The Precarious Go Marching

October 3, 2008

by Emmanuelle Cosse
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Spring 2008: One year after Nicolas Sarkozy’s crushing victory , the commemoration of May ‘68 has occupied French political and media space without focusing on the actuality of social revolts in France. Surprisingly and unexpectedly the first presidential year pass without a hitch. Sarkozy hoped “to liquidate 68” (“In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May ’68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all…” ), but French society does not seem ready for that. Sarkozy promised economic growth “with teeth” to address “pouvoir d’achat” (the purchasing power of the population), and has received the lowest confidence rating of all those who have served as president during the 5th Republic. None of his injunctions (such as “work more to earn more” ) seem to resonate with French workers, regardless of his electoral success. Sarkozy has pitted the working class against the idlers and sensualists who are unemployed and precarious. But they were among the first to make demands of the president. For example, in a massive strike in the distribution sector during the winter of 2007, the hand of precarious labor did not remain invisible and submissive.

A national day of action was organized in February 2008, creating an embarrassment for him. What did the workers denounce? The imposition of part-time work, inefficient salaries (more or less 800 to 900 euros monthly), difficult working conditions, a minimal income and a denunciation of sexism: these demands are not new. But this movement, which does not seek to gain something directly in the negotiations thought power struggle , rather it is questioning French society. For once, the cashier at the supermarket was the incarnation of the precarious person, whom everyone speaks of but nobody wants to recognize. Two years ago, it was the students who fought against the CPE contract. By the end of April 2008, it was the sans-papiers who emerged from the shadows, seeking an end to France’s hypocrisy towards undocumented migrants.

This succession of mobilizations, which questioned certain bases of social democracy and the “benefits” of full employment, is not confined to France. Everywhere in Europe (but mainly in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Great-Britain), many movements have erupted to denounce insufficient wages, dangerous and/or threatening working conditions, and the general conditions of precarity. National movements (Movement of Intermittents), local initiatives, organized struggles (CPE), and unexpected movements coming from nowhere (Génération Précaire) are interacting. This struggle is not uniform, homogenous, or massive. It would be very difficult to identify a victory in these past ten years; and it would be hazardous to adopt an analysis that solely saw these mobilizations predicated on the liberal shift in policies that are defended by those who govern. But, something has happened: the precarious have ‘come out’. After the workers, the students, the unemployed ones, the sans-papiers and disabled people come the precarious, appearing as one political figure and social actor. It is no longer a question of denouncing poverty or the lack of employment, but of questioning the conditions of precariousness, whether imposed or chosen. The precarious are emerging from underground, claiming unconditional social rights: in this process, there is a new speech and a new visibility. We could speak of this in terms of pride, similar to the first lesbian and gay marches. In 1998, Act Up-Paris embraced this comparison when we explained our participation in the “movement des chômeurs”: Something is invented, which is similar to Pride. Angry people speaking in their own name have left the marginality in which years of governmental resignation, charitable hypocrisy and compassionate speeches have constrained them. All this returns us to our own political history: visibility counters the calls of discretion, the urgency of anger against the reason of the experts, the conquest of rights against waiting for gifts” . If 10 years later the term “Pride” still leads to debate, then there can’t be a single mode of understanding the movements around precarity. These struggles have to maintain the capacity to adapt and to play with an identity, whether assigned or chosen.

The ambitions of this article are very modest: It acts within the framework of the In the Middle of a Whirlwind project to put in perspective the major initiatives around precarity in Europe. It doesn’t seek to present an exhaustive history, but simply to tell, with a committed and perfectly subjective perspective, of their creativity and their inventiveness. Major authors have already analyzed what these movements are and what they create; others will continue to do it. If the reader could find influences of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in this paper, they won’t be seeking in this text a theorization of these struggles. One will be able to find here elements which gravitate around four strong moments of these ten last years: the emergence of the precarious worker as a political figure, the Europeanization of the struggles, the difficulty of dealing with identity and finally, the rebellion of precarious people.

1. “You can expel us, you will not cancel us”. “Work, it is a right! An income, it is due! “

This is exactly what was said in July 1997 in connection with the collective squatting of Assedic’s office in Paris. Hardly two months after the arrival of Jospin’s government , the demands were placed on the table. Occupations mainly organized by AC! (Agir contre le chômage) began in several cities, mounting during the summer to culminate in a national occupation of Assedic’s offices during the winter. The principal demands sought to address the weakness unemployment compensation, particularly for the longtime unemployed. But where the movement of the unemployed – as it was very quickly dubbed – is crucial is in the strategy to put on the ground immediately the precarious – not only the unemployed. This strategy is adopted by the actors of this movement, in particular AC!. This explains why the range of the claims is much broader than one would expect: the payment of a Christmas gift for all the unemployed, the questioning of the system of unemployment insurance , an immediate increase of social income (around 1500 Francs is required ), and attribution of Revenu minimum d’insertion (RMI) for all those who are deprived of it, in particular those less than 25 years of age.

That also explains why the movement has widened beyond the unemployed and precarious. “Obviously we belong in it”, answers Act Up-Paris when one interrogates the group about its participation. This was our analysis: precarity encourages the AIDS epidemic, as well as homophobia, sexism, prohibition of drugs and control of migration. Fighting against AIDS also means fighting for equal access to care and medication, for a guaranteed income and the freedom of circulation. To belong to this movement means call into question the centrality of work. For Act Up’s militants, generally expelled from the world of work and living off of social incomes , the experience of those living with the disease pushed us to study and adapt theories developed by Toni Negri on guaranteed income and popularized by groups such as Cargo . “Can one praise the “work society” without irony, when our health condition pushes us out of traditional paid employment?” , ask Act-Up. This “precarious Pride” was a humorous moment for the group: meeting with militants from different political arenas and traditions, an intense confrontation of modes of action and debate discovered of part of the trade unions . One was praised us the merits of the full employment, we required “guaranteed, unconditional and immediate rights” and refusal of “alms or granting sparingly”.

The participation by Act Up-Paris in the mobilizations of the unemployed was not expected. Until that time, Act Up was well known for its actions (in the heritage of Act Up-New York) and its direct language (“We die, they study the problem”), even if we had prompted surprise in spring of 1997 with the movement “We are the left” . I still remember the incredulity of Act Up-New York comrades, whom we had regarded as a model for a long time – when we explained our “precarious Pride” to them during the 12th International Conference on AIDS in Geneva (July 1998). What was an AIDS organization doing in a movement of the unemployed? This left them perplexed. However we were on a line extremely close to theirs, as Philippe Mangeot, former president of Act Up-Paris, explained : “This connection of the specific and the global is perhaps what defines best the politicization of Act Up. Having never ceased being an association against AIDS, Act Up was also immediately a group that dealt with general policy, engaged on multiple fronts, always seeking the points of passages between various mobilizations: how to contribute to other movements dealing with the question of health? How to translate the speeches and the knowledge of other fights into the particular [language of the] field of AIDS? As a member “of the” social movements, Act Up always remained on the fringes “of the” social movement”. Thus Act Up-Paris was at the fringes of the social movement but for a guaranteed income.

By all logic, it was during this same moment that alliances with Italian groups in the 3RME federation were developing towards the goal of obtaining European minimum income, network of movements against exclusion, and a maximum existence income. These alliances created joint demonstrations, particularly within the framework of the European March against unemployment . Beginning in 1996, these marches followed European Union conferences and congresses, (which are currently in a phase of expansion ) and constituted one of the first initiatives towards the Europeanization of precarity struggles (not forgetting the importance of debates, conferences and publications (for example Occupation but also of reviews such as Alice or Multitudes ). Connections with the sans-papiers movements were also strong (in particular in France, Italy and Germany), even if the questions of precarity were not expressed as such. Regularization campaigns and denunciation of deportations were at this time the priority.

All this allowed for the creation of interactions between individuals and movements, of which one of the brightest results has been the enormous participation in the counter summit at the G8 in Genoa. In the movement one speaks of a multitude marching in which we are the actors – A multitude which will be deeply shaken in 2001 but which will continue in various forms, in particular within the EuroMayDay network.

2. May Day, May Day!

One of the most obvious and immediate results of the mobilizations throughout Western Europe at the end of the 90’s has been the creation of EuroMayDay (EMD). The purpose of this European network, where associations, collectives and informal groups join together to organize each May 1st, is to create a festive and political demonstration as a counterpoint to the traditional “Labor Day”. May Day was born in 2001 in Milan when several collectives, in particular ChainWorkers, devoted this day to the veneration of San Precario and the invention of novel modes of expression. The demonstration brought together members of social centers, groups of precarious, collectives of migrants, queer groups, etc. The initiative was particularly successful in Italy, and then in Spain. In 2004, at the time of the FSE of London, a call was issued for the creation of a European network: the “Middlesex Declaration”, a declaration of the European precariat, was signed by ten collectives of precarious workers .

This network, which is not formally organized, works mainly via a mailing list that performs multiple functions: as a place of exchange and co-operative work and as a forum for the discussion of local struggles. The network is mainly organized at two meetings during the winter: one discusses common declarations and objectives (in particular the organization of actions, press conferences, and materials) and the other explains local experimentation and reflections. These meetings serve as moments of exchange: militants coming from approximately fifteen countries, cosmopolitan in their political traditions and their engagements, describe their actions, analyses and the fields in which they are invested (migrant, hard-working precarious, cleaning ladies, occupations of buildings, defense of the trainees, access to the culture). The EuroMayDay Network is based on a “block” of demands: globalization of social rights at the European level, dissociation between work and income (“with discontinuous work, continuous income”), calling into question European migratory policies (closing the detention centers, freedom of circulation), free public transportation, free access too and knowledge sharing on the internet, and opposition to sexism, homophobia and racism. We could call it the “hardcore” of EMD, a sort of presupposed and implicit statement of the network, which takes its premise from the Middlesex Declaration. Here, one could also assess the network in a European context that is assumed, expected and encouraged. “We are eurogeneration insurgent: our idea of Europe is a radical, libertarian, transnationalist, antidystopian, open democratic space able to counter global bushism and oppressive, exploitative, powermad, planetwrecking, warmongering neoliberalism in Europe and elsewhere.”

Thus the idea is to make European demands on a European scale – it is not a question of local aggregates . This resembles the alliances born in the second half of the 1990’s between sans-papiers struggles and precarious collectives (which were more than a network). These alliances resulted in demonstrations and united actions at the time of the European summits (Nice, Gothenburg, Prague), and the meetings during the G8 in Genoa. The process developed within the European Forum social (FSE/ESF) – Florence (2002), Paris (2003), London (2004) or Athens (2005) – in the context of the dynamics born in Genoa. This goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of mobilizations.

The principal success of EuroMayDay has been the creation of the network itself, which has lead to the creation of new connections and the reactivation the old ones. But, behind the success of the demonstrations, and the occupations this assessment is contested.

Admittedly, the network has not ceased to expand: in 2008, May Day was organized in 16 cities (Aachen, Berlin, Copenhagen, Hanau, Hamburg, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Malaga, Maribor, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Terrassa, Tübingen, Vienna), not counting initiatives in Tokyo. But, without assigning a number of qualitative criterions to the network, there were nearly 100,000 demonstrators in Milan against 3000 in Paris, in 2006, when the mobilizations against precarity were at their peak . We must be honest with ourselves in our assessment of this. Is our speech comprehensible and accessible to the precarious ones? How do we maintain the militancy of the spectrum, strictly speaking? Why have so few precarious joined May Day?

This is all the more problematic considering the heterogeneity of the groups in the network: in the EMD, we find organized movements (Coordination des Intermittents), transnational networks (Frassanito), local initiatives and social centers (Terrassa in Barcelona, social centers in Italy: El Gabrio, Il Cantiere, Pergola, etc). This heterogeneity is source of dynamism, but is also a source of conflict (or maybe incomprehension), as objectives can differ so significantly. Thus, at the preparatory meetings each year, the same discussions have occurred in regards to the difficulty of finding a common objective and a common definition; the question of how to articulate the commons and the multiplicity of struggles while maintaining this heterogeneity : This is made all the more difficult by the fact that EMD is composed of two distinct moments: the preparation of the parades (which is done locally) and the preparatory meetings, which could and should be a production process of the “Common” (especially in term of language).

In Paris, May Day did not survive. At May Day 2006 the demonstration were completed in the middle of police cordons, prompting the sans-papiers groups to leave the demonstration. But the major EMD groups in Paris (Coordination des Intermittents, AC !, 9ème collective des sans-papiers, Act Up-Paris, Génération Précaire, Sud Culture) do not necessarily need the May Day tool to act on precarity. This is one of the reasons, among others, that the lack of organization in 2007 and in 2008 did not disturb anyone.

Several initiatives tried to provide visibility to the network at times other than May 1st, such as in April 2006, when 150 militants from France, Belgium, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands demonstrated in the streets of Brussels. At another level, in 2006, the launching of Precarity_WebRing (P_WR), sought to create a “commons”. The objective was to attempt to write a kind of lexicon of precarity through the cartography of the movements taking part in the EMD process via the tools of militant research . We said: “open possibilities to construct common practices, concepts and notions, and to develop militant research projects “with” (instead of “on”) precarious subjects and their/our struggles. The project intends to produce and share knowledge, experiences and materials, to collect information and practices about collectives and conflicts, and to spread news, analyses and investigations. This would help to establish militant co-research projects in a different way than traditional academic or workers’ movement’s research”. Through this project, there was also the matter of attempting to make both local and transnational initiatives work within the EMD process, posing questions such as: How do we discuss our local experiments and draw knowledge from transnational connections and strategies? How do we pass from the EMD label to become a true political actor in power/struggle? P_WR was an extremely ambitious project that did not succeed . Other initiatives, smaller but just as ambitious, are in process: in particular Precarity Map . In all these initiatives there is the will to produce analysis, speech and common language in order to constitute European fronts against precarity.

Frassanito network was born following the 2003 No Borders Camp, sought to intensify the relation between migrants’ struggles and the EMD process. Created after Tony Blair presented the policy of externalization of the detention camps (for example in Libya), the network sought to use all existing initiatives to establish links between migrants and other social movements; for example, to connect the mobilizations around freedom of circulation with the day of action of April 2nd, 2005 or the No Border Network with the EMD process . This helps explain the declaration published around the Fadaiat project in Tarifa (southern Spain) in June 2006. The text seeks to intensify this strategy. The European context at the time (the failure of the ratification of the European Constitutional treaty) had also caused many concerns that the network wanted to address. Chief among these was to “signal the danger of a re-nationalisation of politics, not only on the right but also on the traditional left” . The Frassanito network recalled especially “a kind of centrality of migrants within the process of Euromayday” in regards to mobility and multiplicity. It wanted to push the EMD network not simply to contribute to the linking of migrant struggles and precarious struggles, but to being a major actor in making a junction of these struggles . That cannot truly be achieved at the transnational level, but was made possible locally where May Day groups had already been involved in the organization of joint actions with collectives of migrants (Hamburg or Madrid for example).

Finally, the EMD network has experienced great difficulty in its attempts to constitute a real transnational front and remains weak in the face of the power of welfare. If it is only expressed in national fights, then it has not succeeded in creating an “International of the precarious”. Perhaps that is not desirable we could be also satisfied with the emergence of the multiple voice of precarious.
But it is necessary to abandon a mythical representation of the EuroMayDay network and to realize the real impact it has had on the speech, policies and daily lives of the precarious.

3. Proud to be precarious!? The relation of precariat, observed from France.

The major role within the EuroMayDay Network occupied by the movements of Intermittents and particularly the coordination des Intermittents et Précaires d’Ile-de-France (CIP-IDF) , is not the fruit of chance. What occurred during the coordination of this movement explains the position of many French groups on this question and situates it within the coordination of actors engaged in the movement of the unemployed in 1997. During this time, intermittents sought to expand their relationship with the precarious, explaining the richness of this movement.

On 19 June 2003, a demonstration against the signature of the new compensation protocol for intermittents du spectacle was organized. These workers – actors, dancers, technicians, managers, screenwriters – are covered by a specific system of unemployment insurance because of the nature of their work. The employment of Intermittents is characterized by a discontinuity in work depending upon the productions to which they are committed. The principle of this unemployment insurance is to compensate the Intermittents if they carry out at least 507 work hours in the year. The system indirectly makes it possible to finance creativity and to live more or less decently. In short, it allows these workers to have the assurance of income in spite of the hyper-flexibility of this type of employment.

Asserting a deficit in Unedic , the reform of this regime had been announced several years before under the justification that it offers a better mode of compensation for the remainder of the active population. Like all wage settlements in France, all reforms must be the fruit of an agreement between management and labor, i.e. the representatives of employers (Medef) and at least three majority labor unions. The new protocol suggested in 2003 envisioned a reduction of the duration of benefits, an exit from this specific regime of work and from the ability to profit from this compensation. It gives up the principle of the mutualism to choose that of individualization. The result, observed a few years later, showed that those who managed to get the conditions imposed by the new agreement are better compensated than in the past, but those who haven’t been able to get these conditions imposed have ended up being excluded and find themselves in even more precarious situations.

Following this demonstration, the “Coordination des intermutins d’Ile-de-France”, (now the “Coordination des intermittents et précaires”) was created; elsewhere in France they created many collectives and coordinating bodies aside from CGT, the only major trade union engaged in this fight. On June 26, the agreement relating to the application of this mode of unemployment insurance to intermittent professionals of the cinema, audio-visual, and the spectacle/entertainment sector was signed by CFDT, against the wishes of the majority of the profession. A call for a general strike was launched. During the summer and autumn of that year, festivals were cancelled, movie making suspended, and everywhere one found culture, one would meet intermittent strikers calling for a renegotiation of the protocol. The power struggle was such that management and labor negotiated a new agreement at the end of 2003. It envisioned the installation of a provisional system (of transient funds and the extension of certain provisions) was prolonged until 31 December 2005.

There are two important phrases in this fight that can be found in major texts published by the CIP-IDF: a analysis of the new regime which one finds in “We read the protocol” then the phase of expertise beginning with “We have a proposal to make to you”. This second phase was concretized by the presentation in November 2005 of the “Economic and sociological Statistical study of the mode of unemployment insurance of the professionals of the live performance, the cinema and audio-visual”, carried out by the Friends of Intermittent and Precarious Association, the CNRS and the University of Paris 1. This brilliant example of militant research proposes a new protocol and goes further by describing the profile of Intermittents but also the consequences of the system of unemployment insurance for all the employees of discontinuous employment. It presents its “New Model”, showing that while the government, employers and the trade unions signed the first agreement; other solutions were possible. It has yet to be seen if they will follow this proposal. Since the years of this struggle, a new agreement came into effect on 1 January 1, 2008: Intermittent laborers are again driven out of their mode of work, being forced into impossibly unstable situations.

To understand the importance of the movement of Intermittents, it is necessary to be reminded of the choices that have been made from the beginning. For example, the name chosen for the CIP-IDF, “Coordination of intermittents and precarious”, is broader than one would have expected. “Far from a universal claim, the New Model worked out by the CIP wants to be an “opened base”, appropriable and adaptable by other ‘discontinuous’ workers following the “locals” criteria, specific to the various practices of employment and work”, Antonella Corsani and Maurizio Lazzarato recall . While seeking to defend intermittency and to extend it to the whole of paid discontinuous employment, the Intermittents opened with the problems of freelance journalists, temporary workers, trainees, seasonal workers but also of persons in disability. In the same manner, while questioning cultural practices, Intermittents are not locked up in a single debate around cultural activity. They opened several debates: that of discontinuous and precarious employment, that of cultural production and also that of the social negotiations, calling into question the rules fixed shortly after the second world war. These choices also explain why the CIP was in the first line of the work undertaken on precarity, why it is allied with the groups of unemployed (AC!), within the EuroMayDay network, with the trainees (Génération Précaire) and the movements of the researchers (Sauvons la Recherche) and that one finds it within Parisian May Day where it imports its methods and its reflections.

It is in this context that in February of 2006, the movement against the Contract Première Embauche (CPE) was launched. This was certainly a massive and victorious mobilization, but was also disturbing, inasmuch as the value of work and the need for employment were asserted. In answer to the movement of the banlieues (see section 4, below) in November of 2005, the government passed the law known as “the equal opportunity” with a flagship measure: the CPE. This contract is intended for those less than twenty-six years of age. Its purpose is to develop the employment of young people within companies , but under conditions only favorable to the employers: in spite of the French legislation of the law, the contract envisages a two year period of “consolidation” during which the employer can dismiss its employee without justification. Those less than twenty-six years of age would not have the same social rights possessed by the remainder of the active population. They would be at the mercy of the employer, and would not have any possibility of discussing their firing. Additionally, the signing of such a contract would mean that during those two years, they could not obtain housing, appropriations nor an assurance as to the permanence of their income. After the introduction of the CNE (contract new recruiting), which envisaged an equivalent system under certain conditions , the CPE constitutes one of the first stages of the program defended by the MEDEF which wants, in the long term, to remove the permanent contract (CDI) and to reduce French labor regulation considerably.

While the majority trade unions weakly disputed the CPE the universities were on strike. Throughout February the movement gradually assembled. Almost three-quarters of the French universities were blocked, occupied or closed administratively to prevent new occupations. Sorbonne University was also occupied and would be emptied of its strikers by force. In mid-March, the mobilizations became considerably more extensive: demonstrations, occupations of UMP’s and Medef’s offices, actions in the stations and airports. On 18 March nearly 1.5 million people according to CGT (530,000 according to the police force) took to the street in 160 cities. Each day the processions grew bigger and facilities remained blocked or closed even when CRS tried to reopen them. The mobilization did not weaken for two months. At the end of March, the government implied that CPE would be abandoned. Finally, on 10 April Jacques Chirac, president of the Republic, announced that a new law would repeal the text of CPE.

The confrontation thus turned in favor of the students and the trade unions. Nevertheless, the victory is not complete. Although CPE failed, the remainder of the law known as “equal opportunity” remains in force. This law comprises many hateful points such as the establishment of apprenticeships at fourteen years of age, the repression of “incivilities” and the creation of a parental responsibility contract which allows for the suppression of family benefits if a child engages in acts of delinquency. As well, all the discussions which related to the regulation of the training courses and the precarity faced by students did not lead to the beginning of dialogue or negotiations with the ministries concerned.

If the proposal of CPE is shocking, it is because the situation of students and young workers in France is particularly difficult. With this two-year period of insecurity created by CPE, young employees are seen as “disposable workers” and “under-employees”. Where many studies have shown that between a third and half of French youth are employed part-time, CPE echoes a struggle carried out since September 2005 for non-regulation of the training courses, carried out by Génération Précaire ; this initiative was advanced by several trainees who accumulated multiple training courses without ever obtaining employment. A call for a spontaneous strike, distributed over the Internet at the beginning of September 2005, was a marked success. Very quickly, a network of trainees was organized to denounce “the existence of (those who are) always available (for less wages), (don’t have their contracts) renewed and (are) without any rights”. Strikes and actions against companies and universities, and the occupation of ministries by this army of under-employees have highlighted entrepreneurial practices. The trainees’ claim that “the trainee profits from a true statute integrated in the labor law. This statute must include a progressive minimum remuneration on which all the national insurance contributions in force will be taken”. Génération Précaire joined the struggles carried out by fairwork e.V. in Berlin , Generation Praktikum in Austria, Generazione 1000 Euro in Italy, all joined together in the European network Generation P . The movement against CPE has thus a good opportunity to engage in the struggle of the trainees. Another issue in the movement against CPE was in reference to the recurring speech used. One hears in the processions a clear refusal to recognize itself there. The slogan “CPE no, CDI yes” is the symptom. A text produced by strikers at the university of Rennes II, is particularly interesting because it seeks to reverse the dominating speech. “Tendency striker neither CPE nor CDI ” , say in this call of 22 February. “We are against CPE because we cherish a certain idea of precarity; not that of the daily annoyances to find and preserve a more or less unpleasant employment, always subordinated to the need for being sold like a labour force to survive; but the precarity of the existence and the thought, that doesn’t come to guarantee null authority to subject itself, null community to belong to, family, company or statement. Don’t see in this null liberal celebration of “mobility”, this freedom of going from experiment in experiment; on the contrary, our attachments are powerful, and it is because we don’t want to give up it that we can take the risk all to lose […] Others speak about blooming by work and the recognition which is dependent for him. But how not to see that it always acts at a time given to give up being fully faithful to what animates us when for example, we teach, care, creates, and to agree to make with the established order, to adapt to it, up to the point where to follow our desires means to contribute to the maintenance of this order?” Then the text calls into question the disproportionate request for “Statement” to counter “social insecurity” and the alternative in which these strikers are driven back: “We are maintained, from the effect of a not hazardous policy, in a situation where it is necessary for us to choose between the great poverty of the allowances and the use of all our life to the service of entrepreneurial projects. To this request for safety, we oppose confidence in the community of those who refuse the liberal policy. And which thinks that to refuse with consequence implies to finish with the isolation of each one, of sharing material means, experiments and affects to break with the liberal logic whose CPE is only one symptom. The question of providing for our needs becomes then a collective question: that to constitute between us relations, which are not contractual exploitation relationship. And to make that this “us” is not one of a restricted group, but the “us” of the revolutionary assertion.”

The singular matter indicates with the ambient speech. Obviously, it reverberates with those who have attempted to disconnect the question of income from that of work. This contribution makes it possible to attenuate the somewhat ambivalent feelings which one would have been faced with had they used these slogans two months prior: on one side, there was the pleasure of constructing this mobilization in order to produce new forms of intervention in public space and to invent new alliances. For example, the movement against CPE is committed to fight a new immigration law proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy (then Minister of the Interior). But there was also the rejection of the precariat and an opposition between the figure of the precarious and the desire to work, to be employed and to make a career. The aspirations of the movement against CPE – the denunciation of precarity that the government promised to the youth – were completely justified, but found it difficult to carve out a place amongst hordes of future CDI employees, who by refusing the title of precarious, rejected the struggle of the precarious and by extension, themselves.

This same tension had been expressed, to a lesser extent, in a debate entitled “Proud to be precarious! Our precarity against theirs”, organized by the Paris May Day network on 1 April 2006 during the full movement against the CPE. Joining together intermittents, queer activists, unemployed, collectives of sans-papiers, researchers, trainees and students, these two days of discussion served to create a space for exchange and discussion in the context of the process of organizing the 1st of May demonstration. We wanted to share our analyses and speech and to give more direction to May Day itself. Three axes of discussion had been considered: the ideology of work, social control and resistances, and the visibility of our struggles and our disturbances of social space. But it was the heading of the debate itself that prompted lengthy discussions, a part of which is titled May Day! May Day! . “Proud to be precarious…” wanted to propose an inversion of the speech on the culpability of unemployed and precarious ones. But this reference to “pride” , and the wink to the movements of the unemployed’ of 1997, was not well received and the implicit irony of the slogan not understood. It was a stormy (and happy) debate, because it made it possible to discuss contradictions and to interrogate our speech, which we had the tendency to impose without discussion. Questions such as “precarity undergone, precarity chosen”, how is precarity imposed and what constitutes it; which vocabulary reference and which lifestyles are dependent there. “Precarity goes through us, whether we dispute it or we assert it (and sometimes both at the same time). It makes sense, it is from there that we are, that we speak, that we put ourselves moving”, we had then concluded temporarily, leaving open the discussion.

By all accounts, this was a time of particularly rich discussion and mobilizations throughout France – and also throughout Europe, where other struggles occurred, particularly in Italy . Certain commentators like to attribute these movements to a typically French character trait, which would be the “ refusal of any reform” and the “incapacity to reform the country”. One found this speech in the electoral campaign of 2007. To the stupidity of this type of argument we can oppose the existence of a real capacity for resistance and a refusal to live under conditions that are much more difficult that those their parents lived under , and finally the will to show those who govern that they will not stand for policies that they feel are iniquitous.

This capacity for resistance was also expressed five months earlier in what was called the “movement of the suburbs”. This resistance turned into insurrection and sowed its seeds everywhere, in particular among the students engaged against CPE.

4. When the precarious ones rebel (I)

It would be an unforgivable lapse of memory not to consider the events that occurred in the autumn of 2005 in the French suburbs. At that time and in the months that followed, it acted as an imperceptible and strong critique, which questioned institutions as well as social movements.

Firstly let us return to the facts: Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior, was in full preparation for his campaign for the presidential election of 2007. The fear-based policy had been in the middle of the presidential campaign of 2002; the governments of Raffarin and then Villepin had not ceased making increasingly security laws. On 22 June 22 2005, Sarkozy visited La Courneuve, typical town of the Parisian suburbs. When asked what he would do against “insecurity”, he answered that it was necessary “to clean with using Kärcher/ to kärchering” the difficult districts. The racist elements of this statement were shocking, considering that the populations of these districts are mainly of immigrant origin. It is in this context that on 27 October 2005, to Clichy-sous-bois, in the suburbs of Paris, a tragic event occurred. Three young boys pursued by agents of the BAC took refuge in an electric transformer: Bouna, 15 years and Zyed, 17 years, died by electrocution, and Muhittin, the survivor, was arrested. In the evening, the first incidents took place in Clichy-sous-Bois: twenty-three automobiles were burned, as well as a tanker and the Post office. The following day Nicolas Sarkozy, prior to any investigation, defended the intervention of the police and stated that the three young people had been involved in an “attempted burglary”. . These declarations stirred up anger and during the night about thirty cars were burned. Then, in one week, the phenomenon of burned cars (which was not new) spread throughout all 93 districts, then throughout territory of France. Thus, one counts 1408 burned automobiles in 274 towns during the night of 6 November.

Villepin’s government declared a state of emergency. This exceptional procedure was passed into law in 1955 in order to contain the “events”, i.e. the war of Algeria. This measure was drastic and violated fundamental human rights: it authorizes the prefects to prohibit, by the introduction of a curfew, the circulation of people within specific hours; the Ministry of the Interior can arrest with prejudice any person “whose activity proves to be dangerous for safety and the public order”; the prefects can close meeting rooms and theater; searches can be conducted at any time of day or night, and measures can be taken to control press and radio. This law had been drafted to control and repress Algerian militants by concealing any political action and any expression of emancipation. It was more than disconcerting to see this law applied to the children and grandchildren of those who it was targeted towards in 1955. The proclamation of a state of emergency did nothing to calm the situation: on 7 November 1200 cars are burned in 300 towns in 25 departments. The movement then dwindled as a result of incredible repression, calls to calm and perhaps lassitude.

According to the legal assessment of the riots given by the ministry for Justice, from 29 October to 18 November 3101 people (including 914 minor) were in police custody; at the end of November 2005, one counted 562 convictions (while knowing that very many and heavy judgments/sentences fell all the year 2006). “Incidents”, “urban violence”, “riots”, the qualifiers used to evoke these three weeks of confrontations show well how the French and foreign press, very as far as the political community, perceived the movement.

What happened here was as much a political movement as any other: a “movement of the popular quarters” which shook the whole of France and gave precarity and exclusion another face . What has disturbed a number of observers and prompted them to deny the political character of this eruption (in the same manner that they deny the political essence of urban guerrilla warfare), it is that this movement used tactics very far removed from the traditional modes of political expression. No watchwords, no attempts at organization, no public speeches (but only anonymous participation on blogs or during broadcasts on radios reserved to the teenagers), no leaders, no use of traditional democratic representation. This also explains the facility with which justice repressed supposed rioters, who had very little access to the networks of solidarity usually set up in a militant environment . Because many were unaware of the law and of their rights, the heavy and often unjust judgments/sentences rained down. The rioters, fleeting political actors, thus lost their anonymity, three weeks before returning to conditions of exclusion, but this time in jail.

Behind its apparent disorganization, this movement was not sterile claims and denunciations, expressed in. Discrimination and stigmatization, exclusion from the world of work, violence and police harassment, feeling outlawed from society , the permanence of racism, the inefficiency of urban policies (particularly with regard to housing and mobility ) were among the many issues addressed.

This movement also effected the mobilizations in progress and the militant groups. As the riots also questioned the inscription of these groups within the city, its relation with the local (population, social situation), like they called in question the republican policies whose results are always made wait. It pointed out the difficulty of finding and establishing alliances and organizing struggles between cities and suburbs. Because fighting in Paris is not fighting in Clichy-sous-Bois. It is not enough to say that it is necessary to act with the inhabitants of the suburbs. They do not decree. Even within the Movement of Immigration and Suburbs (MIB) , the only organization really established in relation to the young people of the popular quarters, these events stirred more one, in particular by this wild and imperceptible form. Attempts at joint work with local groups , cultural institutions and events do exist. The organization in June 2007 of the first social forum of the popular quarters is one of the direct consequences of this movement. Remain just like so that the groups organized of precarious wish and are able to organize within these struggles, local associations of suburbs are taken by storm of the already organized initiatives.

It is disturbing as the politicians and media only recognize the young people of the suburbs when this kind of movement of urban guerrilla warfare emerges. Six months later, in the middle of the demonstrations against CPE, the young people of suburbs were among the first in line, even if the media generally depicted two populations of youth, those of the suburbs and the more privileged. The composition of the demonstrations and the mobilization of the universities located in the suburbs showed quite the opposite.

Conclusion: When the precarious rebel (II)

“[…] Each slogan, we had recopied it three times, if some would not dare to wear them and would throw them. Finally, we made about fifty flyers because we were approximately 120 in the retention centre. Some didn’t want any, they were afraid. They discouraged us: “It’s pointless”. […] And thus, at midday, we went to the restaurant. Me, I arrived at 12.12, approximately. Many of them were already there but had not dared to show their flyers. Me, I had hung mine, on my shirt, on my chest. I had: “No deportation”. I entered in the refectory. Immediately the policeman at the entry approaches me. He says to me: – “Sir, remove that immediately”. I say: – “No, I do not remove it”. – “If, if, if, you remove it. One will ask the direction if it is possible that you carry it or not”. I say: – “No, we don’t do something violent, we want only to transmit a message”. I had said to everyone not to make violence, not to speak. And then, it is there that all those that were already in the refectory start to show their short flyers. They put it under their hat or into their bonnet, slip it between the buttons of their shirts others held them at the same time as they ate. The police force were agitated, they expected an explosion. But people continued to eat. The chief of the center comes with a sheet and a pen. He notes the slogans. “Am I a human? ”, “No deportation”, “Do the immigrants have rights? ”. He notes, he looks, he notes. “Right of the migrants”, “Unequal justice”, “I am French”, “I am integrated”. He doesn’t know with which to address itself, he goes/walks in the refectory, it notes, it notes. “I perspired for France”, “I build France”, “We are not only numbers”, “I am red of blood”… The following day, we decide to start an hunger strike.”

Thus Abou N’Dianor, mathematics professor, tells how a struggle was born during the week of Christmas 2007, a movement of rebellion at the deportation center of the Mesnil-Amelot. This teacher, who had worked in France since 2001 with a false ID, was arrested because he had decided to leave behind his anonymity three months before: President Sarkozy had announced a new immigration policy, called “chosen”, which privileged immigration by work . Abou N’Dianor thought that because of his qualifications as a teacher and his proof of wages that he could obtain a work license. Instead, he was arrested. Outraged by his detention and the detention of hundreds of other sans-papiers, he contributed to this unexpected movement. He finally succeeded in avoiding expulsion, unlike Paul Wem, another leader of this movement who was expelled. Abou N’Dianor still hopes to obtain regularization but remains for the moment under the threat of deportation.

If in France the mobilization for migrant rights is old , the expression of revolt, massive and repeated, inside the deportation center, by the detainees themselves, is completely incredible. Men facing imminent deportation fought by organizing quiet demonstrations, hunger strikes, and refusals to return to their rooms; registers of grievances were elaborate; they wrote with their consulates to denounce the French practices. For the first time, those detained led a protest against the new French migratory policy without support. This rebellion, which went on for several days before it was made public, is all the more incredible because in spite of deportation, transfers to other detention centers, threats of force and sometimes release, this protest continues It thus passed from a fight against the detention centers by militant groups to an improvised struggle by sans-papiers themselves in the middle of the machine.

The pursuit of sans-papiers by the French police to fill its quotas of deportation also explains why several hundred sans-papiers, supported by CGT (trade labor), launched massive strikes in a number of companies in key sectors: building and construction, cleaning and restoration. “Do you want workers? We are here”, seem to say these migrants who understand the declarations of the ministry for Immigration and the recent regulations on possible legalizations by work. These strikers, who claim what they are owed by France , refuse anonymity and the insecurity that government offers to them, like an echo of the declaration of the unemployed in 1997. They also shout: “You can expel us, but you will not make us disappear”.

Whether they are important social movements or initiatives established at local levels, what arises from the mobilizations born in Europe during the last ten years raises theses social actors out of the darkness, and is part of the attempt to reverse identities which are assigned by power and institutions. Individuals came to those who govern, questioning their decisions, summoned them to justify its and discussed their so-called expertise and knowledge.

If it is difficult to know where the “victories” of these struggles lie, it is certain that they have not been in vain: in the line of emergence of “mouvements des sans” at the beginning of the nineties, the minority one and the minorities definitively are visible. Admittedly, this has not prevented the election of conservative and neo-liberal governments (as in France or Italy recently), nor has it prevented the wandering of the left or improved its capacity to build political projects. But these struggles prove that there are zones of resistance against political, economic, and social systems that are often presented as inescapable. To appropriate an identity, to counter a fate, to assert unconditional rights, the mobilizations of precarious have contributed, and this walk is far from being finished.

Translation : Emmanuelle Cosse, Isabelle Saint-Saëns, Kevin Van Meter.
Thanks to Isabelle Saint-Saëns for her reading, and Kevin Van Meter for his precious editing and confidence.

Transatlantic Translations: A Trilogy of Insurgent Knowledges

September 10, 2008

by Producciones Translocales of the Counter-Cartographies Collective

(get the pdf)

Key words: militant research, radical mapping, precarity, knowledge factory, Europe, USA


In this piece, by translating a series of notions developed by social movements on both sides of the Atlantic, we seek to reinvent some categories of struggle that are often taken for granted. What we would like to emphasize here is the tactical importance of engaging in what we could call ‘constant research’ to boost our campaigns, our direct actions, and activism in general.
What follows is a trilogy that could be read as one long coherent argument, or as three autonomous pieces that we call translations. Translation I delves into a critique of some of the categories that are used regularly in organizing. That section is entitled “Smashing Categories of Privilege.” In Translation II, “Conocimiento en Movimiento: Research Riots and Mapping Revolutions,” we present the tools of research and mapping, and discuss the importance of valuing and recording knowledges produced by social movements. In Translation III, Queering our Categories of Struggle, we return to the discussion of categories and argue that through research processes it is possible to update analysis and inform activism in effective and affective ways.
The reader will notice that the overall piece often moves between examples and discussions happening on each side of the Atlantic. Our motivation for writing this paper was to try and create a space of encounter between activist traditions and activist tools. We forewarn you that the back and forth can be disorienting at times. Bear with us.

Introduction: What to make of 2000-2008?
Eight years into the millennium and where are we? For many people these have been years of defeat. The promise of a growing coordination of struggles based on the mobilization of global resistance seems to have vanished with the dusts of war. Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded, with the wars there intensifying with each passing year. Wars at the borders – fought through anti-immigrant policies and sentiments – have grown; and a domestic neoliberal army appears to be increasingly advancing into more spheres of life through state budget crises, “working towards independence” initiatives, the attempt to privatize Social Security, foreclosures and corporate bailouts. Whether they appear as hurricanes in New Orleans or subprimes in Cincinnati (in both of those cases specifically smashing Afro-American neighborhoods and reinforcing – intentionally or not – a regime of deepening economic segregation), these crises become goldmines for the worst part aspects of predatory capitalism. These are just a few scenarios of the ongoing process of permanent global war anticipated by the Zapatistas.

Yet, just by looking at the past couple of years we can see movements of different stripes growing and new types of struggle developing. The millennium that, for many young movement activists, started with the hope brought by the mythical Seattle has not lost all its promise of alternative futures:
• The anti-war movement, which seemed confused for several years, is seeing increasing numbers of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan take the powers that be to task, as well as the spread of anti-recruitment actions (and their links to other struggles);
• A migrant rights movement that is fighting back with astonishing vigor and has become more visible after the huge mobilizations and strikes of 2006;
• Key local struggles, signaling larger issues and possible new venues for struggle: the Coalition of Immokalee’s Workers back-to-back victories against Taco Bell, McDonalds and Burger King (now going after Whole Foods and others), while fighting slavery in farmwork; the Miami Workers’ Center taking housing issues to the Super Bowl; increasing coordination and mobilization by domestic workers in New York City (and beyond); two large strikes by cabbies and the Taxi Workers’ Alliance in NYC; Baltimore’s United Workers Association victory for homeless day laborers against baseball stadiums, and so on.
• We wouldn’t want to forget the first U.S. Social Forum – which superceded many people’s expectations.
Clearly, not all is bleak, a thousand flowers are blooming despite the Bush blight – but this isn’t a time to be dreamy and romantic (that already happened to many of us around the convention protests of the early 2000s).

As a way to contribute to the spread of new struggles and ways of struggling in the U.S., we wanted to share some ideas to identify and surpass some stumbling blocks that we have encountered in our organizing efforts. Thanks to our family and work situations we’ve spent time on both sides of the Atlantic, mostly (but not only) between the U.S. and Spain. Having one foot in movements and projects on both sides of the ocean has forced us to encounter differences and tensions, to discover tools and try to translate unique experiences and ideas in new spaces. This contribution is made from the position of transatlantic activist translators (a sort of grassroots counter-NATO).

We wish to focus on those categories of struggle we’ve encountered in U.S. movements that, though at times useful, can often hinder movements, campaigns, and alliances between struggles.

What do we mean by Categories?
It may sound abstract, but really what we’re talking about is something that we all use in our own work and thinking – categories and concepts like class (working vs. middle), race (black and white), sexuality (homo and hetero), imperialism, privilege. Sometimes they’re categories imposed from above (used by politicians, quoted in the mass media, taught in schools, and so on) and we may be trying to subvert them; at other times, they’re ideas posed by movements as a better way of understanding society and highlighting important issues.

We use them almost second-handedly and they can help us to put common names on complex and abstract items; but what happens when these categories aren’t sufficient to understand what’s going on? What if we still use them even when they’re no longer accurate?
This piece isn’t meant to be exhaustive in any way – we’re just going to talk about a few categories that we’ve encountered, and then present some ideas about how we can “keep on our toes” as movements and regularly “queer our categories” – in other words, how to move past fixity and respond to what’s actually going on around us.

Translation I: Smashing Categories of Privilege

What are some of the categories social movements integrate in their lingo and practices? How are they used and why could it be a problem? We just want to address a few here. The broadest of these is the category of Privilege; then, how Class is understood; followed by the role of the University; and the use of Activist and Organizer as self-referential terms. We’ve encountered problems with these in many different movement milieu in the U.S. – small NGO’s, autonomous collectives, grassroots community groups and workers centers – and have found them hampering the growth of struggles and alliances.
Privilege
The critique of privilege has been an important, even key, achievement to acknowledge a relation of power. U.S. social movements seem to be quite unique in regards to this: working on the question of privilege, as to how class, race, sexual orientation, and ethnic background carry certain kinds of ‘unwritten’ rights or lack thereof. Through workshops, meeting process, and shared ethics in general, this work has been useful in creating and strengthening grassroots movements and a non-elitist, anti-authoritarian culture. In some sense the critique of privilege is something we’ve inherited from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the explosion of “diversity” in struggle seen in Black liberation, afro-feminism, Chicano/Chicana movements, Indian/Indigenous movements, queer struggle, and functional diversity/handicapped rights, just to name a few. Having to confront these realities forced many movement activists to rethink how they understood oppression in the broader society as a whole and how they understood oppressive practices within movements. While the 1970s are long gone in some ways (and in others not at all) this critique has become something that many movements acknowledge they have to face in order to avoid reproducing oppressive dynamics in their own groups and in order to expand political participation to groups of people who are excluded from certain forms of activism. This critique has worked its way into many daily movement practices, such as examining how ‘white skin privilege’ works in many visible/invisible ways in our movements; an awareness of process in our meetings and workshops so that those whose voices are normally silenced have a chance to participate and those normally empowered check themselves; the availability of daycare at large meetings in order to facilitate the participation of parents; and even something as simple as not-smoking in meetings.
We won’t expand further here on the contributions of the critique of privilege. We see it as something that movements in many places could learn from. The critique of privilege has also lead to its own problems though. Many times our focus on those who are categorized as “unprivileged’ can fall into what we would call ‘activist forms of profiling,’ therein looking for the “authentic” subjects of struggle and oppression, those with “real” problems and with whom we will stand in ‘solidarity’.
This understanding of privilege has also become a means of handicapping potential social movement activity and horizontal alliances, or dismissing some that already exist. We’ve often found real people with very real problems consistently categorized as ‘privileged’ because of a particular status they have, and therefore their only genuine way of being involved in activism is to fight for ‘others’ rather than starting from their own condition. Or, they have to justify to the world that they are ‘really-really’ part of the “oppressed” in order to have their cause and demands acknowledged. We have to consistently play the victim in this sense (as one activist companera in Spain told us), rather than rejoicing in struggles on many fronts and seeing how we challenge the effects of existing privilege amongst ourselves.
A brief story to illustrate the kinds of awkward situations that this can lead to: A few years ago, two companeros of ours attended an anti-racist workshop focused partly on recognizing white skin privilege and its effects upon our activism and our lives. One of these companeros would be categorized as white and is also homeless (or was at the time), drifting in and out of day labor centers and shelters. Being told repeatedly that he was ‘privileged’ and had to get a handle on that didn’t connect to him. Even though the workshop facilitation was very competent overall, and had excellent analysis, they were unable to step out of the categories within which they were analyzing the world. While we’re pretty sure you could find ways that our companero did experience white skin privilege, to hammer it home didn’t make sense and only created a divide where there could be a linkage. For instance, when discussing police brutality, tell individuals facing homelessness who are categorized as “white” that cops are normally ‘nice’ to them because of their skin is akin to telling Iraqis that Blackwater is normally nice to civilians.
Another brief story comes from an activist from central-eastern Europe: Recently, upon arriving in the U.S., he became active in the founding of a new collective related to global justice efforts. Though it started with much promise the group very quickly became bogged down on the question of privilege. Most or all of the members felt that they were privileged in some way and that this hampered the type of activism they could engage in. Group meetings began to revolve around the fact that ‘if we’re privileged, then we can’t mobilize on our own.’ Since no one who was ‘authentically oppressed’ was there the group had to wait. Eventually the group collapsed under the weight of this problem. This activist companero was shocked and didn’t quite understand – the privilege issue made sense to a point, but wouldn’t it be better to ‘use’ that privilege in the cause of a struggle – even to struggle from that privilege – instead of assuming there’s nothing to do? Granted this was one activists’ view, but his impressions highlight our points.
Class (middle class, working class and poverty)


We Are All ‘Middle Class’: La clase media infinita

Even in a country with such visible class differences and some of the highest rates of inequality in the Global North (and beyond in many cases), we’re still clumsy when talking about class, and we mean movement activists just as much as the “general population” (for lack of a better term). Part of the problem we see with regard to our understanding of class could be related to how we speak about privilege. Also, much of our clumsiness when it comes to class revolves around our use of the term “middle class.” In many movement circles we have an aversion to anything that can be associated with “middle class” – and yet we’re talking about a country where “middle class” is part of the national identity! It’s a confusing and muddled notion and often fails to tell us much of anything. It seems to be used in the U.S. generally as a way to designate anyone above homelessness and below the Rockefellers.


Making the Middle Class a Political Concept

That which is “middle class” is unworthy – yet this doesn’t mean there aren’t serious class related problems faced by people with this label. Often enough middle-class gets associated with certain activities, jobs or shopping habits, without any deeper analysis. University students, teachers, homeowners and café latte drinkers get thrown in the same bag without much thought.
This labeling, coupled with the disdain associated with ‘middle-class’ (disdain by activists anyway – since for many people it’s a goal to be ‘middle class’), precludes the development of many struggles and the possibility of coalitions. What’s an example of this lack of analysis we’re talking about? Many jobs that we associate with “working class” – including factory jobs such as car manufacturing – while filled with health and job risks, provide larger salaries and have greater job security than university Teaching Assistants, Adjunct professors, those employed in services associated with middle-class consumption (coffee shops for instance), or highly trained freelancers hopping from contract to contract. While organizing efforts have begun in these realms (like the Industrial Workers of the World’s campaign to organize Starbucks or various Teaching Assistant unions) and discussions have begun to break through the veneer of “middle-class” (like Barbara Ehrenreichs’ recent work Bait and Switch) – we’re still in the ‘baby steps’ phase of this kind of critique and the organizing it requires. Even many habits of “consumption” and status markers of having made it to the middles-class are based on dangerous and unstable debt mechanisms: home loans, car loans, credit cards, and student loans. They create an inflated form of consumption, but as the subprime crisis shows us, this situation can blow apart in very little time.
If we associate things like a university education with middle class life, then is it any surprise we don’t see the kind of student battles you see in neighboring countries like Canada or Mexico? If university education isn’t worth fighting for (because it’s middle class) can we really complain about sky-rocketing student debt?

What are we talking about anyway when we say “class”?
We offer some of the above examples to highlight two points that were brought to our attention by activist companeras from the U.S. when comparing movements in the U.S. and Spain:
• What’s often called “middle class” in the U.S., and therefore dismissed politically for social movements, is often considered “working class” elsewhere. Even though a country (such as Spain) may be more class-conscious, the “middle class” as understood in the States actually gets smaller or includes the working class – so that students, doctors, teachers, translators, programmers, and more are considered working class. Even certain styles of dress and attitude might be considered middle class attributes, but they aren’t seen to fundamentally change you or make your concerns irrelevant. It’s not that there is no recognition of certain sorts of privileges that come with certain professions, salaries, or other factors. Rather it’s that most of the “middle class” can be understood as a part of the working classes. The result of this means that people can agree on defending certain types of services as rights – education, access to health care, quality public transport, and other “social wages” are seen as “class issues” that affect large swaths of the population – not just some romantic notion of a genuine working class.
• Secondly, often when we speak of “class” in the States we’re talking about consumption patterns and questions of status rather than something akin to “those who own the means of production,” as opposed to those who don’t. What exactly a bourgeois upper class looks like in today’s economy might be different than a top-hat wearing, cigar-smoking industrialist, but it seems much more relevant to clarifying political differences and opening up potential coalitions than whether or not some members of our “group” eat white bread, bagels or croissants. We don’t mean to belittle the attention given to other aspects of class (such as status, cultural patterns, links to ethnicity or race) by many movements, but to refocus some of the overall attention and possibly shift some of our language and attitude so that more people can feel addressed by questions of class when it comes to outreach and mobilization.

University: A Privileged Bubble?
U.S. based university movements seem to be plagued by quite a bit of this thinking – both from within their own ranks as well as in how they are perceived by other movements. Some very impressive and necessary mobilizations have taken place in recent years: anti-war work, anti-sweat-shop activism, and local student labor solidarity serve as some examples. However, in order to subvert the current conditions in the university something more is needed: struggles from within the university’s population in regards to their own conditions. Only a few notable exceptions exist, such as the work of the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM!) in New York City, or the struggle of students at Gallaudet University – besides that there has been little opposition to things like continuous tuition hikes, rising student debt; federal and state cutbacks in student aid; and the marketization of student life and campuses. After all, the logic goes, it’s the ‘middle classes’ going to university, or folks who will become ‘middle class,’ and not genuinely ‘grass-roots’ ‘community-based’ or ‘working-class’ people – hence it’s not worth defending.
Many U.S. student movements mobilize from a discourse of privilege. Due to the particular context of the U.S., just getting into higher education separates one from the ‘real’ people. From this position, the only possibility is to “help” others or show solidarity “for” them, without problematizing how general socio-economic changes are affecting everybody, including oneself. The downside of this logic of course is that by not defending things like accessible education, low tuition, or more public funds for research, higher education is becoming increasingly stratified and exclusionary.
For different economic, political and personal reasons, some of us ended up studying and working at a university located in the U.S. south. What we perceived as the isolation of the ghettoized U.S. academy was a source of frustration during the first years of our program. However, after conversations with others, we realized that the isolation was reinforced by the myth of the university as the ivory tower as both displaced from the ‘real world’ as well as from ‘real activism.’ But as inhabitants of the university, it was not difficult to see how higher education institutions were contributing to the process of neoliberalization of the economy we’d been fighting all along.
As temporary inhabitants of the university, we thought a lot about this question, especially thanks to the Counter-Cartography Collective (3C’s; http://www.countercartographies.org) in which we participated. Together, we realized how our spatial understanding of the university as a discrete and untouched entity (the ‘ivory tower’ or the ‘secluded research bubble distant from the world’) was inadequate for figuring out what was going on and what to do. This thinking effectively erases the multiple roles of universities in employment and flexible labor markets, the knowledge economy and corporate research, defense contracts and recruiting, finance capitalism (through loans, university endowments and investments), and gentrification.
The university is one of the main actors in the current economy and is completely embedded within the ‘real world out there.’ Additionally, the university has contributed to the production and reproduction of the neo-liberal world that many of us have been trying to fight back from the “outside.” Thus, activism at the heart of the university is more necessary than ever for a process of exploring, hacking, subverting the shortcomings and possibilities of the systems’ very “reproduction machines.”

“Activist” / “Organizer”
Another category that we think is worth questioning is that of “activist” and “organizer.” These may be two of the key categories that accompany movements in the States, but they may also be two of its biggest stumbling blocks. While often worn (implicitly or explicitly) as a badge of pride, these identities can also become an exclusive club that disempowers many people from activism. Ask anyone who has had to change “scenes,” contexts or countries – or even ‘step out’ of activism and then ‘step back in’ – and they can tell you of the limits that openly coded activist circles have: acronyms, cultural codes, appropriate behaviors, and often times a certain feeling of superiority. This behavior can lead to a ‘professionalization’ of activism in which folks who are genuinly interested in moving on an issue feel that there are people better suited for the job and that they can just delegate to those individuals and organizations. While it’s inevitable and even positive that certain groups become reference points for a community, if this makes people feel that they shouldn’t act “unless ordered to” we run the risk of destroying our movements. Some of this can be linked to criticisms of the non-profit industrial complex, and the manner in which foundations decide which organizers or organizations to give grants to. Indeed, there begins to be an internalization of this latent elitization of activism. Many of us have experienced or even participated in these ‘insiders clubs’ of ‘organizers.’ We don’t have to be members of a legally constituted 501(c)3 to see this, as it is a part of activist culture that has permeated many sectors (from “union organizers,” to NGO “staffers,” even to “key anarchist folks” who always tell others they’re not key). We recognize that this is difficult to overcome – even the fact that we can talk about ‘activists’ as such in the rest of this essay belies part of the problem. The article “Give up Activism,” written right after the June 18th 1999 protests in London gets right to this issue. Instead of creating a movement based on “organizers” and “activists,” how can we ‘activate’ different parts of the social fabrics that we are all part of?
Some final words on privilege, class, university and “activist / “organizer:”
The notion of the ‘privileged middle class’ that ‘consumes happily until it dies’ limits many types of struggles. Often the only avenue for folks is to either turn to counter-culture, or to try to justify their positions as genuinely miserable (like in many Teaching Assistant struggles). In a country where the term ‘middle class’ applies to so many kinds of people and is something so many folks identify with, one possible role of U.S,-based movements is to problematize and radicalize the term ‘middle class’ (without losing the critique of privilege).

Translation II: Conocimiento en Movimiento: Research Riots & Mapping Revolutions

Knowledges from Social Struggles
A problem we’ve seen in the U.S. (and at times participated in) is a lack of reflection on actions, campaigns, and movements in order to learn lessons, share those lessons and tools with others, and recuperate genealogies of struggles through written histories and the maintenance of archives. This isn’t the typical criticism of anti-intellectualism in U.S. movements; rather it’s a question of how to avoid having to constantly re-invent the wheel. How do we learn and build on our experiences in order advance our causes? How do we share those experiences with others? Often, simple things like keeping track of a collective’s activities and sharing its history with others are left by the wayside in the grind of daily activist work.
While in other countries there has been an explosion of experiments within social movements that attempt to encourage systematic reflection, record keeping, and other activities related to knowledge production (from the initiatives on militant research to the proliferation of autonomous universities), U.S. social movements are moving more slowly on this. In our experience there has been a lack of attention towards the production and distribution of knowledge: the textual production by and about movements is low or oriented to quick and dirty report-back activities, and there are far fewer venues for reflection, such as conferences and publications. One way to improve our tactics might be to recuperate our collective memory, in addition to realizing that what movements do – from poster making to elaborate speeches to creative direct actions – is to produce “insurgent knowledges” worth recording and thinking through.
The potential of taking our own ‘knowledges’ seriously, by sharing and exchanging them, implies a powerful way of doing politics. By beginning with our own knowledges, we become able to speak on our own behalf and to develop alliances reciprocally.
Rigid categories work (and do their damage) when attention isn’t paid to one’s own history and knowledge. These categories act like exported brands that must be dealt with as pre-made products. Instead of categorical politics, a focus on knowledge-making would deliver a kind of situated organizing that takes one’s own experiences as a starting point. Here, research and inquiry serves as an entryway into this kind of non-categorical politics.
In this section, we begin by emphasizing the insurgent expertise that ferments in organizing processes, and reference some historical examples of this process. We then discuss how research serves as a possible avenue for channeling those knowledges. Finally, we end up describing the diverse array of political possibilities resulting from different concrete research experiments. Much of the material of this section is based on our engagement and current involvement with the Madrid-based Precarias a la Deriva, a militant research project, and its current phase as Agencia Precaria.

We are the Experts
On a Sunday afternoon at Eskalera Karakola, a women’s social center in downtown Madrid’s Lavapies neighborhood, around forty women packed a large cozy room at street level on Embajadores Street. The scenario: a red floor, posters from actions on the wall, big window to the street, as well as a coffee table filled with hot drinks and snacks. It was the beginning of one of the monthly workshops about domestic workers organizing and imagining the possibility of “a domestic revolution.” It was organized by Agencia de Asuntos Precarios and SEDOAC (Active Domestic Service) during 2008.
During the round of introductions, some domestic workers new to the workshops expressed their interest in talking to lawyers, and asked if la Agencia was a legal consultancy. One member of la Agencia explained,
Well, not really, there are institutions to offer that kind of legal information. La Agencia though is a way to create tools of self defense (herramientas de auto-defensa), given certain unjust and challenging situations at your workplace and beyond…Situations that can not be solved only by legal solutions… the principle is to depart from our own experiences as real experts on our own situations…who else is going to know what our problems are better than us?”
Another stated:
This is a space to share those knowledges to form a common knowledge, useful for many of us….that’s the goal of today’s encounter: to narrate and share our concrete expertise. What to do in certain cases and what to avoid, etcetera…things that a lawyer would be unable to know…”
A domestic worker from the Caribbean also expressed herself in the following terms, in reference to a big institutional event with participation from government offices, large unions, national associations of domestic workers, as well as some businesses:
Exactly! The experience and knowledge on domestic work is not owned by them, but by ourselves…in order to improve the conditions of this sector, the organizing has to come from ourselves, arranging informal encounters during our everyday lives – encounters that involve a lot of story telling, since we have a lot of dramatic stories to share, as well as music and dance. Then, we can devote some time and energy to those other spaces that claim to represent us, but our participation in those would already depart from a solid strengthening of our connections, arguments and building of a common voice.
Let us jump to the other side of the Atlantic for a brief review of similar experiences.

Knowledge is Power a la USA
This episode could resonate with certain community organizing efforts or popular education processes, traditions that are quite well established in the United States. Even if we were to start this section in a tone critical towards knowledge questions among North American social movements, throughout our piece we’d like to bring along counter-examples. To this day Latin-American born traditions of Freire’s Pedagogy of Liberation and Participatory Action Research provide us with inspiration. Both traditions were based in the philosophy that “knowledge is power.” Great projects like the Highlander Center, known for its outstanding work on popular education for civil rights, were influenced by the action research and critical pedagogy movements (yet also predated them!). These movements were crisscrossing the Global South as part of the anti-colonial and land-reform struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. In terms of U.S. contributions with regards to empowering force of education and analysis, it is important to mention Afro-American Radical Pedagogy, and in particular, work by bell hooks concerning anti-authoritarian notions of teaching.
On top of the major influence of critical pedagogy and action research, another important component of expertise building is the work of the American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey’s pragmatism questioned the neutrality of science and insisted on the practical use of research. For Dewey, knowing wasn’t about looking for the truth, but looking for the useful. Regardless of the possible appropriations of this pragmatist view of science, it had an empowering influence on community organizing processes in 1950s. Research strengthened the movement of social workers to develop more effective strategies of direct action by and for affected communities. This pragmatist view of science also inspired a little-known experiment in action-anthropology. Yet another radically different way of politicizing knowledge-making was pioneered by the feminist movement, especially after the 1970s. Both at the theoretical and practical levels, feminists developed strong critiques of mainstream notions of objectivity as abstract, neutral, and bodiless. Instead, they proposed a different kind of epistemology based in situated experience. This was practiced within consciousness-raising groups in the feminist movement.
We would like to conclude our genealogy of experiments of insurgent knowledges in the U.S. with a more recent case: the unprecedented example of ACT UP, born in New York and then expanding to Paris and other places. Created out of the turmoil in the 1980s against the stigmatization of AIDS, it was one of the first struggles to openly engage the question of expert knowledge.
ACT UP’s uniqueness resides in its challenges to medical authority, demanding that care become more democratic and less pharmaceutical-driven. Thus, the movement was invested in getting to know the medical jargon, as well as important medical arguments, in order to discuss care on the same plane as “experts” and successfully ask for feasible demands that were not available before. The impressive amount of medical research, translation, publication and distribution challenges notions of engaging and producing expert scientific knowledge. ACT UP as well posits that “Knowledge is Power,” though this time closer to the notion of power developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
While Brazilian pedagogue Paolo Freire emphasized the empowering force of knowing more and better about your own conditions, Foucault recognized power as a force able to constitute reality. This force includes the powers-that-be’ construction of the world as an instrument of dominant scientific knowledge. According to Foucault, much of reality is maintained through certain regimes of truth. These regimes of truth are made real through discourse – very often scientific or expert discourses – to produce “truth-effects.” These truth-effects in turn define and shape what we see, experience and think; what it is possible to say and do; as well as what is outside the realm of comprehensibility. In effect, our knowledge of the world, as well as how we understand ‘truth’ and ‘reality,’ both enable and constrain our actions. Thus, in order to fight back against the truth-effects of the scientific discourse on AIDS that began by describing it as an incurable illness to be socially excluded, the movements had to invest in understanding this scientific discourse in order to intervene in it and hijack it from within.
Building on the example of ACT UP New York, let us focus on the question of systematic knowledge production: the question of research embedded in social movements.

Research Riots
Many grassroots organizing and autonomous collectives depart from the empowering realization that they are producing knowledges, and thus power, and somehow reality/ies. “Militant research is that process of re-appropriation of our own capacity of worlds-making, which (…) questions, problematizes and pushes the real through a series of concrete procedures.” (Precarias a la Deriva 2004) .
There are different ways of dealing with those productions: some treat knowledges subtly, letting them act upon concrete organizing practices; others treat them more systematically through efforts at registering them and developing research questions, hypotheses and projects of inquiry with the goal of better understanding their conditions. This piece focuses on the potentialities of the ones that bring a conscious philosophy and practice of research into their political organizing.
It makes sense: a way of producing knowledge specifically for social movements in order to evaluate steps taken, to understand new contexts, or to open up new issues of struggle. It seems particularly pertinent to the post-Genoa, and post-September 11th moments – how to make sense of it all and move forward; how to explore alternative ways of challenging a complex system of oppressions. At times we were confronted by the difficulties presented by the apparent distance between much ‘research’ and ‘activism.’ Many of our own itineraries in movement collectives had dabbled in research and found, through inspiring examples, that it was possible to think of a form of in-depth research that came from and responded to social movements, whose methods themselves reflected movement politics, and the results of this informed on-the-ground resistance.
For these collectives, research is not separated from action – if they are separated, you end up with “dead books” that might look interesting, but are the result of a project destined to produce a book without further goals. According to one of the members of Precarias a la Deriva, the book they produced was:
…alive and able to produce communicative resonance’s, self-identification with the argument, and thus networking, because not only was it born out of a process of social struggle, but also it was released during an intense political moment where the notion of precariedad was being debated within European social movements. The goal of this publication was to work at the level of the imagination by cross-pollinating potential rebellion among those living a precarious existence. It sought to inspire certain de-politicized sectors of the population to think of their conditions as susceptible to change, generating new subjectivities sensitive to the discourse of precarity.”
The second phase of their research is not so focused on generating communicative resonance:
Rather, we are trying to engage in actual organizing experiments and building an everyday process with those people that have felt close to the analysis and language generated through the initial research phase.
This on-the-ground organizing, being developed during the new phase of Precarias a la Deriva – as Agencia Precaria– involves different activities. The goal now is to strengthen a common language and solidify relationships and alliances among diverse sectors through workshops, expeditions, casework support and organizing actions. All of these activities are pierced through with the philosophy of research.
Where is research in the business of organizing ?
Research is not something apart from a concrete struggle – it is embedded within it:

“the goal of the research is simply to improve our knowledge about ourselves and our knowledge about others…”
“Many of us come from activist backgrounds that are very enclosed. You just hang out with people similar to you, and live through categories and codes of struggle you inherited from others. Everything from clothing to your own vocabulary speaks of a certain type of readily recognizable person: the activist, the squatter, etc. There is a problem of a ghetto-identity that does not allow you to cross trajectories with different people, except your own. Research was a tool to open up, to start knowing more about those others that we spoke about from a discursive level, but without actual or everyday encounters. However, it is not the political research a la Italiana, where the intellectual goes to the factory to talk to the real subjects of oppression. It is a research process that involves radically diverse parties, searching for an understanding of their own situations, developing together a collective language able to name the problems in order to fight them”.
“Conceiving and conducting research in this way does not imply a formalized project with a rigorous research plan. It is a posteriori, in the process of writing and putting the pieces together, when things start to look more coherent. It is not like the professional model where the research project is well defined from the beginning, rather it is conceived as an open-ended process, always exposed to improvisation, open to encounters; maybe it is a more organic process”.
“Our main references are the traditions of action-research and self-inquiry, including the idea of simultaneous thinking and acting, or the Zapatista call to ‘ask while walking’ – research as a process of searching for tools, of putting together cartographies, recording our own steps. The process could include fieldtrips, workshops, collective writing, doing actions together”.

Argentina 2001
The first time we encountered an activist group directly embracing research as a constituent trait of their struggle was in Buenos Aires. While visiting family in the post-crisis momentum, and participating in the Argentinean Social Forum in August 2002, we met with one member from Colectivo Situaciones, a self-identified militant research group. After an insightful conversation and seeing how their booklets, zines and other publications were circulating, this explicit practice of ‘militant research’ provoked our imagination.
This Buenos Aires-based collective is a small group of independent researchers that work in collaboration with different sectors of Argentinean social movements: from HIJOS, the sons and daughters of the ‘disappeared ones,’ to Piqueteros’ organizations formed by unemployed workers organizing community-based micro-enterprises also known for their picketing of roads and transportation routes. Notably, the kind of relationship that Situaciones envisions with these groups is based on a firm premise that the research is itself part of the struggle: “Situaciones aims to work as an ‘internal’ reading of struggles, as a phenomenology (rather, a genealogy) and not as an ‘objective’ description. The point is to compose situational knowledges able to accompany and strengthen the emergence of new values superior to those of capitalism” (MTD Solano y Situaciones 2001).
One of the methodologies used by Situaciones is the co-production of workshops, where some members of the research collective, together with certain participants from a particular social movement, focus on a shared problematic. After identifying the issue, the problematic becomes the ‘third object’ to be analyzed by all the participants during a series of workshops. This methodology tries to articulate a subject-to-subject relationship, where both parties share knowledges and listen in order to generate a series of analyses, hypotheses and proposals. These are usually documented in texts that, after being polished, will be published – almost in a “just-in-time production” fashion – in accessible publishing houses to be distributed among grassroots groups and beyond. The last project engaged by Situaciones is an inquiry into recent changes in labor patterns, collaborating with call center workers. In that project they propose the following understanding of “militant research”:
Processing what you are living through. Working with others, working with texts. [… ] Overcoming the stupidity that distinguishes researchers from researched; [… ] Understanding every experience as a living being that dialogues with others, in the present tense or looking towards the past and the future.
They ask:
What does knowledge become when it renounces the comfort of “critical distance” with regards to the “object,” when it refuses each and every “evenly balanced evaluation” and adopts a point of view based in struggles? How is the ability to research experienced when it becomes part of the experience of life, when it becomes potential to create? What happens when the discussion is no longer about “who is who:” who is on the inside and who on the outside; who “thinks” and who “acts;” who has the right to speak and who is better off letting others speak on their behalf? When the question who is who is no longer policed, a new possibility emerges: that of producing together. (Situaciones 2006: 18 )
Situaciones and several call center workers insisted that social struggles themselves generate research questions and hypothesis, and that it was important to be attentive to those and work through what we experience, without conforming to inherited ideas, but producing updated analyses together. Building upon the methodological discussion by Situaciones, the following examples are systematic ways to pursue activist or militant research.
On Observatories and Laboratories
Observatorio Metropolitano: Understanding Your Territory

More than 20 activists participated in the effort to produce a 700-page book, one of the first serious engagements with the contemporary transformations in Madrid. This exceptional effort is due to the rigorous research behind it, its distinctive authorship, as well as its mode of production and distribution. The collective enterprise is blatant when looking at the authorship of the book, signed by Observatorio Metropolitano. All of these ‘experts’ are actively engaged in different activist projects and social movements.
The initiative originally emerged as a civil society response to the candidacy of Madrid for the Olympic games. A serious study about this ‘event’ was necessary in order to denounce the consequences of the upcoming urban restructuring. The project surpassed that initial focus to begin working upon the larger question of how global processes are transforming the city. A bigger group was invited to collaborate in the project, opening participation to more activists ‘territorially’ (locally) involved in social struggles and engaged in analytical reflections about the current moment. After a series of self-education seminars, and the formation of working groups, the research project took shape, ending with a series of public presentations and internal meetings where the final drafts of each book section were presented with the goal of receiving feedback from the general public, as well as from colleagues.
The book is now circulating among community centers and is used as a tool for understanding previously unexplored problems in Madrid. This book was necessary to reorient the mobilizations in the city and to develop shared visions between participants. Until its publication there had not been any satisfactory language for discussing the current Madrid – the ‘left’ was caught seemingly unaware.
We would like to reflect briefly on the kind of political action that results from the sort of research referenced above. The goal of this research was to better understand major political-economic processes in a city. In order to accomplish this, macro-analysis with solid historical and statistical data was needed. The book also includes ethnographic chapters about everyday living and resistances. These analyses constitute great political tools: this kind of data can appear more objective and sharable, as findings are easier to communicate and circulate. This allows one to call institutional actors and public opinion into question through examples such as court cases, mainstream media, and mass campaigns. Normally, this kind of research is considered empirical with a sociological touch and filled with statistical data.
There are numerous successful examples of this kind of research by social movements. Such examples include all kinds of watchdog-based projects (Observatori del Deute en la Globalització, Corporate Europe Observatory, CorpWatch). The U.S. is well known for many institutes conducting high quality research on corporate activities (from NGO’s doing research and distributing key information about IMF and World Bank, to organizations working on GMO’s and food sovereignty, to groups focusing on free trade). One of our first experiences combining research and activism occurred in Chicago through a project of the Mexico Solidarity Network that studied the effects of NAFTA and the future consequences of the proposed Plan Puebla Panama. We also encountered an excellent example of grassroots corporate research when we met the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).


Coalition of Immokalee Workers: Grassroots Research targeting Corporations

Haitian, Guatemalan, Southern Mexican and U.S. day laborers decided to investigate the complicated system of the agro-industry in the U.S. in order to target their political enemies, since the contractors that they met everyday in the fields did not actually have the power in the chain of corporate decision making. They developed an analysis of the agri-food business and organized a campaign without precedent in the fight against multinational corporations.
This independent and low-resource organization of farm workers launched a national boycott of Taco Bell in 2001. Taco Bell is part of the largest fast food corporation in the world: YUM Foods Inc. This national boycott is part of a long history of struggle against the labor conditions in the fields. Behind the decision to target Taco Bell there is a process of what we could call ‘situated grassroots research.’ Some of the activities that could be included in this research process are the following:
1) Conjunctural analysis through popular education exercises to evaluate conditions and struggles, the chain of action-reflection-action;
2) Mutual exchange of militant experiences among different sectors – including anti-sweatshop students, engaged churches, MST members, art-activists, catholic grassroots communities and ex-guerrilla members from Central America, and so on – to gather information from decentralized yet networked local organizing;
3) Internet and business journal research on the agro-industry structure and on chains working in Florida.
Thanks to this process, CIW found that Taco Bell was one of the main buyers of the produce they were picking. Taco Bell’s ability to establish very low prices for those tomatoes drove the salaries of the farmworkers below the poverty line. Given the system of subcontracting, the company was invisible at the production site, avoiding any responsibility in terms of setting acceptable labor conditions or environmental standards. By identifying how the company operated at different scales, the CIW elaborated an organizing strategy based on decentralization in which consumers, workers and solidarity groups were able to participate in this anti-corporate campaign.
Several local groups formed after the call to boycott taco bell at the national level. One of these was the Chicago Taco Bell Boycott Committee, formed by activists from the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen and other groups, including United Students Against Sweatshops, Mexico Solidarity Network, and the Chicago Direct Action Network. As members of this committee, we publicized the finding of the corporate research made by the coalition through a popular education workshop called “Fast food, Farm work and You;” street-art; weekly pickets to Taco Bell restaurants; and an intense campaign against the Taco Bell restaurant at the University of Chicago, which ended up closing down. CIW’s solid strategies of research, logo-busting and boycott campaigns have led them to exceptional victories against Taco Bell, McDonalds and Burger King, and have been covered by major international media.
Precarias a la Deriva: Researching the Commons
Despite significant successes, there are risks associated with this kind of “macro –research:” the major risk being the possibility of generating a paralyzing kind of knowledge. By providing such overarching presentations of these macro processes – such as the overall functioning of a metropolis or a major corporation – a strong sense of inevitability seems to be inscribed. On one hand, the power of the data provides indispensable and strategic utensils to put together solid political campaigns supported by empirical arguments. On the other hand, that macro point of departure may not only lose some of those mini-realities that fractalize the one reality of the city or the productive chain, but might additionally convey a sense of impotence.
Other research strategies could help out in that regards. By attending to the micro and to everyday life, by speaking in the first person and by capturing mundane conversations, the research material can connect directly with people’s experiences, allowing for mutual recognition and the discovery of previously unthinkable combinations/possibilities. When the Situationists described the city through their unconventional wanderings, the monolithic rhythm of ‘metro-bureau-do do’ was broken. The findings were suggestive of other ways of inhabiting the city, provoking the creation of a new and other sense of collectivity. Also, by engaging methodologies that acknowledge the limits of the observer and embrace the incompleteness of the data, a constituent imagination aimed at processes of re-subjectification and the generation of solidarities becomes possible.
An example of this kind of research is the work of Laboratorio de Trabajadoras (that later become Precarias a la Deriva). Even if their impact at the public level was minimal, the empowering effect and level of resonance among young people was very high. This group was quite successful in creating resonances and unusual alliances, effectively addressing the common question of precarity from different specificities.
Finding collective ways of struggling was one of the main challenges to be addressed, as the project focused on the possibilities of articulation among women who shared the common experience of precariousness, yet were employed in extremely different types of work and holding different social status. In order to identify commonalities, they needed research methodologies that would fit their circumstances and be relevant to opening up conflicts. Looking for a procedure that would be able to capture their mobile and contingent everyday lives, they found inspiration in the Situationist technique of “drifting.” Situationist researchers wander in the city, allowing for encounters, interactions and micro-events to be the guide of their urban itineraries. The result was a psycho-geography based on haphazard coincidences. This version though is seen as appropriate for a “bourgeois male individual without commitments,” and not satisfactory for a precaria. Instead of an exotic itinerary, the precarias version of drifting consists of a situated and directed trajectory through everyday life settings (Precarias a la Deriva 2004:26).
Situationists create unexpected spatial situations generating realities worth exploring. Precarias method pursues an intentional model of the drift where spaces normally perceived as unconnected are linked. This allows everyday itineraries to become the line to follow, making realities that are normally off the radar of regular discourse visible. This type of drift presented a technique that was attentive to the spatial-temporal continuum that they were experiencing as women under the new labor conditions.
This project contributes a methodology that can be understood as a feminist version of drifting, a kind of ‘derive a la femme.’ This innovative research methodology generates a political-economic analysis. Going back and forth between a variety of theoretical sources and their actual lived experience allowed them to develop a situated investigation about the material conditions they held in common, and the radical differences they lived through. These feminist drifts act as circuits articulating fragmented spaces. These experimental tours were able to re-imagine the political as collective interventions in everyday life. They produce participatory cartographies through their collective itineraries, where the “field research” is the temporary expedition following the space-time continuum of singular experiences. Precarias’ project is about searching for commonalities, and at the same time fostering singularities. They are thinking of ways to articulate “lo común singular” (the singular in common) (Precarias a la Deriva 2004: 42).

The Mapping Revolution
Our point here isn’t to give an exhaustive list of methods or experiences of research as something internal to social movements. Dozens of methods have been and are being used. As we’ve suggested, they can take a more macro-type approach, or a more situated one based on one’s own conditions. Our main point was in asserting the value of producing knowledge as social movements, about ‘socializing’ that knowledge with others, and keeping a record of it. The goal is to overcome frozen categories in order to create an adequate and useful analysis of the current situation in order to intervene within it. Being fed up of old discourses of struggle, many groups decided to include a component of research in their organizing:
We have never accepted the disjuncture between dedicating ourselves to knowledge and research about reality, or a simple form of activism based on revolutionary rhetoric and discourses inherited [a-critically] from the past. It’s impossible to try and transform society while looking through an ideological prism that’s situated outside the very social magma of knowledges that are secreted by emergent processes of social self-organization.” (Toret and Sguiglia 2006: 107) .
In other words, you can’t even begin an activist process unless you’re attuned to what’s going on around you. The previous quote is from a collective research project that included the use of cartography and maps. It can sound strange initially (to use cartography as a means of activist research), but if you consider the fact that we live in a super mapped era and the Department of Defense has developed a special Geo-Spatial Intelligence division to focus on map making and the use of new cartographic technologies, then using maps to further social struggle just becomes a way of re-appropriating the tools of our time in social movements (in the same way we do with internet or radio).

Why Mapping? What is Movement Mapping?
“Because power, impotence, and resistance take place in space and assume specific forms within it, maps can lend a spatial perspective to [our] political analysis…”. AnArkitektur
“It is time to draw new maps, maps of resistance that can be used to attack the visible and invisible fences and walls, to tear them down or sail around them quietly, to hollow them out and to undermine them” NoLager
A wave of cartographic practices is spreading among various social movements in Spain, other parts of Europe and beyond. At a basic level these mapping projects help us navigate the shifting territories of globalization. In the cases we’ve seen in Spain, this is applied to the European Union, the new European border regime, and other such macro-transformations. This resonates with Fredric Jameson’s call to initiate a project of “global cognitive mapping” in order to reorient subjects in a postmodern world. Yet beyond this initial “way-finding” role, there are other reasons for using cartography. As the Car-Tac (or ‘Tactical Cartography’) collective writes,
Even though the map is not the territory, to make maps is to organize oneself, to generate new connections and to be able to transform the material and immaterial conditions in which we find ourselves immersed. It isn’t the territory but it definitely produces territory (2006: 157).
With this in mind, activist mappings can serve as organizing nodes. They suggest new relations that aid not only in organizing a reconception of the territory, but in recreating it as well. Thus, a subversive map of the border helps to create a subversive border. Maps can be understood as agents that help to assemble distinct subjects into new joint processes – a form of radical bricolage.
These maps are often part of the sorts of militant or activist research projects that we’ve described above. Hackitectura writes of radical cartography within this frame:
Cartography as not knowing, as permanent research, as a survey of the composition of the social and the interstices of reality […], a survey of social processes in conflict. A cartography that connects knowledges and subjects. A cartography of the points of attack of the imperial enemy and the forms of attack of the movement. To map is to resist- capitalist territorialization –it is to create – spaces of mutual contagion of the post-national multitude (2006: 138).
We continue with two examples of cartography projects from Andalusia, Spain. One grapples with rapid urban transformations in their city as they relate to processes of globalization, the other tries to tackle the emergence of the ‘Fortress Europe’ border in their own backyard.

Otra Malaga
2004 – the Social Forum of Malaga was going to take place that year. It seemed that quite a bit was at stake. The entire Spanish state was coming out of a period of large mobilizations, including the anti-EU campaign of 2002, large movements against ecological disasters, and educational reform bills (Prestige and LOU), as well as the anti-war movement and the general elections. A lot of transformations were also occurring locally – lots of construction for the tourist sector (hotels, golf courses, high-speed trains), the growth of services industries (also connected to tourist growth), and a rapid influx of immigration in a short period. The Social Forum was to capitalize on this momentum as a way to intervene in what was happening locally – but there was the possibility that the event could remain a series of interesting workshops and panels with little to say for itself (as has happened with so many Social Forum events).
An in-depth mapping project that combined a process of Participatory Action Research with a re-mapping of the territory began to form with the goal of understanding the connections between the transformations taking place. The result included a book and DVD to accompany the map. The map itself allowed one to see different things happening simultaneously while trying to figure out the possible links between speculation on land to build tourist infrastructure, the growth of temp labor, and the ways that new migrants were being channeled into certain jobs and areas.
Beyond the product of the book and the map, the whole process intensified relations between unrelated collectives, mixing populations that are usually not at the same table.

Hackitectura, Indymedia Estrecho and others: Cartographies of the Straits of Gibraltar
The Straits map was made by a network based in Andalusia, Spain and throughout parts of northern Morocco, including groups such as Hackitectura and Indymedia Estrecho. This network of activist hackers, artists, and architects created a map that rethinks the border between Spain and North Africa. Instead of accepting the border as a fixed entity that separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ this map conveys border relationships. This includes “geographies of empire” – capital flows, police networks and jurisdiction; and “geographies of the multitude” – migrant-flows and social networks. The map ignores the geopolitical and epistemological borders that had been naturalized by the dividing line of the sea. Instead, a particular flow is followed across the Mediterranean, between Spain and Morocco, Europe and Africa. Human flows of migrants, police agents, and capital flows in the form of the Moroccan government’s foreign debt repayments, immigrant remittances (to family members), or European corporate investment (i.e. factory relocation) are constantly in flux. Cell phone and internet coverage span the Straits of Gibraltar facilitating ever-denser nodes of contact and coordination between social movements on both sides. The resulting map does not reproduce the border as a space of separation, but invokes it as a site of connection and reciprocal flows that traverse the Mediterranean.

Why Maps?
Through our experience with the Counter-Cartography Collective in Chapel Hill, we found an unexpected attraction towards maps. We tried to come up with some ideas to explain its growing use among social movements: mapping, as compared to writing is non-textual and non-grammatical, so a reader is not forced to follow a linear thought pattern; maps are easier to produce or build on in a participatory and collective manner; maps can act as excellent tools for teach-ins and workshops; and maps never need to be considered “finished,” that is to say, they are constantly open to interaction and re-appropriation by the reader.

Activist maps have already been used in many different ways. Sometimes they look more like cartoons meant to communicate a point, a form of agitprop or ‘propaganda map’ – like an octopus crawling over the earth. Other activist maps are more like street maps for particular protests that designate things like targets, safe zones and tactical areas. The maps that we describe above go even a step further. They are made explicitly with the intent to apply movement politics to the map-making process, such that the form they take may be pretty funky and non-orthodox. The goals are to understand what forms of power we are up against, as well as counter-powers we may be able to create.
In the way of understanding maps discussed here, cartography becomes a tool for understanding and navigating changing territories and a means to create new territories – or at least to articulate new ways of inhabiting and subverting them. They are a form of continuous inquiry and research into, among other thing, strategies of the powers that be, and forms of resistance to those same structures. Seen together, these maps can create a richer and denser picture of a reality and a possible lines of flight into, underneath and against it.

Translation III: Queering Our Categories of Struggle

What examples of new ways of thinking of categories have resulted from militant research experiments? We’ll now briefly mention two examples of how processes of activist inquiry and radical mapping have lead to new concepts and tools. These are the queered notions of precarity and edu-factory.

Challenging the monolithic idealized working class: what about precarious people?
Returning to the discussion on privilege, it is worthwhile to mention here how movements elsewhere do not always work with such pre-defined categories (“privileged” vs. “oppressed”) and some are actively trying to articulate identities of struggle more prone to finding affinities amongst each other. This is the case of many movements working on “precarity” in the European Union. A “precarious” person would be the one who is dealing with living conditions associated with current economic measures such as temporary contracts, less labor protections, day-labor by a largely undocumented workforce; as well as neoliberal approaches to social services and housing. Under this broad category, domestic workers, Teaching Assistants and immigrant families are finding a niche. Despite the differences and asymmetries among the populations, certain common experiences are being identified and allowing them to come together in struggles and mobilizations.

Madrid May 2008
Since the end of the 19th century, on May 1st we celebrate Workers’ Day. But…
Are those of us who care for dependent members of our families and don’t get paid for it-workers? Are those of us with functional diversity/handicap (physical-mental-intellectual) and who don’t even have the recognized right to lead and autonomous/independent life, workers? Are those of us who sell pirated compact-discs in the street as the only way to earn a living – while the “Foreigners’ Law” condemns us to second-tier citizenship as the ‘undocumented’ –workers? Are those of us employed in domestic work whose labor regime legalizes a situation of de facto slavery, workers? Are those of us who translate, teach classes, do research – but our “work life” doesn’t count for the archives of the state because we work under the table and we don’t chip into Social Security – workers? Are any of us for whom a regular if only minimum wage, decent housing, labor rights are unreachable dreams because we make pizzas, hamburgers or conduct surveys, but we’ve never had a contract for more than two or three months, workers?

The only thing we’re sure about is that we’re not those types of “workers” that the big labor union confederations refer to and claim to represent on the 1st of May. But then what are we? What do we have in common? Can we join forces and dreams for change from such different legal, labor and life situations?
For several years now, some of us, and as time passes more and more of us, have been talking about “precarity” as a common name that touches all those supposedly “atypical” labor and life realities – but which we know are currently the majority type of situation. We’ve been thinking about how we are all affected (though to different degrees) by the fact that productivity continues to be understood as the production of profit and not the production of more livable lives. We’ve been experimenting with ways of organizing ourselves to respond to situations of injustice and exploitation from spaces of encounter that are no longer spaces of work. We’ve been asking what might be that idea of thinking in common when the forms taken by the neoliberal economy and its new border regimes push us to isolate ourselves into an increasingly individualized “everyone for themselves”.

This call for a MayDay picnic in 2008 by the Agencia de Asuntos Precarios/Precarias a la Deriva captures the feeling of what many collectives call precarity, resulting from a process of questioning our own situations and movements. Faced with changing conditions of labor, new sectors and new populations in constant flux (from around the country and the world)- the ideal of the “worker” clocking in at a factory and their combativeness (hard hat on, bandana on face, firing off metal nuts from the factory via slingshot at the cops) no longer jived.
Not that those figures don’t still exist, but they are no longer as prevalent in Spain, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, or in the United States. That image of “the worker” was something people had an increasingly hard time identifying with. Newer tools and languages had to be found that spoke more to the multiple conditions many people were encountering.
At first precarity was a way to speak about worsening conditions within the same idealized image of a working class and of linking questions of increasing unemployment (especially in the early 1990’s). Different groups began to inquire how to link new struggles that were emerging and that escaped models of factory or mine-based strikes without homogenizing such diverse populations. What was new (and what wasn’t) about these situations? Could they be coordinated in any way?
We’ve mentioned the notion of “precarity” in this trilogy several times. Emma Cosse has brought up “precarity” to help understand the struggles of cultural workers (movie & television crews, museum workers) the revolts of the banlieues, fights for papers and citizenship rights, or struggles against “youth” labor laws. Precarity is not a panacea and is not meant to be a ‘perfect’ concept – it is (currently) unfixed and mobile – the idea (for most) being to avoid a fixed ideal of the “precariat.” Precarity is used as a way of understanding a sort of trend occurring in many places with many populations stretching beyond the workplace, into questions of social services, public spaces, and housework.
The looseness of the category reflects:
1) The inspirations from the global resistance movements, and their attempts to link disparate struggles and
2) A deeper understanding of class and class struggle that goes beyond the gates of the workplace.
Actually, the variety of ways of engaging and re-appropriating the concept of precarity is shown by the quantity of movements related to it: from housing movements to migrants’ struggles and from university movements to ‘copy-left’ claims.
Paris Spring 2008: Towards a Precarity Map
A dozen participants from various European countries gathered for an intensie working weekend at the Act Up headquarters in downtown Paris. The goal was to work on an ongoing cartographic project that involves both research about groups, events and processes of social unrest dealing with precarity, as well as how to visually represent them, including their discourses, practices, targets, etc. The process of assembling such a huge archive of social movements and conflicts related in one way or another to precarity has been long and challenging because of the very number and complexity of struggles around precarity. Also because the project has no funding at all and it is hard to coordinate among the dispersed and overworked participants. Even without a final map yet, the process itself has produced some interesting insights that helps to illustrate the queering character of this concept. The long list of struggles was classified based on a color-coded legend depending on the degree of explicitness in relation to the discourse of precarity. Some, such as the struggles around the border, maybe did not use the term, however their analysis and practices were clearly influenced by it. Others, such as the sans-papier struggles, do not relate at all at the discursive level, however there were many arguments in favor of considering them as part of the map of precarity struggles. These lively discussions show just how slippery the concept could be. Those processes of struggles –represented as volcanos, dotted lines, atoms…depending on their level of social impact, and a series of other criteria- are located above a base of bio power fields. These were represented by bubbles, going from the body to state regulation. We tried to be as broad as possible in thinking of power assuming that precarity was addressing a large variety of oppressions. However, most of the struggles that explicitly engaged the notion of precarity were situated in the bubble of labor and social services…The cartographic project then showed both the potentials and shortcomings of the concept. The map’s relevance though came not so much from the success or failure to pin down what precarity is or isn’t, but from how to think new and different struggles together. As one participant said:
Sometimes you are working from a very concrete and focused perspective of precarity, isolating yourself in your niche, you concrete local struggle,… and any kind of specialization has the risk of losing the ability to grasp an overarching set of conditions, a particular conjuncture,… a more global picture. Having something like a cartography of the movements working on precarity would provide a larger understanding of what we’re doing and a more realistic sense of connectivity with other struggles that could otherwise seem distant.

Instead of just accepting a series of atomized struggles and strategies that may not work (classic union strategies often subject to limits by labor legislation that often doesn’t respond to new conditions) – precarity has become a struggle to search for something common – something that doesn’t try to homogenize conditions. Steps have been taken to link struggles and think them together. At times this is wishful thinking (hackers and migrant rights for example), but it’s a far cry from solidarity struggles with the “poorest of the poor” or with “real workers” from a position of assumed superiority that we often can see in the United States.

The introduction of precarity as a new concept from which to think, live and fight among certain European movements has led to a politicization of current conditions, generating a common language and building another kind of subjectivity. As much as it is discursively amazing and aesthetically brilliant, often times the actual organizing results can seem far off. Besides some large mobilization and explosive moments (such as the EuroMayDay events in Italy or the anti CPE struggles in France) there are only a few concrete organizing efforts that are very focused in their work around precarity – such as the emergent Oficinas de Derechos Sociales in Spain (Offices of Social Rights), but they are still quite small.

This slow pick-up contrasts with much of the on the groundwork happening in the United States, focusing on issues beyond the traditional factory-workers’ identity and problems. We are referring to the organizing done through the device of Workers Centers and their work with all sorts of non-traditional, non-factory types of work. Often Workers’ Centers link working conditions to other axes of exclusion around race and migration. Contemporary extra/non-union efforts at day labor organizing, domestic workers, taxi drivers, and Korea-town workers are just a few examples of this vast array of experiments. Actually, many of the contemporary efforts in European organizing around precarious issues are curious about the experiences of Workers Centers on the ground.

The discourse used by Workers Centers is often not so radically new: “workers, the poor, people of colour…” and at times may be sufficient; but we know there are many challenges facing these efforts. Some of those challenges run along the lines of professionalization and re-presentation – linked to questions of the “non-profit industrial” machine. One of the main challenges is the separation between those supposedly affected by oppression, and those that professionally (and/or informally) work for improving that situation. This structural barrier talks about the impossibility of linking subjectivities and thus struggles: it seems that it is a form of solidarity of ones that are ‘ok’ with others that are ‘very oppressed.’ However, couldn’t this framework produce ghettoised struggles, with no creation of affinities, as in “those are just the problems of the ‘real’ poor/black/jornalero”? What if the goal were to recognize those specificities, and also identify those common problems, common dreams, and common tactics. What kinds of spirals of struggle could emerge from that? Perhaps precarity or another queering concept could help in that search?
Challenging the ivory tower: what about the edu-factory or the knowledge machine?

There is a myth that the academy functions as an independent ivory tower that is privileged and isolated, untouched by historical dynamics and free from possible turmoil. Contrary to this well-established myth, the university can be seen as a gridded space crisscrossed by intense relations of power instead of a privileged bounded ghetto. Both the conditions of current academic knowledge production as well as the possibilities of resistance within it relay into broader networks.

One of the main taboos of the university is the labor and life condition of its workers, which seeks to erase the bodies and the materiality involved in knowledge production. Service and infrastructural sectors of the university, in addition to academic work itself, are going through parallel processes of outsourcing, temporary contracting, self-managerial approaches and other ‘treats’ from flexible labor markets. What other ways of looking at and intervening in the university beyond the ivory tower are emerging?

Italy 2000s
Intense street barricades were erected in downtown Rome. University students and professors went on strike in order to protest the menace of privatization of higher public education. After these struggles, a process of analysis among student movements of the current role of the university as a main economic actor led some of them to begin thinking of the university form and its current transformations as a shifting terrain of struggle. After conducting initial research amongst their colleagues, they concluded that the university has become a laboratory of unique forms of labor, and also an entity that is transforming and feeding off of the cities and towns where they exist – not just in the sense of resources and real estate (though that’s a part of it) but as a non-market resource pool of creative energy and ideas. They started to develop the notion of an ‘edu-factory’ and the “university-metropolis,” leading to the start of a process of national and international discussions of this analysis (see http://www.edu-factory.org).

Debates in Europe are contributing to the process of queering the university by insisting that places of institutional knowledge production are unique labor pools and are harnessing new forms of capital accumulation— from the famed ‘immaterial work” to creative communities, financial speculation, and more – that need updated political discourses and strategies. All of this is happening in the context of an EU proposal to create a unitary and general framework for the whole European university system –the Bologna Process. In response to this, many student and researchers’ movements are beginning to network in a transnational fashion.

Chapel Hill, 2006

Thousands of UNC DisOrientation Guides were distributed through the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus and surroundings. The 3Cs collective compiled a large quantity of complex information about the university that normally would be hard to access and considered unattractive. This information was compiled and placed into a pocket-size map version. One side of the map displayed a variety of diagrams and maps in order to show the university as: a factory; a functioning body; and a machine producing your view of the world. The other side situated UNC as a historical site of activism, also providing tools, contacts and concepts to re-inhabit, intervene in or subvert the university.

Despite the small scale of this cartographic intervention, the process of investigating and mapping academic territory opened the possibility of rethinking the university in challenging and empowering ways. 3Cs wanted to emphasize the economic role played by the university – particularly of UNC, which is located at the apex of Research Triangle Park, one of the largest science research parks in the United States. Also, the map shows other aspects of the university, beyond its labor and investor roles: for example, the urban restructuring and gentrification it prompts; its ecological foot print; the labor force both within the university and in the maquiladoras that are the production sites of university garments; the international relationship with other universities and its north-to-north focus.

This is just an example of the kind of rethinking of categories, reconcieving the isolated ivory tower as a meshwork site of knowledge production – a kind of knowledge machine.

Towards a Conclusion
After these examples and discussions of knowledge, research, maps- precarity, edu-factories and so on, we want to return to our original point. Queering older notions of privilege, class, and the university with experiential understandings of our surroundings provides a different way to look at and act upon the world. In order to be effective and imaginative in this process of re-shaping categories into useful analytical frameworks, engagement with experiments on militant research could be of a great help.

When we get stuck organizing alliances that can’t grow into mutual solidarity and are faced with what may seem like grave issues affecting lots of people but which people won’t move on, when we’re not even sure what to protest or how to protest it, it becomes time to check ourselves – retrace steps and start building a ‘counter’ knowledge base to reorganize.

One thing we can be sure about: police forces, expansive multinational corporations, think-tanks and militaries all engage in their own forms of knowledge production. How many of us remember encountering the RAND corporation’s analysis of the Seattle protests and finding it to be one of the better analyses out there, to the point that many activists were using them! These actors have internalized the adage “knowledge is power” – they’ve already got lots of power and want to keep it or grow it – so they’ve gotten serious about recording, producing, and funding knowledge.

It should be clear by now that the types of knowledge we’re talking about are not just a copy of things like the RAND corporation, or a Pentagon study. The activist research and cartographic examples we’ve mentioned try to take very seriously the idea of infusing the entire research and mapping process with movement politics – not just in outlook, but also in the way a project is conceived and carried out. It could seem like we’re calling for a new version of the “battle of ideas” – but our point is not specifically about having “convincing arguments for a soundbite” to win hearts and minds. Rather our point is about how movements grow, or get stuck repeating strategies that don’t work; how to understand our movements not as quick knee-flex response (i.e. “Bush is coming to town in two weeks! Quick let’s do a demo!), but as long processes that outlive many collectives’ terms of existence and even outlive the retiring, burnout (or jailing) of many activists.

What’s Going On?

May 25, 2008

The USSF, Grassroots Activism, and Situated Knowledge

by Marina Karides,
Member of the USSF Documentation Committee

“You look at the course of the world and we’re heading toward an oligarchy. The primary reason to have this forum is to return society back to the people.” –Member of the USSF National Planning Committee, September 2007

It is common radical, leftist, and progressive knowledge that the first United States Social Forum (USSF), while almost totally neglected in mainstream press and media (even as we marched and met under the nose of CNN in downtown Atlanta) was a flat out success, receiving rave reviews in many independent media presses. Rave reviews for what?

• I’ve never seen any diversity like this. It’s not just white folks. I want to see groups like this keep coming together and growing.
• They were young and old, multiracial, men and women, gay and straight, immigrant and native, and overwhelmingly working class.
• Members of the [World Social Forum] International Council were here. They said this presented a great challenge to them because it was the best Social Forum they ever saw.
• No Forum in recent memory has better expressed the 
potential of the process than the recent U.S. Social Forum

The above quotes taken from contributions posted to the listserv, WorldSocialForum-Discuss@openspaceforum.net, acknowledge the diversity and organizational success of the USSF. I consider why and how the USSF became a milestone in social forum organizing and a new chapter for US political movements. What explains the diversity and inclusiveness? And the color that was missing in Seattle?

I also address is the debate over space and actor that influence so many discussion of what the social forum process is suppose to be. In exploring the success of the USSF and this debate I trace the experience of Power U for Social Change, a grassroots organization working for housing rights and economic justice in Miami, Florida, report on the Global Day of Action (GDA) as it happened in the US, and rely on my notes and transcriptions of NPC meetings and on analytical lenses of political economy and feminist sociology. I use AbdouMaliq Simone’s book, For the City Yet to Come, (2004, Duke University Press) which examines life and survival in African cities and black feminist thought as articulated by Pat Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought (1990, Allyn and Unwin, Ltd.), to think through the processes and practices of the National Planning Committee (NPC).

The Process

What makes the social forum process so striking for grassroots organizing is its participatory democracy style of politics. While the NPC, composed of 50 groups facilitated the organizing process that created the space for dialogue and action, the events, session, tents, workshops were sponsored by the groups that attended the USSF. This is especially unique to the US context where so often gatherings of activists that cut across movement building sectors are dictated by funding organizations. The USSF was determinately grassroots—not only because of the participatory control over programming developed through the first World Social Forum but also because of who was there.

Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ) is a national organization of local and national community grounded organizations that along with Project South provided the lion’s share of time, energy, and resources for organizing the USSF. Grounded in base building organizations, GGJ is largely responsible for the unique character of US engagement in the forum process. For many, the observation was that working class people of color dominated the event. Yet this is a broad swath of US society who may communicate with a variety and several identities– indigenous, Chicana, queer, Korean-American, low-income, Haitian, feminist, domestic worker, housing activist, black, brown, poor to start. Particularly noteworthy is that this diversity was previously unseen in US history of political mobilizations. There was a palpable power gained from it, a sort of seizure of control from the white middle class that has in recent decades dominated the US left’s ideological landscape and public meaning of “activism,” “organizing,” and “social justice.”

Despite the diversity and all the rave reviews of the USSF, there has been concern that the process of organizing was too intentional. That is, given the commitment of the forum to providing an open space where expression of all ideologies and forms of organizing that oppose neo-liberalism can come together and dialogue, the USSF was driven by base-building organizations with a particular agenda. This work locates the “intent” of the organizing efforts of the USSF and what it means to move forward in US social activism.

Without a doubt, those who attended were mobilized, which demonstrates how the forums are processes more than events. Months and years before the five-day event that took place in early summer Atlanta, groups and organizations around the US were learning about this new planetary space of social justice, the forums that were occurring around the world, deciding whether it was fruitful to participate, and how it may or may not connect to their struggles on the ground. For many organizations that work for liberation and justice, most with a shoestring budget in their small corner of the US, participating in the USSF was a decision of committing limited time and resources.

That 1000 organizations did register and more than 15,000 persons participated tells us not only that the mobilizing efforts of the NPC were successful and savvy but that a collective meeting of US groups in struggle against the severity of the current capitalist moment was in demand. The WSF was birthed in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil with hundreds, maybe thousands, of regional, national, and local social forum spinoffs since then. It reached the US as a concrete national project in about 2004 and materialized in 2007 after several regional and city level forums.

Unfortunately, that we are at a historical conjecture or in the “middle of a whirlwind” is becoming evident to many Americans not because of the widening of the social forum process or the rise of an alter-globalization movement, or the increased politicization at the grassroots, but because of the Democratic presidential nomination race between a black man and a white woman and the possibility of new race or gender in the White House. For many Americans too, the financial hit they have been taking in their wages, loss of employment, and increased cost of living feels like a bad storm they are hoping to get through. The open space that the social forum process is premised upon is itself a teaching tool for building a broader understanding of current conditions and identifying the locus of change in the grassroots and not in electoral politics.

The Debate

The WSF has been under study and in debate by a growing cadre of scholars and activists who tend to participate in the forum, attending and organizing events that debate the future of the forum. There are several centers around the world (CACIM in India and the Center for Civil Society in South Africa) that have built been up around studying and participating in the social forums and building with local mass movements. Many of the current theoreticians who examine the WSF take up some very important questions in locating (or dislocating) the WSF in the history of the left (De Sousa Santos) and in debating the forum’s current crossroads push for more or less political unity and declarations (Whitaker, Bello). With concerns being raised as to the utility of the forums, the USSF was a major boost to forum promoters, confirming its necessity as an organizing vehicle and place for political exchange.

Chico Whitaker, one of the early founders of the WSF, supports the social forum as a space for activist exchanges of ideas, strategies, and deepening movements understanding the neo-liberal context. Articulacion Feminista Marcusor, a Latin American feminist network with early involvement in the WSF also emphasizes the forums as a location for dialogue over definitions of democracy and over the political meaning of the forum and methods by which to successful challenge and alter globalization. These sorts of discussions were evident throughout the USSF– in the coffeehouses, around and in the Atlanta Civic Center, in programmed sessions, informally in the streets, in open rooms provided for impromptu or follow up meetings, and even in the corporate hotels.

Disparate participants and organizations, that are locally engaged to fight capital’s decrepitude in their cities and towns, more intensely appreciated that their ongoing grassroots struggles were similar and were met with similar disinterest by governments and corporations. The recognition of the systematic inequality perpetrated across the nation could have caused groups to flounder at the size of the neo-liberal project and depth of racism and gender abuse and weakness of labor rights, environmental injustices and disingenuous government policies. But that’s not what happened—despite years of sectarianism, the sense from the NPC, participants, and writers in the WSF, is that social movements came away more united and with a greater consciousness of the interrelationship of their struggles.

Yet the USSF was also a highly charged program of action. In the larger debates of the forum process—the Whitaker position that calls for maintaining the social forum process as an open space of collective exchange is contrasted to Walden Bello’s position that calls for a more concentrated action or voice from the WSF. The USSF has been described as “ a movement” rather than “a space” and guided by an intent to move the US forum process towards concrete steps for political action. There certainly was all kinds of movement happening at the USSF, a national alliance of domestic workers formed, indigenous tribes from various regions met and joined together, urban organizing groups moved forward as the Right to the City alliance, and the Women’s Caucus continues as node for US women’s groups to share and promote actions.

A Global Day of Action

The press for action in and around the WSF was reflected in the internationally coordinated Global Day of Action (GDA). Coming on the heels of the USSF, rather than a single World Social Forum (WSF), the International Committee of the WSF decided that coordinated events, throughout the world, at the end of January 2008, would help ground the global organizing of the social forum process in local context. The website includes an interactive map of all the GDA events that occurred throughout the world.

The national GDA events demonstrate even further that the US grassroots and their communities have taken the WSF process to heart. Although the limits of the GDA, as Cindy Wiesner of GGJ, reflects, was “that there has not been a centralized demand,” so that the connection among events was not necessarily clear, numerous events grounded in community issues took place in the US during the week of the GDA. The actions were as wide and diverse as the US itself. Some of the issues covered and demands made by US organizers include: Boston Jobs with Justice’s teach-in on the Colombia free trade agreement and then a funeral procession to the Colombian Consulate; the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights held a press conference at their national conference in Houston, Texas supporting the SEIU janitors’ struggle; Southwest Workers Union organized a march to the Alamo calling for Human Rights for All, highlighting the campaign against the Wall of Death being built on the US-Mexican border in San Antonio, Texas; Portland, Oregon Jobs with Justice presented a street theater in the mall on the Colombia free trade agreement; Vermont Workers Center organized a week of actions demanding “End the War and Bring the Troops Home Now! Healthcare is a Right! Climate Justice!”; Indigenous Environmental Network affiliates organized a number of actions for climate justice; Jobs with Justice coalitions organized actions for workers’ right to organize and against the vicious atrocities experienced by workers at Smithfields’ hog processing plant in North Carolina, and in the city of the first USSF, the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger and Project South organized a poor people’s caravan through historic sites in Atlanta that ended with a Poor People’s Assembly.

Three events in New York City include Domestic Workers United which launched a state legislative campaign for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights with a press conference and a convening of domestic workers, and two around the issues of land and housing—Community Voices Heard organized an action for housing rights and solidarity with people of the Gulf Coast and Make the Road NY held a powerful action to force city officials to reform regulations regarding tenant protection from asthma triggers.

A national self-recognition of the grassroots and its place in world activism emerged from the forum in Atlanta. And the actions on January 26th proved that US social movements are able to coordinate nationally and in concert with a global struggle. Tom Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network and member of GGJ explained:

As the base-building groups in the belly of the beast, we are the local voice and struggle against globalization and by taking action on January 26, we are raising the consciousness in our communities to help them understand how to link our struggles with our brothers and sisters in the Global South.

This was the first the GDA held by the WSF, and how to make this international coordination of events more publicly visible is certainly another one of its challenges. What is very weighty, and deserves more thorough thought and reverence is the unification in the cries for justice in barrios and maquilas, in the North and the South, in little mountain villages, small islands, and desert plains. This collective shout against the system, corporate injustice, hegemony, ideological and otherwise, will not be shut up and so the future portends to be very exciting indeed.

Housing

The right to safe housing and land figured centrally to several GDA events in the US and many of them focused on the crises in New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast. As the marginalized and poor experience neo-liberal rounds of enclosures throughout the world, urban dwellers in the US are fighting for their basic right to housing. The struggle for ownership and control of land is certainly the struggle of late capitalism as argued decades ago by French social theorists Henri Lefebvre.

At their GDA event Direct Action for Rights and Equality presented performance art at a flea market in Providence, RI to protest gentrification and express solidarity to stop the demolition of public housing in New Orleans. In San Francisco several groups convened including POWER, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, and Just Cause to hold a vigil at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s home in solidarity with the people of the New Orleans on housing issues. And in the city of New Orleans, the New Orleans Folks and Black Workers for Justice targeted Louisiana Senator David Vitter, the Senate Banking Committee to stop the destruction of public housing and demand passage of the Gulf Coast Recovery Act.

The Global Meaning of Resistance in Miami

In the so called land of rich and plenty, housing in terms of affordable and safe homes but also in terms of community and neighborhood control over development is at an unprecedented low. One place that captures the convergence of hotbed issues in the US including migration, housing, and land rights is Miami, Florida. In fact, anyone interested in grassroots organizing, global politics, and the social forum process should be watching Miami.

In the last decade several grassroots groups including Take Back the Land, the Miami Workers Center, and Power U Center for Social Change sprouted and have been responding to the gentrification of neighborhoods and the removal of families and communities, primarily African American and Latino, from their homes to make way for large corporate development. Organized by Power U, the GDA in Miami, attended by these organizations as well as South Florida’s Jobs With Justice, was a celebratory event. After three years in struggle, Power U, won its battle against city commissioners and Crosswinds, a development group, that had planned to build up-scale condominiums on a large sector of land in Overtown, a historic African American community in Miami. The plot of land was renamed Sankofa, an African term meaning “reclaim our past so we can move forward,” that captures the very special history of Miami’s rich neighborhood of Overtown.

Overtown, like many lively and historic black communities in the US, such as the Treme in New Orleans and Westside in Chattanooga, had suffered greatly with the large interstate highways that “incidentally” divided thriving black neighborhoods. A black neighborhood formed during the era of segregation during which African Americans were pulled and pushed to Miami to work on the construction of the railroad, Overtown is well known for hosting the African American entertainers that would play in the elite hotels of Miami Beach.

The global connectedness of Miami is hard to miss—a majority migrant population, the nexus for financial transactions between North and South America, and inescapable effects of Cuban politics on the city’s culture. As Denise Perry, Power U’s co-founder and director states, “Miami is a unique place politically around race, class, and global perspectives.” The city government’s current eagerness to expand Miami’s global reach and define it as “world class global city” or a center of neo-liberalism is destroying the lives and homes of low-income people and workers and neighborhoods like Overtown. City leaders embraced the worst architectural practices, constructing tall monotonous structures that give no consideration to street life, community facilities, and the cultural vitality of its neighborhoods. Housing prices are spiraling downwards across the US and faster in Florida than in any other state but with lost jobs and wages this will not solve Miami’s affordable housing crisis. According to a 2007 report by the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, in Miami housing prices grew twenty percent higher than wages between 2002 and 2006.

Miami’s officials’ greed for global centrality, provoked several occasions in which the global connection of Power U struggles to the rest of the world were made vivid. Towners, as members of Overtown refer to themselves, were immersed in global struggles when the Ministerial meetings of the Free Trade Association of the Americas (FTAA) came to town in November 2003. Working together with two other major grassroots organizations in the South Florida region, the Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW) and Miami Workers Center, they came together as RootCause to lead the FTAA fight in Miami. Perry sees this event as “a critical moment and opportunity” for poor and low income African Americans that built the organizations connections to a global justice movement. Not only did it reorient how they understood the struggles they face in Miami but organizing for and participating in the FTAA protests helped them to appreciate themselves as a movement among movements as they hosted the national and international groups and organizations that arrived to Miami to join in the protests. The People’s Tribunal, which put the FTAA to trial with numerous international guests attesting to the intensification of poverty and injustices it would render in each of their nations and communities, was a particularly internationalizing experience for Power U. In addition, both the 34 mile march completed by RootCause to represent the 34 countries that would have been subject to trade agreements, and the community impact report collectively produced by groups, effectively supported a global political education of and for the community.

A second turning point for Power U and the grassroots organizations of Miami was the United States Social Forum, Perry explains,

The USSF was the first time we participated in the social forum, it was a huge eye opening for our staff, humbling and inspiring, and caused us to reflect on how we can be more apart of making another world possible. Meeting other organizations and looking at our work, how do we move into the space of being more deliberate around our youth organizing and member political education?

Power U’s experience shows how participation in the USSF supports grassroots organizations even though it meant a huge expenditure of time and resources. It also suggests that listening to other organizations concerns and struggles and dialogue and exchange with them are considered beneficial for future movement building. The organization’s location in Miami and a site of the FTAA struggles accents an appreciation of the global context for Power U, but one of the key themes in Perry’s discussion is the recognition that their efforts in long neglected Overtown, Miami is part of a global struggle against neo-liberalism.

The GDA celebration of Power U’s victory was a multi-media, poetic, and spiritual affair and resulted from the organization’s participation in the USSF. For Power U, it represents a third node in the organizations local global nexus. At the Sankofa ceremony, I overheard talk on the street of a Miami Social Forum—maybe a fourth step for Power U’s local-global linkages.

Power U’s experience at the USSF and its GDA captures what groups like it are beginning to create in the US. While many reviews of US activism saw it splintering into identity based politics and formations through the eighties, another aspect to consider is how engaged activists had to be locally to weather the waves of neo-liberalism. The USSF has helped these organizations lift their ear from the ground so to speak, and hear the connections that exist between their struggles.

Power U’s lessons from the USSF certainly suggest the benefit of dialogue and the value of sharing thoughts in an open space not dictated by a particular political mission other than having the US grassroots meet collectively by their own programming. But underlying the USSF was a need to proceed—while there was no particular direction—socialist, anarchist, or even anti-capitalist dictated, movement forward was what many groups came seeking.

Situated Knowledge and Collective Memory

For some, like Whitaker, the USSF compromised the tenant of open space. Several have argued that the emphasis given to the leadership of base building organizations or working class people of color shadowed the organizing process of the USSF from groups that otherwise would have joined. As many writers on the WSF and on horizontal politics generally point out: the open space promise of the WSF to ensure inclusiveness often leads to more participation by the privileged as long term and institutionalized social inequalities continue to replicate themselves so that many forums, particularly in the US, have been white and middle class. Yet as Thomas Ponniah expresses, the USSF was one of the most racially and ethnically diverse forums, comparable only to the Mumbai WSF in 2004 that was recognized for ethnic and class inclusiveness.

So what happened in the organizing process of the USSF that resulted in this highly diverse but grassroots dominated social forum– that a process that was exclusionary overall was inclusive of many who are typically excluded? Was it so much a deliberate outreach strategy on the part of USSF organizers?

I turn to the NPC’s collective timeline that was constructed in the first face-to-face NPC meeting after the USSF. I use the collective timeline to consider the process of planning the USSF from the perspectives of the organizers, rather than attempting to make truth claims on what happened when.

It was somewhere between October 2006 and January 2007 that the committee that organized the USSF congealed, of the organizations listed as members of the NPC it was approximately only 15 organizations that really put in the time, resources, and commitment to make the USSF happen at all. The process behind the scenes seems to demonstrate that there was a lot less intentionality in organizing the forum and more of a will and practice towards getting tasks accomplished that brought groups in rather than push them out.

While the USSF organizers may have strategized to gain grassroots involvement, the process to get engaged “was a work under construction.” Rather than intentional it was elusive, and elusive to all. Many grassroots organizations that were part of the active 15 had initial difficulty in getting engaged. In pasting together this process through the collective memory, it was understood that:

The process was not haphazard but it was pieced together step by step, with repeated meetings on structure.

While organizations signed on to the USSF, it was a different job to have members act.
As an NPC member states:

How do we get folks to have more ownership? We went through that special period, we were trying to figure structure. We don’t know how to tell groups how to get on board. A lot of it was us holding things down how people became chairs. It was not political.

While many of these organizations were base building they came from various regions, worked in different sectors, and had scarcely organized collaboratively. The formation of the NPC as a decision making body that was also responsibly for carrying out tasks, came after months of debate. Rather than organizing a forum, the early organizers of the USSF spent extensive time debating structure. In fact one of the NPC reps explained that her organization implored her not to dare come back from another NPC and tell us that all you talked about was structure.

Interestingly, the extensive time taken to engage in political dialogue regarding hierarchy and organizational structure shows grounding the USSF was a space for vetting political positions. Those long discussions over structure speaks volume on the importance of space for discussions on political meanings and clearly had their worth in creating a backbone from which to move forward. As an NPC member reflected:

It became an issue of communications, and gatekeeping. We did not have personal and political trust and this is an outcome of what the discussion over structure was to me. There was a volunteeristic will for things to happen, to work, and it was out of the sheer—we had to get it done. The stakes and exhaustion were high. And we did not treat each other in camaraderie. We were trying to figure it out. It was a huge learning curve. We were asked to work with each other and feel ourselves in the process.

It is significant that although the process of garnering strength for a USSF social forum started almost four years ago, it was not until March 2007, 3 months prior to the event, that:

The spirit in the room, in March, is when people left with a greater belief that the forum might happen.

The above is just a sketch for thinking about what it meant to organize the USSF. The struggle over structure had to do with finding a way to meet the criteria set out by the WSF as an egalitarian and open space and also creating a situation to provoke collective action. It also had a lot to do with which groups were putting in the work and staying on top of the communication. Finally, the local organizing committee in Atlanta and the NPC also had its share of tension that from Atlanta’s perspective was connected to the negative stereotypes of the South that brought doubt on the local infrastructure. Yet all social movements in the US that have fomented change nationally started in the South.

African Cities and the USSF

Working across sectors to secure an event that had no precedent in the US but required significant resources and time makes the success of the USSF particularly curious. How does trust get built, when there are no formal structures or past practices to assure it?

AbdoulMalik’s Simone’s (2004) study of life and survival in African cities is usefully applied to understanding the success of the USSF. Granted, comparing social-economic relations in urban Africa to relationships among organizers and activist sectors in the US is a bit of a stretch. Yet, both sets of relations are shaped outside the traditional structures of government and capital and may be the basis of future forms of associations “for the city yet to come,” and for a US yet to come.

In most African nations where there is a limited state, or a state stripped by neo-liberalism and IMF structural adjusment policies and so having limited resources, African urban residents create spaces for livelihoods outside the government and the limitation of capitalist production. First, as Simone points out, the Africanization of the urban is reflected in the imagination of the population to develop informal forms of housing, services, and education that sustain urban Africans economically as well as provide political form. Second, their independent economic forms are also based on their networks of informal exchange. In other words if urban residents engaged only with others in their quarter of the city, they could not sustain livelihoods as resources might wane there. Instead they gain by moving throughout the city and region and expanding their associations. With no formal system to safeguard economic exchange, the networks of connection are based on extended family systems or invented as such based on history and memory. Mostly, the networks and associations formed and continually forming rely on repeated successful transactions that eventually confirm trust and permit growth.

The establishment of the USSF process similarly relied on repeated transaction or tasks accomplished by various members of the NPC that started the process of establishing trust. And this trust developed beyond traditional activist sectors, extending networks outside of their “quarters” or issues. The future of building a program of collaborative social justice in the US will rely on groups and organizations extending beyond their usual body politics and into building alliances with other sectors and political leanings. Yet in the case of African cities, Simone argues that urban residents could draw from long held practices of associations and independent networking and their collective resistance to colonization. On what could the organizers of the USSF build?

Here I draw on black feminist thought and its articulation of situated knowledge as discussed by Patricia Hill-Collins (1990). The NPC of the USSF were almost all people of color, or more correctly with the exception of a few white women and a white man in all the meetings I attended or joined in conference calls those present and doing the work were Indigenous, African American, Latinas/Latinos, Asian and South Asian American, Chicana/Chicano, and Pacific Islander. In addition a good percentage, at least 6 percent, were queer, gay, or lesbian. The majority were women and therefore situated at the margins of US society in terms of race, gender, and, for many, class.

Many heralding the success of the USSF or criticizing it for too much intentionality pointed to the domination of base-building organizations or working class people of color. The people active in organizing the USSF and the power behind it are women of color—an analysis absent in both criticisms and applause for the USSF. Feminists active in the forum have brought much attention to the gender bias and the neglect of feminist perspectives in the social forums. The USSF is unique among the world’s forums not only because of the high level of diversity that has garnered much attention but also because it is probably the only forum where women of color have been primary organizers. Analyses of the European Social Forum suggest that even when women of color were present, their voices were not heard nor were their concerns visible in the programming. This does not discount or underestimate the enormous efforts of the men involved in the USSF or nose-dive into politics of identity but as one of the central men organizers states:

It was the leadership of the young women, it has been a long time coming. It exceeded expectation.

I suggest that the situated knowledge of these women who deeply understand intersectionality, “the connections between various types of oppression” provided the foundation to build networks of trust and organize across sectors and regions. Although these women’s experiences and thoughts are not monolithic and vary based on class, ethnicity, education, demographic area, sexual orientation, age, etc., what they do have in common is being situated within oppressive locations that generate common experiences.

Hill Collins (2000) explains that while black women live and work inside the mainstream system, they are not fully accepted in that system and this gives them an outsider-within perspective on oppression–a space where resistance and agency is enacted. In other words, their location in a society that is organized by racism, gender discrimination, class inequality situates them in social and economic locations where new knowledges can be produced.

The US Yet to Come

By now the marginalization of women in larger left struggles should be hackneyed information, but in case not, here is a broad stroke to remind you that their experiences as significant actors and leaders in a host of social justice movements have been unappreciated, underappreciated, or invisible to many of the men who dominated movements and those who write about them. Just as the efforts and experience of women of color often have been missed by the feminist movements in this country.

That is why the large presence of African, Latina, Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander women mattered in the USSF organizing process. The USSF organizing process was driven by situated knowledge. While there may have been a tendency to privilege attendance by base building organizations such as Power U in the USSF outreach strategy, this was clearly due to many of the organizers’s situated knowledge. Living at the margins of privilege, they recognized that white middle class organizations would dominate the process had the grassroots not made efforts to maintain some control. In one NPC preparatory meeting we sketched out the worst-case scenarios that the USSF could be. A theme that appeared in most of the humorous small group sketches was a concern that an organized forum with sufficient infrastructure could not be created to the chagrin of the grassroots USSF and the pompousness of well-funded US organizations.

More than intentionality, the organizing process of the USSF was a pieced together process built on a common location and practice of trust in the marginal that permits for particular insights into hierarchical power and how to beat that system. While the space for dialogue and the discursive meaning of such concepts of global democracy were less visible than at that the global level, the USSF did open space for discussion between activist sectors and across US regions that did not exist prior. With a foundation of grassroots established, future US social forums, the next one scheduled for 2010, location to be announced, may have an even broader representation of the US society including the white working class and poor, rural folks and agricultural sectors, traditional academics and scholars, and larger social justice organizations.

Can the situated knowledge of the Democratic Party presidential candidate, with experience in one of the axes of oppression, change the politics of the US? With that much economic privilege it is hard to see how either would come to appreciate the daily lives of most of us. Also, the political maneuvering that candidates undertake makes deep social change from their position next to impossible. What the experience of marginalization of the Democratic candidate may provide is an ear to the grassroots and an opportunity for us to mandate progressive programs. Alice Lovelace, lead organizer of the USSF, remarked that a wave change and activity proceeds after a nation or region holds a social forum. There is no doubt that the US is experiencing this wave and that this change can drive the new political movements that we will be witnessing in this nation.


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