Sunday, 15 November 2015


Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern EuropeI'd like to use this post to offer some reflections on what might be called the "anti-political" discourse among some social movement activists. I do so by bringing together a few of my impressions from a (quite lovely) conference I recently atttended in Zurich on contemporary activism in Japan with another set of impressions from a book I've just read on activism in central and eastern Europe: Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Ashgate 2015, edited by Kerstin Jacobsson). My hope is of course that the two sets of impressions will cross-fertilize.

During the conference, I was struck by the fact that many presentations concerned forms of activism that weren't overtly political, such as consumer initiatives, collective housing, "invisible" forms of transnational network building and some forms of DIY. Although it seemed that these activities were generally motivated by a wish to change the world for the better, they usually lacked conspicuous elements of struggle, conflict or confrontation. Often it was hard to detect any attachment to specific political ideologies. In many cases I got the impression that participants seemed to prefer to frame their engagement as rooted in personal circumstances related to daily life or to their families, rather than as politically driven.

The question of to what extent such ostensibly apolitical activities can be regarded as social movement phenomena is of course familiar to most students of social movements. Since most definitions of social movements involve a reference to conflict, it's not always easy to categorize activities where the conflict element is submerged, invisible or denied, i.e. where it isn't publicly stated by the activists themselves.

Social movement scholars have long recognized that there's an important non-public side to social movements - a side that's been theorized using concepts like latency or abeyance. Alberto Melucci, for instance, stressed the importance of focusing on this latent side for understanding the culture of a social movement, which he described as a "laboratory" where activists could experiment with alternative lifestyles and identities - i.e. activities that at first sight may appear unpolitical. But usually this "latent" side has been considered to be a supplement to the movement's more "manifest" or publicly visible activities. So-called free spaces, for instance, are considered to be important to movements not only as cultural laboratories but also as incubators of protest and bases for more overt political action.

But what about cases where even the manifest side of movements is presented as apolitical? Why do many activists seem to prefer to frame their activities as apolitical even when they appear in public? After all, there's nothing especially hidden about consumer initiatives or collective housing - or, for that matter, transition towns and local sharing economies. Instead of engaging in another round of discussion about what forms of activism should be classified as political or not, the crucial quesiton to investigate would seem to be: what are the circumstances that make people reluctant to label their activities political?

This question seems especially pertinent in the case of Japan. This is a country where the traumatizing experience of the New Left in the 70s didn't just lead to a decline of radical protest but also a general and long-lasting stigmatization of all political activism. The result was the so-called "ice age of protest" which didn't really end until the big anti-war demonstrations in the early 2000s on the Japanese mainland (Okinawa being a different story). However, as many conference presenters pointed out, activism didn't disappear even during this ice age. Everything didn't just freeze over. Rather, activism became submerged and invisible. Some of it took the form of engaging in establishing transational networks. Other activists tried to preserve their political ideals in less political forms, such as setting up collective houses. As I myself discuss (Cassegård 2014), there's a fascinating history of submerged freeter groups in the 1990s that helped prepare the way for the resurfacing of youth protest in the last decade in Japan. It seems reasonable to believe that the avoidance of the label "political" among these activists was partly the result of the stigmatization of overt political activism in the general public. Partly, it also stemmed from disillusionment with the political establishment among activists and the general public. Especially among more radical activists, this disillusionment explains their reluctance to address mainstream political parties and their tendency to stress personal factors rather than public committment in explaining their involvement in activism.

As Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe makes clear, Japan is not unique when it comes to the tendency for activists to adopt an "anti-political" discourse. It is from this book that I've borrowed the very term "anti-politics". As becomes evident from several of the chapters, there are striking similarities between the "anti-political" discourse among activists in Japan and central/eastern Europe. Examples treated in the book include bicycle activists in Belgrade (Kopf 2015), elderly people guarding their dachas in winter-time in Ukraine (Leipnik 2015), and "playful" forms of resistance in Vilnius (Lindqvist 2015). Intriguingly, these similarities appear to have emerged despite considerable differences in historical background. Instead of the legacy of the New Left, it was the post-socialist transition that played the cruical role in shaping this discourse in the case of central/eastern Europe.

This isn't the place to summarize this book, but there are a few points that seem relevant to highligh. As Kerstin Jacobsson points out in her introduction, there's a need to get away, firstly, from the tendency of many Western scholars to expect social movements in a post-socialist context to follow the same repertoire as in Western Europe or North America; secondly, from the narrow focus on contentious action in the form of protests and demonstrations that risks missing other forms of activism more related to local struggles of everyday life; and, thirdly, from the picture of advocacy-oriented NGOs as the main civil society actors in a post-socialist context (Jacobsson 2015a:4f, 9). It strikes me that all these three points deserve to be stressed also in regard to Japan.

Below is a handfull of quotes from the book that, from various angles, illuminate the theme of anti-politics:

The ‘anti-political’ tendencies of activists in the region, too, show their double rootedness in the socialist experience of living under an overpowering, repressive state and in the post-socialist experience of living with corrupt and unresponsive authorities. Against this backdrop, anti-politics are positively associated with a right not to be ‘political’… by engaging in moral rather than political resistance… Thus, while many urban movements in the region… show an anti-systemic orientation, some of them deliberately refrain from framing their action in political terms. (ibid. 2015b:283)

[Dissident thinkers like Adam Michnik, Václav Havel and György Konrád] were also influential in promoting the stance of ‘anti-political politics’, favouring an ethical rather than political understanding of civil society... Nevertheless, the anti-political sentiments among activists in the region also stem from experiences of corrupt and repressive authorities. (ibid. 2015a:14)
It can be argued that if most countries of the region today represent hyper-versions of global trends such as neoliberal urbanisation, this is not so much despite as because of post-socialist legacies... Neoliberal, individualist subjectivity, for instance, goes very well with the anti-collectivism that followed from the state-socialist experience. As Hirt has argued: ‘socialism did not obliterate the private; it obliterated the public…’, socialism paved the ground for what she calls the post-1989 privatism. (ibid. 2015a:15)

[T]he activists speak about making an intervention even if they are not inclined to call their practices for ‘politics’. Instead, they make clear that they mistrust political leaders. (Lindqvist 2015: 44)

Although the bike activism takes up political questions… it is framed as ‘anti-politics’, an issue that ‘has nothing to do with politics’, by Belgrade’s activists. Instead, the bike activists define themselves as gradani (‘citizens’ or ‘city dwellers’) who just aim to make Belgrade a greener and more livable city. (Kopf 2015:100).

Furthermore, the bike activists also distanced themselves from NGOs since some of the negative characteristics, such as corruption, nepotism and inefficiency which the bike activists associated with the political sphere were also attributed to the NGO sector. (ibid. 114)

[Many of] the bike activists believed that any politicization of their interests and especially the intermingling of their activism with those of the LGBT community would cause a loss of credibility and thus weaken the public’s acceptance of their activities. [Instead they prefer] playing down the political dimension of their engagement by emphasizing the funny and peaceful character of the bike ride (ibid. 116)

Are these social movements rooted in local grassroots initiatives and in the protest participants’ daily life then ‘political’?... [A] move of grassroots movements towards something more openly ‘political’ may indeed become possible.... All of this is incipiently political – although not about politics ‘high up’, but about politics ‘from below’, pursued in a collective act of self-empowerment by ordinary people prompted to action by their everyday concerns. (Clément 2015:191)
To many readers, I think the similarities to Japan are obvious. Japan too is often said to have weak civil society, an institutionalized NGO sector lacking in independence vis-à-vis authorities, a public distrustful of “dirty politics”, and activists eager to try out forms of empowerment that emphasize direct and practical action related to everyday concerns.

Collective housing in Tokyo
Comparing Japan and central/eastern Europe, is there anything in general we can say about what historical circumstances tend to favor the rise of "anti-political" discourses? At first sight, the circumstances in these two regions appear to be very different. In the one case, we have a country that achieved democracy in the early postwar years and that has already experienced at least two great waves of social movement protest; in the other case we have group of countries whose turn to democracy is more recent and that in some cases are still ruled by repressive regimes. In Japan, it is hardly fear of repression, but rather the fear of being associated with the stigmatized legacy of earlier protest that seems to underlie the reluctance of activists to appear "political" in public. But there are also similarities. In both cases, there is a tendency to equate politics with party politics, with the "dirty politics" that mainly takes place between institutionalized actors and with little participation of ordinary people. In both cases, the framing of activism as apolitical seems grounded in a desire to achieve respect and legitimacy among people in general.

I should point out that the "anti-political" discourse I've discussed so far has been that of grassroots groups, i.e. mostly rather small groups composed of non-professional activists that haven't been very institutionalized (e.g. activists engaged in guarding dachas to protect their crops or activists engaged in setting up or running a collective house). Although the "anti-political" discourse seems to be a symptom of the more general conditions in the Japanese and central/eastern European societies, we shouldn't generalize from these rather small grassroots groups to those of other movement actors in these societies where we can certainly find other, more "political" discourses.

Finally, I'd like to mention two questions that might be interesting to pursue in future research:

1) What happens to the anti-politics discourse when grassroots groups become part of big mass-demonstrations, such as the kanteimae demonstrations in Tokyo or those at Maidan Square in Kiev? Do they shift to a more political and confrontational discourse? If so, to what extent is the discursive shift accompanied by a reevaluation of the historical legacies that previously made them adopt more "anti-political" stances?

2) How does the anti-politics discourse of grassroots groups relate to the "depoliticized" or "post-political" discourse associated with very institutional actors, such as NGOs deeply embroiled in partnerships with authorities? Here we're obviously talking of two distinct phenomena that shouldn't be confused. The anti-politics discourse is typically employed by activists who are most disgusted with the corrupt world of ordinary politics - a world that NGO "partners" of the governments are often considered to be part and parcel of. In contrast to the depoliticized discourse of institutionalized actors, grassroots groups can at least in some cases contribute to politicizing issues by addressing problems people experience in daily life and which authorities often prefer to keep invisble. Despite their explicit disavowal of politics, they thus have the potential to become quite political in the emphatic sense intended by authors such as Zizek, Mouffe or Rancière, namely that of questioning and disrupting the institutionalized field on which the politics of established actors is played out. This point is important, for it touches on the real political possibility and potential of this form of activism. It implies that the "anti-politics" discourse isn't necessarily only adopted out of meekness, out of the fear of repression or social sanctions. Sometimes it can be the very opposite.


Cassegård, Carl (2014) Youth Activism, Trauma, and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan, Leiden: Global Oriental.

Clément, Karine (2015) “From ‘Local’ to ‘Political’: The Kaliningrad Mass Protest Movement of 2009-2010 in Russia”, pp. 163-194, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Jacobsson, Kerstin (2015a) “Introduction: The Development of Urban Movements in Central and Eastern Europe”, pp. 1-32, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Jacobsson, Kerstin (2015b) “Conclusion: Towards a New Research Agenda”, pp. 273-288, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Kopf, Sabrina (2015) “Urban Grassroots, Anti-Politics and Modernity: Bike Activism in Belgrade”, pp. 99-118, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Leipnik, Olena (2015) “The Elderly as a Force for Urban Civil Activism in Ukraine”, pp. 79-98, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

Lindqvist, Beatriz (2015) “The Playfulness of Resistance: Articulations of Urban Grassroots Activism in Post-Socialist Vilnius”, pp. 33-54, in Jacobsson, Kerstin (ed.) Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Farnham: Ashgate.

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