A few thoughts on Bayat’s notion of “Social Non-Movements”

Asef Bayat‘s idea of “social non-movements” might be crucial for thinking about “social movements” today. The very idea that we “ought” to respond to the political crises we face by organized “movements” is perhaps overly narrow.

Let me say that by “social non-movements,” I mean broadly the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors. These include the non-movements of the poor to claim rights to urban space and amenities; the non-movements of youth to reclaim their youthfulness, that is, to realize their desired life styles, and fulfill their individualities; and the non-movements of women to struggle for gender equality—say, in personal status or in active presence in public sphere. These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.

The has been raised that what Bayat is describing is a sort of “life style” politics. In a sense that is clearly true, but I think not in the pejorative sense of for example “lifestyle anarchism”. Bayat isn’t proposing “life-style” as an alternative to politics, in fact, I don’t think he’s being prescriptive at all. The very notion of a prescription would seem to be counter to the idea of a social non-movement. I think the point is a descriptive one: that because of the repression and ineffectiveness of social movements to respond to certain sets of grievances, social non-movements are emerging to respond to those grievances. I think this is the key quote:

“These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.”

The emergence and repression of social-non movements is something I’ve seen this in Palestine first hand. It is sometimes either impossible or practically impossible for Palestinians on occupied territory to get the permit to sell their goods, or to build a house, or run a business. Or even if it is not impossible maybe some refuse to engage with the authorities because they don’t recognize their legitimacy (and to be fair, there isn’t a state in the world, not even the United States, which recognizes the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem). A social-movement response to this would mean organized protests with demands, or participating in electoral politics according a constitution (you certainly know the debates about “constitutionalist” politics on disputed territory in the Irish context!), or right the way up to open, potentially militarized struggle against Israeli institutions. But, if the costs of any of these options were too high, and they are high, it isn’t surprising that people in a non-coordinated way simply break the law and do the things they need to do and get on with their life. Sometimes the border police come through the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem and kick over people’s stalls if they don’t have the right permits – Bayat isn’t saying that social non-movements are without cost. But, the cost of sometimes having your food knocked over, or even sometimes having your house torn down (which happens on a daily basis, and there are literally thousands of standing demolition orders), maybe the cost is still lower and differently distributed than the cost of a social movement to change the law. 

But Bayat’s point is not that this is a politics. Rather, he’s describing the social field’s aversion to politics, but also how that aversion has political implications:

“non-movements” keep their actors in a constant state of mobilization, even though the actors remain dispersed, or their links to other actors remain often (but not always) passive. This means that when they sense that there is an opportunity, they are likely to forge concerted collective protests, or merge into larger political and social mobilization.”

So, describing the social non-movements that exist might certainly be relevant for people trying to organize social movements. But you can’t organize a social non-movement, because the very act of organizing it would make it a social movement. At the same time, there may be opportunities to politicize non-political non-movements, by repeating the same non-movement direct actions with increasing amounts of organization. 

I wonder if this is a way of opening up Michael Hart’s thesis that to think “leadership” in the contemporary series of uprisings we need to reverse the links between “leadership – strategy / mass – tactics”, and think of leadership tactically and the mass as a source of strategy. Maybe the non-movements, which are a-political, are actually strategic because they are directed immediately towards the problems that exist, and we could add a political level to them by tactically bringing non-movers together, on a short term basis, with a leadership which would tactically spontaneously dissolve rather than increase its authority over time.

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