Below you can read the notes from our talk about Militant Research at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference in London 2014.
There are a couple of points around the historical and political context of militant research that are worth making in terms of understanding its relevance to contemporary social movements. Militant research began to gain traction and prominence in social movement discussions following the fading of the alter-globalisation movement, and in many ways emerged as an attempt to think through and respond to a number of challenges associated with that movement and its political context. These challenges related, on the one hand, to the shifting nature of contemporary capitalism and, on the other, to the limitations which characterised social movements at that time (and in many ways still do).
To begin with the former, many of the features of contemporary capitalism were becoming increasingly tangible as was their relevance to social movements. Issues like globalisation, neoliberalism, financialization, precarity, the new politics of migration and mobility and so on. As a result we witnessed the emergence of a new set of social antagonisms and social subjects, such as undocumented migrants, precarious workers and disenfranchised youth. At the same time these antagonisms and subjects were ambiguous, partial, complex and in general difficult to interpret in terms of their political potential or significance.
At the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the practices, forms of organisation and forms of discourse social movements relied on were no longer viable, or at least called for substantial rethinking. Even core terms such as democracy, trade unionism or class conflict were very much in question, or even in crisis.
Linked to this, there are two specific limitations of social movements relevant in terms of militant research
First of all, even as we discovered a surprising ability to cooperate on a global scale in relation to macro-political and macro-economic issues (from the World Bank to climate change), we also discovered that we were standing on very weak foundations. Social movements were not connected, by and large, in any meaningful way to the new antagonisms and social subjects. In particular, we had not developed significant organisational forms in relation to issues such as precarity, migration or personal debt. Given this disconnect, a series of debates emerged focusing on the fact that social movements were largely isolated and removed from the material antagonisms traversing contemporary capitalism.
Second of all, the role of knowledge, theory and discourse in reconnecting social movements with everyday, material antagonisms was problematised. It was clear to everyone that the question of re-inserting militancy into social antagonisms could not proceed on the basis of the ‘revolutionary’ and modernist approaches, for example explaining to people how capitalism works, what’s wrong with it and what needs to be done. We could not rely on a vision which saw the politicization of social antagonisms in terms of ‘raising the consciousness’ of the ‘masses’ or ‘the workers’ or whatever. Nor could we simply deduce the political significance of these antagonisms on the basis of inherited ideological frameworks. Essentially, we had a problem understanding the world and communicating in the world.
This was often expressed in the English speaking world in terms of the ‘activist ghetto’ and needing to reconnect with ‘ordinary people’. Unfortunately, rigorous analysis and discussion of these challenges was often understood in the English speaking world as an obstacle to connecting with ‘ordinary people’. Moreover, responses to this issue often failed to go beyond explaining our ideas and politics in more straight forward language. The highly abstract categories of ‘ordinary people’ and ‘workers’ often framed the discussion, rather than a more specific focus on social antagonism. What this often looked like in practice was an attempt to extend activist culture to the population at large. Extending activist culture, however, is not a form of political militancy.
In contrast, on the continent (and especially in Spain and Italy), a more fruitful series of debates and experiments emerged which sought to fundamentally re-think the relationship between the production of knowledge/discourse and the emerging social antagonisms which characterise contemporary capitalism.
The discussion focused on how to re-insert militancy into material, everyday social antagonisms and to connect with new social subjects. What was needed was both a way to interpret the significance and potentials of the political context, and at the same time to develop a form of knowledge production that could contribute to the task of developing the political potential of these social antagonisms but in a way which embedded within antagonisms and very much open to their novel, ambiguous nature – in a way that would be able to form part of their political becoming. Militant research responds to these challenges. It doesn’t involve any specific research design or set of methods. Rather, it is a situated orientation or approach characterised by openness to the complexity and ambiguity of unfolding antagonisms.
Rather than attempt to summarise or define militant research, at this point I would like to say a few words about our project by way of providing an example.
We were part of a kind of scene in Dublin around what we call ‘independent spaces’. Basically, what happened was people got together and rented out a building to be able to do stuff they couldn’t otherwise do. Most of the stuff related to socializing, culture and education. They include art spaces, social centres, community gardens, places for music gigs and dance parties and so on. These spaces emerged during an intense property boom and process of neoliberal urbanization in Dublin, which, as in other contexts, saw urban space become intensely commercialized, difficult to access and hyper-regulated.
Independent spaces were a response to this, an attempt to create an alternative way of accessing, sharing and managing urban space. They are run collectively, are non-commercial and usually very affordable for people. We have understood them, as such, as a form of urban ‘commons’.
However, while these spaces are clearly situated within an unfolding antagonism between urban social reproduction and the process of neoliberal urbanisation, they were not characterised by any explicit political dimension, at least in traditional terms. Those involved didn’t talk about what they were doing in terms of resisting or opposing the politics of the wider city, and instead tend to see what they are doing as a pragmatic attempt to make the city more liveable for them and their community.
At the same time, these spaces were frequently being closed down by the city council and the police. We felt this situation was interesting and important in terms of the ‘right to the city’. It reflected a social antagonism around urban space, which is of course central to the process of capitalist accumulation today and in particular financialization. At the same time, even at a pragmatic level, it was clear that in order to stop the evictions and make independent spaces more sustainable those involved would need to work together to challenge the city council in particular and to work towards their right to urban space.
So we were interested in thinking about how we could use practices of knowledge production, in other words research, to intervene here. It was obvious to us, mainly because we participated in the spaces and spent quite a lot of time in them, that going around telling people that what they were doing was anti-capitalist or that they needed to fight neoliberal urbanisation by setting up a campaign, or whatever, was not going to work. Instead what we did was begin a research process which focused on three aspects: understanding antagonisms, producing discourse, and producing encounters.
Through the research process we were able to identify some of the key antagonisms at stake. In a sense we sought to kind of map the territory of antagonism. A key focus here is interpreting the ‘subjective content’ of an antagonism. In other words, what is it exactly that motivates people and what is it that pisses them off? This also included the identification of the key actors, institutions, forms of power and forms of governance at stake.
Through talking with participants, formally and informally, we sought to understand, record and disseminate how independent spaces understood themselves, what was important to them and so on. By creating spaces for this dialogue, we hoped to facilitate a process of producing discourse around independent spaces. By writing texts and holding talks, we disseminated this discourse and brought into the public.
Militant research is at heart an encounter. Precarias a la deriva, one of the collectives who have pioneered the militant research orientation, speak of the importance of constructing a common ground – especially given the vertical and horizontal social fragmentation provoked by the varied mechanisms of neoliberal governance which have proliferated over recent decades. Militant research takes as its point of departure the notion that, rather than ‘deducing’ the existence of a political subject on the basis of an analysis of capitalism, we must undertake the work of constructing political subjects. This involves a coming together of people who do not necessarily share a sense of common purpose. More specifically, we held a series of public meetings framed around some of the practical challenges independent spaces felt and we invited spaces to come and speak about that issue, as well as inviting city councillors and other stake holders.
Creating encounters and creating discourse are part of a process of creating subjectivity. In this sense militant research draws very strongly on feminist and focuauldian insights into the relationship between discourse, knowledge, subjectivity and power. Specifically, the different aspects of militant research I spoke about are aimed towards facilitating a process of political subjectivisation, understood as the developing of a collective subject in relation to a specific form of social antagonism.
Militant research is ultimately about developing an effective form of political intervention in social antagonisms. It is obviously not the only form of political intervention, but merely one which may be useful in certain contexts. We would suggest that it is particularly useful in relation to social antagonisms which are ambiguous, perhaps not easy to understand in political terms, and where there is an absence of a collective subject and therefore it is necessary to find ways of building that collective subject together.