Monday, 14 January 2013

TVO Panel on Idle No More Part I: The Logic of Movements

Well, the TVO show "The Agenda with Steve Paikin" had an interesting Idle No More panel. They discussed many points and clarified some of the misinformation about First Nations communities and governments.

Still, one panelist's claims miss the mark. Yet, in doing so, they provide a springboard for deeper discussion.

That panelist was Terry Glavin.

Four women from Saskatchewan who
started off Idle No More.

Image Source: Obtained from
"Warrior Publications"
One of his dubious assertions/sentiments is that Idle No More's not a movement. His rationale is that they lack objectives which are clear and programmatic enough for him.

 Idle No More has been organized at a grassroots level, starting off with little institutional support1, and spread rapidly since it's inception by four Saskatchewanian women in late November 2012. It has a clear catalyst: the unilateral changes to the Canadian State-First Nations relationship proposed by the Harper CONs. In that way, it's very similar to other movements that had clear starting points yet vaguer endpoints.

 One such movement is Occupy, which was started by Adbusters with the "one simple demand" to form a "presidential commission to separate money from politics". "Arab spring"2 movements across the Middle East certainly emerged with the clear goal of ousting corrupt, kleptocratic, and despotic rulers in certain nations, yet were fuzzier about the aftermath. Even the populist parties3 of old in North America had less message discipline and were much less programmatic than conventional parties. Broader movements have broader objectives.

What Glavin needs to realize is that there's a major difference between grassroots movements and lobbying firms/special interest groups. Due to their breadth and decentralization, grassroots movements always have less clinical and laser-defined goals. These movements also channel a broad swath of different, sometimes contradictory, experiences and interests into the political discourse.

In fact, a major element of movements like Occupy or Idle No More is the process of politically educating the apolitical. The effect that grassroots movements have on the overall political culture, by mobilizing new participants into the political arena and erecting new institutions, has resulted in major policy changes.

Illustration of the evolution of successful social
 movements, by The Analyst.
Just look at social movements throughout history.

Successful social movements may seem to have had laser-like objectives, but that's because we often forget just how contradictory and broad they were during their midlives. We're looking at these movements from a position of hindsight, we see the concrete policy changes that resulted without witnessing the complex inner dynamics and deliberations which needed to happen to get there. We remove all the "messy details" and tangents that were crucial to the evolution of the movement, producing an unrealistically neat and tidy picture of what went on.

"Strike Debt!" logo, a project that sprung
out of the Occupy movement.

Strike Debt! has also led to the
Rolling Jubilee project.

Image Source: Strike Debt! website
In reality, these messy, dialectical, and conversation filled movements are what lead to social changes.

We can already see the beginnings of these "aftershocks" on the political culture in the Occupy Movement.

Occupy, contrary to the conventional wisdom, hasn't left "no legacy". Occupy activists influenced the national conversation on inequality and even the tone of the 2012 US Presidential election. The community built by Occupy  is invigorating a debt jubilee project, which serves as an institutional successor to the movement. The Occupy community also put their organizational muscle to good use by delivering relief to Hurricane Sandy victims. All of this stuff counts as a legacy beyond the camps in Zuccotti Park and demonstrates the changes to the political landscapes "vague" movements cause.    

Closer to home, the labour movement in this province started off with the specific goals of better working conditions but evolved beyond just that. They mobilized many non-unionized workers in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, an event that certainly radicalized many workers in this city. Putting their organizational muscle to good use in the interwar era, the labour movement engaged in extra-parliamentary education - which isn't dissimilar to today's Occupy/Idle No More "teach-ins"- to pursue the broad goals of social and economic justice. Eventually, the labour movement stepped into parliamentary politics with the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP evolved into the Manitoba CCF and eventually the Manitoba NDP.

1919 Winnipeg General Strike, a contributing factor to labour
activism in Manitoba.

Image Source: Wikipedia

The most successful provincial party of the last forty years here, the Manitoba NDP, had it's origin in conditions similar to Idle No More. This is good reason for critics like Terry Glavin to be less dismissive of Idle No More. The logic of social movements can lead to very big things.      

1 Arab Spring is a bit of a misnomer, as many of the Middle Easterner/North African countries were the movement emerged were not filled with arabic peoples.
2 This might also be a function of the void created by cuts to more established First Nations advocacy groups.

3 Some of which admittedly did have nastier and demagogic sides.

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