Peoples' movements and protests




Actors, and types of actors





By Tord Björk and Jan Wiklund


Who are the traders in this new world? Is there a place for ordinary people? Is all power reserved for bureaucrats in Brussels and CEOs of transnational companies?
The question of who can act can be seen from several angles. The dominant view today puts the state at the centre and sees everyone else as subordinate, or at least defined by their relationship to the state. At the same time, it likes to see the market as the decisive place, where all real decisions are made by consumers and producers once the formal political system of state and "non-state organisations" has set the framework.

The main distinction is thus between the state and non-governmental organisations, a term translated from the English Non-Governmental Organisations or NGOs. At the national level, this concept has found its way into the UN system. NGOs are mentioned in the first UN Charter, and until around 1990 it covered all non-governmental organisations - trade unions, companies, scientific institutes, churches, charities, women's organisations, etc. Sometimes municipalities and, when the term was most popular, even the World Bank were included, since it is not formally subordinate to any state. Even organisations in which governments are involved together with non-profit organisations like to call themselves NGOs.

This state-centred approach has thus contributed to some confusion. The confusion has not ended, but at least a discussion has begun as the term NGO has spread.
Prior to the Rio conference, for example, several leading environmental organisations protested against being lumped together with companies; it was felt that environmental organisations often had more in common with governments than with industry. Today, companies are often excluded from the NGO concept and speak of "non-profit" NGOs, i.e. non-profit-making non-governmental organisations. Several popular movement organisations have tried to get the UN system to use a more positive term instead of all these "non", e.g. people's organisations or citizens' organisations. However, this has not yet been accepted.

Who is an actor?

Traditionally, the dominant Western view is that it is individuals who act, through written or unwritten contracts with each other. This seemingly individualistic philosophy then becomes the opposite in practice. The actors that are recognised are companies in the market and the state, both strong collective actors where individuals are subordinated to market laws or bureaucracies. The real actors in the world then become the representatives of these collective actors, directors, politicians and bureaucrats, while ordinary people have to be content with being spectators. In addition to state and corporate representatives, there is also a market for non-profit non-governmental organisations to which people can donate money to influence states and corporations.

This conventional view of world actors has faced opposition from two competing views.
One divides society into owners and direct producers. This approach dominated the labour movement that emerged in the 19th century and underpins the political party system in industrialised countries. It has also strongly influenced the national movements in the South that put the North in the role of owners while also emphasising the peasants as direct producers. According to this view, there are two groups or classes in society that are opposed to each other, while other groups or classes, such as independent small business owners or administrators, have some sort of a balancing role and can support either the owners or the direct producers. In this view, the state also becomes an expression of the balance of power between classes and is largely devoid of initiative.

The second approach emphasises gender. According to this, feminist, perspective, society is stuck in a male-dominated patriarchal system where women are oppressed. According to this approach, popular movements against oppression can also be characterised by patriarchal patterns of oppression.Popular movements, related organisations and individuals

The focus of this guide is the ability of people in communities to democratically build a society locally, nationally and globally. This means that it is not necessary to take a position entirely in favour of one view or another. Instead, we believe that a division into three groups is sufficient: popular movements acting through reciprocity, states acting through bureaucracies, and companies acting through markets. Intermediate forms and confusions abound, but for the sake of clarity we will leave them out for now.

It is popular movements that are the most ambiguous. The knowledge elite often have difficulty distinguishing the characteristics of popular movements and easily confuse all collective actors that cannot immediately be characterised as a state or a profit-making company. It is also popular movements - people coming together to defend something they consider inalienable - that have the most difficulty in being accepted as equal to other collective actors.

By placing reciprocity and democratic values at the centre of a classification of different organisations, it is possible to see a pattern in the diversity. According to the Swedish constitution, all power comes from the people. Many also believe that the people have the right to rebel at any time if power is abused. This can be done by hugging trees, hiding refugees or overturning the entire system as people did when they forced through universal suffrage through riots threatened by police machine guns. So we can provisionally let political or economic institutions and organisations run society, but we reserve the right to abolish or change them if necessary.
On the basis of the degree of reciprocity and democratic participation of the people in general - the laymen - we can make a distinction between popular organisations, voluntary organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Popular movement organisations

Popular movements are collectives of people who have come together to defend something they find invaluable, and who lack a voice in government and business to assert themselves. People's movements are almost always based on both formal and informal democratic cooperation, as the participants mainly have each other as resources. They also almost always strive for solidarity solutions, i.e. combining their own immediate goals with goals that benefit the many, as they need support to overcome resistance from established hierarchies.

Trade-offs between concentration on a clearly limited conflict issue and the broader solidarity are not easy. Most popular movements alternate between them. Trade unions emphasise the interests of their own members, or general welfare systems for all. Environmental movements try to influence environmental policy decisions or promote a lifestyle based on global solidarity.

Balancing between growing as an individual in a collective movement and going your own way is not easy either. For the majority of people who lack direct privileges, collective cooperation is often necessary, both to change their conditions and to maintain a democratic culture characterised by reciprocity, where they themselves are not degraded. Popular movements are one way of applying such collective cooperation at the political level, i.e. in conflicts.

There are problems with popular movements. One is that professionalisation is sometimes required to achieve the objectives for which the movement was formed, especially if these objectives are extensive. Professionals often have somewhat different goals than laymen - they must live, have a salary and stable working conditions. This gives rise to conflicts within the movement that are not always easy to resolve. Another problem is that a popular movement can be forced to bargain with other groups in order to become strong enough. And then, if they do not maintain their integrity, they can become the basis for others to exercise power and deceive themselves. Perhaps the most extreme case was the German peasant movement in the 1920s that became the basis for Nazism.

Voluntary organisations

The purpose of voluntary organisations is to help others. They can be very useful, especially in crisis situations. They function like popular movements in terms of those they help, and many popular movements also have the characteristics of voluntary organisations as helping others is often part of their activities.

But there is a notorious problem with NGOs - they build a relationship between donor and client where the client is powerless. The relationship is not reciprocal and can therefore even contribute to creating mutual hatred and contempt. This has led some to conclude that organisations exist primarily for the sake of the donors, to make them feel good and powerful.

The same conflict between the interests of lay people and employees as in popular movements is also present in voluntary organisations. But the conflict between givers and takers is probably more important.

The problem is not unsolvable. Some NGOs, such as Oxfam in the UK, have also engaged in political campaigns to combat the social conditions that give rise to constant need for aid. This reduces the distance from the actual popular movements and facilitates co-operation.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

What distinguishes a non-governmental organisation, as the term is usually understood, from a popular movement or a voluntary organisation is that they do not carry out extensive activities of their own and/or that they lack a democratic structure. Their structure is similar to that of companies, except that they are not profit-making. Often the leadership appoints its own successor, and often membership is not open to all.

The term NGO is also sometimes used to refer to broad coalitions that aim to serve many organisations; these may be democratically constituted by those they serve. One example is the National Council of Swedish Youth Organisations. But it is increasingly common for management to appoint themselves and hand-pick a 'council' of people who are said to 'represent' the beneficiaries. In Sweden, Naturliga Steget is an example of how trade unions, the church, scientific groups and government organisations have built an undemocratic organisation around an enterprising entrepreneur.

The activities of an NGO are usually limited to information, counselling, research or the administration of aid projects. The limited range of activities and the sometimes undemocratic structure of these organisations means that a few people have a great deal of influence. In most cases, it is the employed staff or the funders who decide. It is not the democratic reciprocity between affected people that matters, but the market, and the power to change society is limited. This is also realised by most NGOs who limit their role to providing services to the people they see as the real actors in society.

In many cases, democratic member organisations may be dominated by a middle class looking after their own limited interests, while some undemocratic NGOs may be run by idealists with a commitment to the poorest. Globally, however, NGOs are dominated by resourceful, professionally run organisations that crowd out those trying to organise majority participation in politics. These NGOs are often dependent on marketising their message to maximise revenue -- or dependent on government and business.


Popular movements, voluntary organisations and NGOs all have a role to play. The problem arises when their roles are confused. People's movements are the actors, by virtue of their democratic legitimacy. Voluntary organisations and NGOs can play an advisory and support role.

Popular movements do not always see this (voluntary organisations and NGOs tend to be more clear about their own role). Often, people's movement organisations attribute much more power to NGOs and voluntary organisations than they have; it is their professional agility that they see and pay excessive attention to.

The state

The purpose of most states was originally to exploit populations in the interests of aristocratic coteries. However, the constant competition between states in the form of war gradually made them more dependent on co-operation with their populations and with their businessmen. This took the form of concessions - the people were satisfied with the right to vote and social policy, the businessmen with the primary goal of state policy being economic growth.

The experience of popular movements with states in the 20th century is divided. On the one hand, states have been a means for popular majorities to assert themselves against privileged special interests through general legislation. On the other hand, states have on the one hand systematically tried to cut off the claws of popular movements through either infiltration or violent repression, and on the other hand have equally supported the counterparts of popular movements. An example of the former is that participants in popular movements who do what the state says receive financial support. Examples of the latter are that companies have interpretative priority over workers and that environmentally destructive motorway builders receive state subsidies.

Popular organisations' strategy towards the state can be of three kinds.
One is to 'influence' through both advice and exemplary actions towards better behaviour and reforms of various kinds. The strength of this is that it is simple and transparent; the weakness is that while the state reforms according to your wishes in one area, it destroys it in ten others.

Another is to take over state power, either by winning an election or by making a revolution. The strength of this is that it has a symbolic impact, the weakness is that in practice it has led to the bureaucratisation of politics, to the passivation of the laity and to the nation-state lockdown of politics in a rapidly globalising world, and in the case of the revolutions an escalated level of violence in society.

A third is to establish positions of power outside the state in order to negotiate from them. The strength of this is that you can achieve a great deal if you succeed, the weakness is that it is difficult.


Businesses are run for profit with the aim of surviving in the market. The term 'firm' inappropriately refers to both small firms that are entirely driven by the market (e.g. vegetable farmers or the local bike repairer) and large, often transnational organisations that control the market through superior resources, monopolies and good relations with governments and other coercive bodies.

The companies that gain a monopoly or dominance in new technological areas or markets can temporarily make excess profits that allow them to respond to the social or environmental demands of popular movements in order to avoid controversy. In this way, industry in the rich countries, under the collective pressure of the workers, was able to share its surplus, while the economy of which they were a part was based on the over-exploitation of workers in the South and natural resources.

Quite reasonably, it is the monopolistic companies with which popular movements most often come into conflict.

People's organisations' strategy towards companies has also traditionally been of three kinds.

First, to compete with them, e.g. with co-operatives or other 'within-movement' companies. The advantage of this is that it strengthens their own resources; the disadvantage is that no popular movement has sufficient financial resources to compete with today's TNCs.

Second, to obstruct their activities or threaten to do so, e.g. with strikes, occupations, boycotts and bad publicity. The advantage of this is that it is quite effective and direct, the disadvantage - if it is a disadvantage - is that you have to be many and well-organised to do it. It requires basic organisation, small groups are not enough.

Third, using the state against them, by demanding legislation etc. The advantage of this is that it is easy (if you have good relations with the state, that is), the disadvantage is that you have no control over what the state does in practice. A variant of the same strategy is to take over the state, see above.

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