Social Movements, Institutions, and Rights

I have, obviously, been thinking a lot lately about how protest politics can take a form that actually moves the ball down the field, that has some impact.  The following post is in response to some feedback I have gotten from a friend about a more formal version of my complaint that leftist social movement fight shy of formalization, of institutionalization,–and thus rob themselves of the chance to have a real impact.  That essay is called “Intellectuals in Dark Times” and focuses in on the allergy to leaders, to any division of labor in contemporary movements like Occupy. And I am responding to my friend’s essay on the attempt to use the notion of “rights” to address environmental issues.

The usual line of thought is that social movements often fight shy of institutionalization, but that it is very hard for them to consolidate any gains if their goals are not taken up by some institution.  So, for example, a social movement can advocate for no discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, but until there are anti-discriminatory laws that formally recognize equality, provide means of redress against discrimination, and sanctions against those who discriminate, then the social movement can’t move from “protest” about the way things are to an actual change in prevailing conditions.

It is certainly—and importantly—the case that social movements are often very good at mobilizing a constituency toward some end, and in changing general cultural attitudes.  A classic case is the gay rights movement.  Another is MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).  Attitudes toward gays and toward driving while drunk changed noticeably (and astoundingly quickly), largely because of those movements.  But I don’t see how that attitude shift is consolidated unless translated (as it was in both cases) into formal, legal changes.

So I would look at #MeTOO and Black Lives Matter in similar ways.  They are raising an issue to public awareness and (let’s hope) changing attitudes.  But until there are also legal sanctions for the police who shoot unarmed blacks (seems to be very, very, very slow progress on that front) or for men who harass women (still a long way to go), I can’t see those movements as successful.  What troubles me are the movements that fight shy of any kind of political, legal outcome at all.

The notion of “prefigurative” has become very common not just in the literature but in the expressed views of the anti-globalization activists.  I had not read Todd Gitlin’s book on Occupy when I wrote the essay.  It’s a good book and a quick read.  He bends over backwards to be sympathetic to Occupy’s anarchism and is good on its refusal to dignify politicians with the authority of being petitioned to.  Instead, the theory went, Occupy would create the society it wanted—not request some imagined powerful others (the politicians) to redress wrongs or reform the corrupt society.  The trouble of course was that Occupy’s alternative society proved unsustainable.  You need a lot of things to have a functioning society—and Occupy was against many of those things on principle.

Gitlin addresses the leaderless stuff as well.  So, yes, let’s say that #MeToo is leaderless. It really is a spontaneous outbreak, in many places at once, and helpfully consolidated by the new digital media.  No one voice stands out among the rest—and part of its glory is that egalitarianism.  The issue for me is: What next?  The open chorus of voices can continue quite some time, until people get tired of that, and move on to the next thing.  Some participants in Occupy, as Gitlin documents, were aware of this problem.  Members of the movement had to have something to do.  Maybe we should call this the tyranny of narrative.  There has to be some sense of forward movement, not just the continual repetition of the same. (I have the same objection to the left’s marches.  Just to keep marching accomplishes nothing.)

So leadership at the very least must devise tactics, things to do that will move the ball forward.  (Hardt and Negri in Assembly concede this point, but then claim the movement itself, as mass leaderless democracy, must devise the strategy.  But their tactics/strategy bright line is hard to understand and, I would think, even harder to maintain in practice.)

Even more, I am arguing that moving the ball forward necessitates at some point the moment of institutionalization.  Which, of course, makes your question about the definition of institution central.  In some sense it’s a tautology: an institution is any formal structure that a) codifies its goals and procedures, and b) establishes the means to ensure its sustainability (over, at least, the medium term).  What are those “means” of sustainability?  For starters, at the minimum, the human and financial resources required to, so to speak, stay in the field.  There must be people who are doing the work and who we can be sure will be doing the work next week and (we hope) next year.  And there also must be people (the wider base) that can be called upon on for set occasions when a more massive presence is needed.  And there must be the money to support those people and the movement’s chosen activities.  Additionally, it is probably inevitable that there be some kind of by-laws (some rules of procedure) and some kind of division of labor (which may very well lead to hierarchy and also to forms of accountability).  The “formality” of institutions comes, then, from having a defined set of goals, an explicit codification of procedures and tasks that are aimed toward achieving that goal, along with a plan for raising the resources required to do the work to reach the goal.

In order to get that far, it also seems inevitable that you are going to need a) the wordsmiths who articulate the movement’s goals and core attitudes in ways that inspire people to join the movement and keep them inspired once they are in the door (the intellectuals if you will) and b) those who hold themselves personally accountable for the movement’s advancement toward its goals and inspire others to also assume similar responsibility (call these people leaders).  There are other roles, but you get the idea.

So I am not taking “the law” per se as the prototypical institution.  I guess I would say that an institution is “legal” once it has the political (or state) authority for its articulated codes and procedures to be enforced generally (i.e. over the whole citizenry of a state).  Many movements, then, will aim for its specific goals to become “legal” in exactly that sense.  But not all movements will have that aspiration.  Think of an artistic movement; it will be much looser in both its institutional forms than the civil rights movement (with its various organizations like the SNCC, the NAACP etc.) and with no desire to achieve legal reform.  But even something like Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism will depend on something more formal than a movement even if less formal than a full-blown institution if it is to thrive.  It will need to have fairly self-consciously formed networks of galleries, news and other media outlets, patrons, sympathetic museums, and a sense of who is in the fold and who isn’t.  It can’t, in other words, only exist in “presence,” in the face-to-face moments of direct interaction (which is what Occupy seems to aspire to—and, oddly enough, we can also say was often Arendt’s utopian vision of the political as an ephemeral “space of appearances” created by a group being together.  It is that Arendtian vision that Hardt and Negri–and Judith Butler in a different key that I find more convincing–are reaching for in their celebrations of “assembly,” the people coming out together to share time in the streets.)

So I guess I am arguing that I don’t see how a movement like #MeToo can advance its political agenda without institutionalizing to some extent—and that it can’t institutionalize without having some intellectuals and some leaders.  Does that—and here is the fear—make me a Leninist?  This worry is deeply ingrained in the left, quickly described (if over simplistically) as the debate between anarchists and advocates of “the party.”  It has more recently been re-inscribed as the debate between “direct” (or “participatory”) democracy and some acceptance of the need for “representation.”

Now I am really going to try your patience because I am going to tie your essay on rights to this classic leftist debate.  It is very common to think of rights as “legitimate claims.”  This is a very “pragmatic” way of theorizing rights—where “pragmatic” here refers less to Deweyean pragmatism than to the “pragmatics” of the linguists, which can be tied back to Wittgenstein’s insistence that the meaning of word resides in its use.  So think of rights as part of a “language game” or even of a “form of life.”  As a move in the language game, to state I have a right to something is to make a claim on the other players of the game.  That claim must, first, be recognized by those others as legitimate, as a claim to which they are accountable, answerable.  If I claim my right to your car, I will be dismissed out of hand.  But if I assert a claim to a high school education, that claim is most likely deemed legitimate within the prevailing language game in the US, but perhaps not when a teenage girl makes it in Afghanistan.

So, for starters, when we talk about rights, we are talking about (contestable) claims that we make upon one another.  A constitution and bill of rights represent attempts to place certain rights beyond contestability, to say that they are, for once and for all, legitimate.  Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being contested in individual court cases, but the constitution and bill of rights is supposed to provide solid grounds for deciding such cases.

The constitution, of course, also does something else.  It established that the state’s power will be placed in the service of protecting those rights herein designated as legitimate.  The problem Arendt highlights—and that became salient in the wake of World War II but which Madison already was writing about in the 1780s—is how to handle situations where what we have come to think of as rights must be protected against the state’s abrogation of them.  What is the enforcing, protective power in that case?  And also what about people who are “stateless.”?  To whom do such people even address their claim—and who will protect them since they are not recognized as any state’s responsibility?  The notion of “human rights” was created in the context of also creating international organizations such as the United Nations as an attempt to address this dilemma.  This attempted solution has proved woefully inadequate to solve the problem, but nothing better has been devised (or instituted).

Now, on top of that crisis/failure, comes the dilemma your essay highlights: how to think the rights of non-human entities.  Since I think of rights as discursive, as established within a language game of call (claim) and response, I don’t see how the rights of non-human entities can figure into the game unless they are “represented” by humans.  That is, there is an inevitable “translation” here.  We can think of that translation as going in either direction (I don’t think it makes much difference which description we choose.  Others might argue it makes a huge difference.)  Alternative one would be to say that we take a notion of “rights’ developed in human political discourse as a way of talking about, adjudicating, and acting upon the claims we have/make upon one another as we attempt to live together in a shared world—and we now transpose that notion of rights as a handy way to talk about the claims non-human entities could/would/should make (if they could talk) as co-inhabitants of that same shared world.  So humans are “extending” rights to non-human entities by couching the perceived needs of those entities in “rights talk.”  (The anti-humanists would object here that the perceiving of those needs is done by humans.)

The alternative would be to say that non-human entities have various ways of communicating their needs and requirements to us—but (I would still argue) it requires an act of translation, from those non-human communications into the human language of rights, to have the non-human claims enter into our political discourse of rights.  In other words, I don’t see how the non-human enters the realm of rights except as voiced by a human advocate.  I know radical anti-humanists hate this conclusion, but I don’t see how to avoid it.

So we seem to be left with: Rights talk is a human contrivance—so all application of rights talk to the inhuman involves a questionable translation of humanist terms to a sphere distinct from the human.  (I think your essay was tending in that direction.)  The only way out of this would be to let the non-human speak for itself.  But I guess I am with Wittgenstein: if the lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand him.  No understanding across that barrier without translation—with the sense that yes, of course, something is going to be lost in the translation, but that’s the best we’ve got.  The search for pristine, perfect solutions aspires to a logically unassailable state that is unattainable, while also imagining a moral purity that sees every trade-off as reprehensible.  William James says the “trail of the human serpent is over all.”  Once within human languages, we are doomed to “representation” with all its imperfections and inadequacies.

Goaded by those imperfections, we keep on writing, thinking maybe the next time I will say it better.

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