Organizing Twenty-First-Century Activism: From Structure to Strategy in Latin American Social Movements

January 13, 2021
2019 and 2020 witnessed the largest wave of protests in recent Latin American history. Citizens in South America burst onto the streets to march against inequality, the established political order, and authoritarian-leaning presidents. Black Lives Matter activism, emerging in the United States, inspired new protests for racial justice across Latin America and the Caribbean. These movements helped everyday citizens reimagine politics, giving them hope for a more inclusive version of democracy if they rose up to demand it.
 
But as 2020 wore on, and as Covid-19 spread around the globe, many of these movements struggled to sustain engagement. Marches shrank in size, and violent factions of protesters began to divert media attention from peaceful demonstrations. 
 
According to the dominant wisdom, most of these movements will win short term concessions but fail to shape policy in a lasting way. Many will likely fizzle out, because mass mobilization is hard to sustain. Others may develop into coalitions of interest groups that cultivate insider influence over politics but gradually become more conservative, or even coopted, through their friendly ties to politicians. And yet, some will survive and gain new political powers. 
 
This article tackles the urgent question of how social movements can sustain their political influence. I do this by looking to movements of the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s that deeply altered the Latin American political landscape—such as the indigenous movements of Bolivia and Ecuador, and the Piqueteros in Argentina. “Hybrid” social movements emerged across the region during this period. Similar to movements of the past, they protested on the streets; but unlike the movements of the past, they also acted like interest groups by lobbying government over policy. These movements did not deradicalize or become coopted as they developed over time. Instead, they held the middle ground between social movements and interest groups. They used these hybrid tactics to achieve important policy victories.
 
I help us understand hybrid activism by looking to an underexplored factor: social-movement structure. Typically, when we think about how social movements are organized, we think of leaderless, viral networks. But leaderless movements rarely influence policy beyond one-shot demands because, without clear leadership, they can’t negotiate with government. When we think of federations of interest groups, by contrast, we think of hierarchical and centralized organizations. While centralized leadership structures help organizations lobby and negotiate with politicians, it also makes them more prone to cooptation and less prone to using contentious tactics. In other words, traditional dichotomies that contrast the leaderless structure of social movements with the centralization of federations cannot explain movements that are good at both protest and lobbying.
 
In this article, I use my research on Brazil to identify a third type of social-movement structure. I call this structure a “federative coalition” because it combines some of the traits of traditional federations–such as labor federations—with some of the traits of networks. Like traditional federations, federative coalitions are hierarchical and centralized structures for organizing social movements. But, more like networks, they place a greater emphasis on organizational independence. The national leadership of federative coalitions has no say in how member organizations conduct themselves and no control over their finances. 
 
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Federative coalitions, by combining elements of federations and networks, afford movements some of the advantages of hierarchy without some of its pitfalls. For example, movements that are organized into federative coalitions often have more access to government because of their elected national activist leaders. As activists climb the ranks of the movement hierarchy, they become highly professionalized policy experts. As others have shown, government policymakers are more likely to consult with activist leaders when they view them as experts. By helping movements access the state, federative coalitions open opportunities for activists to lobby and negotiate with policymakers.
 
The networked elements of federative coalitions offer movements leverage over government. For example, their national leadership is often more able to resist cooptation because they have no sanctioning power over their member organizations. The leaders of federative coalitions have no control over the finances, goals, activities, or structures of member organizations. Instead, they assert their authority only so long as member organizations continue to view them as legitimate leaders who are capable of making good decisions on their behalf. This difference limits the potential for government officials to bribe national movement leaders. 
 
When the leaders of a coalition cannot control or punish their members, hierarchy may in fact make a movement less vulnerable to cooptation. When government policymakers oppose the goals of a movement, they may attempt to co-opt it by inviting only the most moderate or “friendly” activists to participate on government policy commissions. Federated movements can oppose this tactic by arguing that their internal structure includes its own democratic process for electing national delegates to represent the movement on government commissions. 
 
Federative coalitions are also well-equipped to organize street protests, because they enable many different types of organizations to participate as autonomous members of the movement. Unlike traditional federations, which require local chapters to follow a single blueprint laid out by the national leadership, federative coalitions allow member groups to preserve their autonomy. The diverse array of member organizations that fall under the umbrella of a federative coalition—from professionalized NGOs to neighborhood associations—can help movements recruit participants to join street marches. Often, the least professionalized organizations are the best at turning out protesters. Social movements organized into federative coalitions are therefore capable of organizing contentious public pressure tactics at the same time as they use insider strategies for influencing policy. 
 
According to the common narrative of 2020, Latin America’s contemporary social movements are all viral and leaderless. This narrative suggests they will generally fail to influence policy beyond disturbing the status quo. I wrote this article to help us move beyond the common narrative. In it, I provide a way for scholars to explore variation in the way the social movements of 2020 organize themselves—with the ultimate goal of offering us a new tool to understand their potential for lasting impact.
 
Larr article can be found here
 
Paper's citation: Rich, J. A. J. (2020). Organizing Twenty-First-Century Activism: From Structure to Strategy in Latin American Social Movements. Latin American Research Review, 55(3), 430–444. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.452
 

 

About Author(s)

Rich_LARR's picture
Jessica A.J. Rich
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marquette University and Co-Director of the Marquette Democracy Project. Her book, State-Sponsored Activism, was published in English with Cambridge University Press (2019) and is forthcoming in Portuguese with Editora Fiocruz.