Interview – Mayer

The interview in .pdf: Interview2012_Mayer

Activism and Urban Space: Interview with Margit Mayer

This is the original English version of the interview conducted for an Estonian weekly newspaper. See the version in Estonian:

From 17 to 24 June NGO Linnalabor organised the 22nd annual meeting of the International Network for Urban Research and Action (INURA) in Tallinn. Under the title Active Urbanism the meeting discussed how urban initiatives shape urban space in Northern and Eastern Europe and more broadly. During the conference urban researcher and activist Tauri Tuvikene sat down with Professor Margit Mayer to discuss contemporary processes of urban social movements. Margit Mayer is a Professor in Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin whose research focuses on social movements – generally women’s movements and environmental movements but also investigating the issue how urban movements are conceptually different from the rest of the new social movements. Developing her work during the same period when new social movements emerged she has focussed on the contrast between new social movements and the old ones.

Tauri Tuvikene: Your work has been on the new social movements (NSM) and their difference from the previous ones. What is “new” in the new social movements?

Margit Mayer: New social movements started out with the sixties, i.e. student movements, women’s movement, anti-war movements, the environmental movement and anti-nuclear movement and they were seen to be about something very different and also to function differently. The classical old social movement in Western European countries was the working class movement. The working class movement used to be considered as the transformative social movement, transformative in the sense of pursuing the goal of restructuring bourgeois society, and that only the working class possessed the potential to do so. The idea was that everybody else would also be profiting from this revolution but, in any case, the working class became incorporated through the social democratic parties. Also, working class parties ignored or neglected a lot of issues that contribute to oppression, besides the exploitation taking place in the labour process, especially women’s and minority issues. So, in part as a reaction to the working class old movement, women started demanding and forming a movement of our own, as gender issues aren’t adequately addressed and it’s not only capitalism that needs to be overthrown, it’s also patriarchy that needs to be overthrown. Similarly, people who saw the natural environment being degraded said “environmental concerns are also not addressed.” So that brought forth environmental movements that criticise the old movements. A lot of researchers and theorists tried to analyse these developments conceptually and so they would ask themselves: “OK, so what is the difference between these and the movements our theories so far have been built on, i.e. the working class movement?”  Most Western European countries had seen a good period of growth, and relative social stability thanks to the Fordist compromise. This led to most material demands that were number one on the agenda of the working class movement being satisfied for most people, which allowed non-material issues such as “Am I happy?”, “Aren’t there other things to life?” to come to the surface: for example, people who felt their identities as gay people or as women not adequately respected or environmentalists who are worried about the destruction of the natural environment, all share this concern with non-material interests. Obviously, the category “new social movement” is a very fuzzy term, it doesn’t tell you what exactly is new about them, but what social movement researchers generally seek to capture with the term is the different social composition of these movements (usually middle class rather than working class people) and the focus on different forms of oppression that don’t all grow out of capitalist forms of exploitation and are not manifest in class terms only.

T. T.: But you would associate the older urban social movements with material interests and the other—newer—ones with rather immaterial interests?

M. M.: Yes. So let me illustrate with a couple of those main theorists that tried to analyse the role of these new social movements.  Social movement theorists like Alain Touraine or Alberto Melucci were still trying to identify the revolutionary potential in these new movements. So they suggested that today the fundamental societal conflict no longer revolves around the class division between capitalists versus working class, but it revolves around, in Touraine’s case, technocracy versus the new social movements. But others questioned this approach wondering “Why are you always looking for some fundamental antagonism in society, society is much more fractured and there are very many antagonisms, and let’s just get rid of those categories implying one central division and hence one central transformation. But I must say, now coming back to my own trajectory, all my experiences in the countries that I know have taught me that capitalism is alive and well, even though it has morphed through many transformations, but it is still exploiting the majority of people, maybe not so much the working class in the so-called advanced countries such as Germany. But the more intense forms of exploitation nowadays take place in the manufacturing platforms of Southeast Asia – China, India, various other places in the global South, where you see harsh forms of exploitation. In the so-called First World countries you now see new forms of accumulation and exploitation based on predatory capitalism where the surplus doesn’t get created only through the labour process but is ripped off people by land lords, financial institutions and corporations through various means of dispossession.

T. T.: But how would you put to that framework these movements like Occupy or Adbusters or Parking Day… Parking Day is basically a movement which for one day in a year turns parking lots into parks. It started in 2006 and spread to many new cities in the world. It’s very particular but it’s a challenge to automobility in general in a car-based society. How would you think about such kind of movements? Would you put them as new social movements or would they go somewhere outside as a new category or what are these things, these developments?

M. M.: Yeah, I think the terminology of NSM is sort of dated by now. It was important in the 1970s and 1980s to capture the novel dimension of the movements that emerged at the time, when researchers were interested in figuring out what sort of social force might be relevant for improving and transforming the societal order: it helped to understand why it is no longer the working class movement, most of whose institutions have become incorporated, and that the newly relevant constituency of social movements would be young people, environmentalists, feminists, gays,  and so on. And by now, as we are no longer in Fordist capitalism but in this predatory capitalism that thrives more on accumulation by dispossession both of humans and of nature, relevant movements would be responding to this particular type of regime. Challenging this contemporary form of capitalism are precisely movements like the ones you just mentioned, which thematise precisely these contemporary forms of exploitation and oppression. “Occupy” is primarily attacking the banks, the forms of indebtedness that are especially pronounced in North America where debt levels have increased over the last 30 years of neoliberalisation – as wages of the working class remained stagnant: where people, in order to maintain their living standards, used their credit cards, took out secondary mortgages on their homes, took out loans to go to school, and so on. So their indebtedness increased tremendously and housing prices increased tremendously until we had the bubble, which threw people into even worse situations as thousands of them lost their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgage fees any more. Occupy and Adbusters are scandalising precisely these new forms of peonage where people become enslaved to the banks, to the financial industry. In this period of financialised capitalism, where more accumulation occurs through dispossession, social movements that scandalise the ways people are being ripped off through debt, the public sector is being ripped off through privatisation, and natural resources are being ripped off without realising the limits of this planet, are the contemporary and relevant challenges. Environmental movements such as Parking Day call attention to these limits.

T. T.: It seems to me that perhaps compared to older forms of activism there are different things that these activist groups or these movements are trying to tackle or the way they are trying to make their arguments work. If you think about Parking Day and all sorts of bicycle movements which are about generating more environmentally thinking, environmentally behaving human subjects, it’s about changing the behaviour. It’s not necessarily about changing what the state is doing, it’s about how people themselves start to change their behaviour.

M. M.: Right. However, even if we were all getting rid of our cars and start using bicycles, illusory as that seems after everything I have heard about how much people here want to have cars, how many Germans want to have cars, but just hypothetically, even if the private individual behaviour of masses of people were to change, it would not make a sufficient impact. The big polluters, industry, especially heavy industry and agribusiness, i.e. the real pollution sources which are in the way we produce, need to be regulated, and it takes a state to impose those kinds of regulations. In most countries these industries have very powerful lobbies and they finance most politicians and so politicians are very hesitant to regulate these industries. After every big oil spill or other huge accident they will say, ok, we have to. Obama forbids deep-sea drilling for two months, but then everything goes back to “normal”. So, for sustainable industries, you will need more societal pressure and you will need a state or some political institution that puts constraints on industry.

T. T.: But it’s also that the action is affecting a group in society which then can grow in the level of society and then affect the state. Some interests become more widespread or people are more thinking in these lines and it starts to push the state.

M. M.: Exactly, civil society it is. I see social movements as the most active part of civil society because there are also many complacent people in civil society, not all of whom have an interest in democratising the state. But that is what needs to happen.

T. T.: Yes. But what would that mean? Does it mean more open state? Does it mean more discussions around the table or something else?

M. M.: The decision-making processes should be more accessible to the interests and needs of the people – especially those people whose voices tend to get ignored nowadays even though they are affected, often negatively affected, by the decisions of the state.

T. T.: That’s actually coming very close to what we see in Estonia in terms of the neighbourhood movements or how the citizen activists are working. It’s very much like: “you should have sent it (e.g. policy document) to us before, we wanted to be part of this discussion earlier”. So people try to get the state to be more open or that the activists can get involved earlier in decision-making.

M. M.: right, good, but this takes us to the question that Libby [Porter – T.T.] was raising, when she said what is always most important to her is the question who wins, who loses, and who gets the say? Can you tell me which social groups in Estonia are losing and in what ways are they part of this opening of the state?

T. T.: Well, I guess I can say it fairly easily that it is probably the economically marginalised who lose which might also be in the ethnic lines. I guess the problem or the question I was thinking is that what should we do with these neighbourhood movements? Is it something that should be openly criticised for being NIMBY or should we somehow support it and change it or what can be done with that? It’s good that people become active.

M. M.: Of course, absolutely.

T. T.: I understand that their interests might also go against certain groups in the society, for instance, against people living in abandoned buildings, described as “criminals”. But the protests in the neighbourhood groups are also against some state policies. For instance, there was this policy a couple of years ago that the municipality wanted to bring priced parking in one area close to the city, so people got angry at the city on that issue. But later on they started to argue for more bicycle roads and such things so it wasn’t just about “We want to drive cars”. The problem was also, that the rationale for priced parking in this area was not explained or, rather, reasons were out of touch with the reality. It was not clear that priced parking as a regulatory tool actually was necessary.

M. M.: That’s good enough to be angry about, yes. Usually priced parking gets introduced as a mechanism to encourage more bicycles, to encourage people to get away from relying on cars so much by making their use a little more expensive. But then the politicians of course have to offer alternatives like more bike paths and more public transport or more affordable public transport. By itself, if you only increase parking fees while people still need to rely on cars, because they have no affordable alternatives – that’s purely angrifying and nothing else. That’s very bad policy.

T. T.: but yeah, I think it’s still a question of, as you said, who gets benefits and who not. I mean, it’s understandable that they go against the municipality if the municipality seems to be contradictory in its ideas, but then again, what these activist groups are saying is also to improve their own living afterwards but not necessarily benefitting people who are not able to talk for themselves. How to solve that issue?

M. M.: That is a very important issue which I stress a lot in my work. Many groups who start out as  protest group about some grievance, as soon as they succeed, achieve what they wanted to achieve, say “Wonderful, now we can go back to normal” – and they don’t worry about others who might not be able to articulate their needs as effectively. This is what often happens. But in other cases, maybe most famously with the case of Love Canal which was a chemical spill in the US, where affected neighbours, completely unpolitical people, were very upset and mobilised the community and did their own research and put pressure on the city and on this chemical company and in that process they learned so much about how the world works and how politics works that they politicised hundreds and hundreds of people and they transformed themselves in the process, from being complacent housewives they became what we call activists, environmentally and socially active not just about the issue in their own backyard, but on other issues as well, and formed nationwide networks and so on and so forth. Any “small”, apparently local conflict has the potential to make people see and organise –   to do “scale jumping” as Neil Smith would say…. There is a need to always go to the next scale because the cause of the problems is often located on a ‘higher’ scale, but this becomes visible in many of these struggles.

T. T.: I would say that the movements in Estonia are not politicised in the sense that they would see the problem in capitalist economic system or they would argue for more egalitarian living. The idea is more about individual success, about “free capitalism”. If you happen to be homeless or complain about the rental price, it is seen as your own fault, you have done something wrong. “Egalitarianism” or “social justice” might quite easily become associated with “the Soviet” and hence something to move away from.

M. M.: Right. Interesting. So people do not have a positive identification with the greater egalitarian structure of the society that you had before? Because in the former GDR (East Germany) that was not the case that everything about the Soviet past was considered negatively.

T. T.: Well, to be true, the health care is very much state based and not so different from the Soviet one, in that sense. Though, if you pay more, you can still get faster service, from exactly the same doctor: an appointment in a month time would be for free, that is paid by your state insurance, but if you pay 40 Euros you could see the doctor already in two days. So, even from a state structure which is fairly egalitarian, you can find built-in disparities based on the money one is willing and capable to spend.

M. M.: It sounds to me as if, maybe because it’s a pretty small and relatively wealthy society, that the degree of social spatial polarisation is not as pronounced as in many other countries. It just seems to be the case that the majority of people do benefit from this free market capitalism and that’s a good basis for an ideology that claims that if someone can’t make it here, it’s their own fault: they must be lazy or just not want to try hard enough. That’s what it sounds like to me. Michael [Edwards] said [at the conference – T.T.], congratulations, neoliberalism has been good for you, for most of you or for many of you, that you have managed to combine the best of the old with the new system, as the health care and child care examples illustrate. These two are areas that in many other neoliberal societies are very painful for many groups, like in the US, for example, where so many people don’t even have any access to provision because they have no insurance, or it’s unaffordable and so on /…/ Whereas here, it seems that the legacies of the past are combined, many things are still there, both actually and physically in place still, and in the minds. You do still have a half-way well functioning childcare system because people are not rejecting public provision altogether. So many things are still there. It’s the combination of some free market neoliberalism on the basis of quite a bit of still really existing public infrastructures that are still in place.

T. T.: Yes. The post-socialist societies would be rather mixtures of what existed before and what is brought into existence now. But to go back to the neighbourhood groups in the end of this interview. Should we push the movements to new themes? For instance, to ask constantly “but what about those homeless who are in your area”? The change would be then through these neighbourhood groups rather than having some sort of other advocacy groups. Perhaps to use the potential of these neighbourhood groups, then?

M. M.: Absolutely. Of course you can’t expect everybody to share that interest and that willingness to address the root causes of the problems because people are different and some are happy with their lives. But it’s always worth a try and there will always be some who will respond. Work on the neighbourhood association level is important and has the potential to go further, to upscale, and to address systemic injustices. But sometimes I got the impression as if most neighbourhood groups here were basically defensive and egoistic. “Let’s keep my neighbourhood nice and I want to defend the privileges that I have and I don’t go over there anyway so let them worry about themselves.” If most of the neighbourhood groups are like that and if it’s really hard to push beyond that attitude, then that would be an argument to maybe start digging a hole somewhere else.

T.T.: Thank you for sharing your ideas. There is certainly a lot to be happy in Estonia about the emerging activism but, yes, I think we can take away as a message here that there’s a need to support or still develop activism that works towards benefitting those who tend to be in the losing side in the society. Perhaps there is a need for more questioning of how inequalities are generated and what can be done to tackle such developments.