Social Movements and Democratization

Klaus Eder. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

The process of democratization is linked to protest within a highly particular historical development, which is the rise of the nation-state. It is part of the overall process of modernization, which is characterized by capitalist development, the destruction of the agrarian world through urbanization and proletarization, and the formation of a people through alphabetization and schooling. The ambivalence of this process, the growth of social inequality and the rise of egalitarian ideologies, the increasing rationalization of life and the rise of ideas of self-determination and autonomy generate a particular and contradictory opportunity structure for collective action and collective mobilization since the inception of the modernization process.

This opportunity structure has given rise to social movements with diverging aims. First of all there are popular reactions which defend a traditional world and a traditional concept of justice. These are accompanied by the rise of the labour movement, which started off from different premises: the fight against exploitation in the name of a notion of equality (the strongest version of it being the socialist concept of capitalist exploitation). This is finally accompanied by bourgeois movements, their struggles of emancipation from authoritarian rule as well as their struggle against the increasing rationality of modern life. Modernization has thus produced a series of collective action for and against it.

Democratization is a by-product which emerged as a project of the bourgeois classes, was taken over by popular movements, and was halted for a while in the anti-democratic mass mobilizations of European fascism. Mobilization and democratization were bound together in an ambivalent relationship. The democratic process was fostered by some and attacked by other social movements. This cleavage structure shaped the evolution of the democratic nation-state in Europe until the late twentieth century.

Combined with the logic of capitalist accumulation, feelings against capitalism could be exploited to work against democracy, thus creating the mix that marks the end of the old social movements. The modernization of democratic forms of government in the postwar period is due to a second wave of social movements, the ‘new social movements.’ Their possible outcome is still debated—it is part of the discourse itself which has fuelled this new type of collective mobilization. This process has not yet become history. It can be subjected to analysis only in the methodological perspective of a discourse analysis—the reconstruction of the debates in which history is made or happens.

Defining Social Movements

What are Social Movements?

Definitional work is futile as long as the embeddedness of the phenomena of collective action is not taken into account. Social movements are collective actions embedded in time and space. Collective action turns into a social movement when it refers to a social space of contention filled with partners and adversaries, with friends and foes (Tilly, 2000), and when it situates itself in a historical time, in a collective memory of a people.

A minimal condition of a social movement is a network structure that exists over a certain period of time in a defined social space. However, not every collective action in time and space becomes a social movement. A social movement requires a collective project which transcends the individual interests of those involved. It has to become a historical project, as Alain Touraine (1977, 1981) has put it. To know whether a collective action is (or becomes) a social movement can be inferred a posteriori from the distant position of the historical observer. To know beforehand is prophetic discourse. To know in the course of action is what social scientists try to get at. A position between historical distance and scientific involvement is the methodologically impure, but best, practice of social movement research.

Times and Spaces of Contentious Action

Collective action is the medium through which claims are formulated and addressed at institutions or other actors. To differentiate such forms, we have to specify action in time and space and treat them as historical events which emerge in specific spaces at a certain moment in time.

A first strategy is to distinguish collective action in terms of the type of society from which social movements emerge. They sometimes emerge, as social anthropological research shows, in small segmentary societies when these societies are confronted with social change. Pierre Clastres (1970) described such movements which emerged when the formation of institutionalized political power was becoming a real threat for the system of reciprocal exchanges through which these societies reproduced their social order. He saw them as movements against the state. What these movements have in common is to be ‘reactive,’ aiming at an ideal which is associated with the given ‘natural’ order. Another important type of collective action in the context of segmentary social forms within hierarchically organized societies is peasant unrest, often combined with heterodox rebellions. They also belong to the class of reactive collective action. The good life is found by going back to the past (such as traditional justice) or to the roots (such as the Bible).

Early modern collective action is, as Charles Tilly (1978) has argued, reactive collective action. It is explained as a reaction of communal groups against centralizing authorities, which are perceived by those mobilized as institutions that destroy their communal bonds, such as peasant villages, towns or religious groups. What they share is a life-world that they defend against a centralizing authority, the emerging national state of early modern Europe.

Moving into nineteenth-century Europe, this pattern of collective action changes. The national state, which has broken the power of local authorities, has taken over from the old traditional regime the function of social welfare. The national state becomes proactive, to which collective action responds in terms of proactive claims. This is the mechanism identified by Tilly (1978, 1984, 1986) as fostering the emergence of proactive social movements. In the middle of the eighteenth century the transition from reactive riots to proactive social movements takes place. Tilly goes even so far as to claim that the term ‘social movements’ should only be applied to those types of collective action which have produced ‘proactive’ claims.

A class of collective mobilization which is not accounted for in Tilly’s analytical model is universalistic religious movements in traditional empires (Eisenstadt, 1966, 1984). These forms of collective action emerged in societies with centralized political power and they developed projects that were geared no longer to a past but to salvation, a state in the future. They were supported by intellectuals who rationalized the idea of salvation in a future life. This type of collective action comes close to what Tilly defines as a social movement: to be a proactive form of collective action. Such movements of salvation even precede the proactive movements tied to the emergence of the modern nation-state.

Such proactive collective action is also found in the postcolonial situation. Religious movements in traditional societies are a mechanism by which to adapt to the postcolonial situation (Lanternari, 1960, 1976). Maria Isaura de Queiroz (1968) generalizes this point by pointing out the function of messianic movements as giving meaning to the experience of injustice equally in colonial (‘primitive’) and in colonializing (‘civilized’) societies.

Although it is debatable whether the end of the twentieth century marks the beginning of a movement society (Touraine, 1992), modern societies certainly create a new link between social movements and the process of democratization. Movements are substituted by economically defined classes as the focus of power in the modern nation-state, thus reshaping the state-society relationship.

Movement Outcomes

Movements outcomes vary in time and space. The first outcome is that they reproduce themselves; they create groups with collective identities which survive the instability of collective action. Such group definitions can refer to status groups, classes, age groups, gender or ethnic categories. They can be decoupled from such references and reduced to ‘issue networks.’ Then we have group identities created around issues (such as the environment or racism) rather than categories of people.

Movements, furthermore, create communicative spaces among those mobilized. They force those against whom they mobilize to enter into a communicative relationship with social actors beyond the confines of institutions.8 In this sense social movements become the main carrier of the formation of public spheres which provide the arena of democratic will formation (Habermas, 1989 [1962], 1992). Separating people from their traditional bonds in a community and their embed dedness in paternalistic networks is only part of the story. Social movements depend upon disembedded people whom they bind together through collective action. The ‘construction’ of ‘associational ties’ (as distinct from ‘communalties’) is the distinctive characteristic of social movements. Acting together is no longer contingent upon communal bonds but on bonds created through unbounded communication between people. Collective action in social movements is a special and consequential form of communication which has fostered the formation and amplification of a public sphere. They have become the core of what was to become the space of democratic will formation of the people within the nation-state.

The Old Social Movements

The Emergence of Old Social Movements

Old social movements are defined by their historical position in the modernization process. This context is defined in a double way: being part of a first wave of modernization (as many European cases are) and being part of a first stage of modernization when issues centre on questions of national identity and social inequality. Old social movements, then, are movements which fight against being subject to traditional domination and defend a form of domination based on the will (and consent) of the people, and fight against social inequality and defend the idea of equality of all members of a society. These new principles also mobilize new forms of resistance based on a new claim for a democratic form of collective will formation and a claim for social justice in a society of equals. Thus the ambit of the old social movements is defined by the emergence of two types of movements (which will also be mixed in time and space): those fighting against authoritarian rule and those fighting against injustice.

Wuthnow (1990) has given a sociological account of the social structures and cultural forms within which these movements emerged. He reconstructed them as communities of discourse which emerged subsequently in the Reformation, the Enlightenment and under socialism. This perspective comes close to the classic Habermasian interpretation of rational debate emerging out of public debate, which constitutes a social context successfully demarcating a boundary to the realm of political domination. Already Alexis de Tocqueville argued that a plurality of associations is the condition for democratic life, these approaches point to the ‘emancipatory’ function of social movements emerging in Europe since the seventeenth century. These ‘old’ social movements which appear often as a mere by-product of the structural changes provoked by the Reformation and the Enlightenment are more than that: there is a systematic link between associational structures and the capacity for collective action against traditional authority.

Old social movements in terms of fullblown collective mobilization began in Europe in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth century, the ‘rebellious century’ (Tilly et al., 1975) in which popular unrest all over the continent increased. What changes in 1848, the year chosen by Tilly as a convenient time marker, are the claims and the action repertoire. Claims become proactive; new rights are claimed, rather than old rights defended. The action repertoire is no longer the tax rebellion or the food riot; it is substituted by rationally calculated and organized collective action such as strikes, the electoral rally and the demonstration (Tilly, 1984: 309). Popular protest against the destruction of real and imagined traditional forms of life, which formerly had spread over the European continent and Britain in the course of the formation of centralized forms of political power in Europe, was replaced by a form of protest which contemporaries named ‘the social movement.’ This social movement was identified with the dominant new social group emerging in the nineteenth century: the industrial working class. Thus the social movement and the labour movement became synonymous in Europe.

A classic interpretation of this transformation is the reconstruction of ‘the making of the working class’ (Thompson, 1968). Contrary to Marxist theorizing about working-class formation, Thompson describes the emergence of solidarities out of the decline of the traditional moral economy, which forces workers to redefine what they have in common. This making of a collective identity is determined by a reinterpretation of broken social relationships rather than a mystical translation of a structural relationship experienced in the workplace as the power of capital. Working-class movements emerge where such new bonds can be developed, not where the capitalist relations of production are the most repressive.

Popular non-working-class cultures of resistance, however, continue to be important. They are mainly tied to the agrarian classes, which exert an important indirect effect on the formation of centralized power in the emerging nation-state. Barrington Moore (1966) has argued that the outcome of the conflict between peasant and lord shaped the role of the landed classes in the process of democratization. The highly debated result of this study (Skocpol, 1973) is that the stronger such landed classes emerge from this relationship and the weaker the mobilization of agrarian classes, the more probable the road to fascism becomes. The specifically modern transformation of popular unrest has taken place in nationalist movements. Absorbing elements of working-class movements as well as middle-class anti-modernist movements, they have become the carriers of national unification projects and the affirmative defenders of the nation-state.

The ambivalence of collective action in the workers’ movement has been further analysed by Barrington Moore (1978) in his investigation of why workers sometimes obey and sometimes revolt. This perspective reinstates the role of a sense of injustice as a major variable for explaining protest. Ideal-typically, the reaction to social injustice can vary from moral anger and moral protest to accepting suffering and oppression as morally justified (what Moore calls the stifling of the sense of injustice). Such stifling is the more probable the more capitalist development advances. The analysis of the reaction of German workers to their experience of injustice from 1848 to 1920 shows that the expropriation of moral outrage is part of the capitalist experience. Starting with strikes against apparent injustice, the rationalization process also led to the rationalization of movement action, culminating in the appropriation of moral outrage by socialism, where ‘people’s organizations, loudspeakers, newspapers, the secret police, and the court all swing into action’ (Moore, 1978: 503). A sense of injustice can no longer develop when moral indignation becomes a political game among the Wisest Man and a Committee of the next Wisest Men (Moore, 1978: 504) which is inaccessible cognitively and emotionally by the people. Not only socialism, but also liberal capitalism has produced such effects. The operation of mass media used by opinion leaders to turn on (and off) moral currents for influence and profit expropriates the sense of injustice of people, which in the worst case leads to the fascist mobilization of workers. In this sense modernity as such weakens the capacity of people to use their sense of injustice as a mode of expressing moral outrage and becomes a mechanism for generating a stifled sense of injustice.

The Institutionalization of the Old Social Movements

Social movements continue beyond the precarious stage of collective mobilization. Institutionalizing a social movement means to guarantee the existence of a social movement without permanent or at least intermittent collective mobilizations. Movements turn into ‘social movement organizations.’ The first such example occurs through trade unionization and the integration of workers’ movements within corporatist welfare state arrangements, thus mobilizing resources for workers’ protest and securing its long-run feasibility.

An analogous process can be identified in the romantic counter-movements of the nineteenth century, carried by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois social groups. The movement organizations which emerged from these counter-movements are rationally organized food companies or health companies praising healthy food and life in the countryside (Gusfield, 1992). The movement for the protection of nature is a good example of the transformation of a cultural protest movement into a social movement organization.

The final case is the institutionalization of the national movement in the nation-state. The nation-state turns into a ‘new’ community for citizens. It canalizes popular sentiments of injustice into defences of national unity. This institutionalization—based on increasing communication within the nation-state—has been a double-edged phenomenon. Whether these nationalist movements take the democratic or the undemocratic, the fascist, road is an option which is equally possible in the mobilization of national sentiments. This ambivalence has weakened the initial link between social movements and democracy and led to the interim period of a modern world without movements which characterizes the first two decades of the postwar period.

The Old Social Movements and Their Counter-movements

The institutionalization of class cleavages and national cleavages in Europe created a stable conflictual structure within which counter-movements could grow. Fascism reacted against the ideas of universal human equality and democratic government in the name of natural differences between groups of human beings and authoritarian leadership. The values of modernity were turned upside-down and provided the ground for mass mobilization. Theories of mass behaviour tried to grasp this phenomenon, be it in an affirmative or in a critical perspective. It took two decades after the end of the fascist period to make the topic of social movements again a legitimate subject matter of social theory and a legitimate political practice.

The outcome of mobilization and counter-mobilization has been the transformation of the public space into an ideological battleground for social movements. The national state with its monopoly of power was transformed into a social movement which occupied the public space for its own staging. It created the conditions of a civil war in the modern national state. The state and its members, the citizens, were fighting against those citizens who were not part of the movement represented by the state. Those excluded organized themselves as resistance movements (résistance, resistenza, Wider-stand), joining diverse old social movements, from national movements to socialist and communist movements.

Western Europe needed two world wars to get rid of this dynamic of counter-movements, a process supported by the emergence of supranational institutions such as the institutions of the European Community. These institutions, like other transnational institutions, have become the object of social movements only in recent times. The integration of the nation-state into transnational European institutions increasingly reduced the space for the dynamics of movements against counter-movements. This is, however, a particularity of Europe and North America. The rest of the world is still full of these dynamics, more or less contained by institutional arrangements and procedures.

The New Social Movements

The Emergence of New Social Movements

The new social movements have been considered to be the carriers of a new wave of modernization and democratization, albeit in a different form. They appeared when modernization was seen no longer as a unilinear process towards modernity, but as a contradictory process in which a telos-driven first modernity is followed by a second modernity which has to tackle its consequences (Beck, 1992, 1995). The ‘second modernity’ is regarded as a period in which the unintended consequences of modernity, the collective risks it has generated, have become the mechanism for further modernization. Thus the second modernity offers to social movements new opportunities for collective action, which explains the rise of the new social movements.

The new social movements have often been described as single-issue movements. They are mobilizations against the negative consequences of modernity, for the environment against its destruction through modernization, for peace against the destructive forces of the first wave of modernization. The new phenomenon to be dealt with in the public and political life of advanced modern society is the increasing public sensitivity to issues which centre on the risks of destroying common goods. Such issues mobilize citizens, thus empowering them to shape the course of the development of modern societies.

Alain Touraine (1977, 1981), an important theorist of social movements, has proposed to define social movements as historical actors capable of orienting social change in modern societies. This theoretical proposition has to make a strong assumption regarding the historical role of social movements. A less demanding explanation links the new social movements with the particular problem that common goods invite for free-riding (Olson, 1965). To counteract free-riding, such goods have to be made a common cause for people. The alternative to authoritative institutional solution (which is the use of normative force by the state) is to mobilize people into social movements. The concern for common goods (as manifest, for example, in environmentalist and ecological movements) creates a normative obligation through collective action. They generate the common cause in the course of collective action to tackle the consequences of (the first) modernity.

Social movements in general, new social movements in particular, are thus a solution to the problem of collective goods. They provide a solution to common goods beyond the market and the state, a solution based on associational ties. New social movements fit into this third type: they create collective action through the identification with a collective concern. Thus free-riding is overcome by creating a social object for identification: the association of those concerned with a common good. This holds equally for the issue of the environment as for the gender issue or the issue of collective identity that is pushed and defended by ‘new’ social movements.

These developments point to a shift of the mode of political self-regulation of modern societies. Politics shifts towards a field that it is no longer restricted to the field of action defined by state institutions. Social movements develop new institutional forms of politics in modern societies. They also force these institutions to be conceived in democratic terms. Finally, they tend to occupy (or at least beleaguer) the field of symbolic politics by intensifying public communication, which changes the mode of functioning of the public space. New social movements increase symbolic politics and thus extend the options of democratic will formation.

New social movements thus produce two effects: (1) the increasing participation of consequential collective actors in diverse issue fields or policy domains and (2) the intensification of public communication over these issues.

The Institutionalization of the New Social Movements

The institutionalization of social movements concerns not only the internal organization of social movements (the organizational form), but also the interorganizational field of which social movement organizations are a part. This emerging interorganizational field develops some peculiarities which transform the modes of political institutionalization developed in the first wave of modernization by the old social movements. It gives rise to a new type of interconnection between civil society as represented by social movement organizations and the state and the economy.

The rise of social movement organizations dealing with collective goods creates a strain on the monopoly of the state to provide such goods. The provision of such goods becomes a contested issue in policy-making. Thus movement actors bring the state back in, not as the key and powerful actor, but as a co-operator or adversary in a controversial policy domain. Social movement organizations also put under pressure economic collective actors’ corporations, which are defined as those destroying collective goods. This emerging interorganizational field develops new modes of conflict-settling and dispute resolution. The model of settling class conflicts through distributive measures which dominated the movement-state-economy interaction in the ‘first’ modernity is extended by introducing models of conflict-settling where non-distributive issues are at stake.

The changes of the institutional order due to the integration of social movement organizations into institutional politics go even further. The emerging institutional politics is accompanied by a rise in the moral self-presentation of collective actors, for which the ‘public responsibility’ discourse of movement actors is an indicator. They create a ‘market’ in which symbols of trust and reliability and in which images of oneself and of others shape political processes. The logic of such identity markets forces policy-makers to accept the rules of the game of identity markets. This explains the centrality of the symbolic dimension in the emerging interorganizational field.

Taken together, these developments favour the development of an institutional system which is characterized by the following two elements: (1) a new resonance with concerns for collective goods; and (2) an interorganizational field of associational ties (‘networks’) beyond the state and market. These developments vary according to national traditions and the position of a society in the international system of nation-states, that is, with the outcome of the initial modernization processes.

The New Social Movements and the Marketization of Collective Action

Social movements are the cause of increasing public communication. They contribute to the expansion of a public space which provides rituals of debate in which more collective actors than ever before can take part and monitor each other. This transformation is evident in the public discourse on the environment. In the 1980s environmental movements put this issue on the public agenda and had the monopoly of representing environmental concerns. This ‘monopoly’ situation was destroyed by competitors in the market of producing and communicating ‘green’ images, by business and policy actors. Environmental movements had to start to defend their agenda-setting image. The public communication of environmental issues has finally caught the environmental movement in a competition with media agenda-setting. This has contributed to the transformation of environmental movements into cultural pressure groups. In order to survive, they had to engage in PR activities (Hansen, 1993).

This raises the problem of whether the new social movements survive the marketplace of public discourse. They do not survive as movements of continuous forms of mass mobilization. The action repertoire changes since their survival depends on their capacity to keep control of their stakes in public discourse, on the successful communication of symbolic packages that resonate with the respective constituencies. The relationship between movements and their constituencies also changes. They survive as a public interest group which speaks in the name and as an advocate of a constituency.

The main outcome of the new social movements is the repositioning of collective actors in the expanding public space in modern societies. The first outcome is the competitive occupying of the public space by making any issue a contested policy domain. The public space expands by creating issue-specific public spaces in which different coalitions of collective actors arise. A network develops of issue-specific public spaces with issue-specific discourses. A second outcome is that these public spaces become the medium of communications strategies and communication campaigns of collective actors that have a stake in an issue. Movements have to engage in symbolic action to raise public attention. The more these actors participate in the institutional game, the more they have to communicate their views; the more they communicate their views, the more they have to use ritualistic forms of argumentation, dramatizations that solicit the attention of the public; the more they have to dramatize, the more the media become important.

Are Social Movements Good for Democratizing Societies?

The social movements seem to survive the marketplace of public discourse. Whether the public sphere survives its own marketization raises the question of the effects of the move-mentization of society on their democratic performance. Habermas (1989 [1961]) in his classic (not in his later) work would have argued for negative effects. There are, however, aspects to this marketization which make the answer less straightforward.

The logic of the democratization of modern societies is linked to an extension of public rituals of movement-state-business interactions and to the dramatization of public debates where public resonance counts. This has created public arenas in which public debates take the form of advertisements, symbolic actions and media dramatizations. All these phenomena provide a new social reality for mobilizing democratic claims. Ritual participation and communication become the medium for democratic will formation.

The first theoretical reason to create a positive link between the action repertoire of symbolic politics which characterizes new social movements and democratic will formation is an anthropological one: humans are narrative animals. We lives in and through stories about realities; arguments are always embedded in stories that give meaning to them. These stories are histories, collective memories, individual memories, and so on. The second theoretical reason is sociological. Social interaction is symbolically mediated and therefore dependent upon symbolic forms which allow the decoding of communications. Research in symbolic interactionism has shown that arguments, the constitutive element of communication, are embedded in a meaning-giving frame which has to be invoked and stabilized in each communication. There is no argument outside a story. This is not to deny that social actors are capable of being rational. It is to claim that the reference to a shared knowledge of the world is the condition for rational arguments to enter into discourse. But this does not transform discourse into a collective process of argumentation. Ideally, discourse is a collective argumentation. In social reality collective argumentation is culturally embedded. It belongs to the historical experience of modern societies that democracy has always been connected to shared cultural beliefs. Democracy was coupled with beliefs and knowledge that could provide a sense of collective identity which secures the communicability of arguments.

Democratic discourse is therefore contingent on its cultural embedding. Public communication is embedded and institutionally regulated through rituals and ceremonies, without which democracy is impossible. They provide the social world within which to communicate. The public space is a theatre, and democratic principles allow us all to act and stage ourselves in this space, to talk, even to talk nonsense. The world created by social movements in advanced modern societies has fostered the creation of such public spaces: the media tell stories, good and bad ones, social actors enter the media public from advertisements through talk shows to public ceremonies. Thus everybody can observe everybody.

Such a theoretical notion of public communication gives to social movements a particular social role. Their primary function becomes ‘claims-making.’ Claims-making does not stop before democratic principles; rather, they are made explicit in the course of claims-making. A final effect of social movements, then, is that the ideals of universal participation and of public debate become themselves stories that are invoked in public communication by social movements. The democratic story is told to give legitimacy to institutions (or withdraw it from them). Thus democracy is a myth staged by collective actors retelling the myth of democratic participation. Democratic claims-making becomes part of the taken-for-granted everyday culture of modern political institutions.

The history of social movements brings forth the narrative property of democracy, which provides the basis for political communication in thousands of fora and arenas of (often boring, sometimes insulting, sometimes factually wrong) public discourse and in everyday media dramatizations of persons and issues, be it through talk shows, news reports or caricatures. We have to conceive democracy as a set of ritual forms and ceremonial events that organize everyday public life.

The opposite of democracy is authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Both fear nothing more than to be exposed to everyday public communication. No authoritarian ruler, even less a totalitarian ruler, can survive the mass-media rituals of dealing with bad news and the symbolic politics of social movements looking for bad news. We as the spectators of the theatre know that we live in a world of dramatization and ritual staging. Even empirical research shows that people are making their own sense of the public theatre. Democracy is—to conclude—the staging of a public theatre—with, it is hoped, a critical mass of spectators possessing nothing more than common sense. Only a public space without social movements raising their voices will provide the space for the authoritarian disempowerment of people.