New Social Movements

David Westd. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. Sage Publication. 2004.

New social movements (NSMs) are both a major phenomenon of recent Western history and an important topic within contemporary social and political studies. The study of these movements extends from straightforward empirical description to more theoretical attempts to explain their rise, activities and ultimate fate. However, the category of NSMs has proved contentious almost from its first use. In fact, the newness of new social movements is best understood in the context of an unfolding set of theoretical debates rather than simply as a reflection of a particular stage of Western society. The focus, in what follows, is on the theoretical context or, more precisely, the intersections and interactions between both theoretical and historical contexts, in order to identify the ‘nub’ of the problematic concept ‘new social movement.’ As a result, there will be no attempt either to provide an exhaustive overview of theories or commentaries on NSMs (impossible within the scope of the present chapter) or to discuss the range of broadly similar social movement activity in other regional contexts such as the ‘Second’ or communist and ‘Third’ or developing worlds.

Historical Context: The Emergence of New Social Movements

A Preliminary Definition

Although there is no straightforward answer to the question ‘What are new social movements?’ a provisional definition will help to locate the problem. Social movements, then, are less organized, partially extra or anti-institutional forms of collective activity aiming, over an extended period, to bring about (and sometimes prevent) social change. Social movements interact with, influence and sometimes succeed in transforming the institutionalized political structures of a society. The term ‘new social movements’ refers to a group of contemporary (or recent) social movements that have played a significant and, for most commentators, largely progressive role in Western societies from the late 1960s. The identification of these waves of activism as ‘new’ typically refers to their concern with issues other than class. The category normally includes peace and anti-nuclear movements, environmental, ecological or green movements, lesbian and gay liberation, second-wave feminism, antiracist and alternative lifestyle movements.

After Stability: The Emergence of New Social Movements

The emergence of new social movements in the West came as a surprise to most commentators. The ‘long economic boom’ and ‘social democratic consensus’ after World War II corresponded to a period of political stability and even apathy, marked by academic pronouncements of the ‘end of ideology’ (Lipset, 1960: 403-17; Vincent, 1995: 9-13). The conflict between capital and labour was tamed by the class-compromising structures of the welfare state with its progressive taxation, social security and welfare provision, policies of full employment, and ‘neocorporatist’ consultation between employers, trade unions and government (Berger, 1981; Offe, 1984). A state of permanent Cold War with the communist East helped to contain social conflicts in the capitalist West, cementing consensus under US hegemony around a security policy based on the nuclear deterrence of ‘mutually assured destruction.’ Liberal democrats and ‘elitist pluralists’ celebrated the stability of Western societies as the permanent achievement of an ‘open’ political system, which functioned as a political market mediating the conflicting demands of organized political interests (Schumpeter, 1950; Bachrach, 1967). Even Herbert Marcuse, a left-wing critic of liberal capitalism, portrayed the prevailing social order in substantially similar terms—albeit negatively—as a ‘one dimensional society’ that had outgrown the polar opposition of capitalists and workers (Marcuse, 1964).

But although Marcuse was pessimistic about the proletariat’s immediate revolutionary potential, he was alert to other cracks in the façade of liberal democratic stability. From the 1950s in the USA, the black Civil Rights movement spoke for ‘outcasts and outsiders,’ who were excluded not just from most of the material benefits of the ‘affluent society’ but also from civil and democratic rights (1964: 199-200). During the 1960s further cracks appeared. Protests against the USA’s war in Vietnam were both products and catalysts of an emerging student radicalism, giving rise to organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Berkeley (Cockburn and Blackburn, 1969). Student radicalism was itself inseparable from a more diffuse ‘counterculture’ of ‘sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Students and ‘hippies’ chose to ‘drop out,’ rejecting their parents commitments to work and consumerism (Roszak, 1969). Others sought to channel these developments into a reconstructed movement for socialism. Horrified by the failures and crimes of Stalinism but equally dissatisfied with the compromise and bureaucratic paternalism of social democracy, New Left intellectuals fashioned a more democratic, even more hedonistic version of socialism (Thompson et al., 1960; Oglesby, 1969). These diverse strands of dissent and activism reached their public and symbolic apogee in the ‘May Events’ of Paris in 1968, when a combination of students and workers seemed on the point of toppling the French state. Although prospects of revolution were soon averted, the dramatic nature of these events shattered complacent belief in the inevitable stability of Western democracies (Touraine, 1971; Urwin, 1989: 229-55).

It is in the aftermath of the Paris Events that the origins of new social movements can be located. The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Bar in New York were the spark for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the vanguard of the contemporary gay and lesbian movements (Jagose, 1996: 30-43; Weeks, 1977: 185-206). Likewise, partly driven by disillusionment with the ‘sexism’ of their New Left comrades in the students’s and anti-war movements, ‘second-wave feminism’ flourished from the beginning of the 1970s. This period also saw a strong revival of peace and anti-nuclear activism, and the upsurge throughout Western societies of the environmental or ‘green’ movements. In the former West Germany, the ‘extra-parliamentary opposition’ was overtaken by a proliferation of large- and small-scale protests against nuclear power stations and military bases and other ‘citizens initiatives’ (Bürgerinitiativen). Peace and environmental activism cross-fertilized with a broad array of feminist, gay and lesbian, alternative lifestyle, countercultural and ‘alternative’ groups (Hülsberg, 1988: 36-63), culminating in 1980 with the formation of the German Green Party (Die Grünen)—the ‘anti-party’ party of NSMs.

What was New about New Social Movements?

The new social movements of the 1970s displayed a number of seemingly novel characteristics and/or displayed certain characteristics to a novel degree. In contrast to the ‘old politics’ dominated by class and distributional issues, new social movements addressed issues of gender, sexuality, race, nature and security. Although they still made material demands (for equal pay and opportunities, social justice, fair trade, etc.), the new movements insisted on their independence from class-based divisions. In contrast to the centralist and bureaucratic electoral and revolutionary organizations of the old left, new forms of political practice and collective action were also in evidence. Alongside more conventional organizations, there was a flourishing of more fluid, participatory and even anarchistic groups. Loosely organized ‘affinity’ and ‘consciousness-raising’ groups practised a different kind of politics, which included the transformation of personal consciousness and identity as well as direct action, moral and symbolic protest. The activists of the new movements also differed from the traditionally working-class stalwarts of the labour movement: they were mainly younger, tertiary educated, from middle or ‘new middle’ class backgrounds and less preponderantly male (Dalton and Kuechler, 1990; Melucci, 1989: 5-6; Pakulski, 1991: 39-42).

On the other hand, of course, neither agents and issues, nor forms of political practice and collective action, were absolutely new. The wish to protect nature from industrial civilization can be traced to William Blake and the Romantic movement (Eder, 1990: 28-32). The isolated feminist protests of Mary Wollstonecraft and Abigail Adams in the eighteenth century were followed by the more organized campaigning of anti-slavery, temperance, moral revival movements and suffragettes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Evans, 1977). An energetic homosexual rights movement was founded in Germany by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1897 (Steakley, 1993). Nineteenth-century anarchists and some early socialists (dismissed by Marx and Engels as ‘utopian’) already warned of the dangers of state socialism. They advocated measures later familiar from the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as direct democracy, rotation of offices and the recall of delegates, designed to prevent the re-emergence of tyrannical elites. Individual moral renewal and even ‘free love’ within alternative communities should anticipate or ‘prefigure’ the ideal society (Gray, 1947; Lichtheim, 1968). As E. P. Thompson (1968) has shown, even the ‘making’ of the English working class during the industrial revolution was less a matter of economic determination than a self-making born of moral and cultural creativity.

In fact, it was in large part the New Left and NSM activists of the 1960s and 1970s who themselves, through the rediscovery of previously ‘hidden’ histories of women, homosexuals, utopian socialists, slaves and indigenous peoples, most effectively contradicted claims of the absolute novelty of new social movements (Duberman, Vicinus and Chauncey, 1989; Rowbotham, 1974). If the scale of the new movements and the prominence of their distinctive traits nevertheless begin to establish their relative historical significance, their novelty ultimately depends as much on the theoretical and ideological context of their emergence.

Theoretical and Ideological Context I: From Collective Behaviour to Collective Action

The ‘Collective Behaviour’ Tradition

The novelty of new social movements derives, in large part, from their challenge to the state of theory and ideology at the time of their emergence. Thus new social movements challenged not only the stability but, at the level of normative political theory, also the legitimacy of liberal democratic societies. Political developments from the 1960s made clear that liberal democracies did not, as their apologists had claimed, successfully represent all significant political interests (cf. Bachrach, 1967). African-Americans, women, lesbians and gays, and environmentalists could all claim to be excluded from the social democratic consensus. Changes such as the Civil Rights Acts in the USA, equal opportunities, equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation regarding gender, race and sexuality, and the decriminalization of homosexuality, amounted to obvious extensions of liberal values, but many liberals ignored these issues at the time. Rawls is typical in this regard for his initial failure to consider the justice of women’s position in society (Rawls, 1971; Okin, 1989). Long-lasting controversies were also sparked over issues such as affirmative action (Dworkin, 1978: 223-39). Furthermore, the campaigns that led to these changes transgressed the conventional boundaries of acceptable or ‘institutionalized’ political activity, which included voting, lobbying and standing for office, but not civil disobedience, direct action and the ever-expanding repertoire of protest. Accordingly, normative theorists were inspired to reconsider the legitimacy of these and other extra-institutional forms of social movement activity (Dworkin, 1978: 206-22; Rawls, 1971: 363-91; Singer, 1973; Walzer, 1970).

The normative reappraisal of social movement activities also contributed to significant methodological developments in empirical social science, summed up in the very term ‘social movement.’ Social movement activity had previously been studied mainly as ‘collective behaviour.’ Continuing a long tradition of suspicion towards unruly ‘rabbles,’ ‘mobs’ and ‘masses,’ classic studies from this perspective examined instances of collective irrationality from the riots, rumours and panics of the French Revolution to the mass hysteria of National Socialism and the Stalinist cult of personality (Le Bon, 1947; Killian, 1964; Pakulski, 1991: 3-31). Mainstream sociology and political science after World War II, particularly in the USA, retained this emphasis, typically regarding collective behaviour as a threat to the rational, ordered, organized collective action enabled by liberal democratic institutions. One representative example of this approach, Kornhauser’s Politics of Mass Society, noted the ‘widespread readiness to abandon constitutional modes of political activity in favor of uncontrolled mass action,’ contrasting ‘mass society’ with the ‘pluralist society’ of diverse but organized interests required for a healthy liberal democracy (1959: 5, 13). Smelser’s classic study similarly treats collective behaviour as the disruptive consequence of ‘structural strain,’ which is characterized in terms of ‘quasi-magical’ belief systems, ‘exaggerations, crudeness and eccentricity’ and ‘impatient’ and ‘intolerant’ actions ‘based on rumors, ideology and superstitions’ (1962: 8, 67-130). This sociological disposition to denigrate social movement activity corresponded to the almost complete absence of the topic from political science. Political scientists, who devoted considerable attention to the quasi-institutional relationships between core political institutions and organized interest and pressure groups, relegated the extra-institutional activities of social movements to a sphere beyond politics altogether—as merely social rather than properly political behaviour.

The Political and Social Science of ‘Social Movement’

The methodological shift to the more neutral term ‘social movement,’ which now spans the disciplines of sociology and political science, reflects the ideological impact of the civil rights, anti-war and student activism of the 1960s (Brand, Büsser and Rucht, 1986: 35-7; Gamson, 1975; Oberschall, 1973; Piven and Cloward, 1977). Social movements, according to Pakulski’s useful definition, are ‘recurrent patterns of collective activities which are partially institutionalized, value oriented and anti-systemic in their form and symbolism’ (1991: xiv). In effect, the non-, anti or partially institutionalized activities of social movements are no longer equated with the irrational collective behaviour of mobs, riots and panics. Social movement activity involves potentially rational collective actions. Social movements can be recognized as significant achievements on the part of previously isolated and powerless social groups. In other words, social movements solve the ‘problem of collective action’; for a particular constituency they achieve the collective good of political action (Taylor, 1987).

By implication, the concept of social movement extends the scope of political studies by recognizing political actions beyond the sphere of institutionalized politics. Since social movement activity significantly influences and may serve to transform institutionalized political forms, it must be acknowledged as a proper element of the political field. Accordingly, political scientists need to understand how social movements function, how they relate to government, parties and other political organizations. They need to study how contemporary social movements are in the process of transforming existing political institutions, just as the institutionalized activities of twentieth-century labour organizations (a long-time staple of political studies) emerged from the extra-institutional and often illegal activities of the working class. What is more, social movements can be seen to exert political influence not only through existing institutions but also directly within ‘civil society’ (Keane, 1984; 1988). This possibility is even a self-conscious feature of the political practice of new social movements in the form of ‘personal’ and ‘identity politics,’ direct action, inventive use of mass media and determined resistance to institutional co-option. New social movements directly attack intrinsically political features of civil society, such as patriarchy, homophobia and racism (Eisenstein, 1984). They seek changes independently of, as well as through, state action. Social movements are, in sum, both an important determinant of institutionalized politics and a crucial constituent of the relatively autonomous politics of civil society.

Recognition of the potential rationality of collective action is also reflected in theoretical attempts to explain social movement activity. In the USA, in particular, the influential paradigm of ‘rational choice theory’ has applied the methods of neoclassical economics to the explanation of social behaviour, giving rise to ‘resource mobilization theory’ (RMT). RMT treats social movements as more or less successful attempts by individuals to mobilize human and other resources for the sake of collective goals. The availability of resources, the capacity of ‘political entrepreneurs’ to mobilize these resources and the ‘political opportunity structure’ of the surrounding political system, all contribute to the distinctive trajectory of success and failure, growth and decline or ‘life cycle’—of movements (Oberschall, 1973; Tilly, 1978; Zald and McCarthy, 1987).

However, although resource mobilization theory was, to a significant degree, a response to new social movements, there are limits to its ability to address what is distinctive about these movements. In the first place, RMT addresses the formal properties of social movements in general, rather than the substantive characteristics of new social movements in particular. It considers general preconditions, problems and determinants of collective action. But like other rational choice theories, it has nothing to say about the particular goals, values or ideology of new social movement agents (Piven and Cloward, 1992). Rational choice theories may be able to deduce theorems predicting the ‘rational’ choices that agents make on the basis of particular ‘preferences,’ but they are notoriously unable to cast light on the formation of these preferences or their possible replacement by others (Hindess, 1988). A second limitation of RMT derives more directly from its individualistic assumptions. Although it is certainly worthwhile examining the incentives of individual participants in social movement activity, it seems unlikely that a theory modelled on the egoistic materialism and narrow sympathies of homo economicus will ever provide an adequate explanation of social movement activity. Rational choice approaches have, for example, been much engaged by the ‘problem of voting’—the apparent irrationality of exerting even minimal effort when the chances of influencing the outcome of elections are infinitesimally small (Brennan and Lomasky, 1993). They must surely have difficulty, then, in understanding why people expend considerable long-term effort and even undergo serious (sometimes mortal) risk for the sake of political goals. Rational choice approaches can surely only explain such actions to the extent that they are prepared to consider the role of integrity, commitment and identity, culture, community and solidarity, in accounting for the otherwise inexplicable element of self-sacrifice that they involve. Recently, indeed, there has been consideration of such concepts (Johnston and Klandermans, 1995). But such evidently crucial determinants of social movement activity are not obviously susceptible to rational choice explanations, which are better equipped to explain actions within, rather than transitions between, social value systems, identities and cultures (Eyerman and Jamison, 1991).

The revaluation of social movement activity is reflected, finally, in the flourishing from the 1970s of more straightforwardly empirical studies within both sociology and political science. Within both English-speaking and European social science, there has been a plethora of descriptive and quantitative studies of contemporary social movements of all kinds, both ‘new’ and ‘old,’ progressive, conservative and reactionary (Kriesi et al., 1995; Rucht, 1991). These studies provide much of the empirical basis for what has been called new social movement theory.

Theoretical and Ideological Context II: New Social Movement Theory

Farewell to the Working Class

Associated more with continental Europe than with the English-speaking world, NSM theory seeks to provide a substantive, as opposed to merely formal, explanation of the rise, role and prospects of NSMs. In contrast to the individualistic or agent-centred approach of rational choice approaches, NSM theorists pursue a ‘structural’ approach, explaining the rise of new social movements in terms of the systemic tensions or ‘contradictions’ of contemporary Western societies. In addition, like Marxism, which pioneered a similarly substantive, structural account of the politics of capitalist society, NSM theory is a variety of ‘critical theory’ (Geuss, 1981). In other words, the attempt to understand the fundamental conflicts of Western society is designed to contribute to its progressive transformation. The normatively engaged stance of NSM theory is apparent straight away in the designation of a particular category of movements as ‘new’ rather than merely contemporary. The term ‘new’ evidently belongs to the family of normative, philosophico-historical or developmental concepts inherited from the Enlightenment and closely related ever since to Western claims of modernity (Williams, 1976). NSMs are conceived as ‘radical’ or ‘progressive,’ because they are expected to contribute to the further development of Western societies. This also explains the exclusion of nationalist movements and religious revivals as well as more straightforwardly ‘reactionary’ racist, sexist and homophobic movements from the category of NSMs.

Within the normative and theoretical domain so defined, it is, however, the exclusion of class-based social movements as ‘old’ that provides the most direct entry into NSM theory. For many intellectuals and activists already disillusioned with what Rudolf Bahro dubbed ‘actually existing socialism,’ the failure of the New Left in the late 1960s was more than an event at the social and political level. It was the occasion of a final loss of faith in the proletariat as the agent of an imminent, or even distant, socialist revolution. A working class integrated into the institutional structures and ‘reward mechanisms’ of welfare state capitalism seemed an unlikely agent of revolution. In contrast to mainly middle-class and student draft evaders and protesters, workers had largely supported the Vietnam War. Again, although trade unions eventually played a major role in the Paris Events of 1968, the traditional organizations of the left were seen to lag behind, and then to seek to exploit the apparently spontaneous eruption of protest. The scene was set for a shift of theoretical paradigm, heralding NSMs as the latest challengers to the existing order (Brand, Büsser and Rucht, 1986; Jennett and Stewart, 1989).

From Advanced Capitalism to Modernity

But, if NSMs are set to replace the working class as agents of social advance, what transformations of capitalist society account for this change? New social movement theorists relate the emergence of NSMs to basic structural features of contemporary Western societies. Although these societies are variously portrayed as ‘late,’ ‘advanced,’ ‘organized’ or ‘welfare state’ forms of capitalism, as ‘postindustrial’ or ‘programmed’ societies, as the culmination of ‘modernity’ or in transition to ‘postmodernity,’ these different theoretical constructions in fact belie considerable continuity of sociological and political analysis.

Closest to the Marxist paradigm—indeed almost continuous with schools of Western and neo-Marxism, which acknowledge the changing nature of capitalism and corresponding decline of working-class activism—are theories of new social movements as a response to the crises of ‘welfare state’ capitalism (WSC) (Offe, 1984; 1985). A starting-point for such theories is the neocorporatist inclusion of the working class into the institutional structures of capitalist society through trade union and party political representation. The social democratic legal order characteristic of WSC supplements civil and political rights (cherished by liberal democracy) with ‘social welfare rights’ realized through provision of social welfare (health, education, housing), social security (unemployment, sickness and retirement benefits), measures of economic redistribution (progressive taxation) and Keynesian economic policies (full employment, demand management) (Marshall, 1963: 74-126; Offe, 1985: 821-5). These developments involve a considerable expansion of the state’s activities in comparison with liberal capitalism. The associated decline of working-class activism is reinforced by the changing nature of production in the transition from ‘Fordism’ or ‘Taylorism’ to ‘post-Fordism’ and ‘post-Taylorism’ (Lash and Urry, 1987). This involves, in the first place, the decline of traditional manufacturing and the rise of the service sector, which is geographically more dispersed and industrially less organized. But, second, the Fordist model—of mass, assembly-line production of a relatively small range of products for mass consumption—is gradually replaced by more diversified and decentralized forms of production and consumption. Both developments undermine traditional forms of working-class solidarity and organization and tend to support a multiplication and diversification of forms of identity apart from class.

But if the post-Fordist welfare state pacifies the working class by partially satisfying its demands whilst disrupting traditional forms of class identity and solidarity, it is also subject to crisis tendencies of its own. Although the welfare state performs certain essential functions for capitalism (securing social stability, infrastructure and other public goods), its ever-expanding financial requirements ultimately threaten the profitability of capital. If the welfare state denies the escalating demands of citizens, then it risks a loss of authority or legitimacy (Offe, 1985: 818-20; Habermas, 1976). But the demands of citizens must inevitably grow, because the expansion of the state’s responsibilities erodes such ‘uncontested and non-contingent premises… of politics’ as the family, religion and the work ethic (Offe, 1985: 819). It is, of course, precisely this ‘crisis of governability’ (Huntington, 1975; O’sConnor, 1973) that has motivated neoliberal attempts to revive the less expansive state of liberal capitalism. To the extent, however, that WSC emerged as the necessary solution to the systemic failures and crisis tendencies of liberal capitalism, the neoliberal agenda must prove futile.

However, WSC has also given rise to new forms of identity and activism associated with NSMs, who promise a more satisfactory resolution of its crisis tendencies. The new movements raise issues and concerns excluded from the social democratic class compromise. Women have been excluded or devalued not only by employers but also by trade unions and welfare structures committed to a man’s right to the ‘family wage.’ WSC has institutionalized the shared interest of capital and labour in continued economic growth and industrial expansion without regard to longer-term damage to the environment. The politics of nuclear deterrence and the burgeoning ‘military-industrial complex’ accommodate the interests of capital and labour within a largely shared understanding of security. The changing nature of capitalism is thus related not only to diminishing activism of the traditional working class but also to the rise of the women’s, peace and environmental movements (Offe, 1985: 825-32). For Offe, NSMs offer a potentially more promising response to the crisis of the welfare state in the form of a reconstituted civil society independent of the state. This possibility is more systematically explored in the work of Habermas.

Habermas and the Incomplete Project of Modernity

But the welfare state does not operate simply as a manager of capitalist crisis tendencies. Shifting the focus more decisively from capitalism to modernity, Jürgen Habermas draws on Weber’s account of societal rationalization to provide an account of the bureaucratic state as a relatively independent source of domination. The purely ‘formal’ or, in Habermas’s terms, ‘instrumental’ rationalization characteristic of Western processes of modernization manifests itself in the development of both capitalism and the state. In Habermas’s terms, both capitalism (‘money’) and the state (‘power’) represent developed forms of ‘systems rationality’ (1984: 143-399; 1987: 113-97). As Pusey puts it, the ‘system refers to those vast tracts of modern society that are “uncoupled” from communicatively shared experience in ordinary language and co-ordinated, instead, through the media of money and power’ (1987: 107). The development of both capitalism and the state corresponds to the gradual ‘uncoupling’ and expansion of social systems, which co-ordinate the consequences of economic and political actions quasi-mechanically and, as it were, behind the back of participants. As these systems develop further, they begin to invade or ‘colonize’ the intersubjective perspective of participants anchored in what Habermas terms the ‘lifeworld’ (1987: 301-73).

The systems’ invasion of the lifeworld explains what Habermas sees as the ambivalent potential of modernity. As Weber’s notion of ‘disenchantment’ also implied, the formal or instrumental rationalization of society disrupts the substantive value systems of tradition and religion. In Habermas’s more optimistic terms, the disruption of tradition opens the way for the critical reassessment of what were often oppressive norms, institutions and practices. Then, through an unconstrained and self-critical process of discourse, more universally acceptable norms can emerge in what amounts to a ‘communicative’ rationalization of the lifeworld. On the other hand, the expansion of state and capitalist systems increasingly organizes human life according to the instrumental logic of money and power, overwhelming any possibility of communicatively achieved consensus and reducing the lifeworld to a lifeless shell.

New social movements are understood in these terms as an embryonic counterattack from the life world against the colonizing force of instrumentally rationalized systems (Habermas, 1981; 1987: 391-6). The new conflicts are displaced from economic and state systems to the lifeworld or, more precisely, the ‘seam’ between system and lifeworld: ‘the new conflicts arise in areas of cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization… the new conflicts are not sparked by problems of distribution, but concern the grammar of forms of life.’ NSMs respond to the disruption and ‘colonization’ of the lifeworld in either ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ ways according to whether it is a question of ‘how to defend or reinstate endangered life styles, or how to put reformed life styles into practice’ (1981: 32). However, the women’s movement is

the only movement that follows the tradition of bourgeois-socialist liberation movements. The struggle against patriarchal oppression and for the realization of a promise that is deeply rooted in the acknowledged universalist foundations of morality and legality lends feminism the impetus of an offensive movement, whereas all other movements are more defensive in character. (1981: 34)

Environmental and peace movements—usual paradigms of new social movements—represent a more ‘defensive’ reaction, albeit one ‘which already operates on the basis of a rationalized lifeworld and tries out new forms of co-operation and community’ (1981: 35).

Touraine on Programmed or Postindustrial Society

Although the work of Alain Touraine applies a quite different vocabulary to the task of understanding new social movements, there are strong parallels with the Weberian approach of Habermas and even, more distantly, echoes of Marx. Touraine, like Habermas, emphasizes the reflexive, self-critical potential of modernity. Although human beings have always made history, they have previously done so only unconsciously. This is because in premodern societies, society’s ‘self-production’ was restricted and obscured by ‘meta-social guarantees’—metaphysical and religious systems that represented certain values as absolute limits on social action and development. Modernity has eroded these limits and so enhanced society’s ‘historicity,’ which refers to society’s ‘capacity to produce its own social and cultural field, its own historical environment’ (Touraine, 1977: 16). For Touraine the ultimate bearer of this potential is social movements: ‘Men make their own history: social life is produced by cultural achievement and social conflicts, and at the heart of society burns the fire of social movements’ (1981: 1).

But modernity’s promise of autonomy and social creativity is, once again, threatened by the increasing pervasiveness of technical knowledge and bureaucratic structures of management within what Touraine calls ‘postindustrial’ or ‘programmed’ societies. This ‘technocracy’ extends beyond economy and state to institutions concerned with communication (media), production and transmission of knowledge (education) and creation of symbolic and cultural contents (media, entertainment industry, marketing, design, etc.). By implication, the fundamental contradiction of industrial society, that between capital and labour, is being superseded by new conflicts. The fundamental opposition of programmed society is between ‘those who manage the apparatus of knowledge and economic transformation, and those who are caught up in change and are trying to regain control over it’ (1977: 156). The student activism of May 1968 in Paris was an early symptom of new patterns of conflict (1971: 347); anti-nuclear and environmental protesters represent subsequent waves of resistance to the new form of domination.

Evidently, although Touraine updates the Marxist theory of class conflict, he retains its binary structure. Despite the apparent plurality and diversity of new social movements, ultimately

[A] society is formed by two opposing movements: one which changes historicity into organization, to the point of transforming it into order and power, and another which breaks down this order so as to rediscover the orientations and conflicts through cultural innovation and through social movements. (1981: 31)

Less radical forms of political activism are relegated to lesser categories of collective action in accordance with Touraine’s aim ‘to extract the social movement from the admixture in which it is compounded with other types of collective behaviour’ (1981: 24; 1985). The genuine social movement is identified by its relation to the progressive option of resistance to technocratic domination in the crisis of programmed society. Like Habermas’s analysis in its focus on reflexive modernity and on the role of technocratic or instrumental reason, and, above all, in its commitment to the schemata of Marxian critical theory, Touraine’s approach differs mainly in what he regards as the alternative to an increasingly technocratic society. As Touraine puts it:

Some, like myself, think it necessary to re-introduce the concept of the subject, not in a Cartesian or religious sense, but as the effort of the individual to act as a person, to select, organize and control his individual life against all kinds of pressures. Others, like Habermas, oppose to the instrumentalist view of modernity the idea of intersubjectivity, communicative action and, in more practical terms, democracy. (1991: 390-1)

Theorists of Postmodernity

Touraine and Habermas, with their commitment to classically modern values like autonomy and rationality and variations on the Marxian schema of critical theory, are both evidently theorists of modernity. What has been described as the ‘mood of postmodernity,’ on the other hand, involves scepticism about precisely such universal values and ‘grand metanarratives,’ and an enthusiastic celebration of diversity and ‘difference.’ In this spirit, postmodernist theorists frequently refer to NSMs as proof of the irreducible plurality of ‘subject positions’ and ‘voices’ characteristic of postmodern Western societies in the aftermath of the unifying (universalizing and ‘essentializing’) project of Marxism (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Lyotard, 1984).

However, although postmodernists are sceptical of any attempt to impose unifying or ‘totalizing’ theoretical constructions on the irreducible diversity of social life, a number of theorists nevertheless seek a more general understanding of NSMs as responses to the arrival of postmodernity. What is more, postmodernity is characterized in terms of social and economic developments that are already familiar from theorists of modernity. Characteristic in this respect is Lash and Urry’s (1987) theory of ‘disorganized capitalism.’ Their notion of disorganized capitalism refers to a series of social and economic developments—the replacement of ‘Fordism’ by ‘post-Fordism,’ the internationalization of production and finance, the relative decline of manufacturing and rise of the service sector, and the related decline of the traditional working class and the rise of ‘new middle classes.’ Like other theorists of NSMs, Lash and Urry associate these developments with the shift from the organized class politics of industrialized societies to the new politics of NSMs (1987: 311). An important further consequence of these economic, social and political developments is the increasing importance of culture as a site of domination and resistance: ‘domination through cultural forms takes on significance in disorganized capitalism which is comparable in importance to domination in the sphere of production itself’ (1987: 14).

What differentiates Lash and Urry most clearly as theorists of post modernity is their distinctively postmodernist view of contemporary culture. Disorganized capitalism is associated with the ‘appearance and mass distribution of a cultural-ideological configuration of “postmodernism” [which] affects high culture, popular culture and the symbols and discourse of everyday life’ (1987: 7). Accordingly, philosophical postmodernism can be regarded as a symptom of broader cultural developments, which can, in their turn, be characterized in terms of postmodern philosophy. Postmodern culture is ‘transgressive’ both of intellectual boundaries between ‘rational’ and ‘non-rational’ and of aesthetic boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. It is suspicious of the distinction (so important for Habermas) between ethical, scientific and aesthetic discourse. Drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Lash and Urry describe postmodern culture as ‘post-auratic’ (1987: 286): the work of art is no longer an eternal object of contemplative, almost religious reverence, just another constituent of an ‘economy of pleasure,’ a means of distraction like any other. By implication, postmodern culture is particularly resistant to the discursive forms characteristic of modernity. Communication now occurs more through images, sounds and impulses than through the spoken or written word. Culture, finally, is an increasingly important medium of political struggle. It is the potential site for the imposition of an ‘authoritarian populism’ closely identified with the politics of the new right and Thatcherism. On the other hand, developments like the counterculture, popular music and film testify to the alternative possibility of an ‘anti-authoritarian radical democracy.’ Less clear from Lash and Urry’s analysis are the details of this progressive alternative: they offer little guidance beyond the need for a ‘genuine dialogue’ between ‘new social movements’ and the old left (1987: 312).

Laclau and Mouffe (1985), in their largely parallel account of contemporary society and culture, offer a similarly abstract vision of ‘radical and plural democracy.’ Radical and plural democracy is said to imply radicalization of the liberal tradition to include a deeper commitment to ‘autonomy’ and ‘pluralism’ as well as an ongoing commitment to socialism, albeit only as ‘one of the components.’ The abstraction of these postmodernist recommendations is, however, not so much coincidence as unavoidable consequence of postmodern principles:

This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to ‘the truth,’ which can be reached only by a limited number of subjects. (1985: 191-2)

There is no predetermined logic of revolutionary transformation such as to place either the working class or even new social movements at the heart of political struggle: ‘There is no unique privileged position from which a uniform continuity of effects will follow, concluding with the transformation of society as a whole’ (1985: 169). Neither particular social interests nor possible alliances between them are given in advance, in the way Marxist and other ‘essentialist’ theories have assumed. Laclau and Mouffe reject any notion of ‘representation’ that posits pre-existing interests. Rather, both the unity that constitutes a particular social interest (or ‘subject position’) and any possible alliance between interests are the contingent and unpredictable results of ‘articulation,’ which refers to ‘any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice’ (1985: 105). Unity is never ‘the expression of a common underlying essence but the result of political construction and struggle’ (1985: 65).

Limitations of New Social Movement Theory

New social movement theory typically regards NSMs as the bearer of political tasks peculiar to the present stage of Western history. By the same token, it rehearses a figure of thought familiar from Marxian critical theories, which seek to avoid the futility of utopian moralizing by basing normative critique on a ‘crisis’ theory of society (Habermas, 1976: 1-31). A first problem with this species of theory is its unhelpful abstraction. Thus, for example, although Touraine’s critique of technocracy resonates with some goals of NSMs, his insistence that ‘the’ social movement must be defined in terms of a single social choice or alternative relegates most social movement activity to the indecisive margin of politics. In a similar way, the universalistic ambition of Habermas’s ideal of communicative rationality fails to do justice to the more substantive and specific insights of particular movements. As a result, as we have seen, Habermas has difficulty identifying most NSMs with his progressive ideal. In both cases, undoubted insights about prevailing structures of domination fail to connect convincingly with the actual, practical politics of NSMs, which seem as unlikely to live up to the world-historical expectations of their theorists as was the proletariat to Marx.

The detachment of NSM theory from the actual politics of NSMs is related to a second problem familiar from Marxism, namely the tension between the pessimistic demonstration of the bondage of contemporary society and the hoped-for escape into a future realm of freedom. Thus, both Habermas and Touraine locate the progressive potential of modernity in a possible escape from the ‘burden of history’ into a future of communicatively rational or individually autonomous self-determination. Marx too, after all, had envisaged communist revolution as an escape from a prehistory constrained by economic scarcity and class domination into a history made, in Habermas’s words, ‘with will and consciousness.’ But the more systematically the present state of unfreedom is described and explained, the more implausible appears the anticipated leap into a realm of freedom (Connerton, 1980: 88-9). This implausibility is increased when, for the sake of presenting a single, unifying prospectus of social change, critical theories abstract from the specific and intractably complex activities of social movements. The universalistic construction of a single social contradiction and choice effectively denies the concrete social creativity of actual social movements which, according to the theory, have failed to discern their true political task.

At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum from these totalizing theories, postmodern approaches are scarcely more helpful. Certainly, Laclau and Mouffe resist the temptation to impose any totalizing logic of binary struggle on the irreducibly diverse social creativity of NSMs. But at the same time, they risk making no useful theoretical contribution at all to the politics of contemporary societies. Certainly, their emphasis on the always constructed and contingent nature of political constituencies and alliances is a salutary antidote to both fatalism and voluntarism, opposing pitfalls of the Marxist tradition of politics. What is more, the commitment to difference is not, as critics of postmodernism have repeatedly alleged, simply equivalent to a vacuous relativism without political import. Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) advocacy of radical and plural democracy implies, at least, the positive normative commitment to tolerance of diversity. But understood in this way, their postmodernist approach differs little from Habermas’s commitment to communicative rationality, which also recommends a normative framework ensuring the greatest possible coexistence of individual differences compatible with social harmony.

Conclusion: Critical Theory of New Social Movements

The outcome of the foregoing discussion can best be presented in terms of the earlier distinction between ‘substantive’ and ‘formal’ approaches. Rational choice approaches undoubtedly offer important insights into the nature of social movements considered as a distinctive form of political activity. These approaches also represent an important methodological advance over earlier studies, which were unduly preoccupied with instances of irrational, ‘mass’ behaviour. But at the same time, rational choice approaches are, as we have seen, limited in two ways. First, the atomism of rational choice approaches seems ill-equipped to illuminate notions of identity, value and cultural change, which are both fundamental to the distinctive form of social movement activity and irreducibly social or collective. Second, by definition formal approaches do not illuminate the substantive goals, values and culture of new social movements in contemporary Western societies. The two problems are mutually reinforcing to the extent that the role of identity and culture is particularly prominent in NSMs.

On the other hand, during recent decades sociologists and political scientists have gathered much information concerning substantive characteristics the emergence, structures, strategies, tactics, political opportunities, agents, goals, evolution or ‘life cycle,’ successes, failures and sometimes decline of contemporary social movements (Della Porta and Diani, 1999). But purely descriptive empirical theories cannot, indeed do not aim to, provide theoretical guidance for the political practice of NSMs. the same time, such empirical findings have been incorporated into new social movement theory, which presents a substantive account of the current state, crises and possible transformation of contemporary Western societies. However, understood in this way as a crisis theory in the tradition of Marxian critical theory, NSM theory also presents two basic problems. First, it reduces the complexity of concrete practice and discourse to a single choice between what amount to some variants of ‘socialism’ or ‘barbarism.’ Second, and relatedly, this abstraction from the concrete political practice and experience of NSMs converts their actual, demonstrable social creativity into a projected, but highly implausible leap into a predefined realm of freedom and justice. Not surprisingly, NSM activists have only exceptionally been inspired by such theoretical constructions.

In fact, the best substantive explanation of the nature, directions and possibilities of NSMs is to be gained from their own concrete discourse and experience—including ideologies, values and theories, but also histories, literature, music and art, individual narratives and so on. In these terms, the flourishing discourses of women, lesbians and gays, ethnic minorities and indigenous people, greens and peace activists, have undoubtedly served to enrich the political, cultural and moral universe of Western societies over the last decades. Furthermore, feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism and green theory can be recognized, in these terms, as so many critical theories combining empirical observation, theoretical analysis, normative critique and political engagement. Approaches like those of Habermas, Touraine and the postmodernists should be understood as supplements rather than substitutes for such theories, canvassing additional concerns for deliberative democracy, personal autonomy and toleration of difference. What is more, at the level of the socially embodied and concrete critical discourse of NSMs, the mutual relations between oppression, experience, identity, communication, theory and practice are less problematic. Recognizing the concrete critical discourses of actual social movements promises to resolve the tension, otherwise endemic to the broadly Marxian tradition, between critical theory and emancipatory practice.

Finally, is any role left for the idea of a critical theory of society that has general rather than merely movement-specific pretensions? Briefly, a more productive relationship both to the actual experience, discourse and practice of NSMs and to future possibilities for the transformation of society can arguably be sustained by means of a formal rather than substantive approach to a critical theory of society. A clue to the nature of such an approach is provided by Foucault and Deleuze (1977). Against the totalizing theories associated with modernism and modernity, they present theory as a ‘local and regional practice’ committed to multiplying rather than unifying perspectives, experiences and voices; theorists should aim to provide a ‘political toolbox’ for social movements (1977: 208). Such an approach is formal, since it asks the critical theorist to provide general political means or ‘tools’ of political action rather than prescribing substantive goals or utopian blueprints for social movements. The critical theorist who is engaged on behalf of the exploited and oppressed may yet avoid the ‘representative’ and totalizing pretensions of the radical intellectual of Marxian provenance (1977: 205-9).