As we sit here in Barcelona, a historic center of anarchism and left resistance, the questions debated in the most recent Focaal special section “Exploring the urban commons” confront us. As demonstrators take to the streets following the unauthorized referendum for Catalonian independence, many of the people involved are fighting for a new independent state, others are demanding a people’s right to choose, and still others are protesting police brutality and the legacy of Franco represented by the current ruling party. Is this an instance of commoning, or is it an instance of nationalist exclusivity? The dilemma of the relation of nationalism to progressive liberation is an old one, but always historically contingent, and appearing in a new form in this exploration of the commons.
Brazil is at a critical juncture. Improvements in social welfare that have been achieved over the past two decades threaten to recede as the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) is removed from power. Yet the goods that have been objects of Brazil’s various social programs recede and persist in different ways. Once given, some things are harder to take away.
This post is the introduction to a series on the Latin American pink tide, moderated and edited by Massimiliano Mollona (Goldsmiths, University of London).
The twenty-first century opened with a wave of radical political mobilizations sweeping through Latin America and brought left-wing parties in power in Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia (2006), Chile (2006), Ecuador (2006), Paraguay (2008), and Peru (2011). The so-called “pink tide” was the result of the massive societal mobilization against the dislocation brought by dictatorships in the 1980s and the radical privatizations and austerity measures pushed through by neoliberal social democracies in the 1990s. The core impulse of this new political phenomenon were the cross-sectional and horizontal alliances between anti-imperialist, white middle classes; the traditional labor movement; and indigenous, women, and urban organizations. The antiglobalization movement that emerged from the World Social Forum (WSF) was another central engine of the pink tide, in creating a liaison between parties and social movements, and renewing the labor movement by bringing together the traditional industrial trade unions and diverse sections of civil society. In power, left-wing governments across Latin America renationalized companies, set in motion massive programs of poverty reduction and urban participation, which empowered women, indigenous, and black minorities.
“Do we have the same level of outrage when a young black person gets killed as we do when a window gets broken? And if not, then why is that?”
—Alicia Garza, co-founder of #blacklivesmatter
In Berkeley, California, on a warm night in mid-December 2014, I stood in stalled traffic and watched as protestors smashed the windows of the Trader Joe’s grocery store on University Avenue—part of the ongoing protests in the aftermath of the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Since the summer of 2014, there have been sustained protests across the United States surrounding issues of police violence, systematic racism, and the devaluation of Black life. What started as protests over the non-indictment of the white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, respectively, quickly grew into a nationwide uprising that employed highly disruptive direct action tactics. These protests are expressions of collective outrage, anger, and grief that have forced a much needed, nationwide conversation about race, racism, and the value of Black life in America. They have also become important sites of political education and experimentation as people joined together, night after night, in demonstrations of collective power and rage to “shut shit down.”
This text stems from a historical study. The research focused on the cultures and practices of leadership and authority between 1890 and 1940 in France, Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union (Cohen 2013). Fieldwork, mostly in Brazil but also in Russia and France, must be added to the latter study.1 This historical study can be connected to present-day movements because the question of authority and leadership seemed central in a lot of them since the 2000s (antiglobalization) and mostly since 2010 all over the world. This reflection is shared here, trying to draw some cross-movement ideas in order to think about the contemporary.
The study of urban activist practices has recently gained currency within anthropology (see Graeber 2013; Harvey 2012; Karakatzanis 2013; Lazar 2008; Nash 2004; Smith 1999). In line with this trend, the anthropological interest in urban activism has increased also in South Asia (Aiyer 2007; Baviskar 1998; Dorron 2008; Subramaniam 2009). However, much of this new scholarship remains trapped in a “methodological nationalism” that focuses explicitly on India. Gellner’s (2010) volume on the varieties of activist experiences—which covers areas other than India, including Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—remains a notable exception. Yet, for urban small towns in Nepal, there remains a relative public dearth of published scholarship despite an existing urban activist scene.1
The ontological question of social movements—what are social movements?—is particularly important given that one of the fundamental aspects of the scientific approach consists in defining its object of study, elucidating its nature, finding its essential properties in order to better understand it.