The Unite the Union banner is a disobedient object that embodies in many ways the ideas of Social Movement theory. It contains ‘symbols, identities, practices and discourses’ that Vera Taylor and Nella van Dyke consider essential to ‘pursue or prevent changes in institutionalized power relations.’ (Taylor and Van Dyke, p. 48).
The actual object is in itself an act of defiance. It is a protest banner designed for a march in Manchester (2013) in support of the NHS.
The key word here is protest. The very fact that this banner is used for a protest indicates the contentious nature of the politics. Contentious politics is always the result of ‘individuals, groups or organisations that have no direct control or access to the power or decision-making apparatus.’
In this particular case, the ‘activists’ have no way of staking their ‘claim’ through the usual channels of political protocol and so make a ‘claim’ to the ‘power holders’ contentiously through the means of either indirect persuasion or coercion. Michael Lipsky succinctly states that: ‘Protest is a political resource of the powerless.’ (Lipsky, p. 56).
This banner was taken out on a march to protest against the privatisation of the NHS. It is part of the movements ‘repertoire.’ A movements repertoire is, according to Charles Tilly’s methodology for studying social movements, a number of activities available to a movement that allows them to express ‘claims’ within a ‘campaign.’ In fact, in order to qualify as a social movement in which this methodology would apply, the movement must be a ‘campaign.’ A campaign is ‘a sustained and organised public effort, making collective claims on target audiences,’ it must have a ‘repertoire’, and also publicly display elements of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment. (W.U.N.C). The Unite the Union banner allows us to see how the movement in which it was made for, displays all three of these elements and thus qualifies to be studied using Tilly’s methodology.
Even the name of the movement, Unite, demonstrates one of the elements of W.U.N.C. Unity is essential for social movements and indeed the images on the banner are geared towards demonstrating such displays of unity. At the front of the picket line is a banner within a banner declaring that: ‘Unity is strength’. This banner was specifically made for the South Yorkshire Community Branch of Unite, but the symbolism seeks to place the South Yorkshire branch into its place within a much larger united organisation. The banner mentions the 1980 steel workers strike, the 1984-5 great strike and the 1984 battle of Orgreave. It also visually demonstrates the victory of the Poll Tax rebellion with more banners within banners and in the same way illustrates the Barnsley women against pit closure strike. This particular strike in support of the NHS then is not being presented as an isolated strike. The symbolism is designed to indicate that this event is part of a much larger social movement in which the badges, banners, costumes, emblems and synchronized movements (all explicit on the banner) serve as a kind of gel. This obviously lends more weight to the movement, which in turn gives more weight to the claims that they make to the power holders. Numbers are also demonstrated in the banner.
The banner is busy. The crowds are packed and full of energy. The banner depicts a real physical presence which is in itself a goal of any social movement and also a factor that qualifies it to be studied as a social movement. In the banner we can clearly see people finding strength in numbers as a form of protest. In social movement theory this is known as ‘the logic of numbers.’ A show of strength, unity and solidarity ‘undermines the perceived power of the regime.’
It also shows that a significant portion of the public strongly disagree with something. This is also a concern for power holders at times of elections for it could draw attention to questionable policies or interfere with campaigning. There are also potential drawbacks though, for example, huge numbers could create fear and end up alienating the public, however, this is the challenge of a social movement, to weigh up, and balance exactly which parts of their repertoire they should use at certain times and where. It is this behaviour by social movements which in fact sheds light on the conditions of the time which is of much use to historians.
Commitment is also demonstrated in the banner. The symbolism of the raised, clenched fist is extremely powerful. Commitment is an essential part of W.U.N.C because visible sacrifice and dedication highlights to the power holders, and indeed the ‘subjects’ how committed they are to their cause which in turn lends weight to their claims because it increases pressure. A form of commitment that is clear with the Unite the Union banner, is the quality of the art work: ‘Working from his south London garage, Hall hand-stitches the banners himself, and estimates that this piece took about 150 hours to complete.’ (http://www.artfund.org/news/2014/07/24/disobedient-objects-at-the-va-five-must-sees).
This is not a banner then that was designed to be used for one march and then disposed of. It is a symbol. A unifying cultural item that members of a movement can relate to and find strength in. The sheer number of hours it took to hand stitch is also a clear indication of the longevity, dedication and also the importance of ‘performance’ within a social movement. The actual physical maneuvering of this banner on a march is all part of the movements repertoire as a means of persuading or gaining leverage over decision makers. The banner also depicts lots of people occupying and filling spaces.
Space is an essential idea within social movement theory. Don Mitchell explains: ‘In public space … organisations can represent themselves to the larger population and through this representation give their cries and demands some force. By claiming space in public or by creating public spaces, social groups themselves become public and, in this sense, public spaces are absolutely essential to the functioning of democratic politics.’ (Mitchell, p. 23).
Movements and contentious politics ‘emanate from’ urban social spaces. The space has some bearing over the formation and development of the movement.
This it is why it is essential to apply appropriate methodologies for analysing spatial elements of protest.
Henri Lefebvre created a methodology for understanding how social space is constructed called the ‘Conceptual Triad of “Social” Space’ in which there is perceived space, conceived space and lived space. (Lefebvre, p. 47).
Perceived space is the actual real, physical space that people occupy all the time, conceived space is the way in which the perceived space is designed and ‘theoretically shaped by those charged with controlling the space and with managing interactions between people and space, and finally, lived space is the way that ‘perceived space is shaped and created by the people who interact with it and how the use of the space is influenced by those interactions rather than the way it is designed.’
This is significant to the formation of social movements because if the power holders are the ones who control conceived space then they will design it in a way that suits their own interests and determines the way subjects will interact with that space. Therefore, it is a political act if lived space is interacted with in a way that the power holders did not intend. This could be using a public site for protest (however, there are cases in which power holders design space with this in mind so as to control public protest) or ceasing to use a space conceived to be a site of ‘exchange’ and instead reasserting the ‘use’ of a space. It has been argued that ‘space of flows’ has replaced the ‘space of places’. This is a theory in which ‘divisions between separate spaces of ‘production’, ‘consumption‘ and ‘exchange’ are broken down to allow capital to flow freely between spaces.
This means that peoples work, leisure and home life become interlinked with ‘exchange’ and thus become trapped in a pernicious process of commodification and consumerism. However, in the Triad of Social Space theory there is ‘lived space‘ in which one can interact with the space on their own terms. One can choose to reject the idea of boundless (capitalist) flow and ‘use’ the space in a different way.