Sunday September 26, 2021


Times of pandemic bring big challenges for the activists of progressive social movements. They are not a time for street activism or politics in the squares.

Freedoms are restricted, social distancing makes the typical forms of protest impossible to carry out. Mobilization is not only difficult in public places but also in our places of work, given the very strict limitation on the right to meet and the reduced opportunity for face-to-face encounters.

The continuous emergency constrains our mental spaces, challenging our creativity. Individual and collective resources are focused on everyday survival. Hope, that stimulant for collective action, is difficult to sustain, while fear, that so discourages it, spreads. Crises might trigger selfish defensive choices, turning the other into an enemy. We depend on governmental efficiency and expert opinions.

Nevertheless, social movements often do emerge in moments of high emergency, of (more or less natural) calamities, and of strong repression of individual and collective freedoms. Wars have triggered waves of contention in the past. Not only is it the case that “states make wars and wars make states”, but portentous contestations have accompanied military conflicts -- before, after, at times even during these. Such revolutions testify to the strength of engagement in moments of deep crisis.

Times of deep crisis can (even if not automatically) generate the invention of alternative forms of protest. The broad spread of new technologies allows for online protests -- including, but not limited to, e-petitions that have multiplied in this period (ranging from the quest for Eurobonds to the request for a suspension of rents for students. Car marches have been called for in Israel. Workers have claimed more security through flashmobs, implemented by participants keeping a safe distance one from the other. In Finland, public transport drivers have refused to monitor tickets. In Italy or Spain, collective messages of contestation or solidarity are sent from balconies and windows. Through these innovative forms, protests puts pressure on those in government and control their actions.

Faced with the glaring need for radical and complex transformation, social movements also act in various ways that differ from protests. First of all, social movements create and recreate ties: they build upon existing networks but also, in action, they connect and multiply them. Faced by the manifest inadequacies of the state and, even more, of the market, social movement organizations form -- as is happening in every country hit by the pandemic -- into mutual support groups, promoting direct social action by helping those most in need. So, they produce resilience by responding to the need for solidarity.

Movements also acts as channels for the elaboration of proposals. They make use of alternative specialist knowledge but they also add to this the practical knowledge arising from the direct experiences of citizens.

Excerpted from: 'Social Movements in Times of Pandemic: Another World Is Needed'.