What do we think a social movement is? What problem do we think it is solving? What absence is it intended to make up for?
You often hear Corbyn supporters invoking a social movement, in a general way, as something that must be "built". Thus, for example, Jon Trickett in response to the menace of a new 'centrist' party.
In the early days of Momentum, many of its activists thought it could be the engine of movement-building, the organised hub of "people-powered politics". It has a much narrower remit now, but I think the strategic focus on the social movement as an idealised object of desire, remains.
In talking like this, Corbynistas are taking their lead from Corbyn himself, whose leadership campaign stressed new forms of political participation emerging beyond the parliamentary system, and argued for the need to "build a social movement".
Labour activist Lewis Bassett argues that, by virtue of an underlying populist dynamic, Corbynism, while at times it resembles "mass fandom", may be a "social movement in the making".
One can interpret this in more-or-less generous ways.
One might say there is an attempt at what Bloch called "concrete utopian" politics here. Corbyn is well aware of the disintegration of the labour movement, and has been for decades. He has always argued that the role of the Labour Left in this situation is to use its organised power to help shore up and rebuild these class capacities. And in his campaign, he was drawing attention to a real tendency: the rise of extra-parliamentary movements attending the decline of parliamentary participation.
Bloch's materialist ontology defined matter to include, not just that which is, and not just that which is possible, but that which may become possible. This "ontology of the Not Yet" is an attempt to situate political "hope", not as a vacuous fantasy, but as something that operates on possibilities, and possibilities-of-possibilities, embedded in the present. To say, "we need to build a social movement" (as opposed, say, to "we need to woo the Which? magazine demographic") is to say we need to make the most of the possibilities we face, and to create new possibilities.
Nonetheless, it's hard to see how this project of "building" a social movement is being, or will be, concretised, because it is hard to see what is practically meant by it. And, in the absence of a strategic, nationwide concretisation of this objective, of something practical that activists can do beyond party-building work, it becomes an ideal, a fantasy toward which we ritually genuflect. Or, worse, we come to think that "building a social movement" is what we're doing when we go to see Corbyn speak, or attend a branch meeting, or share a Momentum meme.
We should, at least, distinguish between social movements as they have historically emerged, and the "social movement" as a rhetorical figure. I think the latter designates a political fantasy which results from a strategic impasse.
Movements, as I've argued before, are not 'built'.
They are not objects which can be assembled from a kit, like IKEA furniture. They are the palpable experience, the visible confirmation, of less visible social processes (conflicts, organisation, subject-formation, cultural association, etc) which cannot be manufactured, or mastered. To confuse a social movement with an object, is to confuse it with a commodity-image.
In a society mediated by markets and commodities, the advertising image is our main form of utopian thinking. It shows us, albeit opaquely, allusively, teasingly, a better life. It offers us, too, a DIY reform to obtain it: a purchase. Something that is, at least in principle, in our power to achieve. It is, of course, a deeply impoverished utopianism. It is what politicians mean when they speak the language of 'aspiration': utopian ambitions stripped down, defeated, privatised and reduced to the hope of better acquisitions.
In principle, social movements offer a higher aspiration: for example, to use collective strength, or "people power", to defeat poverty. But to treat a movement as a finished object tends to involve equating it with performance, or with what Charles Tilly called demonstrations of "worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment". So, NGOs which try to 'build movements' end up producing an evanescent aesthetic experience: crowds, placards, balloons, zeppelins, banners, a stage, music.
In the commodity-image of the social movement, the 'big day', the consumable object is not so much a practical political outcome, as the temporary euphoria of coalescence. This can now be consumed in a degraded form on social media, in the format of a swarm of affect and opinion on a particular subject.
The problem with such reification is not merely that it is 'wrong'. Nor that it can lead to vacuous excitability that swiftly dissipates into demoralisation. Nor that it overlooks the infrastructure, the apparatuses, the organised milieus, cultures, associations, ways of life, that constitute the 'thickness', the 'depth' of a social movement. But that, as with the case of the anti-apartheid struggle in the United States, it often leads to replication of unsuccessful tactics. That is, people adopt the most visually striking but least efficacious tactics because they have gained circulation as images of what an effective protest is.
The dreary coalition years are littered with dispiriting experiences like this. And the best that can be said for them is that people can and do learn from defeat. That is how we got here.
This is not to say we should worship at the shrine of actually-existing-movements. Movements often fail. The anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s was one of the biggest in European and North American history, and it failed.
The fantasy of a social movement is more appealing than many of the lived experiences. And politics has to have a space for fantasy. As Bloch points out, no human being has ever lived without daydreams. The point is to know them in more and more detail, and helpfully point them in the right direction.
Nonetheless, if a fantasy tends to emerge where something is lacking, it is perhaps no coincidence that the "social movement" fantasy emerges just as the biggest social movement in the history of this country, the labour movement, has been through decades of secular crisis.
Like most social movements, it had its roots in a struggle over the reproduction of a social relationship, in this case that between capital and labour. Like most social movements, it constituted itself politically, in relation to state power, whether in 'reformist' or 'revolutionary' form. Like most social movements, it drew in allies and combatants well beyond its formal frame of reference. Like most social movements, it exceeded its own political calculus, developing cultures and ways-of-life that embedded deep in daily experience. For millions of people, the cooperative, the union branch, the working men's club, the party branch, was such a way-of-life.
Today, this movement barely exists as such, and not only in the United Kingdom. There remain the trade unions, with millions of members. They continue to give some sort of industrial and political expression to the demands of working class people, albeit overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector. But, partly to weather the storm of neoliberalism, and partly as a result of class defeats, they have become heavily bureaucratised organisations. They are not rooted in daily class experience. There isn't the sort of pervasive Labourist culture that there once was. Socialising and culture has become more atomised and privatised. And as I mentioned in the context of the "youthquake", the rate of strikes has reached historic lows.
The trade union leaderships turned left politically in response to their decline, and indeed to their inability to wield industrial muscle. It is customary to say that they lack the confidence to pursue major, sustained, disruptive strike actions. It is probably more accurate to say that they lack the ability to do so. They do not have cadres of rank and file militants able to organise for massive, class-wide confrontation. Shop stewards are far more engaged in individual case work today, than in leadership in industrial disputes. They do not have a class-wide force. They are strategically located in the areas where they can least disrupt the flow of profit. The overwhelming relative strength of the employers is one of the major reasons they dominated the narrative in the aftermath of the banking crisis, shaping it toward a pungent attack on the social wage and unions, rather than being treated as the major villains.
The reified figure of the 'social movement' emerges, in part, out of this impasse. Much as, during the Cameron years they invested in 'movement-building' activities, seconding UK Uncut and Occupy activists to their good offices, they now depose their hopes in a radical Labour leadership whose avowed vocation is the building of such movements. But we are still left with the question of where or how such a movement is supposed to emerge, let alone be 'built', if it is not to be reduced to electoral street work, digital media strategies and occasional high-profile events. That is, if "building a social movement" doesn't simply mean, building a more effectual Labour Party.
To put it like this, we have no idea whether or not a social movement is coming, or what it would look like. We can see certain tendencies which might give rise to one. We can see incipient signs of organisation, and combative subjectivities being formed. But it can't be coaxed into existence.
Anyone interested in "building a social movement" therefore has to be interested in the underlying social processes, which can engender the kinds of capacities and concrete empowerments, through which a successful, sustained movement might emerge. Organising precarious workers in the private sector, for example, or organising residents against gentrification. Ironically, it might be that it would be easier to get to that if there was less 'social movement talk'.