Social movements in Corona times: new constraints, new practices

* Riportiamo un articolo pubblicato su OpenDemocracy di Sabrina Zajak.

Movements compensate for the lack of collective actions in public spaces, laying the groundwork for future mobilization to shape a time post-Corona crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing social movements worldwide. The current state of emergency, social isolation and the ban on meetings are only the beginning. The pandemic is causing large social, political and economic costs through rising unemployment, increasing poverty and a further widening of inequality, racism and marginalization of the already weak.

In this situation, social movements are desperately needed. At the moment many community activist, engaged citizens, and civil society volunteers make important contributions to contain the spread of the virus by calling off public demonstrations, supporting protective health standards, and providing solidarity work. Yet the current crisis is also putting significant constraints on social movements. Movements try to find new ways to compensate for the lack of collective actions in public spaces and lay the groundwork for future mobilization in order to shape a time post-Corona crisis.

One important element is the increasing amount of digital activities through which movements at the moment try to compensate for offline actions. Even though online petitions and digital activism have grown rapidly in recent decades, classic street protests, sit-ins or squatting and other collective actions in public space remain a central medium of influence for social movements. Fridays for Future, unteilbar, blockupy/occupy, the Alter Globalization Movement: we know them because of their size and regularity of their street protests. Protest events are important as they are reported in the media and the concerns and topics are discussed publicly. They are, however, also important in order to politicize andempower people and ‘win’ them for prefigurative actions.

International protest events such as the Global Climate Strike or the Global Women’s March help to construct transnational solidarities. Joint actions help to create an understanding that there are similar problems in many countries around the world, and that we must act together to tackle the major issues. Global social movements advocate equality, openness, and acceptance while at the same time recognizing national, regional or local differences and particularities. Resistance against exclusion, inequality, racism and re-nationalization is needed, but the scope for action is considerably limited, not only due to the ban on meetings, but also due to rapidly declining resources. Many activists also have to deal with their own difficult situations, rising precarity, and the threat of unemployment. This gives further room for neoliberal, nationalist, and racist tendencies in societies.

Digital infrastructures are also important for the organization and preparation of protest. It is the particular combination of online networking and offline protest that leads to a bigger resonance. Online activism can facilitate exchanges, but it rarely receives great public resonance without offline actions. Many activists are currently relocating their activities to the online world. Still, it remains doubtful whether a digital strike, or occupy via livestream can generate as much attention as a strike on the street.

In addition: Corona dominates the media and the individual attention economy. This makes it even more difficult to generate attention for example for human rights violations and extreme emergency situations in refugee camps such as Moria on Lesbos. There seem to be however differences across movements. In the fundamental restructuring of the economy, some topics might receive more attention than others. Climate change activism and demands for environmental justice for example could connect with emerging political debates on the new green deal.

In general, movements operate with particular creativity under critical circumstances. They create new symbols of solidarity, social distance direct actions, and new online spaces where people exchange ideas and generate knowledge. All these things can be a source for the diffusion of alternative reimaginations of the future, which will come earlier than we have expected in the past. Fridays For Future, for example, organizes Webinars, and offers educational formats on the subject of climate, society and crisis under the motto ‘Unite Behind The Science’. On the international day against racism, a refugee support organization in Germany used the hastag #leavenoonebehind to share symbols of solidarity with all those affected by racism. There are similar calls e.g. to #refugees welcome with over 600.000 posts, or #noborders with 150,000 posts on Instagram. Community support activism is rapidly spreading, new help hotlines e.g. against domestic violence start operating and new digital tools are created for free for connecting solidarity work.

All of these actions are significant beyond their immediate act of expressing solidarity. Even if the current crisis currently triggers a concentration of power, a silencing of criticism, and the undermining of democratic processes: in the medium and long term, a post-corona order must be established which ends the state of immediate emergency.

The pandemic painfully reveals the weaknesses of the current systems e.g. in the healthcare systems, in the global economy, in climate-, refugee- or gender equality politics, the imbalances between states, to name a few. The collective creative potential from below is required to create new ideas and democratic procedures, but also the mobilizing potential to turn this knowledge into practice to shape the societies to come.


Sabrina Zajak is professor for “Globalization conflicts, Social movements and Labor” at the Ruhr-University Bochum and leads the department Consent and Conflict at the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM).