More of the same? The new ‘old’ social movements

A British Suffragette circa 1910-was she actually part of an old “new social movement”? Image is open source from wikipedia.

The topic and essay for the week beginning Monday march 19th is about New Social Movements [NSMs]. As is often the case the question comes in two parts and you should answer BOTH of them.

“ How do ‘new social movements’ [NSM] differ from earlier social movements? How can we explain the emergence and success of the new social movements? The essay should also draw on at least one of the other readings on Social Movements listed in the Political Sociology course outline (available on Blackboard).”

I will leave to each of you the task of reading that other source and just limit my comments here to the question and to the reading by Faulks. One can see at least 2, and maybe 3 distinct questions here:

  1. Are NSMs that different from older social movements-in what ways are they different?
  2. How did the emerge as new and when?
  3. Have they been successful, or what can explain their success?

As it turns out the reading is pretty clear on the first question: the differences between old and new social movements are listed at Table 5.1 (page 96). What some of you might find a bit puzzling is that while Faulks clearly admits to there being some differences, he also argues there has been an overstating by academics of the ‘discontinuity with old social movements’. In other words the differences are ones of degree and may not be absolute….there may indeed be many similarities with the older ‘Victorian’ social movements.

But the big differences are obviously things like organization. This appears to be less hierarchical and systematic (and often less male dominated). However, often protest NSMs are ruled by informal cliques and in-groups so they can be far from democratic. Moreover, over time they may become very professional and well organized. Greenpeace today is a multi-national slick charity not what it was in the 1970s: a bunch of hippies on a boat with a mission to save the whale.  Another difference is tactics. The roads protestors and Greenpeace come to mind with their ‘direct actions’. However, is that sort of direct action (getting in trouble with the police) really that different from what the Suffragettes did or the early Trade Unions did? One could argue that such stunt and shock actions have a longer pedigree than the 1960s.

Another difference may on closer examination be much less as well. It has been argued that the NSMs of today and the 1960s are usually middle class dominated, whereas the older social movements (typically trade unions) were actually working class. Faulks nicely points out that there was a great deal of middle class social movement activity in the 19th century (the Suffragette movement was often middle class). Equally some of the modern NSMs can be very working class in composition and ethos: for example in Brazil (and several other developing nations) there is a movement of landless workers (peasants) [see:], and in Zambia the copper miners unions have been very active [see:]. Notice these are rather old looking new social movements in that they are unions, and, that they are outside Europe. There is a problem as Faulks explains with a bias towards European case studies of a few NSMs which may not be fully representative of a wider pool of all social movement activity. Moreover, there are some examples of much more explicitly working class feminist and environmental NSMs [see: and see]. Equally the assumed link between a new middle class and NSM may not be that strong (their membership might be more diverse).*

One thing I think Faulks does not mention too well is that social movements evolve over time-and so the environmental movement of the 1960s and even 1990s could well look and sound very radical and anti-statist, but eventually it may fracture, and a more organized, conventional social movement may emerge which does indeed sit down and negotiate with governments for reform over revolution. This is also what happened to Trade Unions, which in many countries had a revolutionary and combative ethos, but found that they had to negotiate with the state, or in some ways infiltrate the system of government by forming labor parties and getting elected into positions of power. By the 1920s  labour parties had done this in many parts of Europe, which was a departure from other revolutionary and more radical workers and labor movements (many Anarchist or Communist). So it could well be that the ‘new social movements’ of the 1960s and 1990s have and will mature away from their ‘anti-statism’.

As regards the third question, how or if they have been successful, one can speculate as Faulks does, that this is very much linked to their nature. Where they are very anti-statist, they may enjoy some success, but ultimately risk being marginalized by processes of governance where the state dominates. Many groups to be effective find that have to ditch some of their more radical positions and find ways of negotiating with the state, rather than deliberately seeking conflict or trying to ambush the state. The state can be well equipped to deal with such protests and can over time simply prevail-again in non-liberal democracies the state will often simply use massive violence against radical protestors of any sort, and even liberal democratic states will at times be not shy about deploying coercive force against peaceful protests (look at how the Student anti-fees protests in the UK-mostly peaceful-where heavily controlled by the British Police).

Faulks argues in the final page that new social movements will not be successful if they ignore the state. Mind you, that leaves open the possibility of hybrid strategies that mix and match a dose of anti-statism with co-operation. To get the state’s attention and negotiate from a position of strength there may rationally be merit for NSMs to continue to engage in some radical protests and direct action alongside engagement with state agencies. But the two tactics are not always compatible and can undermine each other.

Notice that still leave the question of HOW NSMs have been successful, in that they clearly have been somewhat successful. I think probably the answer is in changing popular values, ideas, beliefs and perceptions. However, actually getting changes in policy and law is quite a different thing. Faulks gives the example of road protestors in Britain who he claims managed to get the government to reduce spending on roads. However, some academics have studied that and suggested it may well have also been because of a shortage of public funds-the UK Treasury found it expedient to build less roads on environmental grounds but really the decision was driven by forces elsewhere**. The point is not that NSM protest are irrelevant, radical protest does achieve some things, but that they only explain part of the process of policy change.

Finally, what of the second question: HOW and WHEN did NSM emerge? One can quickly say they were a bi-product of the 1960s, but there is a complex theoretical discussion within Faulks’ piece which considers to what extent NSM fits within a Marxist conception of class conflict and crises within capitalism. See the discussion led by Touraine and Eder at page 90, onwards. To what extent then are NSMs products of cultural change-does that explain why they emerged? To what extent may they reflect declining state authority and capacity as capitalism becomes more disorganized and global? To what extent also did some NSM emerge because traditional SMs (like Trade Unions) had become unwilling or unable to take up more salient issues like environmentalism and feminism, and had become too hierarchical and state-linked? There is an interesting discussion at page 97 which makes the point that we can only explain HOW, WHY and WHEN a NSM emerges in a given political context. In China for example there were major economic changes and then a decline in state legitimacy, and then geopolitical changes-such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is against this backdrop that Chinese NSM emerge…only in many cases to be crushed by the Chinese state post-Tiananmen Square massacre. This third question is probably the least well discussed or addressed in the paper, but you should consider it nonetheless.

*Mertig, A. G. and Dunlap, R. E. (2001), ‘Environmentalism, New Social Movements, and the New Class: A Cross-National Investigation’. Rural Sociology, 66: 113–136.

**Dudley, G. and Richardson, J. (1998), ‘Arenas without Rules and the Policy Change Process: Outsider Groups and British Roads Policy’. Political Studies, 46: 727–747


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