Monday, July 5, 2010

Further reflections on USSF

This week, besides the article on the Kresge fellows, the Metro Times also did a cool-down on the US Social Forum, which took place in Detroit recently. Curt Guyette, MT news editor, did his usual good job of reporting on events that the mainstream media too often overlooks. One of the questions that always gets asked about these things, and indeed the subtitle of Guyette's piece, is "But what did accomplish?"

Guyette reports on a generalized "feel good" quotient, which needs to have a little more conceptual framework put around it. People who study social movements (and I'm one of them) recognize a longer-term process at work in the social forums than just the affectation of goodwill among attendees that often gets written off as ephemeral at best or at least self-congratulatory. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, in their important book Civil Society and Political Theory, set out a four-step process of social change that civil society institutions, such as the USSF, help to bring about.

The first step is identity construction. That is, social movements help provide a mechanism for people who heretofore thought they were alone in the world to realize that they are part of something bigger, that who they are and what they believe in is nothing to hide from. (This is what C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination means by turning private troubles into public issues.)

The second step is fostering inclusion. By bringing previously hidden social identities out into the light, social movements build solidarity among people and groups that once felt themselves to be marginalized. (The second-wave feminists called this consciousness-raising.)

The third step is exerting influence. Once a certain critical mass is attained, new social movements can begin to affect policy. This is certainly the case with the global justice movement, of which USSF is a part, in that decision-makers are now bound to take social equity into consideration when attempting to implement policy on a global level. The so-called Doha round of free trade has pretty much been dead in the water since the Battle of Seattle. The emergence of the G-20 as the de facto global political authority (as opposed to the World Trade Organization) also reflects impulses of democracy from below. Several Noble-prize economists are now advocates of fair trade.

The fourth step is enacting reform. In American history, we have the example of the civil rights movement we can look at. It took a hundred years to go from abolition to enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Abolitionism was at work for a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation. And, of course, the job still isn't done. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle in term of the USSF's perceived mandate. There isn't a global polity at this point outside the purview of market globalization, which is still pretty much operating under the guise of neoliberalism. The nation-state has provided the venue for democratic political action and anything that may be accomplished will have to proceed at this level. (A useful tool in this regard is Sydney Tarrow's idea of "rooted cosmopolitans," that is, locally based actors who operate under global concepts of which class consciousness is a prime example.)

The other, important thing to recognize is that nothing of true social importance ever gets done through official channels. By the time the institutions of the state catch up to civil society, an issue is basically a fait accompli in terms of public opinion. (As Cohen and Arato say, "Laws are frozen politics.")

It's a mistake to look at the Closing Ceremony of the 2010 USSF as a culmination of anything. It's only the beginning, and if history is any indication, there's a long way to go.

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