How do street actions strengthen social movements?

By John Drury.

There is evidence that recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw a mass mobilization of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis have served to embolden and strengthen these groups, who are now ‘bursting with confidence’. The Vice documentary, filmed among the groups as the events took place, showed how the aim of the mobilization was to build the movement psychologically:

‘that camaraderie is and trust is built on activism, and that is one of the tactics we’re adopting’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

The documentary also showed how the participants felt about and interpreted their mobilization. They took encouragement from the sheer fact of organizing together, being on the streets in such numbers, from imposing themselves on their opponents in this ‘liberal’ town, in expressing themselves:

‘This is the largest nationalist rally in over two decades in the United States. It’s been incredibly exciting… We’re going to keep having a good time and keep fighting.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

They were empowered to such a degree that they felt confident there were would be more such events in the near future and that these would escalate, both qualitatively and quantitatively:

‘I think it’s going to be difficult to top, but we’re up to the challenge… I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

Recent social psychology research can explain how this strengthening process operates in social movements, and can also predict when and how it spreads to individuals and groups not physically present on the mobilization but who feel the same way as the marchers. Most of this research so far has been carried out on campaign groups and issues very different in political content from the fascist-type mobilization in Charlottesville: student fees protesters, Occupy supporters, environmental activists, and so on. But in terms of process, there are key concepts and explanatory principles that can be carried across.

Salience and match of self-categorization are two key concepts here. Based on self-categorization theory, research shows that, in different contexts, we can define ourselves in terms of personal characteristics (our personal identity) but also in terms of shared category memberships (collective or social identity). If our social identity is salient, and if it corresponds to the identity of those involved in the mobilization, then intergroup emotions theory would suggest that we will get emotional (and other) benefits from the event in the same way as the participants themselves.

What are these emotional and other benefits of collective action? Work on appraisal in collective action suggests that, for those who identify with the group, the perception of our group taking action enhances our collective efficacy – our belief in our capacity to act. Seeing social support in our group taking action tells us that we will have social support for further action.

But what is the nature of this action? Does just any collective action have these empowering effects for participants and their supporters? Other research shows that it is specifically collective actions which enact identity which have this effect. We call these forms of action collective self-objectification. By turning the subjective (ideas) into something objective (hard reality), such action operates for participants as tangible evidence of their group’s enhanced agency relative to other groups, and hence is experienced as empowering.

This was clearly going on in Charlottesville, where what was previously limited to an online network now manifested itself physically. To ‘own’ the streets, to be able to shout anti-Semitic slogans, to intimidate the ‘liberals’ and ‘racial’ groups who wanted to remove the statue of General Lee – all these were ways of enacting identity and, as such, imposing a particular definition of the world on opponents. These activities therefore empowered participants, or, in more conventional psychological language, increased their collective efficacy.

From efficacy there may be just a short step to gaining legitimacy. In their BBC prison study, Reicher and Haslam showed that the prisoners turned to tyranny when it was seen to be able to operate when a more democratic system was not. Practical adequacy – the perceived ability of an organization to put its beliefs into practice – increases the extent to which it is seen as a legitimate political force by others. We have recently investigated this in the context of the student movement in Chile, where the main predictor of non-participants’ belief that the students’ protest action was legitimate was the perceived efficacy of the movement.

So what is the solution? The collective action literature points to the role of failure and success in increasing or reducing further mobilization. In psychological terms, success for a social movement is again action which realizes the identity – collective self-objectification – whereas failure is the enactment of the opponent’s identity and the negation of one’s own.

In our field-world and interviews and in our current experiments, we found that those actions that realized the participants’ shared identity were particularly rewarding and increased intentions to take part in further collective action, whereas those actions that ended in failure of collective self-objectification led to demoralization and reduced intentions to act. This was particularly the case for those with relatively little experience of protest. It would apply, for example, to the wider population of neophyte sympathisers that the fascist groups attempt to inspire through their shows of strength and identity enactment.

In history, the street violence of Kristallnacht sparked a further rise in anti-Semitic attacks and consolidated the rise of the Nazis in Germany; and events such as the 1936 battle of Cable Street, actions by the 43 group after the second world war, and the 1977 battle of Lewisham set fascism back as a movement. Put simply, controlling the streets builds the movement and getting them off the streets works in defeating that movement.

Of course non-violent tactics also work – my own PhD research examined how one predominantly non-violent direct action campaign had great success in making road-building seen as a political issue and in problematizing the then government’s road-building programme. But pure pacifism relies on a humanism which, if the opponents do not share – if the opponents regard us as less than human – will lead to our defeat not theirs.

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