5 Tons of Flax

What the deuce!

The “street” in “movements”

Posted by Jon on 13 November, 2007

I happened across a TPM post-and-discussion about a book called The Bulldozer and the Big Tent. Just a run of the mill “democrats need to have clearer principles” blog discussion. One comment (towards the end of the thread) particularly caught my attention though:

You might want to revisit your American history lessons artappraiser, because every major political evolution in America’s turbulent and violent history, from the borning of this nation, to the civil war, to the labor rights and union struggles, to the womans rights movements, to the civil rights movements, to the ending of the Viet Nam war were struggles fought and won by large street movements. The delays are always the result of political or legal processes. With regard to Iraq, and the Bush governments insidious and ruthless nazification of America, – there will be no change in any of these policies through the political or legal systems. The Bush government and the republican reich have total control of both systems, and will not relinquish that control peacefully.

Calling the major movements of the past “street movements” isn’t the way they are typically discussed. “Movements,” yes – but the emphasis on the “street” is usually missing.

I find this interesting particularly because of my love of Jane Jacobs and the resulting fact that I see our built environment as shaping our economic and social interactions. To be more clear: recognizing the “street” nature of historical American movements (and both historical and contemporary movements in foreign nations) brings to light how important are the social connections formed by people in cities and towns which provide the basis for movements to occur. Within car-based culture, lives are atomistic and non-hierarchical, emergent social movements are less likely. In a world where what Jacobs considers “general-purpose public spaces” are designated solely/primarily for automobile use, and in which there is little to no casual public mingling, how do mass movements develop? Moreover, how do they express their power, particularly if they are antagonistic to established powers.

It seems that, in general, they don’t. Actually, we can see movements with real political power today. Considering the Christian Right, for example, it’s obvious that they are based on a social connections formed in public mingling which lend themselves to political mobilization. However, their social web is centered on the church building (parts of the civil rights movement were also church-centered, of course).

With everyone spread out and atomistic, “movements” become diffused and watered down.


One Response to “The “street” in “movements””

  1. Of course, that raises the interesting question of using 21st century networking methods. I’m sure you’ve noticed the buzz around politicians on Facebook and Myspace, for example. Personally, I don’t think it can quite replace the street movement feeling, in terms of creating that sense of group identity which makes such movements so powerful, but I may be wrong. After all, Ron Paul seems to have a very savvy web-media strategy in place, which is allowing him to punch well above his weight in the Republican party.

    But I do agree generally with your point, about diffusion. There has to be some level of local interaction, regardless of what you set out to achieve.

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