Social movements.

                                                Extinction Rebellion Rally.

The Social Movements: A Slippery Path to Change.

Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.  [1]


Historically, direct action and political radicalism have been perceived as the major characteristic in social change. The common mantra has been no gain without pain, but how much pain should be endured?  And, is there anything is to be gained by public protest?

I have been involved in social movements since the 1960s. Today, I am a reformed activist, in this paper I will outline the reasons why I think social movements fail to create long term change and why I believe them to be dangerous in the current mood of nationalism and entrenched conservatism.

Social Movement Theory 

Social movements are generally understood through social movement theory where conflict flows from a general or particular grievance into a collective of like- minded people or those with shared experiences.   It is crucial to understand the differences between the current levels of protest and previous social movements; the temper is different and there are different aims and objectives. However, historical movements have a great impetus on current political and social activism.

First, I will outline social movement theory.  Social movement theory is represented by the various schools: Functionalism, Behaviourism, Political Process, Interactionalism, Collective Theory, Conflict Theory, Resource Mobilization and the New Social Movements.   Historically, the two key factors at the core of social movement theory are liberation and constraint. There are also moral and material implications in political activism.   In order to bring about an end to social constraints and to create the landscape for liberation one needs to understand the workings of these two key factors, or to put it crudely, how the master/leader/manager constrains   the subject/worker/slave.  It is the latter who must struggle constantly for liberation.

Importantly, not all social movements are dissenting, many social movements are designed to promote and maintain the status quo and many social movements hide behind a façade of false images and prefer obscurantism.   In addition, some social movements might simply be recreational, and some will combine culture with acts for creating social and political change.

The new social movements have changed the dynamics from mass social campaigns to single issue protests and the most furtive of the current movements is the environment movement, which is focused mainly on the degradation of the planet and climate change, but we must go back in time and examine social movement theory to fully understand this post-modern movement.

Social movement theory is a vast topic that has generally followed the historical lines of a sociological and psychological understanding of society’s perceived social misfits. We can separate these movements into three main categories:

  1. Macro-structural explanations of social movements.
  2. Class, culture and conflict theory.
  3. New movements, aesthetic and anti-capitalism; and/or anti-globalization.

Social movement theory is also implicated in the social and political changes that take place within normal (or acceptable) society.  Recent examples of this are wars, elections, political and policy changes, increased rationalism, institutionalization and the purported ‘end of ideology’ or what Fukuyama [1992] called the ‘end of history’.[2]  Against these changes there are mass mobilizations taking place across the world including the new forms of fundamentalist terrorism and the events of the 99% Occupation of Wall Street, which spread to cities elsewhere, also, the Arab Spring and the latest British movement, Extinction Rebellion whose activists climb  on top of vehicles, block traffic, glue themselves to buildings and attempt to bring normal city  mobility  to a standstill.  Most of the social movements aim for non-violent protests, but many end up in violence.  Each of these groups fall under the heading of the new social movements otherwise known as single-issue groups.

I will focus first on the latest group Extinction Rebellion. The purpose of this group is to draw attention to climate change.  Extinction Rebellion has had a meteoric rise in Britain as well as having has influenced protests elsewhere.   It has brought chaos to the streets of London and large numbers of people have been arrested.   Their primary formula for action is to break the law and to continue breaking the law until the group’s demands are met. These demands are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, halt biodiversity loss and be led by “citizens” assemblies on climate and ecological justice”.[3] The movement is now present in 49 countries, and attracted high-profile supporters from US intellectual Noam Chomsky and actress Emma Thompson to young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

On its British website, the Extinction Rebellion claims to receive “small donations” from individuals and “larger sums” from organizations like the Berlin-based Guerilla Foundation, which donated 18,000 euros ($20,000) for its launch.[4]  The movement follows the model used by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., which was non-violent direct action. However, the definition of non-violent is open to question and certain levels of violence seem to be justified, for example self-harm.

Mahatma Gandhi led the Salt March in protest against the colonial government’s monopoly on salt production. The salt laws taxed the production of Indian salt so that the country had to import British salt.   Gandhi’s defiance of British colonial laws over the empire’s salt monopoly began in March 1930 and it sparked a wave of civil disobedience that contributed to ending the British empire. Gandhi and his supporters began a long, expanding protest march in order to produce salt and transport it without paying tax.  It did not stop the practice: the British suppressed the march, arresting tens of thousands of people and refused to make any concessions. The march was not supported by Muslims and it failed to effect any immediate changes. [5]

What did people gain from the salt march?  First, it was inspiring for those taking part, since many had never been organized before. Second, it announced to the world that the Indian masses were a serious force to be reckoned with.   The British authorities were forced to negotiate with the campaign leader. Third, it stimulated further waves of civil disobedience. However, what started as a peaceful protest turned into a massacre. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre which took place on April 13, 1919 saw British troops fire on a large crowd of unarmed Indians in the Amritsar, Punjab region, killing several hundred people and wounding many more. It marked a turning point in India’s modern history, [6]  but the cost to human life was horrendous.

The Salt March had a tremendous influence on the thinking and strategy of other insurgents, such as Martin Luther King, whose peace-oriented rallies also ended in extreme violence when the Ku Klux Klan upped the anti against America’s black population. There were long term legislative gains, but black people in America are still persecuted and treated as second class citizens. Seemingly, it is far easier to change laws than it is to change peoples’ attitudes.

The social movement literature reflects the various changes in groups and movements, but it is not without serious questions and controversies.  A number of theorists analysed the merging of multiple issues into single groups and some  have complained that blurring the boundaries of social movements is a way of indiscriminately ‘extending the meaning of concepts’, that is, offering only socio-historical contexts rather than focusing on the activities of the movements. [7]  Other writers insist that movements should be analysed in relation to culture and the inherent power relations.[8]   One thing is clear, most people join dissident social movements because they feel they are victims of social injustice not because they are altruists.  Many people join groups through feelings of disenchantment, but may have no concept of what is required for social change, they rely on leaders who often do not have a clear plan for the future because their focus is on becoming a leader.  Indeed historically, many leaders have been shown to be self-absorbed and narcissistic.  In times of difficulty people seek out empathy and like-mindedness, but neither are concrete formulas for appropriate social change.

The early studies into social movements follow Aristotle’s warning against the tyranny of mob rule.  Hobbes used this idea to suggest that ‘society is a war of group against group’ [9]  This has led to the view that social movements are generally pathological and contagious.  For over a century social movement research has been focused on investigating incidents of behavioural contagion because it so often leads to unpleasant consequences.  Contagion appears to occur at all levels of society, but it is believed to be more problematic within the political or dissident groups. [10] This should come as no surprise, but such a discovery is not neutral, the study of dissident behaviour coincided with the need to protect the Enlightenment’s bourgeoning capitalist system and the rising middle class.

Gustav Le Bon [1841-1931] took up the idea of behavioural contagion in two major studies, the ‘law of the mental unity of crowds’ and ‘the operation of the unconscious instinctual forces’. Le Bon based his ideas on the discoveries of physiological psychology.  He believed that conscious acts are the outcome of an unconscious sub-stratum and largely due to hereditary factors, he also suggested that the individual characteristics were absent in the group. [11] Later Wilfred Trotter created a law of ‘gregariousness’ in the Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. [12]

Sigmund Freud was influenced by the work of Le Bon and used his investigations of ego-psychology to hypothesize the ‘super-ego’ and its roots in the individual’s object relations. The theme of this work is the ‘irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization’.[13]  Freud believed that if we were not bound by convention the world would simply fall into barbarism and chaos.  He also saw convention as a process of evolution and a natural transitioning. [14]  Following Freud’s investigations, we know that change is never free of anxieties, which does not make social activism a stable ground for long term change.

Freud followed Le Bon’s ideas and further developed the notion of a group mind.  Freud argued that when the individual becomes a part of the group dynamics s/he is less aware of her or his behaviour.   Freud elaborated on this idea to suggest that ‘in a group the individual is brought under conditions, which would allow her or him to throw off the repression[s] of the unconscious, instinctual impulses. [15]  Freud’s work differs from that of Le Bon’s in that Le Bon’s unconscious was premised on the deeply buried features of the racial mind; also, the notion of the repressed is not present in Le Bon.

Le Bon and Freud have had a profound effect on the study of groups and social movements, particularly in the attempted understanding of disaffection and dissidence. This has led to the tendency to reduce individual/group problems to some kind of personality defect, which, in the case of psychoanalysis is said to be brought about by ‘maternal deprivation’ (this view has been discredited in recent years).   It is an idea that was widely accepted in the 19th and 20th centuries and became the core factor in the processes of a ‘scientific education’. [16]  Freudian theories underscored a variety of tests said to measure ‘order’ and ‘control’ in the population. [17]  Post-Freudian theories are still used today in the ‘talking cure’ otherwise psychoanalytic therapies; as well as dynamic and narrative therapies. Modern narrative therapies have also been transformed into the cognitive behavioural therapies, mindfulness, linguistic programming and a host of other related methodologies for alleviating anxiety and disaffection (as well as more serious mental and behavioural conditions); all encumber the notion of changing the individual’s behaviour.  Ironically, this knowledge has also been used by the social movements, namely the Transition Towns Movement, whose focus has been grounded in changing social behaviour.[18]   Notably, the Transitions Towns Movement withdrew from all forms of political protest and focused of small pockets of social and behavioural change.

Controls and Constraints.

In the 1950s social movement theories developed as an outgrowth of Le Bon’s and Freud’s collective behaviour theories with the distinct aim at controlling hostile crowds.  They rested on the idea that when traditional order breaks down the shared experience manifests a shared excitement or anxiety and this leads to elementary forms of collective behaviour, these in turn, evolve into integrated structures and newly established norms; reforms or revolutions.

The idea that groups are formed around human anxieties still stands. Every transitioning comes from an internal narrative that aims to placate some form of   anxiety, as already mentioned the current fear is climate change, perceived as a coming apocalypse.

Some social movements have been viewed as the adaptive responses to societies already in transition. [19]  This can be said of the current environment movement, which has transitioned to become embedded into a general green economy.  This process usually develops around an individual social identity, which later becomes, in the context of the group, a collective identity (or as Freud might have put it, the introjection of the leader’s ego into that of the group).   In other words, social movements evolve out of the structural, cultural and social cleavages within society and while structure and culture do not overtly impinge on politics societal cleavages usually become politicized and become political cleavages. [20]      

In William Kornhauser’s [1959] work titled The Politics of Mass Society, the social conditions necessary for a democracy are explored by identifying those elements that create the opposite; that is large scale protest and totalitarianism.   Kornhauser made the distinction between the democratic movement and the mass movements, perceiving the latter to be considerably more dangerous to society.    Kornhauser suggested that mass movements mobilize people who are alienated from the mainstream system and who do not believe in the validity of the established order.[21]

For Kornhauser the working class had the weakest ties to the social order because they received the smallest benefits.    Kornhauser believed ‘the rise of the industrial order… held out a promise to the working class of full participation in society’ but this failed.   As a consequence of ‘the gap between the promise and fulfilment, members of the working-class flock to mass movements in greater proportions than do members of other social classes’.[22]

After analysing the conditions that favour mass movements Kornhauser moved to what it might take to maintain a liberal democracy.   He noted there are two camps. The aristocratic view stresses the independence of the elite. The democratic view stresses the independence of non-elites and is based on the premise that constitution of liberty above all requires safeguards against the accumulation of power by any one group, especially the elite.  The two groups are not incompatible for Kornhauser; in fact, he believed each was strengthened when it was combined with the other.     Kornhauser suggested that ‘civil liberty’ required considerable social autonomy of both the elite and non-elite and he believed liberal democracy was strongest in those societies possessing the highest per capita output of industrial energy and personal income.[23] This liberal view of the social movement is the foundation of most political action today. To this end, there is no longer the desire to eliminate the elites, rather to become equal to them.  Today’s buzzword is “equality”.

The question of dialectics.   

We live in a world of duality, which is self-perpetuating, to use a Hegelian term we live with the Master-slave relation.[24] The worker needs the boss and the boss needs the worker.  The circumstances of this can only be changed at a micro-level.  The mass movement will always leave some disenchanted folks behind who form the seeds of another mass movement. Society then falls into a culture of protest or revolution, not a culture of reform.

The research shows that demonstrations that are passive and attract over 5% of the population are likely to succeed in creating small, (but not necessarily permanent gains). This means the opposing forces must up-the-anti, whereby peaceful protests usually do not remain peaceful for long, they escalate.  Under 5% and movements fail so there is a constant demand to boost the protester numbers, which can get in the way of actually perfecting change at any level at all.[25]  The fact is this, the protest groups must corporatize and assimilate into the capitalist system in order to fight the capitalism system, they become in and against the state.  This methodology did lead to a number of reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, but the reforms were soon cut back or curtailed.

      The other reality is this, change, however it is brought into effect, often only lasts for one generation. The changes that have lasted, such as the vote for women, were brought about out of a need for bigger social changes, such as the use of women in the workforce to build the national economies.

In the 1960s the social movements reached their peak.  They had been highly influential in promulgating left wing politics and posed a significant risk to conservative elites.  Neil Smelser [1962] attempted to build on Kornhauser’s views to further understand the processes of how the social movements offset human anxieties. He identified a six-point system of conditions necessary for the development of social movements:

  • General structural conduciveness – organization of society can facilitate the emergence of conflicting interests.
  • Structural strain – conduciveness of social structure of potential conflict – gives way to a perception that conflicting interests do in fact exist.
  • Growth of a generalized belief system – ideology, a shared view of reality that redefines social action and serves to guide behaviour.
  • Precipitating events – triggering events found outside or within social structure.
  • Mobilization of participants.
  • Operation of social control, response of others in society, e.g. counter movement or government authorities. [26]

Smelser believed that not all social movements were the same, they differed in the economic status of members and in some cases in member values, which sometimes makes it hard to reach a consensus and produced a greater likelihood of anarchy and chaos.     

The Collective Behaviour Approach.

The collective behaviour approach to understanding social movements is embedded in the sociological traditions and represents the works of the Chicago School between 1920 and the 1940s in the writings of George Gissing, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, Louis Wirth and others. They studied the urban conditions and mass disenchantment. Gissing was greatly influenced by his personal experiences of extreme poverty and domestic difficulties in London and Chicago in the 1870s. [27]

One concept used for social analysis was that of ecology.  Ecology is the term, which describes the symbiotic relationships of living organisms and their adaptation of living things to their environment. Nature has feed-back loops where the conditions of one event can impact on another. We also see this manifest in human behaviour.

The Chicago School formulated the idea that urbanization did not spring up at random, but as a consequence of changing environments and displacements.  What takes place afterwards is orchestrated on a kind of natural selection basis or the competition experienced between groups. Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian elaborated on this idea. They showed how the breakdown of traditional patterns of social ordering could create elementary forms of collective behaviour that led to social movements.

Talcott Parsons and Chalmers Johnson also took to the ecology view and thought societies were self-regulating systems that worked in much the same way as the human physiology. This enforced the idea that any breakdown was pathological.  Hence, Johnson’s ‘disequilibrium’ was the condition required for all revolutions.[28]

These structural functionalist responses were rooted in ideas of the ‘rational’, which was in opposition to the ‘irrational’.   Political action then, only took place amongst people who were perceived irrational.  It is a view still maintained by conservatives today, and of course rarely do conservatives see themselves as irrational. From a conservative point of view, if the individual is unhappy, unsuccessful or disenchanted there is something wrong with the individual, not the system. The very action of mass protest dances to this tune, which sees protesters responding to triggering factors.

Neil Smelser noted how ‘the anxieties and strains within society are addressed by charismatic leaders’, which may or may not lead to the mobilization of social movements depending on the appropriate ‘triggering factors’. [29]

In the 1960s Frank Parkin researched Middle Class Radicalism and the Social Basis of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [1968] and revealed the following insights:

CND is not to be understood wholly as an expression of protest against the Bomb, but as a somewhat complex affair… Much of the movement’s attraction derived from the fact that it also served as a rallying point for groups of individuals opposed to certain features of British society which were independent of the Bomb…Organisations which swelled the ranks of CND such as pacifists, the New Left and communists and anarchists, the Quakers, the Labour Left and so on, were generally less committed to unilateralism as such than to an array of quite distinct aims that were thought to be furthered by support for the campaign. [30]

Parkin goes on to say that alienation is the key characteristic of individuals recruited into the mass social movements, as well as the motivating force beyond the attraction to extremist politics (he cited the communist and Nazi movements as examples).  Whatever differentiates the supporters, they appeared to share a social estrangement from society.  (Parkin argued this was not the case for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which was led by members of the establishment).

Parkin noted that generally, the involvement in social movements provided a sense of purpose to life by creating a feeling that one was helping to change the course of history. He believed there were two distinct categories driving the participation in social movements, one was material need and the other was moral gratification, the first is inherent in the working class movement and the second in middle class radicalism.  Parkin believed that 83 percent of the 1960s CND supporters came from the professional and white-collar workers. [31] In this particular campaign, the focus on social cohesiveness was just as important as nuclear disarmament and more to the point, nuclear disarmament did not argue the case against conventional wars.

Doubtless the new social movements were aiming at mass democratization, but this was to favour the middle class. Hence, middle-class radicalism would not eliminate the poverty and hardships.  Rather, it would act as a buffer against the angry working class.


The trend has been to directly link the mass social movement to the analysis of totalitarianism.  First accounts were related to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR], also Maoist China and Nazi Germany. Hannah Arendt [1966] is perhaps one of the best-known commentators on the Nazi driven Holocaust.  In Arendt’s view the mobilizations of the 1920s to 1940s were a social pathology brought about by the breakdown of the status quo (the middle class).    This includes the destruction of the nation state, the collapse of class identities and racial/national identification as well as a socio-economic crisis.  To put it another way, mass politics occurs when people engage outside the normal political procedures that govern change.  People form identities in poverty, oppression, wealth and hardship.  Loss of identity causes panic and it serves to pushes people into groups in order to re-establish their sense of being.  There are a number of difficulties with this view, mostly because it contains its own authoritarian prescription aimed at maintaining the status quo and it invokes an identity politics.    Importantly, sociology assumes a grounded rationality in the status quo, which in today’s environment makes up the political spheres and the bureaucracies that social movements are challenging, while at the same time social movements are engaging in the bureaucracies.  Let it be clear, any protest against capitalism requires that one engages in capitalism.  This is part of the internal logic of capitalism and its totalizing structures.

Given the history of authoritarianism and violence one might contend that bureaucracy constitutes the strongest threat to social pluralism and liberal democracy, especially in highly industrialised countries. Notwithstanding, social movements create their own bureaucracies, which can be totalizing and they cannot avoid violence, which becomes predicated on the momentum of the groups and the perceived threat to opposing forces.

Totalitarianism is said to violate the boundaries between public and private spheres by politicizing all areas of daily life in the community including those which, according to liberalism, are regulated to the private sphere and regarded as the domain of individual freedom of choice.

Totalitarian regimes are both rational and irrational.  They are irrational in the sense that they appeal to quasi-religious sentiments to gather mass support for policies.   Regimes are also irrational because they act contrary to the interests of the individual as well as to the supposedly ‘rational’ community.  They are deeply rational in the sense that they are scientific. The community appears scientifically rational because on the one hand it appears natural and inevitable, and on the other because it gains authenticity through the authority of science.

The historian Hannah Arendt has suggested that totalitarianism is the consequence of ‘a loss of world’ brought about by the desire for emancipation.  This view is deeply implicated in the Enlightenment’s liberalism, which in turn creates a secularization of the life-world.   David Halberstam [1999] is an interpreter of Arendt and contends the ‘loss of world’ leaves human beings without a meaningful view, and therefore without an identity or place to belong. This is referred to as the politics of place. This is vivid in the social movements and like all forms of relativity it actually makes social movements authoritarian and potentially very dangerous.  The biggest danger comes in the challenge to the Rule of Law.

Halberstam strongly reiterates the view that totalitarian movements are a reaction to the loss of world and they seek to restore the meaning to the world artificially. In this sense, reality is distanced (transcended).

In social movements people reinvent meaning by providing new realities through sharing experiences, they construct a shared consciousness in support of the new social forms and transitioning. [32]  We like to assume that social movements and communities are homogenous, but they are not.  The tremendous moral failure of totalitarian movements gives expression to a lot of ambiguities in the social movements per se. We are faced with a double articulation.  On the one hand the modern loss of world threatens to provoke a response on the part of the oppressed and alienated often leading to paternalism.  On the other hand, meaning cannot be restored without reneging on the modern commitment to freedom of the individual and self-determination. [33] This is a double bind because the more rights people demand the more authoritarian the state must become in order to police them. Rights and demands then become the constraints of the future not the freedoms that were originally sought.

For a person to feel free there must be a meaningful relationship with the world as it appears in everyday experience.  Therefore, any politics of freedom cannot be reduced to economic or political factors, nor can it be reduced to a notion of simply being part of a localized community or group or a mass demonstration.   There is no freedom to be had in mass protest, one is bound to the implications and expectations of leaders and group rule.

Halberstam furthers his argument by suggesting that historical concrete community and its practices are understood as continuing the identity of the particular human subject, from which the individual cannot escape without a loss of world; this places the world as the trajectory of a mass human consciousness, not the world as an independent sphere upon which we humans must depend.  There are obvious dangers in this form of anthropocentricism.

When the cosmos (or order) in which things and persons have their proper place is a given, or it becomes a guiding force in the life of the particular historical community, the society lends itself to a transcendence or mass human consciousness discourse and this in turn leads to the possibility of nihilism.  The original notion for this stems from Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

The turn towards the aesthetic approach is a critique of the rational, Enlightenment formula and aims to replace it with a politics that focuses on the experience of the senses. Halberstam argues that aesthetic approaches to decisions can work where reason fails, but the senses are far more closely associated with the emotions, which must be harnessed appropriately.

What Halberstam posits can also be traced to the eighteenth-century Romantic Movement that opposed the modern Enlightenment project. This rightfully puts environmentalism into a position of challenge with respect to the modern Enlightenment, which created both socialism, capitalism and the social movements and which makes the mass protest movements an oxymoron.    Halberstam’s ideas side-stepped questions of identity politics, but Halberstam does raise some pertinent questions in relation to nature and change:

What is the nature of social and political reality?

How is it related to our conception of the world as an intelligible order and our conception of our place as human beings within it?

                           What kind of social and political order promotes human flourishing?

What is the relation between identity of the individual and his/her social situation?

How does this relationship figure in justifying in a given political ordering of society?   [34]

Halberstam has drawn on Karl Popper’s and Hannah Arendt’s turn towards Kant’s model of reflective aesthetic judgement that seeks to preserve a more moderate humane version of the Enlightenment ethos, but it also leaves the task to a civil society, which historically has failed to bring about anything but disparity and disenchantment to the masses.

The New Social Movements.

The new social movements emerged from the New Left, which has spanned eco-fascism to the new market environmentalism and where politics can appear to be an organized and harmonious business that blends social justice, greening and social activism. Historically, the social movements have contributed to a general decentring of mainstream polity, the Labour movement, the womens’ movement, the black power movement and gay rights are good examples of the challenges to institutionalism and unformed polity. These movements raised the visibility of disenfranchised groups, but the most obvious asset of these movements has been the caring factors that have led to personal growth. In terms of changing the political landscape they have failed miserably. Black people are still discriminated against, women are still abused and murdered, gay and lesbian people are still misunderstood and condemned by a large sector of the global population.  Why do groups fail?  In the womens’ movement for example, the personal was the political and the movement had a very grass roots basis, but it was largely middle class and it failed to encompass many of the women who needed it most.  The environment movement brought with it a different dynamic and a slightly different meta-narrative. It also brought tensions between the lay person and the environmental scientist. The Environment crises saw the need for scientists representing all sides of the debate to be pragmatic, so in polity it was pragmatism that prevailed.  This in turn created a cultural and political fragmentation that had not occurred in the previous social movements and it has become difficult to resolve.   

Radical political activism of the 1950s and 1960s was a revolutionary force with two targets, the ‘moral and the material’.  Its protagonists  called for peace and rational thinking , but this was mixed with irrational violence and cries of ‘burn the system down’. [35] Of paramount importance was the right to protest, this in turn led to the collective and the feeling of solidarity. What transpired was more than simply a series of angry protests, large numbers of people expressed previously stifled emotions and groups fulfilled a range of social needs.  Seemingly, for a brief moment in history the lid was lifted on the oppressed workers of the nineteenth and twentieth century industrialization, they were reborn into an understanding of the capitalist relations that exploited them and they found a voice of dissent. The awareness and activism was predicated on the dialects of orthodox Marxism and an overwhelming faith in revolution as a panacea for all the world’s social problems, it was messianic in character and a delusion.

The 1960s solidarity was akin that of the early Christians apostles whose chosen vocation was to save the world’s sinners from Jews, Muslims and pagans and install a new Christian God. The point of reference for the copy-cat socialist and/or communist improvements were those nations who had already stood their ground against the western imperialist domination; Russia, Cuba, China and the countries of the Eastern European block.   A significant portion of the world had stood hard against the foundations of capitalism and this was destined to spark paranoia in capitalist countries, especially the United States and minor governments like Australia who quickly invoked anti-communist campaigns of extreme repression and the erosion of basic civil liberties.  The anti-communist fever also gave impetus to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The fear of socialism and communism experienced by the capitalists was equal of Biblical proportions.  This was not a new phenomenon. Karl Marx had his own messianic view, he predicted that the domination of nature by science would enable individuals to develop a totality of capabilities within their work that would be realized through the richness of the individual. Marx believed there would be a general reduction of labour within society and workers would be free to seek satisfaction outside work.  The predictions of Marx were calculated as a failure of modernism and the death of nature, which in turn was viewed as a discursive construct of historical and philosophical meanings that were blamed for bringing humanity to the point of near disaster.[36]  We have been near to disaster many times, but humanity continues on the path of mass destruction, which protest and revolution will not resolve.      

Bahro and Gorz revisited Marx from the economic perspective and Deleuze and Guattari linked capitalism to schizophrenia. [37]  The New Left was designed to rejuvenate the moribund Left by reviving the idealist, humanist, cultural and critical elements of socialism with policies that focused on decentralization and self-management. [38]

The cultural turn.   

In the 1970s, when Ronald Barthes offered an analysis of everyday language,  it inspired  Baudrillard to look for the gravitational centre of the political economy as an extension of culture and the focus of exchange value of the commodity rather than the exchange value of the labour.    Here historical materialism theory was no longer of use for understanding political structures. Scholars had to turn to post-structuralism.  Structuralists separated the terms of language into three components, the signified, the referent and the object to which the signifier directs the message to be conveyed. Baudrillard noted the abstraction between the signifier and the subject (the signified) and from the social world of objects.  He argued that the essence of the political economy operates in the same way, that is to say, there is precisely the same separation manifest in the increasing autonomy in the signifier, not simply in the realms of language, but also in all aspects of social change.  To this end, everything becomes an abstraction because the original signifier is lost.  Hence, we live in a world of lost reality.

In the political economy the signified and the referent become obsolete to the sole benefit of the signifiers. With no point of reference back to the subjective of the objective reality it is motivated by its own form of logic. Hence, the signifier becomes its own referent and the use of value of the sign disappears to the value of the profit only of its commutation and exchange value [39]

      The mode of production has given way to the mode of commodification while the sign no longer designates anything at all, it is superfluous to the entire process. The disappearance of the material substratum means products become more and more abstract. They are engulfed in what H. M. Enzensberger calls The Mind Industry that sells moods, ideas and representations. What is on sale is not so much a product, but an existing order, which is impossible to dissect. [40]

Rejection of Marxism.

The rejection of Marxism was most strongly influenced by the works of Michel Foucault and themes of power and domination.  Foucault (1980) defines his studies of genealogies of discourse. ‘attempts to grasp in its power of affirmation…the power of constitution domains and objects.  [41] Foucault examines the ‘reason’ that gives shape to the discourse and practice in which the reciprocal interplay of reason and action is presumed, reason which Foucault insists is always present in history.  Whereas Marx maintained that reason is determined by class history, Foucault suggested that the dialectic of reason moves through history by way of a class struggle, it excludes the present perspective and is therefore a privileged agent of history. [42]

By the 1980s and into the 1990s there was a distinct shift weakening the labour movements that saw the strengthening of the New Social Movements.  The prototypical social movement had appeared in 1960 with the American Civil Rights Movement, then came Second Wave feminism and the movement against the Vietnam War.  By the 1970s there was the gay movement built on the 1969 Stonewall demonstrations, then came the green movement that also included the   ethnic rights.   Each group was organized around the social category of the other, rather than by class.  Implicit in these movements was the new idea of individualism, posited as post-modernity.

The new individualism was rejected by radical feminists because it failed to identify male domination as womens’ main adversary. Radical feminism became completely opposed to postmodernism and claimed it concealed the issues of rape, incest and domestic violence. [43] Black feminists also claimed that individualism was a continuation of white middle-class patriarchy.[44]  There was an exception called French feminism, which followed Derrida’s deconstruction and Lacan’s symbolic order, both of which, in light of post-colonialism, became useful tools for decoding the metaphysics of global social movements.   It was anticipated that the class and racial conflicts could be overcome by liberation from colonialism and a consumer cornucopia, but that failed because consumerism undermined itself with over consumption.      

Changing Social Categories.

The New Social Movements have been crucial for valorizing the changing social categories. What has occurred is the disbursement of more highly educated people across the social movements, especially in the green movement and this has created a new category of protester who makes nature the object of human gaze.        The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has intimated that such groups function as part of the rate of exchange between economic and cultural capital within the dominant class.[45] Featherstone notes, as Baudrillard does, that the semiological development of commodity logic entails some idealist deflection to Marx’s theory of class by way of a ‘material’ emphasis to a ‘cultural’ emphasis.[46]  Fredric Jameson also argues that this is the reification of Utopia via a mass culture, which implies a strong metaphysics at work in the internal logic of capitalism. [47]

The theory of reification in Jameson’s view is an overlay to Max Weber’s rationalism, which describes the way in which, ‘under capitalism, the older traditional forms of activity are instrumentally recognized and analytically fragmented and reconstructed according to various models of efficiency, and essentially reconstructed along lines of differentiation between means and ends’.[48]  Jameson stated ‘this is a paradoxical idea that cannot be properly appreciated until it is understood to what degree means/ends split effectively brackets or suspends themselves – hence the term instrumentalization’.[49]

The significance of changes also lay in the way they are perceived. Perceptions are dependent of substrates.  The decentring of identity means domination through the sign.[50] This in turn sees identity contingent on material goods such as fashion and lifestyle, both significantly postmodern.  It only serves as a reminder that postmodernism is an extension of modernism not a replacement for it.

The same contradictions are rife in the green movement whereby desire is juxtaposed to the culture and the economics that are still contingent upon capitalist consumerism and the use of natural resources. As Ben Agger states

What is revealed is the heightening of a consumer culture. What is hidden is the continuum of the old version, the formulation of Mill, Lock, Coolidge and Frederick Taylor and their assertive anthropocentricism, fully inclusive of the western rationale. The only difference is the degree of affluence within capitalism.[51]

Liberalism has always argued for the disappearance of class, the argument is generally conveyed in the form of an ‘empirical observation’, but it can take other forms, for example a unique way of life, as in western culture.  As Jameson has argued, on closer inspection today’s demands are distinctly class based and subversive and all rights and social movements are inherent in the Enlightenment, which means nothing changes because the problems rests within the Enlightenment.

By implication the environment movement (or any other political movement for that matter), has not broken with its historical roots, which are inherent in liberalism and socialism.   Protest operates fully within the liberal capitalist principles. In Marxist terms any collective would simply be called a neo-bourgeois social group.  In other words, the New Social Movements are always already inscribed within the ideology of capitalism itself and are part of the internal logic of any perceived transition.  This is the constructivist model, which is predicated on the existing system, but which uses ways of redirecting it though a new kind of technical politics.  The key theoretical formation comes from Foucault’s critique of the social limits of rationality, where he suggested that ‘the imposition of a rational order gives rise to particular local standpoints from which the dominated perceive aspects of reality observed from a universalizing standpoint of hegemonic sciences’. These subjugated knowledges are said to offer the basis for progressive change.’ [52]

Where the Left has had influence in issues of race, gender and the environment, identifying them as ‘other’, today’s apolitical movements are dispersed across traditional boundaries of the political, social and the personal. Against the realities of capitalist growth and western materialist reforms, the political structures will make small interventions that modify the structure without directly confronting the state or the forces that drive capitalism.  This approach is what has been called ‘micropolitics’. To this end, technologies produce technical landscapes challenged by clients and consumers asserting their perceived consumer rights.  [53]


The social movements are significant in history, they teach us much about culture and human psychology and they serve many needs of humans. However, they have achieved very little in terms of improving the lives of the poorest of the poor.  Further, the changes are not guaranteed to last in the long term.

Humanity faces the same problems today as it has faced many times before in antiquity and beyond, there are just more of us and life is faster and perhaps a little more sophisticated.

Protest across the world is becoming more violent and far riskier in terms maintaining peace and social harmony. The likelihood of a collapse into civil wars is more prevalent.  In the west we tend to discard serious civil uprisings as a possibility. We put faith in our systems, especially in our law and order. However, law and order are breaking down.

In this work I have tried to outline the history of social movements in order to reveal their divisions as well as their attempts at unity and to show that modern movements are grounded in history while the modern landscape is changing.

Change does not require mass movements, it requires awareness, education and a commitment from each individual who wants to live in a better world.

I withdrew from protest in 2011, because I felt I could achieve more by helping individuals the cope with the changes that were happening, rather than trying to fight them.

[1] Timothy Morton (2009) Ecology Without Nature. New York, Harvard University Press.

[2] Francis Fukuyama [1992] The End of History and the Last Man NY. The Free Press. 

[3] The Guardian  Retrieved 1st May 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jallianwala Bagh Massacre | Causes, History, Death Toll … 2nd Mar, 2019.

   [7] Pakulski J [1991] Social Movements: The Politics of Moral Protest. Australia,  Longman Cheshire, pp iv. Melucci A [1983] Nomads of the Present London, Hutchinson p6 and 1989.   Sartori G (1970) Concept misformation in comparative politics in the American Political Science Review vol. LXI4 4 December, pp1033-53.

[8] P, Bourdieu (1998b) Acts of Resistance Cambridge, Polity Press.

[9] Ibid

[10] Tarde G [1903] in Nye R.A. [1974] The Origins of Crowd Psychology. London and Thousand Oaks Sage.

[10] Freud S [1916] Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp182-325.

[11] Le Bon [1895, 1903] The Crowd. NY Viking Press.

[12]  Trotter W. [1916-1919] Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[13] Freud S. [1916] Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp182-325.

[14]  Ibid

[15] Ibid.

[16] Karier C.J. [1976] Testing for order and control in the corporal liberal state in Schooling and Capitalism: A Sociological Reader. Dale R, Esland G MacDonald M [Eds]. Milton Keynes, Open University p23.

[17] Freud S [1916] Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp182-325.

[18] Hopkins R. Transition Towns. (1994) UK Green Press.

[19] [19] Kriesi H, Koopmans R, Dyvendak J.W.G. [1995] New Social Movements in Western Europe –A comparative Analysis, Social Movements, Protests and Contention Vol 5. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press p3.

[20]  Ibid.

[21] Kornhauser W. [1959] The Politics of Mass Society. The Free Press NY, Collier McMillan Ltd., pp212-227.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Hegel G.W. [1977] Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford, Oxford University Press, p59.

[25] Peaceful protest is much more effective than violence for toppling dictators By Max Fisher November 5, 2013.…Retrieved 1st May 2019.

 [26] Smelser N. [1962] Theory of Collective Behaviour London, Routledge and Kegan Paul,   pp 8-22, 313.

[27] Giddens A. [1989] Sociology, Cambridge, Polity Press p153.

[28] Ibid

[29] Smelser N. [1962] Theory of Collective Behaviour London Routledge and Kegan Paul p 364.

[30] Frank Parkin [1968] Middle Class Radicalism. Manchester, Manchester University Press.  p5.

[31] Ibid p15

[32]  Halberstam M. [1999] Totalitarianism and the Modern Concept of Politics, New Haven, NY Yale University Press.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid

[35] Saul Alinksky [1972] Rules for Radicals. NY Vintage p xiii

[36]   Gorz A.[1994] in Thomas Docherty, (1994) Postmodernism NY London, Harvester Wheatsheaf.  p344.

[37]  Mark Poster [1984] Foucault Marxism and History. Cambridge, Polity Press, pp17-18.

[38]   Rainbow S. [1993], Green Politics; Critical Issues in New Zealand Society, Auckland and Oxford University Press, p4

[39]     Mark Poster [1975] in Introduction to Baudrillard (1975) Mirror of Production. Cambridge.  Polity Press, p7.

 [40]  Enzenberger H.M. [1974] The Consciousness Industry: Our Literature, Politics and Media. NY Continuum Books, Seabury Press, pp10-11.

[41]   Foucault M. [1980] Power and Knowledge, Select Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon NY Pantheon,  p181

[42] Ibid.

[43]  Bell D and Klein R. [1997] Eds. Radically speaking: Feminism Reclaimed.  Melbourne, Spinifex.

[44] Hooks B. [1994] Feminist Theory: From the Margins to Centre. Boston south End Press.

[45] Bourdieu P. [1977] Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press  pp183-179.

[46] Featherstone M. [1991] Consumer Culture and Postmodernism.  UK Sage Publication  p15.

[47] Frederic Jameson [1992] Signatures of the Visible. NY Routledge  p400

[48] Ibid

[49] Ibid.

[50] Lash S. and Urry J. [1987]  The End of Organized Capitalism Cambridge, Cambridge Polity Press p288.

[51] Ben Agger [1990] The Decline of Discourse:Reading Writing and Discourse n Modern Capitalism. Cambridge Polity Press, p5.

[52] Foucault M. [1980] Power and Knowledge, Select Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon NY Pantheon,  p181

[53] Feenberg A. (1995) Alternative Modernity. The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory. LA University of California   p26