led to real changes. But then another reactionary backlash arrived: neoliberalism, so well embodied in Thatcherite, Reaganite, Blairite politics, and in our current politics, to this day.
But we are at a time where neoliberal foundations are starting to shake. This is demonstrated by the Occupy movement in the US, Spain with the Indignados, and in Greece with the ‘Square movements’.
There is a real, noticeable rise in activist politics; people are looking for alternatives, and where they find them they are demanding them. These movements have took on radical ideas of the past, around equality, justice and freedom, but have added new things such as intersectionality and ecological considerations.
When the anthropologist David Graeberwas was asked why the 2011 movements have led to nothing substantial policy-wise, he responded with a theory: the “3.5 years historical lag”. He argues that social movements do not cause social change immediately, but require time for society to absorb ideas that previously were deemed too radical or unrealistic. He points towards the Occupy movement for an example: “Many expected Occupy to take a formal political form. True, it did not happen, but look at where we are 3.5 years later: in most countries where substantial popular movements happened, left parties are now switching to embracing the movements’ sensibilities”.
The ‘PR crisis’ that social movements are facing is not new. In her book ‘Feminism is for Everyone’, Bell Hooks writes how her radical feminist movement was portrayed by the patriarchal media as ‘man-hating’. Feminists are still portrayed this way today.
This is linked to the internal debate that the ‘No’ argument refers to: the debate between reaching out to our adversary in order to have it’s full support in pursuit of our agenda, or to face it full on.
I think that we have to remember, before dismissing the ‘facing head on’ alternative, that we live in a world that is riddled with inequalities. Franz Fanon understood this, when he said that there was no debate possible until your adversary was forced to recognise that you are his/her equal. There is no convincing anyone in power that your movement is worthwhile until they actually listen to what you are saying.
Unfortunately I do think to reach that point, not discussing with the adversary but rather forcing them to listen can be more useful than just explaining point by point why one should support us. There is no debate until both sides listen, there is no equality until the privilege that some have to not listen is taken from their hands. Debate is necessary, but we are still at a stage where our voices need to be heard, and that those who are acting violently (the examples given were using #downwithmen/ #killallwhitemen) are, if not consciously, feeling the fundamental inequality when it comes to get their voices heard. The ‘dissenting voices’ must not be cast out, or dismissed, because they are as part of this movement as the rest. They have to be supported, because they are right. Not in saying ‘#downwithmen’, but in demanding that their voice be heard, that their grievances be addressed. In order to win, we need unity. Reactionary forces will attempt to divide us in order to beat us, just as they accused radical feminists of being ‘man-haters’, whereas they pursue equality and justice, just like you.