Protest & Literature

As an English and History joint honour student, I often find myself considering how historical themes and periods have been portrayed and perceived in media. This is how, on friday, I found myself thinking about strikes I’ve read about in fiction in recent months.

The primary example was the factory workers strike in Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which I read in December. A whole section of the book (appropriately called ‘Strike’) is devoted to Harry, who operates machinery in a factory and is a local union official. Leaving aside the other aspects of his character and development (he’s a pretty terrible person overall, it’s not necessary to know the details), he is a notorious stickler and generally disliked. But he’s only the former because his position as a union official gives him purpose and power, and he hates his normal job. What I found curious about the strike in this book was the way that the power-holders (the people who own/run the factory) are entirely aware of the upcoming strike and deal with it by simply planning ahead, partially defeating the purpose of the strike. They get their workers to do additional labour to partially cover the work they won’t do during the strike, and then organise for their clients (the factory’s exact purpose is unspecified) to use other companies in their absence. From what I remember the strike was technically successful, but more symbolically than anything else.

It seemed like a very cynical portrayal of a strike, but that got me thinking. This book was written in the 60s, and yet this strike was already heavily regulated. It worked according to the systems of logic we discussed in the lecture, staying for the most part a mild form of direct action with minimal damage to productivity and nothing else. So has logical  regulation and order always been integral to workers strikes? When you consider the various tube and rail strikes in the last few months, it would certainly appear to be so in the present day. But does that take away some of the effectiveness of a strike, and whose interests does it protect? The workers or the power-holders? In the case of Selby’s novel, it was more to the company’s benefit than that of the factory workers. But it can certainly be argued that regulation and logic during strikes now is necessary as it protects the workers from losing their job, or at least as much as possible. And of course, it also ensures that the strike can work effectively, as organisation tends to increase effectivity.

Take another example, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. This is a completely different context – post-war Brooklyn is replaced with the cold cotton mills of North England a century before. It’s been years since I read the book so I can’t remember the strike perfectly, but what stood out for me back then was that Thornton (the mill owner) hired Irish migrant workers when his English workers went on strike. In this case, it would appear that a lack of logic (or rather, a failure of logic) lead to the original workers being replaced. This leads to violence, which is also illogical, as it is neither symbolic or instrumental. The heroine of the book (Margaret Hale) is injured by a thrown stone, and this delegitimises the strikers and results in the arrival of soldiers. However, as the mill needs skilled workers, the Irish migrants are unable to operate the machinery. So the power-holder is not successful, and eventually he loses a lot of money and the heroine needs to bail him out.

Of course, no matter how much of a social realist Gaskell may have been trying to be, the focus of the novel is still the characters and their relationship rather than the strike itself, and that takes precedence. So perhaps their lack of organisation would have lost the workers their jobs in the real world, or perhaps Thornton would have had to give in to their demands. But it’s fascinating to consider how the logics of protest are at play in this novel, especially since it was written so long before Tilly or any of his peers were writing.


  • Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, North and south, ed. by Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin Group (USA), 1996)
  • Selby, Hubert, Last exit to Brooklyn (London: Penguin Classics, 2011)
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30

Mini Me

I found this photo the other day and thought I might include it for a bit of fun! That’s me, the tiny human in the overalls and pink hat. My parents took me to lots of protests, marches, and parades as a child, and from what I can remember this particular photo was at an International Women’s Day march around 2000. Apparently somewhere at my mum’s house there’s a picture of baby me strapped to her chest in a papoose while she chants at a crowded protest, but I’ve never seen it. Definitely something she would have done, though.



I’m going to start off my very first post on this blog by applauding myself for not using Pink Floyd lyrics in the blog title. I was very close, mind you, but as much as I love Wish You Were Here I resisted… and went for a line from Peter Gabriel’s Biko instead. Perhaps not that much resistance then.

Lucky word usage there though, because that’s exactly what I want to talk about: resistance. During our first lecture and seminar for London’s Burning (which I deeply enjoyed), I found myself thinking about my own family history and how it ties in with social movement theory. Both of my parents were activists – perhaps they still identify so, although the active activism of their youth has turned into careers heavily influenced by their politics. Not quite the ‘communitarian activists’ that Charles Tilly put forward in 1993/4, but not quite professional either – perhaps this case requires more complex and modern definitions, à la new social movement theory?

I want to focus on my mother specifically, though. She’s Filipino, and during the 70s and 80s she was heavily involved in student politics during the Martial Law era and later a member of the Communist Party and part of the National Democratic Movement. I grew up on stories of her activism in this period, some of which were (as you can guess) pretty terrifying – not only did she have to go underground to avoid arrest and execution, but many of her comrades were arrested and executed in that time. But this period is particularly famous for the People Power Revolution, which began in 1983 but was at its peak from February 22nd-25th 1986 when there was a series of popular demonstrations on Epifanio De los Santos Avenue in Manila. This revolution is particularly famous for being a successfully non-violent revolution.


Above is an image of people standing in EDSA cheering after hearing that Marcos had fled the country (taken on February 24th 1986).

So, reading Charles Tilly (specifically ‘Social Movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, 1993/4) got me thinking about my mum and the EDSA Revolution. I don’t know the complete history of the revolution or the period around it, so any attempt to categorise it properly would be inaccurate. But the question is – can Tilly be applied to it? If we disregarded the fact that Tilly’s theories are considered a bit simplistic now, there are still other issues with them.

Most pressing of all – can Tilly be applied to social movements outside the West? We claim that his theories are less applicable to movements after WWII because of the shift in social focus (i.e. power vs. masses/workers to identity politics), but is it the same in countries where WWII had a smaller/different impact? Where do dictatorships in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East fit into that? Of course I say this as someone who has only just started the course and probably has a rudimentary understanding of these theories, but it seems to me that modern revolutions against dictatorships outside the West can still be broken up into Tilly’s populations. In the case of the EDSA Revolution, you have:

  • Power holders – Ferdinand Marcos and his administration
  • Activists/claimants – my mother and her contemporaries, e.g. the activists of the National Democratic Movement
  • Subjects/beneficiaries – the rest of the population of the Philippines, who had suffered under Marcos during the Martial Law years and afterwards

However, this is a People Power Revolution. Millions of people gathered during the demonstrations against Marcos and his regime, which is what makes this period so unique. So is this a case of activists and subjects becoming one and the same, but with the subjects only being ad hoc activists, mobilised at one point in time? Then again, there was the Second EDSA Revolution in 2001. So were many of these ad hoc activists actually professional? What about the National Democratic Movement members like my mother, professionals for two decades who then mellowed over time, but still feel strongly about social issues and have the potential to be mobilised should the need arise?

Perhaps Tilly is a little too simple, even in this case. Sorry, Charles.