Social movements in times of pandemic: another world is needed

Article originally published on OpenDemocracy, 23 March 2020 – accessible here

Author: Donatella Della Porta

Times of pandemic bring big challenges for the activists of progressive social movements. They are not a time for street activism or politics in the squares. Freedoms are restricted, social distancing makes the typical forms of protest impossible to carry out. Mobilization is not only difficult in public places but also in our places of work, given the very strict limitation on the right to meet and the reduced opportunity for face-to-face encounters. The continuous emergency constrains our mental spaces, challenging our creativity. Individual and collective resources are focused on everyday survival. Hope, that stimulant for collective action, is difficult to sustain, while fear, that so discourages it, spreads. Crises might trigger selfish defensive choices, turning the other into an enemy. We depend on governmental efficiency and expert opinions.

Nevertheless, social movements often do emerge in moments of high emergency, of (more or less natural) calamities, and of strong repression of individual and collective freedoms. Wars have triggered waves of contention in the past. Not only is it the case that “states make wars and wars make states”, but portentous contestations have accompanied military conflicts – before, after, at times even during these. Such revolutions testify to the strength of engagement in moments of deep crisis.

Times of deep crisis can (even if not automatically) generate the invention of alternative forms of protest. The broad spread of new technologies allows for online protests – including, but not limited to, e-petitions that have multiplied in this period (ranging from the quest for Eurobonds to the request for a suspension of rents for students. Car marches have been called for in Israel. Workers have claimed more security through flashmobs, implemented by participants keeping a safe distance one from the other. In Finland, public transport drivers have refused to monitor tickets. In Italy or Spain, collective messages of contestation or solidarity are sent from balconies and windows. Through these innovative forms, protests puts pressure on those in government and control their actions.

Faced with the glaring need for radical and complex transformation, social movements also act in various ways that differ from protests. First of all, social movements create and recreate ties: they build upon existing networks but also, in action, they connect and multiply them. Faced by the manifest inadequacies of the state and, even more, of the market, social movement organizations form – as is happening in every country hit by the pandemic – into mutual support groups, promoting direct social action by helping those most in need. So, they produce resilience by responding to the need for solidarity.

Movements also acts as channels for the elaboration of proposals. They make use of alternative specialist knowledge but they also add to this the practical knowledge arising from the direct experiences of citizens. Constructing alternative public spheres, social movement organizations help us to imagine future scenarios. The multiplication of public space allows for cross-fertilization, contrasting the over-specialization of academic knowledge and facilitating the connection between abstract knowledge and concrete practices. From this knowhow cross-fertilization comes also the capacity to connect the various crises – to prise out the connection between the spread and lethality of the corona virus and climate change, wars, violence against women, the expropriations of rights (first of all the right to health). In this way the reflection in and of social movements increases our capacity to understand the economic, social, and political causes of the pandemic, which is neither a natural phenomenon nor a divine punishment.

In this way, social movements can exploit the spaces for innovation that open up in moments of uncertainty. In the most dramatic way, the crisis demonstrates that change is needed, a radical change that breaks with the past, and a complex change that goes from politics to the economy, from society to culture. If in normal times, social movements grow with the opportunities for gradual transformation, in times of deep crisis movements are spread instead by the perception of a drastic and deep threat, contributing to cognitive openings. While everyday life changes drastically, spaces for reflection about a future that cannot be thought as in continuity with the past also open up.

Crisis also opens up opportunities for change by making evident the need for public responsibility and civic sense, for rules and solidarity. If crises have the immediate effect of concentrating power, up to and including its militarization, they however demonstrate the incapacity of governments to act merely through force. The need for sharing and widespread support in order to address the pandemic might bring with it the recognition of the richness of civil society mobilization. The presence of social movements might thereby provide a contrast with the risks taken by an authoritarian response to the crisis.

What is more, crises show the value of fundamental public goods and their complex management through institutional networks but also through the participation of the citizens, the workers, the users. They demonstrate that the management of the commons needs regulation and participation from below. In any mobilization during a pandemic, the value of an universal system of public health emerges as not only just, but also vital. If claims for health in the working places and the universal protection of health as a public good are traditionally the demands of trade unions and of the Left, the pandemic demonstrates the need to reaffirm these rights and expand them to include the least protected. In its global dimension, the pandemic triggers reflection on the need for global protection of the right to health protection, as often explained by civil society organizations such as Doctors without Borders or Emergency.

Of course, all this does not happen automatically. These crises are also give occasion to the accumulation of profit by dispossession, for the experimentation of authoritarian governments, for social anomie. Emergency and shocks create rich occasions for speculators. But, if the crises increase competition for scarce resources, they also increase the perception of a shared destiny. Increasing inequalities, rather than levelling them, they also instil a deep sense of injustice. Bringing with it the singling out of specific political and social responsibilities. As in wars, the exacting of terrible sacrifices from the people fuels claims of rights and participation in decision making, As collective mobilization grows, also the hope for change ensues – for another world that is still possible and all the more needed.