The assumption that democracy is driven and even founded by social movements is widespread. Some initial enthusiasm for the developments of the Arab Spring, for example, was grounded in the hope that social movements can overthrow autocratic governments and even those that masqueraded as electoral democracies in Tunisia and Egypt. Social movements are often the engine for large structural changes in democratic societies.
Yet many associate democracy not with social movements but with political parties. How do social movements diverge from political parties in democracies? When do social movements become democratic? When are they anti-democratic and even attacked as illegal and dangerous? When do social movements practice collective freedom?
Social movements are widely recognized as important actors in democratic nation-states, but their enactment of collective freedom is not. Individual freedom is paramount in much modern political thinking. Yet collective freedom as exercised in social movements is more important when looking at how structural change historically takes place. Democratic freedom may be best located not in individual elected leaders and their decisions, the topics of constant commentary by pundits and historians, but in collective groups beyond political parties.
An important area where social movements impact democracy is when groups marginalized by electoral politics reshape electoral systems. Large-scale changes in the franchise are important examples in many democracies of these impacts, such as women winning the vote. Legislation and other changes from race-based social movements in South Africa and the U.S. are others, such as the end of apartheid, the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965, and even the U.S. Civil War itself. Certainly some political parties responded to the pressure of these social movements, but each movement that produced major social change early on was not accepted widely by electoral leaders and other policy experts.
All of these changes are the outcomes of social movements and none were initiated by political parties, unless outlawed political parties like the ANC in South Africa or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are somehow considered full participants. Indeed, these movements all found themselves under surveillance and attack by government bodies, as is well-known. These attacks at times involved the killing of participants and even war itself.
Moments when social movements are attacked by governments are important events when tracking the effectiveness of democratic practice. Whether looking at the ANC being outlawed or the jailing of suffragettes, we can see that electoral parties and governments often attack those movements advocating for structural changes and for solutions to major social problems.
Guarantees of collective freedom may be found in some democratic constitutions, such as the right to assembly, but limits on those freedoms are commonplace. With tactics ranging from attacks on Communist Party members in the Cold War to anti-socialist slurs today in the U.S. and recent arrests in India of opposition party supporters, and including the surveillance and infiltration in many countries of anarchist or immigrant or Muslim community organizations, governments and citizens worldwide are often quick to limit collective freedoms.
Some who have grown impatient with electoral leaders and policy experts who often fail to produce equality have even established collective mechanisms parallel to electoral systems. Some of these parallel mechanisms decentralize decision-making beyond elected officials to include those impacted by the decisions, such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil and many cities in other countries. The city of Jackson, Mississippi has recently been experimenting with a People’s Assembly to provide the community a formal mechanism beyond letters to the editor to critique and inform their elected officials. Much like the early town hall meetings in New England, collective decision-making in people’s assemblies is just one among many powerful ways to have a collective voice and govern affairs.
Sometimes major legal changes are needed for social movements to even be recognized as actors in political systems. When local indigenous communities attempted to reclaim their governance systems from corporate actors in Cochabamba, Peru in the years 2000-2001, they had to change the laws to reclaim and exercise political sovereignty in their historical territory. When political scientists call for changes in the U.S. constitution to make it more democratic, will political parties respond to their demands?
The failure of political parties to hold governments accountable to all citizens and to significantly transform democratic systems are major problems for democracy. One of the keystones of democracy is its ability to make major changes and improvements in its own governance system in response to major shortcomings. These changes are what might be called collective freedom: the freedom to transform structurally and respond to major weaknesses, to increase accountability to the general good, and to problem- solve in the general interest.
Social movements and not political parties have often been the major engines for significant transformations and improved accountability in democracy governance systems. Yet not all social movements are the same. Some social movements represent the interests of powerful social sectors: anti-immigrant organizations advocate in the interests of those with citizenship; Hindu nationalism in India and the Tea Party in the U.S. advocate for religious values of the majority religion; Nazi and neo-Nazi movements strengthen white, Christian, and often homophobic interest groups.
Strengthening democracy takes the courage to stand up for collective freedoms that are not practiced already. This often means advocating for social sectors and interests that are being ignored or attacked by powerful social groups. That is why grassroots organizations and movements often bring attention to areas where electoral parties are not representing general interests. These areas betray weaknesses in the accountability not to narrow interests but to all of democratic systems.
Grassroots organizations often are not actively regulated by governments, and frequently have more freedom to pursue interests that national governments may not readily recognize as legitimate. At the level of transnational advocacy, narrow corporate and national interests often dominate what look like global initiatives, so grassroots organizations must take the lead in developing social movements that address desires deriving from other social sectors. Grassroots organizations respond much more readily to local concerns and to criticisms from marginalized groups, unlike large organizations in what is sometimes called civil society, like non-profit organizations (like Amnesty International or OXFAM) or U.N. bodies (like United Nations Human Rights delegations) and movements coming from U.N. special meetings (like those who carry out the Beijing Platform for Action). In this sense we can say that grassroots social movements may achieve collective freedom in a manner not possible for civil society organizations funded and implicitly controlled by wealthy donors, large corporations, or national governments.
Collective freedom then can break out of already established historical practices and rhetoric. As Gayatri Spivak has argued, freedom takes place at the complex meeting place of established reason and the ways that reason is insufficient to meet moral obligations. In this way freedom is obliged to produce the unrecognizable, a supplement to what is already reasonable and knowable. (21-22) Freedom is another name for the encounter with the radical other of known efforts for social justice, that which is outside of histories of democratic institutions and which meets the desires of those who democracy has failed to recognize. (327-331)
Given its need to depart from established practices, training for democracy is needed to strengthen collective practices that remain open to new directions and unimagined possible futures. As one observer noted, activists on the radical right have worked to “weaponize the word ‘freedom’ so that people think the only way they have freedom is to do something alone, that the solidarity and unity of doing something together…is not ‘freedom.’” How can collective freedom replace freedom alone?
The modern fetish of individualism has been an important factor in fragmenting collective identities, so that many modern societies have come to be characterized more by television viewing and online shopping than by collective events and meetings.
Training for collective freedom has been done in the past. The civil rights movement put in place a little-known “major training program” that instructed participants in citizenship rights, black history, economic strategies, and even the organization of credit unions. Many social movements routinely train participants in meeting facilitation skills and counter strategies to respond to difficult behaviors. Some movements have even built their own schools to strengthen their community members skills at collective work or at building women’s leadership rather than endorse the individualism instilled in young people by many government- and private-run schools. These forms of community education affirm collective work and collective freedom in ways that competitive scrabbling for individual victory and wealth or individual votes in a private election booth do not.
Collective freedoms as put into action through grassroots social movements are critical if democracies want to remain responsive to needed changes. Collective freedom requires both hard work and a willingness to leave established pathways to morality, to gendered practices, and to political accountability. Collective freedom is often found in ground-breaking collective action that builds new pathways to democracy and social justice.