Social Movements in the Struggle for Redistribution

NB: This post is part of an ongoing series on LPE & Social Movements. For the framing pieces, see here and here

Aziza Ahmed – 

social-movementsIn their recent and compelling contribution to the LPE blog, Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson push us to consider how a left political agenda ought to be crafted. They aim to give specific content to Jedediah’s Purdy’s observation that the Constitution’s core principles have been interpreted to entrench current power structures, thus undermining progressive efforts at redistribution. And, they seek to provide a path for those who agree when Sam Moyn claims that it is not courts but legislatures that will help realize a progressive vision. But how? The answer, they argue lies in turning to social movements. A left legal agenda must, they argue, “be grounded in solidarities with social movement and left organizations, largely outside of formal legal and elite academic spaces.”

The idea that social movements should be central to progressive agendas is appealing, I respond with two questions that aim push this discussion further. First, it is important to explicitly consider what constitutes a social movement – which voices rise to the top, who sets the agenda, and who garners resources? These questions emerge from my own work on legal reform efforts by feminist social movements where the question of who can speak for women, how left legal activism ought to take shape, and what redistributive goals should take priority over others has splintered feminist organizations and has had material consequences, often negative, on the lives of very girls and women they purport to support. Second, and relatedly, legal realism teaches us that law exists in the foreground and background to shape our capacity to bargain, strategize, and organize. I wonder how lawyers and legal strategy constitute the redistributive imagination of left organizations?

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