I am preparing my class on the new “new social movements” this week. I will be giving it at The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland in July. I am excited and challenged about the course, happy to be returning to our institute, which has a long history, related to the topic of my class. The seminar, also, will be an attempt to thoroughly address the complex issues in my May Day post.
In that post I noted the media obstacles OWS faced on May 1st. Neither the serious, nor the sensational media portrayed a meaningful popular demonstration, a national commemoration of May Day demanding social justice. While some might see this as a kind of conspiracy, I, as a matter of principle, don’t, or rather won’t until I consider alternative explanations. In the summer seminar, I hope to explore the alternatives with an international student body. Here’s an overview, which is informing my preparation.
Social movements have generally been understood in two ways. They have been seen as non-institutional means of a group of people to pursue their common interests and achieve their shared goals. The traditional archetype for this is the labor movement. Alternatively, social movements have been seen as not only interest focused, but as well, and perhaps more importantly, as non-institutional means for the formation of a group with common identities, concerned with supporting the identities and acting upon them. Civil rights movements, the women, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender movements, environmental movements and the like, are understood as being newer kinds of movements, “new social movements.” To tell the truth, I never quite understood why the new social movements were considered new. They, like labor movements, emerged in the nineteenth century. They, like the traditional movements, pursue interests. And the traditional movements, like the new ones, are about identity. Yet, I know this is not central. Rather we need to note that new and old movements are not only about the pursuit of interests. Movements are important ends in themselves for the people who create and are active in them.
And clearly, this is still the case. Social activists in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in Zuccotti Park in New York have specific ends, and the demonstrations in these places also create identities that are as significant as the ends the demonstrators are seeking. But something else is important, quite apparent in these and other such places around the globe today. The coming together based on some shared concerns with different identities and even different goals has been a common feature of the movements in our most recent past. The demonstrators occupy a space and the way they do so, the way they interact with each other is an important end of the movement. The form of interaction, as well as the identity and interest content, is central.
Coptic Christians and Muslims protect each other with mutual respect in Egyptian demonstrations in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt. Radical anarchists and conventional trade unionists hung out at Zuccotti Park last fall and in Union Square on May Day. Their political ends may be different, radical critics of the American Dream, along with those who want to keep the Dream alive, but they have figured out ways to find common purpose and joint actions. The new “new social movements” are first about that commonality, the creation of independent public space, in New York and beyond, people with differences working together in the name of the 99%, creating an alternative free public space.
Communicating from this space to the dominant media and mainstream publics is a fundamental challenge, now evident for the Tahrir democratic activists and OWS. The quality of their public character, its social media constitution that facilitated the formation of the movement, also presents problems for moving beyond the newly constituted public space. Leading spokespersons are not evident, a strength but also a weakness, nor are clear ends and demands forthcoming. The new sensibility and purpose of the new “new movements” can get lost, as it was in New York on May Day, as is happening as the Egyptians are about to go to the polls to elect a president.
The summer seminar will be an exploration of this. We will try to discover any common cause of the movements. Is it the state of global capital and the breakdown of neo-liberalism? While I have my doubts, we will discuss the works of observers suggesting this. I think that there is a generational dimension to the emergence of the new movements: we will discuss my depiction of the “wisdom of youth” and reconsider the sociology of generations. We will analyze precedents such as the American civil rights movement and Solidarność in Poland. The old distinction between new and traditional social movements revealed as much about the old as the new, and we will consider the way the creation of independent publics were central to movements past as well as movements now.
And herein lies the irony of the course being given in Poland. It is the fruit of the alternative public of a major social movement past. The Democracy and Diversity Institute is an outgrowth of the Solidarność underground. Members of The New School, led by Democracy and Diversity founder and director, Elzbieta Matynia, and I worked with Adam Michnik, the great Polish “dissident” intellectual and later editor of Poland’s major newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, on a clandestine “Democracy Seminar” in Budapest, Warsaw and New York in the 1980s. The seminar was a small activity of the underground Solidarność cultural world. The Democracy and Diversity Institute built upon its legacy. I have always thought of my class as being explicitly a continuation of this activity, starting my classes where the discussions of the Democracy Seminar left off. This history continues in July, taking on very new concerns and experiences.