Some second thoughts about Charles Tilly's later books





By Jan Wiklund



A little while ago I fell across a disturbing book by Charles Tilly: Social movements 1768-2004. In this book, Tilly argued that only movements that mainly were involved with "display of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment", or in Tilly's neat term "wunc display", should justly be called "social movements", while contention that bring into use direct action like strikes and boycotts should be called just that, i.e. contention.

Now, why is that so disturbing? Well, take my own history. I have been involved in contentious politics for my whole adult life. It begun in my early twenties, when I took part in a very successful occupation of a popular outdoor café that was threatened by a redevelopment scheme. Then I went into contention about redevelopment schemes in Stockholm in general, with some modest success. After that I was involved in housing struggles against gentrification, local environmental struggles that tended to grow global as time went by, and solidarity money collections and boycotts; I got into contention about new redevelopment schemes and organising of unemployed people, and now in my early fifties I have even got into trade unionism for my particular trade while simultaneously doing some stuff for the Social Forum movement (or whatever you choose to call it).

Some of this contention of mine has used wunc repertoires, but some has used physical force as well. The first one used both: first we wunced one year to get a hearing and raise sympathy, them when authorities seemed unrepentant we used this sympathy to call a strike that ended in a fight with the police, occupation of the site and a complete scrapping of the redevelopment scheme. But regardless of repertoire we have used, I and most of my fellow contenders have seen it as the same kind of activity.

And what activity is that? To talk Tillyese, I would call it contention about categorical inequality. Being at the unfavoured side of one or more categorical divide(s), we use what means and opportunities we have got to get even, close the gap, or just defend ourselves against imposed evils. Sometimes we have used force, sometimes we have used wunc; what we have done has depended on what has seemed tactically wise at the moment.

True, what seems tactically wise is a matter of structural positions in the system. A set of workers can strike if they contend the same capitalist, a set of tenants can refuse to pay the rent, a group of consumer can boycott, while others are reduced to use wunc only, because their position is weaker and use of force is unattainable to them. But any one person often takes several of these positions simultaneously. And movements often contain people with different structural positions. I have often found it a wise movement policy to connect such different structural positions with each other. For example, ten years ago when we opposed a new redevelopment scheme that included motorways for some five billion dollars, we not only used the usual wunc repertoire, but took pains to include health care people in it.
Why? Because the health care system at that time was exposed to severe cuts, and angry health care people, even more angry because their missing money was going to be spent on unnecessary roads, was a strike threat. We calculated right, as it showed, and the scheme was curtailed.

So what is this? One "social movement", and one something else without a name, acting together? And why don't the health care people belong? Because their main concern weren't the roads in themselves but their jobs? But all participants in this contention had different main concerns - for some it was spoilt nature, for others it was spoilt townscape, for some it was fear of noise outside their windows, for others it was the feeling of unfairness towards non-carowners, for others yet it was spoilt tax money and fear of further cuts.

This doesn't seem a very big deal so far. Why don't let Chuck Tilly patent his new use of the term social movement and let the rest of us try to get used to the new term contention about categorical inequality? Well, some fifty years ago we used to talk about popular movement, or even peoples' movement (the last term is actually in full swing in Sweden, "folkrörelse", because this tradition was particularly strong there). But then the term somehow was stolen by an international combination of state officials and social scientists that pretended a certain kind of political affiliation for popular movements, which made the term useless. Then the new term social movement was introduced and we had, painstakingly, to learn to use this term instead. And exactly at the time we have got used to it, it is taken from us again. It is like having the language for one's actions stolen again and again by some set of academic freewheelers who have their salary from talking about what one is doing without giving anything in return, like a kind of parasitical dementing disease. And we can do nothing about it, it seems, except writing angry responses to scientific reviews like the Social Movement Studies.


I don't want to be rude with Mr Tilly, who has after all given me a lot of pleasure with books like The contentious French, Durable inequality and Coercion, capital and European states, and user value also. But then I fell upon another book of his, this time written together with Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow: Dynamics of contention, which does the same trick from another angle. So I thought, what the hell if I'm rude, this chap must learn how we feel about him and his likes, perhaps he isn't as bad as he seems and perhaps he may even learn something from it.

If Social movements raised a big, impenetrable wall between wunc displays and all other kinds of movements, Dynamics of contention lumped together drunken brawls, wars, genocide, elite bickering and what I at this point rabidly decide to call popular movements and treated it all like one, called contention. I don't deny that contention is a category that can be studied as such, and I don't deny that some of the mechanisms the authors search for may be the same in all these cases. But remember that "contention" was the term Mr Tilly proposed as the term for movements that didn't use wunc, for example labour movements using strikes and national movements using boycotts. Which means that now there is one term meaning wunc movements, one term meaning labour movements AND war AND genocide AND elite bickering, but no term meaning wunc movements AND movements of direct action, except the cumbersome "contention about categorical inequality" and the politically smeared "peoples' (or popular) movements". Which means that there is no acceptable term to use in common for people who want to challenge categorical inequality, and hence no common ground of understanding - and I suppose that's the way the monopolizers want it to be. But is it the way Mr Tilly wants it to be [1]?

I took this up with Mr Tilly in a private e-mail, and he offered me to suggest another term for wunc display, instead of social movement, and here I do it: wunc display. Or display movement, if you like that better. Or better still: citizens' movement, since appealing to the status of citizenship is what wunc is about. But what's the use, from the layman's point of view, of that kind of splitting nouns, instead of using verbs - social movements do this and that, sometimes wuncing, sometimes striking? Splitting makes us stupider, less able to find companions, less able to deal with the heavy task of contending the categorical inequalities of the world. This may not matter for us oldtimers who have learnt from experience, but beginners who must use the language others press upon them will fell quite lost. As a matter of fact, during the eighties and early nineties, when the term peoples' movements had just fallen into disuse, it was quite easy to find raw activists in for example environment movements who thought they had more in common with NGOs and government agencies than they had with trade unions. This way of thinking has been devalued since then - see Peoples' Global Action for example - but Tilly &co may bring it à la mode again.

Someone, I think it was Charles Tilly, said that the whole intellectual game was a fight between lumpers and splitters. But here we have a new variety: splitting and lumping simultaneously, to the worst possible effect for the public, and for the convenience for the splitters-lumpers themselves.

But what's the use from the scientist's view, really? Well, economists have been able to raise a huge tower of theory called "neo-classic economy" where everything fits together but is based on the false assumption that people are Economic Men. It is probably possible to raise a comparable tower of theory on the assumption that - well, what? That mechanisms are the fountain of movements? That what you are depend on what methods you use? But once again, what's the use of such constructions? People go on, challenging categorical inequalities, and if science mixes them together with their opponents I suppose it's so much the worse for science.


Jan Wiklund



[1] Since this letter was posted through Professor Tilly's professional mailing list (thanks, Chuck), this last sentence has grown really urgent.

Social movement activists who take to direct action are chased everywhere as "terrorists", sometimes sentenced to long prison terms for trifles, sometimes not sentenced at all but just locked up. Social movement activists who continue with mere wuncing are only harassed but the treatment of other social movement activists hang like a thundercloud ready to strike, which of course scares quite a lot of people to silence. This was for example what happened to Swedish social movements after the Göteborg summit in 2001.

In this way, social movements are broken up. And that's why Tilly's division is so dangerous - it gives a mask of scientific respectability to governments' anti-democratic divisive practices.

Given Charles Tilly's generally friendly attitude towards peoples' movements I can't believe he was happy about this.


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