Ecologies of Protest: Politics of Nature or Nature of Politics

On the 15th of January, a very interesting workshop was organised at Durham University. Known as the Ecologies of Protest, the workshop was organised under the YouCitizen project led by Department of Geography's Prof. Lynn Staeheli. The workshop focused on the various recent protests around the world and explored the role of the youth in many of these.

The great lineup of speakers presented various perspectives with case studies from South Africa, Lebanon, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia. The presentations looked at the aspects of democracy, citizenship, rights and environment.

In what I would call a great initiative, three postgraduate students (talk about youth involvement) from the Durham University were invited to act as discussant for the three sessions. I was the discussant for the first session called the Politics of Nature. However, after the first very engaging presentation by Sue Parnell, a more apt title, the Nature of Politics was floated. This was great for me because the discussion that I had prepared based on the reading of the three papers for the session was around the Nature of Protest Politics.

The three papers for this session were by Prof. Susan Parnell from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Caroline Nagel from the University of South Carolina and Mehmet Barsi Kuymulu from the City University of New York. Sue's paper titled “Placing the state in the state: civil society nexus of urban” explored the changing nature of youth politics in urban Cape Town. It discussed how the policies and politics may have now changed and if the youth may have now moved from a politics of apartheid to that of the environment. Caroline presented on “Open Space and the Production of Citizenship and Nationhood in Post-Civil War Lebanon” and discussed how different groups in the rural and urban Lebanon were adopting different politics and tactics to bring people into green spaces and to conserve green spaces. The last paper “Growth and Revolt: the ‘construction’ of Gezi protests in Turkey” by Barsi looked at the recent protests in Turkey that began from the efforts by a small group of youth to save Gezi park, one of the few surviving green spaces of Istanbul. Barsi contested that the protests may not have been part of the larger pattern of middle class protests around the world and argued that neoliberalism was at the heart of this protest.

These three papers were meant to be exploratory and have not been published yet. I can't give a link to the original paper but if one looked at the other works of these scholars one would be able to get a sense of their arguments. What I can share here are my reflections on the papers that I presented during the discussion at the end of the session. So, here it is:

For me there were 3 key overlaps, with the papers sometimes, supporting and the others contradicting each other. These 3 overlaps also, for me seemed to define several of the recent protests. So, in a sense these three overlaps were really about the Nature of Protest Politics.
  1. It seemed that the three papers talked to the theme of transformations. And often protests are about change, realignments and transformations:
    • Sue talked about a new politics coming into place. The politics of a civil society in Cape Town that was now concerned with non-racialism or poverty and that was more concerned with participation and environment justice.
    • Caroline alluded to the creation of a new social order and forms of citizenships. In her own words, “environmental activism in Lebanon in many ways seeks to construct a social order and to enact new modes of citizenship”.
    • Baris talked about the protests in Istanbul being against the transformation of the urban spaces. However, it seemed like the protests were also about transforming the relationships between the state and the people and trying to further democratise these relationships by using methods with which words like ‘shock’, ‘awe’, ‘caught off-guard’ are associated. 
  2. The second point of overlap was the connect between the global and the local and how that played out in different ways.
    • Sue discussed how the constitution and several other regulatory mechanisms in South Africa drew from the global environment justice systems and ‘participation’; the global buzzword got a space in several policy processes.
    • Caroline talked about the dominance of the internationalised environmental discourses and Lebanese activists deploying the internationalised concepts of nature and environment towards very specific socio-political ends.
    • As opposed to these, Baris' paper talked about the protests as a form of "dissatisfaction with the global capitalism" and its "increasing neoliberal and authoritarian character". However, his paper also sought to break the connect between the global and the local so that details do not get lost in the common and possibly dominant discussions around vague notions "such as “middle class militants” and “global middle-class revolution”".
  3. The third overlap came from the what I thought was a move towards defining, de-defining and redefining social groups, their values, and roles.
    • Sue talked about a new, post apartheid civil society in South Africa that is younger, more urban and focused on non-racial issues.
    • Caroline’s paper focused on a Lebanon that was divided into social groups based around sectarian lines which had their own "conflicting notions of Lebanon’s national identity". An attempt however was now being made to de-define and redefine the identities of these social groups and unify them in the spaces of environment. She very succinctly put it, “Green space feeds into a sense of common identity […] it is a key field in which Lebanese can learn to think of themselves as Lebanese…”
    • Baris' paper opened up the space for discussions about the protestors as a social group and the kinds of identities and values that they may represent. Whether they are from the middle class or not, their identities and values may be diverse and thus their motivations may be various, from actually making a claim on the physical space to a claim on the political space.

I really like the word provocation. Provocations are often intended to be disruptive but also to open spaces for deconstruction and reconstruction of our thought processes. So, ultimately then, on these themes I would like to put forward some questions to provoke further debates and discussion.

  1. Thinking about the new politics and social orders, I wonder up to what extent do various groups like the youth, now have a politics that is different from the past? And does this mean that they have done away with the past politics and now chosen new politics? Or is it just a case of adopting some new politics while still holding on the old ones? So, could it be that while groups may now have included environment in their politics they may still be holding on to the politics of apartheid or of sectarian struggles?
  2. In terms of the relationships between the state and the people, whenever people exercise or try to exercise their democratic rights beyond the set parameters of elections or referendums, terms like ‘shock’, ‘awe’ and ‘off guard’ come up. Why? What kind of critical mass of these protests may we be looking at for governments to realise that something is wrong, that a new relationship needs to be forged and fostered between the state and the people?
  3. Talking about the global and the local and thinking about the international environmental discourses and languages, the Indian sociologist Shiv Visvanathan (2000: 8) argues that “the minute you acquire a global language within which you can locate a local practice, or a multiplicity of local practices, the battle is on in a new way”. This connect between the global language and the local discourses opens new spaces of politics, which would see people de-aligning and realigning. So, it might be important to think what values and up to what extent, must we assign to these global ideas of environmental justice and citizenships and what kind of politics would they unravel?
  4. When trying to de-define and re-define groups and their values we might often see a juxtaposition that Caroline so well demonstrates in her paper. While one group working to bring people into the spaces of environment and nature sells the idea as ‘Lebaneseness’ i.e., going towards the Lebanese way of life, another group tries to break traditional notion of Lebanese way i.e., promote "un or non Lebaneseness” of life to bring people into green spaces. So, what kinds of politics do these juxtapositions reveal and how do we escape these conflicts?
I have written before protest politics in relation to energy. You could find these posts under the titles Energy and Protest Politics and Energy and Protest Politics: Insiders and Outsiders.


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