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How Can Social Movements Deepen Democratic Relations Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2790 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Social movements are argued to be influential in promoting democracy from below through mobilizing broader sectors of the society and creating a new set of social relationships that lead to the emergence of collective actions, identity and plurality. This line of thought is associated with the Greek democratic theory that recognizes the importance of the democracy of active participation where different interest groups can immediately be engaged in the transformation of political structures and institutions in which they live and work or the ones that govern them (Todd and Taylor, 2004: 9).

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This paper will try to explain some of the approaches by which social movements are able to instigate democracy from the bottom. To do this, the essay will first briefly look at some of the definitions of social movements and relate these definitions with the approaches. Further the essay will give some empirical examples of different social movements and the role each played in diverse political, social and cultural contexts. The essay does not deny that social movements have certain limitations and challenges; because they potentially try to shake the existing political powers, social movements were repressed severely in many cases. But due to the limitation and space of this essay, it will focus its argument on the social movements’ influence rather than challenges.

Markoff (1996) describes social movements as an “open, collective and sustained challenge to prevailing ways of doing things”. He believes that it is open because it tends to explicitly express its interest in creating a change to the tradition of how things are done in the political, social and economic spheres. Social movement’s collectiveness and sustainability are derived from the fact that it is dependent on groups rather than on individuals and it is more than a single event or a small number of events. Furthermore, Tarrow (1998) believes that social movement refers to “collective challenges based on common purposes and popular solidarity in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities”. From the two definitions it can be inferred that social movements create a base for broader popular participation as they are more inclusive of people than the formal political factions or parties as they tend to disrupt the structures of the authority and further perform as agents of deep democracy (Snow, 2004). In other words, processes of social and democratic change are imposed indirectly through reforming the existing power relations and political authority (Tarrow, 1988).

In the second half of the 20th century, social movements are argued to have been capable of performing a wider role in the public processes of decision making through changing the culture and mechanism of how people relate to each other (Ibarra, 2003: 7-9). Ibarra suggests that they have been able to engage in networks of public policies and “enter, maintain a presence, and move and act in the governance of determinate space within which and from which decisions are produced”. This engagement in the political institution makes governance more democratic because it involves more players in the processes of decision making (Snow et al., 2004).

As an ideology and how this ideology is transformed to action, social movements can participate in reinventing democracy and not totally replacing the existing one (Graeber, 2002: 70). In another word, it is argued that social movements create new forms of political organizations with a new ideology that enhances and enacts horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties and corporations (Davis, 2005: 207, Graeber, 2002). These networks are based on principles of decentralized authority and non hierarchal consensus democracy; consequently, they aspire to reinvent and influence the daily political life as a whole(Graeber, 2002).

Moreover, there is a mutual relationship between social movements and democratization as one favours the other and therefore the same processes that contribute to the establishment of social movements lead to the enlargement of democratization (Ibarra, 2003). Most importantly here is its role in the enlargement of relations networks among political actors that collectively control the government. This, as a result, plays a role in the equalization of positions within these networks which consequently makes it possible that members of minority groups within the ruling faction seek support and allies from outside the powerful political actor (Ibarra, 2003: 33-34, Snow et al., 1980).

Markoff (1996) explains this notion as saying that sustained social action can contribute to democratization when governing elites from the lower class of authority are forced to seek support from social movement’s participants to strengthen their positions within their governments. Seeking support is thought to occur at the expense of making political concessions to social movements as these junior elites tend to act pre-emptively and out of fear because they potentially feel they will be the first to be affected by social movement’s demands. Markoff further argues that in this fear “the knowledge of what social movements have accomplished elsewhere often plays an important role”. Evidence of this is the response of the liberal conservatives in Europe in the 1880’s to social movements when they realized what other social groups (peasantry) were able to accomplish in France in the 1790’s when thousands of rural communities’ people resisted the new revolutionary authorities until a new legislation that ended the lords’ right was passed (1996: 24-25).

Moreover, Ibarra (2003: 34-35) coincides with this argument saying that social movements’ reaching out to wider sectors of the community including decision makers give them a good opportunity to increase their credibility and power by showing ” worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment” which through sustained social action that can contribute to democratization in different ways (Strang and Soule, 1998). For instance, after the lengthy struggle in South Africa, participating elites in the white government were forced to meet the black people’s demands for political participation. The government was in no position but to accept a vote on the new constitution that recognizes the black’s right to vote (BBC, 2005).

A comprehensive example that features what social movements can generally do to establish and endorse democracy from below is found in the case study of the rural Tanzania city of Hareabi, northern Tanzania. It describes the nature of the relationship between the state and the society on the one hand, and the elite members of the political authority and social movements on the other. Further, it explicitly shows how collective actions and sustainability of these actions trouble the political authority which consequently leads to, first, forcing this authority to review its policies and, second, making the authority more aware of the public power. The case study also reveals a different sense of the right to participate in the decision making in issues related to the use and distribution of development resources and how participation of wider sectors of the community can limit the political elites from continuing to gain personal benefits (Snyder, 2008).

In the 1990s Tanzania witnessed the introduction of new economic and political reform and the adoption of a new multiparty system . The adoption of this reform came as a result of external pressure practiced by donors and internal demand to fight corruption (Snyder, 2008). However change on the ground was hardly witnessed as corruption continued to spread and people thought multiparty system would make corruption spread among more parties in the government. (Kelsall, 2000). A real test of democratization and fighting corruption came when a dispute about the location constructing new schools in Hareabi village erupted between the villagers and the local authorities. The project itself reflected the old top-down approach as the government assigned the schools location without consulting with the local people (Snyder, 2008). Information about the project was given to the citizens via radio channels where citizens were instructed to contact local School Education Committees for more information. The tension quickly spread around the surrounding villages and districts forming a social movement calling for citizens’ right to participate in the decision making, especially on issues that touch on people’s daily life.

The particular disagreement in Hareabi was ignited by local and district elites and construction contractors allied with them. Both were trying to take advantage of the new opportunity ignoring what would favour the villagers (Snyder, 2008). The broad tension forced the government to meet with the local villagers and respond to their complaints about local behaviour of the local officials by firing them. Further, the villagers were not happy with assigning temporary local officials as they too intervened in the matter and they instead preferred the issue to be resolved among the villagers and according to what serves the best of their interests. One neighbourhood representative bluntly said “we have democracy now and we should be able to decide our affairs ourselves” (Snyder, 2008).

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Democracy in this context cannot be established without a vibrant social movement and a mobilised civil society that include grassroots and ordinary citizen who have common interests and beliefs regarding specific issues (Snyder, 2008, Kelsall, 2000). Additionally, Tilly (1999: 257-262) argues that social movement couple the making of public claims for rights through the creation and assertion of collective goals and collective identity. For him, they construct the foundation of an important identity in the political sphere by asserting the existence of a “worthy, unified, and numerous, committed and aggrieved claimant. These features of social movements will augment the implied threat that the “claimant will use its weight to enter, realign and disrupt the existing polity”.

In line with Tilly, Tarrow (1994: 153) argues that the broad dissemination of collective action from more active and mobilized actors to less active actors coupled with new forms of contention and new frames of transformed collective action, organized and less organized participation, and a chain of strong interaction between the political authority and social movements’ participants can lead to reform and repression and probably may lead to a revolution that has a clearer agenda for democratization and reform within the political structures.

In the meantime, social movements in some cases are able to work from within the institutional framework of the political authority that formulates the state’s policy. As a result, this may contribute to establishing political consensus between the social movements leaders and the political leaders (Maguire, 1995: 199). Additionally, social movements have the ability to mobilize civil society along with the opposition political institutions. Maguire explains this by suggesting that social movements and opposition parties work in the same terrain as they cross each other’s paths, which may lead to forming alliances that could influence their individual destinies. The interrelation between social movements and the opposition parties is common when the opposition parties are in need for social coalition and support for electoral purposes. This has been recently seen in the Egyptian revolution in the coalition between the social movement on the one hand and the opposition parties in the other hand, including the traditional Muslim Brotherhood party and the recently established Kefaya and April 6 movements.

Zohar (2011) suggests the coalition between the spontaneous social movement and Egyptian opposition succeeded in mobilizing wider sectors of the Egyptian in a tremendously short period of time using “coherent strategy”, and it also succeeded in mobilizing more political powers which led to forming a unified national agenda calling for regime change and serious democratic and institutional reform. Before the revolution, Zohar adds that the regime suppressed the opposition effectively through a combination of manipulations. However, the revolution led by the movement succeeded in mobilizing the opposition on its side.

Furthermore, social movements potentially can challenge the relationships of different power-holder to one another and challenge the policies of those in power as a result (Markoff, 1996). This is seen in the example Solidarity Movements in Poland 1980-1981. The movements started when the governments passed a new food price increase in August 1980. This increase created unrest and grievances among the workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk (Barker, 2001). These grievances developed gradually to form a central demand which was the right of workers to form their own unions independent of the communist party control and engaged in strikes (Markoff, 1996). The Shipyard strike was different from any previous strikes within the Comecon nations because it attracted diverse membership that exceeded 10 million participants, although the primary labour movement was led and supported by the workers and represented by its chairman Walesa. The movement had no political ambitions or goals but in reality it echoed a voice of opposition to the communist party in whole Eastern Europe (Butler, 2010). The broad popular base of the Solidarity movement not only in Poland but also across Eastern Europe provoked furious objections from Moscow and other Comecon members and put Poland under the threat of invasion by the Warsaw Pact allies as it was not acceptable for the allies that Poland allowed a movement completely out of its communist party’s control. Poland in the end had to give in to the movement’s demand causing a political crisis with Moscow as they signed the Gdansk Agreement which was considered a genuine social contract authorizing citizen to introduce democratic change under the umbrella of a communist regime (Wars of the Worlds, 2000).

Markoff (1996) argues that social movements normally do not have it as a strategy to create this unrest in the relationships between power-holders but it occurs as a result of the dilemma confronted regimes experience in meeting social movements’ demands. Consequently, they tend to make serious changes within the political and authority structures of the state, changes that either seriously threaten the regimes’ continuation in power or one that lead to adopting serious reforms. The other side of the dilemma is to confront directly with the social movements. This confrontation can be very unpredictable and may turn violent and in this case change is imminent.

To conclude, this essay has argued the influencing role of social movements in promoting and enhancing democracy from below by first, broadly changing the mechanisms of decision-making through creating a new culture of how people are connected to each other. Second, the lack of specific organizational and leadership structure gives social movements the potential to reach outer to wider sectors of the community as an open forum for open participation for people who share the same cause, identity and ideology. Third, open participation enables social movements to disseminate collective action from more mobilized actors to less active actors formulating new forms of contention and collective decision making that establish the foundation of democracy. Fourth, social movements have the ability to disrupt the relationships between different power holders. Finally, they can make alliances with opposition parties to form a unified agenda for serious political reforms that lead to democracy.

Therefore, it can be said that social movements can and have played a major role in making genuine political transition and revolutions that led to the establishments of democratic institutions and systems. They have been vehicles for a more dynamic civil society and generators of social capital (Ibarra, 2003) that can contribute in channeling people’s collective demands to regimes and governments and as a result they are good instruments that smooth the progress and the flow of the democracy game.


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