The organization of power and subjectivity in social movements

Contribution to the ‘Class, Organizations and Social Movements’ Rountable, Brazilian Sociology Conference, Recife, 31 May 2007.

The analysis of social movements is a significant concern for the sociology of organizations, in two senses. First and most obviously, the different examples of organized collective action are in themselves important for sociologists of organization to understand, if only as particular organizational forms raising a range of conceptual and empirical questions. Secondly and less obviously, the analysis of the organizational logic of social movements can also tell us a lot about those other, more formal, types of organizations which may appear to obey different sets of rules, but which often contain a variety of organizational sensibilities which blur the boundaries between formal, institutionalized organizations and the differently structured character of social movements. This is especially the case in relation to what has been called the ‘network society’.

The biography of the sociology of social movements is usually recounted in terms of successive phases or generations. In 1980 Jack Goldstone spoke of the analysis of revolutions as have gone from a first generation of largely descriptive ‘natural historians’ to a second generation attempting to explain revolutionary action in terms of ‘social strains’, who were being succeeded by a third generation who were paying more attention to structural factors such as the distribution of resources, the institutional frameworks of social and political action, and the role of the state as either ‘a mediator, a target or a client’. Shortly after this, like the rest of the social sciences, social movement theory then experienced a ‘cultural turn’, making up a fourth generation placing greater emphasis on the construction of social and individual meaning and the constitution of subjectivity. The most recent, fifth generation is accompanied by an ‘affective’ or ‘emotional’ turn, aiming to pay more attention to the nature of social movements as particular configurations of collective emotions which go far beyond either the realization of goals which can be read off from their members social-structural positions or their cultural identities, neither of which tell us enough about the nature and dynamics of contemporary social movements. All of these shifts in social movement theory and analysis have basically been consistent with broader tendencies in sociological thought.

I would prefer not to adopt such a generational account, because it is arguable whether the any one writer fits all that neatly into any of the generations, and in any case the development is a cumulative one, so that contemporary social movement analysts are faced with the task of combining all of these concerns and emphases. There have in fact been quite different conceptions of both structure and culture in circulation – structure could always been seen either as a framework of action (Marx, Weber, outside-in) or in more relational terms (Simmel, Dewey, SI, inside-out) – and culture could also be seen alternatively as value-orienting (Weber, Durkheim, NSM), as a cognitive and discursive frame (Goffman, SI), or in social psychological terms as a matter of individual action, cognitive process and emotional orientations. There are also debates about the extent of the conceptual reliance on social constructionism, the continuing use of dualisms, the adequacy of the grasp of a relational understanding of social life, and of course the way in which the linkages are established between structure, culture and emotions, or as I would prefer to term it, habitus. However, it is at the very least possible to say that the analysis of social movement today needs to operate across all three dimensions – structure, culture and habitus.

This is not the place for me to give any sort of overview – comprehensive or even merely preliminary – of what the sociology of organizations can offer the analysis of the questions raised in this roundtable. What I would like to do is highlight what I see as some of the key issues surrounding the intersection of two bodies of literature – the sociology of social movements, and the sociology of organizations – in the context of the current conjuncture. I would like to reflect on the relationship between social movements and the logics of both capitalism and government, as well as the meaning of ‘emancipation’ as a central goal for social movement organization and practice. However, I will not address these two questions directly, but via another two questions: (1) the changing historical constitution of social subjectivity and (2) the nature and dynamics of relationships of power.

The shifting constitution of the self

Both the cultural and affective approaches to social movements pay attention to different aspects of the constitution of subjectivity, which is also subject to particular processes of historical transformation. The different ‘generations’ of social movement theory, for example, could in fact be associated with different types of social movements being constituted by different social conditions. Contemporary social movements may simply be more ‘affective’ than the social movements of the late 19th century, which might actually be best understood in terms of status strain, resource mobilization, etc. because culture and emotions played a very different role. Studies of social movements now address questions such as:

how do actors produce themselves as subjects with identities that are nonreducible to the frameworks of institutions and legitimate forms of social life; how do individuals define themselves as groups, classes, communities and human beings; how do they produce cultural critiques that are also associated with definitions of self?

These questions, I would suggest, do arise simply from a changed theoretical orientation in the sociology of social movements, but to a large extent from particular the social conditions characterizing what Beck and his colleagues have called ‘second’ or ‘reflexive’ modernity, that make it possible, indeed demand that actors constitute themselves in this way, as not reducible to the their institutional contexts, and as linking cultural positionings to the construction of the self. In other words, it is important to consider the extent to which developments in social movement theory mirror changes in its object.

Many of these shifts are consistent with what Norbert Elias has called process of civilization, in which the balance between external (institutional) constraints and internal (psychological, emotional) constraints has a long-term tendency to shift towards the latter. I’m choosing my words carefully here, because his work has often been interpreted as suggesting a unlinear evolutionary development from less to more internalized constraint, when his understanding is actually much more nuanced, allowed for reversals of directions, combinations of different tendencies, etc. The core underlying point is that there is a relationship to be identified between particular social conditions and the range of possible psychological make-ups characterizing any given social, cultural and political milieu or era. However, the integration of the analysis of psychology and society – or what Elias called psychogeneis and sociogenesis – is not self-evident, and one many commentators will note the difficulty experienced in treating psychological dispositions and habitus as collective rather than individual phenomena.

The workings of the civilization of conduct are complex, and can produce outcomes which will seem counter-intuitive if we see ‘civilization’ as homogenous and unitary. As social restraint becomes increasingly ‘second nature’ to individuals, overt social rules and sanctions become less signi?cant and we can observe a more relaxed and informal attitude to manners and etiquette. Elias referred to a general relaxation of social norms in the period after the First World War, and argued that this should be seen as ‘a relaxation which remains within the framework of a particular ‘civilized’ standard of behaviour involving a very high degree of automatic constraint and affect-transformation, conditioned to become a habit’. Elias saw this is as a process of ‘informalization which was in fact part of processes of civilization. Using the example of sexual behaviour, Elias argued that a less authoritarian system of sexual norms actually increases the demands made on each individual to regulate their own behaviour, or suffer the consequences. Similarly in relation to the more informal relations between superiors and subordinates in organizational life, they also require a greater degree of self-restraint in the absence of formal, explicit rules and formulae governing everyday conduct.

As power relations change and the rules of human interaction become less formalized and routinized, and more ?exible, we are all compelled to develop a more self-re?exive and sophisticated apparatus of self-regulation to be able to negotiate such an ever-changing and contingent network of social relationships. Cas Wouters sums the overall line of development up as follows:

People have increasingly pressured each other into more reflexive and flexible relationships, and at the same time towards a more reflexive and flexible self-regulation. The status, respect and self-respect of all citizens became less directly dependent upon internalized social controls of a fixed kind – on an authoritative conscience and more directly dependent upon their reflexive and calculating abilities, and therefore upon a particular pattern of self-control in which the more or less automatic and unthinking acceptance of the dictates of psychic authority or conscience has also decreased.

What might be seen as an increase in individual ‘freedom’ is part and parcel of an increased demand for self-compulsion and self-management, but then also a changed structuring of ethical disposition as well.

Elias had used the concept of a ‘second nature’ to capture the ways in which adherence to behavioural standards become an automatic part of one’s personality or habitus, and Wouters suggests the notion of a ‘third nature’ to capture the re?exive moral self, in which self-regulation is much less automatic, and more accessible to re?exive, ?exible strategic management to suit ever-changing ?elds of social possibilities and expectations. In a sense this analysis parallels those of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens concerning ‘re?exive’ or ‘second’ modernity, in which adherence to established norms or ethical principles gives way increasingly to a ‘re?exive project of the self ’ which is ‘has no morality other than authenticity’. The process that Wouters refers to as the emergence of a ‘third nature’, Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim frame as a process of individualization. a core aspect of which is that ‘more people than ever before are being forced to piece together their own biographies and ?t in the components as best they can … the normal life history is giving way to the do-it-yourself life history’.

This analysis has a range of important implications for the sociological understanding of social movements, indicating the contextual frameworks of the constitution of subjectivities which do or do not become active in organized collective action, and the forms taken by social movement activity. A critical orientation towards particular aspects of the existing social, political and economic order should thus not be understood simply as ‘opposition’ or ‘resistance’ to that order, but in fact, in psychological, emotional and cultural as well as structural terms, as an integral part of particular modes of constituting subjective and collective identity.

What is power? What is emancipation?

A key element of the way in which ‘emancipation’ is generally understood is to see it as opposed to, or somehow standing outside ‘power’. Social movements are usually seen as both ‘not’ government, but also categorically distinct from it, perpetually standing outside established institutions and institutionalized structures of power. However, this perception is based on a problematic understanding of the nature of power. In a critique of prevailing understandings of power which still remains to be properly digested in social theory, Bruno Latour (1986) argued that the dominant model of power in social theory is a ‘diffusion’ model, in which persons, groups or organizations are regarded as ‘containing’ power which they diffuse through the surrounding social space, and the objects of that power act only to distribute or resist it. However, argues Latour, the supposed objects of power are not objects at all, but ‘shape it according to their different projects’ (1986: 268). More importantly, those projects constitute the actual substance of the operation of power. In his words:

‘Power’ is always the illusion people get when they are obeyed; thinking in terms of the diffusion model, they imagine that others behave because of the master’s clout without ever suspecting the many different reasons others have for obeying and doing something else; more exactly, people who are ‘obeyed’ discover what their power is really made of when they start to lose it. They realise, but too late, that it was ‘made of the wills of all the others’.

Power in institutions and organizations is thus not the cause of human actions and subjective identities, but its consequence. The important shift in perspective which Latour’s formulation leads to is that it forces us to look for the actions pursued by human beings, including in social movements, in generating this effect, rather than simply assuming it ‘is’ there ‘in’ social structures, organizations and institutions, to be opposed by the relevant forms of collective resistance.

For many analysts of social movements, we only act in the name of ‘liberty’, ‘desire’ or ‘emancipation’ when we disrupt relations of domination. ‘It is through revolt’, wrote Foucault in 1979, commenting on the Iranian revolution, ‘that subjectivity (not that of great men but that of whomever) introduces itself into history and gives it the breath of life’ (1981d: 8). What remains very difficult to ‘think’ is precisely the realization of human desire in governmentality and the stabilisation of relations of domination through the effects of collective social action. The danger is that we remain trapped within an opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘society’ assuming that we never get what we really want, that desire can only be authentic when it is oppositional and recalcitrant. The effect of this is precisely to make us permanently discontented, perpetual critics constantly and principally engaged in a search for liberation from domination, which in turn becomes its own vehicle for silent relations of power.
A related line of argument has most recently been developed by Boltanski and Chiappello, who focus on the question of the constitutional mismatch between the effects of capitalism and the moral authority of a just society. Social movements, in their critique of the normative character of contemporary capitalist society and politics, occupy the space between these two things, a space constituting the ‘spirit of capitalism’ in Boltanski and Chiapello’s sense. But in occupying this space, it is also true that social movements ‘hold’ the relationship between the two in place. As Boltanski and Chiapello put it, capitalism ‘
needs its enemies, people whom it outrages and who are opposed to it, to find the moral supports its lacks and to incorporate mechanisms of justice whose relevance it would otherwise have no reason to acknowledge’. The effect of the pursuit of emancipation on the social order is in many senses that of natural evolution – challenges posed to the system are assimilated into it, both effective and compromised at the same time, and such assimilation is in fact essential to the health and vitality of the system, especially in managing the normative legitimacy of both capital and government.

Conclusion: self and other in social movements

Kevin McDonald has recently argued that the ‘grammar’ of many contemporary social movements – such as the anti-globalization movements, new Islamic movements, and the Falun Gong in China – is now less that of the construction of an oppositional collective identity, a ‘we’ identity’, and more than of ‘a relationship to the other in which the self becomes another’. In order to come to an adequate analytical grasp of this experience of ‘otherness’, one of the more significant challenges for the sociology of contemporary social movements is develop its understanding of the position of the various forms of organized collective action – from Greenpeace through ethnic mobilizations to Al Queda – within longer-term historical trends (of various processes of civilization and decivilization), and in relation to structures of power, as supporting and constituting power dynamics as much as supposedly resisting and changing them.