Engaging left wing activists & academics: social movements, resistance, change conference II

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Article by Carolyn Skelton.

The 2 days I spent in September, at the conference (Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change II: Possibilities, Ideas, Demands) at Auckland University of Technology were excellent value.  I found all the presentations to be thoroughly engaging and thought provoking. This was the second such conference. It is related to Sue Bradford’s research on left wing think tanks, and the establishment of the Counterfutures journal.  These arise out of a need to develop a body of sound research, writing and other forms of communication to strengthen left wing political activities and movements in NZ.

Accessibility and breaking down barriers

One aim of the conference was to be accessible to all, so there were no registration fees, no elaborate lunches and no Wi-Fi connections.  The latter was also a good move because the lack of online distractions encouraged more interaction between conference attendees. The only drawback was that the conference was held on weekdays, meaning some workers were unable to attend.

The conference was part of significant first steps towards breaking down the barriers between activists and academics.  It will take more time for the aim to be fully achieved.  Some papers were highly academic, and probably not directly very useful or relevant for many activists.  Others were more likely to engage and stimulate both activists and academics.

There is much research being done in Universities that provides important insights and practical guides for left wing activists. However, too often academic frameworks and their implicit biases take researchers in directions that service the interests of increasingly market-oriented universities: for instance, focus on the theories and methods that are most fashionable at the time; critiquing from a standpoint of existing international approaches to research and theory, with one eye on publications to supporting their university’s international ranking; and prioritising unique academic arguments over the knowledge and practices developed through active political engagement.  From conversations with participants, I gathered some of the issues about connecting the two camps were directly addressed on the Thursday – the day I was not able to attend.

Field work: activism in Italy

For me one of the standout papers I did attend, “Social change, resistance and collective action in Italy,” addressed some of the relevant issues. It was a report on the Massimiliana Urbano ‘s field work with such political groups as infoaut and the globalproject network.

Ethnographic research, especially when it pushes boundaries of existing research methods, is an important way to forge links between social research and community activities. Urbano looks to be pushing those boundaries with her PhD research at Otago University.

Urbano recounted some of the political activities she participated in: for instance “making tomato sauce at the recovered factory in Ri-Maflow in Milan” (from her conference abstract).

Video on Ri-Maflow:

See also Urbano’s talk on the factory for Dunedinfreeuniversity.

The buildings of the factory occupied by Italian activists were still very useful, though the activists had to provide their own means of production.  Occupying premises abandoned in the face of the cycles of capitalism seems to be alive and well in Italy.

When she returned to NZ after her Italian field work, Urbano found herself blocked and wondering whether to continue.  Seemingly stalled, she eventually decided on a way forward, rejecting the most usual approaches to ethnographic research, which tend to give more power to the researchers.  She favours being an observant participant, a reversal of the more conventional participant observation.  She also rejected the academic approach of trying to represent activists, and/or decide for them better forms of practice.

Urbano argues that the activists know what they are doing.  Consequently her approach is one of engagement. Such an approach is considered to prioritise reciprocity: where academics and activists learn from and support each other.  This is the cutting edge of development productive relationships between activists and academics.

Urbano’s paper at the conference lent itself to comparisons with activism in NZ.

Squatting as direct political action: Italy, UK, Aussie, NZ

At the conference, there was some mention of how, in Italy, people occupy or squat in empty houses: often ones land-banked by wealthy speculators and investors. I wondered why this isn’t done in New Zealand.  Like many Kiwis living in England in the 1970s and 80s, I had experienced being in communities where residential squatting was seen as very acceptable, common and largely legal, possession being regarded as nine tenths of the law.  See for instance the discussion on this on Public Address.

In Australia, the women’s refuge movement made its first substantial steps through breaking and entering, and then squatting a property in Sydney in 1974.  It became Australia’s first women’s refuge from domestic violence.

Subsequent investigation has pointed to some of the reasons why there is no major movement for occupying the 22,000 empty homes in Auckland, as indicated by the the last census.  The laws here against squatting are very strong. In the UK, much squatting had been within the law until David Cameron’s governments tightened up on the relevant legislation to make squatting illegal in 2012.

There seems to be a small amount of squatting going on in NZ. However, the reports on it indicate it’s not being done as a consciously political act, but by those at the precarious and desperate edge of society, unable to find legal affordable housing.

In part two I will respond to some other topics raised at the conference.

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future. Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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