Two distinct theoretical paradigms dominate the study of social movements (SMs) in contemporary societies: the first is the European new social movement approach (NSM); the second is the North American perspective known as resource mobilization (RM).1 Both seek to explain the emergence and the significance of contemporary social movements in (post-) industrial societies. In so doing, both approaches have reformulated traditional theories of collective action on each side of the Atlantic.
The theoretical issues each perspective addresses are to a great extent determined by the different scientific traditions and contemporary debates in each region. NSM theory, for instance, questions reductionist Marxism, which assigned the working class a privileged place in the unfolding of history. RM theory, in contrast, criticizes Durkheim’s view of collective action as anomic and irrational behavior resulting from rapid social change, and it questions ‘relative deprivation’ theory, which assumes a direct link between perceived deprivation and collective action. Each perspective developed in relative isolation from the other, and until recently there was little theoretical interaction between them. It is commonly assumed that the theoretical premises of these paradigms are incompatible, but a close examination indicates otherwise. Although there are significant theoretical differences, these are partly due to the fact that each approach examines SMs at different, but complementary, levels of analysis.
The NSM perspective emphasizes the cultural nature of the new movements and views them as struggles for control over the production of meaning and the constitution of new collective identities. It stresses the expressive aspects of SMs and places them exclusively in the terrain of civil society, as opposed to the state. This approach also emphasizes discontinuity by highlighting the differences between the new movements and traditional collective actors. RM theory, in contrast, stresses the political nature of the new movements and interprets them as conflicts over the allocation of goods in the political market. Hence, it focuses on the strategic-instrumental aspects of action and places social movements, simultaneously, at the levels of civil society and the state. It also places emphasis on continuity between the new and the old collective actors.
Reactions against Traditional Paradigms
Both the NSM and RM theories point out that traditional theories explained collective action in reference to structural dislocations, economic crisis, and exploitation. The older theories assumed that the passage from a condition of exploitation or frustration to collective action aimed at reversing the condition was a simple, direct and unmediated process. The new paradigms, in contrast, proposed that this passage from condition to action is a contingent and open process mediated by a number of conjunctural and structural factors. NSM and RM theories differ, however, in their definition of which central factors mediate the transition from condition to collective action.
NSM theorists suggested that two types of reductionism prevented Marxism from understanding contemporary SMs. The first, economic reductionism, is the assumption that a single economic logic provides the unity of a social formation and determines its political and ideological processes. Thus economic reductionism gives theoretical primacy to economic factors and treats politics and ideology as epiphenomena of the economic realm. The second reductionism in Marxism is class reductionism: the assumption that the identity of social agents is given to them overwhelmingly by their class position. Thus all social actors are, ultimately and fundamentally, class actors, and their identity only reflects economic class interests (Mouffe, 1979: 169; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985: 76).
The two reductionisms have prevented Marxism from understanding the new conflicts in modern societies. NSM theorists argued that new collective actors had moved to the center of contemporary conflicts and displaced traditional working-class struggles. These new actors were not class actors as their identity was not constituted by their place at the level of production. Their primary concern was not with economic issues but with collective control of the process of symbolic production and the redefinition of social roles. They raised non-class issues related to gender, ethnicity, age, neighborhood, the environment, and peace. Their identity was defined in relation to these issues and not by class position. Thus the identities of contemporary SMs could not be a mechanical reflection of economic interests. They were themselves the product of ideological and political processes. NSM theorists made it clear that economic and class reductionism had prevented Marxism from explaining the mediated nature of the passage from condition to action. In the new framework this transition was said to be mediated by ideological, political and cultural processes.
Resource mobilization theory challenged the functionalist basis of collective behavior theory — which emphasized integration, equilibrium and harmony — and proposed a conflict model of social action. Collective action, they argued, is triggered by well-entrenched cleavages in society, not by short-term strains resulting from rapid social change. They also pointed out that in traditional studies of collective behavior the object of analysis was not the social movement itself but the system’s sources of disequilibrium which led to the rise of collective actors. Resource mobilization theorists, for their part, made social movements the object of analysis.
While collective behavior theory viewed collective action as non-institutional, irrational responses by those displaced by social change, the new approach suggested that participants in the new movements were rational, well-integrated individuals or groups developing strategies in pursuit of their interests. They theorized that collective actions operated at the political-institutional level so that the distinction between institutional and non-institutional action was not pertinent to the study of social movements. Rational actors, employing strategic and instrumental reasoning at the political-institutional level, replaced the irrational crowd as the central object of analysis in studies of collective action (Cohen, 1985: 674–5).
The critique of relative deprivation theory centered on the relationship between condition and action. Relative deprivation studies assumed that collective action resulted from perceived conditions of deprivation and the feelings of frustration associated with these perceptions. RM theory pointed out that grievances and inequalities could only be considered a precondition for the occurrence of social movements. Relations of inequality and domination, they argued, were found at every level of social life, but only in some instances would the legitimacy of these relations be questioned, and even when this occurred, the formation of organized movements aiming to change these relations was only one possible outcome. The existence of inequalities and/or the subjective perception of these inequalities were not enough to explain why social movements emerge. RM theory proposed that the passage from condition to action was contingent upon the availability of resources and changes in the opportunities for collective action (Tilly, 1978: 99).
New Social Movement Theory: Explaining the Emergence of Social Movements
A number of theorists — Habermas and Offe, rooted in German critical theory; Laclau and Mouffe, with their synthesis of post-structuralism and neo-Gramscian Marxism; and Touraine with his sociology of action — explain the emergence of SMs in reference to structural transformations and long-range political and cultural changes which created new sources of conflict and altered the process of constitution of collective identities. Habermas views new social movements as struggles in defense of the ‘life world.’ Offe explains SMs within the context of late capitalist societies and focuses on the contradictory role of the capitalist state, as it must ensure, simultaneously, the conditions for capital accumulation and bourgeois legitimacy. Some authors (Habermas, Offe, Lac1au and Mouffe) highlight the notion of crisis (of hegemony and legitimation) in contemporary capitalist societies and conceive collective actions as rational responses to such crisis. Lac1au and Mouffe explain SMs in terms of the availability of democratic discourse and the crisis of the hegemonic formation consolidated after the Second World War. Touraine focuses on the emergence of a new societal type, post-industrial society, characterized by increased levels of reflexivity.
The crisis of legitimation
Habermas argues that system integration and social integration possess distinct logics that require different types of rationality: system integration (the steering mechanisms of a society) results from mechanisms of domination, such as the state and the mass media; social integration (the legitimating normative structures) is obtained through socialization and the creation of a ‘life world’ of meaning (Cohen, 1982: 203–5). A crisis develops when the expansion of steering mechanisms (system integration) disturbed the processes through which norms, values and meaning were produced (social integration). Habermas identifies the present intrusion by the state and the market into areas of private life — the ‘colonization of the life-world’ — as the source of the present crisis of legitimation (Habermas, 1981: 35). NSMs, he argues, represent defensive reactions seeking to retain or re-create endangered lifestyles. They operate at the level of social integration and are concerned less with redistributional issues than with the ‘grammar of forms of life’ (33–4). Thus the new movements arise ‘at the seam between system and life-world’ (36).
Offe explains the rise of new movements within the context of the crisis of legitimation resulting from the new relationship between state and society in
late capitalist societies. He views the state as a network of steering mechanisms, whose role in securing system integration, given the inadequacy of market mechanisms, has greatly increased. The capitalist state must secure, simultaneously, the conditions for capital accumulation and for bourgeois legitimacy. Offe argues that given this new role of the state as regulator of social and economic processes, the administrative and normative subsystems acquire greater autonomy from the economic level. Thus, since the economic subsystem cannot be isolated from political and administrative mediation, conflicts cannot emerge from purely economic concerns.
The basis for the present ‘crisis of crisis management’ is found in the irony that state regulation can secure the stability of the capitalist system only through ‘non-capitalist’ means. The state must ‘compensate for the failures of the market mechanisms’ without infringing on ‘the primacy of private production,’ but it cannot do so without expanding ‘non-commodity forms of social relation[s].’ (Jessop, 1984: 108–9). The ‘decommodification’ of growing areas of social life — which results from the expansion of non-productive forms of labor and the increased provision of ‘public goods’ by the welfare state — threatens capital accumulation and bourgeois legitimacy. The conditions for capital accumulation are affected by the withdrawal of capital from productive activities, resulting in fiscal crisis. The expansion of non-commodity relations erodes bourgeois legitimacy because it politicizes economic relations, making it possible to challenge the view that market forces should be the main allocators of wealth and resources in society.
Given its role as a ‘crisis manager,’ the state has become a central source of inequalities and power differentials. As Cohen (1982: 198) explains, Offe sees the political system as a ‘filtering mechanism’ that determines what interests and demands can be selected for political articulation. The interests and demands which are excluded are those that cannot be associated with specific interest groups, or those coming from sectors that are not fully integrated into, or do not have functional significance for, the economic and political system. This filtering process has important consequences for the legitimacy of the ‘crisis manager.’ The inability of political parties and trade unions to meet and/or to articulate the multiple demands raised by numerous interest groups produces a ‘crisis of mass loyalty’ and contributes to the emergence of new collective actors.
For Offe, the emergence of new social movements must be understood as a reaction against the deepening, broadening, and increased irreversibility of the forms of domination and deprivation in late capitalist societies. The
deepening of the mechanisms of social control and domination — the expansion of steering mechanisms — takes place as more and more areas of private life come under state regulation ‘through the use of legal, educational, medical, psychiatric, and media technologies’ (Offe, 1985: 846). This process, paradoxically, has contradictory effects on state authority: on the one hand, it strengthens it as more areas of civil society come under state regulation and control; but, on the other hand, state authority is weakened as ‘there are fewer nonpolitical — and hence uncontested and noncontroversial — foundations of action to which claims can be referred or from which metapolitical (in the sense of “natural” or “given”) premises for politics can be derived’ (818).
Following from the above, contemporary conflicts center around two different projects. Neoconservatives fight for a restrictive redefinition of the political and the reprivatization of issues and conflicts that political authority cannot satisfy. NSMs, by contrast, expand the political by politicizing civil society and reconstituting it in ways that make it ‘no longer dependent upon ever more regulation, control, and intervention’ (820). The negative effects of existing economic and political arrangements have been broadened as feelings of deprivation have expanded from the work role to other social roles such as citizen, consumer, client of bureaucratic decisions, and so on. The increased irreversibility of forms of domination and deprivation refers to the ‘structural incapacity’ of existing political institutions to reverse the problems and deprivations that they have caused (844–7).
The emergence of post-industrial society
While the conditions for the reproduction of capital are the starting point in Offe’s discussion of SMs, Touraine relates the rise of NSMs to the emergence of a new societal type, post-industrial or programmed society, which has brought ‘a new culture and a field for new social conflicts and movements’ (Touraine, 1985: 781). This said, Touraine is against any type of reductionism, and rejects the view that society is driven by a single inner logic. Social relations, he argues, cannot be understood only in reference to position in the process of production, since they are a ‘normatively oriented interaction between adversaries within a cultural field open to opposed interpretations’ (Cohen, 1982: 212). Society is a ‘hierarchized system of systems of action’ of actors defined by cultural orientations and social relations; the key to understanding it is to focus on the origins of norms and the conflicts over their interpretation (Touraine, 1981: 61).
A central concept in Touraine’s sociology of action is historicity, a property of modern societies. Historicity refers to the capacity of society to
‘act upon itself’ in order to reshape the set of cultural models that guide social practices. It is ‘the set of cultural, cognitive, economic, and ethical models by means of which a collectivity sets up relations with its environment; in other words, produces . . . a culture’ (Touraine, 1988: 40). But for Touraine a culture is more than a general framework of social relations: it is the fundamental object of historical contestation. A culture is ‘a stake, a set of resources and models that social actors seek to manage, to control, and which they appropriate or whose transformation into social organization they negotiate among themselves’ (8). Culture, in other words, is a product, the result of social conflict over the appropriation of historicity.
Touraine’s typology of modern societies divides them into three discontinuous types — commercial, industrial and post-industrial — each with its own cultural model, type of investment and central conflict. The central conflicts in commercial societies (which are culturally oriented to exchange, and possess a type of investment in the sphere of distribution that includes goods and rights) involve struggles for civil liberties and political rights. The central struggle of industrial societies (which are culturally oriented to production and have a mode of investment that transforms the means of production and the organization of work) is between capitalists and workers. Class domination in industrial societies is based on Taylorism and the ownership of capital, leading to conflicts around questions of material production, such as control over the forces of production, the organization of the labor process and other economic issues.
In post-industrial societies investment is made at the level of production management, and class domination is based on the monopoly over the supply and processing of data and on the control of the ways of organizing social life and the production of meaning. Hence, the central conflicts of post-industrial societies are no longer over political rights or material concerns, but rather over the ‘production of symbolic goods’ — in other words, over the appropriation of historiciry (Touraine, 1985: 774). The central actors engaged in these struggles are those who control the production of meaning, the technocrats, and those who resist it and struggle for the collective reappropriation of historiciry (Touraine, 1981: 62; Cohen, 1982: 219).
In contrast to other NSM theorists (who argue for dispersion and plurality in contemporary social conflicts), Touraine proposes that in any society there is a central conflict, and that the ‘greater the diversity of struggles, the more each society is animated by a single social movement for each social class’ (Touraine, 1981: 94). The term ‘social movement,’ indeed, must be reserved for these ‘truly central conflicts’ which call into
question the social control over historicity (1988: 26). Touraine’s use of the concept of social class is designed to stress the centrality of certain conflicts and the consequent division of society into two opposing camps. While retaining the basic language of class theory, however, Touraine transforms the reductionist meaning given to it by Marxism. Classes are not defined in reference to position at the level of production, but rather by being in a position of dependency or domination vis-à-vis the appropriation of historicity. Thus he expands the concept of class conflict to include the question of control over cultural models (Arnason, 1986: 144).
From Touraine’s perspective, a social movement is, therefore, the action of a subject calling into question the social form of historicity (Touraine, 1988: 68). If historicity is the set of cultural models (cognitive, ethical, economic), SMs are the groups that ‘contend in order to give these cultural orientations a social form,’ to transform them into concrete forms of social organization (42). This is why SMs are central to the functioning of society and to the process through which it is created (Cohen, 1982: 213). They are ‘the fabric of social life’ (Touraine, 1981: 94).
Touraine makes a sharp analytical separation between the diachronic and synchronic axes of a social system, or between its pattern of development and its mode of functioning. Changes from one societal type to another, system contradictions, revolutions, development and steering mechanisms are located at the diachronic level. Touraine argues that the transition from one societal type to another — which implies a radical break with the logic of the existing social system — requires an agent and a logic of action from outside the system. Such an agent, Touraine explains, can only be the state (1981: 104). The state, therefore, is the central actor at the diachronic level and becomes the ‘central agent of development’ (117). The functioning of a social system — the self-production of its historicity — is located at the synchronic level (104). It includes the conflictual generation of norms, social institutions and cultural patterns. Touraine argues, like Habermas, that this is the terrain where SMs operate. The state is marginal at this level because it is located along a different axis. Thus, while SMs deal with the production of meaning at the synchronic level, other actors deal with politics and the state at the diachronic level.
Decentered subjects and political articulation
In contrast to Touraine’s view, which sharply separates the social from the political, Laclau and Mouffe assert the primacy of political articulation and the broadening of politics. For them, the unity of a social formation results from the contingent and open process of political articulation (Laclau and
Mouffe, 1985: 76–7; Laclau, 1981: 45). Identities and interests do not have a pre-discursive existence; nor do they derive their unity from a single economic logic (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 90).
Laclau and Mouffe suggest that social agents are ‘essentially decentred’ (that is, they do not possess an essential unity), given that they are the locus of multiple subject positions ‘corresponding both to the different social relations in which the individual is inserted and to the discourses that constitute these relations’ (90). Because the identity of these agents is contingent upon political processes, it can be nothing more than an ‘unstable articulation of constantly changing positionalities’ (Laclau, 1983: 23). For Laclau and Mouffe, hegemony is the process of discursive construction of social agents. But hegemonic practices can never fully fix these identities because the social, by its very nature, is always ‘open.’ Since each subject position has the potential for multiple constructions, the subjectivity of every subject position will always be provisionally fixed (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 86–7).
Laclau and Mouffe explain the emergence of new social movements in reference to the availability of the democratic discourse and the consolidation of a new hegemonic formation following the end of the Second World War. According to them, ‘the democratic revolution’ that began with the French Revolution of 1789 made possible the proliferation of new antagonisms by extending the democratic principles of liberty and equality to new areas of social life. This democratic revolution constructed individuals and groups as subjects in a democratic tradition, placing the values of equality and liberty at the center of social life. The ‘subversive power’ of the democratic discourse was to spread these values into increasingly wider areas of social life. Hence, the availability of the democratic discourse permitted the emergence of collective actors who challenged the view of society as a natural and rigid hierarchical system of differential positions.
The significance of the democratic revolution to explaining the origins of social movements becomes clearer when Laclau and Mouffe introduce the analytical distinction between relations of subordination and relations of oppression. The former refers to a situation where an agent is subjected to decisions of others without questioning the power relation; relations of oppression refers to a condition where the agent challenges these relations of subordination, turning them into sites of antagonism (1985: 153–4). What are the conditions whereby a relation of subordination constitutes itself as the site of an antagonism, thus giving rise to a social movement? Laclau and Mouffe suggest that an antagonism may emerge when the identity of a given subject is negated by other discursive practices. This negation of subjectivity could take two forms: one, negation of rights, when
acquired rights are called into question; two, contradictory interpellation, when, as a result of social transformations, certain social relations which previously had not been constructed as relations of subordination begin to be constructed as such (Mouffe, 1988: 94; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 159).
Laclau and Mouffe also link the rise of SMs to structural transformations. They view them as responses to antagonisms which developed with the consolidation of a ‘new hegemonic formation’ after the Second World War.2 The new formation brought about fundamental changes in production, in the nature of the state and in culture, which resulted in an increased commodification, bureaucratization and massification of social life. Unlike Offe, they argue that there is an increased commodification of social life resulting from the penetration of capitalist relations into wider spheres of social life (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 160–61; Mouffe, 1988: 92). Changes in the labor process brought about by ‘scientific management’ led to increased productivity and created the basis for the transformation of society into a big marketplace in which new ‘needs’ were constantly created and more and more products of human labor were transformed into commodities. The rise of the welfare state led to an increased bureaucratization of social relations and a deeper penetration, by the state, of a growing number of spheres of social life, thus blurring the distinction between the private and public spheres and giving rise to a variety of new areas of conflict. The process of massification of social life resulted from changes in the modes of cultural diffusion and the establishment of a mass culture presenting a homogeneous way of life and cultural pattern (Mouffe, 1984: 140–41; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 163–4).
Social movements as discontinuity
In spite of the wide array of theoretical propositions among them, NSM theorists converge in their emphasis on rupture and discontinuity when comparing the new movements with traditional struggles and collective actors. These new actors are said to be at the center of contemporary conflicts, to raise new issues, to be the carriers of new values, to operate in new terrains, to employ new modes of action and to have new organizational forms.
The first aspect of rupture with traditional collective actors is that in contemporary struggles the contending actors do not constitute fundamental (economic) social classes; instead they are aggregates of various social groups whose identity is not defined by their place in the process of production or with reference to traditional ideologies of left, right and center. As Offe puts it, ‘the universe of political conflict is coded
in categories taken from the movement’s issues: gender, sexual orientation, locality, etc.’ (Offe, 1985: 831).
Discontinuity with previous struggles is also seen in the issues and values raised by the new movements. NSM theorists stress that the new actors struggle for collective control over the process of meaning — production and are primarily concerned with symbolic issues and the constitution of new identities. In contrast to traditional actors, political parties and trade unions — which operate at the strategic-instrumental level of action and are concerned with material reproduction and distribution — the new movements operate at the communicative level of action and are concerned with cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization (Cohen, 1983: 106; Habermas, 1981: 33). They fight for the right to realize their own identity, for ‘the possibility of disposing of their personal creativity, their affective life, and their biological and interpersonal experience’ (Melucci, 1980: 218). They are struggles for ‘the reappropriation of time, of space, and of relationships in the individual’s daily experience’ (219).
The movements raise a wide array of issues: the eradication of discrimination and oppression, the rejection of traditional roles (worker, consumer, client of public services and citizen), the reappropriation of physical space (neighborhood, locality, the city), the cultural and practical redefinition of our relationship with nature (environment, consumerism, productivism) and the constitution of new identities (based on gender, age, locality, ethnicity, sexual orientation). They advocate the values of equality and participation, autonomy of the individual, democracy, plurality and difference, rejection of manipulation, regulation and bureaucratization. One effect of bringing to public discussion issues which were previously considered private — like sexual orientation, interpersonal relations, biological identity, family relations — has been to blur the traditional lines of demarcation between the public and private spheres (Offe, 1985: 817; Melucci, 1980: 219; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985).
Another sign of rupture with traditional conflicts is observed in the field of action of contemporary collective actors. NSM theorists point out that the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of norms and values take place at the level of social integration, not at the level of steering mechanisms (the state). Thus, they argue, the field of social conflict has shifted from the political sphere to civil society and the cultural realm (Touraine, 1985; Melucci, 1985: 789). They say that new movements are transforming civil society by creating ‘new spaces, new solidarities and new democratic forms’ (Cohen, 1983: 106). It is in the context of these ‘liberated’ spaces, where alternative norms and values guide social interaction, that new identities and solidarities are formed. This reasoning resembles Gramsci’s discussion about the need to move from a war of
maneuver to a war of position. In this case the new spaces would be the new trenches that Gramsci said had to be conquered and secured in the process of building a counter-hegemonic project.
There are differences, however, in how each theorist assesses the linkages between the new movements and the political system. Touraine places SMs at the level of civil society (social integration) and excludes them from the political realm (system integration). Movements operating at the political level are not SMs proper: they are either historical movements (fighting for historical change) or struggles operating, according to him, at lower levels of social action (politico-institutional). Laclau and Mouffe, in contrast, argue that the multiple points of antagonism that have emerged have led to the expansion of the political through the proliferation of political spaces. As social conflict expands into new areas of social life, the field of politics is enlarged (Mouffe, 1988: 96). These new movements, they explain, are contesting the state’s redefinition of the public and private spheres and thus transforming private issues into political issues (Mouffe, 1985: 161–3; 1988: 93).
Other theorists (Habermas, 1981; Offe, 1985; Melucci, 1985) place SMs in an intermediary space between civil society and the state. For Habermas they operate in a sub-institutional, extra-parliamentary terrain located at the ‘seam between system and life world’ (Habermas, 1981: 36). Offe argues that the new movements challenge ‘the boundaries of institutional politics’ by tearing down the traditional dichotomies between private and public life, institutional and non-institutional action, political and civil society. In doing so they politicize civil society ‘through practices that belong to an intermediate sphere between “private” pursuits and concerns, on the one side, and institutional, state-sanctioned modes of politics, on the other’ (Offe, 1985: 820). The actions of SMs, Offe argues, politicize civil society but in ways that do not reproduce existing forms of control, regulation and state intervention.3 Melucci also refers to an ‘intermediate public space’ where SMs make society hear their messages and where these messages enter the process of political articulation. The movements, however, retain their autonomy: they are not institutionalized; nor do they become political parties. All they seek is control of a field of autonomy vis-à-vis the political system (Melucci, 1985: 815; 1980: 220).
The organizational structures of NSMs are said to have features different from those of traditional collective actors. While most NSM theorists tend to neglect the organizational dimension of SMs, Melucci argues that movements do not exist only in their cultural dimension: they also assume organizational forms (Melucci, 1985: 813). But these forms are different from traditional formal organizations. They are loosely articulated networks of participatory democratic organizations permitting multiple membership
and part-time or short-term participation and demanding personal involvement both inside and outside the organization. These organizational forms and modes of action de-emphasize other traditional dichotomies, such as the distinction between leaders and led, members and nonmembers, private and public roles, means and ends, instrumental and expressive action (Offe, 1985: 830; Melucci, 1985). The distinction between leaders and led is undermined by a strong emphasis on democratic participatory structures, the absence of elected officials for regular intervals, and minimal organizational bureaucracy (Melucci, 1980). Limited formal requirements for membership allow for a loose definition of who belongs to the movement. Since participants are expected to ‘practise’ what the movement ‘preaches’ in their day-to-day life, the distinction between private and public roles is also diffused.
NSM organizations are not instrumental in the sense that they are not conceived as means to achieve broader political goals: they make no clear distinction between the movement’s goals and means. Thus the distinction between instrumental and expressive action ceases to be relevant. The organization is itself an integral component of the message. Melucci explains that, since ‘the action is focused on cultural codes, the form of the movement is a message, a symbolic challenge to the dominant patterns’ (Melucci, 1985: 801). In other words, ‘the medium . . . is the message’ (801). The movements challenge established cultural codes and show, by the things they do and how they do them, that an alternative is possible (812). This makes the categories of success or failure inappropriate for assessing the impact of SMs, because their very existence is a gain in itself (813).
Assessment of the NSM paradigm
The NSM perspective presents a non-reductionist approach to the study of modern societies, offering important insights into the nature of contemporary social conflicts. By moving beyond economic and class reductionism, the new perspective can identify new sources of conflict that give rise to new actors. The emphasis on processes of constitution of new identities and on the novelty of some features of contemporary movements has allowed NSM theorists to underline the degree to which these movements represent a break with past traditions.
The strength of Offe’s model is that it explains the ‘crisis of crisis management’ in reference to structural factors and political and cultural processes. Offe highlights the politically mediated nature of social relations, including economic ones, and offers a non-reductionist approach to the constitution of conflicts and identities in modern societies. Steering
mechanisms (the state) are presented as sources of power and conflict, and not as mere epiphenomena of the economic base. New actors emerge, therefore, as a result of the growing intervention of steering mechanisms in regulating economic and social life. In consequence, their identity is constituted in the intersection between the state and civil society.
Laclau and Mouffe’s analysis focuses on the process of constitution of new identities. By reformulating the concept of hegemony, they highlight the open, contingent and relational nature of social identities. In explaining the rise of NSMs they point to the emergence of new antagonisms created by the new hegemonic formation consolidated after the Second World War. The new conditions are given by a reorganization of the production process and the expansion of capitalism into wider areas of social life, the emergence of a new type of state and new mass culture, plus the availability of the democratic discourse. As a result, the field of social conflict is enlarged, and multiple new sources of social antagonisms give rise to a multiplicity of social movements.
Touraine’s action theory attempts to rescue the subject from all forms of reductionism and seeks to achieve a balance between structure and actor. Post-industrial society, with new technology and increased reflexivity, gives rise to new conflicts and actors. His emphasis on the functioning of society (the synchronic dimension) and on normative contestation highlights the significance of the new movements. The emergence of new actors struggling over non-economic, non-political themes demonstrates the increased reflexivity of post-industrial society regarding the social construction of reality. There are, however, five important shortcomings in this approach.
First, NSM theory offers an incomplete account of the origins of SMs and neglects to identify all the processes which intervene in the passage from ‘condition’ to ‘action.’ It explains the meaning of SMs in reference to structural, historical, political and ideological processes, but it does not integrate into its analysis the strategic-instrumental dimension of social action — that is, the processes by which individuals and groups make decisions, develop strategies and mobilize resources. The emphasis on identity comes at the expense of considering strategic questions. It is assumed that a given social group develops an identity first, and only subsequently engages in strategic-instrumental action. NSM theorists study only the first stage, which they consider to be the most important. This stage conception of the development of SMs and group identity is flawed. Identity develops only in the process of interaction with other social forces, and organizational and strategic concerns are an integral part of it. It is simplistic to see these two levels as sequential.
Offe’s powerful analysis, for example, limits itself to identifying the ‘structural potential’ for SMs by focusing on how structural transformations and political intervention create the conditions for the rise of new actors. Laclau and Mouffe rightly suggest that the transition from condition to action is not explained by structural potential or by the condition of subordination itself. Yet, is the existence of the democratic discourse a sufficient condition for the emergence of new forms of collective action? Reference to the democratic imaginary alone cannot explain why the new movements emerged during the 1960s and not before. Moreover, in their effort to emphasize the openness of the social they fail to point out that the constitution of social agents is not an arbitrary process. Shared experiences, imposed by structural conditions, set limits to the possible group identities that might emerge. This neglect of extra-discursive elements leads Laclau and Mouffe to replace economic and class reductionism with ‘discourse reductionism’ (Assies, 1990: 57). Yet, when it comes down to explaining the rise of the new movements, they are forced to refer to (new) structural conditions: the expansion of capitalism and the welfare state.
In assessing Touraine’s analysis of the origins of SMs the circularity in his argument is clear: on the one hand, NSMs are new actors because they express new conflicts corresponding to a new societal type — that is, post-industrial society; on the other hand, post-industrial society is new because it has led to the rise of new collective actors who fight over historicity (Cohen, 1985: 702). Moreover, Touraine’s sharp distinction between synchrony and diachrony prevents him from addressing the dynamics of mobilization, in which collective actors emerge (or fail to do so) as a result of decisions, strategies, organizational structures and changes in the opportunities for collective action. By placing structural factors, system change and the state on another axis, he only displaces this strategic-instrumental component of social action to another level. SMs are left, by definition, without any instrumental or political dimension. The question of the relationship between actor and structure does not find an adequate solution (Cohen, 1982: 216).
Second, the various definitions of NSMs are based on a radical, and untenable, opposition between SMs and politics, civil society and state. This results from an exclusive focus on the cultural aspects of the new movements and on the proposition that civil society is the only arena for SM activity. This way of defining social movements has stripped them away from their political dimension. It has also inhibited NSM theorists from exploring the connection between civil society and the state, and between SMs and political reform. Thus NSM theory cannot explain the processes and the mechanisms that intervene in the institutionalization (or the
absence of institutionalization) of the new values and social practices that NSMs are said to be developing within civil society.
Laclau and Mouffe, for example, insist that every new social conflict is political, as politics expand to civil society, but fail to discuss the institutional aspects of politics, the relationship between NSMs and political parties, and the institutional process through which the democratization of the state can be achieved. Such separation between SMs and the political system can potentially contribute to the de-politicizing of SMs. This is most ironic, given that the purpose of their argument is to demonstrate the expansion of the political. Likewise, Touraine’s radical oppositions (diachrony versus synchrony, pattern of development versus mode of functioning, state versus civil society, organizational and institutional levels versus historicity, historical movements and struggles versus social movements) fail to realize that SMs are more than cultural phenomena: they are also struggles for institutional reform. In other words, Touraine focuses on normative contestation, but excludes from his analysis what is actually institutionalized.4
Third, NSM theory has tended to ignore the organizational dimension of SMs. NSM theorists have little to say about organizational dynamics, leadership, recruitment processes, goal displacement, and so on. Given their emphasis on discontinuity (de-differentiation of roles, participatory democracy, etc.) no attempt has been made to compare SM organizations with more formal organizations and to apply organizational theory to the study of SMs.
Fourth, NSM theory does not explore all aspects of continuity between the new and the old actors in terms of their modes of action, organizational structures and their relationship with political institutions. A closer examination shows that the rupture is not as radical as some suggest. Thus it is perhaps more appropriate to replace the term ‘new SMs’ with ‘contemporary SMs,’ as suggested by Cohen (1983).
Touraine’s sharp separation between struggles over civil and political rights, material production, and historicity, which is said to characterize each societal type, cannot easily be found in practice. Isn’t the common denominator of these struggles, old and new alike, that they seek to democratize political, economic and social life? Labor struggles of the past were not restricted to redistributional questions. They were also struggles for the constitution of new collective identities (Thompson, 1975).
Other NSM theorists, however, explore the question of continuity. For Laclau and Mouffe, contemporary SMs contain aspects of continuity and discontinuity. Continuity is provided by the permanence of the egalitarian imaginary which links the struggles of the nineteenth century with those of contemporary SMs. There is discontinuity because SMs extend the
democratic revolution to new social relations by challenging the new forms of subordination created by the new hegemonic formation. Offe argues that what is least new in contemporary SMs is their values. According to him, there is a growing awareness of the contradictions that exist within the modern set of values, but this does not lead to a rejection of these in toto. Rather, some values are emphasized over others. SMs, therefore, do not represent a value change but a selective radicalization of these values and a change in their mode of implementation (Laclau and Moufe, 1985: 849–54).
Fifth, the emphasis on theorizing the ‘why’ of SMs has come at the expense of empirical studies (Touraine being an exception). Most NSM theorists have concentrated on developing general theoretical postulates on NSMs but have neglected the micro-contexts where these movements operate. More empirical studies can help to show the wide variety of forms and orientations displayed by contemporary SMs. More comparative studies, across Eastern and Western Europe, between Europe and North America, could offer new insights.
In summary, the strength of NSM theory is in identifying long-term transformations that create new conditions — structural, political, cultural — which affect the potential for the emergence of SMs. Its central contribution is to stress the cultural dimension of these movements, as processes of constitution of new subjects and new identities, and to identify the newness of contemporary movements. As we have already mentioned, Melucci argues that this paradigm is oriented to explaining the ‘why’ of SMs, at least in so far as the answer is restricted to broad structural conditions and does not include how the actors mobilize resources. It does not, however, explain the ‘how’ of SMs; that is, how strategies, decisions, resources, opportunities and other factors converge to give rise to an SM. NSM theory excludes from its analysis the dynamics of mobilization, the instrumental level of action, political action, the relationship between SMs, political reform and institutionalization of civil society and organizational dynamics. These are precisely the aspects in which RM theory is strongest.
Resource Mobilization Theory: Its Explanation of the Emergence of Social Movements
While NSM theory explains the origins of social movements with reference to macro-processes and identifies the structural potential for social movement activity, RM theory, in contrast, focuses on a set of contextual processes (resource management decisions, organizational dynamics and
political changes) that condition the realization of this structural potential. It takes the issues, the actors and the constraints as given, and focuses instead on how the actors develop strategies and interact with their environment in order to pursue their interests. RM theory, therefore, employs a ‘purposive model’ of social action and explains social movements in reference to the strategic-instrumental level of action (filly, 1985: 740–41; 1978: 228–31). The emergence of social movements, and the outcomes of their actions, are treated as contingent, open processes resulting from specific decisions, tactics and strategies adopted by the actors within a context of power relations and conflictual interaction.
There are two main approaches within RM theory: the ‘political-interactive’ model (Tilly, Gamson, Oberschall, McAdam) and the ‘organizational-entrepreneurial’ model (McCarthy and Zald). The first employs a political model to examine the processes that give rise to social movements. It focuses on changes in the structure of opportunities for collective action and on the role of pre-existing networks and horizontal links within the aggrieved group. It examines issues of political power, interests, political resources, group solidarity, and so on. The second model focuses on organizational dynamics, leadership and resource management. It applies economic and organizational theories to the study of social movements and, metaphorically, makes reference to such concepts as social movement industry, resource competition, product differentiation, issue elasticity, packaging, social movement entrepreneurs, social movement organizations, and so on. (Perrow, 1977: 201). Organizational theory has been applied as researchers in this tradition argue that formal organizations act as carriers of social movements (Zald and McCarthy, 1987: 12). Researchers have focused on two aspects of organizational analysis: the interaction of social movement organizations with their environment, and the organizational infrastructure which supports social movement activity (Gamson, 1987: 2–4).
RM theorists argue that affluence and prosperity tend to foster SM activity. Prosperous societies generate a number of resources (such as means of communication, money, intellectual classes) that can aid SM mobilization (McCarthy and Zald, 1973; 1977b). These societies also open opportunities for ‘grievance entrepreneurs’ to develop and market new SM ‘products.’ Affluent societies also give rise to ‘conscience constituents’ who donate resources to SMs (McCarthy and Zald, 1973; McAdam et al., 1988: 702–3). The growth of the welfare state is also identified as a source of increased social movement activity. Yet, while NSM theory refers to the penetration of the life world by steering mechanisms, RM theorists argue that state agencies facilitate mobilization by providing resources to
grassroots organizations (money, manpower, facilities) through community development programs.
The dynamics of mobilization
Resource mobilization theory focuses on how groups organize to pursue their ends by mobilizing and managing resources. A ‘resource management’ perspective views resources as being permanently created, consumed, transferred and lost (Oberschall, 1973: 28). Social conflict, therefore, is conceived as the struggle for the appropriation of existing resources and the creation of new ones. Resources can be of a material or non-material nature: the former include money, organizational facilities, manpower, means of communication, etc.; the latter include legitimacy, loyalty, authority, moral commitment, solidarity, etc. (Jenkins, 1981: 117).5 Mobilization is the process by which a group assembles resources (material and/or non-material) and places them under collective control for the explicit purpose of pursuing the group’s interests through collective action. But mobilization is more than resource accumulation; for mobilization to take place, these resources must be placed under collective control and must be employed for the purpose of pursuing group goals. As Tilly explains, without mobilization ‘a group may prosper, but it cannot contend for power [since] contending for power means employing mobilized resources to influence other groups’ (Tilly, 1978: 78). According to RM theory, four central factors condition the process of mobilization: organization, leadership, political opportunity and the nature of political institutions.
Organization and leadership
Oberschall (1973) argues that social networks providing group coherence and strong horizontal links are key facilitators of collective action. These links promote the development of group identity and group solidarity. They also foster communication and encourage the development of organizational skills and leadership experience. In other words, they facilitate mobilization by providing precarious organizational bases from which more complex forms of organization can develop. It has been argued that these semi-informal networks, or ‘micro-mobilization contexts,’ provide the linkages between the micro- and macro-levels of group formation, and constitute the basic ‘cell structure’ of collective action (McAdam et al., 1988: 711).6
RM theory stresses the importance of leadership in the emergence of SMs. Leaders identify and define grievances, develop a group sense, devise strategies and facilitate mobilization by reducing its costs and taking
advantages of opportunities for collective action. While RM theorists agree that outside leaders will tend to play a central role in mobilizing groups with low organization, power and resources, they disagree in their assessment of the relative role of leaders and masses in initiating mobilization and sustaining SM activity. For instance, McCarthy and Zald (1973) argue for the centrality of leaders and suggest that in many cases leadership availability takes precedence over grievances in facilitating SM mobilization. They even argue that issues and grievances may be manufactured by ‘issue entrepreneurs’ (1977b: 1215). Gerlach and Hine (1970) say that the masses playa more fundamental role than leadership availability in the emergence of social movements. Freeman (1983: 26) argues that the relative weight of leaders and masses will vary from case to case.
The structure of political opportunities
Resource mobilization theorists point out that opportunities for collective action come and go. The challenge for social movements is to identify and seize opportunities for action. This implies a cost-benefit assessment of the likelihood of success, given their evaluation of the possible outcomes of their actions and the responses of their adversaries as well as those of their allies. In their day-to-day activities, collective actors develop strategies, make tactical decisions, form new alliances and dismantle old ones. But the environment in which social movements operate is not passive: it is composed of social forces which are actively trying to influence, control or destroy the social movement (Gamson, 1987: 2). This means that the outcomes of their interventions in the social and political fields face ‘considerable uncertainty’ (Oberschall, 1973: 158).
The structure of political opportunities refers to the conditions in the political system which either facilitate or inhibit collective action. Political and cultural traditions, for example, will determine the range of legitimate forms of struggle in a given society. The degree to which civil liberties and individual rights are respected in a given society will also facilitate or inhibit collective action. But repression and facilitation are not determined unilaterally by sympathizers or enemies of social movements: they are the result of conflictual interaction and political struggle. According to Tilly, many of the changes in the patterns of collective action result from drastic changes in the structure of repression-facilitation. He also argues that the scale of the action and the power of the aggrieved group will determine the degree to which these actions will face repression and/or facilitation. In general terms, the broader the scale of the action and the less powerful the group the more likely it will suffer repression (Tilly, 1978: 115).
The nature of the political system
Tilly’s work has focused primarily on the political sphere and the mobilization of political resources. He views collective actions as efforts by new groups (‘challengers’) to enter the political system (filly, 1978: 52). He explains that the relative openness of the political system to incorporating the interests of new groups will affect the emergence of SMs. Tilly’s model has proved useful for historical studies and could be applied to contemporary exclusionary political systems. It is, however, less germane to the study of modern SMs. Participants in these movements are not challengers in Tilly’s terms, because they come from well-integrated social groups that are already members of the polity. What they seek is not entry into the polity but access to decision-making spheres to influence policy-making.
By drawing attention to the nature of political structures at the national and local levels, RM theorists have assessed the differential potential for SM activity among industrial societies, in contrast with NSM writers who seem to assume a certain similarity of conditions and SMs across industrial (or post-industrial) societies. Ash-Garner and Zald (1987) suggest that the emergence and nature of SMs are conditioned by the size of the public sector, the degree of centralization of the state and governmental structures, and the nature of existing political parties.
The relative size of the public sector will influence SM activity in at least two fundamental ways. First, a large public sector places resources (employment and/or grants and social action programs) in the hands of the state; these resources can then be used to co-opt, neutralize or destroy SMs, and/or to promote SM activity by channeling resources to grass-roots organizations. Second, the size of the public sector determines the potential politicization of issues and the legitimacy of various courses of action available to SMs. Societies with less interventionist states with smaller public sectors are more likely to have more autonomous and less politicized SMs (Ash-Garner and Zald, 1987: 311).
Ash-Garner and Zald also suggest that the greater the spatial and functional decentralization of a given political system, the more likely it is that SMs can be effective and autonomous (310). For instance, SMs can more effectively press for their demands at the local or regional level in countries with powerful local or regional governments. Similarly, the effectiveness of SMs will be increased in those political systems which provide some degree of autonomy to various branches of government. In these cases, the target of mobilization can be more clearly identified, as SMs make demands to specific branches of government.
Political systems that most encourage SM activity are those with multiclass parties, with diffuse ideological views and weak party discipline, representing large combinations of interest groups (312). This type of political structure is found, primarily, in societies with a low degree of political polarization along class lines. In highly polarized societies, by contrast, political parties take a central role in mediation, thus reducing the space for SM activity. These features also influence the degree of SM autonomy. In societies where political parties do not tightly control the elaboration and transmission of demands, SMs tend to enjoy a high degree of autonomy in their membership, strategies, and policy decisions, and in the selection of channels to place their demands in. In contrast, in societies which are highly politicized and mobilized by parties and corporatist groups, SMs tend to be aligned along party lines and enjoy limited autonomy from the political system (295).
Social movements as continuity
In contrast with NSM theory, which focuses on social integration, normative contestation, control of cultural production and expressive action (constitution of new identities), RM addresses themes of system integration, political processes and instrumental action. While the NSM paradigm concentrates on discontinuity by highlighting the ‘newness’ of SMs, resource mobilization focuses on continuity in organizational forms and action.
For Tilly, contemporary social movements are no different, in the form and content of their actions, from early-nineteenth century collective actors, since they both employ the same ‘repertoires’ — that is, the limited range of legitimate actions available to collective actors. The consolidation of capitalism and the growth of the national state in the early nineteenth century caused a shift from communal to associational forms of collective action. The emphasis on democratic freedoms (to assemble, to speak, to demonstrate, to organize) encouraged the creation of special-purpose organizations and voluntary associations and the consolidation of civil society. These transformations gave rise to the forms of collective action that characterize representative democracies: rallies, strikes and demonstrations (Tilly and Tilly, 1981: 19–23; 44–6 and 99–101; Tilly, 1978: 151–71).7 In contrast to European collective protests in the eighteenth century, collective struggles in the nineteenth century became proactive as they sought access to new rights or resources (Tilly, 1978: 143–51). According to Tilly, these basic features and repertoires still characterize collective action.