Through this essay, I will be detailing scholarly understandings, critiques, and analyses of the New Social Movement theory. To begin with I’d like to lay out the differences between collective action from a Classical Marxist perspective, and New Social Movement theory. After which I detail features of New Social Movements. This will be followed by various theoretical approaches to New Social Movements. Which will be followed by critiques raised by scholars in relation to the theory.
Collective Action – Classical Marxist Theory vis-à-vis New Social Movement Theory
The roots of New Social Movement theory are found in continental Europe. It emerged in an effort to compensate for the inability of Classical Marxism to contextualise the new strains of social movements and collective action. The primary limitation of Classical Marxism is its insistence to reduce forms of social action to an economic struggle of some kind. This is because it considers dissent targeted toward the capitalist system as the only significant basis for collective action, with other social issues only falling at a secondary position. Secondly, since Classical Marxism also tends toward reductionism in matters of class, it believes that in collective action, the most important actors must be involved in capitalist methods of production. Whereas other actors hold a secondary position. These limitations have led to the marginalisation of social movements in other domains.
This is the primary departure from the New Social Movement theory. It does not only concern itself with class-based struggle. It also includes action based in culture, politics, and ideology. Furthermore, it includes movements that are concerned with matters of gender, race, ethnicity and other forms of group and individual identity. Thus, New Social Movements destabilise classical conceptions of Marxist struggle (Buechler, 1995). Some examples of New Social Movements include “Black Lives Matter”, a movement concerned with protesting discrimination and violence meted out toward black communities, primarily in North America. While the group aligns itself with certain Marxist doctrines, it is primarily a movement centred around racial politics. Similarly, there has been a rise in movements from the LGBTQ community. These groups are concerned with the politics of one’s gender and sexual identity.
Understanding New Social Movements
Collective action which is characteristic of New Social Movement theory found its emergence in industrially well-developed nations in the late 60s and early 70s. Theorists in the field claim that these movements are a response to grievances that have arisen in a post-industrial/post-materialist society. They suggest that the form of social movement in societies living under advanced capitalism is very different from movements in the past. This is due to the rise in the State’s influence beyond the domain of production, but also into areas such as social connections, consumption habits, and services. This fuels movements to move toward a state of actualising one’s individual and group identity. They also mark a movement toward community networks centred around cooperation, compared to the commonly found formal organisational networks. Social movements of the past were concerned with safeguarding and fighting for economic and political rights, whereas New Social Movements are oriented inward. It embodies the idea of the personal being political, and tries to reassert its identity, and move away from the dominion of the State.
Membership is yet another sphere that differentiates New Social Movements. Membership is not granted along lines of class. Instead, it usually includes two sets of people. Individuals who have been marginalised by the state, and have to deal with the negative effects of modernisation; and the “new middle class” who tend to be educated, employed and young. Memberships to many New Social Movements are also based on an individual’s race, gender identity, etc. Often there is no distance between businesses and labour involved in New Social Movements. For example, in the case of the “Black Lives Matter” movement which gained traction in 2020 after the death of George Floyd in police custody; there was an out pour of corporate support for the movement. With companies such as Nike and Uber pledging millions of dollars to the movement (Duarte, 2020). Some have raised questions about the authenticity of such gestures, however, on paper, we see the breakdown of the division between businesses and labour when it comes to social movements.
This aforementioned blurring of public and private entities, theoretically constitutes a rejection of bureaucratic society. The rejection of post-industrial society is also reflected in the organisational structure of these organisations, which tend toward decentralisation, breaking down hierarchies, and encouraging democratic participation. Returning back to the example of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, it is a largely decentralised movement, however in recent years there has been rising criticism over its increasingly hierarchical nature (Kondau n.d.).
New Social Movements also embody a rejection of old values that sought to strike a compromise between capital and labour. They value post-material ideas, such as standing against economic gain at the cost of the environment. On the subject of labour movements, in the past, issues largely centred around wages and security benefits. On the other hand, New Social Movements focus more on aspects such as quality of life, employee satisfaction, and control (D’Anieri, et al., 1990).
Theories on New Social Movements
Through this section, I will be detailing various theoretical approaches to New Social Movements. The theorists being covered are Manuel Castells from Spain, Alain Touraine from France, Jurgen Habermas from Germany, and Alberto Melucci from Italy.
Beginning with Castells, he largely centres around the changes in urban spaces as a result of the dynamics brought on by capitalism, and how social movements are situated within it. He believes these social movements are a reaction to the State’s increasing intervention and importance in providing citizens essential yet non-profitable goods. Thus, the State’s reorganizational abilities have risen over time. This brings the commodified and rigid State organisation at odds with localised cultural identities and interests. Other than this, another reason for New Social Movements according to Castells is an attempt at increasing decentralisation in Governance and promoting values of autonomy and self-management. Castells is not dismissive of older movements predicated on class, instead, he appreciates its positive interplay with New Social Movements. Compared to other scholars of New Social Movement theory, Castell is more oriented toward understanding the role of the State. This orientation equips him to better understand political dynamics and structures of political opportunities.
Moving on to Touraine, he believes in the concept of historicity as the central institution that has brought about a power struggle. By historicity, he refers to the increasing ability of individuals to create systems of information, and tools available to them to change their functioning by self intervention. This according to him is a key feature of post-industrial societies. He also divides such a society into two classes – the clients/consumers which form the popular masses, and the technocrats/managerial class which form the dominating elite. Thus, there exists a clash between these two classes as to who decides to control society’s historicity. Social movements are further fuelled by the State’s increasing grip on controlling historicity. Thus, the system attempts to continually improve production, power, and wealth, whereas these New Social Movements attempt to secure and grow their sense of individuality. Touraine moves on to explain that during industrial times, the primary source of conflict was material production and movements from workers which challenged the elite classes. However, in post-industrial society, the conflict has taken on a cultural dimension. However, unlike in industrial times, Touraine struggles to provide a single constituent point of conflict. This struggle is felt by other New Social Movement theorists as well. His confusion is further worsened by his research later down the line, which indicated the significant presence of apolitical elements in New Social Movements. He believes that such movements are a product of a generalised sense of anxiety over one’s sense of individualism and identity.
Looking at Habermas, his approach to New Social Movements is considered quite elaborate. He creates a demarcation between the regular lifeworld that is controlled by normative consensus and a politico-economic setup that is controlled by power and money. According to Habermas, in post-industrial societies the logic of the system acts like a colonising figure on the lifeworld, which leads to the increased control of money and power. This leads to regulation that extends beyond the political and economic. Thus, this colonisation leads to the regulation of the formation of one’s identity, normative regulation, and other types of symbolic reproduction. He believes this colonisation by the welfare state has led to the bureaucratisation of relationships in the lifeworld. He also points out that this has led to the alteration of life in the public and private domain of the lifeworld. The capitalist dynamics allocates increasing power in administrative structures and experts, who tend to operate within the framework of money and power. This leads to a reduction in accountability and justification in the lifeworld. Habermas believes that New Social movements are only defensive in nature, as they try their best to defend the ever-increasing colonisation of the system on the lifeworld. However, Habermas fails to provide evidence that proves broad social transformation can be brought about by such movements. Habermas, like other scholars, believes that these movements are more concerned with culture, socialisation, self-realisation, and identity formation, instead of material production.
Melucci puts forth the idea that post-modern society has brought about new methods of social control, pressure to conform, and the processing of information. It is these changes that create a reaction within social movement groups. These groups respond to conflicts that are interwoven with regular life. Melucci believes that these movements are quite distant from the traditional sphere of politics. However, this does not undermine their importance as an opposition in a society that is shaped by signs and information. He believes that such movements highlight power that is couched behind the rational processes of administration. A deficiency highlighted by Melucci points at the necessity of defining one’s identity to be a part of a social movement. According to him, this only weakens such movements, since in an age of rapid change, plurality of identities, and messaging, one may feel a sense of homelessness when it comes to their identity. This serves as a limitation to involve people in social movements. Melucci views these movements as a constant work in progress, instead of a highly defined object. This is due to the fluidity of identities in modern spaces. He believes that referring to these movements as movement networks may be more suitable, considering how they operate (Buechler, 1995).
Thus, through these various perspectives, we see the rich diversity in the New Social Movement theory. We also see how one’s country of origin affects each scholar’s theorisation.
Critiques of New Social Movement Theory
A major issue with New Social Movement theorists is their inability to contextualise social movements that do not originate from the Left. This is similar to the marginalisation of Classical Marxism which did not properly recognise movements other than those arising from the class-based struggle. Thus, the New Social Movement theory only covers a section of social movements at play. This failure is furthered by an inability to provide valid reasoning for the exclusion of counter and conservative movements. These movements include militia movements and Right-Wing Christian movements. Thus, New Social Movement theories gather its understandings only from one source and are also indicative of deeper ideological biases within the theorists as a whole. This omission proves to be detrimental to our understanding of how social movements react to change in social structure since both right and left wing groups operate on the same underlying principle when it comes to causes of social action.
New Social Movement theory understands contemporary movements concerned with environmental issues, women’s and LGBTQ liberation, and student activism as a response to deep changes in the economic structure. Utilising this understanding, it is difficult to understand why pro-life, Christian, and militia movements are not considered.
Apart from this many claimed differences in New Social Movements, do not hold up against close scrutiny. There is an idea that such movements tend to be non-hierarchical, decentralised, and democratic. However, many organisations do not actually embody such characteristics. For example, the aforementioned shift of the “Black Lives Matter” movement away from decentralisation to increased hierarchy, and consolidation of power. These movements also project a dislike for institutionalised politics; however, they are often seen being consulted by governmental setups and political parties. For example, recently leaders from the “Black Lives Matter” movement spoke with representatives of the Biden administration (Schwartz, 2021).
Another issue raised with New Social Movement theory is its inability to provide substantial empirical evidence linking the intrusion of the State in private affairs with the rise of such movements. These claims are largely based on inferences and hypothesising, and there exists a marked vagueness and lack of specificity when it comes to highlighting which actions from the State cause such social movements. A second issue is raised with the idea of a claimed shift in values, from the economic to the cultural, among the New Middle class. Research on the idea of the New Middle class has found that different theorists have widely different conceptions of who constitutes this group. Another flaw with this idea is that it looks at post-materialism from a strictly economic perspective, and does not account for other factors such as principles and ideals (Pichardo, 1997).
To conclude, the New Social Movement theory proves to be an exciting line of study to better understand contemporary social movements and society. However, its tunnel-visioned focus on Left-wing movements, and its subsequent failure to account for conservative and counter-movements may prove to be limiting to our understanding of how society as a whole is reacting to the changes brought about by a post-industrial society.
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Konadu, K. (n.d.). Black lives matter: How far has the movement come? Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/story/black-lives-matter-how-far-has-the-movement-come
Pichardo, N. A. (1997). New Social Movements: A Critical Review. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 411–430. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2952558
Schwartz, B. (2021, June 29). Black lives matter leaders met with Biden officials – and they’re disappointed with police reform talks. CNBC. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/29/black-lives-matter-leaders-met-with-biden-white-house-officials-on-police-reform.html
This paper submitted by Ethan John Rajesh