Thursday, August 18, 2016

Turning from political extremes to new forms of collective action

Senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University

While those from the political extremes seem to be excited and increasingly agitated about their participation in democracies across the globe, with the US and Australia being good recent examples, a larger majority of perhaps more moderate people appear to be disenchanted with the political options presented to them at the ballet box. What Bruno Latour noted some time ago in the 2005 book Making Things Public still holds true today:

Some conjunctions of planets are so ominous, astrologers used to say, that it seems safer to stay at home in bed and wait until Heaven sends a more auspicious message. It’s probably the same with political conjunctions. They are presently so hopeless that it seems prudent to say as far away as possible from anything political and to wait for the passing away of all the present leaders, terrorists, commentators and buffoons who strut about the public stage (page 14).

This point was made again, more recently and less provocatively, by Kay Anderson in her response to my new book Building Dignified Worlds:

In the contemporary world context of deepening disaffection with party politics, and intensifying polarities across many so-called advanced capitalist economies, one wonders whether we are witnessing a resurgence of the kind of broadly-based resistances to the business of politics and economics that Gerda aligns with traditionally left alliances and ‘strong theory’?

So what hope is there for politics? Are our options really so bleak? I do not think so, rather perhaps many of us are more interested in and turning toward new forms of collective action responding to everyday economic concerns, from ‘taking back factories’ as represented in the film The Take to farming initiatives that take the needs of the environment and other species into account in economic decision making.

Collectives centred on concern are remarkably different from the traditional left and social movements that are joined by a singular identity. In contrast, these collectives gather together and sometimes realign a diverse range of actors around contemporary matters. And they are less concerned with resistance than the creation of alternatives. While we may be increasingly familiar with this form of hybrid political action today, this has not always been the case. A lot of work has been undertaken within and outside the academy to make these collectives visible. Building Dignified Worlds documents and is part of this broader project.

Taken by the author in Porto Alegre, Brazil, during the 2005
World Social Forum, this photo of a screaming vampire of neoliberalism
was one of many graffiti images that oppose the neoliberal agenda.

I became interested in these new forms of collective action when I traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2005 to attend the World Social Forum. I had been researching neoliberalism and, becoming increasingly pessimistic about democratic politics and national economic management, was keen to see what alternatives there might be. The 2005 World Social Forum was teaming with alternative initiatives and experiments in living from around the globe. I was particularly struck by the story of the Coalition against Water Privatisation in South Africa, where the discussion of neoliberal governmentality was punctured by a discourse of the commons enacted through the initiatives “Operation Switch On/Light Up” and “Operation Open the Water.” I also attended the World Dignity Form held within the World Social Forum where the term dignity seemed to me to reflect a shift from a divisive politics centred on class opposition to a more general concern that economic life be evaluated in terms of dignity. I left the World Social Forum, as many researchers leave their ‘field sites,’ overwhelmed with the number of diverse initiatives around the globe, but with little idea about how to think about them outside of a politics of resistance.

Building Dignified Worlds is the result of my subsequent thinking about these collectives. Geography in particular has provided me with a lens to the diverse gathering and political realignments these initiatives are making happen. In my book I explore the performative and embodied geographies through which collective action takes place and the kinds of possibilities this action creates. My examination includes film, trash-picking collectives in Brazil and the Philippines, a session of the 2005 World Social Forum, farming initiatives in Australia, and more; an eclectic mix that enables me to discuss a wide range of geographical dimensions that create change.

Building Dignified Worlds uses the term dignity to describe the kind of human being that can be realised through the economic initiatives and ethical political economic actions discussed throughout the book. Dignity reflects both a mode of being human and the dignified world in which this is possible. The term dignity may grate with some readers, as Kay Anderson noted, dignified modes of being human could be taken as an ideal universal figure of the human, just as the colonial human figure was with all the damage that figure justified. Yet this is not my intention and is an area I am currently working on by exploring caring relationships across different species beings, including diverse modes of being human. By using the term dignified worlds, I hope the book helps to open up a space for further exploration of collective action that responds to the challenges of coexistence and interdependence.


Gerda Roelvink is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University. She is author of Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action and an editor of the collection Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies.

Praise for Building Dignified Worlds:

"Roelvink’s writing effortlessly carries the reader from beginning to end." —Environment & Planning D: Society and Space

"A fantastic contribution to contemporary post-structuralist geographic thought that elaborates new politics of social change."
—Marianna Pavlovskaya, Hunter College, SUNY


This blog post references:
-Latour, Bruno. 2005a. “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik: or How to Make Things Public.” In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Latour, B and Weibel, P., 14-41. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
-Lewis, Avi. and Klein, Naomi. 2004. The Take (film). Canada: National Film Board of Canada and Barma-Alper Productions Inc, Madman Cinema.
-Roelvink, Gerda. 2016. Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

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