Practicing Resistance

On Monday, November 2nd, 2015 I found myself arm in arm with a young woman holding a sign and standing in front of one of many sets of doors to the Chicago Board of Trade. Bruce Rauner, a Republican businessman and millionaire, took office earlier that year amid promises to “turn around” the state of Illinois and fix budget woes which had plagued it for years (Bellware 2014). The ‘Turn Around Agenda’, as he called it, was a cocktail of neoliberal austerity cuts and union busting. Facing a legislative Democratic super-majority, Rauner took the budget hostage, refusing to sign any budget that didn’t implement his proposals in some form. . With both sides entrenched, a stalemate emerged. Throughout this stalemate, the state lacked any official budget, and this led to automatic cuts to the state programs that served the most vulnerable. Childcare for working parents, assistance for parents of autistic children and funding to the largest private aid organization in the state all ended up on the chopping block.

However Illinois was not the first state to face the neoliberal austerity agenda. In Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had been pushing a similar set of legislative goals and the same had been happening in North Carolina. Progressive activists in Illinois looked to the resistance movements that had emerged in these states, and a coalition of grassroots community organizing groups began working together to push back. Taking inspiration from a series of ongoing protests in North Carolina which had come to be called Moral Mondays, this group of activists set out to start a movement in their own state – Moral Mondays Illinois.

I had been working with one of these groups, Illinois People’s Action, for nearly a year when I was asked to take part in one of these demonstrations. Thus I found myself standing there, blocking the entrance to one of the world’s major financial institutions, surrounded by hundreds of other activists with signs and chants and puppets. The police soon arrived. We had been trained for this: ask if you are under arrest, don’t resist arrest but also don’t leave until they make it clear that you are being arrested. An officer approached me and asked me to move. I told him that I would not, and asked if I was under arrest. He asked me to move again, I repeated myself. Eventually he replied that I was under arrest, grabbed me by my elbow and – despite my cooperation and attempt to walk along with him – half dragged me to the police wagon. There my hands were placed behind my back and zip tied together before I was pulled up into the wagon. In the wagon were other activists who had engaged in civil disobedience that day, from priests to students to retirees. In all, over forty people had risked arrest to shut down an institution which they saw as a principle part of the problems facing their communities.

In the face of increasing neoliberal austerity many have asked why more people have not resisted, or even revolted. To answer this question I have instead asked the inverse, why do those who engage in resistance do so? How did 40 people, of varying ages, religions, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations come to spend their Monday getting arrested? By answering this question I believe that we can shed light on the question of why more people have not become involved.

Experiences of oppression open a space for the subject to question the dominant order of things. From this questioning there often emerges a world view which is at odds with hegemonic ideologies. However this world view cannot be mobilized into action without two key components: the subjective desire to be the kind of person who takes action and knowledge of what that action might be. Individuals encounter invitations to (re)shape themselves into people who not only desire change, but take action to achieve it, through both kinship and media. It is also through these medium that individuals gain knowledge of how practices of resistance might actually work, for example how a union strike or occupation are organized.

I begin by reviewing social theories of structure, change and agency. In particular I discuss Bourdieu’s concept of practice and the ways that Sewell and Giddens expand on it. I then move on to consider the social context in which practice and structure interact in terms of contemporary social movements in Illinois. Neoliberalism is the hegemonic discourse within the social fields in which my interlocutors practice their activism. Further, multiple modes of subjectivation – from schooling to work place training – invite individuals to shape themselves as normative neoliberal subjects. Finally I turn to a review of both the global movements that have arisen in response to neoliberal globalization, and social movement theory more generally. Through this examination I turn the question – Why has there been no revolution? – common among social movement theorists on its head, and instead ask: Why has there been any resistance at all? With an understanding of these theoretical issues I move on to consider the narratives and practices of my interlocutors. I argue that it is through their experiences of oppression, counter-hegemonic modes of subjectivation, and knowledge of the concrete workings of practices of resistance, that activist subjectivities emerge.