Going beyond protest politics: the opportunity within the pandemic and our political crisis

A man wears a mask while stood next beyind a red, green and white MST flag
This photograph was produced by A man attends an MST demonstration. Source: wikimedia/Agência Brasil, used under CC3.0 license.
Stellan Vinthagen

The pandemic is a crisis that entails both a threat to marginalized communities and an opportunity for radical social change. To take that opportunity we need to rethink how we work in social movements, and carefully craft a strategy forward through broad alliances, mass mobilizations of direct action, and an understanding of "constructive resistance", Stellan Vinthagen argues, a professor of resistance studies at University of Massachusetts, and an activist in War Resisters' International.

During this pandemic crisis, when we are bound to our homes, I hope we will deepen our relations online with fellow activists and citizens living far away. That we socialize over tea or wine, a movie or a mutual topic, that we develop visionary plans for the future, and reflect on how we live our lives; asking ourselves if we really are living according to our values and principles. I hope we educate ourselves and build our networks, that we focus on building broad alliances for the future.

In this break from our normal way of living, I also hope we will take the opportunity to break with the ritualized forms of protests, like 1 May demonstrations or other small protest marches against all the things we dislike. In those parts of the world where "Liberal Democracy" is the ideology of the state, it does not challenge anything. In Sweden, the prime minister from the Labor party walks and shouts slogans together with workers on the 1st of May, every year, since the Labor formed the first government in the 1932 ... There is a mythology, inherited from movements 200 years ago; that we can change society by walking from point A to B in urban areas, especially in the capital. Still, people do it all the time: Marches to Washington, to London, to Berlin, etc. again, and again.

Yet such action is empty, an opium for the (liberal progressive) opposition! As Arundhati Roy said after the biggest protests in world history against the Iraq war in 2003: You do not stop a war with a weekend protest … You need to literally stop the companies that profit from war.

As we reeducate ourselves, I hope we will instead see the value of focusing on another equally old but forgotten tradition, from the anarchists, of direct action. When you see a problem, you mobilize a movement that deals with it, be that through creating alternatives (like Fair Trade), or by resisting our opponents through blockades, occupations of land and factories. Ideally, we resist by enacting our alternatives. But, of course, in an authoritarian society that makes protest marches illegal, it makes sense, as a direct action, to march. Then, in that situation, the protest is a form of civil disobedience.

The power of civil disobedience, strikes and interventions is so much bigger than protests and appeals. As long as we as citizens obey their laws and consume their products and services, and continue to produce what they demand as workers within factories, companies and universities, all the key problems will remain.

We need to come back after this lockdown with the radical imaginations for a new society and the necessary broad, popular alliances to make them possible.

But what are the strategies that will ultimately matter for the new broad alliances of movements we are building for the future? I will give three examples: one protest-oriented movement, one resistance oriented, and one that for me represents the most hopeful sign of social change, built on Indigenous traditions of what can be called "constructive resistance" - resistance through the enacting of alternatives.

The most obvious example of a protest-oriented movement is currently the extraordinary mobilization of the Movement for Black Lives (or BLM), which already after some months is clearly one of the largest protest movements in US history. It is having ripple effects across the different states, in small towns and big cities. Political results are already visible, with defunding of the police, new laws increasing the possibilities for charging racist police violence, and to stop police militarization. Since 2013 this movement has been building a strong infrastructure of local leadership, social media presence, alliances and cooperation with professional groups (such as civil rights lawyers), as well as having its star-spangled leaders in the form of NFL players, thus laying the groundwork for the wave we see now. In this way, BLM is an example of when protests CAN have some effect, although how much remains unclear, and will depend on how this created opening will be handled. However, the usual trend is that protests are smaller and less impactful.

Another example of the future is also percolating in the US, the People's Strike [https://peoplesstrike.org/], one which is more focused on resistance and direct-action obstructions of the existing system, therefore trying to force elites towards social change. The beginning was marked with a new kind of 1 May action, followed up with a series of actions on 1 June, 1 July 1 August, and onwards, initiated by the Black liberation community of anti-imperialists in Jackson, Mississippi. Here people are coordinating online in arguably the broadest left and progressive alliance in US history, combining worker strikes at such corporations as Walmart, Amazon and Wholefoods. Meanwhile, work slow-downs are occurring at other places, as well as rent-strikes by tenants, motorcades honk-ins and other activities. They are united under the slogan that Capitalism is the virus. If many people and organizations join in, and if their strikes are impacting economic elites, this might be powerful.

However hopeful this example is, I consider the main example of a strategic way forward to be those movements that through experimentation are developing a form of "constructive resistance". This includes the Black empowerment work of Cooperation Jackson, in Jackson, Mississippi, the Native Americans at the WhiteEarth Reservation in Minnesota, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, the Kurds in Rojava, Northern Syria, and the Landless workers movement MST in Brazil.

The movement of landless workers in Brazil, with its foremost organization MST (Movimento dos trabalhadores rurais Sem Terra— the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement) is one of the largest social movement in South America. MST was formed during the 1980s and mobilizes about 1.5 million small-scale farmers and landless rural workers, who have no land with which they can sustain themselves. The participants are often underemployed rural workers or urban poor favela-dwellers. They have united in a struggle for a socialist and democratic land reform, which they encourage through means of occupations of unproductive land. So far, they have completed over 2,000 occupations, managing to distribute land to over 350,000 landless persons, which is more than what the government has done. While waiting to occupy land, the activists live in temporary encampments (acampamentos). After the land occupation, temporary housing is constructed. If the government expropriates and redistributes the land, they are then able to finally build permanent settlements (assentamentos).

MST has created an ambitious program of alternative agrarian development as part of their vision of a “New Brazil,” consisting of organic farming cooperatives, gender equal, democratic governance of their own encampments on land occupations, self-organized villages, cooperative businesses, health clinics, primary and adult schooling, as well as their autonomous, open and tuition-free activist university.

When MST carries out land occupations, they transgress private property laws and build their temporary villages out of black plastic-tents, create schools, and cultivate the land. They are regularly violently evicted, but they return and rebuild. With steadfast persistence they claim their land rights and defend their emerging society with unarmed collective force, mass media attention and urban alliances (with lawyers, politicians, journalists, etc.). The key is that they are not just protesting, demanding or lobbying authorities to act on their behalf or for legal recognition from the state. They do what is needed by themselves, here and now.

With time, they develop cooperatives, ecological farming techniques, local democracy institutions, schools with Freire pedagogics that teach not only literacy and theoretical knowledge but also political awareness. They create a new society. Thus, in the process of resisting one of the most unjust land distributions in the world, they also start creating the alternative institutions they envision. Therefore, they embody the politico-ethical future through their resistance practice, i.e. they do constructive resistance. When such a mobilization reaches a certain level or size that seeks to replace the existing unjust society, we might rightfully speak of a “revolutionary” process.

MST's de-facto revolutionary process consists of local revolutions that spread and scale-up. If we take all the land that MST collectives have liberated since the 1980s, the total size of that territory amounts almost to the size of Cuba.1 That means that MST is conducting a new “Cuban revolution” in South America, however this time it is a localized and distributed revolution that is unarmed. Local revolutionary processes are set in motion, without MST trying to capture the power of the state, but by collaborating with the state when possible and resisting it when necessary.

Thus, "constructive resistance", resistance by enacting alternatives, is a form of resistance that combines the "Yes" and the "No" in the struggle for social change, and as such it is a very different strategy which we can learn from. It avoids the co-option trap that hunts the construction of alternatives—which risks them becoming just another alternative in the capitalist market—while simultaneously avoiding the repression and marginalization trap that hunts radical resistance movements. The construction work builds dignity, resources, empowerment and hopeful alternatives to existing problems, while mass mobilizations of resistance tear down and obstruct the power systems of dominant elites to exploit, repress and destroy people, nature and the planet we live on.

Constructive resistance might therefore be a way forward. If so, we have a lot to do during the pandemic in terms of educating ourselves, reorienting and developing strategies and creative tactics, building relationships and forming alliances, and rethinking how we organize. If we do this, we might come out of the current COVID-19 crisis far more prepared to deal with the fundamental system crisis that is threatening us all, and the future of this planet.

1 MST has gained in total 7,5 million hectares (see https://www.britannica.com/event/Landless-Workers-Movement), which is 75, 000 square km out of Cuba’s 110, 000 square km.

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