The seminar on “New New Social Movements” has just ended and our tentative findings are in: there is indeed a new kind of social movement that has emerged in the past couple of years. Our task has been to identify and understand the promise and perils of this new movement type, to specify its common set of characteristics, its causes and likely consequences. We began our investigations in Wroclaw and will continue in the coming months. This is the first of a series of progress reports summarizing our deliberations of the past couple of weeks. -Jeff
The new movements are broad and diverse. Our informed discussions ranged from the uprisings of the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, including also the protests in major Romanian cities and the mining region, protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in Poland, protests in Israel concerning issues of housing, food, healthcare and other social demands, and the protests in Russia over the absence of democracy in the conduct of the affairs of state and elections. Participants with special knowledge of these social movements presented overviews in light of the social science theory and research of our common readings. We then all compared and contrasted the movements. We worked to identify commonalities and differences in social movement experiences.
We started with readings and a framework for discussion as I reported here. I had a hunch, a working hypothesis: the media is the message, to use the motto of Marshall McCluhan. But I thought about this beyond the social media, as in “this is the Facebook revolution.” Rather my intuition, which the seminar participants supported, told me that the social form (in this sense the media) rather than the content is what these movements share.
There is a resemblance with the new social movements of the recent past studied by Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci, but there is something else that distinguishes the new social movements of the moment: a generational focus on the creation of new publics to address major concerns. We found the work of Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt helpful in understanding this, as well as the approaches of my colleagues Eiko Ikegami and Elzbieta Matynia, along with my work.
The movements seem fundamentally to support Hannah Arendt’s primary thesis about politics and the public domain. In her sense, the new “new social movements” are definitively political, about people speaking and acting in the presence of each other, dedicated to their common autonomy, as equals in their differences. Politics to her mind is not a means to an end but an end in itself. She may have exaggerated this, but that it is an important dimension of political life is confirmed by the formation of the new “new social movements” as we studied them in Wroclaw.
Indeed our discussions confirmed Arendt’s position, with important variations on the theme and with specifications. Today some preliminary notes on Romania and Poland. More comparisons, contrasts and implications in upcoming posts.
Ana Maria Murg reported on movements in Romania. Demonstrations over changes in government funding of healthcare eventually led to changes in governments and public policy, and important links between the elites of the political opposition and a broad range of citizens. Most interesting was her report on how the protesters around the country (especially in the major cities) re-legitimized the idea of protest as a democratic way of manifesting citizen discontent. The protests against the government achieved their immediate ends, changes in the governing elite, but Murg believes that the most significant fact was the development of a capacity for members of the society to act in addressing their concerns, from the dangers of de-funding the social safety net, to the employment of miners, to a youth movement against proposed changes in laws about intellectual property, the movement, against ACTA. She showed us videos of demonstrating social activists, including one of her own making.
I found particularly intriguing the way Murg identified links between protests about the ruling elite, ACTA and the mines. She revealed members of a society that was coming together, or at least the potential of this, by addressing their specific concerns, not an enforced unity and the reaction against this, as was the case in Romanian during the communist era and in the demonstrations that brought this to an end, as I analyzed in the chapter on 1989 in The Politics of Small Things (see here) Murg’s report indicated to me a remarkable progress, a turning around, a revolution in micro-politics. In Romania and in the other cases we studied I found evidence of the increasing significance of the politics of small things.
Anti-ACTA demonstrations in Poland were probably the most intense in the region, if not globally. Aleksandra Przegalinska provided the seminar with an analysis. Because young Poles have become accustomed to free access to just about everything on the web, the new law created controversy as it appeared to threaten this way of life. It was a perceived attack upon what they understood as their free public domain. Przegalinska reported a provocative irony: ACTA, according to government and independent analysis, is less restrictive than existing Polish law concerning intellectual property.Yet, the secrecy of the law’s development and the lack of certainty concerning its provisions, provoked broad public resistance. Young people shared their concerns through social media. They exchanged ideas and strategies. They worked together to protest the proposed policy through cyber-activism. The constituted an independent public and independent public action. Government sites were attacked, and the state and the society took notice. Small discreet exchanges led to concerted actions, a major social protest.
Off line demonstrators all met in central squares around the country, seeing each other, sometimes simply jumping up and down together, confirming their solidarity. I noted that this reversed previous conventions, when people demonstrated in the streets, disrupting life and usual, and went home to see how it was represented on the television. Now they go to the streets to see themselves. We all agreed that this relationship between the virtual and the embodied, the politically instrumental and ceremonial, were more situationally enacted.
The Poles acted to defend their capacity to speak and act freely. They defended a free public. This resonated with their understanding of the struggles of the recent past. They were worried about the secrecy and restrictions of the present.
Romanians and Poles are in movement: forming and defending free publics as an end of political engagement.
More to come soon.