Building movements, debating movement building

The recent upsurge in movement building is something to be celebrated, in that it both reflects and answers the demand for new forms of social and political involvement from the people. It is a difficult and often chaotic process, writes Niall Crowley, which needs to try and answer questions like: How to challenge dominant ideas and entrenched mindsets? How to build effective forms of organisation on what is currently emerging? What effective strategies for change can be developed on actions currently being taken? Importantly, while substantive debate on these questions is necessary, imperative even, sniping is both unproductive and harmful.


There is an upsurge of activity in what could broadly be termed ‘movement building’. New organisations are emerging, new platforms from which to voice demands are being developed, new forms of communication are being established and new types of events are being organised. Crisisjam itself is one example. There is also The Second Republic, Republic 2011, the Equality and Rights Alliance, the Ireland Iceland Project, UpStart,,, the Poor Can’t Pay, the 50:50 group, the independent debt audit and many more. Claiming our Future is part of this upsurge.

This movement building activity reflects the search for new ways of organising for social, cultural and economic change. The challenges posed by interlocking crises – economic, fiscal, environmental, social, unemployment and more – and the way these crises are being managed, create a new context that requires new types of responses from civil society. The old ways of organising for change do not work any longer. It is also increasingly apparent that the potential of the old ways of organising have been diminished over the period of economic boom.

This activity also reflects the demand for new forms of involvement from people. Many people are angry, fearful and anxious. Others see opportunity for radical change in the current crises. They are all faced with a mantra that ‘we have no alternative’. Many are looking for new spaces that would enable their involvement in exploring alternatives and challenging the choices that are being made in the current responses to the crises.

It has to be acknowledged that this engagement with movement building is a minority activity. It is not an easy time for building movements or establishing new ways of organising. People and organisations are under pressure for survival and that inevitably takes priority. Crisis can also be a time when people and organisations turn in on themselves and hold fast to traditional structures and methods. It also has to be acknowledged that this movement building activity is still chaotic. It is not well resourced. It does not have neat templates to follow. If it were not chaotic, of course, it would not be meeting the challenge to innovate.

Yet this movement building seems to inspire debilitating sniping – often of the lofty state funded academic or sometimes of the pure left variety. The sniping suggests that what is being built is not the real thing. What is being built fails to reflect the theory of social movements. What is being built is a front for other interests or has been hijacked by other interests. What is being done is naive and fails to get to the core of the problems. What is involved is self-aggrandisement and is undemocratic. It would be better if this movement building inspired debate that offers a better understanding of what is happening and how to build on what is happening. This would be a debate to enable ever more effective movements to evolve.

Claiming our Future provides an interesting case study of this movement building activity. It does not fit any theoretical model for social movements. It has no template that it seeks to match. It is based on the idea that a civil society force is needed with a capacity to bring forward alternatives to the current responses to crises and to make an impact. It is based on an understanding that a civil society space is needed where people can explore and develop these alternatives and can test out the choices being made by those in power against a shared value base.

Claiming our Future involves community activists, trade unionists, environmental activists, and others from across the broad range of civil society and beyond. It brings together both people and organisations. It seeks to develop a structure that is open to people who share a value base rooted in equality, environmental sustainability, participation in decision making, accountability from those in power and solidarity. It seeks to develop a structure where organisations from across civil society can engage and make their channels of communication, their policy thinking and development, and their structures available to advancing the agenda of the movement. A movement of people and organisations sets up inevitable challenges if the different perspectives and needs of both are to be met in a manner that is a source of creativity and energy.

Claiming our Future established a national framework of values and themes at a deliberative event last October in the RDS. Over one thousand people from across the spectrum of civil society and beyond participated. The values of equality, environmental sustainability, participation, accountability and solidarity were identified for the movement. Priority themes included the need for a new model of development, income equality, job creation in the social and green economy, a new banking culture, public sector reform including universal access to health and social care and equality of access to education, and political reform involving both representative and participative democracy.

Claiming our Future is now taking the first steps to implement this national framework. A national discussion on steps to reduce income inequality is being organised on 28 May in NUI Galway. Registration is being organised through This event will be deliberative without keynote speakers, workshops or panel discussions. All can participate in debates on the politics of income equality, tackling high incomes and inequality, and tackling low incomes and poverty. Steps are also being taken to explore how to develop similar deliberation on a new model of development.

During the recent elections a local infrastructure for Claiming our Future emerged. Local convenors in a number of different counties took initiatives to bring the agenda developed for Claiming our Future to the attention of all election candidates and to begin a process that would demand some accountability from any elected candidates for any commitments they made. This local infrastructure provides new spaces for local people to get involved and to give expression to their search and demand for alternatives. Again there are challenges in getting the appropriate interaction between giving expression to local autonomy and securing advances on the national framework already established.

Claiming our Future has established a clear shared value base and set of themes to be worked on. The core purpose is to be a catalyst for new ideas and to shape a different national debate. The values and themes identified for Claiming our Future do not enjoy widespread support in society. We need to convince people and build popular support for this agenda. We need to take action to demonstrate this new popular support for this agenda and create a situation where such ideas cannot be ignored. Inevitably this is a medium term project.

There are challenges of strategy for Claiming our Future. We need new ways of working just as much as we need new ways of organising if we are to make an impact. We are challenged to deploy new approaches to building a new awareness of what is currently going on, to changing mindsets and current perspectives on what is possible and necessary, and to challenging dominant ideas and the means by which these ideas are so powerfully transmitted. We are also challenged to deploy new approaches to movement building, to engaging people already under pressure and to involving organisations themselves struggling for survival.

Claiming our Future suggests the potential in this new movement building. It also suggests the types of debates we need to be having. What effective forms of organisation can be built on what is currently emerging? What effective strategies for change can be developed on actions currently being taken? This is the debate that will assist a different future. The old habits of sniping merely confine us to an unfruitful past.


Image top LaneH on Flickr.