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GRIID Class on US Social Movements – Part V: How Social Movements get coopted and other impediments to collective liberation

February 24, 2021

(Over the next 8 weeks, we will be posting a summary of the class we are facilitating on US Social Movements. These posts will include a summary of the discussion, the questions we presented to frame each social movement that is discussed, a timeline and additional books that are relevant to each movement.)

In week 5 of the US Social Movements class discussion, we took a break from looking at historical examples of social movements. 

Instead, we read two chapters from two separate books that both look at some of the major obstacles to social movements. The first piece we read was from the book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, specifically the chapter from Paul Kivel entitled, Social Service or Social Change?

Kivel writes about the fundamental difference between confronting and dismantling systems of oppression, and what social service agencies and non-profits do, which is to provide individual relief to social problems or to offer mild reformist solutions to structural injustices. 

In addition, Kivel provides important analysis around what he refers to as how social service agencies and non-profits acts as a buffer for systems of power and oppression. If just enough relief can be offered to individuals, then that can often have the affect of pacifying oppressed populations, thus preventing them from engaging in organized resistance or rebellion against White Supremacy, poverty, environmental racism, etc. Several participants noted how well thought out Kivel’s analysis was and that they appreciated the questions included in his chapter, which offer people an opportunity to further reflect on the themes being discussed. 

The second reading used for week 5’s discussion, was a chapter from Lance Selfa’s book, The Democrats: A Critical History. The chapter we used from Selfa’s book is entitled, Social Movements and “The Party of the People.” 

The chapter from Selfa’s book makes the argument that the Democratic Party has a history of co-opting social movements, by getting them to compromise on major social issues or to spend their time and energy getting Democratic candidates elected, only to later be betrayed or disappointed by those who were elected. 

Selfa makes his argument by providing several historical examples from the US Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Selfa also talks about the women’s movement, the anti-Iraq war movement and the LGBTQ movement as well. 

During the discussion there were several issues raised. One issue was how too often social movements don’t demand enough from partisan politics and too often they eventually endorse Democratic candidates on the premise that, “at least they aren’t as bad as Republicans.” Another issue that came up was the fact that whatever gains that have been made in the US, were won through social movements, not as a gift from those in power. If the US political establishment has ever passed legislation that is beneficial to the general population or to affected communities, it is precisely because social movements have forced policymakers to meet those demands. This was even the case with FDR, who was so afraid of the power of the US Labor Movement that in the end, whatever social policies were adopted, were motivated by wanting prevent the US from a massive worker uprising. 

With both of the readings, participants felt challenged by the analysis presented, but several people also voiced the importance of the arguments presented and how it relates to the history of social movements.

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