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Sunday, September 23, 2007
Selling (Out) The Revolution: Re-thinking Social Movement Theory

I've always been a little bothered by the distinctions between "real social struggles", struggles that in theory many people can get behind, and particular struggles, or struggles that only appeal to a certain people. This conundrum is a particular problem that liberals face when trying to build their leftist coalition and have to choose between the politics of reform and the politics of 'difference.'

A lot of people are surpised that the Democrats haven't tried harder to end the war in Congress and sooner. The netroots are a little peeved that the moderate Democrats, until now, have focused more on wooing the moderate Republicans, who still toe the party line, than ending the war in a showdown of government. Some pundits worry that the failure of the Democratic Congress will demoralize voters in 2008.

In a way, people should not be suprised. Without 58+ votes in the Senate, it's hard to get anything done (as cloture requires 60). More importantly, however, in absense of wide-spread devastation, the true change will always be thwarted at the elite level by the grab for political power.

Craig Calhoun, a theorists of social movements, writes: “’Identity politics’ and similar concerns were never quite so much absent from the field of social movement activity--even in the heydays of liberal party politics or organized trade union struggle--as they were obscured from conventional academic observation.” Moreover, these labor and social democratic struggles not only dominate the field of social movements, but force all other organizing “aimed at economic or institutionally political goals” into the residual alter-concept of “new social movements.” For scholars of social movements, labor and social democratic struggles are thereby differentiated from the new social movements both economically and politically. Economically, the analytic of social-labor movements dramatize and illustrate the singular set of social questions of industrial and post-industrial capitalism: the amount of redistribution and the character of national political economy. (Gilpin 2001) Politically, these labor and social democratic movements sponsored new political constellations of governance, making possible public policies avoided by the non-labor elites and creating the foundations for a general, “utopian” transformation of the society by the state. In contrast, new social movements are particular in their constitution, parochial in the worldviews, and without a broad coalition with which to capture to political power: characterized derisively by the moniker “identity politics.” Why did scholars lionize the labor movement, and, in the process, downplay the preceding and succeeding “new” social movements? What makes some movements real and others ephemeral, merely cultural, or just plain ignored?

Scholars celebrated the labor struggles for two reasons. First, the politics of labor and the public policies social democratic movements stood for and enabled seemed more normatively universalizable and politically feasible than their identity politics counterparts. For Marx and many theorists who followed him, the lived experiences of workers and class structures exhausted all of the politically relevant subaltern identities. After realizing their oppression, the laboring classes could capture political power and transform the social bases of their oppression into an emancipatory dictatorship of the proletariat. Post-Marxian theorizing appropriated this Marxist logic of representative social classes without buying the orthodox eschatological yearnings for the Revolution. Habermas, as one example, argues that the bourgeois class can constitute a democratic public comprised of political individuals. What is important in history is that bourgeois as a social class can found a publicly rational, inclusive, and democratic political space

Second, identity politics seemed parochial, less inclusive, and less ‘traditionally’ political. Identity politics, in that it does not necessarily lead to distributive struggles, is based on ascriptive and expressive identities. As such, according to Calhoun, new social movements seek to “politicize the personal.”

Why does this debate over the history of social movements matter for the study of revolutions? The debate is important because it illuminates how revolutionary social movements transform into political movements by abandoning any real struggle for social change and accommodating themselves to the powers that are. Social movements lose hold of the revolution by grasping for political power. In this debate, revisionist theories of new social movements do not simply complicate the happy history of social movements, or even merely de-center white laborers as the source of social change. They demonstrate the trade-off between revolution and politics within social movements, which emerges from the fact that all polities are founded upon hierarchies of difference.

After E. P. Thompson’s magisterial work, no one can seriously doubt that a social movement’s political power, in this case the English working class, is tied to its active participation in and support for hierarchical orders within society. (See also Calhoun, 183-184) These hierarchical orders are the social power relations—of race, gender, sexuality, and indigeneity—which constitutes difference and enables denigration. At the top of these social hierarchies are the masters and the elites; at bottom, the subalterns. Social movements are revolutionary to the extent that they seek to challenge and contest these hierarchies; as Calhoun notes, “Roots [make] many movements radical, even when they did not offer comprehensive plans for societal restructuring.” These roots necessitate a focus of the movement on the power relations of society since social movements in general, for Calhoun at least, are premised on a defense of a ‘lifeworld’ from colonizing structures.

The paradox of these social movements, and the key problem for theorists of revolution, is the trade-off between social transformation of hierarchal orders and aspirations to political hegemony. The aim of political change is to capture, or through coalitions govern, state institutions and the levers of power. As Ernest Laclau theorizes, “a certain particular, by making its own particularity the signifying body of a universal representation, comes to occupy—within the system of differences as a whole—a hegemonic role.” All social movements emerge from particular identities, whether that identity is that of the worker or of the woman. Some social movements and the social democratic movement in particular, attempted to, on the basis of its particularity, found a system of political economy and representation for the state as a whole. Whether Marx’s proletarians or Habermas’ bourgeois, to attain political power, social movements claim to represent the set of universal questions and identities posed by sulaterity’s existence.

For Laclau, this move toward political representation “is exactly what we call a hegemonic relationship… A class or group is considered to be hegemonic when it… presents itself as realizing the broader aims… of the population.” To cater to the kind of coalition necessary to govern, social revolutionaries must abandon their social goals. Therefore, for the political movements, the defense of the ‘lifeworld’ from colonization is premised upon a quiet, but expeditious, assimilation into the colonizing structures themselves. Consider the case of the Enlightenment. “It is more accurate to the call the ‘enlightenment’”, Eric Hobsbawm notes, “a revolutionary ideology, [whose object] in spite of the political caution and moderation of many of its continent champions... [was] to set all human beings free.” In practice, however, Hobsbawm wryly noted, “the social order which [emerged]...would be a 'bourgeois' and a capitalist one,” a far cry from what we could imagine emancipation to be. Hegemony, a political goal, only comes at the expense of revolution, a social goal.

Revolutionary social movements, in contrast, seek to recast the social hierarchies which enable some horizons and life choices while foreclosing others. These hierarchies possess political and economic dimension because the social orders that emerge from the hierarchal relations deny equal political subjectivity and constitute a socioeconomic division of labor to the subaltern elements. The hierarchies have largely been about moving the natives off the land, the women into the kitchen, the blacks back into the fields, and, in late modernity, the gays back into the closet. Many political movements acknowledge these social orders by playing up the political and economic consequences of the social order in an attempt to sell their platforms to constituencies, but in the process sell out the prospects of meaningful social change for political allies.

This is not to push the distinctions between the political and social too heavily. In fact, most social questions surely have a political and economic dimension. The Negro question, for example, was about both citizenship and labor for most of American history. However, the essence of the social question and its revolutionary potential, lies in the challenge to the very relations of power and subjectivity making those questions possible. Therefore, the Negro question in American history can be expressed, in part, in terms of suffrage and redistribution, but only in part. The revolutionary aspect of the Negro question acknowledges that the question was not and never will be really about the Negro, but rather always about the racists trying to maintain a racial hierarchy while keeping blacks in their places. (Satre) The challenges to the racial order have nonetheless sold out as well. To attain a place in society, movements for black liberation have embraced anti-feminist and heterosexist politics.

Loosing sight of this revolutionary core of social movements is what mainstream analysts did when they erased the old “new” social movements to perpetuate the mythopoetic narrative of the golden age of social democratic labor movements. This is unfortunate because the social revolutionary prospect is the only moral justification that participants in social movements have for engaging in acts of violence and disobedience to law. Therefore, it is disgustingly criminal and grossly immoral for elites to murder, rape, and pillage for political power; but justified—and some would even say welcome—for a slave to rise up against the masters who have raped for generations, to slit the master’s throat, and to burn his house down with the master’s corpse, his wives, sisters, and children still alive inside.

Only black feminists have grasped this paradox.