Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Review: Identity, Place, Knowledge

[Janet M. Conway. Identity, Place, Knowledge: Social Movements Contesting Globalization. Halifax: Fernwood, 2004.]

I like this book. Not only does it focus on important social movement activities that happened near the coordinates of some of my own early activist involvement -- just before and just north -- it also is a wonderful example of an activist using the academy as a resource to reflect on what she has been a part of. Not all of the strands of academic knowledge that she draws upon are ones that I would prioritize, but most are, and I agree emphatically that some of her key questions are absolutely crucial ones for us to address.

The book is based on an ethnographic study of the Metro Network for Social Justice between 1992 and 1997. In those years, the author was also a central organizer of the network. Conway frames the MNSJ in these years with reference to origins in the anti-free trade organizing of the late '80s and the very beginning of the '90s, and its role in incubating sensibilities that burst to prominence with the anti-globalization/global justice movement in 1999. By examining concrete practices within the MNSJ, particularly those related to identity and knowledge production, she makes an excellent case for the existence of local resistance to neoliberalism in the pre-Seattle years in the North and for understanding the largely Ontario-based tendency to form labour-community coalitions in the '90s as an important laboratory for exploring and implementing new ways of doing social change work.

I said above that I see this as an excellent example of activist use of the academy. However, that is something that always contains contradictions, and this book is no exception. In saying that, I am not meaning to criticize the author -- it is inevitable to a greater or lesser extent when you work in the academy because there is an obligation to ground what you are doing in what has gone before in ways that can't help but import knowledge shaped by imperatives other than those that guide social movements. But, sometimes, that is worth it.

One example of this is the way the book engages with the strands of academic literature that the author has selected as relevant. There is something about the way that was done in this book that seems to me to embody at least the remnants of how such things are done in academic lit reviews for dissertations. It has lots of great stuff and covers lots of important ground, but there is something buried in how it is organized that is about performing a particular kind of awareness of previous writing for a committee rather than allowing the author to be more completely oriented towards appropriating academic knowledge production for activist purposes.

This engagement with academic strands of knowledge production covers a lot of ground, some that I find very useful and some that I am less interested in. One that I have trouble seeing as useful, for instance, is a strand of social movement studies literature that understands social movements as expressions of collective identity. I can understand how you can do this but I don't get why you would want to. If you understand "identity" to mean something like a changeable/changing but potentially stable self-understanding which is produced where self and social (or agency and experience) interact, then seeing social movements in this way isn't unreasoanble. However, I worry about the tendency for "identity" language to easily devolve into talking about it as if it is a thing -- it seems to me that choosing different language that keeps agency and experience visible might be a bit more cumbersome but also politically safer.

Another way she engages with social movement studies literature is a discussion of its "cultural turn" -- that is, a turn to understanding movements with reference to ideas from cultural studies. I think cultural studies has neat things to offer and am glad she talks about it. If this gives people who are thinking about social movements a way to theorize the importance of the micro-scale processes (material and discursive) which constitute movements and, for that matter, constitute the world, and the ways in which social movements are also exercises in intervening in those processes, well, that's good too. It doesn't necessarily seem like the most direct route to get there, though, and it sounds like at least some people who are taking this approach are also arguing that it reflects a relatively recent trend in practices within social movements, which seems to me to be a bit of a misreading of older movements, or at least an overstatement. Regardless, my reservations about these first two areas are not really about where Conway takes them, I don't think, but are based on the fact that they start from mainstream academic social movement studies, which, at least in its classic forms -- resource mobilization theory and new social movement theory -- I've never found terribly politically interesting or useful for actually understanding social movements.

The second central theme of the theory Conway engages with, as represented by the title, is "place." I'm really interested in radical geography and its ways of talking about spaces as socially constituted, and I'm glad this book starts there. I'm less sure that the framework of "urban movements" is particularly useful, except in that it gives access to the literature about a certain class of movements that uses that language. And I think the use of "world city" literature is also quite clever. It gives access to discourses that have a certain mainstream currency and that can talk about spatial and social organization in ways that are not blinded by the ungrounded primacy given to the state form in lots of academic and activist discourses.

Related to her discussion of place is an interesting discussion of the problem of scale, and how to talk about different scales of the social world when we write about it and how to intervene across different scales as movements. It doesn't come up with any magical answers, but even the act of exploring how to talk about material practices at a local level and their engagement with local expressions of extralocal social and discursive organization of varying origins and scales is important. Interestingly, it feels like where Conway ends up with this resembles rather a lot the alternative sociology known as institutional ethnography, even though she appears to get there by a route that doesn't refer to that approach at all, aside from a couple of references to Himani Bannerji's work. It is also possible that I see a stronger similarity than actually exists because the things I find most interesting about both approaches are similar, and perhaps the less-central-to-me elements are not so much the same.

The final theme area in the title is "knowledge," and that is expressed by an examination of a number of theories of knowledge that are very relevant to activist practice in general and my own interests in particular. Conway identifies epistemological practices of the New Left era (which were largely unarticulated at the time), feminist standpoint epistemologies, and approaches to pedagogy that draw on the work of Paulo Freire and the many people inspired by him.

The substance of the study focuses on a particular activist network in Toronto in the 1990s, the MSJ. She gives a very grounded description of the political context in Ontario in those years. One of my first non-student political involvements was with one of the labour-community social justice coalitions of which the MNSJ was the largest and most sophisticated example. I don't think I had really realized the ways in which such coalitions as default elements of the activist scenes of many communities were in some ways a phenomenon quite specific to Ontario in the '90s. I also never appreciated the ways in which their politics emerged from earlier anti-free trade struggles, which this book emphasizes.

The MNSJ emerged most immediately from a specific struggle against threats to funding for social services in the Metro Toronto municipal budget in 1992. It then became a permanent coalition, involving for many years heavy involvement by paid staff not only from the Toronto Labour Council but also from a number of government-funded social service agencies. At its height, more than 250 organizations belonged, a long with individuals. In the period in question, the organization's activities tried to balance campaigns around defending social services, both through lobbying and protest, with a commitment to base-building and popular education work focused on what they called "economic and political literacy."

Conway goes into some detail about the practices of the organization. She talks about the challenges of coalition politics, particularly involving such unavoidably unequal partners. There is a very interesting discussion about anti-racism in the context of the coalition -- there were always people of colour on the steering committee and there was a commitment to anti-racism by many of the core activists, but she argues that the social base of the coalition remained largely white because of a tendency to apply anti-racist analysis to a certain subset of practices of the organization but not to critically examine the political content of the coalition's work. She argues that the ways in which it prioritized the "economic" and focused on defending the welfare state failed to resonate with the particular ways in which communities of colour were impacted by and mobilizing around neoliberalism at the same time. She talks about how underlying a lot of what the network did was a theoretical grounding, often just implicit, in the kind of political economy work that has served as the default basis for a lot of the English Canadian left for several decades, but that there were a variety of efforts to complexify and expand this in the years under study.

The particular interest of the book is the MNSJ's economic and political literacy work. This was the area of work in which Conway herself was more active. She also presents a convincing case that it was the strong presence of this base-building, popular education-oriented work that gave the MNSJ a particularly interesting character in the years under study -- resources were devoted to short-term fightback campaigns too, but particularly after the neoliberalizing budget of the federal Liberals in 1995, many activists in the MNSJ recognized the need for a longer term strategy to respond to neoliberalism. She also sees the knowledge production and pedagogical activities of the network as one key element that made it possible to transcend, modestly and sporadically, the limits of lowest common denominator coalition politics, and that pointed towards a path by which a more lasting transcendence could have occurred.

It was, among other things, tensions surrounding the economic and political literacy work that lead to some intense conflict within the network and that essentially ended the period under study. It was, apparently, a tension that existed throughout the MNSJ's existence, with ongoing differences of opinion about where best to sink resources: long-term focused pedagogy and knowledge production work, or immediate fightback work. It felt weird to be reading that account, like it evoked a conflict of some kind within me as well. I think that had to do with the fact that because of my own connection to Ontario activism in the '90s, I can completely get how polarized those two tendencies could become, how they could appear to be necessary opposities (even though she emphasizes that it isn't really that simple). At the same, it feels like a tragic division to me -- that we will never get anywhere unless we have both, and the critical thing is not balancing them, which is how she mostly talks about it, but combining them. Which, on a certain level, this book recognizes, though Conway is (quite properly) unabashed about having a partisan involvement in those conflicts. Anyway, it just seems to me that there is more to be said to have a full exploration of this tension. Yes, there were elements that styled themselves as "radical" that were probably acting on certain outmoded assumptions about power, on a misunderstanding of the magnitude of mobilization that was possible at the time, and that embodied certain icky masculinist assumptions about what it means to be "radical." On the other hand, I suspect that some (certainly not all, and not this author) of the pro-pedagogy camp were working from troubling assumptions too -- a class-privilege inspired devaluing of a long-term oppositional relationship to the state, for instance, and an understanding of explicitly pedagogical activities that bled into left-liberal (implicit) theories of social change rather than more movement oriented ones.

What is perhaps most interesting about this book is the way in which it speaks to the dilemmas that social movements face today, despite some significant shifts both since the period under study and also since the period when the book was written. This includes things like our lack of capacity, and the importance but difficulty of long-term, participatory, pedagogically transformative knowledge production work in a kind of tension with the importance of mobilizing at the level of events or campaigns around more obviously confrontational moments. As well, she talks about the fact that the (white) left in 1990s Toronto was struggling to find a compelling vision for change and for the future, with the betrayals of social democracy in the form of the Ontario NDP government, the fall of state-based so-called socialism, and the massive triumphs of neoliberalism all feeling so new and fresh. Unfortunately, that sense of a lack of direction is just as present today in many centre left and radical left spaces in Canada. We can see inspiring examples of efforts in the Global South that give us hope for the existence of alternatives with varying orientations towards the state, but in North America we are still struggling to find a resonant way to counter the neoliberal dictum that "there is no alternative." Perhaps the greater emphasis on movement-based knowledge production and pedagogy recommended by this book would be a step in the right direction.

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