Social Justice Movements as Border Thinking: An Anzaldúan Meditation

By Martinot, Steve | Human Architecture, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Social Justice Movements as Border Thinking: An Anzaldúan Meditation


Martinot, Steve, Human Architecture


Abstract: The theme of this article is the implicit and inherent sovereignty that existentially accrues to social justice movements. I argue that movements naturally point to where society or social institutions are undemocratic, and that the resistance to this fact by institutions, their exclusion of movements and the political demands made on them, produce an integrity in movements that they don't always recognize. As excluded yet interior to the functioning of institutions, and included in the social domain of institutions yet external to them, movements appear as border regions, or border thinking, with respect to social institutionality. Using a homological approach to the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, I investigate what this sovereignty that underlies the existence of movements entails, and signifies. Through that homology as a lens, I look at the various inherent dimensions of social justice movements, their ability to ground alternate political structures, their natural ability to produce pro-democratic operations, and their possibility of bringing together varying strategies that are often held to be incommensurable ideologically.

In their book on Poor People's Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward theorize a strategic difference in social justice movements that for them determines the successes and failures (never wholly separable) of such movements. 1 The dichotomy they develop is between organizing mass mobilizations and building permanent organizations. They look at the histories of civil rights, industrial unions, and the welfare rights movement of the mid-60s to 70s (in which they were personally involved), and they suggest that, in each case, the potential mass power of the movement was derailed or dissipated by focusing on organizational forms whose purpose was ironically to give that power permanence (PPM,307).

For instance, when the welfare rights movement won concessions from state and federal governments in terms of benefits for economically displaced persons and changes in how welfare was dispensed (which often involved the humiliation of the recipient), it was through mass mobilizations at the welfare centers (PPM,275ff). It was these mass mobilizations that produced a social recognition that recipients were real people living in real oppressive conditions, while providing them with avenues for social and political participation in their lives. When the movement leadership decided to consolidate this militancy in the form of political organizations that could influence political parties and negotiate from strength with legislators, its abandonment of mass mobilizations eroded the participation that was needed to provide cohesion and strength for just such organization. For Piven and Cloward, the difference in focus between mobilization and organization marked the axis along which a movement succeeded or failed (PPM,278).

This paradox, wherein a movement can put an end to itself by the very means with which it seeks to guarantee its survival, has been noticed by others. In his book, Doing Democracy, Bill Moyer attempts to give it a positive spin.2 He provides a map of movement stages by which activists and organizers can judge where they are in the movement- building process, so that set-backs and erosions can be seen as natural phases and transcended. For him, as for Piven and Cloward, a movement's purpose is to influence political structures, and win concessions from the institutions they confront. In Moyer's schema, movements begin outside institutions in order to eventually "use institutional channels to bring about change" (DD,112). Where he differs from Piven and Cloward is in focusing on the consciousness of activist organizers as central to building a movement, while the latter see social conditions as determining the involvement of poor or dispossessed people.3

For both, however, the movement is an instrumentality, something to be molded by activists or leaders for the purpose of correcting the abrogations of social institutions in the interests of the material needs of people. …

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Social Justice Movements as Border Thinking: An Anzaldúan Meditation
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