Protest, Movement Networks and Everyday Life: The back-story of political action

Protest, Movement Networks and Everyday Life: The back-story of political action

Luke Yates (University of Manchester)

In popular commentary, protests appear unexpected and social movements unpredictable. They are ‘triggered’ by events, ‘explode’ on the streets and ‘escalate’ irrepressibly before slipping, just as quickly, back into seeming irrelevance. Part of this story is about media reporting: with mass mobilisations only making the news for as long as they keep visibly intensifying. Yet the roots of it, arguably, are analytical, revolving around the question of what the proper scientific objects are in understanding non-institutional political action.

Politics has long been associated with visible, public, expressive and communicative action, normally revolving around the relation of the state to its citizenry. Similarly, protest itself is the main focus of social movements studies, operating at once as that which must be explained, (how do collective contentious actors form and persist), that which must be described (what is protest or political action like) and that which explains other phenomena (how does protest change things; what outcomes and consequences can be attributed to it). These are the core questions of movements studies, yet social scientific work shows how power and resistance operate beyond the interactions among states, citizens and movements, suggesting that much political activity and change happens either out of sight or in such plain view that it’s ignored.

Approaches to these core questions are broadening. The success of social movements was historically measured by the extent to which movements were acknowledged by opponents and their demands met by legislation. New work tends to address a further set of consequences, such as cultural change and innovation, the creation of new actors and ‘fields’ of activity, and how institutional environments are created or changed. The question of how movements emerge now relies less on explanations about structural strains or the ‘rational’ pursuit of goals, to acknowledge how existing networks – people sharing cultural affinity, aims and practices – overlap and are mobilised. Thirdly, descriptions and analysis of political action show what participants in social movements do in the name of – and beyond – protest. This identifies politically relevant activity beyond the standard survey battery of street demonstrations, occupations, strikes and boycotts, and contextualises political action in the rhythms of daily life.

My recent research on social movement spaces and their milieux in Barcelona feeds into these debates. It examines how such networks organise everyday matters such as food provisioning and the sharing of space and living arrangements alongside campaigning, and explores the variety of different and differently politicised groups involved. Looking at what social movement participants do beyond a narrow definition of protest, and the relations within and between different collective identities, helps characterise how protest and political action relates to daily experience, and the composition and social structures of collective actors.

Empirically, this research was based on ethnographic field research, interviews and document analysis around ‘autonomous social centres’, squatted or rented spaces for used left-wing political organising, alternative cultural production, and communal living in the city of Barcelona, Spain (see Yates 2015). I focused on three illustrative case studies of the practices undertaken in different kinds of spaces and their milieux between 2009 and 2010.

Provisioning food and sharing space: negotiating politics and practicality
Social centre participants contested consumption norms in the way that they provisioned food. ‘Skipping’ waste food from the bins around supermarkets and bakeries was a common practice, and one case study cultivated the majority of fresh fruit and vegetables consumed by the twenty-four residents of the centre. The provisioning of food was both a practical matter of feeding residents and visitors (most centres offer cheap meals at least once a week, usually based on ‘skipped’ goods), and was also politically expressive and experimental. Using discourses similar to those used to explain and justify squatting, the availability of wasted yet edible food in skipping was argued to indict capitalism as inherently inefficient, so utilising it in public meal events provided an opportunity for ‘doing’ and thinking about politics in the context of daily life. Participants also saw skipping and growing their own food as publicly expressing and embodying their resistance to industrialised food production and consumer culture (through sidelining norms of monetary exchange and waste) in feeding social centre residents and visitors. Skipping has become relatively common among alternative networks and youth cultures in the city, particularly around punk and hippie subcultures, which overlap substantially with activist networks and for many of the city’s poor, creating symbolic points of solidarity.

Another sphere of daily practice that was inflected with political ideas was around space and private property. Squatted social centres operated as communal residences and public political and cultural spaces. Arrangements varied across the centres visited, owing to different interpretations of how best to ‘do’ sharing or communality, and with whom. In living spaces, participants prepared communal meals, shared some common space, and normally shared tools, appliances and other equipment – making use of economies of scale among a larger group than would ordinarily use these objects and areas of a standard Western household. Particular times were also usually understood as being communal or social time. Some spaces were governed more pragmatically by members to avoid conflict arising from the challenges of sharing, while others viewed privacy itself as something of an ingrained cultural norm about individualism that needed to be challenged through yet more sharing, and individual force of will. Such discussions and negotiations are politically formative, establishing ways of living comfortably and well in communal, squatted buildings, while maintaining a culturally and politically alternative project. Not everybody living in social centres were self-declared activists, but were involved in squatting protests and campaigns, and involvement in squatting was part of many activists’ trajectories. In other words, although squatting is often seen as a tactic for urban struggles such as those around housing, it is also politically formative: it encourages politically critical, experimental yet realistic approaches to daily practices, the public sharing of space allows for connections to be formed among various consitutiencies, and the politics of squatting overlapped with and helped develop discourses around mutual aid, private property and community.

Visible and latent: layered political action
The de-monetisation of food provisioning and the communality explored through sharing space were just two types of daily practice in movement networks where participants collectively interrogated political ideas. Similar and congruent ideas were articulated in traditional public protest activities such as direct actions against state institutional and corporate targets, and street demonstrations with messages critical of economic orthodoxies. The politicised character of food provisioning and the sharing of space could be seen as occupying a space somewhere between identity politics and political economic critiques, and between public and ‘personal’ political action. The politics of ‘skipping’ food and other goods, for example, was explicitly advertised at public café events in centres, purveying critiques of capitalism alongside the extremely cheap and usually delicious meals available to punters. Similarly, the allocation of space to public activities and local non-politicised people was a self-conscious (and very publicly articulated) legitimation of the squatters’ appropriation of private space. Furthermore, different types of groups, audiences and users interacted in centres and the events hosted. Using the same space or being present at the same event allowed visitors and participants to form relationships. Networks of people particularly involved in protest were thus connected in several ways to networks based around neighbourhoods, cultural identities or practices, interests and tastes.

Multiple sites of political action and change
The repertoires of collective action, and the structures of collective actors are always changing, making much relevant political activity hard to identify. Practices in social centres – and many practices outside such social movement spaces – are sites of expression, experimentation, and demonstration of political ideas and frames that are relevant in contexts where protest is to be explained, described, or used to explain other phenomena. People learn political ideas and participate in politically-inflected ordinary practices such as those around food and the sharing of space or possessions. Practices and ideas are also shared by, and connect, different types of people and different kinds of networks. Spaces such as social centres, and events such as those organised within them are just some of the environments where politically significant interactions over shared practices and ideas take place, experimenting and demonstrating orientations and frames that are also evident in protest. A focus on the broader activities of people involved in political action shows a range of relevant activity for understanding movement networks, reveals processes important for their composition and reproduction outside of protest environments and helps show how heterodox ideas and practices are formed and diffused.

Yates, L. (2015a) ‘Everyday Politics, Social Practices and Movement Networks: Daily Life in Barcelona’s Social Centres’. British Journal of Sociology. 18th Jan 2015. [available here].


Luke Yates is Hallsworth Research Fellow in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests are in everyday practices, particularly eating patterns and living arrangements, and political protest and movements. He has recent articles in the British Journal of Sociology, Social Movements Studies and Appetite.

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